Erhiori in the middle of her struggles

Erhiori in the middle of her struggles

 

After nearly two months, now comes time to end my mourning over the death of my sister, Erhiori Henrietta Ofuoku. During the time, this blog was in limbo, a state of suspended animation. Curiously, it was also a time when many events of great political importance happened, most of which I would have loved to comment on as part of one man’s token contribution to the peace and good repute of a bizarrely tormented world.

Indeed, I found myself inhabiting the binary world of mourning and reflections, pondering, I must tell you, the twin notions of life and death, good and evil, hope and despair. Almost eight weeks after, I can hardly say I have learned anything new by way of a resolution: the mystery has only deepened for me. It must be frightening that although much of what mankind has achieved on God’s wonderful planet has been made possible mainly through good, yet, evil persists in its ferocious desire to win what appears to be a neck-and-neck race with good.

As news of Sister Erhiori’s death reached me on the phone the morning of May 7, there was, first, that initial feeling of instant shock. A call from home announcing a death was the last thing I had expected. Next came momentary coolness. Then there was anguish, grief. And then came outrage, anger at its most righteous and, I’m sad to say, impotent.

If you think I was upset because my sister had died, you couldn’t be more mistaken. It was a good thing the Lord took her last breath away from her. Erhiori had died a hundred times over before. Now, having been released from her body at long last, the Lord having terminated her earthly travails, her soul was now free to luxuriate in a feeling of immense relief and gratitude. I was angry at fate, at evil, at whose hands my sister had suffered an awful lot, a Gethsemane far more than a mortal creature should ever be made to bear. And I wonder how many times Erhiori had wished she had never been born, or for that matter, made to endure all that life had to offer her.

Unless you had more than a nodding acquaintance with Erhiori’s life story — beginning shortly after her marriage and ending that Saturday when she breathed her last, having been laid low with cancer of the breast for months — you’d probably not understand what I’m saying here. It’s the same kind of anger you’re likely to feel reading the story of Job, a righteous man who deserved nothing of the unmitigated suffering that blighted much of his existence until God ultimately came along with that compensatory restoration. My sister’s life had echoes of such Jobean woefulness minus the happy ending. And unlike Job whose absolutely rotten deal was initially  sanctioned by the Almighty to test his servant’s faithfulness, Erhiori, by every moral standard a good and honest woman, was doubtless the  unfortunate victim of dark forces implacably determined she must be denied that fulfilment  and happiness that everyone sought in a marriage. That alone crushed her spirits and crushing her spirits rendered her incapable of summoning the resolve to pick up the broken pieces of her life thereafter.

Perhaps, a brief tour of how the journey began is highly in order. One evening, a long time ago, Mother’s best friend paid her a visit. She had in tow a dark, young man of quiet demeanor with great education and well cultivated manners. After initial courtesies, Mother’s friend broached the subject of her visit. The young fellow, a relation of Mother’s best friend, was looking for a wife, and Erhiori was the only girl she set her sights on. Mother flinched. Erhiori was livid. Father wasn’t sold on the idea either. Erhiori, after all, was too young. Having left high school, she dreamt of a great career that promised a great future. To abort all of that for marriage at this time would be less than wise.

Born on March 8, 1959, and the first of eight children between Father and Mother, Erhiori was a dark pretty girl. But that wasn’t the main thing Mother’s friend saw in her. It was her character she saw. Erhiori was a humble, disciplined young lady, a virtuous product of good parenting whose close circle of friends at the time included Ese Ikie, Mudia Akpoghenobo, Chris Kwakpovwe, Awe Odesa, and Christiana Uge, all of whom were united by a passionate love of the scripture and a devoutness characteristic of any dyed-in-the-wool follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Besides, Erhiori and sister Ese, her best friend, were astonishingly gifted singers whose voices serenaded all as the pair sang gospel hymns for patients at the then Eku Baptist Hospital’s  out-patient department. To listen to them was to dream of being singers.

But driven by honest intentions, Mother’s best friend persisted in her quest. She offered Mother a rose-colored spectacle of what Erhiori would be going into, and she wasn’t exaggerating. Events, to which I was one of several family witnesses, would later prove her right. Mother’s wall of resistance was starting to crack. Months later, it would crater and collapse. And Erhiori, the once solidly immovable object to any force, slowly began to soften and liquefy. Unimpressed by his daughter’s capitulation, Father would also later budge.

