So Many Years of Solitude
“When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone.
But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it.
But that doesn’t matter much to me.”
– Natalia Ginzburg, ‘My Vocation’.
When I was to meet Fr. Adalbert Ludwig Balling for the first time, I was nervous. I asked myself two questions: why in the world did I make an appointment with him in the first place and what in the world was I going to talk about? For a moment I began to wonder whether to take back my declared wish to meet him. But it was too late, for he had said yes and had turned to start making his way to his room, slowly, as if burdened by the weight of my wish. Walking along the corridor from my room to his office a little later, I sank into panic, for different reasons, but mostly because of – of all possible things – his name.
Adalbert Ludwig Balling. You couldn’t be familiar with such a name if you grew up in Lagos. It had sounded intimidating from the first day my eyes ran through that name on shelf after shelf in a library in South Africa. I remember thinking: “this name has weight.” Like Nicolaus Copernicus and Ludwig Bolzman. It was the name of someone I would never meet in person, I was certain. It was, I also thought, a name with which one could lock and secure something: an idea, an invention, an intellectual space, so much so that when a friend told me his Facebook account was at the threat of being hacked, I suggested AdalbertLudwigBalling1930 to him as a new password. “No hacker´s mind would ever go that direction,” I told my friend, who replied, “makes a lot of sense. Thanks.”
Since I told him I would be writing this in an article, he asked me to suggest a new one and I gave him another confrère whose name carries equal weight. Speaking about the weight of names, the name of Father Balling is a heavy one that has come to dwell amongst us. It is not merely your mouth that gets stretched at its pronunciation, it’s also your mind. Book titles flash across your head in an instant. The history of Mariannhill, biographies of historical figures from Abbot Francis Pfanner to Engelmar Unzeitig to Brother Nivard and so on. I cannot measure the intellectual stretch I received as a result of a sustained diet of Ludwig Balling’s books during my formation program in South Africa, the many dates Bishop Khumalo made me to learn during history classes, the multidimensional analysis of events, the spiritual contexts there in. Balling´s books were literally the staples for every student in formation and still are. I still do think of him as one of Marinnhill´s living google searches. Put a word to him and you´ll get back 20 sentences. He simply knows! He occupied shelves, occupied my novitiate classes, and would later occupy my small mind.
Which was why, the closer I came to his office that winter morning, the louder the noise in my head. “Anthony, those many thick books in the German language and English language you found in the monastery in South Africa dating back to the 90s, you are going to meet the author? You are going to meet the former editor of MarrianhilZeitschrift, you are going to Balling´s office, don’t go and fool yourself, bla bla bla.” For a moment I paused at the door, took a deep breath and begged my brain to shut up.
I knocked. There was no apparent emotion in the voice that said, “come in.”
There he was. Fr. Balling was wearing a broad smile and blinking, slowly, behind his glasses, and I immediately wondered whether he had always been like this.
“Are you him?” I had nearly asked. In the house I grew up in in Lagos, there was a framed photo of an award-winning writer sitting with his chest puffed up like an aggrieved turkey, and another who had very long beards like his writing activities did not give him time to shave.
I once asked my sister why they are like that.
“They have written so many books,” was her answer. And so I grew up thinking that the more books you wrote the grumpier you became. And you no longer had time for smaller minds, for long conversations, for chocolate, for anything. You just sat behind a high-backed chair and waited for deification to happen to your name. You waited for Wikipedia to pick up your legacies and teach the rest of the world to never dare forget you, ever!
Father Balling, who was very kind, spoke English, sparing me the burden of speaking German (I have to tell you that the language did make me feel like I was going on a fool´s errand at the time). He asked me where I came from and how I came to know the Mariannhillers.
As we talked, I looked intently at him, and I saw that he was a truly generous human being, and I told myself that I was okay, that I could trouble him with my questions. All the reasons for which I wanted to meet him began to come back to me. I wanted to know just how comes he has written books of over 100 titles. Yes I would come to know about his huge adventures of meeting the famous Joshua Nkomo of Zimbabwe, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Luthuli. His meeting with Nelson Mandela to whom his first words of introduction was, “I am a Mariannhiller,” and then he had asked Mandela how he was able to forgive so much. I would learn about his resilience as a Missionary in Zimbabwe which earned him an indefinite ban from the country by the then government of Rhodesia. I would come to know how he became editor of Marianhill Zeitschrift – something he had not expected all along during his early years of ministry. We discussed his researching on Father Engelmar Unzeitig for decades – even under austere circumstances in a communist environment where theologians and missionaries were suspect. Only a tiny percentage of human beings get to have such adventures in a life time. But the adventure that swoons me the most is his writing life. Have you ever imagined how many hours, days, months and years of solitude it would take to write a hundred books? For a man like Balling who carries the multifaceted identity of a historian and a priest and a journalist and a theologian, and who has invested much of his writing on the often contested history of Mariannhill, it must have felt like tilling the bone-hard ground with a pickaxe. He is now 90 and he is still tilling bone-hard grounds.
Most people think that a writer is a talented person who goes to his table and waits for the muse to come. People think that language is easily accessible these days, with the emergence of social media and a wide variety of dictionaries and self-help books on how to write, but at least old writers like Balling know that writing is still, in the words of Flaubert, a dog´s life. Spending your working days putting words down, taking notes while travelling in a train or bus, or walking on the streets, telling people to repeat what they have just said during conversations just so you can pluck off that branch of the conversation and drag it into the scattered landscape of your unfinished manuscript or whatever you are working on.
For the most of my life as an aspiring writer, writing has also been a solitary business. There are days when you feel so happy about having written a powerful sentence and you want to go around hugging every object God has created (except cactus plants, of course). I mean those sentences that work multiple jobs of poetry and philosophy, sentences that people read and their spirits instinctively pause. But then there are those days you feel like slapping your laptop shut for watching you blank, or opening the window in your room and flinging your pen away. Almost on a daily basis, there is the constant doubt that anybody would read your work. There is the panic on remembering at the end of the day that you are a student and the time you should have spent studying for the next exam, you were writing “rubbish.” There is also the constant doubt that anybody would take interest in your work at all – who do you think you are? An advanced fantasy, a historical fiction, a drama series, or a biography; it makes no sense to choose one and decide this is what people want to read. It is this difficult and Fr. Balling still writes at 90. I am deeply baffled by this and full of admiration for him.
What makes the writing life worth living, says Peter Mayle, is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment and enlightenment to people you have never met. I bet Father Balling has not met many confrères who have read his book and have never met him in person. I have the impression he would love to meet every young confrère who has read his books. “Ever read about Brother Egidius?” he would ask, “about Nivard?” And then his eyes would be radiant the very moment he begins to tell you who is who and when. I see in him, a burning passion to see the history of Mariannhill handed down to generations, especially in writing. I see a senior confrère who simply wants the younger ones to thrive.
On my second visit to Reimlingen where Father Balling and the other senior confrères live, I found Father Baling holding printed papers. I walked up to him and on looking at the papers, I found that they were my words. My article published on the home page of CMM German province. He had had it printed out.
“Here you go,” he said, “this is beautiful.” I was shocked. I nearly cried. I am not used to reactions like this, especially from a person like Father Balling.
“You read it?” I asked, my eyes must have shone.
“I read it. Everything.” He laughed, and I only smiled a wan smile. I took the paper from his hand, looked at my words again and I felt like a real writer.
I went to my room and texted my friend: Fr. Adalbert Ludwig Balling, the priest whose name I suggested for your Facebook password, read my work. He did! How amazing that the genius should even bother! This is a person whose writing has been read by Pope Benedict XVI and countless public intellectuals – and he took his time to read mine!
I had tingly glows all over my cheeks the entire day, even my neck and my chest.
I think this is what Father Balling has also done for so many people through his writing, putting tingly glows on their cheeks. Dead or alive, he picks up their names and he does something beautiful with them, something truthful, giving them a second chance to live. On reading his latest book, “Wie ich zum Büchershcreiben gekommen bin,” I came across a statement from one of his readers who told Balling in a phone conversation she would like him to live for 300 years.
