There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval between both
Shadow to Light’. These were the three words that kept dancing about in Dr Alafia’s head throughout the four hours journey from Benin City. He had gone to transact a business that was related to his profession as a medical doctor. It was the title of the song in one of the albums of the esoteric Norwegian instrumentalist, Amethystium. Amethystium is the musical band with the dreamy fusion of ambient electronica, world music and neoclassical dark wave genre that had thrilled many long before the doctor discovered them. He had fallen in love with the song ‘Shadow to Light’ from the very first day he came across it per chance on the internet. For the past few days, over and over again he had listened to the track. Why his musical inclination was drawn to the song, he could not tell.
Self-discovery. That was the crux of the lesson he took from listening to the song. It was something he had trained his mind to adapt to over the years. The very words in the phrase ‘Shadow to Light’ meant something to him. Light and Shadow. For him, these two words are like the two halves of a whole, like some twin forces that direct our lives. These two contrasts, aren’t they essential to maintaining the balance of our lives? Isn’t life itself in two contrasts? Life and death? Black and White? Bitter and Sweet? War and Peace? Shadow –darkness- and Light, does the understanding of these two concepts not all about a self-awareness of the simple yet guiding principle of human life? These and more were the questions that were inevitable twirling around in his mind as he continued to listen to the song.
As a medical practitioner, he was no stranger to blood and death. He was no stranger to human happiness and suffering. These were two realities that were always evident anytime he helped women in taking delivery of their babies and whenever he watched helplessly -after having done his best of course- as a patient died from a mortal illness. The joy in the faces of the mothers as their babies were born and the palpable grief visible in the faces of the relative of patients when one member, especially a young member of that family is lost to death, were both truths he was accustomed to.
A university of Benin trained medical practitioner, for most of his professional life, the 50-year-old, slim and slightly bent man with a moustache the type usually worn by most medieval scientists, had lived and worked in the small, sleepy and scenic town of Ososo for many years. Rather than stay back in Benin City where he was raised after his graduation from medical school to work and earn more money, as a youth Corper, he opted to return and stay back in Ososo, his home town. For him, looking after the health needs of Ososo people as a medical doctor, a thing which was in short supply in the town, was a calling. It was a sacred call to duty. A call he has handled ever since with utmost responsibility. Whenever he travelled to Benin for the sort of business he had gone to transact on this fateful day, rather than drive his Mercedes Benz, he usually boarded the Edo City Transport Service, ECTS Bus. Going on the journey on public transport he believes would save him the stress of navigating through the congested Benin City metropolis.
As before, his journey had been a fruitful but hectic one. He had barely stepped off the ECTS bus upon arrival at the Oshomole Bus Stop in Ososo when the polyphonic tone of his mobile phone began announcing a call was coming in.
Earlier that day, before the bus departed Benin City, the bus driver had announced that instead of the recently constructed expressway which the Adams Oshomole led Edo State Government had built, he would ply the old and porthole riddled Ibillo-Bekuma expressway. This announcement surprised and annoyed Dr Alafia at the same time. Toying with his moustache throughout the entire journey in an apprehensive fashion, he had supressed his initial urge to protest the decision of the bus driver. He decided against a protest because almost every other passenger in the bus appeared unconcerned about the route the driver wanted to take. With the look on their faces of those he surveyed, he got the impression that, for all they cared, the passengers didn’t care whether the bus driver flew the bus in the air so long as he landed them safely in their various destinations. This was the reason why he bottled-up his urge to protest. He also didn’t want to be misconstrued as the black goat in the bus. The trouble maker as it were.
Usually, he avoided calls like a plague anytime he was tired. Doctors and calls. It seemed anytime he craved some rest so desperately, that was when some sick patient in an emergency situation would need his attention. This time however, he did not avoid the call. He decided to pick up. Peering into the screen of his Bold 5 blackberry phone, a thing he was fond of doing before pressing the device against his ear, he saw it was a member of staff in his hospital who’s name appeared underneath the ‘incoming call’ phrase on the screen. Despite the hectic journey, even though he was exhausted, he clicked on the green button and then mumbled,
“Abigail, what is it this time?”