Erhiori and her husband on wedding day

Erhiori and her husband on wedding day

Wedding day was the day Erhiori finally left Mother’s home. Emotional, Mother wept like a baby that night until her eyeballs turned crimson red. A friend of hers whose daughter had left home for marriage before came in to console her,  assuring her that her feeling was normal, but that a time would come when both Mother and daughter would be reunited for several months as the former visited the latter to assume the roles  and responsibilities traditionally assigned a grandmother. Mother, like every other mother, waited for that day, eagerly praying to God to hasten when it should come. The first year passed. It did not come. The second and third came and went in a blur. Still no dice.

Mother: ( Margaret aka "Maggi"), on her daughter's "bride price" day

Mother: ( Margaret aka “Maggi”), on her daughter’s “bride price” day

After the fourth year, Mother became insanely perturbed by what was happening. Terrifyingly convinced that evil forces were after her beloved daughter’s fortunes, she went to her friends and mother-figures seeking advice amidst tears. All the responses she got were the same: She should send for her daughter, and then take her to a “native doctor” to find out what was actually going on. Only then, they nicely advised her, could she seek a solution because the problem, as puzzling as it was, had gone beyond ordinary realm. That sounded good to Mother.

All along Erhiori had prided herself on her faith. She had faith in the belief that no one took a problem to God and remained ever the same. That had been the bedrock of her born-again life. But had she not entreated the Almighty countlessly all these years about the “fruits of the womb” to no avail?  What else had she not done? Before now she had nursed a flawless vision of what tomorrow would bring her: a vision of at least three children, all born and raised early and given the best of everything in life. But one year became two, which soon became three, then lengthened to five. She would become pregnant only to lose it four or five — or even six months later, each miscarriage presaged by terrible nightmares in which she saw faintly familiar faces laughing maniacally at her and ”assuring” her she should stop cherishing the “illusion” of having a child because she was going nowhere. But through prayers, she kept her faith going. If only God could overpower these forces and grant her a child!  Just one child, Lord, she kept praying.

Impatience could never be counted among Erhiori’s weaknesses. She was the very embodiment of Old Testament fortitude. But she’d also waited long enough, hadn’t she? Well, like all mortals, she carried in her DNA the frailty of having to shed patience at a point. For time and tide waited for no one, especially if you were that woman who was slowly but inexorably approaching your biological window beyond which all chances of pregnancy could be irretrievably gone. Worse, five years on, her childlessness was beginning to put strains and fissures in their union, if not brazenly at first, then at least subtly. Female in-laws living in the house, all of whom were much younger than her, were now beginning to treat her contemptuously and with impunity spitefully usurped her duties and responsibilities. Now Erhiori was starting to feel like a complete stranger in her matrimonial home.

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Before offer of marriage

Erhiori pined endlessly for the return of those early years when she was treated by her husband with unvarnished love and the adoration befitting a reigning queen, when her in-laws regarded her with enormous respect as she did them with all the courteousness and the humility that gushed over from her heart like a river overflowing its banks. In the depths of despair, Erhiori needed a minimum of convincing from Mother to enlist the services of a native doctor in the wearisome struggle to untie the Gordian knot of her “barrenness.”

In the intervening years, one witchdoctor after another would diagnose her problem as nothing more than an affliction inflicted by malevolent witches who, as soon as Erhiori began her marriage, entered a conspiracy to lock up her womb and render her everlastingly childless. Her childlessness, the diviners told her, would in turn bring her hate and contempt from her husband’s kin and eventually ruin her marriage. Repeatedly, they would tell her there were so many children queuing and crying and agitating to come to this world through her. Unfortunately, the womb had been sealed up and the key in firm possession of those playing god with her fortunes and happiness. Such jolting pronouncements would send Mother and her daughter into paroxysms of tears as they simultaneously pleaded with the diviners to please do something to counteract the unmerited evil inflicted upon so innocent a daughter. Mother was ready to part with all her possessions, even sacrifice her life, just to see her suffering daughter become pregnant.

As it turned out, these witchdoctors appeared good at diagnosis, at reading out encouraging indictments against Erhiori’s persecutors, most, if not all of whom, they vaguely identified as members of her kin. They would promise to deliver, first by appeal and, failing to get cooperation, by taking the fight directly to Erhiori’s persecutors during their diabolical sabbaths, all guns blazing. Alas, either they themselves were vanquished or some such thing, for none was able to reverse her condition.

