I waited until everybody left before walking over to my mother’s grave. I knelt there, tears streaming from my eyes and my heart pounding so fast under my chest I could have had a seizure.
The air inside the Leopard’s Hill Cemetery was palpable. Birds chirped faintly, the wind rattled the trees just as the cries of other mourners met my ears.
Sharon was some distance away in a chitenge, a black blouse and turban, her arms folded to her waist. Seemingly upset and distraught, she stood looking at me.
I suppose on some level she felt like I did.
But not quite.
Because we hadn’t been married long and also, well, this wasn’t her mother.
I placed roses on the grave and thought of saying something but I couldn’t. My voice was trapped in the middle of my throat.
I heard Sharon’s footsteps moving towards me and the memories of my mother all rushed back to me. I felt even more devastated.
“It’s popular belief that butterflies have very short life spans, did you know that?” My mother had told me just a week before “But in their adult stage they can live for a week or a year depending on the species.”
In her dying days she had taken a manic liking to butterflies. It was all she would talk about. The doctors said it was a peculiar side effect of the medication. They said in order to disassociate herself from the cancer that was slowly eating at her brain, she could fixate on something and let it play in her mind for hours. Call it mental denial of some sort, considering she only had four months to live.
Of course that had been it, denial, on her part and from me obviously.
In her last month, she had managed to get herself a butterfly collection and couldn’t spare a moment to tell you one fact or another about the innocuous insects.
My brothers Jonas and Simon said she was reaching her end but I wouldn’t hear of it. My mother would be fine, I thought. I believed she would.
That was the problem.
At the funeral my sister Semwa even told me that if I’d done something my mother wouldn’t have died a month before the doctors said she likely would.
On some level I think so too.
The night it happened I had walked in from work and found her by the podium she had put up for those delicate insects. It was right on the left above a table when you entered my small living room.
As soon as she’d seen me she said “It was here Andrew, when I woke today I was so sure it would come, and it did.”
I had gotten used to her talking that way. I think we all had. From the time the doctors told us the bad news, my mother had then developed a new way of conversing. She could chat with you about something as though you’d already talked about it before.
Without being told I knew she must have been talking about the butterflies.
She had on a pink night gown with rosy designs around the neck, a cloth wrapped deftly on her head to conceal the bald, and she stared away from me and was looking through that glass zoo she had made for them.
Sharon sat on the sofa right behind her reading a magazine, her hair dropping to her neck neatly.
Clearing my throat, I had looked at my wife but her face said don’t-look-at-me-I-don’t-know-what-she’s-talking-about-either.
So I quickly put my bag on the sofa and walked over to her.
“What came mama?”
When she answered I suppose a scared and puzzled look ran over my face. I know this because Sharon put her magazine down and looked at me sternly, a little concerned.
I was puzzled you see, and scared; not because I didn’t know what my mother was talking about but because of the finality that lay in her voice when she’d said it.
Without turning to look at me she had said in her usual sweet elderly voice “The moth.”
So the look flickered on my face.
Instantly, I knew it was about the butterflies. I also knew she would say more about them. It had become like that; she would say something and then give a fun fact. I had told Sharon not to let her linger on that computer but knowing how she always went out of her way to please my mother, I always knew I was asking too much.
Whenever I came home that last month it was always “Do you know that in Japan a butterfly is a persona of the soul, whether you dead or alive?” “Do you know that mosta these pretty little things are a bad omen..But oww look at them they so cute!” “In China two of these flying together that’s love my son, like you and her” (her would be Sharon in that scenario), “Even here in Zambia among the Namwanga people a butterfly symbolises rebirth into new life.”
I tell you during that last month of her life we talked about butterflies more than we did anything else, let alone the impending problem of her declining health.
Still puzzled I had asked her “The moth?”
“Yes,” she’d said.
Again she didn’t turn to look at me; she was still looking inside the glass with the same marvel look pasted on her face.
“Do you know that the Philippines take a lingering black butterfly, a moth, in the house as a sign someone has died, or will soon die?”
The moment she said that, my heart froze, my stomach locked, and a frown settled perfectly on my face. How could she possibly say that? It was one thing avoiding something but having her talk about it, well that was something else.
With a scrunched face I sternly told her “Ma, don’t talk like that, what’s the matter with YOU?”
This time she turned towards me. Perhaps to see whether I was serious or not, and when my face suggested the former she grabbed my hand and squeezed gently “I’m sorry Andy, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I don’t want you to talk like that ma.”
“Okay but don’t be mad at me” she had snapped. “You don’t have to be mean”
“I know, it’s just I’ve had a very bad day. My friend murdered his wife last night so the last thing I expect to hear when I get home is you talking about…” I had hesitated, “You know death, I don’t like it ma.”
Sharon gave me a shocked look. I figured it was the part about my friend that warranted the stare.
“I’m sorry,” my mother had said looking at me. I could see she meant it.
Then her eyes returned to the glass and the excitement floated back into them. I had looked at her a second longer and then picked up my bag from the sofa and went to the bedroom.
That was the night she died.
Coincidence or not, but she chocked on a butterfly she swallowed in her sleep. How that happened is not really beyond my understanding. I mean, sometimes she would carry those little insects to bed with her.
Sharon reached over and put her hand on my shoulder and suddenly I was back at Leopards Hill Cemetery.
My head hung down and my face dejected. Inside my heart I said a prayer, though to this day I don’t believe it was even a prayer, it was just too simple and hurried. Just seven words “keep her safe for me Lord, amen”
I lifted my head and looked at the tombstone engraving which read “Mervis Mwaba Chella, Beloved Mother and Sister, Born 1954 – Died 2011”
Though it was hard I managed to rise to my feet and I turned and hugged Sharon. She squeezed my back and the embrace was ever more satisfying.
Later we were in the car driving back to the funeral home when Sharon brought up the inevitable. “You know we should get rid of it right?”
I pretended not to hear her and continued looking straight ahead.
But knowing Sharon she couldn’t let it go, she was just that sort of person. The kind that never gave up until they eventually got what they wanted. Thus she asked me again only this time she even looked over at me and raised her voice. Much like to say you-can’t-pretend-not-to-hear-me-now-can-you?
“She loved that thing Sharon what do you want me to do?” I said.
“You can’t honestly keep it?” she was bemused. “I mean after what happened”
“And what happened HUH?” I raised my voice and loved that I had done so.
But Sharon wasn’t slightly phased she simply said “I don’t want it in our house anymore, deny it all you want but that thing is what killed her! ”
I could only shrug.
And so Sharon got what she wanted. We got rid of my mother’s butterfly collection all because Sharon thought it was bad.
But was it?
Sometimes I think so too. But when logic and sense grip it is just so ridiculous, I mean how could a butterfly collection be bad?
But it was.
Because my mother’s death wasn’t accidental.
I know that now.
(My Intellect’s Loud And Noisy-MILAN)