“Sorry Doctor,” said the Auxiliary Nurse he had employed more out of the desire to save one more unemployed secondary school leaver from the streets of Ososo than out of merit on the part of the 22 year old girl with a permanent sheepish smile. Ever since he employed her, he had been very careful to use her more as a personal errand girl than as a nurse with any task of administering injections. He decided on this for two reasons. First, she must stay, learn and get more training before any responsibility that was worth the while could be assigned to her and secondly, he didn’t want the tales of paralysed patient limbs and sometimes death due to poorly administered injections by incompetent nurses flying all around in town to be associated with his hospital.
“I didn’t want to disturb you sir, but soon after you left this morning Iyin Ocheche passed. The family came almost immediately to pay the balance of her bills and to take her corpse. I hear the husband, Iti Ocheche said he wanted her buried almost immediately and right now as we speak doctor, her corpse is at Saint Ann’s Catholic Church in Okhe quarters where the family is waiting for the priest to say a funeral mass for her. Almost everybody in Ososo is there at the parish now as we speak sir.” The electronic voice, speaking very fast, announced over the electronic device. Dr Alafia sighed heavily.
He knew how good the late woman was and so was not surprised at the large crowd that Abigail reported had gathered at the church at such a short notice. Her life had been a shining example of light in Ososo town. He knew from his love for books that light, an essential symbol that is central to many sacred traditions was often represented by the qualities of radiance, sanctity, love, justice and every other spiritual attributes that emanated from divinity. These were the qualities that the late Iyin Ocheche represented. She was a good woman in a literal sense. It was for this reason that, even though she could be described as one who had enjoyed the blessing of a long life, Dr Alafia had done everything within his power to save her when she was brought to his hospital days before. In fact, her condition was one of the reasons he made the trip to Benin City, the capital of Edo State in the first place.
More people like Iyin Ocheche on earth would make the world a much better place the doctor reasoned. Her kind heartedness was archetypal. On the other hand, more people unlike her -which seems to be the reality in the world today- , who didn’t possess or exhibited her attributes, her personality, would mean that the world would be forever under the dark shadow of evil and madness. For the doctor, darkness which was the opposite of light, even though characterized by temporality, limitations, evil and senselessness was what was at play in our world today. Shadow to light, a self-awareness, a perpetual mindfulness of the fact that one needed to be good to one’s neighbours and fellow humans was something associated with only a few humans like the late woman while a large proportion of the human population was unfamiliar with this truth; the truth that in this self-awareness lay the true meaning of life. A part of the doctor’s mind agreed with a School of Thought that holds the view that the entire physical world is a shadow of the world of light, a temporary dust heap, or an illusion that can vanish any moment, ultimately a deception meant to distract our attention from the light it is reflecting; a thing which is supposed to be the true essence of existence. This is the reason a large percentage of humans are evil, materialistic and foolish; because we deny the essence of light and dwell instead in darkness.
“Where are you now?” He asked.
“At the hospital sir”
“And the other members of staff?”
“We are all here at the hospital sir except Remi who has gone to the parish. She says she must pay her last respect. It was matron Opeyemi that asked me to call and inform you of the current development sir”
“It’s ok, let me see if I can stop over there and see what’s going on before going home. I will be at the clinic later in the evening” he said and hung up with another sigh.
At 50 years of age, quite a bit early, Dr Alafia was now starting to often get pesky whenever he was worn out and tired yet he decided to change the course of his journey home and go and pay his last respects too. Remi, one of his members of staff as he has been informed, was already at the church. Remi was like the black goat amongst his employees. Very stubborn and never wanting to submit to authority or take proper permission before she does anything, yet Dr Alafia kept her in his hospital as a cleaner still. Though stubborn, she was really good at her cleaning job. Even though an obstinate girl, whenever she mopped the floor, she usually left Dr Alafia wondering whether he had fixed new tiles. She was like a piece of rag that has no value in terms of how much it cost yet was good for cleaning. A rag is about the most worthless thing in the house yet it is a rag that made other things clean. What an irony? He thought to himself.
