“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval between both”
‘Shadow of light’. These were the three words that kept dancing about in Dr Alafia’s head throughout the four hours journey from Benin City. He had gone to transact a business that was related to his profession as a medical doctor.
It was the title of the song in one of the albums of the esoteric Norwegian instrumentalist. Amethystium is the musical band with the dreamy fusion of ambient electronica, world music and neoclassical dark wave genre that had thrilled and entertained many people long before the doctor discovered them. He had fallen in love with the song from the very first day he came across it per chance on the internet. For the past few days, over and over again, he had listened to the track. Why his musical inclination was drawn to the song, he could not tell.
Self-discovery. That was the crux of the lesson he took from listening to the song. It was something he had trained his mind to adapt to over the years. The very words in the phrase ‘Shadow of Light’ meant something to him. Light and Shadow. For him, these two words are like the two halves of a whole, like some twin forces that direct our lives. These two contrasts, aren’t they essential to maintaining the balance of our lives? Isn’t life itself in two contrasts? Life and death? Black and White? Bitter and Sweet? War and Peace? Shadow –darkness- and Light, does the understanding of these two concepts not all about self-awareness, of the simple, yet guiding principle of human life? These and more were the questions that were inevitable twirling around in his mind as he continued to listen to the song.
As a medical practitioner, he was no stranger to blood and death. He was no stranger to human happiness and suffering. These were two realities that were always evident anytime he helped women in taking delivery of their babies and whenever he watched helplessly -after having done his best of course- as a patient died from a mortal illnesses. The joy in the faces of the mothers as their babies were born and the palpable grief visible in the faces of the relative of patients when one member, especially a young member of the family is lost to death, were both truths he was accustomed to.
A university of Benin trained practitioner, for most of his professional life, the 50-year-old, slim and slightly bent man with a moustache the type usually worn by most medieval scientists, had lived and worked in the small, sleepy and scenic town of Ososo for many years. Rather than stay back in Benin City where he was raised, after graduation, to work and earn more money, as a youth Corper, he opted to return and stay back in Ososo, his home town. For him, looking after the health needs of Ososo people as a medical doctor, a thing which was in short supply in the town, was a calling. It was a sacred call to duty. A call he has handled ever since with utmost responsibility.
Whenever he travelled to Benin for the sort of business he had gone to transact on this fateful day, rather than drive his Mercedes Benz, he usually boarded the Edo City Transport Service, ECTS Bus. Going on the journey on public transport would save him the stress of navigating through the congested Benin City metropolis, he decided.
As before, his journey had been a fruitful but hectic one. He had barely stepped off the ECTS bus upon arrival at the Oshomole Bus Stop in Ososo when the polyphonic tone of his mobile phone announced an incoming call.
Earlier that day, before the bus departed Benin City, the bus driver had announced that instead of the recently constructed expressway which the Adams Oshomole led Edo State Government had built, he would ply the old and porthole riddled Ibillo-Bekuma expressway. This announcement surprised and annoyed Dr Alafia at the same time. Toying with his moustache almost the entire journey in an apprehensive fashion, he had supressed his initial urge to protest the decision of the bus driver. He decided against a protest because almost every other passenger in the bus appeared unconcerned about the route the driver wanted to take. With the look on the faces of those he surveyed, he got the impression that, for all they cared, the passengers didn’t care whether the bus driver flew the bus in the air so long as he landed them safely in their various destinations. This was the reason why he bottled-up his urge to protest. He also didn’t want to be misconstrued as the black goat in the bus. The trouble maker as it were.
Usually, he avoided calls like a plague anytime he was tired. Doctors and calls. It seemed anytime he craved some rest so desperately, that was when some sick patient in an emergency situation would need his attention. This time however, he did not avoid the call. He decided to pick up. Peering into the screen of his Bold 5 blackberry phone, a thing he was fond of doing before pressing the device against his ear, he saw it was a member of staff in his hospital who’s name appeared underneath the ‘incoming call’ phrase on the screen. Despite the hectic journey, even though he was exhausted, he clicked on the green button and then mumbled,
“Abigail, what is it this time?”
