The hospital room was silent, save for the intermittent beeping coming from the monitor. I didn’t mind the noise so much; in fact, the familiarity of hearing it repeatedly made it comforting.
It was the smell I couldn’t stand; the strong stench of bleach mixed with stale piss and vomit made me want to gag. I looked at the window, imagining fresh air sweeping through my room, taking with it the stench and the ailment that had turned my 35-year-old body to mush. But the window was painted shut — taunting me with the promise of air so fresh, I could almost taste it.
When the doctor delivered the initial results and the dismal prognosis, I was struck by how similar that word was to the word ‘Canker.’ This was a word I was very familiar with.
Joel 2:25: “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.”
The child of a Deaconess, I had sat in the front pews at Church and heard a multitude of Pastors yell and gesticulate excitedly as they reminded us of God’s promise to restore all that the cankerworm had stolen. The cancer was stealing my years, but no one was offering restoration. Not anymore.
Telling my mother was the hardest thing for me to do. Not because of how much it broke her, but because I was left to put her back together when it did. I resented having to do that; I too was broken but there was no one to put me back together again.
Once she got over the initial shock and sadness, then came the mission to heal me by prayers. Mama dragged me from pillar to post. I spent hours kneeling in front of church leaders with outstretched hands, condemning the devil and casting and binding evil, until I was partially drenched in saliva, and totally spent from the hours kneeling on concrete floors.
I let her; she was my mum. But it was exhausting, and a part of me wished she was broken again. I preferred the broken woman to this new one with a determined fire in her eyes and a bible under her armpit.
I had always been quasi-religious, believing in God one day and agreeing with the rationality of evolution the next. It was a source of great discomfort for me — my inability to land on one side of the fence. The news of the cankerworm eating away at my insides was the variable that tipped the balance firmly in favour of God. I was suddenly desperate to believe that there was more to life than the few months of pain ahead of me.
I read more books about religion in the ensuing months than I had my entire life. The bible, which had previously been gathering dust on my bookshelf, suddenly gained new life, as my own diminished. The idea of heaven comforted me, and I lapped it up like a drunkard lapped up the last few sips of whiskey from an empty bottle. But I knew that, if heaven did exist, I would not be going there.
My increasingly close expiry date forced me to examine my past — unearthing memories that I had buried far beneath my conscious mind. This took an even greater toll on me that the cancer that ravaged my bones; my past hanging over me like an antibiotic-resistant STD.
One day, I had been visiting friends in Isolo, a densely populated area in Lagos. On my way back, I walked past St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which stood like a gleaming giant, amidst smaller decaying buildings and houses in different stages of disrepair. The stench of the refuse heaps cooking in the unrelenting heat drove me to seek refuge in the air-conditioned church.
I sat in a pew and watched as people came and went. Some happy, some sad, all with something to say to God. They knelt at the altar, made the sign of the cross, and muttered under their breaths whatever ask it was that had compelled them to come to church.
The air conditioner was broken, and in its place were strategically positioned fans which did little more than recirculate hot air. The sweat on my back glued my blouse to my skin, making me even more uncomfortable than I had previously been.
As I was gathering my things to leave, I observed an older gentleman wearing a faded blue agbada and aso-oke cap walking into a cubicle with the word “confessional” above it. He emerged 20 minutes later looking happier than he had walking in.
“Absolution! Could it really be that easy? Could I be guaranteed a peaceful afterlife by this one gesture?” I thought, as I made my way towards the booth. “Could absolution really be on the other side of a wooden door,” I wondered.
I entered the small cubicle and immediately felt claustrophobic, but my conviction that absolution was the cure to the afterlife was marginally greater than my urge to flee the restrictive cubicle, which, I imagined, was what being buried would feel like.
“Hello,” came a voice that was younger than I would have expected from a priest.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned,” I said, having heard it many times before, desperately hoping it was the appropriate opening line.
“How long has it been since your last confession, my child?” came the swift response.
“Erm, well, all my life really, this is my first time.”
I could sense him choosing his next words carefully.
“Confession is for Catholics, but a listening ear is for all. If something burdens you, you have mine.” he said.
The kindness in his voice made me want to cry, but I didn’t.
