THEORY OF DEATH: IN CONVERSATION WITH MY MOTHER

Funmi: So, Did you die?

Yetunde: Yes.

Funmi: That’s a relief; I spent too long thinking you may be lost.

Yetunde: Lost, how?

Funmi: I knew you would not have abandoned us but since we couldn’t find your body and l didn’t want you to be dead, l imagined you lost your memory and was wandering the streets. I would look closely at those unfortunate souls led around in chains by white garment church healers checking that you were not one of them. I learnt the word amnesia, which was a big word for a skinny girl in primary four to carry around.

Yetunde: It must have been hard.

Funmi: It didn’t feel so initially, everything came later.

So, how did you die?

Yetunde: l was just, no more.

Funmi: Do you remember the events of that morning?

Yetunde: Do you?

Funmi: I have no recollection of that day other than after dark when people started to gather and chatter around our house.

Aunty mi Toyin told me years later that she had ironed your dress for work and you’d had a little quarrel with Daddy mi who didn’t think you should be returning to work so early after a difficult pregnancy and birth. She wished for years that she had somehow stopped you. Daddy must have beaten himself up about that too. I envied her memory of your last day alive.

Yetunde: What memories do you have?

Funmi: Only little snap shots, the clearest of which is you sitting outside our house in Onabola examining my bag after school to be sure there was nothing in there that didn’t belong to me. I was scared of you, you were the one with the cane. I also remember your laugh, your dance and that scar on your forehead from the accident in Ijebu. I allowed no memories for decades until recently when l started recalling moments of your tenderness. One of the most vivid is of you moisturising your skin and my fascination with the stretch marks on the stomach and buttocks of your lithe body. You‘d had eight children by age 39. I used to be sure l’d not make it to 40 either so l did everything like time was ticking away.

Anyways, l’m talking too much which is strange because l hadn’t kept a picture of you for 35 years, l did not want to see you.

Young Yetunde Arigbabu with her purse

Yetunde: So, how are you Aduke.

Funmi: I don’t know Maami. I killed Aduke early on but kept Mary for a while, then I adopted Funmi until l discovered recently that Aduke hadn’t died. I’m trying to persuade her it’s safe to come out to play again. She’s pretty cool, that one, Aduke, so fragile. Why did you call her Aduke?

Yetunde: Because you were considerably loved, I already had four daughters from two marriages; l wanted a son for your father. You were not a son but you were so lively and beautiful, everyone fell in love with you so we called you Aduke. You are the only one of my children we called by her oriki because your oriki is your reality. Why did you become Funmi?

Funmi: I guess Aduke seemed to represent everything l wanted to leave behind, what l perceived to be my vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It wasn’t conscious. You and daddy had registered me as Mary for school so l was one person at home and another in school. School came to represent an escape so l preferred Mary till l got to university when l no longer felt like a Mary. There, one of my friends asked what my other names were, l said Funmilola, so we both adopted Funmi as l didn’t want anyone but daddy and aunty mi Toyin calling me Lola in that affectionate way of theirs which is too much like love. Not that l realised all this at the time. I just became Funmi, which my 20 year old self thought was funky, distant and safe. All my certificates are still to Mary Aduke. Anyway I am digressing. How did you die maami?

Yetunde: What does it matter?

Funmi: It does because it drove me mad imagining how you may have died. That madness didn’t abate till l became Funmi. Through my teenage years l wondered what it was like to be burned alive, seeing so many lynchings on the streets in Lagos didn’t help. I used to stand by and watch mobs set some randomly accused young man ablaze , l never saw them lynch women. I would watch the doomed man struggle then go limp as he loses the futile plea with the flames. The gnarled blackened corpse always seemed to point upwards accusingly.

Yetunde: What does that have to do with my death?

Funmi: No one ever explained what may have happened to you. Everyone thinks children are stupid, l did something similarly thoughtless. I did not allow my Morenike out of school for her aunty Remi’s burial. Remi was a mother figure to both of us. She later told me how bad she felt about that and how sad she was to loose Remi, I do let her talk and laugh about her Aunty Remi’s idiosyncrasies. I also let her talk about Daddy mi whom she called Grandpa Badagry, and Mama Seun our housekeeper. They all died one after the other and rather unexpectedly, although one really must think death a constant expectation. l let Morenike talk about everything she wants, I hope what l do suffices, you never know with children.

Yetunde: Why did you call her Morenike?