“And he definitely will!” I quietly said to myself when I read that, for long after this generation, I am certain, Balling’s legacies will remain a priceless gift, standing the test of time and tilling bone-dry grounds for Maiannhillers across the globe. When I read Balling’s works or sit with him in conversation, I see a man of prayer, service, patience, selflessness and warmth, which made all the many years of solitude possible. And if Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez had not already used “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to title his wonderful novel, I would have used it in writing Father Adalbert Ludwig Balling’s biography eleven years from now.
WE FLY AT NIGHT
Lagos, Nigeria. October 2011.
I am on pastoral work at St. Mathew’s parish, Amukoko. I work with Father Benny, a 72-year-old Irish priest whose complexion threatens to blanch from the scorching sun and humidity of Lagos over the past thirty years.
After morning mass on Tuesday he sits on a bench under a mango tree in front of the parish office, body lousy with golden hair. I fling a good morning as I walk past him. With a half-smile he asks whether the insecticide works, the one he gave me last night. I say yes, even though what I mean to say is no, because last night was horrible. The insecticides did not work, I am angry, I can still feel the bites, the spots upon which they deposited something.
Fumbling in my pocket for keys at the entrance I notice a lump of saliva at the doorstep. It has to be the streetwise-looking, dark-skinned woman who bounded into the office yesterday protesting she wanted to change her child’s baptismal name from Juliana to Uchubiyojo. I politely told her that Uchubiyojo was just not godly enough, and we argued back and forth until she left with a furious snarl, hesitated at the door to drop this saliva.
I swallow my anger, the way Father Benny would like it. People should not fight, people should forgive, people should pray for those who offend them, and wish them well. Fr. Benny’s image of God has to be something of a lamb to the slaughter.
“Oh yeah, I’m coming right there,” Father Benny says in his Irish accent to a caller on phone. He hangs up. Someone is dying, he tells me he’s leaving for anointing of the sick as he starts to rise, so anyone who wishes to see him in office should be told to wait until he is back. I nod my head, the way he would like it. As his old corolla eases out of the cool of the churchyard I think of other places and objects upon which those tyres will screech today: the chunks of road outside eaten by erosion, the unapologetic ditches from Maiyegunoro street to Adeoye to Omowumi and Omoniyi streets. I recall times when I drove with Father Benny to St. Gerald’s parish and on the roads were a number of arrested house rats flung from windows, looking guilty as charged as they waited for their final death sentence by tyre screech.
I take my seat at the reception in the parish office. Elizabeth, the jolly parish secretary in her mid-thirties who speaks with the speed of the curious and overfed, sneaks into the office like a rumor. My eyes are half-shut in a short prayer. We exchange greetings, Elizabeth and I. She inserts herself into her seat. I watch her apply powder to her face and peep into a small mirror.
Soon we start conversing about everything from her Aunt who choked on fufu to the old woman who hates Holy Water, to the seven-year-old boy who steals his way into the queue to receive Holy Communion on Sundays, and cracks a smile each time the church warder unplugs the boy´s small stature out of the line. We converse about a Jesuit priest who has been kidnapped, we have more things to talk about when Father Benny is not around. We trade opinions, exhaust all topics, and she turns to the computer and minds her business of typing something.
I like this gorgeous and wide space: the musty scent of books plus lysol that hang thick in the air. There is a large frame of the sagacious, watery-eyed smile of Pope John Paul II waving to a cheerful mammoth crowd with his grey-speckled hair flinching in the wind like Olympic torch, his head tilting towards his crosier. He is so holy. Like the hallowed virgin mary photos in Father Benny´s office, John Paul´s head can never be straight. Next to it is Pope Benedict whose eyes seem darkened from a lifetime of studying hard, hands open to wave at a crowd. The frame looks towards a corridor lined with locked after locked doors that gave off to Father Benny’s office. Next to it is the Cardinal Archbishop of Lagos in his full regalia wearing episcopal smile, the smile he wore on The Paulist Magazine’s special edition for his pastoral visit to my childhood parish in Ebutte-Metta many years ago. I have sometimes wondred as a child whether there was a book titled, “Special Guidelines to Smiling while you are a Catholic Bishop in Nigeria”, because all Bishops seem to smile in a particular way. But my attention barely rests on these photos as I always have to read my way through bans of marriage on my table, or write announcements for Sunday masses, or attend to each person who walks in. Today I am telling each visitor that Father Benny will be back soon, gesturing them to take their seats as they wait, the way Father Benny would like it.
At half past twelve a lady walks into the office in flapping, oversize dusty slippers, her skin as dark as a moonless midnight. Her head, like a sucked-until-small lollipop, is shaved to skin it catches the rays of the electric light in the office. Her silky scarf unveils it slowly, unwrapping itself, separating from her head and slowly slipping down to her shoulder, hangs across her breasts, then drops to the floor. She steps over it and approaches my table. Ahn-ahn, is she unhinged? Her eye-catching eyes are glistening with a desire to cry. She leans on my table, my chair squeals an inch backward. I invite her to sit, “please sit down”, the way Father Benny would like it, adding “sister”. She refuses. She insists on standing across from me, quiet. I feel a nervous tic, something is about to go wrong.
“We want to see Father Benny,” she says, her voice is like a pitched chorus of two girls, it echoes as if through a metal throat.
I ask why she wants to see him.
She says she is not alone, then I notice another young lady, a mediocre version of herself who is very black and sweaty like her, standing outside the church office, and I am scanning and matching the two of them to see whether they are twins. The one outside is looking even more bitter. She is stretching to yank at leaves of the mango tree as if scolding them for blossoming on the wrong stems. “How can I help you sister?” I say again after drawing a deep breath, feigning undauntedness.
“Madam speak up now? The seminarian is talking to you,” Elizabeth charges in with her fruity voice, turning from her computer to us with a coy frown, her hands bearing a file that reads “Solemnity of Christ the King” on it.
“Well, we are both evil spirits, the two both of us,” the girl says. I feel suspended in the air from legs to buttocks as she gestures to the girl outside, “me and that one”. The world suddenly feels like an old fragile house collapsing against itself and everything in it. “Did you hear me?” she asks, and the parish office is becoming smaller and smaller.
“We fly together at night, so…” my heart flies, the office shimmers out of focus. Pope John Paul’s smile seems to melt and dry up. The frame of the Archbishop of Lagos seems to shut its eyes and face. One of the waiting visitors is trembling. Elizabeth smacks a file shut and freezes.
“…I come and do deliverance,” she finishes her sentence.
After a hard swallow, and everything is slowly coming back clearly again, I tell her Father Benny is not around, to join her friend outside while they wait for him, the way I think Father Benny would like it. She remains there, looking sternly at me, her lips widening in a huge smile like she is hungry and I am supposed to be edible. Jesus, my heart hurdles. “I should go? We should go?” I feel small, like somebody’s missing child, terrified. Is she talking to me? I can’t feel my knees, I can’t hear well, I can’t, I can´t.
“Brother Anthony I want to use our toilet,” Elizabeth says with the eureka voice of one who has come up with a big idea. She hastily springs up. Her chair clatters to the floor. She leaves without the key to the toilet.
“The keys, Elizabeth”.
“Oh. Yes the keys,” she avoids my eyes as she plucks the key bunch from my hand and scurries to the toilet. She is so jittery she has to try twice before she can unlock the toilet.
“Is…is that your sister?” I ask her with a voice that sounds thinned by distance. I am glancing at her shoulders and imagining wings growing from them, she dodging electric poles on the streets of Lagos, defiling the laws of gravity in the company of her sister, two dark shiny heads and owl eyes.
