A tale of two deaths.
My mum and my sister, Seun both died young and of breast cancer. I was with both till the very end.
Mummy’s death. LUTH. 1992.
Yemisi and I were by her bedside. One on each side, holding her hand, praying with her. She was praying a simple prayer ‘Jesu omo Olorun, saanu fun mi’ – Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me. She kept saying that. She was praying for mercy, not healing. Yemisi and I had our eyes closed. After a while, we realised that her voice was not being heard anymore. So, I went to tell one of the nurses that Mummy was not talking anymore. The nurse rushed in, rushed out to get more nurses, seeing this, Yemisi and I were confused and kept asking them what was going on. They initially ignored us then they told us to get out of her cubicle in the ward. We saw them draw the curtains of her cubicle as they wheeled in a gas cylinder to her side. As we could not see what was going on and they kept pushing us out of her cubicle, we thought we would go outside and see from the window as her bed was a window side bed. We ran outside but did not see anything as they had pulled the curtain on the side too.
Our hearts were pounding as Yemisi and I clung to each other in terror. My intestines were twisting themselves into knots as they are wont to do when I am nervous. Cold hands seemed to grip my heart and squeezed it intermittently. There were no mobile phones in those days so, we could not call Daddy. Daddy had only just left about an hour before. We had all come from church with the reverend and Papa Kay, our uncle. Papa Kay and the revd came to give her communion as it was her birthday. Maami, her mum was also there. Before they served her the communion, Mummy had had an urge to empty her bowel. She went to the toilet and when she came back, it seemed like the movement out of her body had taken some life with it. She was visibly weak and could not even swallow the body of Christ anymore. She could not drink his blood too and the Revd had to put some drop on her slightly open mouth. When visiting time was up, everyone got up to go after a prolonged exchange of goodbyes. I think a few people suspected that would be the final goodbye. I think her mum suspected that would be the final goodbye because she wailed as she clung to her only child. My mum told her mum that she had gotten to her own last bus-stop and had to get off. She asked us all to leave her and her husband for a few minutes. Years later, my dad told us that in those last few minutes, she had asked my dad to please take good care of her children and my dad made a solemn pledge that he would be both mother and father to their children – a pledge he made good till he died.
So, we could not call Daddy. Yemisi and I has asked to stay behind with Mummy when everyone was leaving. Daddy would come back and pick us. We went back to the ward and what did we see? The nurses had packed all my mum’s stuff in a plastic bag and were already wheeling her to the morgue. They did not tell us our mother had died even though they knew her two frightened and confused children were outside because that was where they pushed us to. I screamed but no sound came out. Yemisi and I had to beg them to please not take her to the morgue before her husband saw her. We then rushed home to tell Daddy. I don’t know if they still went ahead to take her to the morgue before her husband saw her or not.
Seun’s death. 2005. St Lukes’s hospice, England.
I was by Seun’s bedside. She said to me, ‘sister, the battlefront is too hot. I can’t continue fighting. I have to stop fighting sister. I have to go. Please take care of my daughter, Derin. Let her be your daughter. Let her be wherever Daniel (That was what Tobi was called before he said he preferred Tobi) is. Bury me where ever I die. You are the only one here and taking me back to Nigeria will be too stressful for you’. I asked her if she could tarry a few days so I could book her flight to Nigeria to enable her see her daughter. I knew that the only reason Seun had been fighting was because of Derin. The only thing that made Seun cry was the thought of never seing her only child, Derin again. Her ring tone was Derin’s small voice singing ‘father lift me up o Lord! Gbe mi sejika re Olorun mi o’! Seun would play that ring tone on a loop and cry as she listened to her daughter’s voice in those last couple of months. She asked me to call Daddy and her sisters in Nigeria and Italy so she could say her goodbyes to them. I could not get through to my dad. Funmi was too scared to talk to her, Yemisi in Italy was not at home. And I could not get through to Buki and Dupeola. She told me to send them her love.
She then got up to use the loo. She said she suddenly had a strong urge to empty her bowel. As she was walking weakly to the loo, leaning on me, the nurses saw her and asked her what she needed. She told them that she urgently needed to empty her bowel. The nurses then told her that she was not strong enough to walk, they carefully took her back to her room and put her on a chair with a built in commode. When she finished, they cleaned her up and put her back on the bed. This was the first time that Seun would be voluntarily moving her bowels in about 2 months. The morphine she was being given for pain relief apparently had a side effect of making the bowel muscles too relaxed to work. So, she had not had regular bowel movements for a few months.
As I sat by her bedside at the hospice, a nurse popped in to ask if Seun needed her morphine topped up. Seun answered in the affirmative. So, the nurse gave her the morphine. Seun then got up from the bed and changed position. She put her head where her legs had been and her legs where her head had been. She then pointed at a figure that I could not see. She told me that ‘they’ had come for her. In the weeks before ‘they’ came for her a few times but she would argue with them and tell them she was not ready. But on this day, she told ‘they’ that she was ready. She asked if I could get the pastor of the MFM church she attended to come and pray for her. I made frantic calls to this pastor and left messages on his mobile and landline but he never came. I was later to hear that he said Seun did not contribute financially to ‘his’ church so, he owed her no obligation to be there. He did not consider the fact that Seun had only attended his church a couple of times as it was the closest church to my house and she was too weak to go regularly. She was only in England for about two months and most of the time was spent on admission in hospital. I then called my Methodist minister who rushed over even though she had never met Seun.
The nurse called me out and told me Seun had started her transition as she was now lapsing in and out of consciousness. She told me Seun’s death was imminent. She likened the process to the process of moving from a house and packing one’s stuff room by room. So, as one empties each room, one closes the door. The rooms closing were Seun’s organs failing. Death would be when one has closed all the doors of the room, steps out of the house and closes the front door. She asked me if I would like to be with Seun as her room doors closed. I answered in the affirmative. So, the nurse and I went back to Seun’s room. I told Seun that I loved her, I thanked her for 31 years of loving me. I promised her that I would adopt her daughter. Her breathing was raspy and the space between each breath was getting longer and longer. Then she did not take any breath again. She had stepped out and closed the house door. Seun was no longer in the house. When the nurse told me Seun had finished her transition, I remembered Pastor Agu Irukwu’s sermon about giving God thanks even when it was difficult.
So, lay prostrate on the floor of Seun’s room in the hospice and I thanked God for 31 years of pure joy and unadulterated love that Seun gave me. Seun was the person who loved me the most in my life. No one has loved me the way Seun did. I thanked God for this opportunity to be loved by Seun. I thanked God for Derin…
The nurse asked me if I wanted to call family to see her before she was cleaned and moved to the chapel of rest within the hospice. I called my cousin and my ex. The hospice gave me the contacts of funeral directors that I could call who would take her to the morgue. I was so thankful that I was given the privilege of being with my sister as she transitioned. I wish the nurses at LUTH had let Yemisi and I have that privilege with our mum.
I hope hospitals in Nigeria let people have that privilege of being with their loved ones as they transition instead of telling family members to leave and the departing one leaving without feeling the love of their loved ones they will be leaving behind. It is a great privilege to be with one’s loved one as they go away finally. Please don’t feel sorry for me. I just wanted to highlight the difference between how death is treated between the two countries ni o. And to say that if anyone is in that position in Nigeria, I hope the hospitals give the family a choice to stay till the end and not shoo them out.