“Stand still, let me knot your tie,” I whisper to my five-year-old nephew, as I wind the swath of black silk into an intricate knot.
Thankfully, he obliges and stops fidgeting, which is in itself a rare occurrence. Teddy is not usually so pliant, and on a good day, I’d have had to raise my voice several decibels, repeat the instruction at least five times and probably give him a good shaking before he would comply, and usually with a wilful grin on his cherubic face.
But today isn’t a good day. Teddy doesn’t have a father anymore, and my sister doesn’t have a husband anymore. My lover is dead as well.
I feel tears start to well up in my eyes and my vision blurs as I remember the last time I and Lionel had been together – just a week ago. He had held me tightly in his strong arms while our limbs were tangled in my silk sheets, the air still redolent with the scent of spent passion. And he whispered into my ear, “I wish we could be like this forever.”
I squeezed his arm in response, as emotions crashed against my insides; a roiling sea.
“I wish the same thing,” I whispered back. “But wishes are not horses, so we poor folk cannot ride.” I smiled sadly up at him, but in the darkness, he probably didn’t see it.
He sat up abruptly, and I slowly straightened my posture. It was too dark to see his face, but I could feel his gaze on me.
“We can be together. It’s not impossible,” he whispered, his voice thick with emotion.
“I know,” I said, stroking his face, revelling in the feel of his beard beneath my fingertips. “But it’s not worth it. I’m not worth it.”
“You are,” he whispered fiercely.
“I am not,” I whispered firmly back. There was a charged silence that lasted minutes, and would have probably lasted for several more if I hadn’t broken it. “You should probably go back to your own bed. The one you share with your wife… My sister.”
He enveloped me in one of his warm hugs and whispered into my ear, “I love you, Chi. Allow me to fight for our love.”
“Good night, Lionel,” I said, my heart aching as I watched him leave my room. My ears listened for the sound of his footfalls, indications of his ascent up the flight of stairs, to his matrimonial bed, but as always, he was as silent as a ghost.
That was a week ago. Today he is no more, thanks to the robbers who took his life, and we are preparing to commit his remains to the earth.
“Aunty Chi, you are crying,” my little nephew whispers, and I am jerked back into the present. I gingerly touch my cheek and I feel wetness. I didn’t realize I had been crying. “Everyone has been crying, aunty,” he continues, “Mummy, my two grandmas, and all the aunties and uncles that have all come to visit. Now you have joined them.”
“Oh sweet boy,” I murmur, tears cascading down my cheeks, and I caress his smooth cheeks with my hands. He looks so much like his father, and my heart breaks even further. “We are all sad, and we are crying because your father has gone to heaven,” I say, hugging him to me.
“That’s what mummy said too,” Teddy replies. “But I don’t understand why everybody is crying. Heaven is a place of joy and laughter and fun and happiness. That’s what my Sunday school teacher said.”
I smile sadly at the pure innocence of this sweet child. If only I can still look at the world with such pure eyes, embracing only the joy and sweetness life throws at me. Unfortunately, we all grow up. Teddy would have to do so too, eventually.
“Sweet boy…” I husk, hugging him again. “Your Sunday school teacher is very correct. Heaven is a marvellous place of eternal joy.” I pull back and look into his eyes, and I am struck afresh by the resemblance he has to his father. If only Lionel had given me a child like this, I would at least have something to remember him by. My sister has Teddy, I have nothing.
“So why is everyone sad?” Teddy asks again, his confusion evident in his furrowed brow. “Or is everyone jealous because daddy is having such a good time there?”
Tears fill my eyes again. This poor child still doesn’t understand the concept of death, and it is so very, very sweet and yet, so very, very sad.
“You are so young,” I say, my voice cracking and tears spilling out of my eyes.
“I’m five years old! And I’ll be six next week!” Teddy fumes, frowning. “I am a big boy now.”
I dissolve into a sobbing heap on the floor, my grief and sadness washing over me in a crippling wave. I let all the emotions I have been holding inside of me pour out. It feels good really, to just sit down and cry. Nobody would have understood my grief, if I had let it show to the world. After all, he was just my brother-in-law; why am I crying as if my world had ended? That is why I have held all my grief in. My love affair with my sister’s husband must be a secret that will die with me.
But now, here in my nephew’s room, surrounded by his sheer innocence and sadness, I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“Aunty, stop crying,” Teddy says, hugging me tightly with his chubby little arms. “Daddy is in heaven, and he’s having a good time. He will come back and bring all the heavenly goodies for us. Stop crying, aunty, you’re making me sad.”
“Ah, Teddy, sweet, sweet, child… Your father is not coming back. That is why everyone is so sad. That is why your mother has been weeping, that is why I am shattered,” I say to my nephew between sobs.
“Your father is not coming back, my dear.”
Teddy’s arms fall off me as if I am suddenly made of fiery coals.
“No, aunty, it’s a lie. Daddy is coming back. He has to! My birthday is next week and he promised to get me that new toy helicopter I want!” he protests, his little fists balled tightly.
“Sweet boy, your father is dead. He isn’t coming back.” My heart aches as I say the words.
“It’s a lie!” Teddy screams. “Daddy is not dead! He’s not!”
With that, he races out of the room, and I collapse once again into a sobbing heap.
An hour passes, and I find myself walking through the chapel doors, with Teddy’s little hand clasped in mine. His mother is a few steps ahead, sobbing gently, with our father’s arm draped comfortingly over her shoulders.
I force myself to look further, past the pews filled with mourning friends and family, past the beautiful but sad-looking pure white roses strewn artfully down the aisle, to the chestnut-and-gold coffin at the foot of the altar that holds the body of the man I loved.
I often feel guilty for loving Lionel, but what could I do? I never chose to fall in love with him, nor he with me. Anyway, he’s dead now. Our love story is over, and it ended in secret; the best way to end without hurting anyone.
Suddenly, Teddy tears his hand out of my grip and rushes down the aisle to the altar, to his father’s coffin.
“My Daddy is not dead!” he yells over and over, his little feet pounding against the marble floor of the chapel.
“Teddy! Come back here!” I yell, and his mother gasps in dismay. My brother, who served as our chauffeur, races past me to grab our recalcitrant nephew, and I follow him.
But something strange begins to happen, causing my brother and I to stop in our tracks just as we are about to catch Teddy. His eyes are glowing with a strange golden light, and that same light is flickering on the tips of his fingers.
“What on earth?” my brother mutters, and the congregation is already aflutter.
Teddy reaches the coffin, golden tears streaming from his eyes as his breath heaves in and out of his tiny chest.
“MY FATHER IS NOT DEAD! HE IS NOT DEAD!” he screams, and the golden light bursts out from his entire being, enveloping the whole church. Everyone screams, even though the light falling on us doesn’t hurt. It feels rather warm and soothing in fact. I look towards where Teddy is, but the light is too bright, and I turn into my brother’s embrace.
Suddenly, the light is gone and Lionel is sitting up in his coffin with a dazed look on his face.
Everyone screams as terror and panic tear through the gathered guests. Pandemonium ensues as people begin to run out of the church in shock and fear. I vaguely register the fact that my brother’s arms are no longer around me, as I stare with horror at Lionel as he looks around, trying to understand what exactly happened, as I am as well.
Teddy smiles up at his father and turns to look at me. “See? I told you my father isn’t dead.”
Lionel turns to look at me, and it is all suddenly too much. My entire being shuts down, and I faint.
Written by Daniel Iwuchukwu, tweets @danonles91 and blogs at octooctopus.wordpress.com