Photo credit: Simi Vijay Photography
I wrote this a while back. It is one of those stories that I didn’t know how to handle. It is Kiah-sad. Kiah-sad is a good thing. Kiah-sad means hope dey plenty. Lol. Enjoy.
He is smiling when our plane touches down in Lagos. I can tell from the way the sunlight bounces gently over my skin. I smile too and a shiver of excitement appears for the first time since the trip began.
He has been dead five years now but it never feels that way when we come to this place. Kambili says I am too superstitious for my own good but she was a child far removed from our father’s love. No matter how wide he spread his arms to her, no matter how long or fast he ran after her, my sister was always one step farther than he could reach.
I take her hand now. It is frail and missing the fire my sister’s touch used to hold. I have brought her home to die.
“KK” I whisper softly to wake her.
“Hmmm,” she answers.
“We are here,” I say.
“Hmmm, I can tell even without any pilot announcement. The way your body is shaking like you are having multiple orgasms”
She starts to laugh and I laugh with her. I have known her for 30 years and she is yet to lose the ability to shock me.
“I am dying,” She had announced calmly to me seven months ago as we drank to her health on her 33rd birthday in Las Vegas.
I had thought I had seen and heard it all. I had thought there was no other way for my sister to knock the sails out of me. I had thought I was old enough now to withstand the quaking and whirlwind that came with the tornado that was my sister. I was wrong.
And so it had begun, my fight for my sister’s life. I had sat through so many rounds and rounds of chemotherapy, plus night after night of vomiting and cold shakes that soon enough people began to ask if I were the one ill.
One month ago, Kambili suddenly decided that she had had enough!
“I am done, Kene.”
“Done with what?” I asked even though I knew what she meant.
“I am ready to die!” She said, her eyes blazing, daring me to contradict.
“Good for you. Me, I am not ready to be sister-less so just shut up. Besides If you had listened to me and stopped smoking all these many years, we wouldn’t be here so your opinion does not count this time.”
In the end though, she had won the battle. Just like she won the one we had 5 years ago when she insisted on giving her daughter up for adoption. Just like the one she won 18 years ago when she insisted on not sharing a room with me.
She also insisted on returning home to Nigeria to die. We fought it, Mama and I, but in the end Kambili had her way.
Mama made the trip home first, to prepare the ground she said, in a way that made me think of the men that had dug resolutely into the earth to carve out a grave for my father.
She has sent a driver for us. The trip home from MMA is uneventful except for the time Kambili catches the driver unawares by demanding he stop so she could throw up the medicine and eggs I had forced on her on the flight.
The house my father built is the same way we left it. I step into it and the scent of my father envelopes me. Old Spice, Rum, Cuban Cigars, the earthy smell of a father’s perseverance…
I find my mother in the one place she can claim as hers in this house, the garden at the back where she grows Ugwu and Ugba. I fold myself into her embrace. We stay that way for a while, getting used to one another because we know soon we will be all each other have left.
The driver and a nurse my mother has hired carry Kambili in while my mother fusses about how thin she is like she did that first holiday Kambili came home from boarding school.
We settle in easily to life in Nigeria. Kambili’s nurses are patient and knowledgeable but I miss Juan. We talk on Skype when the network is good but it is not often enough. Most times, he damns the cost and calls me so he can listen to me breathe. He asks me if I remember how he tastes. I say yes but it is a lie. I am forgetting how to live while surrounded by death and ghosts.
One night, Kambili starts to choke and her nurse doesn’t know what to do. It is Juan that comes to our rescue with instructions over the phone on how to clear my sister’s airways.
“When are you coming home?’ he asks every time we talk.
I have no answers for him. So I say nothing, letting my silence say everything.
“You should go home to your Akata,” My sister says one night in early October when she is feeling good enough to sit with me on the porch our father built. Our house looks nothing like houses in Nigeria. My father had been trying to transplant his love for America to the land of his birth. It turned out to be a bad idea but at least we could boast that we were one of the few people with a porch in Agbara Estate,
“You are just racist I swear. Juan is Hispanic! How are you calling him Akata with a straight face?”
