Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As I write this, I may be everything else but definitely not myself. Is it not sad the way sorrow barges into people’s lives at the most unexpected of times? Quite rude. Horrible. Undeserving.
Today is the 17th of April, 2020. And instead of sitting back home to the sweetness of some fresh mangoes, I am here at Mercy hospital, barefooted, prancing about with a burn in my heart. No, many burns. Nothing else is so heart-wrecking.
To think I have always seen the beginning of sorrow in movies, even its ending, is to think I should have imagined for once that I may experience something similar someday in real life. But like any other poor soul on earth, it never crosses my mind. Now it is here, punching me right where it hurts. Worse, it is not even the same as watching drama, thriller, or horror movies. As an adult, I get to choose my emotions. To be hard or soft. This comes with a preset emotional disaster. I must be a freak not to respond accordingly and soften up. This is a naked reality, and my own vulnerability may soon trigger me.
Okay, breathe. Let me paint a quick picture I have seen on Trybe TV:
A lovely family on a cool, pre-disaster evening. They are at the dining table, having a nice time with amala and Ewedu soup or, say, a Jollof and fried rice combo with chicken. They all infrequently smile at each other across the table in the peacefulness of an imperfect silence. Acting Dad is a few seconds away from reciting the line, “Honey, I’ve not tasted something this delicious in months.” Almost at the same stretch, Acting Mom eyes Junior. It is evident she has issues with him operating his smartphone while eating. Junior, as we will soon know, is typing a savage reply to a Tweet. Above all else, we see a happy family enjoying a near-perfect dinner. No one ever imagines it going tragic. At least not until Junior’s sister starts coughing uncontrollably. She falls off the chair, and the real dread manifests. Alarms, panic. Before long, Junior’s sister jerks in a battle for her life. Others are on fire, already making attempts at rushing her to the hospital.
Unfortunately, I have just experienced a less-dramatic variation of this same picture. At first, the time of the year is bad everywhere, with COVID-19 on a rampage. Things are already going wild around the globe. Total lockdown is in effect in different parts of Nigeria, although bared down to dusk-to-dawn curfew in Ogbomoso, where I live with my family.
Going back in minutes, I would say the birth of an eventual sorrow starts with happy labour: I am at home, standing under a mango tree in our compound. Our house is a four-bedroom flat with an unpainted exterior, built in a silent neighbourhood of Ogbomoso. Dad and Mum sit in the shade on the other side of the mango tree, spending time with my visiting sister and her lively baby girl.
One of my younger brothers is on the tree, plucking ripe mangoes. Let’s call him Victor—that is who he has always been from childhood, overcoming the odds, and who I pray he becomes after all these. Another brother and I are on the ground, catching the mangoes as soon as he throws them down to us. This has been a day-to-day ritual since the mango season started. But today, the story changes, maybe forever.
Victor has climbed to the uppermost height of the tree. His legs are on a thin branch, a hand holding fast to a branch sideways and the other reaching out to do some plucking. As I raise my eyes to the tree to check on Victor, tragedy strikes so fast. In a split second, I hear the snap of a branch. In the next moment, Victor is in the air. Oh! I reach out but a second late. Victor lands in front of me with a thud in the company of a mango branch. Damn, too late. Sorrow has had a perfect punch.
Everyone rushes to the spot where I stand motionless and shell-shocked, where Victor is lying beneath a mango branch. Groans, deep groaning. How I am momentarily paralyzed. How I lose the ability to do anything, not even to raise a cry.
As Victor is raised to his knees, blood trickles down his nose. Mum gives the first howl. Arrggh, Victor’s left hand is badly disfigured, almost turning one-eighty degrees. It dangles off its own flesh, dripping blood. And the most horrifying sight: the bone connecting his left wrist is out, out in the open, to our terror. A fresh anguish sets in. The panic-dread rush hour begins.
“—let’s fix the hand back in place.”
“No, no, leave it—”
“—get me the car keys, fast-fast.”
“Move out of the way, move—”
“Get him into the car—”
It is no dream. Dad drives with bare legs, almost recklessly. He bangs the wheels and moans at intervals: Devil, you did all these? I have never seen him so disoriented.
Victor is in the back seat, supported by my visiting sister. It takes some time before Dad and my sister decide on which hospital to go to. In the front seats, I try hard to man up each time I check on Victor. I see an overwhelming pain in his eyes and in his unbalanced posture. He is not yelling or weeping, but not calm either. He muffles his groans. His estranged bone is still out in plain sight, defying every miraculous fantasy I have ever wished for. I cannot help cringing again and over again. I watched him fall… saw him fall, but couldn’t save him… couldn’t, damn.