“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s good when sisters don’t just walk together but also fly together. What do you think?” I tap a foot on the floor to be sure that I am still alive. Her sharp blink is a spank against my forehead. She smirks, pinches the side of her laps, leaves her scarf there on the floor and moves out of the office. O my God, I feel a purge of relief. Outside, she hardens her face, whispers God knows what to her sister and joins her in the tearing of leafs, and the noise fills the place. It looks like serious manual labor, the continuous yanking and the cracking. I won’t tell them to stop – it is not in my place to tell them. Let them tear all they can, I shall sweep when they are gone.
Mr. Simon the church compound manager is a restless soul with a touch of stubbornness about him. I don’t like how he orders people around or walks into my room without knocking – just because he’s the compound manager. He is slim and slouchy I do wonder how he gets to sit on the chair in his office for long hours. Typical of him, he stops at the tree and watches the ladies tearing the leaves. One branch is already bald, Mr. Simon’s mouth drops. I think he is thinking of something witty to spew.
“Wait. Look at you these gaals,” he snaps at them saliva drizzles from his mouth.
“Do you know how much we pay the gardeners to trim this?” he adjusts his trouser, watches from below his glasses, as if they girls are specimens in a laboratory. They ignore him like he is a mere fresh air that human beings need do nothing about. For the first time, I am afraid for Mr. Simon, and I don’t know how to warn him. Poor Mr. Simon.
“Hello gaals. Ahn-ahan, you have no respect? Listen silly gaals,” he crushes pieces of leaves on the ground with his feet as he draws closer to them. He makes to touch one of them, the one who had come into the office.
“Don’t. Try. It,” she quips, “you are playing with faya”. Mr. Simon takes a step backward, takes off his glasses, one more step backward, blinks disbelievingly.
“I am a former secretary in the river Niger where we hold our general meetings,” she says, reassuringly. I notice Mr. Simon’s right ear jinx. Only once. This must be really serious. Me, I dip my hand into my pocket and caress my rosary beads as one Hail Mary recites itself in my mind. I don’t pull the rosary out, I just tap it as if to say, “please stay with me”.
“And she,” she gestures to her sister, “Is the present treasurer. She keeps baby skulls for sacrifice,” she pauses, “we really do love eating small babies.”
“I like sucking from their skull. What about you?” the other one chimes in, facing Mr. Simon.
“I like their heels. Really cool dear, cool. I prefer Calabar babies,” she says with tears in her voice “I love baby heels,” she breaks into tears, wipes her misting eyes, then turns back to the tree and focuses on the leaf tearing. But why is she crying? I am so confused.
“I heard this man has one new baby abi?” the other one says. And it is true, Mr. Simon’s baby was baptized by Father Benny only two weeks ago, sheybi?“.
“His baby is very fresh. I hear she is red, like tomatoes from Jos,” her sister concurs with two slow nods, wets her lips with her tongue, “ah delicious”, then bursts two ripe pimples from the side of her face with one scratch, they weep in sequence. The other one doesn’t wait for the pus to crawl down. She stretches a finger to her sister, robs the weeping pimples and puts her finger in her mouth. “Very tasty” she says.
“J-zus, Ghod,” Mr. Simon lets out a shout, I start to feel my head full of water, my brain swims in my skull, my vision blurs again. A waiting visitor in a Christian Mothers uniform who has been asleep suddenly comes wide awake, wipes the yellowed ends of her mouth with her wrapper and pries her eyes with both hands.
“Where is Anthony? Where is the seminarian?” Did Mr. Simon just call me? Call my name? Something props me to rise from my seat and rush to the toilet at the backdoor
“But I have not finished, Brother,” the secretary says, “Anthony I am very sorry, I am just very sorry”; she is plain useless in this situation. I return to my seat. I am more comfortable cleaning the entire church building three times a day than I am watching this happen in my presence.
“Everything has happened today, just today,” the woman in a Christian Mothers’ uniform whispers to the man near her, but the bandage around her neck won’t let her turn to him. “I thought it was a dream. I didn’t realize this is happening in my presence here and now,” she robs her palms against her laps.
“May God take power from the devil” the man says in Igbo, snaps fingers into space. Outside the office Mr. Simon has disappeared and the girls are still tearing leaves. The floor is littered with green, the tree sways left and right as it gets undressed.
Soon Mr. Simon arrives with two men: a police officer and a church security man and everything is starting to feel more tensed up. Random people are starting to gather around the scene like ants coming to nibble at misplaced sugar cubes. The secretary is still in the toilet. The four of them on the visitors list who were mumbling prayers, erupt with complaints about the girls, “police, take them, they are demonic.”
“God forbid you leave them.”
“Let them do something”.
“Blood of Jesus“.
These people cannot go home because the witches have blocked the entrance. The fattest of the police men shouts “khaaa!” at the girls, and the are unmoved. Another fresh air has blown itself across, so what? They do not even look at him.
“You girls are really stupid, e be like say una no dey look face abi?” he charges, holds out his gun. Mr. Simon takes cover behind him, although his hands are still folded as if he’s in charge of things. The security man who is a Muslim is quietly mumbling “la ila ila la” to himself as the girls finish off another branch. Finally I see Father Benny’s Corolla ease into the church compound and come into sight. The car halts with a loud squeal of break. He rushes out, almost running to the scene: an armed police man, a stunned security man, two hardworking girls who are busy, a humbled Mr. Simon.
“What’s the problem han? A gun? In my church?” the police man lowers his gun and Mr. Simon erupts with reports about the girls. Relief seeps through my nerves, aahh, it seeps through.
The girls are now cracking stems, one of them bends and grabs a handful of torn leafs, throws into her mouth and starts munching chkgrkkgmm chkgrkkgm, veins line her forehead and her neck, her eyes shine from effort.
“Hello girls,” Father Benny says softly. They both stop the tearing at once. I hear the toilet’s door behind me creak open. Elizabeth sits near me, her breath raspy, I am disappointed in her. Fat coward! I will teach her a lesson after this.
“It is you that we come and see,” one of them says. Elizabeth cuts in with a loud voice, “they both say they are demon-possessed, father”. “They are witches and they fly up, fly up and down” two of the visitors say at once, then silent after their sentences stumbled into each other.
“Follow me into the office,” Father Benny says, “Or did any of you come before these ladies?” he asks the visitors.
“Ah no father let them go first,” they chorus randomly, heads jerking or nodding in denial or affirmation. The girls move instep behind Father Benny into the corridor that leads to his office.
“Me I want to go to my home now. I don’t need to see Father anymore. I will figure out how to take care of my marriage issues. Father is busy,” one of them says, “I have forgiven my husband already, with all my heart I forgive him. We will live in the peace of Jesus Christ”.
“Oh! Because the entrance is now cleared” the Christian Mother says, “now you want to leave us and run away”
“I want see wetin go happen” another one says, curious, “I have never seen a flying person before”. I can now focus on reading the bans of marriage file. “I am sorry,” the secretary says to me, “I thought you wanted to pee. The toilet is now open”. I withdraw the words I wish to throw at her: when you go back to that toilet make sure you never come out anymore..
I continue reading, sliding a glance towards the corridor leading to Father Benny’s office from time to time. Four pages later I see the girls walking out of the office, both of them approaching the secretary and I. If I have feared anything before now, then I had been afraid of the wrong things.
“Anthony I want to pee,” the secretary whispers in a rush to leave, “give me the keys” she commands me, her hands open in my front, her eyes on the girls, her breath fanning the side of my face. But she has not returned the keys to me, she doesn’t remember she still has the keys to the toilet.
“But it is now my turn,” I say, annoyed. She tells me she is a woman, that I don’t understand how women’s body work, looking desperate like a thief about to be caught. Her cheeks shook, “give me my key, I am asking for the last time,” she looks mad. But the ladies have reached our table already, all eyes in the office are on us. I hear Elizabeth mutter something that sounds like her mother’s maiden name. She last muttered it when robbers came to the parish on the first week I arrived. After the robbers made away with the money, I asked her for the meaning of what she had said – there must be something life-saving about Chuchukruku. I think of my Mother’s maiden name too, but Ekedinma doesn’t sound life-saving. I start muttering a Yoruba worship to myself , “wo nu mi o, k’ewa ba mi soro”. Otherwise, the office is death silent.
