Stages of Grief by Klara Kalu
The first edition of the column, "Blurring Borders," by Klara Kalu
Stages of Grief
by Klara Kalu
On my last night in Nigeria before I move to America for school, I am sitting on top of my suitcase, tired from trying to force the zipper closed. This would be my third try. Clothes and shoes are scattered across the floor and strewn across the bed, showing the hurricane of indecisiveness that has swept through.
I am holding a luggage scale in one hand and with the other hand, I scroll through my phone intently, the light from the screen casting a pale blueish aura on my face. The instructions from the airlines website clearly states that “the maximum weight per checked bag should be 50 pounds or 23 kilograms.” I refresh my browser another time, hoping the instructions miraculously get updated and an extra bag is added to what is allowed.
My mother is sitting by the edge of the bed making some last-minute adjustments to a dress she has made for me as a going-away present. It is designed from a patchwork of colorful fabrics she combined from favorite traditional wrappers of all the women in my family; aunts, grandmothers and all the women that make up the village that raised me. I love the dress. It is filled with pockets and so much love. There is an amused look on her face. I know that she is thinking that no matter how many times I read it, the instructions from the airline are not going to change. I also know she knows that I will have to unpack one or two pairs of jeans. We wear the same size, so she automatically adds two pairs of jeans to her wardrobe.
I spot a family album on my bookshelf. I remember making the album with my siblings years ago during a school break, in the sitting room bathed in the warm, golden light of various kerosene lamps placed on our old wooden coffee table that my grandfather had made before we were born. The soft, honey-hued glow created a cozy ambiance that made the room feel like a sanctuary for the past. The air was filled with the comforting scent of my mother’s powder, and the faint traces of candles that had been lit on many an evening.
An ornate, antique rug covered the polished hardwood floor, providing a soft, comfortable surface as we sat on the floor around the table. I remember trying to make sure there was a picture of me in the center of every page, my younger brother’s piqued focus as he crookedly pasted pictures of strangers we did not know on every other page and my elder sister flipping through old photographs, her finger tracing each sepia image with care, shaking her head and muttering to herself faintly but just loud enough so that we can also hear, that she could not do anything right if she had to do it with the two of us.
I remove another pair of jeans to make space for the album, adding it to the large cardboard box laying next to me with its mouth hungry for possessions that are no longer mine, refusing to believe that I have to pack my whole life in two suitcases, one carry-on bag and a personal item.
I find the experience of living in a new country similar, in a lot of ways, to just being born. There is a newness of experience and an unfamiliarity of emotions. Like a child, I find myself learning basic things, like how to speak and how to feel. I have become a tired quieter person since I moved. My tiredness makes me angry. I am tired of hearing “repeat that again” and “say that one more time.” I am tired of consciously, so consciously, trying to slowly enunciate each and every word that leaves my mouth, such that when I am on the phone with my family, I forget that I can stop stressing each word. I am tired of getting anxious–my subconsciously clinched fists wet and trembling, my heart beating fast–each time I want to say something in class or to someone in public. Speaking differently makes me feel unintelligent, and that in turn makes me angry because I know it is not true.
Anger, in many ways, is a new emotion to me. I feel it first on the first day of class when, sitting in the middle of rows of desk-chairs neatly aligned in a semi-circle to face the professor's podium, someone asks me if I would be writing in my “local” language so that people back in my home country can understand me (the first problem being that the official language in Nigeria is English, and the second being how the class that I so excitedly signed up for would understand me if I wrote in my indigenous language.) I feel it when someone comments on how “surprisingly” good my English is. I feel it when someone asks me if we have shopping malls in my country. I feel it when someone tells me my food smells funny. Suddenly, anger is what I feel all the time, clinging to me like a suffocating shroud, refusing to be dispelled.
I find the experience of living in a new country similar, in a lot of ways, to just being born. Like a child, I want to cry all the time.
I am one of those people who dance as they eat food. I haven’t danced since I moved to America. Back home, I claimed to be a diverse eater, waltzing my way through the symphony of flavors that the culinary traditions from different regions in my country came together to create. Moving from a place I’ve spent my whole life to a new place has exposed the falseness of my claims. Everything tastes different.
The grocery store here is bigger than the one back home and yet, I cannot find ingredients I recognize when I move through the aisles with my empty cart gliding along on squeaky wheels. Eating out exhausts me. When I look at food options on menus, the strangeness makes the words warp and blend together, becoming indecipherable, making me lose appetite. Instead, I find myself studying the architecture of restaurants–the exposed brick walls, wooden beams, and contemporary art adorning the walls– while thinking about how baffled I am by the lack of a specific section for proteins on food menus, like we have in my home country.
When I was four, I earn my first moniker "Everyday Garri Garri" for famously complaining about how much we eat Garri in my family. Immediately I moved out of my parents’ house and could finally dictate my food choices, I stopped eating Garri. Now, on the family group chat, I solicit for Garri.
“Anybody who brings me Garri can have my birthrights,” I bargain.
“You’re the middle child. I don’t think you have any birthrights,” my brother Jerry playfully reminds me.
