HOLD ON TILL APRIL
Hold On Till April
No one ever knew why Buchi loved the month of April so much. Not even Charles, her husband, after forty-five years of marriage. He had never asked why. Keeping such a mystery about his wife, according to him, made their lives more interesting. Yet, he had a few hypotheses about the subject: perhaps it was because of the beauty of spring, the fresh breeze, or the beautiful daisy flowers, or the heaps of sunshine, or its dedication to the goddess of love, or even the trips she made in April. But these were just mere suppositions. That was why she chose the month of April to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. For forty-five years they lived a good life, even with the several tumultuous periods, they always kept the candle light burning through stormy times, and it was time to celebrate all those years. Time had not changed the way they felt for each other, they still had the enthusiasm and eagerness of a new couple, and were still so much infatuated with each other.
It was evening; Buchi was in the kitchen preparing something for dinner. It was a cozily-domestic kitchen with mostly African cooking equipment. Just a few metres from the kitchen was the sitting room where Charles was comfortably seated on a couch reading old newspapers. The sitting room was with conspicuous African designs, African sculptures and paintings. After such a long period away from Cameroon, they still kept their homeland in their hearts. Buchi came out of the kitchen and surprisingly, she went to play music in the sitting-room. She played Na meya a song by Bebe Manga. Charles who was carried away by his old newspapers threw a quick glance over the paper and saw Buchi slowly executing some Makossa dance steps.
“Old bones dancing huh!” Charles sneered, shoulders shaking in a silent giggle.
“Stand up and show me what you’ve got Mr Young bones.” Buchi said graciously moving parts of her body.
“No, thank you for the invitation. Keeping my styles for the wedding anniversary next week.” Charles said diving back to his newspapers.
“That’s if your old bones still respond to movements.” Buchi said as she chuckled mockingly.
He wanted to dance with her but the dreadful cramp on his left shoulder stopped him. He was torn between the thought of letting Buchi crush his pride as a good dancer and standing up to dance despite his pains. He finally chose the latter, putting his newspaper on a little table beside him, he stood up, and then suddenly felt the joints of his left shoulder pop, but that didn’t stop him. Making slow movements, advancing towards Buchi, snapping his fingers to the rhythm of the song, he held her on the waist as the song got to its climax. Together they made slow movements respecting the soft rhythm of the music, he sent her away and brought her back, closer to him. He could feel her cold breath on his face as she puffed out her chest in confidence. The days of spontaneous embrace and the times when their hearts pounded through their chests whenever they were so close to each other had not gone by yet. That night, they danced like it was their wedding night.
Buchi had been planning their sapphire wedding anniversary since the day she decided it would be in April. She was always at her best when involved in an anniversary preparation because she valued her marriage more than anything on earth. She decided it would be a small but grandiose ceremony with just the closest friends. The priest was already alert for the ceremony. She had never written down her wishes; she always knew what to say from her heart. For the ceremony, she had no intention of expressing wishes, all she wanted was to thank her husband for the wonderful moments they lived together. Her neighbourhood was ready to help her. Buchi and Charles were loved by their neighbours, they were a symbol of love, hope and perseverance to all the couples who knew them. All of these couples wanted to be like Charles and Buchi, especially the young African immigrant couple who did not only see a successful marriage and an example to follow in them, they equally saw a successful immigrant couple who had made it in America.
The next morning, Buchi had a slight cough and a fever. Her pains were mild and barely noticeable. She thought she had overworked herself and just needed to rest in bed while Charles prepared some herbs in the kitchen. A few hours later, her temperature suddenly increased and she coughed non-stop, producing a groan-like sound from her throat. But they thought it was just a fever and a common cough till two hours later, she began sweating profusely while her cough made it difficult for her to breathe normally, then she began experiencing shortness in breath. She felt an extreme heat on her face and a burning sensation in her chest when she coughed. She yelped out of pain. Charles had never seen her in such pains, he became confused and panic-stricken, and his movements got stiff and unintentional, his eyes scanning through the room, looking for a phone to call the ambulance. He dialed the number trembling with fear. Buchi who was still in her bed going through excruciating pains as she forced herself to breathe through her mouth but the cough gradually became hoarse and dry, making it difficult for her to get the deliverance she needed from her mouth. Charles sat by her and held her hand while waiting for an ambulance. It was the first time he felt so powerless, he tried to talk to her and reassure her but she couldn’t respond.