“Father say make we book another appointment,” one of them says with hands folded across her breasts. I fix my gaze on her flask nose, my heart is pounding somewhere around my neck, or I no longer know where my heart is.
“Do not be afraid,” Father Benny appears behind them with a smile, like the risen Christ. “This is a psychological case. I have called one of the sisters at the hospital who is a psychiatrist. Demons don’t come looking for deliverance, Anthony.” Suddenly a car with the words Medical Missionaries of Mary draws up outside the parish office, rear lights blinking, and an unveiled Nun with grey-speckled hair climbs out of it, “come on girls,” she claps and beckons on them like they are pets, “let us go”. The girls move out of the office to meet the Nun. Father Benny apologizes to the visitors for inconvenience. They forgive him very fast with rigorous nods except the Christian Mother whose neck is bandaged.
It is now evening, the reception is emptied of visitors and Elizabeth has gone home after apologizing for a second time. The early evening mosquitoes are starting to do rehearsals for night’s work, crickets are starting to tune themselves for tonight’s shrilling. Father Benny invites me into his office. His face is the reddest it has ever been.
“That experience this morning must have troubled you han. Thank you for making them wait”
“Thank you for coming back” I say, feeling shy.
“Could you have dealt with it had I not come back?”
“Hmm, Father. Many are called, few are chosen, others are conscripted,” his face goes red-pink in a stifled laugh, and I join him. He laughs like a healthy baby. I laugh all the more, bent and weakened, eyes watering, I think for a split second that my breathing might actually stop. He laughs all the louder and stretches both arms so that he looks like a badly depicted arabesque I have seen in a Nigerian newspaper.
Letters from Rome
When someone asks me to describe what it feels like to be a young African missioned to Europe, I often think about that evening spent waiting in the dimness of the novitiate corridor, the off-white walls replete with frames depicting the novitiate’s history. Outside, the daylight was fading into streaks of blue and gold, on the verge of dusk. It was January, within the first vestiges of summer. And we had spent almost one year in this monastery wearing black grosgrain sashes about our waists everyday, with folds of our black cassocks falling about us, filtering through corridors leading to the church, refectory, classroom, then back and forth. If we went too far, it was to the poultry, and, on Saturdays, to the place where I always developed a knot in my stomach – the pigsty. Any moment from now, we would each be invited into an office and we would come out of that office with fates sealed. You were destined for Kenya, Germany, Spain, or to remain in South Africa. Next, one of those countries would remain written across your forehead, and your real nationality would take the backseat, and your unannounced preferences would die a quiet death. It made me think about parcels sorted out and stamped in DHL offices, ready to be carted away to a destination.
In the days leading to this, the atmosphere had been bittersweet, the joys of an ending blending with the fears of another beginning. We flung guesses at one another. For all our instimcts and wit, neither of us could change one stark fact: Rome had the final say, and the decisions were already made. We ate little, sang more African songs than European songs during liturgy, did no sports, took longer walks during which we flirted with ideas, dished up gossips, traded jokes while the TV aired unattended in the recreation room, washed dishes of five star hotel quantity, established a camarediere like never before. For all I can remember, it was during those days I dug the biggest hole I ever dug in my life, a hole so deep it swallowed the whole of me when I climbed in. And inside there, I felt small-headed. Another disruption that lasted three days, and yet it had been easy enough for Fr. Kevin to say that it was not a grave, it was for Bannanas. Bannanas! I have laughed every time I have remembered this.
It was during those days, I remember, Thabani went about his chores with more speed like a headless chicken, as if in an effort to banish worry. Willbard wore hangdog looks, and during meals his voice was a deadpan monotone. Only on his way to his beehives did he smile his butternut smile. Gabriel, he remained tall and sassy, irrepressibly bubbly. Jared’s back hunched a little more, carrying the weight of anticipation. Bongani’s smiles were nervous and puckish, working extra time at the smithy. Martin had become slower on the walkways, with ears tilting outward you could see he was ready to trap just about any information that came his way. Carlos’s face was turning bright pink. Whenever the conversation was about the transfer letters, his English didn’t falter. Mzokhona was sometimes lost in thoughts, keeping faraway looks, a widening gap in his teeth. He had recently become soft-spoken in a way he’d never been. With a tightened jaw and yellowing eyes, Kennedy shuffled between the Mission Center and the novitiate. Fr. Kevin’s megawatt smile did not dissipate the anxiety. In my eyes, he had become a conduit of sorts, an oracle through whom the gods were about to speak. His smile had never seemed so important and disturbing. It filled us with a panic that carried over into everything else.
We had waited for ths day, and here it was, touting nerves and slowing the clock to a crawl. In the corridors, we looked like teenagers who had misplaced mummy’s bunch of keys. When my name was called and the door opened, I knew I’d rather be in one of the big holes Father Kevin asked us to dig in the farm a few days ago. In the office, Fr. Patrick sat in a crisp yet informal manner, his demeanour unflappable, with spectacles that suggested low tolerance for nonsense. Fr. Kevin’s smile was so big I felt compelled to share it with him, only he didn’t know that the portion on my face had become a mad one. I clamped a book between my knees. I was asked to say a prayer, which I did.
You have been transfered from the Region of Mtatha to the German province Fr. Kevin announced. We all took a moment’s silence, allowing the news to settle. Then I began to sort out my feeelings, and there was no sadness at all. Still, I knew from that moment that my horizons were lifted, my possibilities expanded, and I was in soup. I wasn’t going to Germany on an excursion to see gothic buildings with ice cream in hand. I wasn’t going to Germany to take photos in the face-numbing cold. Or listen to Ludwig Beethoven while eating chicken in a restaurant. Or eat spoonfuls of snow (my childhood dream) and then come back. I was going, like, leaving. I was going to make real-life impacts and not just be there. I was going to get exposed to other people’s truths, including truths in which I might not be ineterested. I was going to become a child again, putting behind my razor-sharp wit in English which I had acquired over the years. I was going to live with people who might not laugh at the same jokes I laugh at. I was going to start watching more DW and less BBC. I was going to speak a language so strong it sounded like a fight. The possibility of failure was clear, I didn’t have to go looking for it.
I had never been to Germany before, but the country only began to hold a special place in my imagination after listening to Bishop Khumalo during classes on history of Mariannhill. How those missionaries inspired me! Their selflessness and their love, their doggedness, their faith. I also knew Germany as home to reputable philosophers and theologians, even world intellectual bigwigs. The home to Mercedes Benz, Franz Kafka and Goethe. But I did have one bad scare: racism. A stubborn piece of me would never take it lightly. My worry wasn’t so much about racist behaviours as it was about what my reaction could be, even at the slightest manifestations of it. I could literally cause a scene. But then I told myself that if I went to Germany looking out for racism, then I was destined to always find it. Racism, besides, would not qualify as the summary of Germany’s complex story as a nation, so I told myself that Germans were generally hospitable.
Any optimism I had about Germans being generally hospitable, was shortlived. In the week after our first profession, Carlos and I went to an office somewhere to make enquiries about our visa application. The woman behind the counter had a brilliant, sharp face like an eagle ready to swoop at its prey. She hardly allowed us finish any sentence. She looked like she wished Carlos and I were not going to Germany. I think she imagined that somehow, Carlos and I were illegal immigrants in South Africa who wanted to try another gamble with Germany. Her eye brows were furrowed, there was paranoia in her left eye, wrath in her right. Her questions had the suspicious and irreverent quality that I immediately recognized as a someone who had been in and out of South Africa for the past five years with a Nigerian passport. And Carlos being from Colombia, we were a good combo to get her adrenaline working. We represented the headquarters of the world’s most skillfull drug lords, the finest cathedrals of prayerful criminals.