The door to the confessional booth opened and suddenly I was face to face with the priest. He was older than his voice had sounded, which comforted me. He invited me to the rectory, made me some tea and then sat down across the table from me in a kitchen that was so small, I felt I could touch both sides of the wall if I stretched out both my arms. I was tempted to test out my theory and stretch my arms out, and the thought of this kind priest’s reaction to my doing that made me chuckle. He looked concerned as I laughed alone, causing me to swallow the remaining laughter and sit straighter in my chair.
“Well,” he began, sipping his tea and reaching for the chin chin tin that was the only other thing on the small table. “Often we are burdened, less by a problem, and more by the fact that we don’t share that problem,” he continued. I don’t know whether it was years of holding it in, his kind voice, or my fear of missing heaven now that death was certain, but I opened my mouth and the words came tumbling out. I made no attempt to stop them as they stumbled over each other, desperate to be heard, to be free from the confines of my tortured heart.
I didn’t cry as I told the story.
I wondered if the other people that had sat at this table telling similar stories had cried, snot dripping down their swollen faces.
I think I laughed. Not a hearty laugh, the kind you make after a good joke or the kind that you relinquish when being tickled; it was a nervous laugh — the kind you use in an awkward situation or in acknowledgement of a particularly distasteful joke.
I thought again about the other people, sat at the same table, telling similar stories. Our stories were different and yet they were one and the same; innocence stolen, and trust broken.
Still I didn’t cry.
I told the story of the stealer of my innocence and the breaker of my trust. “He violated me in the worst possible way,” I said with a shrug, nervous laughter peppering my speech.
Not a single tear.
I wondered why my lack of tears haunted me. In the absence of scars, tears seemed to be the only proof of a memory unforgettable. I willed myself to cry but was rewarded with more nervous laughter.
* * *
Growing up, he had been my favourite Uncle; he always came bearing sweets and chocolates, accompanied by riddles that boggled the mind, and jokes that lifted the soul.
“A short man who lived on the top floor of an apartment complex always took the lift halfway, after which he took the stairs the rest of the way to his flat, except on days when it rained. On rainy days he took the lift all the way to his flat. Why do you think this was?” Uncle Sunday asked, one hand under his chin as he watched us rack our brains. When no one got it, he exclaimed “Because on rainy days, he could press the button to his flat with the help of his umbrella!”
After a while, I asked, “Why doesn’t he simply take his umbrella with him every day, even when there is no rain?”
“Because he is not as smart as you!” Uncle Sunday proclaimed, tickling me, and eliciting loud laughs and yelps from me.
Uncle Sunday was a gentleman who never raised his voice and seemed content with entertaining us children at family gatherings and events rather than ignoring us like the rest of the adults usually did. He was a towering figure at 6 feet and carried enough extra weight to solidify his giant status without being an overwhelming presence in any space. I looked forward to his visits and the riddles and sweets that came with them.
There was a 15-year gap between the night my childhood ended, and the day Uncle Sunday died. He had moved abroad years ago, and seeing him unexpectedly that night, laughing heartily in my living room made my heart stop. “Make Uncle Sunday hot eba and that sweet egusi you cooked yesterday,” my father said without even looking at me. “This your niece has refused to marry and leave my house o!” he continued, shaking his head in despair.
“Don’t worry, she will marry soon,” Uncle Sunday said, turning his gaze to me, “a girl as beautiful as her will have many suitors”.
I fled to the sanctuary of the kitchen, away from his gaze and the memories of that night.
I boiled the kettle and put the soup on the stove — all the while feeling like I was in a trance, my heart beating so fast that I clutched my chest in fear. My eyes settled on the coolant I had forgotten to put away after putting some in my car earlier that day, and I was calm. From that moment, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. It felt like I was outside my body, watching someone else open that bottle and pour it into the steaming bowl of soup.
Unconsciously, I’d always characterized my life as before and after the night Uncle Sunday raped me. Everything before seemed to have fairy dust sprinkled all over the memories. I am unsure how much of these memories are accurate and how much is me – desperately wanting something untainted.
After that night, I became a muted version of myself. Failing in school, and in life, seeking comfort in so many men’s bed that I became well-known in some circles. They called me loose, slut, whore, but in reality, I was broken. I went from bed to bed, looking for a savior, getting even more broken in the process.