A few minutes later he heard the sound of the siren. On a normal day, the sound triggers fear but at that moment it resounded to him like a sound of hope. The few doctors who came rushed Buchi into the ambulance. Charles sat near her, held her hand and tried to talk to her to prevent her from passing out. Buchi had already passed out when they reached at the hospital. The doctors took her to the emergency room while Charles sat in the waiting room for minutes, then for hours, a moment which seemed endless without any news from the doctors. Everything had gone so fast that he couldn’t believe it was happening. The night before, they laughed and danced together, and then the next morning, he finds himself in a hospital with his wife on the brink of death. He constantly looked through the direction where his wife was taken till a young doctor came out. He didn’t stand up to get to the doctor because to all indications the doctor was coming towards him.
“Doctor how’s my wife?” He asked, braving the cramps in his knees to stand up.
“Your wife was in a critical condition when she got here.” He said, and then got closer to Charles to help him stand. “We are still trying to figure out what put her in such a state in such a short period.” He added.
“Can I see her?” Charles asked as he finally got on his feet.
“Yes, of course, I believe she’s conscious now.”
Charles got to Buchi’s room, she was asleep, he looked at her face for a while as the drip got into her veins and the heart monitors beeped. He breathed a sigh of relief when he noticed she was breathing well. He then tried to lie just beside her when she unexpectedly reacted.
“The old man wanna break my young bones huh!” she exclaimed in a soft and tender voice with her eyes half open.
“The one who claims she got young bones in a sick bed huh! Who’s old here now?” Charles responded with a smile on his face, he was so glad she was up. Only Buchi could wake up in such a humorous way from a sick bed. Her humour splintered inside him causing more relief.
“I’m not sick old man; I was just seeking for attention. I got a wedding anniversary coming up. Tomorrow I will be outta here.” Buchi said with great assurance.
Charles was happy to hear this but not convinced, he knew his wife was a strong woman who had gone through many things but he had never seen her in such vulnerable state like what he saw earlier in the morning, she was so helpless. He was still disturbed because the doctors had not yet discovered what was wrong with her but he didn’t let his worries show.
The young doctor came into the room for another examination. He asked Charles to go home and rest and come back the next day. Charles hesitated but Buchi asked him to leave promising she will be fine, pleading with him to go and prepare for the wedding anniversary. He finally accepted, kissed her on her forehead and left the room promising to be back early the next morning.
When Charles got back home, he remembered he had to take a book hidden in their old belongings in the garage where he had seen it for the last time. It was an important book which he planned to give to Buchi for their anniversary. He got to a wooden hulk full of dust where he saw the novel half embedded in a plastic paper. It was an old novel but the scriptures were still readable. He wiped out the dust and the book’s title could be clearly read: The April Lady by Georgette Heyer. He opened a few pages of the book which reminded him of the day he talked with Buchi for the first time.
He remembered their first encounter back in the days in Bamenda. Buchi was a newcomer in town and as all newcomers, she attracted attention like honey attracts bees. She was not only a new girl, she was the gorgeous new girl and all the boys wanted to be with her. Charles thought she was interesting, but because he was shy, he didn’t talk with her like the other boys in school and that made him jealous. When he finally decided to husband courage and talk to her, she sat on public bench with her nappy hair let loose in the wind as she read a novel. Charles gathered enough strength and began making slow progress towards her. With just a bit of silence, one could hear his throbbing heart. He sat close to her, she was kind and welcoming, but Charles had nothing to say after greetings. The silence became unbearable.
“What are you reading?” Charles suddenly asked.
“It’s a novel, The April Lady by Georgette Heyer.” She responded. In those days, with a majority of their teachers being Catholic priests and missionaries, most of the books they read came from England.
“It seems interesting. I read another book by the same author it was interesting.”
“The Black Moth?” She asked in a guessing manner.
“Yes, that’s it. Have you read it too?” Charles asked. It was then that they discussed for long and found out they had many things in common. They became inseparable for days, then for months, then for years, till they got married.