She harumphed that Germany was already Christian enough, that she didn’t see any need of us going there as missionaries, that we could remain in South Africa and preach for Jesus. Then she said Carlos and I needed to come next time with our passports before we made any further inquiries. My mouth was so full of words I couldn’t speak. Carlos and I left the office feeling like the eagle of a woman had eaten us for lunch. I wanted to tell her that such behaviour reflected poorly on Germany as a nation. I wanted to tell her that she misrepresented a big swath of German people who did not know how to bite. How I left without saying it, I still do not know. That behaviour, if it wasn’t exactly racist, then it wasn’t exactly anything else. I felt scornful of her for many days.
Only few weeks later, my classmates were all gone, and it was the end of normal times. My first private German lesson was on a Tuesday, in that Library where the air was thick with the musty smell of old books. I didn’t believe anything my teacher said. There was a falseness about the words, the sounds, it was like somebody was confidently telling me the wrong things, turning my mind upside down. I think I was dumfounded for the first one week, even though I did my best to look interested. Yes I could tell myself that the language would come, that it would take time, but that was not how it felt. It felt like I was having a hangover, I couldn’t see straight.
My teacher, a beautiful South African lady who was a mother of two, had the air of a nerd. A very brilliant mind, she professionally taught English language and also worked as a tour guide, coupled with good knowledge of geography and history. Which intensified my fears. A part of me was convinced I could never match up. I watched her, processing the shock of buchstabieren and Hausaufgabe and fünfundfünfzig. Whenerver she made a full sentence it was if a torpedo had blown through the room. It was only after the classes that I had time to go to my room and observe my frustration reflected on my face in the mirror.
Once, a six-sylablled German word flashed across my bedroom at midnight, jolting me from sleep. I rose from the bed, whispered something into the darkness about me being in hot soup, then went back to sleep. Sometimes, during the day, I sat in my room and stared at the blank walls, eating caramel popcorn, the clock ticking by, unable to get past a page of my homework. My eyes kept scanning one line over and over again. And I would slam the book shut. Soon, a deep and suffocating sketicism took hold of me, so much so that in the following weeks, I went around tamping down people’s expectation. It was important to me that nobody saw me as a genius, that nobody waited for Anthony to prove himself.
I went back and forth like this for several weeks until I became clear-eyed about the stakes involved. My German was finally picking up steam. I would stay up at night trying to squeeze stubborn vocabularies into my head, battling with grammar as well as spellings. I would go knocking at Brother Konrad’s door at night, asking him to help me. I had a good teacher in Ms. Razina who was both very thorough and very kind. The days leading to my first German exam were pervaded with a sense of disquiet. I had not failed an exam for many years, and Ms. Razina had always had students who were successful in the A1 exam, so I feared I was going to break the record. But that didn’t happen. My language course was successful, for by April, Ms. Razina had begun to acquaint me with the kind of things to expect in the exam.
I did not consider it an exciting prospect, applying for a German visa with a Nigerian passport. It took more than three months during which I gained more than three pounds. Maybe I was stress eating. After many hassles, sorting documents in German language whose alphabets were jarring to my eyes, doing correspondences with Fr. Mario Muschik who was at the forefront of the entire process, I was granted a visa in November. Six days to get everything in order before departure. I had too much to break with, an accumulation of books and clothes, wastes, even conflicts.
The day I was to leave, it was an awkward moment for me, one which I awaited in part with joy, in part with anxiety. At 3pm, the monastery bells pealed the hour. I watched the monastery’s landscape for the last time as a strong wind whipped left and right, causing trees to clash: leafs with leafs, branches with branches, leafs with branches. In front of the reception, a white car awaited me with doors hanging open, and South Africa in my mind’s eye was starting to become a fading photograph. We drove past the rosy-cheeked Virgin Mary statue into whose face the sculptor had moulded piety, past the gates, past the road leading to the convent. I turned back to look at the bell tower stabbing the sky, knowing that this was the picture of Mariannhill I would preserve forever in my mind.
As the vehicle eased into the major road my eyes became itchy from not letting tears out. Memories of my five years in South Africa flashed through my mind, especially memories of robbery and hunger during my stay in Scottsville, people in St. Mary’s hospital who died under my watch, friends and enemies I made. The Memory of Father Patrick McGiven paying part of my school fees after a debtor disappeared with my money, and Fr. Kevin and Br. Tendai ensuring my last debt in Cedara was cleared so that my certificate could be released. In the car, Brother Konrad repeatedly gave me the omniscient look that knowledge and experience provides you when you are above sixty. I didn’t tell him that although I had waited for this moment, it was hard to leave. In the backseat, Thabani carried the biggest of my bags, and I didn’t like that I was going without him.
We arrived at the parking lot, the sun setting over the airport. The thin woman at the Qatar Airways counter had a hawk nose, with small eyes like asterisks. She did what people normally do when the visa of a relevant country is breathing inside a Nigerian passport: verify the life out of it. I flung her a smile after checking in, then boarded the flight a few hours later. As the aircraft reeved and moved, and the floor started to drop slowly under me, I thought about the letters from Rome. I thought about Gabriel and Mzokhona in Kenya, Jared and Bongani in Spain, Wilbard and Martin in South Africa, Kennedy who would be travelling from Uganda days later to join me in Germany. The letters from Rome were each less than two hundred words but we were travelling more than two thousands miles. With the stroke of the Vicar General’s pen, an entire class was divided, the trajectory of many lives redirected, chroniles of various CMM communities updated.
We touched down first in Johannesburg and were held up thirty minutes, waiting for some other passangers to board. The man sitting next to me had a sad smile, that fake smile that many people in Europe fling at you on the street as a matter of courtesy. It made me think of Leonardo da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa. I didn’t smile back, instead I turned to my side and watched the tarmac swept by wind, lined by purple flowering weeds. A quadrille of planes jockeyed for space on the runway, delaying us from getting off the ground. Then, with the taking off of the aircraft, I picked up my rosary and began to pray. By now the man next to me was asleep, he nearly fell away from his chair as if he were sinking in water and drowning. His hair was a dirty white like an old mop. Hours later, when we stood above a sea of dark clouds and the aircraft was becoming stable, I had the chance to remind myself that I had been sent. Whenerver there was turbulence and I feared the plane might at any moment be pulled out of its course and crash, I had been sent. The letters from Rome were suddenly a consolation, that if anything happened to me, I would have died on a journey of mission, a journey of faith.
23rd November, the plane touched down in frankfurt. And I thought the airport didn’t live up to the hype. Fr. Mario was waiting at the arrivals with a kind face and a ready smile. For the next one year, that drive from Würzburg to Frankfurt would frame my memory of my arrival. Spiffy in my new jacket and unapologetically conversing in English, I was green in the best possible sense.
On reading Barack Obama’s A Promised Land recently, I came across a sentence he often tells his daughters: enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies, and at least that is true for me in the German province for the past one year. It is part and parcel of learning German for plenty of rubbish to come out of your mouth, only to realize much later while in your room that you had been speaking rubbish, in public. Sometimes it causes a lot of awkwardness. At best it feels plainly puerile, at worst it feels daunting. But then I wasn’t supposed to be correct, I wasn’t sent here to be correct. I was supposed to be, first, enthusiastic. Another thing that became a consolation for me, I think, was my later resolution not to see myself as someone who has merely come, but as someone who has been asked to come. I think there is a difference. The difference is that your body doesn’t absorb all the awkward moments, and you do not flog yourself on a daily basis. Once, I confidently entered into a female public toilet instead of a male one, and I came out feeling like an idiot. But I forgave myself easily, because I had been sent. Somehow in my head the word for male in German had been exchanged with the word for female, and after that day I knew it would never happen again. The two naughty vocabularies saw my rage and started to behave themselves.