“Please, all those Mexicans are one step away from being Akata. Are you even sure he is documented?”
“Your boyfriend in heaven will not be documented!”
She laughs hard and long at that and I laugh hesitantly with her, praying for something so beautiful not to end in the coughing that almost always attends her laughter these days.
When she is calm, she reaches for my hand.
“You are my best sister.” She says.
“I am also your only sister.”
“Yes there is that too. Even then, not every only sister would put her life on hold to help her only sister die.”
I squeeze her hand and say nothing.
“Marry Juan, your children will be so cute. Name one of them after me. Your name, Kene sounds like a detergent brand, so unoriginal. Kambili is sexier…”
“Are these your deathbed instructions then? Because this is Papa’s rocking chair, not a bed per say…’
“Who is doing deathbed with you? I am going out like a queen please. But back to important matters, make sure you take care of Mama o. Make her happy or I will haunt you. Also…”
I listen until her voice fades out and she starts to snore.
Kambili was meant to be an only child. My mother had wanted one child and my father had reluctantly acquiesced to her wishes because he was in love. My mother tells me she had her period throughout my pregnancy. The first time she said it, it had sounded like a threat that was too late to carry out. But even before then I had known that unlike the way she loved Kambili, there were limits to my mother’s love for me.
It was Kambili whose name I first learned to say. Then Papa. Before Mama.
I loved my mother and she loved me but neither of us loved each other as much as the people we had lost and were about to lose.
I find Kambili one day on the porch, four months after we arrived Lagos. She had somehow found the strength to leave her bed and watch the sun rise. She looks more beautiful than I remember seeing her. Her eyes are wide open as if in awe of the beauty of a new day.
We bury her next to Papa two days later.
Juan continues to call every other day. He doesn’t ask when I’m coming home anymore but I hear the question in his hesitation to end the phone calls. He tells me he practically lives at the hospital these days. There is nothing to go home to.
“Tu eres mi casa…” He says. “You are my home…”
My father’s house now carries his scent and that of my sister’s. I walk through the rooms on the nights that I cannot sleep. There are so many memories here, more happy than sad but this is not home. This is where the people of my family come to die. This is where I will come to die. It is not where I will live. I think my father knew this when he was building it; he made sure it had many quiet places for the ghosts.
I take long walks with my mother. One day, we find ourselves lost in the massive Agbara Estate and she starts to cry. I find that I do not know how to comfort her so I walk a little faster than she can, taking my place in front, leading her home.
On one of those nights when I can’t sleep, I find my sister’s notebook. I can hear my mother sobbing but I do not go to her. On the last page of her notebook, Kambili had a bucket list of items that she crossed off as she accomplished each one…
“Ride in an ambulance”
“Fall in love”
“Go Bungee Jumping”
The last thing she had written on the list was:
“Live till I am 80…”
I dream of her that night. In my dream, she is smoking on the porch and that is how I know that she is alright wherever she is. I wake up in the middle of the dream, startled by my mother’s sobs. I go to her and together we get under the covers and I let her tears soak my night shirt.
The next day, I buy us one way tickets. We sit together on the plane and I tell her about Juan. She laughs for the first time in a long time when I tell her about Kambili referring to him as an Akata. I tell her secrets I once shared with my sister. I tell her things about me that only Papa and Kambili knew, things every mother should know about her child. I show her the poems I have written and tears fill her eyes when I tell her my dreams of being published.
“You are a lot like me…” she says, surprise and shame levitating her words.
We sleep in each other’s arms all the way to New Jersey and then I drop her off at the house my father built for her. She waves from the porch as I pull out of the driveway. I turn around to catch one more glimpse of her before heading in the direction of the man that is home.
Song of the day: Journey -Don’t Stop Believing