Nee Agnes, the number one woman of her village. The oldest and most beautiful. The yellow pawpaw, my beautiful Nne, my mama otofe. The one who made the sweetest Ogbono soup. Even though I was never a fan of the soup, its aroma would drag me from the bed to her hut, wondering how on earth a delicacy would scent like that. The aroma itself was food. That gave her the name “Mama otofe”, an Ukwani term for ‘cooker of soup.’ Then her iron beans, God! That was the food that won my heart.
It was in the early hours of July 1st, 2019, after three months that went by while feeling like hell and agony. Loud breathing, mouth apart, chest rose violently with every breath. Mama laid on her deathbed, dragging life with death. She was there, slowly crossing the bar. I was alone at home in my mother’s room crying uncontrollably, muttering “not my Nne” under suppressed breaths. Countless times I stumbled into the room at every heavy breathing, helplessly letting out a tear wishing I could fight for her. Who is dragging her soul? Should I drag her soul back? I was quivering beside Mama’s deathbed. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid of the metaphysical, I wasn’t afraid of hovering death. It was clear. Death was around. I saw its breeze and saw the soul leaving. And Mama was old. Mama was over 100. She needed to rest. But I didn’t want her to. The little money she gave me and my siblings after each visit was everything.
Standing there hopelessly, I felt guilty, I felt horrible.
Why don’t I try to hold her chest?
I was so afraid to touch her but also bold and guarded. She looked so beautiful in my memory. Too beautiful to leave. I thought maybe death would run away since she was not alone. But death is proud and stubborn. It was still dragging my Nne. I felt pity for Mama. She would have loved to feed her goats tomorrow. But there she was, forgetting the memories, the goats, the plants. My name. I fell on my face.
At 7 pm my mother dashed to the room. She knew today was the day when she left earlier. I knew too. But I didn’t want her to leave today.
“Come and assist me, let’s bath Mama”.
Without hesitation, I went to assist. I noticed a reddish discharge on her mat, but I couldn’t make sense of it. I was focused on trying to hold her perfectly while my mom cleaned her up. Too focused on trying to find a rise and fall in her chest. I removed my grip and Mama’s leg left my hand hitting the floor. As if on second thought, my mother held herself from giving me the slap of my life. Even with the lifeless fall and no reaction of pain from Mama, my brain still hadn’t registered that I was no longer holding my Nne. I was holding what was left of her. Alas, I found the dance in her chest and cleared every thought of death. But, little did I know, that those were the seconds. We cleaned her up and I left to make the evening dish, get a bulb for Mama’s room, and probably help in bathing her again. On getting back, the rain started. The same that fell when Papa passed. I was too young to connect the dots. I was too naive to sense a passing. I went straight to the kitchen and dished the food.
Heavy footsteps with a voice that cried “Mama don die o” made me look at my dad. Not my Nne. I quickly ran to the sitting room. My mother wept in silence. She was the first to know. She had heard the last breath when she was bathing but kept quiet for us to eat first. Unfortunately, my dad wasn’t aware of her plan. At once, the sad wave of memories swept my mind and I saw my 16-year-old self in my favorite gown, willingly running after Mama in 2017/18, holding her bags that held the ingredients of her tasty Ogbono soup every market day. I saw Mama, ever young to me, pricing everything till her customer kissed her teeth. I loved Mama and it hurt deeply to witness her go.
The house got full to its brim and the gen was on but I was lost in grief. I was in my first stage, denial. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. This beautiful woman? Mama otofe dead? Not possible. Who could have thought Mama would die? I was used to seeing her alive. It must be some prank. It was all denial and disbelief until the woman embalming her body called me to join her in the room.
“Your mother is scared and you’re the only daughter around, so come inside.”
I’ve always been scared of death scenes. But this was Mama. I know her spirit will embrace me. But that wasn’t the intention of accepting her offer. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to jolt her up and tell her I wasn’t tired of how she kept mistaking soup for water.
The room was exceptionally cold. Enough reason to accept and break down. But I stared at death. I looked into her eyes, tightly shut to death. The woman was there beating Mama’s chest and it produced a sound that came out as an echo in an empty room. “Nne” I stressed the “ne” with tears in my eyes flowing without wailing.
“Mama otofe is this you?”
I fell on my face again and cried beyond my control. I slowly watched Mama become nothing like I never knew. The cotton in her nose, the cotton on her eyes, the spoon being forced into her teeth to pass the concoction, and the beating on her chest to allow the concoction flow, the cotton on her private part, the process. Mama would have never allowed this. Mama always resented it, but she was no longer here. I was but I was less alive. Mistakenly hitting her leg, I muttered “Mama sorry” with a cold shiver down my spine. I know Mama, she was quick to anger. I thought her spirit would smack my face. After what seemed like forever, we were done and I was in the dining room, writing my tribute to my new angel. “Mama I miss you…” just like I did for Papa when he left.
The next morning around 7 am, my elder sister, Choice, was back from night duty. She had been informed the night before. I saw her face. She must have been crying. She was Mama’s favorite. I was Papa’s. I led her to the room to see Mama. She was fully coated like the queen she was. I cried again. We cried. She hugged Mama while crying, I stood facing the wall. It hurt to watch Mama go. There is mother’s love. But there is grandmother’s love which supersedes. And that, I will never get again. I wailed even more for myself. I wailed in my disbelief.
Mama was tall, so her casket was. It was golden just like Papa’s and was adorned with the queen symbol. She was carried from the room to her casket. Dressed in white, my mother placed her favorite shoes inside and a gele on top of the casket after it was shut. Then it was carried outside, fixed inside a bus, and was taken away to her hometown along with my mother and other relatives and wellwishers. I was left alone in the house but I sat outside, for fear of Mama’s spirit coming to sit with me. That was the last day I saw my Nne. But for three months, I abstained from the room she died in. My room. After my mother came back from paying respect to her mother, she narrated how even more beautiful and yellow Mama looked when they opened the casket again. It felt surreal. Too bad to be true. Mama was too beautiful to die. Months later, mama came to my mother, junior brother, and father in their dreams. In different expressions and occasions. The final appearance was her dancing, waving at my mother, and entering her home, dressed in pure white, bringing down the curtains as a final goodbye shortly after she was buried.
While I still see your face and cry in disbelief, I can’t say I’m over the denial stage. While I still reminisce on your passing on the first of every month, I believe you took a part of me while leaving, part of me that no longer belongs to me. But forever comes to me in sweet memory. They say grief is forever and so it is. Nee Agnes, it’s been years without you but it still feels like yesterday. May your royal majesty rest in perfect peace and continue protecting me as I protected your last three months.