LOUD WHISPERS: The Debt We All Owe
We all know about the life-long debt we owe. We pray, spend money, get lucky , treat, and tip toe around it throughout our lives. Yet the debt collector is very patient, knowing that one day the inevitable will happen. The arrival of death triggers reactions relative to the person concerned. Some deaths cause profound suffering and misery. In the cases of older persons, after the initial grief has worn off, the families get down to preparing a grand celebration. In many African cultures, the departure of an elder is something to celebrate. And there are some deaths that a friend of mine calls ‘in-between’. The departed is middle-aged, with children and even grandchildren, mostly in their fifties and sixties, a category I call ‘Youngish’. They usually still have living parents, so while their children might want to celebrate a life well spent, the funeral rites are modest. I have been thinking about this a lot lately due to some recent experiences. I got a message in the first week of March that an elderly man who is like a father to me has been ailing. He is almost ninety, so that did not exactly come as a surprise. I went to see him and was shocked at his appearance. He is one of those old school gentlemen who had been meticulous about his appearance, well into his old age. I had not seen him in four months, and the change was remarkable. He looked very frail and struggled with his words. His children told me that the week before he had almost passed away. It was clear, looking at him, that he has received his ‘boarding pass’ and is waiting for his ‘flight’. I did not want to leave, thinking that this might be the last time I saw him. I took some photographs with him (just in case), and I left with tears in my eyes. One of God’s greatest mysteries is that we don’t know when his flight will depart, all we know is that right now, he seems to be in the ‘departure lounge’.
A few days after seeing the old man, another grand old man actually ‘boarded’ his flight. The late General Adeyinka Adebayo, father of Otunba Niyi Adebayo, one of my husband’s mentors and political leaders, passed away peacefully the morning of March 8th 2017, one day before his 89th birthday. General Adebayo’s death was met with encomiums from all over the world, and his homes in Lagos and Ekiti became a Mecca with a steady stream of visitors. General did not have a lingering illness that drained the fortunes and energies of his children, causing endless anxiety. He boarded his flight ‘sharp sharp’ like the soldier he was. General’s funeral will be a wonderful celebration of his life.
Two days after General Adebayo’s passing, my mother called to tell me that my maternal grandmother who we call Mama Ayo, wanted me to visit her so that she could pray for me. This is not good, I thought to myself. When a 96 year old woman is asking you to come for blessings it can only mean one thing – she is in the departure lounge. I got the message the day before I was due to leave for New York, so there was no way I could make it to Ilara-Mokin in Ondo State, a good four hour drive from Lagos. I called her so that she could at least hear my voice.
I promised I would visit her as she asked as soon as I got back from my trip. I prayed that she would not board her flight before my return, and my prayers were answered. I went to see her as soon as I got back. Just like the old man I mentioned, my grandmother looked very frail. She prayed for me for a long time, and when she was not praying she was reciting my Oriki (praise names). From what she said, she was ready to go, and just wanted to see me one last time. I clung to her and cried. When one of my Aunts told her that she would still live to enjoy more of the fruits of her labour, Mama did not respond. We got the message. She is ready. She is still with us for now, but we don’t know for how long.
Last week, a close friend of mine lost her husband suddenly. He was only 57 and he passed away after complaining about pains in his chest. I got to their house a few hours after it happened. My friend was distraught and still in shock, but she was still able to talk on the phone to people who were calling. After a while, I took the phones away from her and told her to rest her voice. She told me that people were calling her to find out if the news was true. How insensitive can people be? If you want to verify the news, why ask the widow? I told my friend that anyone who wanted to confirm the news could call anyone else but her. I then asked her how come I did not call her before showing up at her house? How would I have had the conversation, ‘My dear sister, is it true that your husband is dead?’ There is a certain ‘protocol’ involved in breaking news about death. It is not something to be blurted out, and people should not rush to spread the news without confirmation. Even when news of a death, old or young, has been confirmed, I have a policy of not breaking news of death to anybody, unless I don’t have a choice. They can find out from another source. The crudeness with which some people use social media nowadays has bred a species who lack the sensitivity gene. Even before key family members could be contacted, the news of the demise of my friend’s husband was all over the place.
People often wonder, what is worse or better, a young person dying suddenly, without notice, or after an illness, with enough time to say goodbye? I have experienced the pain of very close friends either dying suddenly or fading away in my arms. I wish neither on my worst enemy. We simply do not know when our time will be up. All we can do is live the best life we can.
From what I have observed about these issues, I have the following suggestions to make:
• For the young people reading this, don’t be afraid. By the special grace of God, you will live a very long life. Sudden death will never be your portion.
• When you hear the news of someone’s death, please don’t call the bereaved directly ‘to confirm’. It is very insensitive. There are other places you can confirm from.
• If you visit a household where there has been a death of a young person, don’t go there caterwauling more than the bereaved. Your visit is meant to soothe and assure the bereaved, not agitate them further.
• Please don’t ask the bereaved directly ‘what happened?’ You will find out soon enough. If you have to be given the details, think of how many other people want the same information and the story has to be told over and over. In the days that follow, everyone will have the information.
• Look after your parents and grandparents. Take care of them the same way you would like your children to care for you. Some people spend more money on the funeral of their relatives than they ever spent on them in their old age.
• There is a Yoruba proverb that says the death that takes away your peers is sending you a message. This means if you find yourself attending funerals of people close to your age, start taking your health more seriously and take steps towards putting your house in order.
• If you are over 40, you should have a Will. Don’t be superstitious and say having a Will means you are inviting death. Death does not work on an invitation basis, it works on a time-table only God knows.
• Something that has always come up is an appropriate dress code for funerals of ‘youngish’ people in their fifties and sixties. It is usually white. For the older people, the families would normally provide aso ebi (family uniform) or advise on a colour to be worn by guests.
• The death of a very young person is a terrible thing, and that calls for black. I am sorry to have to point this out to young people, it also means no high heels, clunky jewelry and heavy make-up as was witnessed at the funeral of a young musician a few years ago.
• If you are able to do so, spend time with your old folks and get to know more about them. It will surprise you the things they will tell you in their old age, that they would never have done when they (and you) were younger.
May we all live long enough to be celebrated by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I commiserate with those who have lost a member of their family recently. May their souls rest in perfect peace. For those who have earned the right to be in the departure lounge, may their souls arrive safely when the Pilot is ready. Have a great week.