Funerals are good for you
By Edwin Ununuma
It happened on one of my rare visits home. Who’d have thought the news would come when I was around. I had promised to spend at least a week before leaving this time. The first few days had been better than every other visit home since I left three years ago. Before coming I had given my mother a stern speech. I told her if she made one comment about how I rarely came home, I’d pack up and leave and I wouldn’t come back except to bury her. My father had made sure she kept her mouth shut on the matter. I, Bimbo and Dapo where laughing over a TV show when my mother came in screaming. She threw the door open and threw herself on the floor.
“Jide ti ku o, Jide ti ku o, your uncle is dead o!” she yelled.
We all stared at her in shocked silence. My heart drummed faster and I felt numbness spread from my chest to my extremities. I hadn’t heard that name in years. She rolled around the floor screaming, and with each scream you could hear her voice begin to crack. It wasn’t until someone tried to pull her up that we noticed that other people had come in with her. Bimbo went to help console her. Dapo stared on confused. I got up and walked out of the house.
I don’t remember exactly when Brother Jide came to live with us but he seemed like a permanent feature in most of my childhood memories. We had been inseparable. Even though he had been 30 when I was 8, we’d done everything together. He was by my side when I woke up, and was there when I went to bed. I remember stiffly curling up next to his warm body in bed one of the many times I had found myself lying in his bed. I always slept in a stiff posture, holding my body together like I was cold; this was the description Ebube, my current boyfriend had given me. The minute you touched me, I literally jumped awake. Ebube had made a habit of sleeping on the couch when he came home late to avoid startling me.
My parents were strict and paranoid people, so I grew up as an unusual child. I didn’t play Oga or Suwe like the other children. I didn’t have friends except at school and nobody ever came to visit me. Most of my afternoons were spent with Brother Jide. After he picked me up from school by 2 o’ clock I found a spot between the dining table and a wall and curled up there to read. Brother Jide always provided me with a new book every time I was done reading one. Reading was one of the ways we bonded. He would put me on his lap and read to me, or make me read out loud. He always smelt like sweet sweat, like his cologne was a mixture of farm workers and Banana chewing gum. I remember his lips next to my ears and the clear pronunciation of every word. He was getting his master’s degree in English Studies at the University of Port Harcourt those days. Those afternoons were our special time together. No one would be around for hours. Bimbo was in a boarding school, my mother and father were at work, so I and brother Jide did my homework, talked while he made lunch and filled the hours with fun activities. When my parents came home from work, I’d spend the rest of the day in my secret spot by the dining table and forget the world in a book.
Three days after the news of Brother Jide’s death, I packed my things out of my parent’s house and found a hotel. I could no longer stand the sad atmosphere. Brother Jide, my mother and Aunt Temi where the only children and their parents were dead, so my father’s house was the place for condolence visits from everybody. For three days, my maternal grandparents’ friends, my father’s friends, Uncle Jide’s, Aunt Temi’s and my mother’s friends, cousins, and every imaginable relative had trouped in and out of the house. There was a lot of crying, hours of depressing silence, and people constantly fussing over us. I was glad when Aunt Temi came over. Everybody needs an Aunt Temi in time of grief. She knows just what to say, and what to do at every moment. She cooked, cleaned and fended off the people who bothered us with their sympathy. She held me in the bathroom while I cried after losing my temper at my mother.
“I know you’re angry,” she said.
“Mummy is just being annoying,” I said between sobs.
A fat translucent brown ant walked across the bathroom floor and I wondered whether if I fed it something coloured, it would change colour too. “I know.” Aunt Temi said, interrupting my thought and I almost laughed at having such a mundane thought while crying.
“Just try and be understanding,” she continued. “You just lost someone you loved, it doesn’t make sense so you need someone to pour the anger on. You need people in time of grief so be gentle with those around you. We’re grieving too.”
I held on to her till I was done crying, then she made me wash my face. “You’ll feel better after the funeral.” She said handing me a towel. “Funerals are good for you.”
I didn’t bother asking what she meant as we both walked out of the bathroom. I had not seen Aunt Temi cry in the past three days and I wondered if she cried herself to sleep at night like my mother did. I remembered a comment she made when I was 9. I was sitting on Brother Jide’s lap while he read aloud from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I didn’t understand a word of it but I liked sitting with Brother Jide.
“This your relationship with this girl eh,” she said, “she will grow up and start looking for a man exactly like you.”
Brother Jide had been just Jide till my mother scolded me.
“Is he your mate?” She asked, while sitting on her usual brown chair in the parlour. “Can’t you hear your sister saying brother?”
She looked like she was about to get up and smack me, so I started sniffling and this upset her further. He was more like an older brother than an uncle so the epithet had stuck and everyone was fine with it. I just hadn’t seen a reason to constantly remind him that he was my brother so I called him by name. Brother Jide had smiled as my mother continued complaining of my lack of respect. Tired of hearing her talk and me cry, he came to carry me away. He let me cry on his shoulder and told me he didn’t care either way what he was called. I called him Jide in private and saved Brother for public usage. He was tall, taller than my mother who was his older sister. Now that I think of it, he may have been at least 6 feet 4inches. Once he carried me on his shoulder and my father scolded him.