As he made his way to where his Mercedes Benz was parked in the garage, he could not help but let his mind drift into myriad thoughts. He had recently visited with his elder sister Bosede in Benin City to spend a few days. He had decided he needed three days off and had decided to spend it in Benin City in their sprawling mansion there where he grew up. He could remember how his elder sister had advised him to retire and come and join her in their family business! He was shocked to hear his sister mention that. Retire? At 50? He asked the surprise evident on his face. Undaunted, the elder sister almost persuaded him to retire and come live with her in the family home where they were both raised. She was aging fast and their family business needed more hands, especially a male hand to save it from nose diving she argued. They were only two of them before their parents passed. The bond they had forged since childhood was still very strong. In response to his sister’s plea, he had told her a doctor’s job was much more than making money. The Hippocratic Oath was not one to be taken lightly. A doctor’s job, or calling as it were, was for life and it should not be all about the money.
That as it may he still allowed his mind to return to the present. Now, here he was, suffering from stress after a long journey and the last thing he wanted was a visit to the parish. He was there viewing and paying his last respect to a dear friend, a beloved friend’s body only five weeks before. A friend he could not save despite all he did to try and preserve his life. Yet he had no choice but to go to the parish. Iyin Ocheche was a good woman that deserves his last respect.
Why do good people die? Why do men die? Was there a clock, some sort of a genetic clock inside the nucleus of the genetic programming of man that stops to tick as soon as man got to a certain age? If not, why is it that when one got to a particular age, his system, organs starts to shut down as it were? For example, at a certain age, the hearing, seeing, even walking abilities of a man starts to slow down. Can man reverse this trend? Slow or even stop the aging process? Can man attain immortality? Or are we caught in the middle of a dual force of light and that of darkness? Cycles of births and deaths that can never be altered by man? Can each of these two forces exist without the other? When we are born, have we obtained our share of light and as such should not complain when we are faced with death which is like obtaining our own share of shadow- of darkness? When face with difficulty-darkness, can we reasonable ask ‘Lord, why me?’ when, in good times we do not in the same vein ask the same question? These thoughts continued to pour into his mind as if a dam had broken inside his head as he reached for the handle of his car.
Even though Benin City was home to him, without a wife, with the reality of the countless suffering people in Ososo that needed medical attention and the bitter truth that the town lacked hospitals, he knew his time in Ososo would still be long. Though he felt his roots in Benin City calling him in flesh and blood, his persuasive sister as its mouth piece, there was no going back. Benin already has a plethora of hospitals even though many of them and the doctors working in them could be described as substandard and quacks respectively. Although he suspected his elder sister was also lonely -her husband had died two years before- , she could manage he decided. After all, she is blessed with 4 grown up kids with her late husband before the chief passed, kids who often came visiting with her, unlike himself who was never married and was childless; an unmarried childless 50-year- old man. Who, better than he can explain loneliness? He questioned.
These were many more reasons why he could not abandon the people of Ososo. Apart from the fact that that was where he hailed from, they were as much his friends, family as much as they were his patients! Dr Alafia was good at planning individual treatments. For many, he insisted on regular check-ups especially for the aged, at much subsidised rate. His constant balancing of medications and the other life-prolonging care, life-style and dieting habits, exercise routines which he gave prevented many cases that would otherwise have turned fatal. Since he started work in the town, few would have survived into their nineties without his expertise as a medical doctor and the whole town knew it. They appreciated him for that. Being too engrossed in his work had made consideration of the female gender for a serious relationship something he had never put his mind to. That and a few other reasons made him an unmarried 50-year old doctor. Ironically, in a culture where marriage was seen as a most important thing, Ososo indigenes seem to accept the celibacy of Doctor Alafia as a norm. As a rule rather than the exception though. Maybe because he took care of their health needs. Care in exchange for their silence and lack of ridicule, a thing they would be quick to visit on other bachelors who may not even be as old as Doctor Alafia.
