By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
It’s difficult to believe that today, June 4, marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of my wife. I don’t know what feels more like a dream: the death itself or the staggering rapidity of the passage of time between the death and now. Perhaps it’s both. My daughter captured it so well and so precociously when, out of the blue, she said to me two days ago, “Daddy, I think this life is a dream from which we will wake up one day.”
She probably memorized that line from one of her movies or TV programs. Nonetheless, it felt like she had pierced open the inner recesses of my heart and gazed at the motley of labyrinthine thoughts that uneasily resided therein. Since June 4 last year, my mind has vacillated endlessly between coming to terms with my loss and dismissing the materiality of the loss. It’s tough, really tough, to accept that Zainab who brimmed over with so much optimism, who taught me to believe in the realness of tomorrow’s possibilities, who projected and mapped our future with unbelievably contagious confidence, and who never even entertained the prospect that any of us could die before the age of 90 is gone—and for good.
My sense of the insubstantiality of her departure from this world is often aggrandized each time I recall the near-death experience she and I had when we drove to my hometown with our then two-year-old daughter, Sinani, sometime in 2006. We missed being crushed by two trailers only by a hair’s breadth. The trailers were coming at breakneck speed from the opposite directions of a narrow, serpentine road, and we were caught in their middle. I instinctively swerved to the bush and somehow managed a split-second escape from the jaws of death. I frankly don’t know how I did it. Sometimes I wonder if we actually survived it. I used to tell Zainab that we probably died and merely transitioned to another life without realizing it.
|Me and Zainab during our wedding in Zaria in 2002|
Of course, I never believed my own wild phantasmagoric indulgences. Neither did she. But the second near-death experience she had with her twin sister two years after the one with me shook her much more deeply. She, Sinani, and her twin sister’s entire nuclear family traveled to Lagos to visit a family member. I was away here in America then. As her sister’s husband was driving back to Kaduna, she told me, he lost control of the car. As the car moved precipitously toward the bush, they all wailed in self-pity and made peace with the unsettling reality that they could all die. Zainab said just when she resolved to throw our daughter out of the window in hopes that she might survive, the car hit a tree and screeched to a jarring halt.
“I thought: so that’s how people die in car accidents!” she told me. “But by Allah’s grace we will never die in an accident. We will live until we are old. Amin.” These words now haunt and sting me periodically. They compel me to wonder about the agony of her last moments, about what must have gone through her mind when she was confronted with the cold, inexorable certainty of death. My parents and my friends tell me to not allow my mind to dwell on those toxic thoughts. I sincerely wish I had the capacity to censor my thoughts. Alas, I don’t.
However, many things console me. First, in death Zainab towers like the colossus that she truly was. Few people’s deaths have elicited the kind of sustained, impassioned overflow of genuine emotions and testimonies as much as Zainab’s did. If the dead could see, hear, or read, she would not only be proud of herself, she would be amazed by the immensity of the imprints she left behind. Zainab was a severely self-critical person who had a very modest self-construal of her impact and strengths. She always jokingly called me “Mr. Flatterer” each time I forcefully impressed it upon her that she was a huge reservoir of great intellectual strength, grace, piety, and compassion. The heartfelt testimonies of people who knew her closely have more than confirmed what I had always told her about herself. Of course, I wish I appreciated her more than I did when she was alive.
I am also consoled by the adorable children she left behind. Sinani and Maryam now look more and more like her than they ever did when she was alive—as if to compensate for her permanent absence. Zainab used to call just to tell me how certain of our children’s features and mannerisms often reminded her of me. It’s now I understand what she meant. Every day, Sinani reminds me of her, too. She asks me the same questions that her mother asked me. She is exactly as finicky about neatness and cleanliness as her mother was. And, what is even more mysterious, she makes the same aesthetic demands on me as her mother did. For instance, Zainab never liked it when I had a very low haircut. She always wanted some hair on my head. That’s precisely what Sinani wants of me as well. She protests when I have a very low haircut.
Most importantly, Sinani gives me the same courage and optimism that Zainab gave me. I wonder how I would have survived here alone if I had not brought her here. She has helped me to cope with her mother’s death in ways I can’t convey in words. She has an uncanny capacity to know when I am thinking about her mother. And almost always, she will tell me, “Dad, I know you’re thinking about mom. But you need to be strong for me and my siblings. When you’re sad we will all be sad. When you’re happy we will all be happy. And remember that mommy is having a good time in Heaven.”
On Mother’s Day last month, I was concerned that the heavy dose of advertising and program promos about children-mother bonding on TV would activate painful memories of her mother’s death. I was thinking of ways of dealing with this when she came in to my bedroom and interrupted my thoughts. “Dad,” she said, “it’s a good thing that my mom was a twin.” My heart skipped a beat. So I asked why she said that. Then she responded: “Because God gave me two moms. Now that my first mom is dead, I have a second mom. If my mom wasn’t a twin, I would have been motherless now. That would have been very bad. Now, can we go and buy some Mother’s Day gifts for my Mommy Kaduna?”
“Mommy Kaduna” is the name Zainab taught our children to call her twin sister, Hajia Aisha. Her twin sister’s children, in turn, used to call her “Mommy Abuja.” Sinani’s innocent and child-like yet hopeful and philosophical take on motherhood both delighted and touched me deeply. It gave me an insight into her infectious calmness and unusual strength in the face of her “first mother’s” transition to Heaven.
Mourning My Wife and Best Friend
Grieving in America
Zainab: One Year After, It Still Feels Like a Dream