After his trip down memory lane, the sun had completed its course for the day. It was dark and he had to go to bed though he hadn’t eaten, he had lost his appetite. He scrunched his way to his room, switched the light just beside the bed. The room was so full of Buchi’s belongings, yet seemed so empty without her. He lay down on a bed which was now like a vast oasis without water. As he closed his eyes, he was gripped by a sudden scary feeling that got chills running through his body. It was in great fear that he concealed the possibility of having to sleep alone on a bed they had both shared for forty-five years. He forced himself to think about something else, his mind travelled through a multitude of thoughts escaping the lone idea of death.
Early the next morning, Charles was up. He moved into the kitchen for tea. The solitude in the house did not give way for a morning conversation routine. The house was a desultory setting without Buchi’s expressions of moral platitudes as she did every morning. It was the first time in forty-five years that he felt her absence so strongly.
When the water was hot, he removed it from the heater and poured it in his tea cup, and then he took the cup for a sip. The cup suddenly slipped off his hands and got shattered into pieces on the floor. He looked at his hands with watery eyes in surprise as he watched them trembling. He had suffered from hand tremor five years back, it seemed at that very moment the sickness was back again. He looked at his hands shake for a while, then he covered his face with them and screamed blue murder, as tears of gloom gushed down his cheeks leaving him so feeble and flimsy. He had to pull himself together and get ready to leave for the hospital. He went back to the room, looked at his face for a while in the mirror, he knew Buchi wouldn’t be happy if he looked so pale. He couldn’t get to her with such a dishevelled appearance. He combed his unkempt hair which had cropped into little curls, and then he wore his kettle brim hat which Buchi had bought for him several years back. He corrected his pale visage to adopt a delicately-radiant expression. He had to look confident, at least for her. He knew she was a strong woman and coming to her with an expression of despair wasn’t the best way to motivate her into getting well.
When Charles arrived at the hospital, he bypassed the reception and went directly to Buchi’s room. To his surprise, the room was empty. The thought which he had wanted to suppress all night came back all of a sudden in different forms and different ways. Imagining the different scenarios with only one possible but scary end got him overwhelmed by his own dark thoughts. He was calmed down by the belief that there was a logical explanation, but no nurse passed by to explain. He decided to enquire from the receptionist the intriguing reason for the absence of his wife in her room. It was then that he heard the rasp of an opening lift and the swift and stealthy footsteps coming towards him. Three heavily equipped doctors all dressed in hazmat suits, entered Buchi’s room. Charles slowly halted his movement, moved backwards and with a thumping heart, he threw a quick glance into the room. The three doctors disinfected the room as if a second Chernobyl disaster had occurred in there. Charles was perplexed as he watched the scene dumbfounded, with his eyes wide open while his mouth suddenly became dry.
The young and elegant doctor, who could be in his mid-thirties, came towards the direction of the room. ‘Excuse me Doc!’ Charles stopped him. The doctor turned to assist the worried old man who had just stopped him with a soft voice. ’Yes, Sir. Can I help you? The young doctor asked.
“Doc came to visit my wife but appear her room’s empty and saw all these men disinfecting her room… Where’s ma wife?” Charles asked the young doctor.
“We are sorry about that sir. We think your wife has contracted a deadly virus and she had to be isolated, she has been taken to a quarantine room.”
“A Virus!” Charles shouted. He couldn’t believe what the doctor said.
“She has been quarantined and so you can’t be in the same room with her anymore. It’s just a miracle you haven’t already contracted the virus.”
The word ‘quarantined’ kept him perplexed and befuddled, he remained uncommunicative for a while. The word itself isolated the remaining thoughts of hope he had left, and at the same time releasing a few because she was still alive. But in what condition was she alive? ‘Please take me to my wife doctor.’ He pleaded after the brief pause.
“Yes sir, but remember you won’t be able to get into her room.” The young doctor added.
The young doctor and Charles went up to the fourth floor where Buchi was in Room 44. Charles saw Buchi through the glass of her room; she was lying on her back, staring through the window, but couldn’t see Charles who had just arrived on the other side of the glass. She was wearing a long loose Johnny gown which made her look so vulnerable. From her expression, Charles could feel she was afraid and that made him so sad to see her look so out on a limb. He observed her for a while before he called her. She jumped out of her bed with the vitality of a young girl, adopting a glowing expression as she walked smiling towards the glass. But Charles knew deep inside him that the sudden change was simply because she had seen him and she did not want to show how weak she was. They couldn’t touch each other, but with their hands on the glass separating them seemed to procure them with some satisfaction. The young doctor witnessed the scene in total envy as he watched them smile and express so much love. He provided Charles with an arm-chair while Buchi already had another one in her room.
