The last few weeks have been a roller-coaster of emotions – from the sadness of losing a dear sister-in-law, to the bittersweet joy of reuniting with many long-lost relatives and friends, and the fierce hope of protecting and nurturing 5 year-old Samuel after the loss of his mother.
The experience began nearly two years ago when Michelle was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare cancer that spreads through vessels and glands in the body. She bravely navigated the inevitable rounds of chemotherapy that seemed to sap the very life out of her skin, flesh and hair, reducing her to a shadow of her former self. Yet, no matter how toxic the treatment, Michelle never ran out of clever quips, hopes and prayers.
Meanwhile, my brother, Paul, searched for alternative therapies, a more healthy diet and a stronger dose of faith. So dedicated was he to her cause that he gave up work for eighteen months, became the sole carer of both wife and son, and stuck to a raw food diet that even the patient eventually abandoned for more familiar cooked foods and sugar-laden sweets.
As the absentee brother, I was relegated to making frustrating calls from Nigeria that ended in thin air or waiting at the end of WhatsApp for Paul to answer my texts, while tending to the family’s needs. On brief stopovers in London, I would walk the tightrope between wanting to be supportive to Paul and Samuel, while doubting my ability to control my reaction to Michelle’s worsening state. My heart was filled with compassion, yet I would dread seeing her morphing into a husk, reminiscent of my mother some fifteen years earlier.
The last couple of times I saw Michelle, I was passing through London on the way to and from Jamaica. I could see that, barring a miracle, that those were her last days. I tried to talk to Paul about whether he was preparing for the inevitable but he was too focused on coaxing her into one last rally, one that he hoped could be sustained until she recovered completely.
Not wanting to put a damper on things, I retreated to Calabar and prayed that the news would not come too quickly. But it did. Paul kept me up to date on Michelle’s re-admission to hospital with pneumonia and her rapid decline overnight. I went to bed fearing the worst and awoke to a missed call and a stark message: “Michelle has gone to heaven”. I felt sadness for the family she left behind and a strange sense of relief that her suffering was finally over.
Throughout the planning and execution of the final arrangements, my brother has been magnificent. With the help of a very supportive church, loyal friends and family, Paul conjured up a memorable and moving farewell that you could have sold tickets to quite easily, such was the amazing outpouring of musical performances from some of Michelle’s favourite praise & worship artistes. In the midst of sadness, there was joy, fellowship and gratitude for a life that had touched more than five hundred souls who turned up to say goodbye.
My favourite moment of the whole day will remain etched in my memory for a long time to come. It came at a dramatic juncture, when the beautifully engraved casket was being lowered into the bowels of the crematorium. Paul took Samuel gently by the hand and led him to the altar, so that he could take one last look before his beloved Mummy disappeared forever. As some mourners moved forward to join the silent vigil, Samuel looked around and, for some reason, looked up to the balcony.
His gaze met mine and he broke into the most beautiful smile. I smiled back and he grinned, then gave me a cheery wave. It was a poignant moment that left me in no doubt that Samuel will be just fine. He is beginning to learn that death is a part of life and that there is always life after death.
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