Obinna tried to save me. He loved me with without condition or reproach. But he questioned why I could only be intimate when inebriated, why I cried after sex, why I wasn’t close to my family and why I was bent on pushing him away.
I was unsuccessful in my first attempts to push him away. He stayed, unassuming, undemanding, unconditional in love – and then one day, I broke down, and told him- about Uncle Sunday, about that night and the night 15 years later. He left the next day.
“You are the second person in the whole world I am telling this story” I say to the Priest.
The priest waited for me to finish before he spoke. “What do you seek, my child?”
“Absolution!” I responded.
“Are you repentant?” he asked
“I want to be. I hated him. I still hate him. I am happy he is dead. But I am a good person; he took my life away, and I don’t want him to take away my next life too.”
“My child. I am very sorry for what you have gone through — what you are still going through. The prison you are in is of your own making. You need to forgive him and yourself.”
Forgive that bastard? I had already gotten even. I didn’t want to forgive. What would fill up the vast space that the hate had occupied?
But even as I processed, I knew I also needed to seek forgiveness. His daughter had been my closest cousin growing up, and one of my best friends. She had been a daddy’s girl when we were young and even though we had lost touch, I knew she must have been devastated at losing her father.
I was not sorry for what I did to him. He was a monster, but his child had been collateral damage in my quest for vengeance.
* * *
The walk up her driveway was the longest walk of my life. With every step I willed my foot to move, but they had turned to lead and refused to align with my brain. When I finally got to her door, I knocked lightly, hoping that she would not be home, so that I could abandon this forgiveness project and die in peace.
But almost immediately, I heard a female voice call out from behind the door. “One second please.”
A minute later and there she was, Adaugo, my first cousin.
“Chidera!” she exclaimed as she opened the door and drew me into her warm embrace.
I peered down and saw a beautiful two-year-old attached to her leg. “This is Urenna, my second child. Ure, say hi to Aunty Chi Chi.”
Little Ure backed away shyly, undecided about this newly introduced member of the family. I didn’t blame her; her mother would be just as undecided once I let out what I was about to.
I reminded Adaugo about that time we got in trouble for stealing sweets from Mama Iyabo. She countered with a story about our mutual hatred of amala and ewedu and what had happened when our mothers had discovered the fake potted plant where we had been depositing our hated dinners. The overwhelming smell had been the first clue, our guilty faces, the second.
But after all the small talk, I was forced to speak- to say what I came to say- to unburden myself.
After I spoke, there was a silence that neither of us seemed willing to break. I’d told her everything that her father did to me, but the story wasn’t finished yet. I laughed — my nervous laughter cutting through the silence like a sharp knife. I wasn’t ready to speak again just yet.
“I knew, Chidera,” Adaugo said.
She told me how she had returned to their cramped flat earlier than was expected that day and had heard my screams from the door. She told me how she had seen her father thrusting in between my ten-year-old legs and had watched transfixed.
“I knew,” she repeated, as the silence returned to fill the emptiness.
It was my turn to break it.
I let out a sigh as I began to tell her about the eba and egusi I had made for her father. I told her about the coolant and the hate that was still in my heart.
I waited for the outrage, the curses I expected rained upon my head. I took her father away. I was a killer.
But she drew me in and held me close. “You can let it go now Chidera. That hate, you can let it go.”
As she held me, I noticed that her shoulders were wet. I touched my face and felt the tears falling freely for the first time since that terrible night all those years earlier.
* * *
I would have loved to say that forgiveness saved me, that the cancer disappeared, and I was miraculously healed. But my cancer was too far gone and there was nothing that the doctors or my mother’s prayers could do about it.
In that silent hospital room, with the sounds of the beeping from the hospital machines, I took my last breath. I had said my goodbyes and made my peace with life, as life had with me.
And I had cried.
Onyebuchi Alero Ajufo inherited her grandmother’s Itsekiri fire, her father’s Ibusa pride and her mother’s Benin confidence. A storyteller at heart, Buchi spent the last decade telling stories for Multinationals, Philanthropists, Country and Government Leaders. She loves black coffee, white wine and red velvet cakes, but not necessarily in that order.
You can connect with her on Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/