I can feel my shirt sticking to my skin; that wet sticky hold of sweat on your skin like the grip of an infant on your finger. The fans are on full blast but I find my eyes searching for them to make sure they are still on from time to time. It also doesn’t help that today is a full house at church (Sunday School Rally) and I came late, so I am stuck at the back, hidden in a corner with no leg room, and on a plastic chair that might give way. The lady beside me is using her church manual to fan herself; I didn’t bring mine so I am watching her in envy. The heatwave has been terrible this year, but I can’t help but wonder if it is not the ‘hottest’ year like everyone has been harping on about. Memories of walking from Anatomy to Independence Hall at the university, standing under the sun in secondary school during the Corpus Christi benediction on the field, or the year in primary school that teargas was thrown into our compound and we were scampering for water, flood my mind. Sure it is hot, but there have been hotter days. Or am I lying to myself with these memories? Am I turning up the temperature in those memories just to be contrarian? The microphone is in front of me before I know it, and now I have to remember a bible verse from a long time ago. The heat is forgotten, for now.
The Screwtape Letters terrified me growing up, so much so that I have not returned to reading it even now; at that time when I was questioning my faith, religion, spirituality, the book terrorised my thoughts. Now when I think about the book, how it made me feel like I was losing a battle I never signed up for, apart from the fear that creeps slowly into the fore, there’s the memory of my favourite aunt from church growing up: Aunty Sola. Aunty Sola always treated me like what I had to say, my doubts, were worth listening to, worth engaging. She never took my fears and dismissed them outright, with an Amen, bible scripture or anointing oil. I feel like I have long since strayed from the path of questions, wandering the roads of persistent doubt; I wonder if Aunty Sola is surprised at this. We had had a conversation about The Screwtape Letters and other religious and theological books that I was perusing at the time. I think that was the last time I saw her, sitting on a plastic chair that stood in the centre of the church as it begins to clear out. If I try hard, I can see the people sweeping and clearing around me, and the pattern of the Ankara she was wearing. It is hard to trust if this was truly the last time I saw her because each time the memory is conjured, the number of people is different and it is never the same pattern as the last time.
I have no pictures of Aunty Sola. With each recall, I find that it takes just a little bit longer to remember her face. I am standing in front of the chair, her voice resounding against my eardrums, but I cannot see her face, like the blind man in the Bible, I am seeing trees. And then it clears. I worry that I would forget Aunty Sola; that everyone already has. I worry that I will never return to the boy I was when she knew me – excited by Bible sword drills, reciting memorised verses and enthused about church services – and that she would be displeased with me, her memory tainted by my wandering of doubt-filled roads. Some days, I am itching for pictures of her, to remind myself that she existed and I am not just conjuring this memory from thin air. I worry that I would forget the sound of her voice.
Death leaves us with a care basket of various things, like a well-mannered visitor thanking us for our hospitality. It leaves us with either riches or debt, junk or antiques, and memories. You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban, a song, is still a heart-wrenching trigger for the first time I remember experiencing death up close. The violins, and Mr. Groban’s falsetto, send me back to the chapel of my secondary school, the lights are off and a slideshow is playing. Pictures of schoolmates, classmates and friends slide after each other, while my vision is blurring by the tears forming at the corner of my eyes. For days, weeks, after we resumed that term, I can still hear – if I strain my mind’s ears long enough – the silence of the halls, the hollow laughter as we tried to navigate the memories that came with our collective loss. I remember being scared to pick at memories of mates I had lost. What if the last thing I had said was mean? Or we fought and now all I have left is this item I stole in vengeance? I remember pretending like the song didn’t exist for the next few years. I remember my silence during memorial events, and days long after that term. I remember that I had a friend who drew the most wonderful comics and made me feel like being away from home was not that difficult if you just opened yourself to trying. I do not remember his voice clearly; I am grateful there are pictures of my friend.
Teju Cole writes in his essay, Memories of Things Unseen: Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. I do not like taking pictures, and yes being non-photogenic plays a role in this. However, I find that taking pictures often detracts my attention from the moment that I am currently immersed in, from the life I am living at that time, from the memories I am creating. If the other person asks, sure, I will take the picture, but I most likely am not comfortable, or nervous, if I am the one asking to take a picture at a meetup. There are no pictures of me on my matriculation day into the university, but the events of the day are easy to recall: how I was late and didn’t get a seat in the hall, meeting the parents of my friend, and the awkward lunch at Mr. Biggs with a self-invited guest. My graduation from secondary school was well-documented with pictures, some of which are now lost, but the memories I remember are the ones that are not captured in the pictures. It feels just like Teju Cole wrote, that singular moment is preserved and everything else is trimmed away. I mourn the lost pictures; without them my preserved moments are gone too.
