04-05-14, 11:53 A.M.
I woke up with that feeling again today. I am drowning inside a river of sadness, desperately wanting to be saved. I’m trying hard to scream for help but I can’t find my voice. This river of sadness is my body, my life. I am drowning in myself. I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and ended up sitting on the cold hard floor for an hour, staring at nothing. I needed to talk to someone, needed a hand to pull me out of the river. But I already knew what everyone would say. “Simi, you need to go out more.” “Simi you need to pray.” How do I explain to them that I can no longer believe in a God who allows bad things to happen to His people? I have come to believe the only way to avoid this sinking feeling is to escape my body. I feel like a burning building that everyone ran out of and no one thought to put the fire out.
I woke up from my hunger-induced nap with a start. I tried to lift myself up and felt a throbbing in my head. It felt like someone was going at the inside of it with a hammer. I wiped off some spit from my face with the back of my hand and sat up, avoiding sudden head movements. I didn’t need to look in the mirror to know that my eyes would be bloodshot. That was not the first time I had sought sleepover pacifying my hunger pangs. Food didn’t interest me. I sat on my bed for almost an hour before I could muster enough strength to take a shower and brush my teeth.
Afterwards, I tried to decide what to eat. I conjured up different meals in my mind, trying to find the one that appealed most to my appetite at the moment. I settled for ice cream and cakes and decided to buy them from the mall, which is about twenty minutes from my house.
My driver Philip, whom my mum employed on my behalf, was warming the car when I got outside. As I approached he started to make small talk, asking about the weather and enquiring about my health. I ignored him, pretending like I hadn’t heard him. I wasn’t in the mood for chatter and Philip has an annoying habit of talking too much. On a whim, I decided to ditch him and go to the mall on my own.
“Don’t worry,” I said to him, as he was about to enter the car, “I feel like driving.”
“Ma?” he stuttered, unsure of my request.
I took in a deep breath, trying to be calm.
“Philip,” I said, “give me my car keys. I want to drive.”
“You never drive since the accident ma, I no go fit let you.”
Realising that Philip would put up a fight, I employed my bargaining skills.
“Okay,” I said, “You seat in the passenger’s seat while I drive. If I’m not driving well, you can take over.”
He considered it for a moment before handing the keys to me and walking to the passenger’s side. We both got in and I made a show of adjusting the seat, turning on my security and fastening my seat belt. My heart was beating wildly and my palms were sweaty. I started the car and gripped the steering wheel, trying to still my trembling hands. I couldn’t bring myself to move the car. Philip was watching me and I tried to appear as unafraid as possible. I realized I had failed when he sighed and said,
“Madam. Please let me drive.”
This time, I didn’t argue. I got down, feeling like I had just lost a battle, and walked to the passenger’s side. For a moment, I considered asking Philip to go to the mall for me instead. I felt defeated and my first impulse was to run into my room and sulk in the dark. I summoned all the mental energy I could and got into the car. For days, I had barely been able to even rouse myself in the morning. I was determined to take advantage of whatever had got me out of bed and into my car that day.
Philip also doubled as a spy for my mother. It took me almost a month to discover that he was giving her daily status reports on me. I didn’t mind much; it was a welcome relief from her hovering around. For the first four months after the accident, my mother stayed at my place with me. She cooked for me, washed my clothes, and worried about me. She always tried to get me to talk to her about my feelings, but I couldn’t. We had never been close and confiding in her, especially now, felt like the most unnatural thing to do. I felt the tiniest surge of happiness when she agreed to go back to Calabar after much persuasion.
As Philip manoeuvred through the potholes on the road, I closed my eyes and leaned into the window, imagining it was Seun driving me. For years, Seun drove me everywhere because I was afraid of driving, and the idea of my entering taxis made him uncomfortable. Our friends thought it was corny, him leaving whatever he was doing to drive me when I needed to go out. When I got pregnant, we both decided that I had to overcome my fear and learn to drive. Seun insisted on teaching me himself. We would drive around the estate, I behind the wheel and he giving instructions.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” he would say, “Look at your side mirror too.”
I always wondered how I was supposed to keep my eyes on the road in front of me, behind me and on both sides. I was afraid of lorries. Whenever I saw one approach, I would stop the car, park, and allow it to pass: this stemmed from a childhood incident that left a more potent effect than physical scars.
Thinking of those driving lessons always brought me intense pain. If Seun had listened to my protests when I insisted that I didn’t want to learn, our lives would still have been normal. Our baby would have been in the car seat behind us, and it would be Seun, not Philip, driving me to the mall.
We reached the mall in thirty minutes and I asked Philip to wait in the car while I went in on my own.
Inside, I tried to avoid people but they were everywhere. Couples and families laughing and chatting, dressed in their Sunday bests. It felt as if they were assaulting me with their happiness. I bought enough cake and ice cream to last a week in my deep freezer and hurried out.
Walking back to the car, I noticed a woman sitting on the pavement, knees hunched up and pressed to her body, her face buried in her laps. As I got closer I noticed that her body was trembling in a way that I recognized. She was crying. I felt a pull to walk up to her and try to talk to her. I resisted this urge and hurried to the car.
Philip started the car as soon as I got in, ready to pull out and head home. I signalled him to wait. From my window, I could still see the lady sitting on the pavement, her body shaking. I felt a strange connection to her. I saw people passing her. Some walked right past without noticing her, others braved a hasty glance and then averted their eyes. Nobody cared enough to stop and ask why a well-dressed woman was sitting on the floor outside a busy shopping mall, obviously crying. I felt angry and sad all at once. Philip was staring at me.
“Madam?” he called.
“I’m coming,” I said, and I opened the door and got out of the car.