“Sorry Doctor,” said the Auxiliary Nurse he had employed more out of the desire to save one more unemployed secondary school leaver from the streets of Ososo than out of merit on the part of the 22 year old girl with a permanent sheepish smile. Ever since he employed her, he had been very careful to use her more as a personal errand girl than as a nurse with any task of administering injections. He decided on this for two reasons. First, she must stay, learn and get more training before any responsibility that was worth the while could be assigned to her and secondly, he didn’t want the tales of paralysed patient limbs and sometimes death due to poorly administered injections by incompetent nurses flying all around in town to be associated with his hospital.
“I didn’t want to disturb you sir, but soon after you left Iyin Ocheche passed. The family came almost immediately to pay the balance of her bills and to take her corpse. I hear the husband, Iti Ocheche said he wanted her buried almost immediately and right now as we speak doctor, her corpse is at Saint Ann’s Catholic Church in Okhe quarters where the family is waiting for the priest to say a funeral mass for her. Almost everybody in Ososo is there at the parish now as we speak sir.” The electronic voice, speaking very fast, announced over the electronic device. Dr Alafia sighed heavily.
He knew how good the late woman was and so was not surprised at the large crowd that Abigail reported had gathered at the church at such a short notice. Her life had been a shining example of light in Ososo town. He knew from his love for books that light, an essential symbol that is central to many sacred traditions was often represented by the qualities of radiance, sanctity, love, justice and every other spiritual attributes that emanated from divinity. These were the qualities that the late Iyin Ocheche represented. She was a good woman in a literal sense. It was for this reason that, even though she could be described as one who had enjoyed the blessing of a long life, Dr Alafia had done everything within his power to save her when she was brought to his hospital days before. In fact, her condition was one of the reasons he made the trip to Benin City, the capital of Edo State in the first place.
More people like Iyin Ocheche in Nigeria would make the country a much better place the doctor reasoned. Her kind heartedness was archetypal. On the other hand, more people unlike her -which seems to be the reality in the country today, who didn’t possess or exhibited her attributes, her personality, would mean that our nation would be forever under the dark shadow of evil and madness.
For him, darkness which was the opposite of light, even though characterized by temporality, limitations, evil and senselessness was what was at play in our country today. Shadow of light, a self-awareness, a perpetual mindfulness of the fact that one needed to be good to one’s neighbours and fellow humans was something associated with only a few humans like the late woman while a large proportion of the human population was unfamiliar with this truth; the truth that in this self-awareness lay the true meaning of life. A part of the doctor’s mind agreed with a School of Thought that holds the view that the entire physical world is a shadow of the world of light, a temporary dust heap, or an illusion that could vanish any moment, ultimately a deception meant to distract our attention from the light it was reflecting; a thing which was supposed to be the true essence of existence. This was the reason a large percentage of humans, Nigerians as it were, are evil, materialistic and foolish; because we deny the essence of light and dwell instead in darkness.
“Where are you now?” He asked.
“At the hospital sir”
“And the other members of staff?”
“We are all here at the hospital sir except Remi who has gone to the parish. She says she must pay her last respect. It was matron Opeyemi that asked me to call and inform you of the current development sir”
“It’s ok, let me see if I can stop over there and see what’s going on before going home. I will be at the clinic later in the evening” he said and hung up with another sigh.
At 50, quite a bit early, Dr Alafia was now starting to often get pesky whenever he was worn out and tired yet he decided to change the course of his journey home and go and pay his last respects too. Remi, one of his members of staff as he had been informed, was already at the church. Remi was like the black goat amongst his employees. Very stubborn and never wanting to submit to authority or take proper permission before she does anything, yet Dr Alafia kept her in his hospital as a cleaner still. Though stubborn, she was really good at her cleaning job. Whenever she mopped the floor, she usually left everyone wondering whether the hospital management had fixed new tiles. She was like a piece of rag that had no value in terms of how much it cost yet was good for cleaning. A rag was about the most worthless thing in the house yet it is a rag that made other things clean. What an irony? He thought to himself.
As he made his way to where his Mercedes Benz was parked in the garage, he could not help but let his mind drift into myriad thoughts.
He had recently visited with his elder sister Bosede in Benin City to spend a few days. He had decided he needed three days off and had decided to spend it in Benin City in their sprawling mansion there where he grew up. He could remember how his elder sister advised him to retire and come and join her in their family business! He was shocked to hear his sister mention that. Retire? At 50? He asked, the surprise evident on his face. Undaunted, the elder sister almost persuaded him to retire and come live with her in the family home where they were both raised. She was aging fast and their family business needed more hands, especially a male hand to save it from nose diving she argued. They were only two of them before their parents passed. The bond they had forged since childhood was still very strong. In response to his sister’s plea, he had told her a doctor’s job was much more than making money. The Hippocratic Oath was not one to be taken lightly. A doctor’s job, or calling as it were, was for life and it should not be all about materialism.