Dr Alafia soon reached the parish. He pulled his car over in an already crowded parking lot. He could hear songs, the playing of a piano and choristers singing a dirge. Seeing the large turnout of mourners and the overflowing crowd, he could not help but marvel at the mystery of this thing man called death. Even as a medical doctor who understood death from the biological and medical point of view, for him, death was still a mystery.
Eliza, or Iyin Ocheche, as she preferred to be called, had been his patient for over ten years. At 80 years of age, before she succumbed to her age related illness, she was a sickly woman who had one complaint after another but avoided the grave time after time, even though Dr Alafia has witnessed many young people, even infants yielding to simple cases such as malaria or other ailments that one could describe as minor. But when was life ever fair? There was one certainty in life and that was death. We will all die, like Iyin Ocheche and we know it. Man perhaps is the only species in this planet that is aware of the inevitability of his own end. Yet man carries on like they won’t die someday and make plans well into the far future even though they know that they are not promised tomorrow.
Dr Alafia joined the crowd of mourners. The priest was giving his homily by the time he took his seat in the pew. The young priest was extoling the virtues of the late woman and the benefits of living a pious life. But Dr Alafia didn’t allow his mind to dwell on the priest’s sermon. It wasn’t the first time he would be hearing such talk from a pulpit neither would it be the first time he would be wondering what would happen to Iyin Ocheche’s two daughters when she died. They were the ones he was thinking of soon after he took Abigail’s call. He knew they were much attached to their mother even though they were married with their own kids. He knew this for sure because of his closeness with them and he could relate to this because of his own attachment with his own elder sister.
Though not a strict Catholic himself, he still took the liberty to put aside his medical erudition and hold some religious beliefs about the subject of aging and death. Death comes to everyone; the good, the bad and the ugly. In the biblical book of Ecclesiastics it is said that ‘A living dog is better than a dead lion…the living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything….After people are dead, their love, hate, jealousy are all gone. They will never again share in what happens on earth….’ Does this mirror the futility of life? The vainness in the excessive quest for wealth, for power and fame not minding whose horse his gored along the line. Does this admonition mirror the sheer waste of it all? He wondered.
Is this a disquieting hint pointing man to the transience nature of his existence and thus calling him to see the need to seek some self-awareness? Some understanding of the concept of shadow to light and as such do things the way they should be done at all times? ‘So, go and eat your food and enjoy it. Drink your wine and be happy.’ It this another way of telling man to accept his fate? Is life is fair? If life is fair, why would a new born die of cancer; a child that didn’t ask to be born? Why would a toddler be diagnosed of an incurable ailment? Why will a ‘just wedded’ couple who are happy and certain that their lives together was now a ‘happy-ever-after’ scenario die in a fatal car crash that was not their fault because a mad driver had rammed his own vehicle into theirs? Simply put, why do good people die? As a doctor, he has witnessed so much that only a man with a heart of steel would not question the fairness of life and even at times, the existence of God too in the face of the utter suffering of humanity.
‘I also saw other things in life that were not fair. The fastest runner does not always win the race; the strongest soldier does not always win the battle.’ This was still the biblical author speaking. Despite the fact that the funeral he was attending was that of an old woman, he could not help but think about these things in a manner that troubled the heart and left one resigning to fate.
Everybody in Ososo seems to know everybody else, yet no one knew more than matron Opeyemi. She was the portly woman who has been in the town long before many of them at his hospital. She had told Dr Alafia that folks hardly knew what to think of the fact that Iyin Ocheche, a controlling -of her kids at least- , generous, good natured and strong-minded woman, had named both her daughters after herself. Although they were both christened Elizabeth, they were known all their lives as Omokhoshe and Ocheche; their native names. Ironically, although women were called by their first child’s names in Ososo, people called Madam Elizabeth ‘Iyin Ocheche’ –A literal translation meaning ‘Ocheche’s mother’- after her second daughter. Their father, Iti Ocheche, also present at the funeral, a postal worker and farmer, was a soft spoken man who spoke sparsely, loved church and God more than himself, and prefers to work behind the scenes. Like working in the shadow, he was a man who never wanted to be heard or seen in the public.
