I stared at her for moments timeless
She stared at me unseeing, sightless
I smiled, sad as heart can imagine
She stared, coldly; that she could not manage
I thought how she’d like me to play her Enya
Song that’ll twang like a death toll aria
But with her silence she told me ‘don’t bother’
Go, comfort and be with my mother
I looked at her hair and chuckled
She had done that gel-pack thing again!
She sighed’ ‘You can no longer raise my hackles’
Think how, she gloated, you will never me see again
I take off my earrings
As the church bell rings
I adorn my friend but to what avail
Your chain, she whispers, I want your chain
I glare at her as commonsense prevails
No, I hiss
I feel no need for tack
You are going six feet below
Where it is forever cold
And there dear friend, you need no gold.
And that is what happened as I stood by your casket that morning, looking down at you, disbelieving. You, Emem. How could you. The rage, the helpless anger.
How. Could. You.
We met in our final year in Secondary school, both of us drawn to each other by our incongruousness with the rest of the school. You came because your father, a military surgeon had been transferred to Calabar, and I came because I had fucked up in my former school and got thrown out of the boarding house and my father shipped me closer home to frustrate me, you know, where he could slap me whenever he had the urge.
We didn’t fit in with the place, but we fit with each other. Later your father would tell everyone who cared to listen that we were ‘childhood friends,’ and we would laugh at that.
But maybe he was right; you told me how you had never got along with any girls, until you met me. Later when I came to bury you, he told everyone, pointing at me, ‘Look at that my daughter’s childhood friend, as you see her, you have seen my Emem.’ All eyes would swing in my direction and I would sigh and turn away, because it was not true at all.
You had that widow’s peak and big head. You were at least three inches taller, and two hues darker. My waist didn’t cinch like yours, my hips didn’t flare like yours, at least not then. Your long long legs that started at the hips and were slightly bowed; your huge eyes replicated in every of your siblings (now that I think of it).
It was such an effortless friendship. It wasn’t long before it seemed as though we had always known each other. Soon, we finished each other’s sentences and had a repertoire of laugh triggers between us. Then the ease with which your family absorbed me, every single one of them. I think of it now and marvel. There seemed to be no you without me, in your own house.
And we spent every moment we could manage together, in those heady months and the years that followed. We would escape from school – you, me, Rebekah and Nchewi and watch Grease. I, naturally, was Rizzo, you Maud. Obviously. We left Frenchy and Sandy to the other two with a wink, go bore yourselves.
I went with you to do your family monthly shopping and you took turns with me to do hospital visits when my father was desperately ill, so I could attend some lectures.
So many memories, I can’t write them all because who can understand the poignancy of the simplest thing – how I was sure you would die by accident because you were so bad at crossing roads, I rescued you like hundred times too many. No matter how creative the prose and fluid the poetry, no words will convey the wealth of the things we shared. You were my sister.
You were not perfect but guess what, those are the things that keep your memories firmly rooted in my mind – that dizzy girl you brought home who came and tried to snatch my boyfriend; the way you would say, ‘kind of like,’ the way people pause in speech to find the right words; all those Rs you put in all the wrong places that made me want to slap or hug you; that stupid hairstyle that I had told you over and over that only ‘chaff’ girls do. When they opened your coffin and I saw the hair, when I started laughing, I saw your sisters withdraw in alarm, they must have thought I was losing it. I wasn’t. I just wanted to pick your stupid head up and slap your face, and drop it back.
I knew your vanity. I remember you looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, ‘if I die, do you know what should be written on my tombstone? WASTED. All of this, (you said, holding your breasts up and turning around slowly), all this,wasted.’
Yeah. That was why I took off my earrings and put them in your ears, because you would have hated to be buried so unadorned. I stopped just shy of my gold chain, because I know you would say, ‘Pearl why you dey jonse?’
I looked at that ‘wedding dress’ you were clothed in and I remembered our last conversation. We were both in hospital – you in Ekpoma and I in Calabar. You had been in Ekpoma for about five years; this was your final year and I was finally coming to visit you. That morning, I had the worst cramps ever and I went to see the doctor. From the hospital, I called you and found out you were ill. Or maybe someone had told me and that was why I called. I forget. Your mother came to the phone and was saying, ‘Pearl Pearl, mbok tang ye ufan fo, nfioke si’inam Emem. Mbok, benghe Emem yak aku kpa. Mbok benghe Emem yak aku kpa. Pearl, mbok benghe Emem yak aku kpa…(talk to your friend, beg Emem not to die)’ and her voice broke.
I didn’t ‘benghe fi yak aku kpa.’ I played with you instead. I said, ‘stupid girl, don’t die just yet. I wouldn’t know what to bury you in. Please wait a few months and have your wedding, that makes it easy. I’ll just bury you in your wedding dress.’ The fact that you didn’t laugh, you didn’t even answer, just panted into the phone should have alerted me. But how could I have imagined. Emem, death for you was incomprehensible, do you not understand? You could not die. That is why this line from Dami Ajayi’s Poetry does my head in;
If I was told that water could
Boil fish to taste,
I would disagree.
I would say that fish will not
Be cooked till it’s matured,
That fish will not be
Tasty if slaughtered too soon.
You see, he wrote it under similar circumstances, the death of his friend at the very point where it seemed like his life had begun. For that is how it seemed for me when I saw you last, like your life was just beginning, like your life was all before you.
I had never seen you look so pretty Emem. Your hips had filled out so well, you looked so so feminine, so beautiful. You were working on your project, set to graduate, and best of all, you were engaged to be married to my Sensei. I couldn’t believe it, my Sensei! I worshipped the ground he walked on, and I thought he was the best looking man ever. You two? Too way cool. You were giddy and so was I.
I will never forget how he cried like a child. It was funny in a way because he was the man who strode around the Dojo looking like a Roman god, invincible; who looked beyond graceful in his impeccably white gi as he performed katas, who held me down on the Tatami and said, ‘Pearl, focus. Pain does not exist! Pain is only a thing of the mind.’ Who then was this man bawling like a child in my arms? Emem, how could you. I never wanted to see my Sensei as human. Are you happy to know he cried for well over a year. I could not hold a reasonable conversation with the man for a long time because he would always dissolve, ‘Emem this, Emem that.’ Frankly I got bored. I wanted to slap you every time.
Emem, I have said so much and I sense that I have said nothing. On this, the eighth year since I received that terrible phone call, I thought I would make an attempt to articulate the horror of your passing, I thought I would be able to pen down the memories, I thought I would be able to immortalize you the only way I know.
I have failed again. Because quite simply, I do not have the skill to capture the essence of all that you were in words, not if I had all the words of all the world in every language line up, willing to do my bidding; not if I had every single sheet of paper and parchment ever made, not if every liquid turned to ink, not if I had a hundred lifetimes. You were too… alive. You couldn’t die. And yet you did. You forever shook my belief, I used to think that there were some people that just couldn’t die. You headed the pack.
Then you got killed and the pack scattered and everything fell apart and Emem, I am hurting. Your sisters, your brothers, your father and worst of all, your mother. Know this, they would have given anything. Everything. You broke their hearts into a million pieces and every time I see any of them, I want to apologize for you, say you didn’t mean to.
The fact that you died on your sisters, Joy and Aunty Helen’s birthdays is so you!
You make me smile from the grave, Emem, and that is how it will always be. Your face will always be before me; your laughter, your idiocy which was the reason we could be friends, your pigheadedness, your beautiful heart, all these things, these are the things I carry.
These are the ways I miss you.
‘To die is to live forever in the hearts of those who love you.’
‘What is dead can never die.’
You will live forever, here in our hearts.
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