Non-Fiction by Ernestina Edem Azah
As I walk to work I meet a lot of children. They have created a stream of green and white on the main road to the clinic. They have closed from school and are making their way home. Their noisy chatter and the bright rays of the sun are enough catalysts for a headache.
I moved to Debiso recently to start my clinical rotation. It’s a cocoa growing town with lots of rainfall and potential to become a big town. I have an afternoon shift. I haven’t entered the ward yet and I am already tired. Afternoon shifts are the most tiresome of all shifts. The hours flow away quickly in the morning and when you get to work, it is almost as if time is taking a nap.
The adult ward has become my second home. Its walls are painted a mustard green with brown tiled floors inside and yellow outside. A little color to brighten the mood of the patients. I wonder if it really makes them cheerful.
Everyone these days hides away half of their face to sail safely through this pandemic. Three of us are on duty this afternoon. The cleaner just left and the smell of disinfectant hangs in the air. To avoid conversation, I sit down and glue my eyes to the television. There’s a show talking about the import of food from rural to urban Ghana. Patients’ relatives are walking in and out of the ward, bringing food and buying additional medication for their family, hoping they get better.
The ward is structured such that the first things you see are the nurses’ station and a long corridor. There are metal chairs on either side of the corridor where family members of the patients can sit and wait. A television sits forlorn, opposite the nurses’ station and beyond it, the bright red of the fire extinguisher hangs sharply contrasting the green mustard of the wall.
The paint on the lower part of the walls are falling off. Almost as if accounting for the number of people who have died here already. Someone died today. He died before I came to work. He was cleaned and covered with a bedsheet. The day before, he had multiple seizures. His body involuntarily shaking his existence away.
There was nothing more to be done. He was already on his way. We did our best and watched on. Wishing we could collect his soul, disinfect his body clean and return him whole and safe to himself. It was sad to see him lifeless. He had no family to hold on to when he discarded his body.
This was not my first death but it gave me the same feeling as the others I had seen. Guilt at being spared, pain and helplessness at not being able to save him and hopelessness leaving me empty. These feelings flood my being with reality and they leave me as fast as they come, making it seem as if nothing happened.
Some people say it grows on you after awhile, that you get used to it. Dying people and their lifeless bodies. I am not as scared as my first death but the reality that strikes you each time is so raw and true you can’t get over it. I don’t think I ever will.
His relatives do not to show up till late afternoon. We called them several times. We thought they had left the body for us. Some people, overwhelmed with the loss of a loved one are unable to come for the body for burial. This body belonged to a man few hours ago. He was barely conscious but it belonged to him. Now it is just a body to be poked and pushed around without reaction, just another body waiting to be lined up in a morgue-a building to shop for dead bodies.
The relatives have come in their numbers. They are more than the people who came to visit and take care of him during his last days on earth. No one is shocked at this however because we’ve seen a lot of similar cases. They say they were working hard to earn money for his bills. Now they look sad because it seems their hard work was futile. Regardless of what they say we know that sometimes relatives just cannot come to terms with the fact that their family member is dying and because they feel helpless, they choose to stay away.
Human beings can be so weird when it comes to death and dying. His father signs his death certificate and has a chat with our nurse in-charge as she prepares the certificate to hand it over to the family. When a person is born, a certificate is given to show who he belongs with and when he dies another is given to help dispose him off alone.
The family goes in and look at the body. This is important because they need to confirm as a family. A little ritual almost all families do in situations like this. Because we have a smaller number of patients we put all the other male patients in one room and leave the man alone in the other. It must be worrying glaringly to see and know that it could be them, isolated, alone, dead.
Some of the relatives of the dead man are talking excitedly. You can see that they had to take one tot before coming to the clinic. They recall his life saying good things only, as if saying we are sorry for not being here when you left, we love you.
Our people say that when a person dies his spirit hovers around those he loves most until after the burial. I felt this on the day my favourite uncle died. I was little and it was my first experience with a phantom. I can imagine the dead patient being excited to see this number of family all gathered together and wanting to hug and laugh with them, only to be reminded when he tries to that he is a spirit, gone, cannot be seen and touched.
After spending sometime with his body, his father comes for the certificate of death for his son. Four men are chosen to carry his body to an awaiting vehicle. Someone yells You should have waited to bury your father before leaving. The others respond with long sad hmmmms and the rest of the family members leave for the morgue.
In Debiso I live with my elder sister. Her house is a five minute walk from the clinic. The roads are always plied by Keke and Okada. Because the roads are untarred, the buildings and trees along it have been repainted a reddish brown regardless of the original color of the buildings almost as if the road isn’t pleased with the numerous colors and has silenced them all. The layout of the town is a bit chaotic and there seems to be fewer people as compared to the buildings.
When the relatives are gone and the ward goes back to its normal quiet, I go and carbolize his bed and dry it outside with the help of a colleague. Just like that we have washed his remains away. He has joined the league of the forgotten, only to be remembered by his close family. We continue our work as if nothing happened. It is just another day in the adult ward.
By the time the night staff arrive and I leave the ward, the sky is a shade of midnight blue and the stars are absent as if they have gone to welcome all those who have left the earth to permanently become stars.
I walk home as fast as I can without looking crazy. It is not because a man died in the ward today. It is because I could also leave my body without any chance of fighting for it as this man did. My sister said a body was found in our area before I moved here. She said they used the person for rituals. I think it’s the worst kind of death a person can have, death for rituals.
Halfway down the road a woman startles me. She is walking so fast that her long dress is making a puff puff sound. I get home, wash down and hope tomorrow no patch of old paint falls off the walls of the ward.
Ernestina Edem Azah is a public health nurse in her mid twenties. She’s a free thinker and an open minded person. She has been published in Writers Space Africa’s magazine.
Originally published September 16, 2020