“Sir, your wife needs a lot of rest; you can’t stay here for long. I will be back in some minutes.” The young doctor said then left.
Charles and Buchi sat face to face separated by a large transparent glass, recalling memories of the past, being grateful of the present, and equally making plans for the future; they planned their forty-fifth wedding anniversary and made a short list of the guests. April was just a few days ahead; Buchi hoped she would be out of the hospital before then. They talked much about their lives back in Cameroon. But Charles always avoided that because it brought back some extremely sad memories in their lives as a married couple. He knew that in such a vulnerable moment her sad memories would come flooding her mind. So he tried to switch to a new topic with a happier note. Together, they laughed at such unforgettable memories of their entire lives. With age, some memories fade away but the most important remain. They shared many of these important memories, the good ones and the bad ones which made their couple strong enough to go through the storms they had encountered. Charles looked at her again for a while and thought about all those memories, but what was difficult to accept was the thought of Buchi becoming just a memory. To repress these sad thoughts, he took out the novel he brought from his little pocket.
“Lemme read a chapter for you before the young doctor comes back.” He said, flipping through the pages.
“The April Lady huh? Where did you get that?” Buchi asked surprised by what she saw.
“Found it in old stuff.” Responded Charles.
“I am just sick Charlie; I am not blind. I can read that.” Buchi said but her facial expression showed she was impatiently longing for it. Charles feigned he didn’t hear her. He got to the page and began to read silently, Buchi closed her eyes as he read. A sharp but deep smile could be seen on her face.
The young doctor came back along with another doctor. He stood there for a while with graceful patience and admiration for what he saw in front of him. He had a self-imposing posture which depicted the self-confidence of a young man who had been successful in everything at a very young age. Yet, with his hands akimbo and his head slightly bent as he carefully watched, anyone could sense the expression on his face which reflected a mixture of jealousy and envy as he looked at the couple.
“I’m sorry sir; it is time. Your wife needs to rest.” The young doctor said, while the other doctor was cautiously putting on his latex gloves and a face mask to get into the room. Charles felt bad as he witnessed the scene; his wife had become a danger for others. He closed the novel and put it back in his pocket.
“I will be back tomorrow.” He told her.
“Where else can you go? You have no choice,” she said and they both laughed but Buchi couldn’t hold her tears for long. They poured down as she laughed.
“Everything will be fine. Should get well soon, got an anniversary waiting.” He told her with a faintly intimate smile.
Charles left with the young doctor. He seemed tired as he walked; he walked slowly, the young doctor slowed down his pace so they could walk together. They got into the lift without saying a word. But the young doctor who had been impressed by the couple was itchy to ask questions.
“How long have you been married, Sir?” the doctor asked.
“For forty-five years and we are celebrating that in a few days.” Charles answered with a glittering face. “From your ring I guess you are married. Any kids? he asked.
“Woah! That’s a lifetime. Yes, sir, I’m married with two kids.”
“Oh kids, that’s great. Couldn’t get kids of our own. We’ve just been two us.”
“Oh sorry ’bout that. Actually my marriage isn’t what it used to be. I’m getting a divorce.” The young doctor said as if he was waiting for some sort of redemption for what he was about to do but the lift reached the ground floor level and they had to part.
“Oh very sorry about that. Shall have time to discuss, doc.” Charles said as he left the hospital premises.
Boarding a taxi was not on Charles’s mind when he left the hospital. He decided to stroll back home, to walk around the streets and free his mind from the scary thoughts that had been haunting him for a while. He hadn’t taken a walk in the town for months, but what he saw didn’t surprise him as he walked through The Bronx. What he saw at that moment was a despondent air of decay and crime in a street full of African immigrants who left their homelands to have a taste of the American dream and yet they were involved in drug dealing, prostitution and all sorts of jobs to survive. After a few minutes’ walk, he got to a church where he thought it good to pray for Buchi’s recovery.