“Victor, Victor, are you okay?” Dad calls at intervals, checking if he is still conscious and if he can still speak.
Each moment we spend in the car, my internal pain becomes more real. It is terrible to realise something drastic has been done and can never be undone. Yeah, I figure out this is no computer, and there is no Ctr/Cmd Z. No undo shortcut. What has happened has happened. History has just been written, and no eraser will suffice.
We help Victor down the car, over a narrow culvert to the passage leading to Mercy Hospital entrance. Even in the horror of the moment, I can feel a thousand eyes on us—patients, hospital staff, and passersby. I see their lips glued in sympathy. They know the drill. The only homage they pay is to halt their activities for a second.
Victor is seated in the waiting room. Fortunately, Doctor is also in the room, holding a newspaper. He comes closer. “How did this happen?”
“He fell from a mango tree.”
“Ah, fine boy like you… how much does a basket of mango costs? Now see this… kai.”
I know the doctor does not know the implication of his last statement, but it is a matter for another day. Two nurses, plus my sister, who was once a nurse here, usher Victor into an inner room. I overhear Doctor asking two other staff members to join him while they pull Victor’s dangling hand back in place. Arrggh!
I prance about in the waiting room, my head full of depressing thoughts and instant prayers. I soon join Dad at the hospital’s entrance. He is equally restless. His countenance speaks of an agony I may never fathom. I release my pam slippers to him, and now I’m the one barefooted.
Everything feels wrong. Either the ground is cold, or my feet are super-warm. I have always read the expression, Hairs standing on end. Now I experience it. The hairs on my arms project me, my state of mind. I’m dying to know if Victor’s hands are ever going to work again. If, just if.
“How bad is it?”
My sister sighs. She has just come out of the inner room. She says Victor’s wrist has been fixed and is ready to be cast. His right arm is dislocated too, but not as severe as the left. She says she is not sure whether Victor will be admitted overnight or not.
Dad turns to me. “Jossy, call your mother. Tell her everything is under control.”
I ring mum and deliver the exact message. She sounds calm, but I know it is on the surface level. Behind the calmness is a wounded soul who can only pray things have not gone beyond repair. If she could fly here, she would have taken the chance. Mum is tender with emotions, just like every other caring mum around the world. I feel she does not deserve all she must have been going through. Nobody does.
But sorrow respects no one. It does not. How rude.
We have spent almost three hours here. I am tired of the undefined feeling unsettling my insides; tired of this state where you cannot decide yet on whether to indulge in more sorrows or less. Although my sister has given assurance in oddly satisfying words, saying Victor’s injuries are not as fatal, I still cannot get myself over it all.
My mind keeps torturing me with how the horror could have been averted had I asked Victor not to climb further some seconds before the fall. Or if I was faster—which means Victor and the mango branch could have fallen into my open arms, and we would have all been grounded, and instead of Victor breaking two arms, we would have both shared the impact. But if I ever blame myself for anything, it is for lacking foresight. I could not see ahead of the present. I could not see what happened some seconds later—isn’t that the sad fate of we humans?
Or should I blame Coronavirus? Victor has just returned home from school due to the pandemic. Besides, today is Friday, and we could have all been at church for choir rehearsals. Victor could have been playing the drums and not had the chance to scout for mangoes. But the virus has seen the closure of all places of public gathering. Sad.
As Dad loiters about in light steps, I imagine what must have been going through his mind. Mostly regrets. But of what? Of what he has control over or does not? Maybe the agony of seeing your last son writhing in unimaginable pain. Maybe the agony of thinking your beloved son can be disabled after spending eighteen good years as an able body. Or the question of whether it is an attack from the dark hunters who never wanted us to see us happy, peaceful and achieved.
One of the nurses says Doctor asks to see my sister. She enters with the nurse. When she returns after some minutes, she says the work is all done and that Victor will not be placed on admission.
“So we’re going home tonight?” Dad asks, a speck of joy in his tone.
The going-home news comes across as a lame relief—maybe three drops of water on a parched throat. It is not enough to flush down the unpleasantness clustering our hearts.
My sister’s husband joins us at the hospital. He laments over the incident and emphasizes the need to be thankful. We should thank God Victor is not like a professor’s son who recently fell from a mango tree and landed to his death. My sister compliments it by reiterating how terrible it would have been had Victor’s head gone for the save or say his back. He would have suffered internal bleeding or lost his spinal cord, which is a lifetime tragedy if at all he escaped death.
