Obioma had become a shadow of herself. I remember sitting by her bedside at the chemotherapy ward in the hospital, covered in the blue scrubs and safety cap they usually asked me to put on in the hospital each time I went to visit her.
That day, she was on a cotton gown, light blue in colour, I stood by her bedside we stared at each other in a rather affectionate way. She had been happy to see me. The way her eyes sparkled when she saw me was all I needed to know it.
“Udoka ke kwanu, How are you doing?” She asked.
“Obim, I am fine,” I answered, my eyes scanning how much her conditions had deteriorated. Her state that day beat my emotions and it was as though I was seeing her bald head, her sunken eye sockets from where her eyes seemed to be bulging out, her pronounced collar bones and very thin hands — all for the first time. A certain sadness came upon me that moment and both my consciousness and vision became blurred. It was such that I couldn’t hear what Obioma had been saying to me till I was startled to reality by the feel of tears rolling down my cheeks. The next thing I saw was Obioma’s startled look on her bed. Before that day, each time I had become emotional from watching her suffer from Leukaemia the way she did, I always tried to hold it back because all I was really interested in was to stand by her as she fought that deadly ailment. To encourage her to fight more because I believed she would overcome it. But that day, it dawned on me that all the efforts we had been putting into that fight for the numerous months it went on was proving futile. Before I could say anything, tears gathered at the corners of my eyes and streamed down in rapid rivulets down my cheeks.
I imagine how Obioma must have felt seeing me that way. She hadn’t seen me cry before, not even when my father passed on two years previously.
She managed to adjust her position and asked, “Udo, why are you crying?” in a low voice that carried an urgent undertone.
I came closer, bent down and placing my hand on her left cheek, said, “Obim, you will not die, inugo? You won’t because if you do, I do not know what would become of me without you, but please fight more, biko. I can’t lose you, please.”
I saw tears roll down her cheeks just as I finished saying all that and it broke my heart. I knew it wasn’t in my place to sound defeated when I should have been an arbiter of hope. I knew I shouldn’t have talked about death but it was out of my control to see Obioma in that state — I had lost grip of my sanity.
“Udoka”, she called,
“Yes, Obim”, I answered, still trying to fight back my tears.
“Do you love me?” She asked looking at me intently.
“Obim, you know I love you, of course. Why…”
“Shhh….” She said placing her index finger over my lips. “I want a yes or no”
“Obim, yes I love you” I said emphasizing every word.
“Then, pray for me and don’t cry for me, that is my wish, inu? This is my reality and I have accepted it. But miracles happen every day. I believe they do, I believe in prayers too. Again, I have come to realise you do not face a practical problem with tears or worry because it may end up killing you faster than the problem itself, please be strong and fight by me oo, nwoke oma.” Those words shot like a shrapnel, deep into my heart and sank into a place where I do not need to struggle to recall them. I promised her that I would try to be strong.
Those days when Obioma struggled with Leukaemia had been devastating for me. First, I ate a lot to kill my sadness, I was also ravaged by insomnia. But soon, all those feelings and sadness were suddenly on the decline. I couldn’t get sad enough. There was something about the cheerful spirit Obioma tucked into her being despite being sick that disabled my sadness. I hardly recall any day that I had gone to visit her at the hospital that she looked sad. On one occasion, I had come and saw that she was very happy and lighted up the more when she saw me.
“Udoka, our fellow members of The Sacred heart of Jesus came to see me today, I was so happy they came, our chaplain came with them, they brought me those gifts over there, we prayed and sang together….”
Many of the times, I just listened half attentively to her stories while the other half of my attention wandered in wonder of how Obioma could have been so happy despite her state: A brilliant, young woman of twenty-four, with bright prospects. She had just got a lecturing job at the university in Awka. She was on the verge of losing it all to a slow death that was painfully climbing up to her on the pedestal of leukaemia. Yet, she appeared unperturbed.
Something remarkable happened on the night of the day Obioma consoled me asking me to pray and not cry for her. I had prayed for her and read a portion or two from the Bible, made my bed and floated into deep sleep as soon as I laid my head to rest. I strangely did not stare through the window, thinking or panicking as had become my ritual. I had fallen asleep at ease. But deep into the night, I awoke to the cackling sound of the louvres and rustling sound of leaves outside. The wind whistled through the wind as though it were announcing the advent of a downpour. It wasn’t too dark outside which partly reflected inside my room since I usually left my window half covered by my curtain. I thought it was daybreak till I checked the time on my phone and saw it was just 12:04am. And just then, I noticed somebody else was seated by my bed. It was unmistakably Obioma. I was quite sure she hadn’t been there when I woke up, neither had I noticed when she came in. But I was not alarmed. Obioma could never mean to harm me. I saw her smile. The wind sieved through the net on my window and sent her almost scattered afro flaying flamboyantly. She looked so different from her emaciated self I used to visit in the hospital.
“Udoka”, she called at me, smiling. “I’m okay now, I’m happy too, the pains are gone and everything feels better than it ever was. Biko ebezina…”
I could only smile seeing her say those things, I doubt I had full control of myself because thinking of it now, I remember I hadn’t said anything, I just starred even though there were so many questions I would have asked her.
I woke up the next morning, confused about the whole thing. Obioma had been at my place at midnight and in the morning, I couldn’t remember how we parted ways after that contact. So, I went to the hospital that morning where I was told that Obioma had passed on just before midnight and her parents were on the way to come take her things home and she was in the morgue. For a moment, I stood dumbstruck — more confused than I had been earlier that morning when I had woken up. I asked the doctor to allow me into the morgue, where I saw Obioma, dead, her thinned-face looking contented even in death. It showed through all the cotton wools foiled into her nose and ears. I tried crying, but could not. Something greater than grief gripped me and it spread like chills through my head down to the rest of my body, dimming my vision for a while.
I remember walking absent minded towards the hospital exit gate. I locked myself up in the room for two days and a night, not picking any call, not eating any food, just drooling and grieving. I also remember looking at myself in the mirror and not recognising the image that stared back at me. My hairs had folded into an untidy dread, my eyes red and my face a tad darker. It was then that I remembered that Obioma would not have been happy to see me the way I was. She believed that love would never make you cry but leave you smiling when you had every reason to grieve. She loved books so much, she loved love stories and had been the person who made me believe my love poems were beautiful because she would blush each time I wrote her a poem and even memorised most of them. She took me round a psychoanalysis of them that there was a consistent pattern in them of always redefining love and talked about hope. She would say, “Yes, love is supposed to be a harbinger of hope.” Sometimes, I wish I could see her now and tell her how love has brought me despair. But then, I know she’s happy where she is, I remember her words when her spirit visited “I am happy and okay, the pains are gone…” That’s a Stan for certainty. Faith tells us about an afterlife where there’s no pain and every good person will get to rejoice forever. I draw my consolation in believing that my Obioma has not decayed out of existence, but her soul resides in such a place where she is happy without the possibility of any pain for eternity. I tell myself if Obioma is happy in such a place, I should be too, because ultimately what true love seeks is lasting happiness for the beloved.
Today, I will take some flowers to the place where Obioma was buried in the cemetery — where I had cried bitterly upon her burial. I will tell her how much I miss her and how lonely the world feels and how difficult it is to hold on without her — and every other thing I remember. And I hope to dream of her tonight as I have done each time I visit her grave. I see her smiling in a green field with buoyant trees and nightingales. She is always smiling at me and I smiling right back at her. This time, I hope that I am able to say I love you to her once again.
If there is something I have learnt from knowing Obioma it is the fact that nothing comes in between true lovers, not even death.