“I will take my chances.” Were the words she said to me.
Shocked, I asked her “Are you saying you are willing to take that chance on life? Take that chance with your life?”
“Yes,” she said with such calmness and confidence, “God will not give me a burden too heavy for me to bear.”
I had just returned to the Community Grammar School (CGS) after a stint at the Comprehensive High School (CHS). I was doing alright at the CHS, but it was post June 12, 1993 Nigeria and Lagos was a volatile place. Mama was not comfortable with her children attending school that far away from the community, so it was after three years, I returned to the CGS where I had started my secondary education. Straight away I got back into the local scene. I had met her and talked with her before, but I paid her special attention when we were both selected to represent the school at an essay writing competition.
After secondary school we kept in touch, crushing on each other but refraining from doing anything about it. We both went to school, keeping in touch as often as Nipost would allow. Home at the end of each semester, I spent three evenings a week with her – any three evenings of the week.
Just before Christmas of my second year, I had returned home on holidays and had rushed off to see her, not even bothering to unpack. I was kept waiting at the gate longer than usual but I thought nothing of it. Then I walked into a sombre living room and her cousin rushed into my arms and burst into tears. “Franque,” she managed through tears, “Please don’t do anything rash. Take it easy, and she said to tell you not to miss her too much, just don’t forget her.”
My world caved in! Stunned, I watched everything unfold in slow motion. The details from that point on were sketchy, but the gist of it was that she had a crisis and did not survive. She had been buried four days before and I was taken to the freshly covered mound that was her grave site.
She was not my first encounter with the condition, but my first fatality.
My cousin Papa is the family Slim Shady. It has nothing to do with his build, or hair colour. It is more to do with his penchant for nit picking. My cousin is walking and stubs his toe against a stool, and straight away he has a bone to pick with the stool, or whoever placed the stool there – even if that is where the stool has always been positioned. Ok, he is not as bad as that, but he almost always has a bone to pick and was quite verbose about it. That is our Papa.
Being three years apart put us roughly in the same age grade – thanks to my being born in November as opposed to his February – and with his immediate senior being a girl, he was my buddy in his family.
During my four month Industrial Training (SIWES), a prerequisite for the award of my National Diploma (ND) certificate, I spent a lot of time at Papa’s. He lived close to the Hotel I was attached to, so I moved to his family’s on Mondays and returned home to my Mama on Fridays. This arrangement worked perfectly for us because I was his alibi each time he went out. His family would not hear of him going out to visit friends, and our Papa has Gypsy feet – always on the go; and he was my ‘go to’ guy when it came to meeting girls in the area. We were the Blues Brothers.
When we were not hanging out with his numerous friends, we stayed home and played host to some of the boys. These visits usually started with ‘area gist’, some yabis and then quickly graduated to football, after which the boys would disperse to reconvene another day. The thing was, while the others were home sleeping snugly, we would stay up most nights – me and Papa’s family – taking turns to massage his limbs and joints while he moaned and sometimes screamed as if his entire nerve endings were on fire.
After my National Youth Service in Kano, I returned to Lagos and two days later I packed a bag with a change of clothes and went to visit Papa. What I saw when I got there chilled me to my core. Sitting there in Papa’s favourite chair was someone I did not recognise. From the sunken eyes and cheeks, the rasping breath and the rattling sound in his chest each time he breathed, the figure slumped in the seat too weak to hold itself up, my cousin sat there looking like a child’s portrait of death. “Nwatakiri,“ he said is his gravelly tone, calling me the pet name he had given me since he could talk. I was older and bigger, yet he christened me ‘small boy’. He was smiling the same big familiar smile. My legs felt like rubber as I walked, as if in a huge vat of honey, toward Papa. I knelt down in front of him and gathered him into my arms. “Nwoke’m jilu nwayo. Awon omo nko?” He asked me switching from ‘wawa’, our dialect, to yoruba fluidly.