He was almost home, completely weighed down, the stairs he had to climb to get to his house seemed mountainous but he got over them and finally was in. He lay down on the couch and rested just for a few minutes when he heard the sharp ring of his bell. When he opened the door, he looked famished and tired. But Fatimah, a young and kindhearted Nigerian lady who lived beside his house, came like god-sent an angel with some food for him. He was so grateful. He sat in the sitting-room eating like he hadn’t eaten for days. Actually, he hadn’t taken anything since the last supper he had with Buchi.
Fatimah’s kindness reminded him of the communal life in Africa. Something he missed so much during his stay in America. Whenever he thought about Cameroon, he recalled the difficult moments Buchi and him had been through because they couldn’t bear a child after years of marriage. The pressure they received from family members affected their couple and ripped them of their happiness. Buchi was the most was affected by this; Charles’s mother had made her life a living hell. It was only after they moved to America that the family pressure faded away. But they knew they had to find happiness elsewhere other than in children. It was when they understood that they could find happiness in themselves, that they became better partners. This, brought them closer to what they were in the present. The thought of losing her was unbearable, that was where his happiness had always been.
“Doctor, can I see my wife? I have been waiting here for long.” Charles asked the young doctor. He had rushed early in the morning to see her but was asked to wait.
“I am sorry sir you can’t see her today. She had an attack and she was reanimated last night, but her condition is stable now. She needs a lot of rest.” said the young doctor. Charles was tight-lipped as he heard that. So many thoughts ran through his mind at the same time each diverging to the thought of death which caused him more pain. All he wanted at that moment was to see her.
“But just need to see her through the glass. Won’t have to talk, just watch her sleep.” Charles pleaded. The young doctor was quiet for a while then he granted Charles’s request. Charles got to the fourth floor. He stood outside Buchi’s room and watched her sleep. She was motionless, not even a sign she was breathing, and he thought she was dead. He was in pains as he saw her go through such agony. He removed the novel from his pocket and began reading a new chapter silently.
April was just a few hours ahead and things were not getting better. There was a new routine in Charles’s life: going to the hospital, reading Buchi’s favourite novel and walking back home. And every day he got to the hospital there was something new but worse about her condition. One morning, Charles rushed to the hospital after he had a dream the previous night which revived his hopes. He was full of hope when he got to the hospital. But when he saw Buchi with a ventilator, all his hopes were watered down. She couldn’t breathe anymore without a ventilator, Charles imagined her pains, he visualised the insertion of a tube into her windpipe, he couldn’t stand the thought, nor the groan-like noise the ventilator produced while she breathed. It was at that moment that he began to give up hope, he knew deep in him that she wouldn’t survive. She was still unconscious, still unable to say a word and he was still unable to touch her, to be close to her, hold her hand and give her some warmth and affection as she went through the difficult moment. He was used to get courage, personal commitment and confidence throughout the years from her words of encouragement and her warm embrace. Where would he get the courage and hope to go face the storm now that she helplessly lay on a sick bed, unable to speak, unable to move a finger? What if she never woke up? What if he never had the opportunity to hug her living body for the last time while she was just a few metres away?
These questions made him arrive at a dilemma which made him uncomfortable. He had a difficult decision to make: he could take the risk to get in the quarantine room and spend the last moments of Buchi’s life holding her hand, kissing her forehead and sleeping next to her while reading her favourite novel, or he could still believe she would be fine and patiently wait for her to wake up. But he knew that in case he decided to wait and she died, he would regret for the rest of his life and never forgive himself for not being with her in her last moments to bring her comfort, for letting her die alone.
Charles got back home to meditate on these thoughts. The house seemed so empty and cold, void of enthusiasm and human warmth. He tried to wind down himself to sleep but the obsession on his mind refused to be expelled. He sat on the bed, thought about Buchi, clutched by the fear that he would forever miss her humour, and that there would be no more hugs, no more dances, no more wedding anniversaries, no more Aprils. He had heard about the virus she contracted on TV, he knew it was deadly and deep inside him, he knew she wouldn’t survive. He could feel Buchi’s presence getting farther. Torn between the two conflicting choices he had to make, fear and uneasiness crept in and swiftly turned to insomnia. Their wedding anniversary was to be the next day and the thought of that hurt him more.
