The Week I Died

Photo by Brett Sayles

Whenever I hear or read “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), I remember that I am living my second life. So, that’s what happened when I saw my neighbor’s son in a graphic T-shirt with “YOLO” printed on the back as he rode his new scooter past me last month.

I don’t remember much about the day I died, but I remember a lot about the week it happened.  It was the second week of January 2015 and the last week of my second semester as a freshman at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. My stomach had been hurting for two days, and I had decided against going to the hospital because I had one exam left, and I simply wanted to finish that and meet the hospitality that was awaiting me at home. 

I woke up that morning – I think it was the eighth day of that January – questioning the importance of stomachs because I figured that having a stomach is a prerequisite to having stomach aches, and stomach aches are the worst. That stomach ache was my worst. It felt  like an army of invisible tiny dragons fathered by me were flying around in my stomach and cheerfully burning my organs, and I could only cry, “my sons, why are you doing this to me!” 

Still, that morning, I kept telling myself: “I can’t be sick. I have an exam today. Mind over matter! Mind over matter!” 

I needed to ace that exam to start college with a strong GPA, and I had reasoned that while I could wake up the following day without a stomach ache, I would fail the class if I missed the exam. I had remembered Lance Armstrong’s conclusion that pain is temporary, but I had forgotten that the man was a doping athlete. I was sitting on the throne of foolishness munching on grapes and pausing only to gnaw a giant roasted ram thigh. 

When the exam started, my stomach hurt enough that I could read questions but not understand them. It was at that moment I realized I had been on a wasted journey. About what seemed like twenty minutes after the exam, I was lying on a stretcher in a moving ambulance. Staring at me inside the ambulance was Feyi. 

Although I had known him for merely nine months, that wasn’t the first time Feyi was by my side at a time of need. When we got to the hospital, we met a few friends from our dorm waiting for us – they had avoided the route where the ambulance had been delayed for about thirty minutes by a campaign rally blocking the road. I was still lying on the stretcher, so I couldn’t see their faces, but I could make out the familiar voices yelling at Feyi to ask me for my mum’s phone number and inform her of the situation. 

Feyi squatted beside me, and I managed to whisper my mum’s phone number in his ears. As he got back up, I imagined my mum receiving that dreadful phone call, and I felt a sharp pain that reminded me of my first heartbreak.

“Is this Donnie’s mum?” Feyi asked the voice on the other end of the phone call, and a loud silence followed. In that moment, I suspected the reason for the silence. Feyi squatted beside me again so he could whisper into my ears, his left hand blocking the microphone of the phone in his right hand. 

“Donnie,  uhm! What’s your real name?” 

My suspicion had been right. I chuckled and answered him. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to any of my friends – and me – that they didn’t know my real name. As Feyi walked away to talk to my mum, I could hear my other friends laughing. I was laughing too. And in that short ridiculous moment, I believed life would soon be normal again.

Seven hours later, my mum and I were standing outside the hospital. Around 3 p.m. that day, the nurses at the hospital diagnosed me with a ruptured appendix, but they didn’t inform my mum that the surgeon who could make any definitive treatment plan wouldn’t be available for two days until 9 p.m. 

After waiting outside the hospital for what seemed like forever, we finally saw a cab heading our way. “Hopefully, this cab has no passengers,” my mum murmured. You see, in this type of situation, my mum always wears a calm face – if a stranger were to rely on her demeanor, they would miss that she is in a tense situation. But because I had been around her for sixteen years, I knew she was struggling to keep it together.  

My mum signaled to the cab driver to stop, and the cab stopped in front of us. Hallelujah! Then she negotiated the fare with the driver who was hellbent on overcharging us. “Someone’s curse is another man’s blessing,” he said. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised, and I don’t think my mum was either. Before I was six years old, I had realized that when transport workers in Nigeria smell your desperation, they overcharge you. But this was different. The cab driver had gone for our jugulars at our lowest point. Throughout the ride to the new hospital, my eyes were on the back of his head. I despised him.

Let’s pause. 

Before I continue this story, I need you to understand the kind of person I was before the second week of January 2015.

When I started college, I discovered many things about myself. The relevant one here is that I am a good-looking person. Until my first week at the University of Ibadan, I didn’t consider myself good-looking, nor did I find my face ugly. In fact, my girlfriend at the time had called me handsome just once, and the skeptic in me expected her to be biased because, after all, she was my girlfriend. Had she complimented me on my fashion style, I would have believed her since I put a lot of effort into looking stylish. 

