Mourning, Culture & the Individual
Wednesday, 19 July 2006
I recently endured and I continue to endure, a traumatic heartbreak; the passing away of my kid sister Clara. The bereavement is belated, but it was news to me. My mother and my brother conspired to conceal my kid sister’s passing from me, as a favor to me.
In the infinite wisdom of my mother and my brother, they reasoned that they were doing me a favor, by sparing me the bad news of my sister’s traumatic and tragic passing. This, my mother and my brother did, purely out of love and care for my sanity and well being.
Their intention was to protect me, for my own sake.
Their actions were informed by good intentions and not out of spite or disagreement of any sorts with me. I live alone, in America, no brothers, sisters, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, wife, or such other family or relatives as support system which we have in Nigeria. They worried about how it might affect me and my hectic work life. So, they did not want this monumental grief news to hit me, without a support system! Thy concealed it from me. Nothing could have been worse! The not knowing! I was left in the dark!
But in doing so, my mother and my brother, both of whom I love dearly, they robbed me of a chance to grieve, in my own way, whatever my way would have been.
I could have traveled to attend my kid sister’s burial I could have, in doing so, put my life and work in New York in jeopardy. But I would have had a choice! My choice!
My mother and my brother reasoned that I would have been too distraught for my own good. They reasoned that I would have been suicidal, especially for the fact that my sister Clara and I are (were!) very close. She was the baby of the family. She was the spoilt one; we all pampered her, especially, when she was very young.
Unfortunately, in the past several years, I have not been as close to my family as I would have wished. I have not made as meaningful contacts as I would have wished. I have not traveled to Nigeria, as often as I would have wished. Life in New York is fast-paced and there a gazillion (important things) to do, with so much demand on my time. And then, my sister died, she was buried and I had no role in all of that! The processes!
But, now, what relevance and benefit are those very important gazillions things that I was doing? What is the value of my efforts in America, to me and my family in this grief?
I was not home to hold and comfort my mother, my elder sister and my elder brother.
I was not home to see my late sister one last time!
In 1994 I left New York for Nigeria, with an eye of returning to Nigeria for good. While in Nigeria, but in another state, other than my home state, my father was said to have collapsed and died. I was away from my home state where my father lived, but I received the sad news by telephone and I drove the 300 hundred miles to my home state to see my father buried, as our tradition required that he be buried soon after his death.
My father lived a long and fulfilled life. To put it simply, he was old and accomplished. But he was my father still. I never contemplated my reaction to his death. I collapsed to the floor upon learning that my father had passed on. My knees became so weak and they caved. I staggered up, and drove the 300 miles. And then, I promised myself that I will be strong, stoical and that I will exude composure. I kept that promise, almost to the end. I however faltered when my father’s body was being lowered into his final resting place.
All of a sudden, it dawned on me! This is it! I will never ever again, see my father, flesh and blood. This is it! A man that I have known all my life, a larger than life man, who I have always looked up to; this is it! I am now on my own, my own man! It was scary!
And all of a sudden, I sobbed and bawled uncontrollably to the surprise of all family and friends present. They all expressed amazements at my sudden reaction, particularly, after I had displayed a façade of being in charge of my emotions and handling “it” very well.
After my father’s internment and final burial rites, I was sullen and somber. I felt a great loss and unexplainable emptiness. And I kept repeating to myself, so, I will never see him again, ever? So, this is how life ends and so mortality has this finality? So this is the end for my father, this is the end our times together? So, I will never have an opportunity to argue and disagree with him again as we frequently did.
A week before his death, he had repeated his “demand” that I get married, just so he has the opportunity to interact with a grandchild borne of me, before he, my father travels to the great be yond. I reacted with my usual impatience and complete lack of interest!
But of course, being the stubborn and argumentative son that I have always been to my father; I promptly informed him that (a) he is not dying and (b) I will get married in the next fifteen years and (c) before he goes to heaven to be on the right hand side of God, he should be comforted by the facts of grandchildren from my siblings and there was nothing special about a grandchild from me. I told my father, as he and I shared what would be our last lunch or meal together, that the world was over populated!
He insisted that he might go “home” soon and I half-jokingly, told him he was going no where fast and I repeated my perennial jokes about poverty in the world, and overpopulation etc. I often also told him to give me money, as encouragement.
My father apparently knew something that I did not. He was always, steps ahead of me!
My father passed on, without illness, without hospitalization and without a chance or opportunity for my siblings and I to, pull medical strings to preserve or prolong my father’s life. But well, he was very old at least. When he passed away, he was not at his prime of his youth. When he passed away, I was already in Nigeria for more than one whole month I think. More importantly, I received the news of his death almost promptly and I had a chance to mourn, a chance react instantaneously and a chance to witness my father’s internment and burial rites etc. I was with other family members, friends and homefolks.
On the other hand, my kid sister’s death was completely different;
I did not have the benefit of whatever reactions that I would have had, upon learning of the death of my kid sister. I did not have luxury of crying, bawling and sobbing or becoming suicidal as a result of learning of her passing! Thanks to my mother and my brother who had conspired to protect me from myself. My mother and my brother decided to shield me from what I consider my necessary grief and grieving process.
But mother and my brother were sincere in their intents and they meant well.
So, one day, I think it was a Saturday morning, I called Nigeria to speak to my mother and she was not answering her cell phone. My mother has this practice of frequently leaving her cellular telephone at home, as she run her errands or go visiting families and friends. And I have had to remind her, why cellular telephones are actually called “mobile phones” in Nigeria…. Because you take them with you! The phone is “mobile”!