Another day, I kicked a man’s chihuahua to the other side of the road, fearing his unleashed dog was about to have a taste of my leg. After unpleasant words were exchanged, he in German and I in English, and I continued my walk home, I told myself again that I had been sent. Had I not been sent, that scene would never have happened. That man would never have seen me, including that small, ugly dog that looked like a backpack. I realize now that the letters from Rome were not just letters, they were openers of new worlds and new stories. Isn’t it what missionaries are sent to do? To be the custodians of so many stories, stories that have God’s unadulterated insignia between the lines? Stories that are more about how God is in control than they are about how we are resilient? The letters from Rome were, in fact, a gentle reprimand to all of us: Go and try. You’d never be able to do enough, but try anyway, bearing in mind that it is all Jesus’s business and not yours.
Reimlingen: Where the clock ticks differently
“So it surprises me now to hear
The steps of my life following me
So much of it gone
It returns, everything that drove me crazy
Comes back, blessing the misery
Of each step it took me into the world…”
St. Joseph’s Mission House in Reimlingen is an off-white building with rooms so many I became dazed at the mere thought of counting. Built in the 1930s, she has politely adjusted herself to modern renovations, like an old woman buoyed by her children to wear makeup, use an I-phone, take selfies. It’s in the way the tiles lie waiting on the floor like newcomers who are cooperating well in a new firm, or the way in which the new off-white paints on the old, rough walls seemed like talcum powder on an old man with rashes, yet gentle and comfortable in the skin that is his.
I visited for seven days. The priests and brothers in the house, retirement had transformed them, slowed them down. Their ages ranged from 75 to 90, some bound to wheel chairs, some moving with the aid of walking sticks, with a tendency to bend the upper part of their body forward and downward. For a moment it began to seem to me that they all looked alike, as though having lived full missionary lives and now living together – had made their faces uniformed, matching one another in a certain humanity that is steeped in the similarity of their biographies. They even sounded alike – gentle voices laced with history and faith, every word falling like benedictions. From their rooms to the chapel to the dinning they gently followed one another like the seasons of a year, day following night.
The day I arrived, the first of seven days, I found two of them discussing over a table set with staples for tea break. Whenever they made reference to time they didn’t speak in years, they spoke in decades. The bigger of the two who had bags under his eyes, talked about something that happened thirty years ago like it was last month. The other said, “but recently…”, and his recently was “only fifteen years ago,” slightly waving a hand inconsequentially to show how recent. On the night of that day, at supper, Father Bruno who sat on the table across from my table, came over to our table with a big smile. Leaning on the edge of a chair he said, half-silently, “fresh greetings from Brother Mark,” the way a father would say to his son on the eve of his birthday, “I have a big surprise for you”. He put it as “fresh greetings” as if the brother in question had been sending greetings for many years and suddenly stopped and went into hibernation, then decided to start afresh, hence the word “fresh”. I didn’t know the brother he was talking about, but I was happy, I could feel my face opening into a naïve smile.
The other old confreres received the greetings with shiny eyes and mouths opened into an “o”, obviously joyful. Such a flippant thing, I thought. When did I ever feel my eyes shine because somebody sent greetings? Who even sends me greetings by the way, a fresh one at that? What does it even matter whether it is fresh or not fresh! Only now did a realization dawn on me: none of these old priests had facebook, or twitter, or Instagram accounts, which was why a greeting could be “fresh”. Which was why it was such an eye-shine-worthy, big deal. Did you know? The conversation on the table changed instantly. They switched from talking about the fresh bread to talking about this brother who sent fresh greetings, whoever he was. Sometimes I laughed when they laughed until I lost count of how many times I laughed without understanding what had been said, why it was said. But I laughed, and the thought of this actually makes me laugh as I write this. Sometimes I understood much later after my brain had had to reboot itself, and laughed privately when I got into the privacy of room. Or in the bathroom during a shower. As a young Mariannhiller, there is a part of me that desperately wants to see them happy, see them express the presence of peace and health.
And so they discussed the greeting, shared it amongst themselves like it was an August meal and they did not want it to finish quickly because it just might never come by again. Then they began to link the greetings, not to exotic things but to ordinary experiences: a mail, a letter, a ‘recent’ visit that was ten years ago. Indeed ordinary things mattered here.
I would hear them the next morning asking one another the most ordinary of questions, wie geths dir, “how are you?” And “how are you” was not a greeting in Reimlingen. It was an actual question, a show of real care, a conversation starter. I liked the culture of “how are you” except that sometimes when I asked how are you I had been kept for thirty minutes, half-regretting that I asked. “Wie geths dir” could be replied with, “I didn’t sleep well” or “it is still waist pain” or “that medication is working”, if the reply was not a full-fleshed gist that could be the length of a novella. However, that simple question sounded important for the first time in my life. A question I hardly asked my colleague back in our seminary in Wuerzburg. A question that has become hackneyed, a waste of one’s talking time during a lifetime that is already going to be too short. Here, it wasn’t always “fine” that was the answer. It was sometimes “not really” and it was the truth. It wasn’t so much about the asking, it was about the time spent on the question, the many conceived things it uncovered and the details it recovered.
They had, also, a spectacular patience with themselves. Once, I saw a priest narrating a story to a brother. The brother stooped low to listen to the priest as if the priest suddenly had his mouth relocated to his chest. After the entire gist, this brother said he couldn’t hear anything. He had waited for the priest to finish telling the entire story before saying he had heard nothing, absolutely nothing. So the priest started afresh, I mean all over again, this time almost shouting so that the brother could hear, “…that was what happened during my work in Mtatha, I had had to wait a few decades to overcome it”. He chattered on, forever in the German language. And he was funny. When it came to the brother’s turn to speak the priest couldn’t hear anything, either, so the brother started afresh, and it went on like this.
The old Mariannhillers in Reimlingen could not gossip successfully, there was no way. Sometimes it was the speaker himself who didn’t hear himself well. Almost all of them already knew enough to be good and charitable with loud talking, wanting the other person to hear as well, to have no need for clarification in the first instance. I carried this in mind when I went to Father Lud’s office for a long conversation. I shouted like somebody was sitting on top my head, yet I had had to repeat myself many times. He was patient, patient with himself first, then with me.
For seven days in Reimlingen I curiously waited to see old priests argue. But they didn’t. Instead they side-stepped disagreements, supported one another’s opinions. As if any debates could stretch one or two muscles and lead to health complications. As if disagreement might end up in them being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. On my left in the dinning sat a not-very-young brother who was not very old. Let me call him brother K. He told me that I ate very little, that I needed to eat a lot more. I disagreed, told him about my righteous hatred for cheese, “I can’t eat cheese in my dear God-given life”, I said with my eyes rolling at the memory of cheese. Father B who sat across from us said, with a fast nod (it surprised me he could suddenly nod fast), “you really should eat very well so that you can grow up”. Then he laughed at what he thouht was a joke, I laughed because he laughed at so ordinary a sentence, a sentence he made himself, his very own joke.
Many years back, these priests and brothers would have argued and disagreed about things, their vocabularies ranging from finance to general chapters to formation to Vatican news to theology and liturgy. I thought: these men were once leaders – former provincials, bursars, parish priests, formators, teachers, even writers. It surprised me to know that the most silent of them was leader of a Charismatic movement. Now they were talking about simple things: a fresh greeting from an unseen brother. Tasting a particular kind of bread for the first time. The temperature of the coffee and milk. Again, ordinary things. And they were neither competing for anything nor comparing too much. They were not as invested in creating good impressions as they were in simply living out the best they could in their old age. Each of them, although similar, were distinctly themselves, taking consolation in their work in God’s vineyard. There is so much to learn from this. We young people are so fast, we always want to see the end of things. We want to graduate at eighteen, be ordained at 25, become professors at thirty. We praise speed more than we praise process.
There was this brother whom I thought couldn’t speak. I took for granted his voice had gone away with the passing of time. He had been communicating with gestures or distinct murmurs for the first three days until he stopped one day at the corridor and said, albeit with difficulty, “Anthony you sang beautifully at mass this morning”. I stood there and watched his face as though mine reflected in his. So he even knew my name! He had a face like he did not know his own name. And it did make me think about how old age hides identities in folds of grey, keep people’s stories hiding in the thick clouds of history.