The evening descends in gloom for us. Victor is supported by ward aides in the waiting room. I raise my eyes, and my heart melts. Is this our Victor? I choke back my tears and look away for a moment of repression. No, this is not our Victor. This is not the Victor I have ever known.
Sadly, I have to face the reality of seeing Victor’s hands cemented in white plastic casts. To the side of his left wrist, a small opening is left uncovered by the cast, an open injury. From the opening extends a tiny tube my sister calls a drain. Someone carries his left hand, and the other carries his right as he struggles to move. His eyes are half-asleep. Seated gently on the chair, all eyes settle on him. Poor him. He cannot even keep his head straight.
I look at the faces all around—not one is happy. Sorrow is indeed contagious. But I am not shocked that it takes the nurses and aides a few minutes to be back to their default. I don’t blame them; our grief is not their grief. A nurse puts together Victor’s medication while others are into chats against the moderate noise from a wall-mounted TV.
At some point, they all go silent just to watch the climax of a scene from the Nollywood drama. It strikes me that our grief is not new. These people have dealt with cases like Victor’s and even worse. This discovery does not stop me from thinking they are all heartless—which may not be.
After many minutes of waiting, Doctor walks into the waiting room. He says we have to always hang Victor’s hands else we risk a bloating. Instead of hanging, we could place his hands on combined pillows just to lift them up. Doctor tries demonstrating it by raising Victor’s hands to shoulder level, and arrggh, the pain!
I look away.
We head to the car as slow as convenient for Victor. It is with the same slowness Dad drives, being extra careful not to bump into the abundant potholes all the way home.
Victor makes only occasional groans. And as I try to tap into his world, I realise only the pained know the actual poetry of their pain, its ragged-rugged rhythms, its blank verses and crooked merchandise. Others can only try. We can only read the outputs borne of pain and analyse them, deceiving ourselves of entering the same shoes as the pained. The truth remains that we cannot feel exactly how it feels. The shoe fits only the pained.
Some policemen stop us near our neighbourhood. It is past eight in the evening, and as per the Coronavirus curfew, we should have been home hours earlier. Dad parks and alights. He speaks with one of them, feeds them the status quo, and the uniformed man points his touch through our window. The next moment, he asks another officer to clear the barriers and pass us.
We reach home. Driving through the gate, everyone is already outside to receive us. Anxiety is on their faces, in their melancholic composure, in their unusual stand-around. They cannot wait for the car to be parked, for Victor to emerge. Or they cannot wait to know what level of damage has been done.
Mum makes no sound at first sight. Only lines of tears down her face. My other brothers are tense, too, everyone moving in silence. Victor turns into the spectacle of the moment. His predicament puts him in the spotlight.
My sister and her husband help Victor into the sitting room. I rush to collect pillows from Dad’s bedroom. We all sit in imperfect silence for the next five minutes, sad but thankful.
Mum asks me to get Victor some Jollof rice from the pot under the orange tree. I pass by the mango tree and see the bucket of mangoes we have plucked before the fall. It is untouched, just as we have left it. How miserable that none of us will take a bite of the mangoes. This is a blood mango, I tell myself, a desecrated sacrifice God will not reckon with.
On returning to the sitting room, I am asked to spoon-feed Victor. Oh, how it stings. My belly is embittered spoon after spoon of the intake.
These are strange times when strange things happen for yet stranger reasons. It is unwholesome to think Victor will be handicapped for the next six weeks, the duration till his casts are removed.
Victor eats half of the Jollof and says he is okay. He has the same blue vest he has worn before climbing the tree on him. It is now damp, smelling of medication, sweat and sorrow—yes, sorrow.
For lack of options, my sister says we should cut off the vest. I get scissors and tear it out. No one gives a damn about the vest. There are better things to worry about.
Mum gets a bucket of water and mops Victor’s body. We all watch in a mixture of grief and sympathy. Things may never be the same again. Oh, it might never be.
We move a medium-sized bed to the sitting room for Victor to rest on time. He is laid back down with two pillows supporting the casts. It stays like this for some minutes, but it is evident it makes him uneasy. Adìẹ ti bà l’ókùn—the proverbial fowl has landed on a rope; the rope is in discomfort, same as the fowl.
Dad ties a necktie to the curtain hanger by the sitting room louvres. We suspend Victor’s left hand while the other sits on the pillow. From time to time, Victor tries changing sides but cannot. This is imprisonment. He has been sentenced to perpetual inconvenience. But what has he done to deserve all this?