I walked to the pavement where she sat, unsure of my next move. When I reached her, I sat down beside her and leaned in.
“Hey. I know this is none of my business, and I may be overstepping boundaries, but can I help you in any way?” I felt invasive.
She said nothing but stopped sobbing. A few seconds later, she brought her head up, revealing kind eyes, red and puffy from crying. She wiped the snot from her face with a white handkerchief and cleared her throat. I had imagined that she was in her early 20s, because of how small she looked from a distance. I realized now that she was nothing less than 30 – a grown woman. Her mascara and lipstick were smudged all over her face and there was sweat on the bridge of her nose.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with a shaky voice, “I don’t know what came over me.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I said. “Is there someone I can call to come and pick you?”
She shook her head and started crying again, burying her face in her laps. I rubbed my hand up and down her back in an attempt to soothe her. People had started to stare at us so I suggested to her that we go to the food court to talk. She wiped her face and nodded in agreement.
As I led her to the food court, I started to panic.
Who are you to offer comfort to this woman? You cry yourself to sleep every night, what can you say to her? A voice in my head mocked.
She excused herself to wash her face, while I found seats for us. I felt like a fraud as I waited for her. I had a strong urge to get up and go home before she discovered that I was also in pieces. Before I could bolt, she reappeared and sat opposite me.
“That was so silly of me,” she said as soon as she sat down, burying her face in her palms. “I had a moment … I couldn’t hold myself together long enough to get to my car so I just fell apart there.”
“It happens to the best of us. You don’t have to be ashamed.” And against my better judgment, I added, “Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head; she did not want to talk about it. Then she went ahead and said,
“I just found out I’m pregnant.”
“That’s why you were crying?”
“My husband and I have two sons. It’s hard enough raising two children in Lagos with all the craziness and the economy. We already decided to stop at two.
“And I get these crazy postnatal bouts of depression,” she continued, “it was so bad after I had my second boy. I think I was suicidal.”
“You have no idea,” she said.
“Why didn’t you go on birth control pills after your second?” I asked, trying not to sound confrontational.
“I did,” she said, “for a year. It messed me up. Heavy bleeding, night sweats, mood swings. I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to go off it some months ago while saving to get my tubes tied. Look at me now.
“Soon, I’ll have to smile and thank people when they congratulate me on the pregnancy; I won’t be able to express how terrified I am on the inside. I don’t even know how my husband will take the news.”
“I am so sorry.” I said.
I felt sorry for her and wished I could say something more soothing, but I didn’t know what else to say.
She sighed and then looked at me. I had a feeling she was wondering why I even cared.
“Thank you so much for rescuing me out there …”
“Simi” I said, “and you’re welcome. We all need saving on some days.”
She relaxed in her seat, smiling.
“I’m Maria,” she said.
I nodded. She was staring at me and I was looking down at my hands.
“Earlier when I said I had a moment, you said something about it happening to the best of us. Have you ever had a meltdown like this in public?”
“Yeah,” I said. “In the church, at the bank, at lunch with friends … the funeral.”
“Funeral?” she ventured.
“Yeah. I …” My voice came out as a hoarse whisper, surprising even me. I cleared my throat and continued, “I lost my husband some months ago.”
Her hands flew to her mouth and she remained silent for a few seconds.
“Oh my God. And I’ve been whining about my family,” she said. “I’m so sorry. How did he die?”
I winced. It was six months after the accident and I still couldn’t bring myself to use the word ‘dead’ to refer to Seun. It felt easier for me to say ‘I lost my husband’ than to say ‘my husband died’. My mother called it denial, I called it coping. The word ‘death’ was yet too heavy for me.
“Car crash,” I said. “He was teaching me to drive; I drove into a lorry.”
She grabbed my hand from across the table and squeezed it. Tears filled my eyes, I tried to fight them back, but I knew that in a matter of seconds, I would be sobbing.
“I was so stupid,” I continued. “He always said that I didn’t focus on the road enough, but I swear I was trying. I saw the lorry and I wanted to stop but he urged me to keep driving. I got scared and I closed my eyes for one second and everything else happened so fast. And then I lost the baby …”
I felt an overwhelming feeling of tightness in my chest like the pain was trying to burst out of my heart. I lowered my head and cried into the table while Maria held my hand.
“You were pregnant,” she said, more a realization than a question.
“It feels like I have no one,” I said, lifting my head, “He was my best friend. We were about to start an actual family. I destroyed that.”
“Simi, you have to stop beating yourself up. You need to forgive yourself,” Maria said. There were tears in her eyes too.
Maria held my hand from across the table, soothing me with words while I cried. I thought about how much such a gesture from my friends would have mattered to me. Whenever they visited, which wasn’t a lot, they walked on eggshells around me. They would sit in a corner of my bed, far from me, as if they were afraid to get stained by my misery, and say “Life goes on.”
When something this tragic happens, the world around you stops for a day or two, maybe even a week. People actually pause their lives to mourn with you. Eventually, the world stops caring. Life has to go on. Their lives go on and you’re left trying to recall what normal life ever felt like. For you, there’s no going back to normal.
Minutes later, Maria assured me that she was in the right frame of mind to drive herself home.
“Someday, when you’re at this baby’s graduation or whatever, you’ll be glad it happened,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.
We walked back to my car in silence. We had just shown each other the darkest parts of our lives, small talk was not an option. We shared a hug before I entered into my car. For a second I considered collecting her phone number, keeping in touch and maybe even becoming her friend. But something in me told me that for her, this was a private encounter that she wouldn’t want to be reminded of. So instead I asked her to drive safely and take care of herself.
As Philip pulled out of the compound, I waved until I couldn’t see her anymore.
Featured image by Eloghosa Osunde | http://www.eloghosaosunde.com