After supper I observed the priest who sat behind me. The way he went about collecting cutleries as though Germany would be divided into two again if he didn’t. It was so important to this priest that every cutlery went back to where they came from. I could tell, he would not go to his room and sleep well if a tea spoon spent the night in a cupboard with cooking spoons. The way he wiped the dishes! “You should put those other plates there. Let us say that these plates are Catholics. The other ones, they are protestants, so we leave them there”, he said in English, smirking, while another brother cleaned the kitchen sink until you could see your face reflected on it as if on a mirror.
I am afraid of growing old and yet I am afraid of dying. I want to see tomorrow but I am not sure about my wanting to see the end of the following days after today, I am talking about the days after many tomorrows. Being young is real fun, it was obvious in Reimlingen for those seven days where my being the youngest Marianhiller in the house was incontestable, unrivaled. They must have thought: “he is such a baby” whenever they asked my age and I said twenty-eight, and they smiled a sagacious smile that said, “he hasn’t even seen anything yet”. Twenty-eight is the amount of years one of them worked in a parish before being transferred to another one and another one, and here I was talking about twenty-eight as my entire lifetime.
My vitality had never been so obvious to me. I was jumping steps whenever I went up to another floor or came down. A brother who stayed close to my room always paused whenever he heard my footsteps, as all of them did when they sensed me coming from behind, shifted to the side for this energetic creature from Africa who was on a visit. And I overtook him with a smile and a speed, enjoying it. But sometimes I reached my room and realized that one day it would be my turn to slow down and allow others pass by, if such a time would ever come. Because life is a journey towards slowing down. If we do not slow down, life will definitely slow us down, or even stop us. In life, we move so fast only to arrive at a spot where we have to helplessly wait, and wait, and wait. Sometimes I felt unhappy about having overtaken an old brother down the sweep of stairs, then I quietly wished he had been faster. Sometimes I realized I had not needed that much speed, and I was rushing to my room to go and do nothing but press my phone. Here, it is as though the clock ticked relatively quietly but not sharply, as if indifferent, as if the things that mattered were already there, had already happened. As if the universe had finally learned to take solace in the here and now. What the clocks in Reimlingen said was this: Let us not always pretend as if we are rushing to anywhere. Let us pretending that time is against us.
And because this building – if it could talk – had stories to tell about the evenings of many missionary lives, the assertion from the clock seemed even clearer now as dawn glowed around the building: let us not pretend as if we really have to rush, as if all of life’s moments are ours and ours alone.
STORIES THE DEAD TAKE WITH THEM
It was during winter, on a Sunday in the month of June. Rays of orange-yellow evening leaked in through the windows of the Intensive Care Unit of a Hospital in South Africa. This unit was a quiet space where people tormented by sicknesses awaited healing, but also – in some unsubtle way – death. I thought someone had died. Or I knew but it was impossible to not need a second confirmation from the nurses. Not only for the usual sake of being sure that the patient was dead but I had chosen to doubt because I was as invested in wanting the patient alive as her family must have been. I found myself screaming for the nurses even though they were just at the entrance. They rushed in, one of them with a stethoscope.
“She is not breathing”, I said. I did not hear myself say it in such an accusing way, but I would later remember saying it like that. Pelisa’s body was cold. Maybe she had died hours ago. Or the night before. And there had been nobody there to scream on her behalf, speak for her at the very moment of death. Nobody to call the doctor or nurses in a panicked voice that doubles as an expression of love for a patient. It only takes someone who loves you to scream in hospital because of you. The way my mother – during those times I was hospitalized – had screamed with her wrapper unknotting itself as she ran out to grab the first nurse or doctor she randomly came across to come make sure that I was alive. I remember one night when I woke up to find my mother holding a bottle of Ribena and a spoonful of rice, ready to feed me the moment I said yes. Asking me, Omuye gi ya na onu mobu ka I ga agbo ya? “Should I put it into your mouth or would you vomit it?” with a worried face. She mostly spoke Igbo when I was sick because it was the language of home, of healing, of being under Mommy’s watchful eyes. Pelisa, for the past two weeks, had not been under anybody’s worried eyes. Her family was far away in Johannesburg. The nurses were only doing their normal routine. She was not anybody’s priority, she was just there, just one of so many patients in a government hospital. For most of the time, she was alone and lonely.
Nobody would have panicked about her because she was not theirs. And if she died, then she simply died. She would simply be counted as ‘one female patient who did not make it’, become a counted number. Seeing her dead and cold, it was as though Pelisa was not a mother who would have done the same for her children: shouting for the doctor at every slight change in their bodies, being hasty whenever she needed to use the toilet so that she would not miss out on anything regarding her child’s health. So that she could catch death red-handed if it came to snatch her child.
“Pelisa is dead”, I said with a tone of finality as the nurses pulled the bedcover over her face, the same way they had done many times in my presence whenever patients died with whom I had had long conversations. It was now confirmed, true, that Pelisa was dead. It was not a phenomenon which would occur, it had occurred. I placed a hand on her left knee and prayed. Then marked her head with a sign of the cross. I had regrets.
Before today, Pelisa and I – although her speech was defected into near silence – had agreed on surprising her children with a video call. Her old-fashioned phone could not do a video call, she had said it with a smile on her face many days before she deteriorated. So I decided to use my phone so that she could take in the faces of her children, absorb the unspeakable joy of seeing children who have come from her. It was supposed to be for the last time, but that last time never came. It had not come to me that she would die soon. It had not played in my dreams. Other appointments kept me away from the hospital on the day we were to make the call. Now there was a huge difference between the Pelisa whose eyes are shut with her body curled into the stiffest version of herself, and the Pelisa whom I first met two weeks ago smiling.
Two weeks ago, the day after she learned my name, she began to whisper it whenever I came and stood next to her. She recognized my presence even before turning to see me, as though she counted the hours and waited for me to come, “Anthony”, she half-rose before sinking back.
“How did you know that it’s me?” I asked
“Hayibo! I know, I always know. You that you are very big like this, bigger than your age, eish. You look older than thirty wena”, her eyes lifted to my face, and we both laughed. Although her laughter was weak, it felt refreshing. Because it was my first time of seeing her laugh.
The day before, the very first day I met her, she had been death silent. Her head lay quietly on the pillow, her hair streaked with grey in front. She was hooked up to a drip. She tore her eyes away from everything I said: “Good evening”, “How are you?” “I am Anthony from Mariannhill”. And after a moment’s pause, I asked her whether she had any kids.
Tears came and stood in her eyes. “Kids? My children?” It seemed all of a sudden that “kids,” this single-syllabled word, meant more than I ever knew. “Why did you mention my children?” Her tears crawled down her cheeks, her Zulu accent trembled as she spoke on. “Anthony, I have not been able to sleep well at night because I have not been able to cry. Now I can sleep again after you are gone. It gets lonely here at night, very lonely, but I will sleep tonight. Thank you, thank you”. I thought: So it is okay to cry? I had never thought about crying as a need, what one needed to do in order to sleep well at night. I thought about what kind of mysterious therapy crying is, because therapies are supposed to save us from having to cry isn’t it? Or maybe there is the life-snatching kind of tears as opposed to a life-giving one. Maybe there are times when the therapy for a particular kind of pain is the ability to name it, looking it in the face, touch it, give it a name like it were your child.
I brought a chair close to her and sat there. “Would you love to tell me about your children?”
“Of course, I want. I want to. They’re the only people I want to talk about. I can talk about them forever”. She began unearthing memories, dabbling tears off her face with her hand. Pausing at intervals to sob. Sometimes she formed words in her mouth and was not able to roll them out because they were words so precious, words of happy sadness or sad happiness. Words that took all the space for her air and left her breathing labored. She brought them carefully, as though they were made of glass, fragile and would break if forcefully dropped.