The terrible hours of the day are yet to elapse. Everyone stays in the sitting room in solidarity with Victor to at least watch him sleep. But sleep is something natural to the peaceful, not the pained. Victor is still awake until I feel so drained and retire into my bedroom in distress.
We have all entered a season of learning. It is Victor’s fifth day of learning to live with two recessing hands. It is also our fifth day of learning to make him as comfortable as possible, experimenting with different functionalities of our house.
We have found the wooden hanger in our bedroom suitable for suspending Victor’s left hand. Not only that, but we have also been learning to receive sympathizers of different resolves, mostly people from our church.
Victor has become the centrepiece of our activities. Our mornings are becoming predictable, especially with our farming activities suspended. We wake in the morning, untie Victor and walk him outside to take a leak—oh, he cannot even unzip his pants. As the house is being cleaned and the dishes get done, someone is on the run for Victor’s breakfast. We may cook, or if that is not decided upon on time, someone buys Banku or rice and beans from a nearby food vendor. After Victor takes his drugs, the morning drill seems over, but not yet.
Next is the dressing of Victor’s wound. My nurse sister has taken over the work two days ago. She leaves her husband’s house and comes to ours each day. She ensures the wound is cleaned, especially since the drain is still underneath his left-hand cast.
For the rest of the day, my parents attend to visitors. It seems the whole world has heard of the unfortunate incident. Besides, Dad has had no option against informing the near-thirty congregants that assemble in our house for mini Sunday services against the closure of churches due to the Coronavirus outbreak. That Sunday after the service, they all entered our bedroom, feasted their eyes on Victor’s poorness, and, most importantly, prayed for him before stepping out.
Now our doorstep has become a hub of diverse footwear. They usually come in groups of twos, threes and fours. They would sit in the sitting room and glance at Victor. On entrance, some of the overly emotional ones exclaim, Ah! Both hands? God! Others maintain a blank faces till they exit our house.
The chatters are mostly predictable too. Dad complements their concerns by doing a run-down of the whole occurrence, from the mango plucking to the eventual fall, and concludes with how we are grateful it did not exceed that. The chats then drift into other real-life experiences of similar nature.
Over the days, Dad has mastered the art of conversing about the subject matter. Now it does not only feel natural but also the best thing to do with the visitors’ time. The best part of it all: no visitor ever leaves our house in a sullen mood. After they must have prayed for the household and the particularly pained, they say the final wishes and head out into the compound. Usually, a tour of the culprit is the next item. Dad shows them the point the branch snapped, and they exclaim at the great height and, again, confirm how only God could have saved Victor. And with all, most of the visitors never leave without dropping a token—money, beverages, fruits, anything well-wishing.
A Saturday evening in the third week of Victor’s fall. It is some minutes past nine. We have eaten amala for dinner. I have downloaded The Great Debaters, a Hollywood movie recommended by my writer friend, BPO. About lying on the bed to see the movie, I jump and scream in pain. I have been stung by my left toe. In the heat of the moment, I manage to identify the culprit: a big scorpion. My scream attracts everyone in the house to my bedroom. My older brother arrives first and kills the scorpion. Dad scurries in from his bedroom while Mum rushes out of the bathroom. The first ten seconds after the sting are arguably the most terrible seconds of my entire life. I am more than restless.
Dad asks someone to tie my leg at the shin to stop the flow of the venom. We are going to a nearby hospital. I grab a shirt and hop to the car outside, repressing the pain as much as I can.
My peace is off. I can barely think of anything other than the liquid fire ravaging my leg up to the tied point. Until the pain goes away, nothing else matters—not even the fact that I am wearing a short.
At the hospital, I am asked to sit in the waiting room. We are the only ones there. Dad stands by the counter. A nurse comes around and reties my shin with a tube. She keeps saying, Pẹ̀lẹ́ o, pẹ̀lẹ́, as though she is a relative of the erring scorpion.
In the wait for Doctor, Dad sits and feeds me with stories of how he has been stung by scorpions for nine good times back in his village, without any medical facility around.
One of the nurses joins the conversation. She says a scorpion sting is better than a snake bite. She then explains how a relative once had a snake spit into his eyes. Within seconds, the man’s eyes were near-blind. They had to scout for a nursing mother, juice out some breast milk and apply it to his eyes before he could see at all. The way she says it with all conviction is funny. But can I laugh in pain?
When Doctor comes around, I am ushered into an injection room and asked to lie on the bed. Doctor removes the tube against my shin and asks for a glove. The two nurses cannot find it anywhere near. Doctor asks a nurse to check the store upstairs. Her reluctance makes Doctor shout, “C’mon, someone is in pain here!”