Funeral mass over, Dr Alafia followed the procession of mourners as they followed behind the hearse bearing the remains of Iyin Ocheche to the cemetery not too far from the church building where she was to be interred. As the procession slowly made its way to the cemetery, Dr Alafia allowed thoughts to pour into his mind yet again.
Iyin Ocheche is gone as all of us must one day, which is certain. But, when, where, how and what awaits us at the other side when we die irrespective of what the priest, pastor, imam, and philosopher says, only God knows. The mystery of death should invite the consideration of all men he decided. However, from what he could tell, this has not been the case. The secularisation of our culture, its focus on worldly pleasures and this paradise-on-earth attitude of many people for years has made discussion on this matter private. A matter we only allow our minds to focus on in the comfort of our bedrooms. Especially at nights when we are alone and wondering in deep thoughts with only silence and the darkness of the night as our friend and companion.
Life can be terribly unfair he thought. Some people are born with silver spoon in their mouths, while others who may be superior in goodness die with a coal scuttle in hand. With this, to Dr Alafia, death itself appears to be biased. How many creative geniuses like Mozart, Keats, and Raphael and so on were struck down before even middle-age? A thing which has deprived the world a full maximization of their talents. How many children and youths have been claimed by accident and disease, which rubbed them of the opportunity to grow up and enjoy the beauties of life?
Iyin Ocheche had kept a tight rein on her daughters from the time they were born. Neither had ever left their mother’s side in Ososo. Dr Alafia felt sorry for them because they had had their wings clipped before they could fly the coop as it were. Over the years, he had grown use to them and was now like family to them. The picture of the two women surrounded by their kids sobbing by the casket earlier in the church, and probably wondering how they could function without spiritual and motherly guidance of their mother standing over them, like a guiding light, made Dr Alafia feel all the more sorry for them.
As the casket was being lowered into the grave, Dr Alafia suddenly remembered a house call he made a year ago to check on Iyin Ocheche in her home in Egbetua area of the town. It turned out what she had was just a cold. Feeling relieved because he had expected the worst going by the nature of the call from the house help, Dr Alafia had decided to stay a while and chat with the old woman. During the discussion, she had led the doctor into her bedroom, turned on the light, brought down her aluminium made box from on top her wardrobe, opened the box and brought out a fabric. It was an Oja which was a locally made textile. Holding the bluish material in her hand with some pride like someone holding a prized trophy,
“My son,” said Iyin Ocheche, “This Oja is 50 years old today. It was a gift from my mother. She was an excellent weaver. It took her 3 days to weave. It has never been removed from this box since I used it for my Obhiko festival initiation rites as a young woman. My eldest daughter used it in turn for hers and one day I will be no more and my eldest daughter eldest daughter will inherit it to be passed to her own eldest daughter down the line.”
She smiled at Dr Alafia’s gaping eyes. “I’ve always been so proud to have this Oja still almost preserved in the state it was handed to me by my mother who was a good woman. This keeps the memory of her alive in my mind as am sure mine will be kept in my daughters. More importantly, I hope my daughters will keep my memories when am gone not just by remembering me but by carrying on in acts of kindness no matter how little and no matter to whom”
That evening, back in his house, as Dr Alafia dished some egusi soup into the small saucers set in front of him from the bigger plate on the table, in preparation to do justice to the pounded yam the house help had served, he could not help but tell her about the 50 years old Oja which was intended as a gift for Iyin Ocheche’s eldest daughter. Was this some sort of a testament to the fact that, when one ages, little things become more important? Old age was like a stage when one began to look inwards. When one was always all by one’s self searching one’s soul, like searching for some sort of light in a shadow? A time when one wanted to know or be assured that there were some purpose to one’s life.