In the coming days, after visiting other patients I would join Pelisa in looking into family picture albums of her children, through storytelling, until she deteriorated and talked very little. It was the day she could hardly say anything that I promised her a video call with her kids. She only smiled at me – really smiled, and I took the smile for an agreement. She said nothing. I did all the talking and replying for her. But she smiled – really smiled. She was clearly conveying something she could not say, something more than a yes. Perhaps a thank you for this opportunity. That opportunity never came.
When I heard the sister nurse call her family at the reception to say that Pelisa had died, I shut my mind’s ears. Especially to the voice on the other end of the phone. Calling her family would have been the hardest thing for me to do. But these nurses have grown indifferent and unemotional from years of telling people their fate, calling all kinds of people to say: “your father died”, “Your sister died”, “your child didn’t make it”, until they lost count and feelings around it. I clearly remember this moment because a brother went with me whom I had told earlier about Pelisa. His being in his black cassock at the other end of the body makes this memory stand out.
The body. She was now a body. Pelisa’s name was suddenly non-existent on our lips, but it was on a tag stapled unto the body bag. Until this moment, I thought about how she had said, “my children, they are the only people I want to talk about”. Now she was a body being put into a bag. Never to say more about the children we loved to talk about. It was for her that I fetched a death notification form from the mortuary. It was her name that I wrote on it with a black pen. She was the one on the trolley who was being taken to the mortuary and would never eat breakfast again.
That evening, I returned to the Mariannhill monastery and prayed. There was a little room to escape the guilt of not coming on Saturday which we planned for the video call but coming instead on Sunday. The way I saw it, she should have seen her children before death. The way I saw it, she was truly looking forward to the video call. It was why I kept glancing back at the mortuary where we had taken her, as I walked home to the monastery. But what difference would it have made if she saw them? Would she have lived a day more, or two? Maybe she would have died differently. Actually I thought for the first time, how an extra day in one’s life could make such a huge difference. Just one more day, and her fate might not have changed, but her story would have been slightly different. Perhaps a different last page. That was the difference between yesterday and today.
Lightening flapped through the windows of the monastery church, summoned the statues in the church into potent figures. For a split second it was as though they breathed in and out, gave out air that made the building refreshingly psychedelic, their eyes everywhere, a dank chill in the air. Wind blew in from all opened doors, the candle flames flickered each time the wind picked up, a noisy flicker, and then another long period of nothing. Sitting alone in the church and inhaling the faint smell of candles, watching the colored glass windows create a sensation of inhabiting a hallowed space, I thought about how Pelisa’s family must be battling with news of her death, now. I imagined them screaming until they were hoarse. Or did it numb them? Her sister who took care of her kids, how did she bear the burden of delivering the news to the children? How did she go about it? One family was once more embarking on the painful journey of accepting and surviving a loss. God had a job to do, a family to lift up from the abyss of despair, lead them on where human efforts stopped. And as I prayed for them, it was as though I was praying in a dream.
I would write into my journal that night: “Even the dying look forward to something. Hope is that strong. And in the moment of death, it is neither theology nor dogma that people think about, really. It is the small moments of love, of charity done to them and for them, of forgiveness that they have enjoyed and shared. They do not carry the details of catechism in mind, I think, I doubt. They simply carry essence. The essence of all things which is to love and to be loved. And if they would be grateful for anything at that time, it is to have known love. All the small bits and pieces of it, coming back together to make a collage of important feelings. We need to be born and be alive in order to come across love. Love is the theme of all the stories the dead take with them, because it is the title of the story we unconsciously looked forward to reading from the moment we were born, occupying the spaces in our minds that would remain light, yet never empty.
Is it not why a HIV positive mother such as Pelisa, knew the children were HIV positive and still wanted the child to be born? Is it not why many people have lived a little longer than they thought they ever would? Love. You know, at some point in our lives, we will all come to see the vanities of rivalry and envy, these things we bicker and bite about. Many of us will come to a point where we can only channel our energy into staying alive for ourselves and those love. It is the memory of love that would matter the most on a hospital bed, the only book we can read when our eyes fail, when we confront the uncomfortable nearness of mortality.
Is there something you’re not telling the people you love? I am thinking now about all that Pelisa’s kids should have said in the video call, most likely in Zulu, a language so beautiful whenever Pelisa spoke it with the nurses. Maybe we do not have as much time as we think. We do not have enough luxury of time to swallow up an “I miss you” or keep a “thank you” in us as though it were a treasured secret. As though they did not come to us in order to be said. How easy it is for me to resist love even when it comes – because I am shy? Maybe I am not generous enough to be the one on the receiving end of love. And yet I would one day search my mind’s archives for memories of it, then wish that I had more. I would scramble for it like a hungry street urchin searching the bins of neighborhoods for something to feed on.
How late it is when we wait for tragedy to happen, then love becomes the parody of a broken hymn! Love as a resource for the living, turns into treasure at death. Too precious to be necessitated by tragedy instead of everything. Everything else. It is these stories of love that would one day, count the most. It is these stories that we are collecting already, bringing together like a harvest of happy tears, living now knowing that we would die one day and carry them along, die with them in order to live with them.
We pretended as though there were activities we would never live without.
Now there is a drop in carbon emission in China,
Water bodies will now heave a sigh of relief for a while.
Before Corona we pretended as though we were not equal,
as though we did not share a common humanity.
Corona came, and all precautions are the same,
all efforts at producing a vaccine are done
for human beings: not merely for whites
not for Hispanics,
not for black people
But for Human Beings: The people at the borders who are not allowed in,
the ones with the right documents and the ones without the right documents
Before Corona we pretended as though human beings have answers to every question
Even the deepest questions about God.
We had immobile philosophies to which we were tethered.
We claimed to have fully understood God.
Well, Corona took theologians unawares,
Sent scientists racing to their laboratories,
without being sure of any results.
Corona brought politicians to acknowledge that God knows better.
When humanity adamantly leaves no room for doubts,
fate imposes those rooms.
Before Corona we thought we were not vulnerable.
We lived on what we knew and had,
we said human beings were unquestionably the greatest of species.
Ask the animals we ate for food.
Their movements are not restricted.
Ask the birds in the air whether their flights have been cancelled.
Ask them whether they have any need to wash their hands.
Before corona we thought that money could do everything
We thought that the rich were “humans” and the poor were “species”
And suddenly we are “Human Species”. Together.
So it is actually true that there are things we cannot afford.
So it is true that there are situations that money cannot change.
Before Corona we thought that time was always against us.
We were ever in a haste, catching flights and rushing off to do something.
Corona came, many hours have come and gone, unused.
We can now quietly observe the rising of the sun.
Flower shrubs, the unwary stars of the night.
We can now talk about the weather.
Before Corona we thought that effort was everything.
We thought people suffered illnesses because they deserved it.
We stigmatized HIV and AIDS, maybe we thought it was the gay disease
We always felt oblivious when cancer was mentioned,
because cancer was not in our families.
We thought Corona had come to reward unbelievers in a terrible way.
When it came to China we said it was because they were too secular
and needed to surrender to God.
Corona got into the Vatican, then we fell silent, in prayer
But we pretended as though what we felt was not cluelessness.
Schools closed. Churches closed. Offices closed.
Some kids can now have the attention of their busy fathers.
At least for three weeks.
Corona came and kept people from what they owned,
and owned people away from what they kept.
Corona came, and friends no longer shook hands.
But enemies are now united by another common enemy.
We are suddenly friends because we share a common tragedy.
This common enemy that renders economic rivalry irrelevant.
Corona came wicked and just.
Corona came and proved itself inclusive,
And non-judgemental, in the way that death is.
Corona came to remind us that there are things we get without deserving,
And there are things that we deserve without getting.
Corona is a timely reminder about two things:
The many flamboyant things that we are not
And the vulnerable things that we really are.
Corona will leave us. But its legacy might stay, would stay.
And we would no longer be ridiculously sure about anything
As we were.
Before Corona came.