The wake-keep seemed to have brought not only the many friends and business associates of Uncle Emeka from Enugu but also it appeared to have emptied the whole of Asaba into her family compound.
There were at least twenty canopies standing inside and outside the family compound. And yet, it had not at all been enough to contain the number of people – eating, drinking, dancing, talking and debating – at the top of their voices.
Every one of them, mourning Uncle Emeka in their own way. This was mourning as her people understood it, it was the wake-keep of a true son of the soil.
It didn’t matter that the death of this illustrious son of the soil meant there were no more sons or even any other child for that matter, in the home of Ike Chibuike. It didn’t matter that this death meant that a woman was left a widow with four children to cater for by herself.
It didn’t matter that numerous cousins like Aunty Ofunne and other relatives were left without a brother they’d loved and grown up with.
None of these mattered. The affluent wake-keep overflowing with so much to eat and drink and the sounds of good music was all that mattered, for it clearly showed that a great man was being rightly mourned and buried.
Valerie was desperately looking for a quiet place to get off her aching feet and get a little bit of rest. There was no going back to the hotel at this time of the night, actually morning, it was already past two a.m. last time she checked.
She opened the door of her grandmother’s bedroom gingerly, not really because she was expecting to see anyone inside but somehow force of habit made her open cautiously.
But her tired eyes widened with shock when she saw the crunched figure at the end of the well-laid bed, in the dimly lit bedroom.
Though her first thought had been, shut the door and run for your life, Valerie opened the door wider and in spite of her wildly, beating heart, stepped into the room.
The light flickered on and she had to stifle the wild scream from escaping her lips. “Aunty Maryanne!” She screeched. “O God, it is you.” She leaned against the door utterly relieved.
Maryanne laughed as she watched her niece try to calm her obvious runaway heartbeat. “Oh dear, did I scare you?”
“Not just scare me.” Valerie laid a hand against her breast. “You nearly had me running out the door screaming ‘ghost, ghost’.” She grinned as her aunt doubled over in helpless mirth. “It’s not every day one sees their grandmother rise from the dead and return to her old room.” She chuckled at her own wild imagination.
She strolled into the room, feeling not so tired after all. She’d been pleasantly surprised when Aunty Maryanne had arrived earlier in the evening to condole with the family. And it had kind of pleased her to have her there, helping out as they’d all worked together, cooking, cleaning and serving. She’d thought she’d left, but obviously she hadn’t.
“I thought you left.”
“No. I couldn’t, rather very late. Though Uncle Joe’s house is not so far away but they’d all have gone to bed by now.”
Valerie nodded. Watched as her aunt sat back on the bed, dusting off imaginary dirt from her navy blue lace caftan. She was nervous and Valerie understood why.
They hadn’t had time to talk again.
“I actually came in here for a quiet moment, maybe sleep a little.” Maryanne looked at Valerie with a nervous smile.
“Ha, it was a hectic night. Too many people.” She shook her head as if in disbelief. “A lot of money spent on simply burying the dead.” She mused. “I always wonder if it is at all necessary. Or just another way we express our weak humanity – a humanity that constantly seeks approval, with an insatiable need to bury our sorrows beneath gaiety.”
“And are they truly buried? Beneath all the gaiety?” Valerie drew closer to the bed, sat down. Absently wondering who kept this room so neat – no cobwebs or dusts.
Maryanne shrugged. “They are, aren’t they? I mean while we eat and drink or are even busy serving those eating and drinking, our sadness and broken hearts are pushed to the background. So maybe it works.”
“It never did for me, during Mama and daddy’s funeral or even when Jeff was buried just the next after the accident.”
Maryanne looked at the quiet sad eyes and sighed. “It didn’t work for me too.” She said quietly.
They were both lapsed into silence. Each remembering that beautiful woman that was the bond they shared. The bond they’d forever share.
“Mama never liked going for wake keeps and such.” Valerie broke the silence, smiling. “It always took daddy days, even weeks of pleading and cajoling to get her to attend one with him.” She chuckled. “And even then, they were sure to return way before midnight.”
Maryanne laughed. “She hated it even more when we were younger. While I sought every escape route to steal away to every wake-keep around the neighbourhood, she did everything she could to avoid even the ones we got invited to.”
Her brown eyes twinkled as she remembered. “She would always say to me – ‘Mary, a wake-keep is not a party or night club o‘ – I would always laugh and brush her off, talking her into covering for me, as I escaped the house and went off with my friends.”
Valerie joined her laughter. She could almost see the disapproving look in Mama’s eyes when she must have said that.
Maryanne sighed. “She’d been right too – wake-keeps have become a eating and drinking party with beats of high-life music helping the people club the night away.” She shook her head. “She always said she would not want such a wake-keep – just a simple service of songs and prayers.”
“And she got that – thanks to you and Uncle Joe.”
“No thanks to me.” Maryanne disagreed. “I was too overcome by grief. Uncle Joe took care of everything.” She looked at Valerie, her eyes misted. “Uncle Joe always asked of you. He would so love to see you.”
Valerie nodded. She would love to see her mother’s uncle once more. Look into his kind gentle eyes. He must be so old now. “I will see him tomorrow… later today.”
Maryanne inclined her head without saying a word. She simply looked down at her hands, lost in thought.
When Valerie touched her clenched fist, she jolted slightly.
“I am glad you are here. That you came.” Valerie said softly.
“I hoped you would come too. I am glad you did.” Maryanne responded in a low voice. “We all wronged you – every one of us did. We abandoned you, turned our backs on you.” Her voice cracked. She bit her lips to stop the tears from escaping.
“Yes you all did.” Valerie agreed her voice quiet, soft. “And it hurt and wounded me for a long, long time. It broke my heart, even my very soul. Like you all did, I blamed myself for their death. I could not let go, forgive myself.”
Maryanne shook her head. “No. No, it wasn’t your fault. You were… are not to blame. No one is.” She gripped
Valerie hands, squeezed hard. “Just fate. Inexplicable fate. We were wrong to have looked on you as the cause just because you survived that terrible accident.”
“For many years I wished I’d died too.” Valerie whispered in a broken voice. “If I had died with them, then we’d all be buried and I wouldn’t have been so alone.”
Maryanne cursed their selfishness and wickedness, their foolishness. Opening her arms, she enfolded Valerie within them.
“No, my dearest one, you were meant to live. I am glad you are alive. Having you here is like having a vital part of my sister. I was just too stupid, too scared to see it before. Forgive me. Forgive us, biko.”
Valerie allowed her tears to flow down and wet her aunt’s shoulders. She wasn’t really grieving her lost family, she’d finally come to accept their death.
She cried, not in grief for years of judgements, abuse, aloneness – those were all gone and in the past. And nothing no one did now, could ever bring them back or change them.
But she cried for relief, joy – now she can truly let go of the anger, the bitterness, the malice. Now maybe once again they can be a family… as much as will be possible.
They both spent the rest of the early hours of the morning talking, laughing, remembering old times and sharing new experiences.
And not for the first time since she left Lagos for Asaba, Valerie was grateful she’d come.
To be continued…