My wife rushed into my bedroom that fateful February night, 11pm, with disturbing news: “I just got a phone call. Onyeka has been rushed to the hospital. She is on life support machine. The frenzy of her entry and the news roused me from sleep. Still drowsy from sleep, I asked in amazement, “who told you?”
“Her elder sister,” she replied. “She just called from the hospital. She is there with her.” I was now fully awake.
“How can she be on life support?” I asked no one particular. “When did she fall ill? By my own understanding, life support machine is used for patients who are terminally ill or been ill for a long time. How can this be? We were all together at hometown during the last Christmas/New Year holidays. What went wrong? So many questions begging for answers.
Onyeka, a young lady of 35, was my cousin. She bubbled with life. Still single, she had a good job with one of the frontline oil companies in Lagos. We were all at home last Dec/Jan because the Igbo tribe of Nigeria usually flock to their hometowns during the end- of- year holidays, to touch base with their roots. Those in the Diaspora also return home sometimes loaded with foreign currencies, Dollars, Pounds, the Euro and understandably are the toast of their communities.
It is usually a period to reunite with loved ones, re-connect with long-time-no-see friends and classmates, and strengthen family bonds. You need to see the joy of parents when they see their children return during Xmas in December to holiday with blood relations and friends. It is usually a period to re-unite with loved ones.
The young men seeking wives do so that period, join their age grades or renew memberships, or open new houses built with money earned form years of hard work abroad. These activities are spiced with family meetings, ceremonies, thanksgiving services, and sometimes lavish parties. Annual cultural festivals featuring masquerades and cultural dances are thrown into the package of hometown entertainment festivities for the end-of-year holidays in Igbo land of Nigeria. But last December, there were no such parties. If any, they were low-key because of the prevailing strangulating economic recession.
It was against this background that our family members including Onyeka returned to my hometown, Abagana, Anambra State, South-East, Nigeria last December. It was kind of a general return. Onyeka was home. Her eldest brother returned too, from Spain after a 7-year sojourn in Europe. You can imagine our family joy welcoming our brother back home.
Onyeka was well built in body shape. She was pretty, standing about 5ft 10 inches tall with bright friendly eyes. She walked with heavy footsteps. She was the youngest of 7 children and the closest of them all to their octogenarian father. Though a bit withdrawn, she was a good mixer and conversationalist.
She may not always come to you first, but if you reach out to her, you will enjoy her company. She communicates well. Several times during the last Xmas holiday, I will stroll from our end of our large family compound to her end to ask for a favour such as, “make tea for me” and she always obliged me. She radiated beauty, warmth and friendship, a quality her job mates alluded to in their tributes to her.
My two teenage sons admired her. One day, the elder one told me: “Daddy, we like Onyeka. She is beautiful and carries herself well.”
“Oh your aunty is a big girl,” I told them. She is well educated and comfortable with a good job. In fact she does not return home with road transport as most of us do. She travels by air.”
“Is that so?” he asked again in amazement.
“Yes Oh, she is a big girl I repeated. Why don’t you go and chat her up and ask her about her job.” I wanted them to draw inspiration from someone they admired. I don’t know if they did speak with her.
Onyeka’s warm nature and the time good times we all had together last Xmas flashed through my mind when my wife mentioned life support machine. I just hope she does not die, I muttered to myself.
“Let’s pray for her,” was all I could say at that moment. “Wake up the children,” I instructed my wife. We all gathered in the living room and plunged into fervent prayers for the Almighty to restore Onyeka’s health.
Thereafter, I tried to call my junior brothers in distant cities. No luck. I could not go through. I spent about one hour with my wife in quiet discussion (it was well after midnight) wondering what must have gone wrong with this young girl. I went back to bed confident she will get well. I had barely fallen asleep when my wife burst again into the room and blurted out: “Onyeka is dead!”
Shock, unbelief. For someone who had gone to work the day before, healthy, to die before dawn next day was most unbelievable. Sleep deserted us. We started exchanging phone calls with family members to break the bad news. Onyeka’s eldest brother called me from hometown. We discussed. Their father must not hear this, at least for now, we agreed because of his failing health. The news could trigger another crisis.
Early next morning, myself, my junior brother and our brother-in-law were at the hospital morgue. On entering we saw Onyeka laid straight, face up on a mortuary table, body covered chest- to -neck with a sheet of cloth. She looked asleep. Her braided long hair sprawled on her left side on the table. We could not believe she was dead. As her elder sister wailed, we the men, launched into fervent prayers calling on God to restore back her to life.