Funmi: I didn’t, her father’s father did, he was blind which helped him see everything. I gave her a name in resignation to the entrapment l had allowed myself into at the time. She likes the name because it seems choppy and modern. Boluwatife, as God wills. She likes Bolu or Tife , which seems very androgynous and cool but she is a Morenike, one to pamper and cherish. I think she’s happier with it now, Mo is an abbreviation that suits her personality. She doesn’t like small talk and girly stuff that fries the brain as she calls it. I have explained that intellect is not male or female, it just is. I told her that it’s ignorance or deliberate mischief that make people assign masculinity to clarity of mind and forthright speech in women. I let her know that intelligence is taught, as is ignorance.

Yetunde: Why did you have just the one?

Funmi: I actually didn’t want any, it felt like l had spent my life being a mother to many, l also didn’t trust life enough to bestow it upon anyone else. Does this make sense Maami?

Yetunde: Yes it does

Funmi: The irony of it of course is that what you run from becomes you as l went on to become mother to too many but we can talk about that later.

Yetunde: So who eventually told you l had died

Funmi: Nobody did. As a child you sort of eavesdrop on adult conversations, to be honest you don’t even have to because they just talk as if you are deaf. I imagine we must have been the last thing on anyone’s mind in the circumstance beyond ensuring we were fed, cleaned and sent to school.

School became different because l was the kid who’s mother’s picture had been published on the missing persons’ page of the Daily Times. The teachers were kinder and the kids crueller, nobody was normal.

Yetunde: Who told you I had died Aduke?

Funmi: Please don’t call me that, it hurts in my chest. I just overheard the conclusion from the many adults, it may have been any combination of Aunty mi Toyin, Mama Shylon, Uncle Nat, Mama Sharafa or Daddy. They said you must have been in the Molue that caught fire on that functionally useless bridge in Jibowu, adjacent to old kalakuta republic. They said the driver had a jerry can of fuel in his compartment and had struck a match to his cigarette causing an explosion. A few people escaped but most others were burned beyond recognition. Nigeria has been problematic for a long time.

I remember that daddy and some others had to go to the morgue to try to identify you but couldn’t. So the bus explosion death became the theory of your death.

It makes sense because that was your route to work although you should have got off before Jibowu. Perhaps you were headed to Ibru fisheries at Ijora to negotiate bulk purchases for the restaurant you were finally going to start in Illupeju. You already had the land and furniture, you were finally done with child bearing. You wanted to build a business. All these l pieced together listening to the adults talk. It was a theory I sensed they didn’t fully believe because the search for you went on for another year with many false sightings yo-yoing our sanity. By the way, we never got your insurance pay-out because they didn’t believe the theory of your death.

Yetunde: I am sorry, who was taking care of you and the boys?

Funmi: Daddy, Aunty mi Toyin and Mama Sharafa but then Aunty mi left because Daddy and Mama Shylon had a big row, he drew a line across the yard and threatened to behead her if she ever crossed the line into our house again. I hear she did something horrible, I just thought it strange that she ate a lot and never seemed to cry. They said she sacrificed you, being a witch and all, because you were her only daughter for your father. She probably had a thyroid disease or ate in grief but those were horrible times and I saw a lot of it. Strange, I too am your only daughter for my father. We didn’t see my older sisters again for years nor Mama Shylon and the rest of your family for even longer. It was just Daddy, the boys and me.

Yetunde: How are your brothers?

Funmi: Mostly fine but you will have to talk with them as l have often wondered how it affected them, we don’t talk about it, we are a stoic lot and boys don’t cry. Daddy cried though, many times, although he tried to hide it.

Yetunde: You said you saw some horrors. What did you see?

Funmi: I’d rather not say now but I did see you. I clearly saw you. One day on the bus going to school, you sat across from me. I knew it was you, I’d recognise that scar on your forehead anywhere. It was you but you wore one of your Ibo double wrappers instead of a work dress. I wondered why you’d do that seeing as it was a workday. You were smiling across at me and l wanted to run unto your laps but couldn’t make my body move, I sat rooted and terrified because it was you, yet.

I kept willing you to talk to me but you just smiled so I jumped off the bus scared. When l got home, l told Aunty mi Toyin l’d seen you so a search party went in that direction. They did not find you of course so Aunty mi broke down in tears, l laughed and told her it was joke. I said that to console her but they beat me for being flippant and stupid, l know l saw you. I also knew l wanted to help my sister feel better. l still tend do that sort of stupid to make people feel better thing.

Yetunde: Darling, it wasn’t me, it was you.

Blue Woman sees everything

Funmi: Yes l know that now, just as l know that the endless dreams and sightings l had of you were me. The Jehovah’s witnesses whom we joined after everybody had left taught us that spirits exists but cannot harm or help us. Later when l became born again I learnt that spirits were evil. Those explanations helped banish you at the time but l now prefer the explanation of ancestral consciousness in epigenetics. Ultimately it is me. l have no real interest in religion, you didn’t seem to too.