“Omo bawo? I am done with girls nau, madu a kahun ka, old age has come.” I said. We shared a few ribald jokes, and a lot of laughs.
Papa, suffered from a medical condition that had affected his hips. I watched as he pulled on his pants each time he had to readjust his legs – he could not move them otherwise. When it was time to bathe, I ran his bath water then carried him on my back to the bathroom and into the tub. When he finished, it was the same process in reverse.
Fortunately his family could afford to fly him to India on three separate occasions. Now Papa walks into a room and you know by the tap tap tapping of his cane, that extension of his left hand that takes the weight off his lower body.
He still finds a bone to chomp on – from my long absences to M.E’s long silence – and he is quite verbose about it. But then, that is our Papa and we love him still.
#Theta Kappa Delta
The first time I saw her was at a shopping mall in Centurion, South Africa. I had just bought a few game and audio CDs, the only items that got my blood pumping when it came to shopping, and was walking back through the shopping complex to the hotel when I saw her.
She stood there slim and dark, her profile to me and wearing a black leather jacket. She shifted her head and our eyes met. I bobbed my head at her and carried on.
The next time I saw her, a friend called me and asked me a favour. He was leaving town but due to a previously cancelled flight, his sister was not going to make it on his flight out. Not knowing anybody in SA, he was wondering if I could put her up… I said yes before he finished asking. I did not want to give him the chance to reconsider leaving his sister with me for two days and two nights. With any luck she might turn out to be pretty and single. I went to his room to meet my roommate-for-the-next-forty-eight-hours and it turned out to be her! The jacket was gone and I could make out her figure better. This kind of favour I liked.
Long story short, she left on my flight two days later, and we had become friends. She called me her guardian Angel. I did not dwell on how I got my halo. Maybe it was from giving up my room for the two nights while I ‘squatted’ with colleagues; or the time we spent together during the day walking, lunching, window shopping; maybe it was none of those. What was important to me was that in her eyes I wore a white tunic with gold embroidery, and a well polished brass halo.
Over the next two years we kept in touch the way I know how: in bursts and spurts. I would go silent for days. Maybe weeks. Then I would call and we would talk long and carry on from where we left off. It was during one of those ‘silence’ periods that I got the sms from her brother, my friend and colleague.
She had been away in Dakar when she suffered a case of pneumonia. I had come into Dakar the day she left and I heard about it. I intended to call her the next day, but somehow never got around to it. Three days later came the sms to pray for her as she was in Intensive Care. I was still composing the prayers in my head when another message delivered on my phone saying she had gone to a better place.
My heart went out to my friend who had just lost his sister because I knew how close they were. I still said a prayer – for strength and comfort (not the cushy variety) for my friend. He later told me how he had broken down and cried. He cried ugly; sobbing as mucus and tears mingled in a stream running down his face. He left home, took a walk some place, sat down there and cried unashamedly.
Recently he got his first ‘real’ tattoo and it reads, in Greek, Theta Kappa Delta – her initials.
These three people shared three things in common: my love, their dreams and the SS genotype.
So when she calmly declared “God will not give me a burden too heavy for me to bear,” I looked at her as if she had sprung two extra heads. I like her a lot and she me, but when thoughts of a likely future crossed our minds I quickly asked what her genotype was. She told me AS and that was what brought about the talks of settling with a carrier for the sake of love.
June 19th was World Sickle Cell day, but I was so caught up in the joy of my first Father’s Day, I did not spare a thought for people living with these genes.
As the UN celebrates the progress made on the disease and preach its prevention, I daresay I believe love or faith is no excuse to take the chance of giving birth to children with two copies of these sickle-shaped genes. I know a number of people with those genes who are living life to the fullest. I saw the movie “Mortal Inheritance” too, but really do we want to take that chance on life? With our lives? With our children’s lives?
PS: There is no such thing as hand-me-down faith, or a superimposition of one’s faith on another. There is common sense, and then there is the free will to make choices.