“My dear friend, so sweet and distant,
Take farewell from all my heart,
As takes a wid in a somber instant,
As takes a friend before a prison
Will split those dear friends apart.” –Aleksandr Pushkin, ‘Farewell’
There were four of us. Close friends by the standards of the time and our youth. We were first cousins. It was the 1960’s Nigeria and the Biafra war brought us together. We were youthful, but not youths. We were mere children, from three different sets of parents, but our bonds were as strong as the strings that held our shared genes together. “War children,” they called us. The most ebullient one was Dorothy. Yes, my dearest cousin Dorothy. I remember the worst day in 1967 with violent torrential rain. Dark clouds, lightning, and thunder. Howling winds that bent and broke tall trees. As the wind grew more forceful, I heard a loud noise. It sounded as if my house split open. Fear gripped me. My hands trembled as I pulled the window curtains apart, and from a short distance I saw the big Iroko tree split in half. The mighty West African Iroko tree, Chlorophora excelsa, reduced to splinters. I wondered if my house would be next. My trembling hands closed the curtains as if it would prevent the wind from doing any damage to my house.
A loud knock on my front door. My body trembled in fear.
“Open the door. It’s me, Dorothy.”
“What’s going on out there?” My father asked from his study.
“Nothing Dad, just Dorothy.”
My trembling hand struggled with the door latch. Dorothy, soaking wet, hugged me as soon as there was enough opening to let her small body inside my house. Tears rolled down her eyes as she held me tight.
“I heard the loud noise. Thought it came from here. Have to make sure you’re OK,” Dorothy said.
“Let go of me you scared little girl,” I said. She ignored me and held on tighter. I smiled.
“I’m staying with you until the rain stops,” she said as she let go of me. She walked into my room. I followed her. Unfolded shirts and shorts littered my bed. Dorothy knelt down and pulled out a suitcase from under my bed. She selected a pair of shorts and a shirt. Yes, she knew her way around my room.
“Leave my Knicker alone Dorothy,” I shouted. She smiled and changed her wet clothes. She wore my boy’s Knicker and a white shirt. Undaunted. As she was about to leave my room, she turned around and snickered. I sighed. She walked over to my father’s den. I jumped on my bed before I heard my father laugh. I jumped down from my bed and ran to the kitchen to tell my side of the story to my mother before she heard it from my father.
When the Biafra war ended in 1970, Dorothy and I moved away from each other. In 1973 I left home to attend a boarding school. We barely saw each other. I never saw Dorothy again after I moved to the US about forty years ago.
Dorothy died recently. One week before her death, she went to my father’s house looking for me. A partially deserted enclave because of the death of my parents. She sat outside the gate and sobbed. “My cousin would have rescued me if he had known,” Dorothy told our neighbors. They were worried about her mental state but did not let me know. It was only after she died that they spoke out. I was told that her husband physically and mentally abused her for three decades.
Even the strongest among us can be physically and mentally broken. Know when to ask for help. Don’t protect spousal abusers. Expose them and seek help immediately.
Farewell Dorothy. Only distance separated us, and nothing more. You are etched in my memory, and my love for you is eternal. I am sorry I was not there for you when you needed me the most.
Written by Fidelis O Mkparu, author of ‘Love’s Affliction’ (March 27, 2016) as a tribute to his first cousin Dorothy (2)