Your Brief Bio:
Joshua Omenga studied law in the University of Lagos. He has been involved in number of literary activities while in the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, among which are: editor and contributor for the faculty magazine, The Lex Observer, Contributor to the Society’s blog, The LSS Blog. He has also contributed short story in an anthology, Broken Chimes. His poem was also among the long listed poems in the Poets In Nigeria poetry contest 2016.
Tweet-Style Story Summary:
The final moment of a man who has lived his life in pleasure and freeness. It portrays the agonies of the conscious mind in moment of death.
AS HE LAY DYING
On the day in which Mr Oriko was to die, it seemed to him that a philosophical faculty was suddenly granted him – he who was a man of the world, ungoverned by the spiritual and the philosophic, a man of practical inclination. As he lay on the bed, his head turned to the window where the dampness still clung to the leaves overhanging the hospital edifice, his eyes fixed on the lazy moon with its blurry edges. He did not see, as a healthy man would have seen, a romantic infiltration of nature; he only saw the leaves as outlines against the somnolent rays.
He was lost in thought.
Three hours ago, while he was awake but his eyes closed, he had heard the doctor proclaim to his brother in that accustomed sympathetic voice that was a tool of the profession: ‘I am very sorry, but I would advise you to prepare for any eventuality. I do not think your brother will make it to the following day.’
Mr Oriko heard the doctor, who supposed that he was asleep; but it sounded like a distant sympathy, directed to a character in a fiction. It did not strike him that his own mortality could be the subject of discussion; that he who had loved life, who had not for a moment joked with death; that he who, two months ago, was full of triumphs, of plans, of life, should now be an object to be discussed in relation to death.
The moments of excruciating pains were gone. For three weeks after the accident, he lived continually with the aid of tranquilisers. Now he no longer needed that. The calmness which he had been feeling for the past two days was the sort of calmness that he had never felt even in his most vibrant moments. It was ironical that when the pain was unbearable, when there was no joy in living, when it could not have made any difference to him what proclamation the doctor gave to his brother, the doctor gave assurance; but now, when he was plunged in this enormous, blissful calmness, the doctor proclaimed his doom.
Perhaps the doctor was mistaken.
‘No!’ he shouted, ‘I cannot be dying!’ But nobody heard him. He had only shouted within his head, for his organ of speech, as most other organs of his body, had been crushed irremediable – only, his brain was yet to realise this. Sometimes he tried to move his hand to feel his leg and felt nothing because the legs were only stumps and there was no hand with which to feel them. He would close his eyes to a feel of terrible loss, an immeasurable chasmic loneliness.
Now what confronted him was not the loss of body organs but of that one indicator of existence – life. Gradually, the full import of the doctor’s words sank into him. He would die. Yes; not Death the universal constant which every man knows as the tragic culmination of every life, a constant which no man attaches a personal consideration; but Death the personal companion. He, Mr Oriko, would be subject of that universal constant, personalised for his own annihilation. As he fixed his eyes on the dim illumination outside the window of his hospital bed, all he saw was gloom: it hung in everything around him, acquiring not a mystic and poetic signification but the tangible realism of an approaching and definite end. It was of this end – death – that he thought about.
His whole life – forty-two years of adventurous existence – seemed funnelled into this one moment. He had given up all illusions of recovery; life had lately become a distant phenomenon to him, like phantasmic actions of a futuristic movie. He reflected, in a voice strangely alien to him:
How was I to know that this day will ever arrive when I will look back at all my years of living, all my strivings, all my loves and hates, all my desires and loathing, all my years of devotion to religion, all the pains and travails of my life, and the moments of laughter with friends and wild jubilations for things achieved – that in this moment, as I lay dying, I would look at them all and sum them up in one word: Vanity? Not a prophet could have foretold this…
Now I see clearly the road which I have traversed in this life – the ones in which I have made diligent efforts to choose, the ones I have chosen impulsively; that all of them, the road taken and the road not taken, lead, in this inevitable hour, to one end. Wherefore is that voice that in life warns man of making bad decisions? Is this not the fruition of it all, this narrow end at which all life’s journeys converge? What means the telling of different stories when each man’s story must have this sad ending?
Tears welled up in his eyes, but he made no effort to stifle them; they were still the reminder that he once partook in this universal feast called life.
I cannot say, ‘Life has given this to me’, for none of life’s gifts is permanent, and none of them is of any use to me now. Shall I talk of the wealth that I have acquired? Shall I remember my tardy expectations, my shrewish bargains, my unreserved husbandry? What do my toils mean in this last hour? What consolation may I derive from them? That they will be for my children? What joy is there in this knowledge, when I shall close my eyes to all affairs, to all sensations, to all knowings? No, there is nothing in it for me except the knowledge that I once had, that I once possessed, that I was once among life’s eminent enjoyers…
As for these children that I have shed many tears, spend untold hours to wipe their noses, wrung my heart in worry over their sick beds, held their little hands as they took uncertain steps in this uncertain world, smiled at their full-throated laugh – what are they to me now, when I shall behold them no more, when I shall think no more of them? What does it matter that they think of me when I do not know that they think of me? Where is the truth in the aphorism that they are an eternal heritage, these children which this closing night will erase their memory from my head?
