“Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you...”—Rumi
Thirteen years ago today, my mother knocked on my bedroom door around midnight, and I told her to come in. For some reason though, my door was stuck, and my uncle had to break down the door before my mother could come in. As soon as my mother sat on my bed, I knew what she was going to say. I knew that my father had passed away, after a two-year battle with brain cancer.
I remember that night clearly. I can still hear the specific octaves and pitches of wailing that filled our home. I can still see my mother lying down on our worn-out green leather couch, wearing a black kaftan. She looked so lost, but maintained her poise. I remember feeling numb, and not shedding a tear. In fact, for at least two years, I never allowed myself to cry about my father’s death. I knew that as my parent’s first child, I needed to be strong for my siblings and my mother. What I didn’t know is that strength and suppression sometimes have costs. In my case, the cost was memory.
While I still vividly remember the night of my father’s death, my memories from before that night, and for a period afterwards, are few and far between. I was fifteen years old when my father passed away, and by the time I enrolled in college two years later, I could count on one hand the things I could remember about him. I also realized that along with the loss of the memories of my father, I had forgotten a lot of my childhood memories. Friends and family were often shocked (and sometimes offended by) the things and people I could not remember. Some just teased me and said I had an old woman’s brain.
During my final semester in law school, I was selected to be a student attorney for the international human rights clinic at my school. As part of my training, I had to take a trauma seminar to understand the psychological aspects of dealing with human rights victims. During that seminar, a psychologist explained that when people go through traumatic experiences such as the death of a loved one, they might suffer memory loss as a coping mechanism. I spoke with the psychologist after the seminar, and for the first time, I made a connection between my father’s death and my memory loss. Forgetting had been my sub-conscious mode of self-preservation.
After law school, I moved back to Nigeria to do human rights and development work. Surrounded by my father’s stories, pictures and legacy, the memories started trickling in. Unearthing memory meant opening the lid on an untapped reservoir of pain. That year, I wrote a poem called ‘An Appeal to Memory’ for the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. Today, the 13th anniversary of my father’s death, I thought to share it again (see below).
There is still much about my father and my childhood that my younger sister and mother have to remind me of, but I continue to allow myself to remember. There will always be some pain associated with the memories of my father—but thirteen years later, his memories come with gratitude, healing, knowledge, and laughter too.
Here’s a funny thing about life that death has taught me: there are times when we must forget to heal, and there are times when healing requires us to turn our heads, and look at the bandaged place.