Choosing to Live

Your body hates you. This much you know. It is something you have always known. It is something you do…


October 28, 2013

Your body hates you. This much you know. It is something you have always known. It is something you do not need to be reminded about.

For who better to tell of the many times your body has let you down than you yourself, the victim? Of the numerous times when as a little boy it had chosen the shame of urine over the fear of monsters that lay beyond the door of your bedroom and guarded the path to the bathroom? Of the blinding pain it inflicted on you, crisis after crisis? Of the many diseases it has embraced with open arms over the years-malaria, typhoid, cholera, mumps, measles, asthma, diabetes- the names sounding more complicated as you aged. Of the day it succumbed to fear and the heat of Lagos as you gave your daughter’s hand in marriage to a man you knew would never make her as happy?

And now, this…You listen to the doctor go on about new research. He suddenly looks so very tired-like a man who has given the same speech too many times to too many people and no can longer hear himself. You want to tell him it will be alright but your body again refuses to do your bidding. So you stay silent and let your mind wander instead.

You think about your grandmother, your father’s mother. You remember that time your father had dragged his reluctant city living family to the village to visit a woman as far removed from their world as night was from day. It was so long ago and yet you remember the events of those days like it was yesterday.

You remember seeing her for the first time and falling hopelessly in love with the bald head and wise old eyes. You remember how she had looked at you suspiciously at first; and how when you had bowed in greeting, she had caught you before you could touch the ground. You remember how small her hands had been but also how strong. How she had held you to her and began to sing. Later, your mother would tell you, the song was your Oriki.

“What is an Oriki?” You had asked your mother.

“It depends. Sometimes, it is a song of praise. Sometimes it a celebration of an identity. Other times it is a prayer.”

“Which one was mine?” You had asked your mother as you watched her dole out your prescriptions later that night. Flagyll for the tummy aches. Ibruprofen for the joint pain. Chloroquinie to fight malaria. Calcium tablets for your bones.

She had looked at you for a second or two before saying.

“Take your drugs and go to bed.” As you slept on the soft mattress, you had wondered if the way your mother’s eyes glistened as she looked at you had anything to do with stars that were a little brighter in the village. You had hoped with all your heart that it was the stars and nothing more.

You had spent hours sitting with the old woman in the days that followed; watching her weave her baskets, listening to stories about your father that you were sure were made up but you loved anyway. It was she who told you that you were an Abiku. A child who didn’t want to live.

“But I want to live.” You had said to her, coughing as you said the words.

“So why then did you die four times already?” She had asked you smiling.

It was from her that you had heard of the ones before you. It was from her you finally got an answer to the question you had peppered your parents with for so long.

“Can I have a little brother? Or sister?”

It was from her you had learned the reason why you were born in Nigeria even though your parents had always lived in London. They had come back because the old woman had insisted on birthing you herself. She would see to it that you did not die like the others had done in Charing Cross, she had promised your parents. She would birth you with her own hands and you would live, she assured them. And so they had gotten on the next plane they could find and put their faith in the old woman.

It was your grandmother that told you everything and when she was done with telling, you said “I will live, I won’t die this time.”

“I believe you.” She had replied. “Now go and drink the ‘agbo’ I made for you this morning.”

You had made a face but acquiesced. If drinking the bile inducing ‘agbo’ meant proving to her, to the world, to your body, that you wanted to live, then you would gulp it down by the gallons.

You look at the doctor now and smile. He knows nothing about you. Even though he has known you for years now, even with his fancy tools, complicated disease names and all the information he has on your body; he knows nothing about your grandmother or the ‘agbo’.

You interrupt him to say.

“When do we start treatment?”

You can tell he is caught off guard and you almost laugh. You miss your grandmother and her bitter elixir at that moment, her easy solution to living well.

“Olu, it is Alzheimer’s. I am not even sure where to start from. I have to consult with other doctors. There are no cures for old age, Olu. You know this, you are a doctor yourself. You can stop teasing now. There are some medications of course but there isn’t much they can do to halt it. All we can do is prepare for it.”

You smile again at him and tell him you would like to go home now.

The drive back home is short and you are thankful the traffic has chosen another part of town to belabor. Your driver is quiet and you want to ask him if everything is alright but then you know the answer to that. You still remember regaining consciousness to find the poor boy crying like the world had ended. You can tell he is still not over it and so you let him be and watch the world from your car window.

Your daughter is waiting at the door when you arrive. You wonder who it is that called her. Probably that pesky housekeeper of yours or the driver-it would explain why he kept mute throughout the drive. Her hair is starting to gray and you are taken aback by the realization that she too has not escaped the disease of old age.

“Well , well, what did the doctor say was wrong?” She asks wiping her hands on the dish towel she is holding.

There is a reason you named her ‘Yewande’; for that old woman who had made you feel like living was worth doing. ‘Yewande’ to remind you of your promise to live. ‘Yewande’ for the nights when you wanted to give in and give up to the pain. ‘Yewande’ for the good times, Yewande for the bad times; Yewande,an ‘agbo’, a ‘cure’ for every season.

She is smiling but you can see the worry in her eyes. It is alive and breathing; waiting in the shadows, ready to take over the rest of her and leave you with nothing to remind you of the amazing woman you have created. You don’t want that. You want to remember her as the reason you have stayed with your body all these years, even though it has let you down one time too many.

“He says you need to start minding your own business and to leave this old man alone.”

You take her hands and kiss them- they are small and yet so strong, just like the old woman’s. She blushes and it warms your heart to know some things do not age and never grow old.

“How are the boys?” You ask her.

“You can ask them; they are here too.”

“I should wander away from home more often then. I try it once and the whole football team is here to see me.”

“Don’t joke, Baba mi.”

You smile at her and want to ask her forgiveness- for the tears she will cry, for the emptiness that will soon replace where you now stand, for the diseased and old body you will leave behind.

“The doctor says hello and to make me some agbo for the malaria.”

“Agbo??? Since when do medical doctors prescribe ‘agbo’? You better not be lying to me, old man. You know I will find out. ” She says as she kisses you on the cheek and takes your hand to lead you inside.

You hold onto her small, strong hands for as long as you can because you know that when the time comes and you have to make your way from life to death, from one world to another, from everything to nothingness; the only way not to lose your way will be by holding on to the hands that guided you into this world, the hands that saw to it that you did not die, the hands that saw to it that you lived.


Song of the day: Jason Nelson – Nothing Without You

  • Father
  • Sickle Cell

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