life is but memories unborn
the world revolves
like a cranium
on the neck of time
we remember; we forget
then we die
hoping to become eternal
memories yet unborn.
between the begetting
and the forgetting,
in memory lies life.
— Barolong Seboni
I returned from school one afternoon and found the front door had been left open. I heard voices coming down the hallway. Two men emerged carrying my mother’s unconscious body. As they walked out of the house, a friend of my mother’s came out of my parent’s bedroom holding a purse and a bag full of my mother’s clothing. She told me that my mother wasn’t feeling well and that they were taking her to the hospital.
They placed her in the car and drove off leaving behind a trail of dust. I sat on the front steps of our house watching the dust settle, not knowing what to do or where to go.
My father came home that evening but didn’t say much. The next day, we visited my mother at the hospital. They were both forlorn, distant in their own way. Later that day we went back to the house, and as the week progressed the house gradually became a reflection of my parents’ sadness.
I have vague memories of a funeral I never attended and prayers being offered. People, many of whom I had never met before, began to bring food to our house. The kitchen soon became cluttered with an assortment of pots and thermos containers packed with different types of foods and delicacies. It was as though our neighbors had channeled all their sympathy and grief into the food they gave us.
I don’t know if it was because of the routineness of death, but in Cameroon, mourning took place within the context of lavish death celebrations in honor of the deceased usually accompanied by heavy drinking and dancing and occasional gun shots. Sometimes I would lay in bed at night listening to the singing and the gunfire in the distance, and then later to the droves of people as they stumbled through the streets laughing and shouting.
I thought about the sister I never met and wondered what people did for children who had died, and if they still sang and danced for their young spirits. Was their journey home any different, any less worthy of the same pageantry?
People ask me what it was like growing up as an only child and, honestly, I never know how to answer that question. We are limited by our own experiences. If the world continues its current trend, it is only a matter of time that we’ll one day be asked how it was growing up on a planet with 10 billion other people. How will we answer that question I wonder?
But, I too find myself wondering what my life would have been like if I had been dealt a different hand.
There was a German man who lived just up the road from our house. He was a tall lanky fellow who built highways for the government and was often away for long stretches of time. He’d sometimes visit my parents and they’d talk for hours in our living room. One day he brought a girl with him whose skin was as brown as chestnuts and whose hair was tied up into a curly ball. She didn’t smile when he introduced her to us as his daughter.
He must have hoped I’d get along with her especially since he was often away on his long work trips. He hired a nanny to take care of her and sometimes the nanny would bring her over to our house. Other times I visited her at her house and we’d watch American films that had been dubbed into German. She tried to explain the plots to me, but her German wasn’t as good as her father’s was and after a while we just watched the films in silence.
One thing she never did was smile. Instead, her eyes would come alive whenever something excited her, but there was a seriousness to her that prevented us from becoming better friends. It annoyed me when she would come to my room and take over my Lego set and start redesigning everything I had so meticulously engineered as though she was completely oblivious of my feelings.
Sometimes I didn’t see her for months at a time. I’d go over to her house, but the gate would be locked and the curtains drawn shut. Then one day she’d return again as though time had stood still and it had only been yesterday since we last saw each other. She later told me that she had been with her mother’s family. I wondered why her mother wouldn’t come and live with them, but I knew better than to ask her those kinds of questions. There were questions that, even as children, we knew had no easy answers.
One evening, not long after that, her father came over to talk to my parents. They spoke at length in the living room and when finally he left my mother came to my room. She sat down on the floor next to me and told me that he was going to be moving back to Germany very soon. I asked why and she told me that he could no longer work in Cameroon.
“He’s going back alone,” she said, unable to hide the sadness in her voice.
I remained silent, not knowing where the conversation was heading. “He doesn’t want to take her?” I asked.
“No,” my mother said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“He thinks Germany is different. He said Germans won’t understand.”
We sat in silence for a long while and my attention started to drift to my Lego set.
“Would you like to have a sister, joonam?” she finally asked me.
There were many questions I imagined my mother asking, but this was not one of them. I had questions of my own running through my mind. Did I really want a sister? Could a friend be a sister too? What won’t Germans understand?
“Yes,” I finally said as I tried to focus as much attention as I could on the Lego pieces in front of me.
When my mother left I thought about the idea of foreverness and how some things last forever and other things don’t. I knew that this was one of those sacred promises that could never be broken, and I was scared.
A few weeks later I walked over to her house, but their car was gone and the gate was closed. It wasn’t locked the way it had been before and when I unlatched the gate and went in, I saw that all the curtains had been removed and the living room emptied out. I turned the door handle but it was locked. I ran to the back of the house and tried the kitchen door and it, too, wouldn’t open.
It was late in the afternoon and the eucalyptus trees that lined the fence cast long shadows across the back of the house. I sank to the ground and gazed up at the trees. There was only the sound of the birds and the distant barking of dogs. I looked around for something I could take, something of hers that would stay with me forever.
Forever was a long time to never see someone again. As I grew older and became more conscious of my own mortality I knew we would all eventually get a shot at foreverness. I learned that love grows in new directions and does not lessen with the marching of time or the widening of spaces. I didn’t find anything of hers to take with me that day except the ever-growing curiosity of a boy who, for a short time, got to taste something almost sacred.