Trigger Warning: Child death, traffic accident, vivid description of violence
When Nana Kwame died I avoided his mother like the plague. From the weeks leading up to the funeral, when I first found out about his death, I mourned my friend from home – some 100 steps from the brown gate that I had banged on so many times to call him to come play. On the odd occasion when I would step out on an errand, I used the longer route so I could avoid Nana’s house. The place where we had once played from morning to sunset became a quagmire too dangerous to wander past. Sometimes I would pause at a safe distance and watch the elderly men leaving and entering the house, their dark cloths draped over their shoulders. Nana Kwame’s father had died a few years prior. That he too was now dead was somewhat of an abomination. I looked at the scowls on their faces as they entered, their steps rushed and deliberate, and wondered what was happening to Nana Kwame’s mother inside of that place. That quagmire. I wondered how lowly she had sunk, and then I thought how much seeing me would remind her of her suffering. As long as I existed, I would serve as a reminder of what her son would have been. It wouldn’t matter that I failed at life or succeeded, I would always be her what-if. And so my resolve was strengthened. She would never look me in the face again. I would not let her.
Nana Kwame had been hit by a car while crossing the road on his bicycle. I was in Form 1 of Boarding School when it happened. I found out only when I came home. The weeks leading up to the funeral, I had these vivid nightmares of headlights and screeching tyres. I saw his body flail from the bicycle; his head resting placid on the grey asphalt, contorted in a weird angle on his broken neck; heard screaming as men and women rushed to the middle of the road, always his mother last, crooning over her sons lifeless body. I would wake up drenched in sweat and terror. I imagined there was no worse way to go. I thought back at all the little adventures we had gone on when we were smaller and how much life had come between us in our early adolescent years. It did not help that the last conversation we had had was with him on his bicycle, riding slowly next to me as we made our way from Junior Youth Service. He had passed one of those condescending remarks that his mother liked to make about how “dadaba” I was. How easy I had it in life. “Your sisters probably don’t even know how to peel yam”, he had said, chuckling under his breath like he was so often wont to do, and I had kept silent. He was right after all, they didn’t. Even then I felt ashamed of my privilege – more so now when privilege was my very existence.
At the funeral, I did not walk up to the coffin because my mother wouldn’t let me. She did not understand that I had to pay respects to my friend in some way. That it was the only way that Nana’s mother, without looking into my face, would understand that I did in fact mourn her son. I had to let his mother see me up there at least once so she wouldn’t think I didn’t care that he was dead. The words were in my mouth but they didn’t come out. And when my parents got up from beside me to file past the casket, I looked away from the ground to my left and Nana Kwame’s mother was looking right at me. A cold, deathless stare. She saw all of my face, and I saw all of her thoughts towards me.
That was the last I ever saw of her . She packed her things after the funeral and left without a single goodbye to anyone. Life had not been fair to her. I understood this probably more than she thought I did. When I heard the news I imagined her in an old blue bus chucking her luggage underneath her armpit. I saw the cold deathless expression again, only this time with traces of a determination lost in the one prior. A determination to start her life anew.
I was sad when Nana Kwame died, but in hindsight, I am uncertain what made me sad the more. That my friend was gone, or that his death meant one more thing that I had that he and his mother didn’t.