Our brother in-law (husband of the elder sister) was applying anointing oil on parts of her body as we prayed. He suddenly called my attention: “Eric, Onyeka’s chest is warm. I reached out with my right hand. Truly, her chest was warm, but other body parts were cold. Our hope for her coming back to life surged. Maybe she was not truly dead. We told the mortuary attendant about our discovery. He said they would delay in embalming her body. May be, she would wake up.
We immediately called family members on phone telling them of the warm chest urging them to join us in prayers. Our cell phones rang endlessly as enquiries for updates flooded. We called pastors and priests to intercede in prayers. God can do a miracle to revive our sister. We strongly believed that. Some two hours later, we were tired and retired to the cars we parked at the car park. At intervals, one of us will dash into the mortuary phone-on-ear. One of the clergy men we contacted had instructed we should go into the mortuary to either place the phone by Onyeka’s ear, or on her body, while he prayed. Still Onyeka did not wake up. One hour later, we got a Doctor to examine her again even though she had earlier been pronounced dead. The young Doctor did so as we watched.
That done, he pulled the stethoscope off his ears and spoke: “Her brain is dead. There is no pulse or heartbeat.”
“Why is her chest warm?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he replied.
It was then we lost hope of our sister coming back to life. Her eldest brother instructed me over the phone that her body should not be embalmed. We should send her remains home immediately in an ambulance. We instructed the morgue attendants to prepare her remains for immediate movement while we arranged for an ambulance.
Doing so was difficult for us, and so was deciding who would accompany her body home. I would have done so being the most senior closest relation there, but I was ill myself at that time. Our brother in-law volunteered to go. Another problem surfaced. We were cash strapped. It was Saturday and the banks were closed for business being a weekend. And none of us had ATM cards with which to withdraw cash. It was then we contacted her office colleagues. Help eventually came from her office and a Good Samaritan who provided cash and her remains left for the 8-hour journey to hometown.
This drama, or what should I call it, was emotionally and energy sapping for me. I got home and crashed into bed where I remained for two days. It delayed my recovery. Four days later, we were hometown bound for the burial. Onyeka laid in-state for one hour before the funeral mass started. Family members, village men and women thronged our family compound, many weeping profusely.
“What happened to this young girl we saw last Christmas? Did you do an autopsy?” The questions were endless. There was no need doing an autopsy because the Doctor’s death certificate that accompanied her remains home stated the primary and secondary causes of death. They were couched in medical terms I did not understand since I am not a Doctor.
Onyeka’s octogenarian father was told of her death two days before her burial. As her body laid in state, I and some family members accompanied the old man to get to her and pay his last respect. He walked into the room, took a look at her and simply touched the open casket with his right hand. He did not betray any emotions. Then we escorted him back to his seat. That was the most trying moment for us. We thought the old man may be heart broken and even die because of his failing health. He took it all in his stride and told me later he has no option than to accept what has befallen him.
After the funeral mass held by a Catholic priest who admonished all present to be always prepared to go back to our creator because death can come anytime, Onyeka was buried in her family compound amidst tears and wailings. Friends and family members numbed by the shock of her sudden demise gathered at her graveside to bid her farewell.
Thereafter, funeral ceremonies by church members of our local church parish and the youths followed. Her office sent representatives to witness the events. Her obituary poster on the family compound gate said it all with the title: Gone too soon.
This is the story of the exit of my sweet sister Onyeka. We are still mourning. The pains remain with us especially those of us who saw her at the mortuary. I decided to share this pain hoping it will help to lift the burden off my chest. Dear reader, I know you may have inside you, the story of the loss of a loved one. If the pains are still there, please share the story with us. You never know, you will feel better and people can learn valuable lessons from your story about religious beliefs, how we all work, live, love, relate with one another, and how we bury the dead in different cultures.
My sister Onyeka has gone to be with her creator. We can only tell her: “Fare thee well,” and we pray the good Lord to grant her soul eternal rest.
Eric Okeke is a storyteller, editor, business writer, motivational speaker and author of the best selling book: I Want a Husband. He is one of Nigeria’s most experienced financial journalists. He has published several articles in local and foreign publications and in websites such as http://www.ezinearticles.com, www.ezinearticles.com and www.writingcareer.com. He is currently running Infomedia Company, a media consulting and information marketing company. Visit his blog at http://sallywantsahusband.blogspot.com