The venom has reached my lower abdomen before the gloves arrive. I am afraid it would keep going inwards—and who knows if its final stop is my heart? Terrible.
Doctor gloves up, fills his syringe, and makes multiple piercings on one of my left toes. Each time the needle pierces my foot, I feel things touch and spark in my head.
When Doctor is done, I still feel the pain, though lesser. A nurse injects my buttock and my shoulder. Afterwards, I hop back to the waiting room and await my drugs.
On our way back home, Dad says the pain will ease soon enough. It does ease for some time but later concentrates on my little toe. I battle with it till midnight, unable to sleep. I make a Night Plan subscription and watch some standup comedy on YouTube. The pain persists.
Not until four in the morning, no sleep crosses my eyes. As early as six clocks, I inform Dad about my ordeal. He says the pain only needs some time to go but that we will go to the hospital anyway.
Back at the hospital, we meet one of the nurses from the previous night. She says the doctor is sleeping but that the pain will go—again! The pain may take two to three days to be neutralized, she says. Dad agrees with her, which at the time, feels like a betrayal.
We return home. As others prepare for the mini Sunday service, I remain in bed. Dad says I cannot sleep inside. What if people ask of me? Would he say another undesirable has happened after Victor’s fall, to the start of a fresh shower of sympathies? No way.
But I cannot get myself to sit in the two-hour Sunday service while my feet hurt so badly. My brother later says he has spoken with Dad, convincing him that if I walk into the service, people will notice my unstable legs and thereby have the gratification to ask questions. So I stay indoors and endure the pain, which decreases by the moment.
I managed to warm the beans from last night on our gas cooker. I take it with a little quantity of Garri and swallow my drugs. I put on The Great Debaters instead of catching up on sleep.
This too shall pass, I tell myself.
No more sullenness in the air. We are back to our usual farming. Visits have reduced drastically. It is four weeks after the fall, almost a week after my scorpion encounter.
Things are returning to normal. Victor now uses his right arm to hold up the rope tied around the cast of his left arm. The drain in his cast has been removed, and the open wound is already healing. Defying the plastic cast, he now holds a spoon in his right hand and scoops some Amala with it. He uses the toilet with minimal third-party help. He chats on Facebook and WhatsApp. The hands no longer bother him as such. Victor now attends the mini-Sunday services held in our compound. Everyone is greatly relieved. It means our Victor is back. He has only two weeks to the removal of his casts.
Since the last time he visited the hospital, he has not walked beyond the four walls of our compound. He spends most of his days lying on the settee in the sitting room, operating his smartphone or watching African Magic.
Sometimes we make jokes about his casts, how if he throws a punch with any of them, it could knock down a giant. We would all laugh at it and earnestly hope it does not get to him in his lonely times. It feels normal, seeing he initiates the jokes most time.
I am still in bed when Victor asks for the time. He asks again some moments later. I jokingly inquire if he has a function to attend. He simply closes his eyes and resumes his rest. It is six in the morning. It does not cost me much thinking to realise today is the deal day, the 29th of May. He has an appointment to get his casts removed.
At that instant, I concluded the sad story had come to an expected end. And yes, if I am to ever write about the incident again, it will be with all fanfare and jubilation.
Some minutes to ten, I tidy our blue Mitsubishi Space Runner. Dad and Victor enter the car and pull out of the gate. My insides are filled with hope. I see another history writing itself in our household. Here comes the light said to grace the end of dark tunnels.
Dad and Victor arrive in the company of my sister. The moment Dad hoots at the gate, an excitement-cum-anxiety takes over the air. I notice it in the way my older brother stops what he is doing to check on them. I stay put in my room, however, wanting to overhear the tidings first before seeing them.
As expected, Dad gives a joyful narrative: Victor only needs to exercise his hands until they both take back their lost glory. Doctor has said he will not need a physiotherapist. He only needs to hold a candle in his hands and clench and release it for as long as deemed fit. Dad says he can use something bigger too, and if he does it soon enough, the hands will find their former shape again.
Seeing that things have gone the better way, I need to end this here. I will tell myself always to remember that sorrow is inevitable at certain times in our lives. So when sorrow badges in at the most unexpected of times, what do I do? I don’t panic and thereby add to the booming tension. No, I pull out my faith gears, equip myself all over and fight through the gloom and turbulence. I give it whatever it takes until I become a victor. And yes, the tag “loser” will never apply to me. Never.