I watch Hawwa water the hibiscus in the garden this morning like she had been doing for a week now, every day since Adam died.
She said it was her way of remembering him, of not fully losing him.
“Uncle liked hibiscuses”, she said. “He lined the fence of his home in Lagos with it.” A day after news got to us that Adam had died, she had defied the lockdown order to trek two miles to the park to cut a hibiscus stalk. She planted it by her window.
I did not tell her that Adam loved books and writing more than he could ever love a flower, that the hibiscus planted in his home were genetically modified species from his lab. Telling her would mean sharing our little secret –mine and Adam’s.
A month before he contracted the virus. He gave me a dog-eared jotter. A manuscript of a book he was writing. There was no explanation.
We had been sitting together in the balcony of his house gazing at the stars in silence, that very silence of his I loved, because it spoke more words than his talking did. When he stood suddenly and went inside, I was surprised. I thought of anything that could have upset him in that tiny moment. ”Was it something from work that he remembered?”
It turned out to be nothing. He came back with the book and handed it to me. He clasped my hand in his over it for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally spoke, it was only two words. “Forgive me.”
The manuscript turned out to be a memoir, stories from his life. It was mostly sad. At first I had mistaken it for a novel, but when I got to page three and read the part where the sixteen year old boy, playing football in a street tournament had fallen right before the opponent’s keeper, clutching his chest as he wheezed, only one shot between him and a goal, I recognized him immediately. He had told me this story before when he was telling me about his asthma.
I had asked about the small spray he always carried and he laughed and told me this story. I didn’t recognize an inhaler.
The story didn’t seem really significant at that time, but in the manuscript it read that he was the best player in the whole town with a promising future as a footballer. The nation’s football team were going to sign him, but that day in the field was the last time he played ball. His doctor said he shouldn’t, if he wished to live long.
I read and reread every bit of the book, my only way of understanding the parts of Adam he never let me see, the ones he hid behind a façade of silence and goofy smiles. But every time I reached the end of the manuscript, a gaping void threatens to swallow me in its incompleteness. I wanted to know what had happened after we said our last byes in front of the university gate three months ago. I wanted to know what had happened in the taxi as he travelled through the night. I wanted to know his thoughts when he first started feeling the symptoms of the virus. I wanted to share his last moment in the early hours of that Friday morning when his soul finally betrayed his body. It was painful to imagine that he died alone.
When Mama came home two days ago on her leave from the hospital where she and the other nurses and health workers were working around the clock to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, I listened with all my heart to her stories. I had been trying to grasp onto anything that could help me understand how Adam had felt in his last moments.
Mama’s stories wore a garment of pain. She said for the first time, she couldn’t test a patient outside of a fully covered apparel and a screen. She couldn’t touch a patient and tell him, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ She said even with the measures put in place, with the media representation of health workers as heroes, it was difficult not to feel the anxiety. The fear was palpable in the air of the health centre like a billowing fabric.
In the early days, before the reality of the virus had fully dawned on everyone. The NCDC report had a certain kind of distance to me. It was hard trying to put a picture to the words and numbers. But now, I live knowing that Adam’s short life is summarized in a number on the death column.
I call on everything I knew about Adam, every memory we shared to fill the space in my heart. I imagine myself lying in a hospital bed in a health centre in Lagos, a cannula on my nose, the sound of my breath wheezing through the ventilator. A plethora of emotion are running amok within me. I can almost smell death.
I imagine him replaying the memories of his whole life. Did he think of me? The moments we shared? I tell myself that he did, that he thought of me a lot.
I blink the tears clouding my vision and watch Hawwa for some time. Then quickly, I wipe my eye with the back of my hand. She shouldn’t see me cry. I join her by the hibiscus and she hands me the watering can to heap more soil to its root.
I tilt the can as the flower bobs under the touch of the water, I remember Adam’s favorite prayer and mutter “Amen”