In her disillusionment, Erhiori retraced her steps to faith in the omniscient powers of the Lord. She cried to Him for mercy. She fasted and knelt down and prayed with all the vigor that her famished body and weary spirit could summon for just that one elusive dream, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She was so confident that the narrative of her life was about to change and that no longer would she be an object of taunts and derision. She was so certain that her name, which meant “Patience”, was now about to validate itself and thereafter become a reference point in the history of all those who waited a lifetime for that ultimate fulfilment. But as she cried and waited and hoped, time moved merrily on, neither freezing nor waiting for her. The little girl of yesteryears, among them her younger sister, married and soon became mothers of adorable children. Her friends who married not too long after she did, were already done with childbearing and now enjoying the exhilarating satisfaction of motherhood.

And so it was that one day, a day she never forgot, Erhiori returned home from a brief trip to Eku only to realize the moment she arrived that she no longer had a marriage to return to. Her “place” had been declared desolate and her “office” another (with a newborn baby) had taken. Heartbroken, she went her weary way back home in a profusion of tears, to the same place where only more than a decade and a half ago, they had come to beg her for marriage. To survive, she would take up employment as a high school science teacher. And Mother? Weary and demoralized, she would carry the disappointment to her grave in the nearly nine years that followed.

Erhiori led a forlorn, broken life for the remainder of her existence. There were times she would sit down in Mother’s living room gazing abstractedly at the ceiling or into space, hot tears pouring down her cheeks. She would utter barely audible words, wondering, a la Job, why God even bothered to let her come into this world at all, or what she was still doing here on earth. Once, she attempted suicide by going to Eku River to drown, but was rescued by a Good Samaritan. Finally, when cancer came, it struck her as more than a welcome relief, however excruciating the physical pain was to her. Repeatedly, she refused mastectomy fearing that could halt or prolong the day she should exit a world where all she had experienced in her life — at least for over thirty years — was nothing but the triumph of evil over good. Or so it seemed to her. There was no justice, no restoration.

The most compelling argument for the non-existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is the existence of evil. But that is grossly misleading, although many who have faced a constant barrage of fire from the machine guns of life would easily subscribe to that postulation. However powerful evil may be, however unresolved the mystery surrounding its sometimes overpowering force over good is, God, in all His majesty, in all His power, in all His goodness, I submit, still reigns supreme over Satan and all the dark forces he has unleashed among men. It is to that God, therefore, that we must always go, no matter the disappointments we sometimes get from unanswered prayers. “Don’t think of the things you didn’t get after praying. Think of the countless blessings God gave you without you even asking,” somebody once said.

Another old picture from high school days

High school days

One such blessing was Erhiori. My beloved sister was a gift by God to those fortunate enough to know her closely, among them her brothers and sisters and friends. In the past, I’d written quite a bit about a few dead people who had been dear to my heart, who had touched me in ways words alone cannot explain. Now to say that Erhiori was dear to my heart would be presenting the public a very thin read of her place in my world. And it is not just because we had had as our first habitat the same maternal womb: Erhiori was, in fact, a super big sister who was nothing if not kind-heartedly loving and generous. I put it this way: even when Mother was still alive, Erhiori, minus the physical characteristics, was Mother’s living doppelganger. Erhiori was mother to all her siblings and to anyone who knew her as a school mother. In her Lagos home where we often spent holidays with her and her husband, by the way a naturally nice fellow, Erhiori made sure her younger ones, and Lucky Efekpokpo, her school son who was known to many in the Eku of the 1980s as “Jacksobi”, were treated like princes and princesses. My sister was the very personification of sisterly love unqualified, attention undivided, and selflessness taken beyond the furthest limits. Every one of us — from sister Caroline Asemota, my immediate elder sister, to Oghenevwede, my mother’s last child — has countless fond stories to tell about  how special she was as a sister.

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Another old picture from high school days

I recall when she escorted me to Baptist High School, Orerokpe, where I was going to start high school as a boarding student. Nervous, terrified of schooling outside my hometown for the first time, she assuaged my fears by saying that she was going to put me in the care of someone who would protect me. I didn’t know who that person was, and she would not tell me either until we arrived. The person turned out to be Samson Itietie. Unknown to me, she and Mother and Samson’s mom had made that arrangement several weeks back. So, for one year until he graduated, I was under the tutelage and protection of Samson. And thanks to her generosity, I never lacked “provisions” throughout my five years as a boarding student. Nor can I forget the deep and kind interest she took in procuring Concord newspapers and keeping them, awaiting my arrival for the next holiday in Lagos. She continued doing it even as her marriage was breaking down.

