MY BROTHER, MY LOSS: IN LOVING MEMORY OF IYKE OKEMUO
Just typing his name gets my heart filled with emotion - (yes, thankfully emotion), no longer the tugging pain that nearly stopped my heart from working.
I loved my brother, incredibly so. My brother loved me too, deeply – and was my greatest fan. Seven years older than me, he must have been bowled over by seeing his baby sister when I was born. I still have an old family photo where he simply wrote 'good sisters are hard to find'. I should be about three or four years old when the photo was taken, but like a true love he had already seen the 'good' in me.
Though we have two elder brothers, we got very close due to a number of factors including the fact that our two elder brothers had already left home when I was growing up. I remember my first few days at Coal Camp Primary School Enugu when I would, on being upset, tell my teacher I was going to report her to my brother I.K. (the short form of his name). I would then leave the class and run to the upper school to find my brother (he was in Yr 6 when I entered Yr 1).
My brother and I also shared a love of music. And, what can unite two hearts better than a shared love for music, especially the same kind of music. Perhaps, it was because of I.K. that I love music? Perhaps I learnt how to dance from him? In a song lyric I wrote in his memory, I made reference to these. Growing up, we played music, danced and could chat about absolutely anything! He was strong, and yet very tender. He was called 'Warrior' in those days, and because he was very popular, I became 'nwanne Warrior' (Warrior's sister). He also later became known as 'Markidor', and though I don't know how this second 'alias' came about, I also became 'nwanne Markidor'.
Our relationship was devoid of any form of sibling rivalry (perhaps because of the age gap), and once during one of my late night discussions with our mother during my teenage years, he had volunteered/promised to be my 'sister'. Suffice to say that he lived up to this promise.
My brother believed in me – completely (maybe I've said that before?). As far as he was concerned, 'Nwamalubia' (he started calling me my Igbo name after my husband and some of his friends took to it) has the ability to achieve whatever she wants to achieve. And he was right – I was a go-getter and had a natural ability to do so many things. I also had a rare vision beyond any barrier. I use past tense here because I am not going to pretend that I've remained the same after this untold loss and pain. For want of apt words, I will not go further here.
My brother's love for me was never lacking in expression. This he did in so many ways. For example in 1997 while I was doing my National Youth Service at Awori Grammar School, my brother left his office one evening to meet me at the staff room while I was about to close from work. I was surprised to see him and wondered whether he had wanted to give me a lift home, but surprisingly he brandished the then new CD of Bobby Brown's third album which had just been released into the Nigerian market. I was a big Bobby Brown fan and he knew it. I was elated to say the least. He always had me in mind, and would always make me feel special, at every opportunity.
In my down moments, I took solace in Markidor. I knew he was always there to get my back no matter what, and I was there to do same for him too. During my undergraduate days at the University of Lagos, Markidor was usually the one to take me back to the university hostel. He was using a blue flat boot Mercedes Benz then. While in the car, we'll chat about the future, listen and sing to his favourite Michael Bolton and Kenny G tunes.
During those dark days following his death, when overwhelmed with emotion, I would usually cry while singing 'it's so hard to say goodbye' by Boyz-II-Men, then I'd pray as advised by my counselor, and next get into singing 'When am back on my feet again' by Michael Bolton. I knew the words of this last song simply by listening and singing to it in my brother's car. I know I'll get back on my feet again. Indeed, I keep growing in strength. I have gone through every stage of grief, including denial and depression.
Now, I am in the stage of acceptance and working through. I look forward to achieving some (if not all) of those dreams we shared so I could at least offer his children the kind of exposure he believed I could offer. I owe it to him and to our mother. My three brothers and I were one widow's four children who dared to dream and rise beyond our circumstances. What our late mother did was offer us an unadulterated love, pray endlessly for us and ensure that we respected one another. She single handedly ensured that a dove of peace constantly hung above our family. Respect breeds love. We disagreed sometimes, but with so much love, there was no gap for the growth of strife.
Even when our relationship was sometimes affected by the dynamics of other relationships we had entered into, my 'sisterly' brother always made sure there was 'no problem' (his exact words of reassurance). When he got me upset and we do not speak for a couple of days, he would usually pick up the olive branch and instead of calling to speak on phone, would come to my house. He would usually start calling out for my first daughter Chinemerem as he entered, and whether she was there to answer or not, Markidor would still ask 'Chinemerem, where is your mummy?'
That was all I needed to hear, and as I would step out to meet his ever enchanting smile he would directly ask me 'Nwamalubia ke'ije?' (how's it going?) That was the end of the matter. And because we would have missed our chats so much, we would immediately get into 'catching up'. My brother.On my traditional wedding day, Markidor got me walking on the red carpet. He made sure I came out in style, like a queen. He had also got the wedding announced on local radio stations. And after my church wedding, he gave me an after wedding party where we shared the dance floor before my husband joined me (my brother also loved my husband, a lot.
I guess it followed on naturally from his love for me. He had taken to my husband at first meeting).In December 2005, I had traveled to the village before him, and as he was coming, he bought me some dry fish. I am sure he knew I had bought some, but he still bought some for me anyway. And when I asked why he had bothered, he smilingly asked me 'i si?' (what did you say?), just as if he didn't hear. Then I repeated myself and he jokingly said 'Nwamalubia na wa for you o! It is you that will soon accuse me of not being the sister I had promised to be'On the morning that I went to discuss my plans to further my studies abroad, he was so elated and kept on repeating 'that's good, that's very very good…'
He loved education. On the morning of the day I left Nigeria for England, I went to see him and we just could not part easily like before. There was so much to talk about, even things from the past, and he gave some information about the future which made little sense at the time. Each time I made to leave, my brother would bring up another topic. We were both ignorant, but the heavens knew it was our last meeting. Every request I made to him this particular morning with regards to myself or other persons around us was as usual met with 'no problem'.
My brother was an Arsenal fan, and was also a very good football player himself. In April 2007, I placed an order for an Arsenal T-shirt with his alias 'Markidor' inscribed on it. The plan was to send this special gift to him through my husband who was traveling back to Nigeria after a visit. As my husband's departure date fast approached, the letter 'R' inscription couldn't be found and a relative (who was to travel home a couple of weeks after my husband) volunteered to take the shirt home to my brother by then when the inscription would be available. But the pull of love was so strong that I couldn't wait.
I asked that the inscription be done without letter 'R' (Makido) but was told it will attract another pronunciation altogether. Yet, the pull was so strong that it could not be ignored. I therefore asked that the T-shirt should have 'IYKE' (another short form of his name) inscribed on it. Hence my husband was able to travel home with this shirt.
On Saturday 12 May, as I was preparing for my first year exams news came to me that my dear brother had died on the evening of Tuesday 08 May 2007. Words cannot, and indeed can never aptly describe the impact of his death/the news of it. Suffice to say that life has never been, and indeed, will never be the same…
Though Markidor received the Arsenal T-shirt, he didn't get to wear it as he died about 4 days after. I thank God that I responded to that pull of love. At least, my brother went home knowing that though we were apart I never ceased loving him and had always had him in my thoughts like he had me in his.
It is now three years. And though his death left a heartache no one can heal (except God), thankfully his love did leave a memory no one can steal. And because love defies death, I know he is watching down. 'Nwannem'.
Okemuo writes from U.K