It bothers me that I have no idea how old Aunty Sola was. Or what she really did – I knew she was a lawyer but where? Or what she wanted out of life? I only knew her within the confines of church, and my struggle with faith. I wonder what her memory of our last physical discussion, the one I recall, is. I wonder if over time she would have lost the sound of my voice, and just recalled my name. I am older than I was when I saw her last, I am no longer the little boy she called a big man, and at some moments I am envious of her. Sarah Manguso, in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, speaks of …No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me. I am left with this memory of her, these swirling emotions of her kindness and my failure in straying too far, wandering for so long a time that I am afraid she will not recognise me. Sally Mann asks, in Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs: Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory… when someone dies, where does it all go? I wonder what happened to Aunty Sola’s, or if she would know; I am envious that I am not finished.I have always prided myself of having a good memory, of being able to store things in my head – numbers, text, of being able to recall events and experiences of self, or shared with friends, that others seem to have forgotten. I was made to memorise the whole Book of John growing up for a quiz or competition of some sort, there was also the time I memorised my whole Integrated Science notebook for an exam that was approaching and understanding concepts seemed too tasking. I am no longer good with memorising facts and figures, a side effect of aging I believe, but moments and the emotions I felt at that time continue to impress themselves on my mind. The seething rage the first day I refused to go to church because I wasn’t feeling well and I was beaten for it; the heady feeling of being in love for the first time and writing my first poem for that love; the overwhelming relief that came with realising that I could never make the woman I loved then love me like I wanted, and let go. Some memories refuse to be tainted. Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation, Rosalind Cartwright notes in her book The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in our Emotional Lives. I am left wondering if this holds true for the emotions that I attach to these memories. Oliver Sacks writes in his book, Hallucinations: We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection. Am I continually recreating and reconstructing these emotions each time I try to recall? Can I trust the actions I am taking based on these memories and the emotions they invoke when recalled? Who do I trust if I cannot trust myself to be true to myself? It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity, declared Stephen Hawking.
I have found myself wondering what happens to our memories as we grow older. The more memories one acquires seem to be more ammunition for nostalgia, and regret, when our bodies are failing but our minds are still active. I have found that when I am sick, or having one of those days where my body is refusing to engage with the world, my mind plays back memories that I thought I had long forgotten, sometimes deliberately, holding them up against the sunlight, like checking the authenticity of a naira note, asking me to confirm their validity. Friends that have left, words said in anger, moments of fleeting happiness that can never be gotten back; all laid bare before me. The whole event is crippling, my chest tightens and suddenly it feels like I can’t move, like maybe I will be better off dead, devoid of all these memories. In these times, I crave the ignorant bliss that I imagine comes with amnesia, of truly forgetting. Manguso writes, the least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. I would need only to live in the present and not fear the crushing waves of nostalgia and regret that come with the flooding of memories. But if the past is indeed what tells us who we are, informs our identity, then the fear of who I would be without my memories begins to seep in. I am caught in two worlds: to remember or to not remember. And then it creeps back in: my envy of not being finished yet.
It’s been five years since I received news of Aunty Sola’s death, but I find myself returning to thoughts of her often these past few months. I didn’t know her outside of church, so I always assumed that in time I would forget her. But this memory lingers, like the taste of pepper on your tongue long after you’ve stolen meat from a pot of stew: no one else knows, but you can’t deny it to yourself. Meghan O’ Rourke, citing a psychiatrist, in The Long Goodbye writes: the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created. So maybe, just maybe, my fear is invalid and forgetting her is not entirely possible. Worrying about if I am living up to this memory of her I cannot forget becomes a new challenge to deal with, a new foe to vanquish.
I do not remember the bible verse. It seems that this memory of mine, that I had found great pride in, might not be what it once was; I am no longer the boy who had verses on the tip of his tongue. I sit down on the chair and open my Bible, staring at no word in particular. The heat is distracting, the grip of my shirt cold and discomforting. Maybe this is, or isn’t, the hottest year of my life yet, but that knowledge does nothing for my situation. This is the cost of participating in life, some memories would be lost, tainted by the art of recollection. It might be how we know that we are still alive, still unfinished, as memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither – memory the capricious seamstress, stitching together our lives and nature as so wonderfully described by Virginia Woolf in her book Orlando: A Biography. Other things we might never forget, and be left reeling afresh each time the waves come crashing into the shore of our minds, left to deal with the overwhelming feelings of nostalgia, regret, lost joy or gratitude. I close the Bible and weigh it in my hand; it is too heavy to fan myself with. I am no longer the boy I once was; there is loss in that memory but there is an astounding amount of hope in that loss. I am now the big man Aunty Sola saw back then. Manguso writes: Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything. I am still unfinished.
Uche Osondu is a Nigerian, tragically. He swears by two things: food and anime. He is currently working on writing and living, in equal measures. He writes from Abuja.
Twitter Handle: @TheOsondu
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue