From the moment I met you, I could not envision a life without you. The image of your wide, gap-toothed smile held onto my every thought, and I found myself wanting to wake up to that smile every morning for the rest of my life. Forty-two years later and whenever I close my eyes, I still see you in your bright red dress smiling as you reached out for a handshake. I laugh whenever I think about that because I thought you were extraordinarily beautiful that day and now that I think about it, that is the least beautiful you’ve ever looked to me.
We met on a hot afternoon, disgruntled customers at a local bank stuck in a long queue that reached the far ends of the car park. We had been forced to make small talk and I was quite fascinated by your unconventional views. You were like a breath of fresh air – untainted and delightfully refreshing. Up until that moment, my life was black and white, and you rolled in like a ball bursting with colour like you opened my eyes for the first time and your smile ignited the fire in me.
The second time we met was at a literary evening at our favourite bookshop. I was performing on a piece about a short encounter with a lady in an unlikely place who literally brought the sun out in the most frustrating situation, and then you walked in. Our eyes met and I froze; a split second and a hitched breath later, I continued. I avoided your gaze till I said the last word: Omaye. I soon discovered that my words were the ultimate aphrodisiac for you. Poetry would then become the one thing that would bind our hearts and souls together. It became running water, flowing through our cracks and crevices, mending our broken fragments and polishing our surfaces. Poetry became our love language as we got lost in one another’s metaphors and completed each stanza for the other.
I wish love had come with warning signs – red flashing lights and sirens – because I was completely unprepared for the level of desperation and vulnerability you took me to. I also wish you came with a manual because I soon discovered that you were an enigma. You were not the open book I thought you were because you guarded your deepest thoughts with such passion, that sometimes I got jealous of them. They seemed to get more attention and protection than I ever did and it often felt like a competition. A manual, however, would have taken away the beauty in getting to know you and it would have ruined a lifetime’s adventure. Funny enough, even today, despite how much I’ve learnt, I am still unable to write a complete manual for you.
I remember the first time I told you I loved you. You were shocked and troubled. You asked me if I knew what love was. It was the oddest question and I frowned. Defining love is still the hardest question I’ve had to answer. It felt impossible to describe exactly what I was feeling without watering it down. Words seemed inadequate to encompass the totality of my emotions. All I knew was that I had stopped seeing the world when I met you because you had become my world and I worried that I was merely a ghost town in yours. You are the one I had been searching for, the love I longed for and I was prepared to forgive you a thousand times over for never fully loving me back, if that was what it would take to be with the woman whom I desperately longed for.
Your smile was a facade. I soon realised that you were a damaged soul and it was my job to put the pieces back together. Tears became our second language. When words failed and the pain in our hearts felt too heavy and unbearable, we let tears fall. When you shut me out while you battled with your inner demons, I spent countless nights crying and praying that one day you would realise how much I loved you. The times I told you how much I loved you, you would cry because you didn’t want to be loved this much. You felt that you would hurt me – and you did, but you are not the lost cause that you thought yourself to be.
I asked you what you thought love was and you smiled. You told me about how your mother always recited 1 Corinthians 13 to herself. ‘Love is patient and kind… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ As you recited this, I thought of you with every single line but my heart broke a little when you laughed right after. You said that you had never been fully able to come to terms with the verse. You called it “question-begging”. It painted love as this perfect black and white concept, that fell easily within these characteristics and assumed humans to be one. It assumed we were all able to love in one bright-line way like we were the same. You said that the idea of love itself is imperfect and subjective, hence no universal definition and that is exactly why you wanted to know how I knew that I loved you. It was all a bit too much to take in and oddly enough, I loved you so much for it.
Funny how that was the time I loved you least. I loved you more when you made us elope to Kaduna, away from family and friends in Lagos. I loved you greatly when you held your breath and held onto my arm tightly as you gave birth to our stillborn daughter. I loved you more as you remained strong, never letting your faith waver and held on to hope for twelve years till we finally had our son. I love you more than I have ever loved you now that you lie in my arms as I watch cancer slowly steal you away from me. I feel helpless, ashamed and useless as I watch its dark wings eclipse your sunshine, steal your smile and the alluring glint from your eyes. I know that I have failed completely at my God-given life task, which is to protect you and I can’t promise you that I will never stop punishing myself for it. I love you so much, Omaye.
Last week, you cried to me asking me to forgive you for never reaching up to my expectations. You apologised for not being careful with my heart and blamed your jittery hands for always letting go – breaking my heart with each fall. You admitted that my love was overwhelming because you had never been surrounded by that type of love. Love to you was pain, constant fear, balled up fists masqueraded as a sign of care and affection, driven mad by stinging rays of jealousy. You said that I had made love easy because mine was never to take, but to give and keep on giving till I had nothing left to give. I had loved someone incapable of loving themselves, and that alone was a selfless task. That made me happy and sad at the same time because I never want you to have to apologise for anything.
You recited 1 Corinthians 13 again to me yesterday and you laughed. You said after forty-two years, the verse still seemed like a fairytale. You stuck with what you said but you called my love perfect. You took my warm rough hands in your cool clammy ones, gazed into my eyes and repeated:
‘…If I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and If I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.’
You kissed me and smiled. ‘Thank you for making and giving me everything, Omaye.’ That was the moment I loved you most because, for the first time in forty-two years, I witnessed you open your heart and surrender yourself completely to love.
I’m writing this to you now because I was never truly great at expressing myself in person. I see you deteriorate every day and feel a bit of myself dying along with you. I’m afraid that I will be unable to hold a pen after this, for the fear of reliving these moments without you by my side. Last night, you whispered to me to promise to keep on writing and I’m sorry, Omaye, but I cannot. The day you fall off the face of this earth, is the day my words cease. Unfortunately, this is sooner rather than later, but I can promise that my love for you never will.
To Judith, the love of my life, Ololufe, Omaye. My love never ends.
Always and Forever,