Yetunde: No l didn’t. l was Christian but l visited seers, Muslim Alfas and Babalawos, you probably remember me taking you to a few.

Funmi: Yes l do actually. I was thinking recently about how my mind is both male and female and if in your search for a son, you got into a realm that brought you a female child with a mind without gender. This makes me laugh. Of course all minds come without gender. I have often wondered if you and l would have got on, had you not died. I don’t know if you would have continued with your open religious fluidity because things got really difficult in Nigeria and almost everybody’s mother became deeply religious and polarised as a survival requirement. With you dead, I grew up without any female influence or pressure to be female in any particular way. I also made my own belief choices without coercion. I wonder what you would have made of my choices and how many of them l could have made without going into loggerheads with you. Aunty mi Toyin once said she was sure you and l would have fought all the time. Can it be said rather morbidly, that l’m lucky you died?

Yetunde: Yes you turned out to be a bit of a one off. I don’t know what l may have become had l not died but you are remarkably similar to me in many ways.

You are strong but not tough. Your spirit is free, your mind is curious and your soul is kind. It is not without it’s price l imagine.

Funmi: No it is not. Indeed, we do become our mothers, I certainly became you, I look exactly like Daddy but l have your hands, l like my hands. I pick up emotional stray cats like you did and fight for myself and others although I draw the line at physical brawls, l don’t have a fight trouser like you did, but then that’s my privilege talking. Do you like who l became?

Yetunde: Yes, I am proud of you.

Funmi: Thank you maami. One of the other things l remember from before you died was a sense that you had high expectations of me, you always treated me like l was intelligent. All those years when l wasn’t sure you were dead, l wanted to be sure l met your expectation in case one day you walked back into our lives. It never occurred to me not to go to university or make something worthwhile of myself. l was not going to become a teenage mum or anything stupid like that as l used to say. Strange, l hear Mo use those same terms to justify her geekiness. I did of course do many stupid things which l will tell you about when l’m ready.

Yetunde: You were always a responsible old soul but l want more ease for you.

Funmi: I know what you mean, I wouldn’t have until recently.

Yetunde: Do you like being alive?

Funmi: Yes, very much so, it took facing the possibility of death to show me l really like living, mostly l like being alive. So now, at the worst moments l do have a deep emotional pool to draw from because l am convinced of my love of aliveness and desire to keep living creatively and intelligently. Also l really want to see what sort of adult female Mo will become. l promised her l would become a cantankerous old grandmother, this is something both of us want to see. She’s not sure she wants children, she probably will later. I am happy whatever her choice, as long as she’s happy.

Yetunde: Does she like boys?

Funmi: She thinks they are mostly idiots because they are often gullible and afraid to be themselves. I suspect she’s looking for emotional honesty, which is tough to find in any boy never mind a teenage one. I worry she’d be the type to love deeply and hurt badly.

Yetunde: She’ll be fine, she has a good mother. You on the other hand has suffered l think.

Funmi: Yes maami, love has been a suffering but can we talk about it another time?

Yetunde: Yes, we can, l’m always here.

Funmi: I know. It feels good.

Yetunde: So did you accept the theory of my death?

Funmi: Yes and no. It’s rational and l’ve always been attracted to rationality, primitive thinking annoys me. On the other hand, l didn’t want you to have suffered death so l hoped you might still be alive.

Yetunde; Death is not a suffering, life is.

Funmi: Yes it is harder on those left behind but l meant that l didn’t want your death to have been painful, for you to have suffered before death.

That’s why the theory of your death was difficult because it involved suffering. For a long time l’d visualise you trapped in that bus screaming. I’d see the flames burn your face and your head explode, it was physical agony for me. After l had Mo, l took on the pain l sensed you may have felt at the realisation of certain death, knowing you had young children at home. I often thought l heard you cry to God to have mercy on your children.

Yetunde: You were always very imaginative. Would it help if l told you it happened very quickly and l didn’t suffer much?

Funmi: You didn’t?

Yetunde, I didn’t. I died quickly from smoke inhalation so l couldn’t feel anything else that happened to my body. The impact of the explosion didn’t give me enough time to think so my spirit did not agonise the way yours has for so long my love. Death is not a suffering, life is and only to make us alive to living.

Yetunde Arigbabu with her Pandora’s box recreated as a Blue Woman by Gbolahan Ayoola

Funmi: So you did die in that bus.

Yetunde: I think so my darling, it’s a very good theory but we know nothing for sure.

Funmi: But you are dead, right?

Yetunde, Yes I died but I am not dead. I am here talking with you. I was always here whilst you were away. I will always be with you.