I can’t remember her last name or where exactly we met. Just a smile that started from the eyes and spread to the rest of a smooth brown face, and a name, Ngozi. I have always thought it was Ngozi, even though now that I think of it, her name could have been Njideka. But it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter the last time we met, in a hospital ward a few years ago in Kaduna.
I was making my way through the confusing, identical wards, looking for a relative of mine, avoiding the grim stories on the faces outside the wards. Sometimes I couldn’t help looking; the faces said many things, asked many questions: Why aren’t the drugs working. Will we find the money for the operation before it is too late? Where will we find the money? We are in God’s hands. I wish we came a bit earlier. Why me, why her, why now...
It was her face I saw first as I peeped in the dreary sunlit room that reeked with a smell we described growing up simply as hospital smell- a mix of strong disinfectants, antiseptics, the metallic smell of blood, food, and bananas. She had put on weight but her fuller cheeks had done nothing to alter her face. It was still the same lovely brown face without makeup. Her lips were a light shade of pink and her nose, was pointed and had a little mole on it.
She was sitting on the bed and looked at me with a familiar smile. I smiled back and walked toward her to say hello and long-time-no-see and sorry-I-didn’t-know-you-were-in-the-hospital and God-bring-vitality-back-to-your-body and sorry-again, all at once. She didn’t have many visitors like the others. During the awkward silence that followed the shock/awkward reunion/prayer for good health, I wondered whether it was rude to ask why she was in the hospital. Perhaps this lovely Igbo girl with no makeup read my mind, or maybe it was just coincidence that she then decided to adjust her sitting position to show me what brought her there. I noticed the bandages on one side of her chest where a breast used to be. She caught my eyes as it widened, involuntarily at the sight of her chest. She smiled a smile that said, I know, I couldn’t believe I lost the breast too and looked away. Just then I heard my name from across the room. It was my aunt standing by the bed of the relative I came looking for.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, walking away in disbelief. I greeted my aunt who asked in Hausa where I knew her from. I realized then that I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. ‘From school,’ I said, preferring the burden of a lie to the complication of explaining why I stood for so long by the bedside of someone I wasn’t sure where I met. It could have been the external examinations I took when I was trying to switch from the sciences to the arts many years before. Or maybe the friend of a friend. We didn’t ask each other where we knew. Our eyes met, and we just knew. It didn’t matter where we met.
I waved her goodbye as we were leaving but she was busy with the nurses and I decided I would return to see her the following day. On the bus home, I wondered what it meant, to lose a breast. Would she wear a normal bra, stuff the other with some padding? How would she feel? Is she married yet? If not, how will this affect her. These were the questions I slept with; the same questions I woke up with and pondered as I returned to the hospital the following day. Walking to the ward, I thought of how she turned away when she saw that I had seen why she was there. I would sit with her and talk when I got there, I told myself. I would not walk away again if she turned her face, even if my aunt called me. I would not let my eyes go wide with surprise or dim with pity; I would smile, like she did, from my eyes, from my heart.
I reached the hospital the following day and Ngozi’s bed was empty, a dreary green sheet spread over the space she occupied the day before. I asked my aunt and she gave me the details with her arms across her chest and pity on her face. Discharged. Breast Cancer. Very friendly, wallahi.
This October, the month set aside as Breast Cancer month I have been thinking of Ngozi, who might have been Njideka. Ngozi who could have been a friend of a friend or an old classmate. I never saw her again. I do not know if the cancer stopped, if she found a way around the bra or gave up altogether, if she had supportive family and friends, if she found someone to still love her or knew that she was still beautiful. I wish now, that I had sat down a little more with her that day or knew where she was so I could visit. This October I remember the lovely Igbo girl without makeup who had breast cancer.