“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval between both”
Dr Alafia joined the crowd of mourners. The priest was giving his homily by the time he took his seat in the pew. The young priest was extoling the virtues of the late woman and the benefits of living a pious life. But Dr Alafia didn’t allow his mind to dwell on the priest’s sermon. It wasn’t the first time he would be hearing such talk from a pulpit neither would it be the first time he would be wondering what would happen to Iyin Ocheche’s two daughters when she died. They were the ones he was thinking of soon after he took Abigail’s call. He knew they were much attached to their mother even though they were married with their own kids. He knew this for sure because of his closeness with them and he could relate to this because of his own attachment with his own elder sister.
Though not a strict Catholic himself, he still took the liberty to put aside his medical erudition and hold some religious beliefs about the subject of aging and death. Death comes to everyone; the good, the bad and the ugly. In the biblical book of Ecclesiastics it is said that ‘A living dog is better than a dead lion…the living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything….After people are dead, their love, hate, jealousy are all gone. They will never again share in what happens on earth….’ Does this mirror the futility of life? The vainness in the excessive quest for wealth, for power and fame not minding whose horse his gored along the line. Does this admonition mirror the sheer waste of it all? He wondered.
Is this a disquieting hint pointing man to the transience nature of his existence and thus calling him to see the need to seek some self-awareness? Some understanding of the concept of ‘shadow of light’ and as such do things the way they should be done at all times? ‘…So, go and eat your food and enjoy it. Drink your wine and be happy…’ Was this another way of the Holy Bible telling man to accept his fate? Is it right to believe in fate? Destiny? Is life is fair?
If life is fair, why would a new born die of cancer; a child that didn’t ask to be born? Why would a toddler be diagnosed of an incurable ailment, killed in a war or be born into an evil community who believe in the killing of twin? Why will a ‘just wedded’ couple who are happy and certain that their lives together was now a ‘happy-ever-after’ scenario die in a fatal car crash that was not their fault because a mad driver had rammed his own vehicle into theirs? Simply put, why do good people die? As a doctor, he had witnessed so much that only a man with a heart of steel would not question the fairness of life and even at times, the existence of God too in the face of the utter suffering of humanity.
“I also saw other things in life that were not fair. The fastest runner does not always win the race; the strongest soldier does not always win the battle.” This was still the biblical author speaking. Despite the fact that the funeral he was attending was that of an old woman, he could not help but think about these things in a manner that troubled the heart and left one resigning to fate.
Everybody in Ososo seemed to know everybody else, yet no one knew more than matron Opeyemi. She was the portly woman who had been in the town long before many of them at his hospital. She had told Dr Alafia that folks hardly knew what to think of the fact that Iyin Ocheche, a controlling -of her kids at least- , generous, good natured and strong-minded woman, had named both her daughters after herself.
Although they were both christened Elizabeth, they were known all their lives as Omokhoshe and Ocheche; their native names. Ironically, although women were called by their first child’s names in Ososo, people called Madam Elizabeth ‘Iyin Ocheche’ –A literal translation meaning ‘Ocheche’s mother’- after her second daughter. Their father, Iti Ocheche, also present at the funeral, a postal worker and farmer, was a soft spoken man who spoke sparsely, loved church and God more than himself, and prefer to work behind the scenes. Like working in the shadow, he was a man who never wanted to be heard or seen in the public.
Funeral mass over, Dr Alafia followed the procession of mourners as they followed behind the hearse bearing the remains of Iyin Ocheche to the cemetery not too far from the church building where she was to be interred. As the procession slowly made its way to the cemetery, Dr Alafia allowed thoughts to pour into his mind yet again.
Iyin Ocheche was gone as all of us must one day, which is certain. But, when, where, how and what awaits us at the other side when we die irrespective of what the priest, pastor, imam, and philosopher says, only God knows. The mystery of death should invite the consideration of all men he decided. However, from what he could tell, this has not been the case. The secularisation of our culture, its focus on worldly pleasures and this paradise-on-earth attitude of many people for years has made discussion on this matter private. A matter we only allow our minds to focus on in the comfort of our bedrooms. Especially at nights when we are alone and wondering in deep thoughts with only silence and the darkness of the night as our friend and companion.
Life can be terribly unfair he thought. Some people are born with silver spoon in their mouths, while others who may be superior in goodness die with a coal scuttle in hand. With this, to Dr Alafia, death itself appears to be biased. How many creative geniuses like Mozart, Keats, and Raphael and so on were struck down before even middle-age? A thing which has deprived the world a full maximization of their talents. How many children and youths have been claimed by accident and disease, which rubbed them of the opportunity to grow up and enjoy the beauties of life?
Iyin Ocheche had kept a tight rein on her daughters from the time they were born. Neither had ever left their mother’s side in Ososo. Dr Alafia felt sorry for them because they had had their wings clipped before they could fly the coop as it were. Over the years, he had grown use to them and was now like family to them. The picture of the two women surrounded by their kids sobbing by the casket earlier in the church, and probably wondering how they could function without spiritual and motherly guidance of their mother standing over them, like a guiding light, made Dr Alafia feel all the more sorry for them.
