The first time I experienced grief, it wasn’t because I had lost someone dear to me or a family member. It was me sitting alongside my uncle, he on a wooden chair padded thinly with foam and myself on a plastic chair with my legs outstretched, suggesting a subtle argument with my eyes to look up. The sensation of grief was obvious in the silence that was interspersed by the occasional sorry my uncle or the other guy would utter. The “sorry” was said with just enough soul to jerk a nod or smile from the brother neighbors we had come to visit. They had lost their brother and he was 28. Before I sat down, I shook hands with one of them and I thought of saying “please accept my condolences” just as I had seen done in movies, but the grip of the handshake made me say ” sorry” just sorry, like I was sorry for not knowing what to say.
One of the brothers began the meeting by telling us; my uncle, myself, and the other guy about the events leading up to his brother’s death. And as I sat, preoccupied with the thoughts of how to behave and how to look, the hum of his words against my uncle’s stare was what grief ought to have felt and looked like I concluded. He joked about getting my name right and I smiled in the manner one who had been caught in a lie did. I smiled for him because I knew he was lying, he always got my name right and even though he pretended to pull it from deep in his memory, it was something that fascinated me enough to smile genuinely every time we met. He then proceeded to say my sister’s name and ask if he was right. I said “yes” telling him he was right, and not what I wanted to say which was “you obviously know her name and yet you do this every time.”
He roamed about with his words until he was able to settle on something my uncle and his brother laughed about. It was the church choir, and it was an old joke about the choirmaster, and even though the laugh was probably genuine, it had this thrust to it, the type of thrust used to spit out mucus or perhaps the kind of laughter one had to conjure up in times like that.
The gathering grew less intense, not the type of intensity that switched to fanfare but the type that allowed or perhaps wanted laughter to take a seat all along. This new guest was permitted to contribute to the new feel and we relied on him heavily. The conversation seemed to stretch on for periods about the choir and I mentioned how impressed I was the last time I heard the choir sing. Finally all the angles to exploit the choir from finished and there was that silence again, with the backdrop of that humming albeit the words, it was just the stare this time. We were outside, under a tree I do not know the name of. The rays of the sun that fell through the leaves made my uncle’s eyes glint. The long green finger-shaped leaves on the sandy floor was something to feast my eyes on, when they wouldn’t even sniff contact with any of the brothers, not because of the setting sun, but because of the weight of looking at two men, one very heavy-set, and the other, a little less heavy set, trying to be calm in the storm of silent sympathy that wanted to drown them.
Finally, the conversation restarted and it was about the intricacies of the roads in the city. it was as if the men gathered there; my uncle, the other guy, and the brothers were suddenly tourists in the city. Everyone present had spent considerable time in the city (my uncle was born in the city) and these men feasted on this new topic with the eagerness of a child learning to kick a ball. The abandonment of the persistent hum for some more human-like sounds i.e chuckles and opinions provided room for me to drift away from the pull of involvement. I knew that I wasn’t obligated to contribute, so I looked at the faces of the brothers, I mean I took a closer look at the faces of these bereaved men trying to make the best of this break they didn’t expect.
I wondered, even as I looked intently at the lines on the faces of these men if they would notice what I was doing. I was prying and I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I was looking for hints that their laughter and smiles were not real. That their heads tossing back wasn’t because of genuine shock at some realization, but a participation in the little moments of reprieve they were allowed before assuming the forlorn faces that was expected of them.
When I realized I shouldn’t be drifting, it was almost too late, someone else had come to show support and he stepped into the circle our chairs had made and let his hands fall so lightly on the shoulder of one of the brothers who was upstanding and nodding. The words “please take care of your mother and sister” caused me to look away from what I thought I was seeing and I saw the face of the new guy present, it was not old, but strewn with greying hair that lined the contours of his open lips and the feel-your-pain ready face he had, reminded me that I was not there to make a sketch of faces but to console or perhaps do something that would be considered appropriate given the happenings.
It was like the rubber dinghy I had drifted away on suddenly burst, and I was struggling to return to the gathering. My uncle asked me if I had checked the scoreline for the arsenal game, and in his raspy whisper, I almost fell into shock.
“Is that what has been on your mind all along?”
I swear I would have asked, but the suddenness of the question had me struggling with the question and really, what the scoreline was. I pulled out my phone and I checked. Arsenal was losing the game, it was halftime but still, it was a letdown. My uncle in his serious way of asking for something so mundane, brought another perspective before my eyes, that what we were here for, was just a rite we had to perform, possibly because they would have done the same if the situation was reversed. I didn’t know how much pain the brothers felt and I couldn’t even see it on their faces but there was some expectancy of great grief that I swear I felt during the initial greetings.
It was like my uncle planned to stay for one hour and when that time elapsed he waited for one of the brothers to stand up and offer his back to the numerous people who had come to tell him only slight variations of what the grey-bearded man said initially. My uncle told me we had to leave and the appearance I felt I had to put on slipped from me in the manner a trance or a dream clears. Before walking out the gate, I realized everyone who came to visit did not have much expected of them except the visit and I had done mine, my uncle had done his too and nobody really cared how I looked or how I appeared, I remember now, that we never even made eye contact and I acted everything out like it had been scripted, yes even my uncle acted it out too because I guess nobody really knows how to grieve with another especially when you are not in grief. We spoke about arsenal’s woes and misfortunes as we sat in the car driving towards home, and not one mention of the brothers and their grief.
Young Nigerian male, 22. Trying to tell my stories as well as I can.