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Smile when that smile can be returned…


She said, barely containing her tears. This was earlier in the week when Lydia, a Kenyan acquaintance shared with a number of us the story of her life. Married in 1998, and blessed with two daughters soon after, the first curve ball off left field came in the shape of meningitis. She found herself bedridden, with no brain functions, no sight, no mobility. “I was a cabbage,” she said, recalling over half a year in hospital spent with no improvement and no hope of recovery.

Eight months after her admission, with insurance payments running out, she had to be moved back home. “I knew I was in familiar surroundings, but not much else. I still couldn’t see my husband or my children,” she said of the time. Until one day praying with neighbourhood women who had come to support her, her vision came back all of a sudden. Then she realised, even with some difficulty, she could move. She called her husband to break the good news.

Then for months, she worked on rebuilding a broken life. Slowly she regained her speech, her mobility, her life. Once an eloquent speaker on international platforms, she had to go back to school to learn the basics of the English language.

Just when she was back on her feet, hard at work, in November 2002, she had another health scare where she spent two weeks in hospital. At this point, not certain whether she would regress, she had already started planning for her death. “I even had picked my husband’s next wife for after I’d died,” she jokes, “I told him, a year after my death, he should marry her. I also told him she had better treat my daughters well or I would come and haunt them from beyond the grave.”

Yet life had another card up her sleeve. She was blindsided just two weeks after, death calling at her door in a way she had not expected.

“It was a public holiday that day,” she recalls, “I’d woken up early to see my husband off. He was going to a village for business. This time around he didn’t tell me where he was going. He assured me he would be back in late afternoon and we could go out for dinner in the evening. I had an uneasy feeling, as if I wanted to run after his car and stop him, but I thought I was being foolish and went back to sleep.”

She woke up again at 9am with a bad headache and an even worse feeling in her gut, but it wasn’t until noon she would get a call from the police asking her to come to the mortuary to identify her husband. He was killed in a car crash soon after 9am.

“At 8am I was a wife,” she says, “At 9am I wasn’t.” Death had caught her unaware. It was another decade of building her life, raising her kids singlehandedly while shutting the outside world out, battling in grief and finding solace in long hours in the office, all the while questioning her faith and asking God, “Why me?” Today, she knows the lesson and she shares so generously.

“Smile when your smile can be returned. Give flowers when they can be received. Show someone you care when they are there. And ladies, appreciate your husbands when you have them.”

Isn’t there such power in those words? By the time she was finished telling her story, there was not a dry eye in the room. Not just because we felt her pain, but also because she was like any one of us. Any one of us could have gone to sleep on Friday, or a Saturday or any other given day a wife, and woken up an hour later a widow. A daughter, then not. A sister, then not. A mother… and in a spilt second not. Such is the threadbare line that is life, with death lurking in the nooks and crannies ready to jump on us and break that line, throwing into ricochet all the things we hold true about ourselves and our loved ones. So, in Lydia’s words, “Smile when that smile can be returned…”

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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