Ah well, my mother has lectured me about not expecting calls from Gowon, Obasanjo or a stock broker and so, she will answer the telephone when she gets to it. But she pesters me, even still, with the poor frequency of my calls to her. Mom, please take the handset with you, so when I do call, you are there. But we know how mothers are, always right!
My mother was not home to answer her “mobile” phone which is hardly ever mobile! And I spoke to one of our extended family member’s child, one of those who frequently visited or come to spend time with and, keep my mother company, since my father’s sudden departure from her, to greener pastures, on the right hand side of God, in heaven!
The little girl announced that my mother was out, and about, but left the mobile phone behind as usual. I then bantered with the little girl about school and things I thought might interest her. She told me that her school would not release her WASC results, because she owed some bits of money. Her father, my maternal uncle, was somewhere in Abuja as she awaits his return and the fees as well as JAMB costs.
At that point, I had enquired whether she had informed my mother, or my brother who visits our mother frequently, or why did she not go to Clara! The little girl now said to me, in the most understated way “Clara is late” I repeated it after her, as I did not understand or decode the statement. She in turn, repeated her own statement after me!
And then, she added ominously, so, uncle, you did not know? Nobody told you that Clara is late? And the little girl started crying and it hit me!
Until that moment, I have never in my entire life heard anyone, so express the death of another, in such peculiar English! And until that moment, the secrets and conspiracies between my mother and my brother, and perhaps other family members, had worked perfectly against me! My sister Clara was dead and buried, I was blissfully unaware!
Clara wrote letters to me here in New York, some I replied, some I did not. There were combinations of reasons. Laziness! Procrastinations! My refusal to offer one more explanation to her, as to why I am not married and I have not visited Nigeria again etc.
Now, I regret ever ignoring any of her letters! Particularly, the last letter from her!
I was very close to my sister growing up, I baby sat her for my mother, and I sort of, raised her and saw her grow, from our earliest childhood days together. I remember when she was born and when my mother returned home from that Catholic hospital where we were all born, I remember Clara, just like yesterday! Clara was my sister and best friend.
When my father passed away, she acted impressively, as if, she was the matriarch or head of my siblings, this, even though she was the youngest! Clara knew who my late father’s friends were. She knew where my father’s resources were. She knew who his creditors or debtors were. She hired the best entertainers during the celebrations of my father’s life.
She was the last among my siblings in Nigeria to return to her station after our father’s burial.
Whereas my brother left our hometown hurriedly, in order to, return to Port Harcourt, soon after the internment of my father. My brother argued that papa is gone and he needed to return to pursue his client’s cases in Port Harcourt courts! Clara cleaned up and finalized things. That was how my sister Clara, always was. She was admired by all of us. She was a towering and imposing 6.4feet tall take-charge sister. She was prodigious in her efforts for our family and on our family’s behalf. Always!
I wish I could talk to my sister Clara. I wish I could beg her to forgive me for ignoring her letters, her last letter. I have become closer to Clara’s twin daughters, as they are what I have left of her.
I have also learnt from my bereavements (the loss of my father and now my kid sister) that I must always verbalize my affection to my family members and my friends, because as my experience has taught me, I should never wait or hesitate, because I may never have another chance to act or verbalize my affections and tenderness to my loved ones.
The toughest and perhaps, most traumatic events in my life in the last ten years, have been the passing of my father, the passing of my sister Clara and my divorce, my divorce, which also felt like bereavement, or as if a part of me or someone in my household had died. My sister’s death saddened me beyond words. I have been doubly sad, because of the initial concealment. I have been inconsolably sad.
How do you mourn? How do I mourn? How should I mourn? In general, how should we mourn? But in particular, what is the best, or preferred grieving process for an immigrant, a Nigerian immigrant? Too often, immigrants leave so much behind in their old country, old world. Family, friends and all the lives they had known.
Immigrants are so often deprived, in the most intangible and unquantifiable ways.
I have missed out on opportunities, sundry opportunities to participate in my family’s happiest moments. I have missed out on rare moments to be physically present at weddings. I have missed out on rare moments to attend funerals in person, to support and console other family members, whose supports and consoling, I in turn, also needed.
My mother insisted to me, that she recruited and begged my brother into the conspiracy of silence and concealment. She told me this, as I scolded my brother for not giving me the chance to console and support, our mother, when she needed it most. My brother has apologized. Apologies are really not necessary. And he informed me as well, that as I, picked up and left Nigeria, life in Nigeria continued; including of course, births, deaths, marriages, divorces and all the other joys and sadness of human life. My brother insists, that I should factor in, all these variables of life. He admonished that I should expect good news and bad news and the vagaries of life, from family and friends in Nigeria.
And; as I grow older, and as my sojourn in the United States lingers, I have started to ask of myself, the meaning of life. What is my life worth? What is my happiness? How does anyone quantify the inability to partake in the hills and valleys of the lives of family and friends, in my home country Nigeria? What wealth or the good life in America can ever compensate, neutralize and replace all that loss and emptiness? What is the value of my emigration to America?
Are these feelings of loss, nostalgia and emptiness peculiar to me?
Upon learning of my sister death belatedly, I was angry; angry with myself, angry at my brother, and angry at my mother. I was probably angry at the whole world! Why did my sister Clara have to die? Why did I have to be so far away? Why the concealment of her death? Was concealment the right thing to do for me? What was the right thing to do?
Should I have been left the choice to grieve my own way? Was it better to have shielded me from the grieving process? Should families in Nigeria or families of immigrants generally, shield immigrants from grief and grieving, when deaths occurs in Nigeria or the immigrants’ home country? What was the right thing to do in all the circumstances? How do you mourn? How should I mourn? What is the right way to mourn the loss of a loved one? Especially and particularly, when you are thousands of miles and many oceans, away from home?