O child, do not wet by deathbed with your tears! Listen instead to this revelation: wisdom is nothing! Knowledge is nothing! I have accumulated knowledge, known many secrets, read many books; but O child, they are to me like all the rest of my acquisitions! What is the knowledge that will decay with my brain, the wisdom that will not circumvent this moment? Ah, the philosophers are to blame for elevating wisdom, for parading knowledge as primal human invention. Do not listen to them: they all lie! When this moment arrives, when like me you hear the trotting of the phaeton of mortality, you will find that there is no difference between the brute and the sage.
All is lie, child; all the things you hold sacred are nihil. There is no recompense for them all. Shun that voice that tells you to live good; shun that voice that tells you to live evil; shun all voice but yours. Choose your life and live it, and when it comes to an end, when this inescapable moment arrives, you will have nothing to regret. Yes, child, for in this last hour, all life is the same. I testify that when life has come to its end, it will not matter what road you have taken to reach it.
He shifted his head as though to confirm if his children would heed his advice; but there was no child to hear his unspoken wishes. For the first time he became aware of the beauty of the moon, of the gentle breeze tickling his flesh, of the rustling leave impeding on the otherwise quietude of the night. He observed them for a while and then closed his eyes, the images lingering.
What dreams I will encounter in this eternal sleep I do not know. I hear the Voice, the Voice which had sustained my faith; It says, ‘Sleep and be with your God.’ I have believed this Voice, this God; I have laboured in this affair called religion – but what is religion when I close my eyes? What is God when I cease to exist? Is he not for the living – the living who go on suffering for Him, the living who hope to reap the reward of their devotion when they are dead? Whose then is God – the dead who will not have him or the living who will die for him?
He opened his eyes and stared into the nebulous sky.
Ah, where are you God? Will you lend me your hand to feel, tell me what lies ahead in this inexplicable journey? Do not forsake me now, when all else has become nothingness. Or are you too, like them, nothing in the end? Are you merely the conjuration of religionists?
I have heard that it is the soul that you care for, not the body. But of what use is my soul without my body? I want to have my body; preserve that for me and you shall have justified my years of religion. I cannot imagine the abstraction called spirit and if it is real, if ever in this vast cosmos one may point at a thing and say, ‘This is a spirit’, I see no reason why I should desire it more than other vain things that I have desired in life. I see no reason why, for the promise of a life away from my body, I should spent years of penance and self-abnegation, seek after the justice that the whole world is bent against, and endure persecution for the sake of pleasing you.
He felt a spasm and held his breath. The force of life still surged in him, his faculties extraordinarily perceptive.
How clearly I see all things now, when there is no remedy for lost things, when I cannot turn back and follow a different route. But all routes are the same. O vain, this life; one may plan and pray and still come to the same abysmal end. Wherein lays this hope that faith infuses in the heart which believes?
He paused, expecting an answer – but only silence, as befits a fool who inquires into the unaskable.
I have been told that sometime in an indefinite future, a vast celestial trumpet shall awake all the dead to life and souls shall be restored. Which body will the restored soul occupy? A new created flesh? O God, you may keep my soul, destroy it even; but let this flesh of mine be there, this brain, this me, imperfect and ailing – let it be the object of my resurrection. What is the ‘I’ if I look for my being and not find it? I do not want that soul whose substance have eluded men; I want this body as it is, this sensate ‘I’, this brain with all its knowledge and unwisdom, not a purified soul worthy of walking beside you.
There he had said it, the pent-up confession, and waited for God to strike him; but as in all else, God was silent, torturously distant and unfathomable. Yet he kept imploring: perhaps for him there would be an answer from the inscrutable Being.
Grant me immortality! Let there be no time that I will not be. What does it mean to not be, to cease to exist? Tell, O ye immortal – but can you, always existing, know what it means not to exist? I long to know! I long to understand this void for which I am destined! I long to foreknow, to anticipate; else how do I know when I cease to exist, when I have arrive at death’s destination? O God, if you are, if you know, teach me!
He coughed. The spasm shook him until he fell from the bed. His head reeled and even though his eyes were closed, he felt a painful and blinding nearness of a bright light. He opened his eyes – or thought he did: all was darkness. The rustling sound could no longer reach him, neither could he feel the coldness of the marble on which he lay. All corporeal sensation had ceased for him. But that voice, no longer questioning, no longer demanding, persisted in its philosophic resonance:
I look but I cannot see, I listen but I cannot hear, I touch but I cannot feel; everything is melting away. Nothing remains but this chasmic feel. There is peace around me, bliss ineffable. Am I this floating, unfeeling being in this vast impersonal space? What is this great luminary that provides no light and yet dazzles? I strain for this ethereal sight but I cannot reach it. All things are fleeting. All shapes, all colours, all tastes conjoin in one indescribable swirl and around me they circle; no, they are me. But there is no me – nothing of what once I called ‘me’. And yet, and yet… I grope, in my brain? I strain to think but think I cannot. Ah, this… where… may I... O? Cr… h…
When the nurse in attendance arrived, he saw Mr Oriko lying on the floor, his eyes and mouth open. His body had stiffened.