“Jide you’re almost reaching the fan already,” my father said “Don’t cut my child’s head.”
After that I had asked Brother Jide if I could survive without my head. “Maybe,” he said.
That night he read Sleepy Hollow to me and I didn’t sleep for three nights after.
Brother Jide was handsome so my mother found it unusual that he didn’t have a girlfriend. I often remarked to Ebube just how much they looked alike. He thought it weird that I was attracted to someone who looked like my uncle. I didn’t care; I woke up to that face most nights from when I was 8 till when I turned 10, so it’s no surprise to me that I’m attracted to men with similar features. Their faces are narrow and bearded and when they kiss you it pokes you. Their eyes are round and large; the whites are so white and the black parts are as dark as coal. Their brows are perfectly lined without any grooming. When you look at them, you don’t see the cheek bones but when you touch them, that’s the first thing your hands come in contact with. Their lips are red and stained with black under the surface, making it look like an unusual dark shade of red, like a bruise still glowing with blood before turning blue. Ebube is 6 feet 4inches.
At the hotel, I threw my bags on the bed in my room and immediately called Ebube.
“No really, I am. I’m in a hotel,”
“Too many People at home,”
“I think I’ll just stay here till the burial.”
“I don’t want to come home yet.”
“In two weeks.”
“No don’t worry about it, just come for the funeral. I just need time away from everyone right now.”
“Alright then, Love you more.”
I stood by the window after the call and stared at the moving vehicles outside. Aba Road was quiet busy. I peeled myself away from the window and walked to the bed and threw myself down on the hard mattress. I thought of Brother Jide as the dying sun threw its orange glow across the bed.
I grew up thinking it was normal. That children and older relatives just got along and did everything together. No one ever said anything against it except to make jokes. It was a comfortable relationship for my mother because I didn’t talk to her and so she was glad that I talked to someone in the family at least. At 8, I was a silent child. I’m less silent now but Ebube still complains.
“You’re scared of everything,” He tells me, “you’re not a people pleaser but you don’t speak up. You’re always scared of upsetting the balance of things.”
He doesn’t understand. If you’re quiet, you can get away with anything. Make yourself small and invisible and nobody will notice anything that happens to you, not even God.
One day, when I was nine, Brother Jide was late picking me up from school and as I sat in class waiting, one of the girls convinced me to go home with her. I don’t know why she asked me because I was just as silent at school as I was at home and I had no friends, but I went home with her that day. It was 6 o’clock before her mother came home. Her mother took me home after she found out from me that no one knew where I was and I lived on the other side of town. When we got to my house, my mother was having a fit. Luckily my father was not home but a few neighbours had come over and everybody was in a frenzy. I was surprised when I learnt that I was the cause of the hullabaloo. Before that day, I didn’t think my mother would notice if I disappeared. I was told that brother Jide had gone to the police station. My mother thanked the woman who brought me and after stern speeches from neighbours I barely knew, everybody cleared out. I knew what would happen after they left, so I prepared myself mentally, but it was still a shock when the first whip of the cane landed on my back. My mother liked to catch you off guard with her beatings so she often waited till you were relaxed and she acted like she had forgotten the issue, then she would get her cane and teach you not to be foolish next time. Brother Jide came back when she had only just begun to whip me. I was in a ball on the floor, protecting my head with my hands and screaming rhythmically to the strokes of the cane. I realised he had come in when I heard the sound of footsteps pounding quickly across the floor and I failed to feel the burn on my skin from the cane. I heard him yell something at my mother and then I looked up. The cane was in his hand and he and my mother were yelling at each other. I couldn’t understand what they were saying because it was all in Yoruba and I didn’t speak the language. Brother Jide snapped the cane in two with his hands, threw it on the floor and came to pick me up. I had never seen him so angry.
“When you will not let her go out or have friends, how will she know what to do?” He said angrily as he carried me away. He took me to his room and held me while I cried. After I was done, he didn’t mention the fact that I had done something wrong, or even tell me not to do it again all he asked was “What did you do at your friend’s house?”
“We played Suwe,” I told him.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It’s a game.”
“Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me how it’s played,” he said and I nodded, then he reached for a book on his desk and that was the end of that. In that moment, Brother Jide was my hero.