Erhiori with the writer, then a scrawny little boy

Erhiori with the writer, then a scrawny little boy

But one of my most enduring memories of her was about an incident that happened long before the above testimonies. As a scrawny little boy, I was the lucky object of Mother’s cloying affection. As long as she could afford it, there was nothing she would not buy me, or thought too much for me to have. So incurably spoilt was I that just a mild rebuke from her over anything could bruise my entire ego and render nearly several hours of my day irremediably ruined.

One Christmas day, I got more than the required dose of rebuke from her over an offence I can hardly recall today. Mother, a first-rate tongue-lasher who never missed an opportunity to deliver one when necessary, blistered me severely, grinding my over-pampered ego to fine powder. That was enough to make me opt out of a group photograph she had planned for all of her children after the Christmas rice. Was it simply a matter of stupid stubbornness or sheer childish hubris? I ignored all pleas from my sisters and the photographer, now positioned to shoot, to climb down from my stubbornness and join the group.  The man had no more time to dally. It was Christmas and a very busy day for him after all. The next thing I heard was a quick succession of shutter clicks, and it was all over. He sat astride his Honda 175 motorcycle and in one minute flat, the gentleman was gone.

Minutes later, a feeling of regret closely following second thoughts, washed over me. I realized I should have participated in the group photograph after all. Three days later when the photographer returned with the framed picture, I could feel regret expand to self-pity and guilt, although shame would not let me admit it. I still don’t know if she intuited my inner feelings, but Erhiori didn’t look happy either when she saw the picture. Mother, I guess, had gone to Obiaruku market that day. Now Erhiori sent for the photographer, then asked me to put my Christmas outfit back on. She, too, wore hers, and when the photographer arrived we took a joint picture (see picture above), a sort of mini do-over to compensate for a lost moment for which I had no one else but myself to blame.

My sister’s kind intervention did not immediately cure what I suffered within, but it did indeed ameliorate it considerably over the course of many months, in addition to teaching me a moral lesson which I have since carried with me in life, and that is, needless “stubbornness” and hubris are twin vices that can lead a man to so much personal damage, if not utter ruin. Now, Erhiori taught me that.

I have gone to great lengths to remember my sister in the manner I have chosen here for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that her soul cries out for someone to tell her story. I feel both humbled and glad to have been the one. I have also done this just so she does not depart unsung. Erhiori was just too good. The evil done to her may live in the mind for a long time to come, but the good which she also did must never be interred with her bones. Last but by no means least, those of us who knew her so closely and loved her exceedingly had had to endure alongside her all the pain and the agony and the despair and the heartbreak that later came to characterize more than thirty years of her journey through life. Writing about it in such granular fashion furnishes, I would hope, an escape valve for all those feelings and resentment lest they lead one down the path of everlasting hate.

As a member of a cultural dance group in high school

As a member of a cultural dance group in high school

A day after Sister Erhiori breathed her last, Oghenevwede placed her death notice on Facebook. Many were shocked to learn of it. For the first time yesterday, I spent time reading several dozens of the kind-hearted words expressed by sympathizers about my beloved sister, and I found them all to be, collectively, a balm to our grieving hearts. I couldn’t bring myself to read all, for I found I was starting to choke with tears.

Now I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who felt moved to offer condolences and pray for the repose of my sister’s soul. In particular, I’d like to thank Aghwarianovwe Novwe Ikie, not because he was so kind to call and leave comforting words like his own sister — what a woman! — had once done for me more than a decade ago when I was in the throes of despair over the loss of both of my parents, but because in his tribute to Erhiori, Novwe, a naturally insightful fellow, articulated his feelings in words that were pithy, yet so perceptive and penetrating. They validate everything I have painstakingly said here in so many words. “Rest in peace, my beautiful sister, Erhiori,” he said, adding, “just like my late sister Nyerhovwo, fate dealt you a bad hand. It is all over now.”

Fate dealt my beloved sister a bad hand. But thank God it is all over now. And to you, Erhiori, our dearly beloved, go well, and may the Almighty God grant you the eternal rest you so greatly deserve.