As the casket was being lowered into the grave, Dr Alafia suddenly remembered a house call he made a year ago to check on Iyin Ocheche in her home in Egbetua area of the town. It turned out what she had was just a cold. Feeling relieved because he had expected the worst going by the nature of the call from the house help, Dr Alafia had decided to stay a while and chat with the old woman. During the discussion, she had led the doctor into her bedroom, turned on the light, brought down her aluminium made box from on top her wardrobe, opened the box and brought out a fabric. It was an Oja which was a locally made textile. Holding the bluish material in her hand with some pride like someone holding a prized trophy,
“My son,” said Iyin Ocheche, “This Oja is 50 years old today. It was a gift from my mother. She was an excellent weaver. It took her 3 days to weave. It has never been removed from this box since I used it for my Obhiko festival initiation rites as a young woman. My eldest daughter used it in turn for hers and one day I will be no more and my eldest daughter eldest daughter will inherit it to be passed to her own eldest daughter down the line.”
She smiled at Dr Alafia’s gaping eyes. “I’ve always been so proud to have this Oja still almost preserved in the state it was handed to me by my mother who was a good woman. This keeps the memory of her alive in my mind as am sure mine will be kept in my daughters. More importantly, I hope my daughters will keep my memories when am gone not just by remembering me but by carrying on in acts of kindness no matter how little and no matter to whom”
That evening, back in his house, as Dr Alafia dished some egusi soup into the small saucers set in front of him from the bigger plate on the table, in preparation to do justice to the pounded yam the house help had served, he could not help but tell her about the 50 years old Oja which was intended as a gift for Iyin Ocheche’s eldest daughter. Was this some sort of a testament to the fact that, when one ages, little things become more important? Old age was like a stage when one began to look inwards. When one was always all by one’s self searching one’s soul, like searching for some sort of light in a shadow? A time when one wanted to know or be assured that there were some purpose to one’s life.
Even though he knows that this self-awareness and soul searching should begin much earlier in one’s life and influence one’s dealing with others, he knew that old age –for the lucky ones who didn’t die young at least- was a time when one could not escape from that soul searching and when one paid more attention to little things that one ordinarily would have taken for granted. If not, what other reason could explain Iyin Ocheche’s attachment to a mere fabric when it was not as if it was part of her culture to keep such a fabric? He reasoned.
Today she is dead. She has lived a relatively long life of 80 yet that pales compared to the eternity that now lay before her. Eternal sleep as it were. Dr Alafia thought about the countless others who have gone before Iyin Ocheche, his own mortality and felt a little humility. It was this feeling of humility that made Doctor Alafia to take a decision that altered his hitherto held belief. What was the point? Was it worth it staying in uncomfortable conditions in Ososo and looking after the health needs of the people while good people still die? What was the point when at last the individual will still eventually succumb to death? That day, he took a drastic decision. He made a U-turn that changed everything for him.
The family house was cold when Dr Alafia finally returned to Benin City. His elder sister was more than happy to have him back. Out of habit, the first thing he did upon setting foot on the plush rug in the massive living room was to turn on the TV. He was fond of the news as he had been his job. The hard question, stay in Ososo or retire and go back to Benin City as his elder sister had persistently advised which he had faced over the months, since the funeral service of Iyin Ocheche which he unintendedly attended which changed his life’s course, was finally put to rest by his decision. What is the use working among a people, saving their lives now for the briefest of moments only for them to still die? Death was inevitable.
Iyin Ocheche’s case was a classic example. It thought him the futility in everything. Life was short when compared to the amount of time that was before we were born and the amount of time that will go on when we die. So what’s the point he questioned. Live each day as it comes. Would a rose be a rose without its thorns? Would the story of Jesus Christ be the same without Judas Iscariot in it? Would poverty be an injustice without wealth? A conscious life should find meaning in these contrasts, meaning that impacts and punctuates that can even transform us. And this meaning can be sought in the quest for knowledge. A thing he had now dedicated his life to. This was the story of the contrasts in his life, how it has now helped to maintain the essential balance in his life and how this new quest for knowledge was now giving his life a much more deeper meaning than he felt saving people in a sleepy tourist town would.
As he sat there watching the news, he knew he didn’t need a crystal ball to see the future. All things being equal, he was now a childless 50-year-old medical doctor turn a seeker of true knowledge. Self-awareness on a higher plane from the one he had known before. When he first came to Ososo, he was able to purchase a small brick building facing the Market Square for his medical practice. It was this building, now expanded to a bigger structure that was his hospital. It was this same hospital he left in the hands of Matron Opeyemi.
A year has passed since he took the abrupt decision to leave Ososo. The stay with Bosede, running the family business in Benin City when he had the time has presented a welcome challenge. However, what gives him much happiness was the reading and the quest for knowledge he had now dedicated his life to. His library was now ever on the rise with new titles on various field of human endeavour been added daily. His soul was now receiving adequate nutrition and care. Reading. Although this was not the way he had planned his life, he felt it was working out for him. He had accepted the fact that some things are mysterious and unpredictable. Others like some real tough puzzles are in-explicable and must be accepted the way they are. What more? Even many more things are even unjust and unfair. But that was as far as it went.
Abigail called regularly. She lets him know happenings in his hospital and the latest gossips in Ososo. Not as if the later mattered to him anymore but it seems that since he left the town, twelve of his former patients have passed on. He would usually shrug at such information as if it was expected.
News of the deaths especially was to him as if it was Iyin Ocheche that opened the gates for them. What more can a man do with this reality of death -the realisation that one would die someday -always hanging over one’s head? To doctor Alafia, all he could do was soul searching, living each day as it comes, opening his eyes to the truth, looking death in the face and smiling, a Shadow to Light…