I therapize myself and come to a realization that maybe it is not the food I miss, but the memories that the food brings. Like being in the kitchen and arguing with my mother who has banned the use of phones in her kitchen in a bid to get me to concentrate on learning how to cook, a soup sizzling its agreement in the background. Like sharing a wrap of Suya with my friends on a beach in Lagos –the water with its palette of blues, transitioning from the pale turquoise of the shallows to the deep indigo of the open sea–and mischievously trying to steal the bigger pieces of meat, laughing when I get caught and finding out my friends are trying to do the same thing. Like eating Jollof Rice in the kitchen with my sister Karyl while we keep up with the Kardashians or talk about the boys we like, what offense they have committed recently and if they will be forgiven.
When I write a wish list for the first birthday I celebrate in America, my first wish is for all my family members to eat dinner in one room again and not in different countries.
There is a certain art to making friends that I lack. I do not know exactly what it is, but I accept that I am lacking. In my first year in high school, my best friend Oluebube insistently hounded me for weeks before I realized she was trying to be friends. In my first year of university, I did not have any friends either. After I become friends with my classmate Dubem in my fourth year at the university, bonding over our interest in mythical creatures, music and fake wrestling, we save seats for each other for the rest of the semester and he tells that dressing like Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place throughout my first year in a university filled with a majority of people that didn’t watch Disney Channel may have been a huge factor to my lack of friends. So, it’s not surprising that now, in my first year of grad school when we sit in a circle for class, the two chairs by my left and right sides are empty.
Nothing prepares me for how much I get progressively colder and sadder each morning I wake up. The chill in my room serves as my morning alarm, seeping through my thin blanket, causing me to shiver awake. The loneliness frightens me. The silence is deafening, broken only by the distant hum of early morning traffic and the occasional creak of my old apartment settling. I haven’t ever seen my neighbor in my almost-three months living here, I only know someone lives next door through sounds of jingled keys and slammed doors. It makes me miss my neighbor back home who my father complains spends more time on our front porch than in his own house.
I get lost in my mind, but I also get lost a lot physically. The first time I take a public bus, there is no bus conductor shouting stops to the driver and arguing with passengers about not having enough change when they pay their fare. The instructions from the website say to pull the stop cord bell along the side windows but there are two cords, and I don’t know what cord to pull to signal my stop or how hard I have to pull, so I freeze and get off with another person on a wrong bus stop. The Metro takes me in the opposite direction from where I am headed to, it takes me 1 hour to realize and 2 extra hours to get back to where I started from. Now, I check and recheck a route anytime I have to take the metro, my anxiety peaking as the train rumbles through the underground tunnels.
I am delighted by the little new things I discover. I take pictures of everything; the leaves changing into my favorite colors and piling up on the side of the streets, the bare branches on the trees that resonate loss with me, interestingly carved pumpkins in front of my neighbor’s porch, and the robots that deliver food around my school which I am sure will soon take over the world and become our overlords.
On the phone with my father, he tells me how the prices of basic necessities keep going up every day. My mother's voice echoes an agreement from the background, baffled that her asthma inhaler is now four times more expensive than it was a month ago, asking nobody in particular how the poor will be able to breathe. My father adds that he is proud of me, of how diligently I am chasing my dreams. I hear them arguing about if I am pursuing an MFA or an NFA as I hang up. It makes me smile.
When I finally meet up with a friend I have admired for years, we walk along the meandering pathways of a park paved with weathered cobblestones. We talk over the sound of chatter, laughter and barking dogs. It is loud but I never hear “repeat that again” or “say that one more time.” He tells me, in many words and ways, in English and Igbo, that I am not alone, and I know he means it. We sit together in understood silence as the day transitioned into evening, watching the lampposts along the pathways flicker to life and frisbees getting thrown in different directions.
Shopping for clothes that are new to me, because we did not have the right weather to wear them in Nigeria, is exciting. I love how much coats, gloves and scarves make me feel classy. I buy a new pair of boots and save up money to buy another one in the coming month because I am worried about how cold it may get. Thrift shopping becomes one of the new hobbies that catch on and make me happy, together with fishing, skateboarding and exploring Asian cuisine.
There is so much joy in my heart that I get to go to school to do my favorite things–read stories and write stories. On a very cold morning, wearing a new coat, going to a poetry class I love, I let out a breath from my mouth and surprisingly, a mist forms. I gasp and giggle like a child, making “mist” breaths all the way to class. I listen to my classmates converse before the professor arrives, amused at how much they talk about the weather.
Today, I am walking home from the mini-birthday party my supervisor thoughtfully threw for me. In my bag, there is cake, scented candles and a card wishing me a winter full of warm coats and kindness. My mother calls to say that she has finally found a way to send Garri to me. I am accepting all the experience I am getting, layering the good with the not so good. My favorite Afrobeats artist has released a new song, I put my headphones on, and it pulls me closer to home. The wind blows orange leaves in captivating spiral patterns while I watch in awe.
Klara Kalu is a first-year Fiction Creative Writing student in the MFA program at George Mason University. She writes contemporary stories that enlighten and offer insights into the intricacies of African narratives, focusing on themes of love, loss, and resilience.
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