During the first two weeks of my freshman year, a particular girl made it a point to say “Yinka, you know you’re a fine boy” every time we met. At first, I thought she was a loud annoying girl who had just escaped from a cave. I was stunned when more people started singing her song, and I would avoid certain people because, whenever we met, they would bring a friend just to ask them what they thought about my looks, and I found that embarrassing. 

Sooner, the compliments got into my head and massaged my ego. I was a sixteen-year-old boy from Ikire, a rural Nigerian town only known for its special delicacy of fried plantains. That cool attractive girls from major cities found me attractive was mindblowing and life-changing. I became vain. Every pimple outbreak unleashed an emotion only befitting the news of an old colleague’s death.  I increased the number of push-ups I did every morning, and I added sit-ups. Those sit-ups hurt like hell, but, you know, once something becomes your religion, tolerating unnecessary pain seems reasonable. I planned my outfits a week in advance, and sometimes, I wore three outfits in a day. Every time I left my dorm room, I wanted to look perfect, and that consumed my freshman year until the second week of January 2015.

The surgeon at the new hospital advised that we wait for three days for the spilled contents of my ruptured appendix to gather. “This will make the operation easier and effective,” he told my mum. During those three days, I ate nothing and I drank nothing but drips. As the contents of my ruptured appendix gathered, thoughts about how I had been living my life to satisfy strangers’ gazes also gathered. 

The day before my surgery, Feyi and some other friends from my dorm visited me. We traded jokes, and the chastising voice in my head kept shut, only to speak immediately after my mum had wished my friends goodbye and thanked them for visiting. Before I dozed off that night, I cursed myself for focusing on the wrong things and people especially because I kept thinking that I would die during surgery and that I had failed to attain a worthwhile experience of Life during my short existence.

When my eyes opened, they were blinded by a bright white light, so, instinctively, I closed them. I couldn’t tell what time it was or where I was, but I knew I existed, somewhere. In the ethereal darkness of my conscious mind, I considered reopening my eyes. “This place with the blinding bright white light must be heaven,” I thought. Then, I started hearing a voice. It was a familiar one, but I couldn’t understand what it was saying.  “What if this isn’t heaven? What if there is no heaven and I’ve actually reincarnated as a newborn baby and that’s why I don’t understand what the voice is saying?”  I opened my eyes, and the place was the same. Then, a blurry dark figure crept up from my left, hovering over me. I closed my eyes and opened them again. The figure was still there but it wasn’t that blurry anymore and the bright place wasn’t that bright anymore and the blinding light didn’t blind anymore and the more I kept my eyes open, the more I realized that the figure was my father. Then, I was alone again.

I could hear the nurse tell someone that the surgeon would soon be in my room for a postoperative checkup. So, before my room got flooded with people, I hurriedly promised myself that I would start doing things that make me a happy and better person regardless of other people’s opinions. A tiny voice in my head questioned if I would keep the promise. “Probably not. Although, I hope I do,” I thought. After the postoperative checkup, I learned of something so powerful that it massacred my doubt about my ability to keep the promise. 

During the checkup, the surgeon asked if I was comfortable, and I explained to him that the stitches on my stomach felt like the masterpiece of a ruthless arsonist. I added that I feared I wouldn’t be able to have a decent sleep for months because while I understood his advice to not sleep on my stomach to ensure a quick recovery and healing of the stitches, I feared I wouldn’t get a decent sleep for months because I was a stomach sleeper.

Although the surgeon’s face wore a pleasant smile, his left eyebrow continued to twitch upward slightly as I grumbled about my new dilemma. “You don’t even know you are lucky to be alive.” He cut me off. “Heaven rejected you, but you’re complaining.” As he checked the stitches on my stomach, I inspected the face of the nurse beside him, but it told me nothing. 

The next time I saw my mum, I told her what the surgeon had said, and she smiled. I had struck gold. 

My mum told me that I was dead for about four minutes during the surgery. The information played over and over in my head for the rest of the day. When night came, I was on my bed staring at the ceiling, but I wasn’t hoping for a decent sleep. Instead, I was thinking about my life – my second life. On that night, what had happened during the surgery blessed me with the confidence to make decisions that make me a happy and better person.

Since that night, I think about death often. It helps me live a free, happy, and shameless life. When I catch myself worrying about trivial things like someone’s uninformed opinion of me, I remind myself that I will die one day, and none of that will matter. Often, I also think about the other night – the night before my surgery – to remind myself that the only thing I want out of my second life is a worthwhile experience of Life. 

Memento mori.

Thanks for reading.

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