That as it may he still allowed his mind to return to the present. Now, here he was, suffering from stress after a long journey and the last thing he wanted was a visit to the parish. He was there viewing and paying his last respect to a dear friend, a beloved friend’s body only five weeks before. A friend he could not save despite all he did to try and preserve his life. Yet he had no choice but to go to the parish. Iyin Ocheche was a good woman that deserves his last respect too.
Why do good people die? Why do men die? Was there a clock, some sort of a genetic clock inside the nucleus of the genetic programming of man that stops to tick as soon as man got to a certain age? If not, why is it that when one got to a particular age, his system, organs starts to shut down as it were? For example, at a certain age, the hearing, seeing, even walking abilities of a man starts to slow down. Can man reverse this trend? Slow it or even stop the aging process? Can man attain immortality? Or are we caught in the middle of a dual force of light and that of darkness? Cycles of births and deaths that can never be altered by man? Can each of these two forces exist without the other? When we are born, have we obtained our share of light and as such should not complain when we are faced with death which is like obtaining our own share of shadow- of darkness? When faced with difficulty-darkness, can we reasonable ask ‘Lord, why me?’ when, in good times we do not in the same vein ask the same question? These thoughts continued to pour into his mind as if a dam had broken inside his head as he reached for the handle of his car.
Even though Benin City was home to him, without a wife, with the reality of the countless suffering people in Ososo that needed medical attention and the bitter truth that the town lacked hospitals, he knew his time in Ososo would still be long. Though he felt his roots in Benin City calling him in flesh and blood, his persuasive sister as its mouth piece, there was no going back. Benin already has a plethora of hospitals even though many of them and the doctors working in them could be described as substandard and quacks respectively. Although he suspected his elder sister was also lonely -her husband had died two years before- , she could manage he decided. After all, she is blessed with 4 grown up kids with her late husband before the chief passed, kids who often came visiting with her, unlike himself who has never married and was childless; an unmarried childless 50-year- old man. Who, better than he can explain loneliness? He questioned.
These were many more reasons why he could not abandon the people of Ososo. Apart from the fact that that was where he hailed from, they were as much his friends, family as much as they were his patients!
He was good at planning individual treatments. For many, he insisted on regular check-ups especially for the aged, at much subsidised rate. His constant balancing of medications and the other life-prolonging care, life-style and dieting habits, exercise routines which he gave prevented many cases that would otherwise have turned fatal. Since he started work in the town, few would have survived into their nineties without his expertise as a medical doctor and the whole town knew it. They appreciated him for that. Being too engrossed in his work had made consideration of the female gender for a serious relationship something he had never put his mind to. That and a few other reasons made him an unmarried 50-year old doctor. Ironically, in a culture where marriage was seen as a most important thing, Ososo indigenes seem to accept the celibacy of Doctor Alafia as a norm. As a rule rather than the exception though. Maybe because he took care of their health needs. Care in exchange for their silence and lack of ridicule, a thing they would be quick to visit on other bachelors who may not even be as old as Doctor Alafia.
Dr Alafia soon reached the parish. He pulled his car over in an already crowded parking lot. He could hear songs, the playing of a piano and choristers singing a dirge. Seeing the large turnout of mourners and the overflowing crowd, he could not help but marvel at the mystery of this thing man called death. Even as a medical doctor who understood death from the biological and medical point of view, for him, death was still a mystery.
Eliza, or Iyin Ocheche, as she preferred to be called, had been his patient for over ten years. At 80 years of age, before she succumbed to her age related illness, she was a sickly woman who had one complaint after another but avoided the grave time after time, even though Dr Alafia has witnessed many young people, even infants yielding to simple cases such as malaria or other ailments that one could describe as minor. But when was life ever fair? There was one certainty in life and that was death. We will all die, like Iyin Ocheche and we know it. Man perhaps is the only species in this planet that is aware of the inevitability of his own end. Yet man carries on like they won’t die someday and make plans well into the far future even though they know that they are not promised tomorrow…