It was 8:40 PM when he made up his mind; he left the bed, took his coat on the couch, wore it and got to the sitting-room. He stopped there for a while and keenly looked at every corner of the house which reminded him of all the moments they had shared in it. He had taken a difficult decision. He knew he would be put in strict isolation after that night to prevent the spread of the virus, and probably never see his house again. The decision was challenging but he hoped to get a free mind after that. He left immediately for the hospital.
Charles arrived at the hospital premises, from a far distance outside the hospital he saw the young doctor getting into his car. The young doctor was the only one who could let him spend the night with Buchi, so he had to get to him at all cost. He shouted the doctor’s name to no avail. He had no other choice than to run, he kept his breath steady, held his chest with his hand and ran as fast as he could. He could feel the cold air finding its way to his lungs. The doctor entered his car; Charles fastened his pace and got to the windshield before the young doctor could start his car.
“Why are you coming back here so late Sir?” the young doctor asked Charles who rested his hands on the windshield, breathing in short gasps.
“Doc want to … be with my wife tonight.” Charles said in a serious tone as he forced himself to breathe. The young doctor from Charles’s tone understood what he meant, but still he had to be sure. He came out of his car and by the shoulder held Charles who was out of breath from his little sprint.
“But you just left her a few hours ago, you saw she was OK, why do you want to see her again?” The doctor asked to be sure if Charles was actually saying what he had in mind.
“Wanna spend the night with her, need to be with her, to hold her and…”, Charles answered but his breathe cut him short. He had no time to explain, he just hoped the doctor would understand him.
The young doctor was sure of what Charles wanted, deep inside him he wanted Charles to be with his wife, he had seen him in pains all through the day, and as the doctor he knew Buchi could die at any moment. But the protocol didn’t permit him to do such a thing.
“Do you understand that you will not be allowed to go back home after this night? And that you will easily contract the virus which is in your wife now that it has reached this stage?” The doctor asked with a serious tone, with the intention of making Charles change his mind. But he could feel the determination in Charles’s breath and he knew that nothing could change his mind.
“Yes, doc I know. Measured the risks, gotta do this.” Charles replied. The doctor stood for a while to think about what he was going to do. He locked his car door and asked Charles to follow him.
Charles was finally in Buchi’s room after some negotiations the young doctor had to lead with the other doctors to convince them. They all agreed that if they had to do that favour for the old man then he wouldn’t leave the hospital again, he had to be quarantined. Charles kissed Buchi’s forehead, then he lay just beside her. She was still unconscious and still could breathe only through a ventilator. Just the idea that he was there to bring her comfort relieved him to a point that he became deaf to all the beeps in the room and the irritating groan-like sound of the ventilator. He laid his head on her chest; he could hear her heartbeat and sense the difficulty she had in breathing. He sent his hand in the little pocket of his coat and removed the novel. Just two chapters were left to read. He held Buchi’s hand firmly with his left hand as he read the remaining pages of the book.
As he read, he could sense Buchi’s right hand hold his left hand tighter with a firm grip. He was so pleased by that, he was now sure she was following and that she knew he was there with her. Determined, he continued reading with more enthusiasm, Buchi’s grasp on his hand became tighter. He felt a strange but heartwarming feeling. As he finished the novel: The April Lady, he finally understood why Buchi loved the month of April so much. He suddenly fell asleep.
“Why are you still sleeping?” Wake up! It’s April, we have a sapphire anniversary to celebrate,’ Buchi said.
“Buchi? Is that you?” Charles asked as he opened his eyes from a long sleep.
“Were you expecting someone else or who do you think you spent the night with?” She asked with a surprised tone.
“No … just that…” Charles said, still struggling to wake up.
“Anyways, this is your wedding gift” – she offered him a black-sapphire ring and kissed him. –“I wanted to give this to you before I leave.”
“But where are you going to?”
Charles unexpectedly woke up. He noticed the sound from Buchi’s ventilator was gradually reducing while her hand was slowly loosing its firm grasp on his hand. The sound of her heartbeats which he could hear from her chest silently faded out. Her breath that was once noisy had resolved to a fearful dullness. The only thing he could now hear was the beeps of the heart monitors. Charles’s heartbeats came in rapid and irregular gaps as memories of them from the day they met to the day of their last dance swarmed through his mind. Charles wept. A silent tear rolled down his cheeks, but he was relieved.