Celebrating East African Writing!
Maman’s eyes have been draped in sadness for years now. She has worn her greying mane in the same way for the past three: packed to the crown of her head in a bun. Sometimes the piece of liputa she used to tie it up loosened and strands would fall to frame her slim brown face. Oftentimes, Maman would smile to herself, plagued by her many memories of Papa. She believed he spoke to her from the grave.
“Ariane, I hear his baritone, after all these years it still makes my heart skip beats,” she would drawl in French.
The only time I got to see her beam was when she recounted stories about Papa, she could speak about him all day if you were willing to listen. I hear her giggle whilst washing plates, or doing the laundry, in the same high-pitch way she used to when Papa was around.
They would run around the house like high school sweethearts in love. Though they were married 30 years, they seemed to grow more and more in love with each other everyday. Papa was the most handsome, gentle and loving man she ever knew. He didn’t have much but he loved his family and always put us first. Given his luck, he strived to be the best man he could be until his very last breath.
Papa battled with cancer before he passed. Maman worked two jobs, yet still, there was hardly enough money to continue treatments. I know Maman blamed herself for his death, suffering with hallucinations as a result. Maman’s condition worsened when she began forcing us—Yaya, Jean-Jacques and I, Ariane—every year on the anniversary of his passing to drive an hour and 45 minutes to Papa’s graveside “pour converser avec lui.”
I don’t attach weight to the notion of the talking dead, so I tend to bow out of these visits, choosing instead to remember him before he became ill. Papa had been hardworking, persistent and courageous. In his last days I witnessed a man whose physical appearance changed drastically, with an inability to do much. But his eyes remained the same; filled with hope and prayers.
“My dear,” he would say, his voice groggy and wincing in pain, “Things happen for a reason—the way they are supposed to.”
He accredited the course of life to destiny and a loving “Higher Source” who blessed and healed people.
I, in turn, could not fathom why such a loving force will allow anyone to die in the circumstances my Papa did.
It’s been a few months since my last visit. In my decision to keep a closer eye on Maman (and in my concern about her mental wellbeing), I did not want to continue feeding her mirage of Papa’s presence. Perhaps it’s because I do not presume a connection between the dead and living to be true.
I believe Maman’s delusions were as a result of refusing to allow Papa to rest in peace. Everyday I witness her weight deteriorate, making it clear she required extra care. If Papa truly spoke, I believe this is what he would ask of me.
When Yaya moved out two years ago, I made the decision to stay home for as long as Maman needed me. We fought about me being too young to look after Maman in her condition, Yaya suggested we admit her into a mental health institution but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Even when an opportunity arose to teach back home in the Congo, I chose to stay with Maman. I couldn’t fathom leaving her in the state she has been in. When he could break free from his overbearing, manipulative wife, Jean-Jacques came to visit, but that wasn’t frequent enough to know what Maman was going through on a day-to-day basis.
Last night, as I prepared for my evening stroll, I walked past Maman’s bedroom. I started to knock when I noticed the door was ajar and Maman’s coughing spilled out of the openness. Immediately, I ran to her bedside where she sat hunched forward with a bucket between her feet and a towel over her mouth soaked with blood. At that moment, Maman looked up. . .
By Aurélia Pearl
Aurélia is a writer and womanist from the Congo living in the UK. She heads up the PR department for Dream Nation. Follow her on Twitter @TheAureliaPearl.