Even though he knows that this self-awareness and soul searching should begin much earlier in one’s life and influence one’s dealing with others, he knew that old age –for the lucky ones who didn’t die young at least- was a time when one could not escape from that soul searching and when one paid more attention to little things that one ordinarily would have taken for granted. If not, what other reason could explain Iyin Ocheche’s attachment to a mere fabric when it was not as if it was part of her culture to keep such a fabric? He reasoned.
Today she is dead. She has lived a relatively long life of 80 yet that pales compared to the eternity that now lay before her. Eternal sleep as it were. Dr Alafia thought about the countless others who have gone before Iyin Ocheche, his own mortality and felt a little humility. It was this feeling of humility that made Doctor Alafia to take a decision that altered his hitherto held belief. What was the point? Was it worth it staying in uncomfortable conditions in Ososo and looking after the health needs of the people while good people still die? What was the point when at last the individual will still eventually succumb to death? That day, he took a drastic decision. He made a U-turn that changed everything for him.
The family house was cold when Dr Alafia finally returned to Benin City. His elder sister was more than happy to have him back. Out of habit, the first thing he did upon setting foot on the plush rug in the massive living room was to turn on the TV. He was fond of the news as he had been his job. The hard question, stay in Ososo or retire and go back to Benin City as his elder sister had persistently advised which he had faced over the months, since the funeral service of Iyin Ocheche which he unintendedly attended which changed his life’s course, was finally put to rest by his decision. What is the use working among a people, saving their lives now for the briefest of moments only for them to still die? Death was inevitable.
Iyin Ocheche’s case was a classic example. It thought him the futility in everything. Life was short when compared to the amount of time that was before we were born and the amount of time that will go on when we die. So what’s the point he questioned. Live each day as it comes. Would a rose be a rose without its thorns? Would the story of Jesus Christ be the same without Judas Iscariot in it? Would poverty be an injustice without wealth? A conscious life should find meaning in these contrasts, meaning that impacts and punctuates that can even transform us. And this meaning can be sought in the quest for knowledge. A thing he had now dedicated his life to. This was the story of the contrasts in his life, how it has now helped to maintain the essential balance in his life and how this new quest for knowledge was now giving his life a much more deeper meaning than he felt saving people in a sleepy tourist town would.
As he sat there watching the news, he knew he didn’t need a crystal ball to see the future. All things being equal, he was now a childless 50-year-old medical doctor turn a seeker of true knowledge. Self-awareness on a higher plane from the one he had known before. When he first came to Ososo, he was able to purchase a small brick building facing the Market Square for his medical practice. It was this building, now expanded to a bigger structure that was his hospital. It was this same hospital he left in the hands of Matron Opeyemi.
A year has passed since he took the abrupt decision to leave Ososo. The stay with Bosede, running the family business in Benin City when he had the time has presented a welcome challenge. However, what gives him much happiness was the reading and the quest for knowledge he had now dedicated his life to. His library was now ever on the rise with new titles on various field of human endeavour been added daily. His soul was now receiving adequate nutrition and care. Reading. Although this was not the way he had planned his life, he felt it was working out for him. He had accepted the fact that some things are mysterious and unpredictable. Others like some real tough puzzles are in-explicable and must be accepted the way they are. What more? Even many more things are even unjust and unfair. But that was as far as it went.
Abigail called regularly. She lets him know happenings in his hospital and the latest gossips in Ososo. Not as if the later mattered to him anymore but it seems that since he left the town, twelve of his former patients have passed on. He would usually shrug at such information as if it was expected.
News of the deaths especially was to him as if it was Iyin Ocheche that opened the gates for them. What more can a man do with this reality of death -the realisation that one would die someday -always hanging over one’s head? To doctor Alafia, all he could do was soul searching, living each day as it comes, opening his eyes to the truth, looking death in the face and smiling, a Shadow to Light…