I woke up to the sound of rain on the morning of Brother Jide’s funeral. My head felt heavy and the sound of the rain only made it worse. I looked across the bed at the naked body on the other end and reached out to rub my hand across his back. Ebube had come the day before. Although I told him not to bother, he had called me from the airport and I had no other option than to pick him up. We had sex for the first time last night. Two years of seeing each other and for the first time, I let him touch me. Given my sexual history, two years was a long time to wait in a steady relationship. After spending years of my life, drifting from one stranger’s body to the other, sex was one of the many things I had given up in a bid to fix the mess I felt my life had become. It made me feel better, more rational and sleeping with him finally, made me feel liberated and free from my past. It felt good to be loved. The night before I had poured my heart out to him. I reminisced about all the good and bad times in my childhood. I poured out sweet and sour stories of my memories of Brother Jide. I talked about my mother and how I had cut my family off for three years. After I was done, he had expected me to cry, instead I pulled him close and told him he was part of my new beginning and then I told him to touch me.
I woke Ebube up and we showered and got dressed. Then I packed my things and we went down to check out. I planned to leave Port Harcourt immediately after the funeral. At the counter I stood next to a man in an Agbada checking in as I checked out, he seemed very pleasant. I opened my purse to tip the receptionist and my card fell on the counter. He looked at it and asked if I was Yoruba. He seemed happy to meet someone like himself in this city. I was not in a mood to be pleasant so I told him I was from Rivers State without offering further explanation.
“But your name is Yoruba,” he said, not reading my mood, “How come?”
“My grandmother is Yoruba” I said and smiled back before walking away.
Ebube was already seated in my car outside and I joined him. We drove to my father’s house to meet the funeral party and head for the gravesite with my family.
For an unmarried man, there was a lot of fanfare surrounding Brother Jide’s funeral. He had been married once but had gotten divorced according to what my mother told me. We never met the lady. They got married and divorced in a different country. The gravesite was wet and muddy from the rain which had fallen earlier. We stood in the mud, all wearing the uniform material they had chosen for the funeral, a deep blue cloth with light yellow and purple patterns. I linked arms with Ebube as a pastor gave a speech about the will of God. The coffin stood at the side of the hole it would be put in. I had refused to view the body at home but as the pastor droned on, I felt my heartbeat increase and the earth spin.
“For everything there is a season and a purpose under the heavens.”
My feet became restless.
“A time to be born, and a time to die.”
My hands shook.
“A time to plant and a time to dig up what is planted.”
My breath seized. The undertakers approached the coffin and began to lift.
“He hath made everything beautiful in his time.”
“Stop!” I yelled.
A hush followed as everybody turned to my direction. The sound had risen from the pit of my stomach. It bounced against the coffin and vibrated through the chest of the mourners. I stepped out. I walked to the coffin and told one of the skinny, sun blackened undertakers to open it. I heard my mother call my name and ignored it. The undertaker stared at me like he thought I had gone mad with grief. He was probably used to crazy relatives wanting to jump in with their beloved dead ones. I didn’t know how to explain my reason to him, so I reached for the coffin and yanked it open. I heard the horrified gasps around and felt hands grab me.
“Wait!” I yelled with venom, “I just want to look at him.”
Someone said something behind me and I recognised Ebube’s voice explaining that I didn’t view the body at home. No one touched me after that. I looked at Brother Jide lying so stiffly asleep and for the first time, I felt like I finally believed it was true. Brother Jide was dead. He still looked just as tall as I remembered. I smiled as I thought of how they must have requested for a specially made coffin for his long frame. His handsome face had grown older, thinner and darker. I don’t know how long I stared at him before I told them to close the coffin and I walked back to stand beside Ebube. They closed up the coffin and lowered it as my mother broke down. I walked away taking Ebube with me as they called on family members to pour a bit of sand into the grave. As we trudged through the mud to get to the car, I thought of what Aunt Temi had said about funerals being good for you. She was right, but not in the way she expected. Funerals are good for you. They give you a sense of closure. It’s only forward from here on. You think as the ceremony ends, and that helps you move on. But closure wasn’t all that I was feeling as I walked back to the parked cars across the muddy gravesite. I was feeling a sense of relief. It was finally over. The final part of my past was done with.
I don’t remember the day Brother Jide came to stay with us, but I clearly remember the day he left. He had gotten a scholarship for his PhD abroad and was leaving for Lagos that morning. I stood by the door in the living room watching as he and my father loaded his things into the car. That was the day I stopped believing in God. I realised that things happened just because they did and God did not intervene, praying for 3 years for uncle Jide had taught me that. Aunt Temi, my mother and Bimbo were all standing outside. Aunt Temi said something funny and everybody laughed and then the hugs began. When everybody outside was done with their goodbyes, they turned to look for me.
“Come and hug your uncle goodbye.” my mother said spotting me.
I didn’t move. I just stared at brother Jide and he stared back in that brooding sad way of his.
“What is wrong with you?” My mother asked, getting angry.
“I think she’s just sad that he’s leaving,” Aunt Temi said.
Contrary to what my mother believed, I wasn’t sad to see him go. He and I knew our little secrets that she would never know. He didn’t bother insisting on a hug. The sense of relief I felt at the gravesite was also the same feeling I got that day as the car drove out and for some reason I knew I would never see him again. I remember that day not only because of my dissent from religion but because that was also the day the rape finally stopped.