The Words of Death: by Shanine L Ahimbisibwe

I went to see him today. I sat on the cold white tiles and ignored the thick stone in my throat as I looked at the words. They looked back at me, cold, unmoved, impersonal. White letters carved in black granite; they tell me nothing. Two buses, twelve hours to see him, and the sum of his life is the five short words that stare aggressively at me. A reminder of all that he was, and wasn’t.

These words make it real; he is not here. His life is five words, elaborate ceramic finishing and a life-sized cross running through the cream and white tiles. He is in the ground, all sixty-two years of him, all six feet. There he is in a brown wooden box, a gift from his colleagues; his friends, the people that ate with him and saw him every day for twenty years. Like all the kings and presidents in history textbooks, like Mansa Musa and Lucky Dube, he does not exist anymore. The quiet, mindful and measured presence is gone from our lives and all that is left is five white words, carved in stone.

I am seated six feet above the box in which he lies, surrounded by his own dead. The last of the rain is falling in drops and I feel gratitude for the anguish it releases and the dirt it washes away. My legs are stretched out in front of me and my left hand mindlessly draws circles on the cream tile as I think of the possibilities had this been 1867 and my ancestors had not traded their talismans for Bibles and rosaries. I would walk into the next diviner’s house and make my petition; just one more time, to see him and say goodbye. As he deserved, not to be rushed off and stolen like he did not belong here, with us. I would see him again, hear his soft and patient voice. She would take one long look at me and say, “He is here.” He would stand at the door unobtrusively, like he lived. A fly on the wall. I would walk closer to him, smelling him and the freshness of imperial leather soap.

The suit was grey, like clouds on a rainy morning. The tie was black, a birthday present. He would look at me and both his eyes and mouth would smile. I would smile too and fall forward. He would make to lift me up and say I have gotten too big for him to carry; I am now a big girl. I would laugh, he would laugh.

But I do not enter a shrine. I sit gingerly on the wet tiles neatly laid on top of him, wishing I could see a ghost. A ghost with small, ambivalent eyes hidden behind gold-rimmed spectacles. I want to see his brown skin that never had a single blemish. His forehead crowded with age and years of excessive worry. That is what he did, he worried about me when I coughed up all my supper, he worried about my sister when her right leg almost fell off after she dropped a kettle of boiling water on it, about my brother when he did not come back home by seven o’clock. I want to tell him that we are okay. He should not worry. We are taking good care of each other as he told us to, because he taught us to.

We have children too now and we always worry about them as well. Some are still babies and some are on the way, some are in school, making friends and doing homework. I want to tell him all about them. About the one who is tiny but fills every room she enters. She makes full sentences now and she loves the outdoors. She straps her shoes on when she sees me and says, “wait for me.” I want to tell him this. About the one who is more observing and quieter, everyone says she took after him. It is only fitting that he knows her. I want to tell him about the boy who took his eyes, his nose and his toes. He recently learnt how to ride a bike and he would have been so happy to play football with him. I want to tell him about banana shoes, does he remember? I want to ask him if he remembers.

“Do you remember I used to do that too? You always placed my slippers on their right side, facing out. Do you remember?”

He would smile, effortlessly, perfect teeth that righted all wrongs. It would be a two-word response. He would say, “yes, yes.” I want to see him standing with the slight hunch of his back, his arms straight at his sides and his eyes looking forward, squinting to read something beyond his vision. I want to tell him all about her, answer his questions. After five years, he must have many. To tell him yes, she is still the beautiful and exuberant woman he knew. Her long, black and luscious hair that he loved so much is still long, black and luscious. Her peanut butter skin still glows in the midday sun and she still has a way of making laughter from any conversation. She still wakes up at dawn to listen to ballads on radio. Her hands cultivate the land still. It would be a pained smile; his mouth would rise on one side and the other would remain a tight line. I would tell him of the maize and cassava and beans and avocado she had me deliver to their grandchildren last weekend after her harvest. I would tell him she still goes to church every Sunday and she buys clothes for her grandchildren every market day.

“She is filling in for you daddy,” I would say.

It is raining now and she is calling my name with more urgency. I am not going to see him today. I am not going to see him ever again. That is what death is, isn’t it? There is finality in a grave, a piece of land, six feet deep that sums up life. All that he was is now contained in a box.

I look at the five little words as I walk away, they don’t mean much if they cannot bring him back. He was Kind and Loving, he was a Husband, a Father and a Friend, but all of that is nothing when he is gone, and has taken all of him too.


Shanine L Ahimbisibwe (@ShanineLA) is a Ugandan Psychologist and writer. She loves people, new places, reading and telling stories.

Related country: Uganda

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