I didn’t know him very well; if I’m really honest, I didn’t know him at all. He was one of those kids who seemed as colorful as grey wallpaper, you saw him and your eyes glazed and flitted over to something more colorful. When I try to think back, all I remember about him before that day was that at some point he wore glasses. We were in the same teen class, the 12 – 16’s. I usually sat behind him, always at the back. Occasionally, I registered that he was always the first to rest his head on the pew in front of him some way into the service every sunday. When the teacher in charge asked if he was alright, (which was always); he’d smile and say he was only tired and we’d all just turn away, preoccupied with listening to Sunday school teacher or ignoring her. I’d gotten angrier each time the scene played itself out; it was a fleeting anger, a passive disappointment that he was looking for attention by currying sympathy instead of rebelling like the rest of us. All that changed that day, the day he fell.
I’d been separated from my friends because we were getting too rowdy and made to sit at the only free chair beside him. I was so angry that I refused to look at the felt board on which Mary and Joseph were tacked; a trail of felt squares meandering from their mule to Egypt. I was instead turned towards him. And for the first time I really looked at him. His skin was flushed and pasty, there were swellings on his neck, and his closed eyelids fluttered as his body shook in response to tremors no one else felt. I was curious so I touched his arm. He was burning up, literally. I nudged him and he barely even noticed, so I nudged again. He just sat there, oblivious and shivering. I was frightened so I pulled him away from the front pew where his head was rested and tried to help him sit up. His eyes slowly opened though his pupils unfocused, skittering from left to right.
“There’s something wrong with him!” I exclaimed as I recoiled in shock.
He swayed for a few seconds before sliding forward and falling into a heap on the floor. And the shrieks began as the teenagers around him instinctively backed away and the ones further back struggled to come closer and take a look at the source of the panic. My father was a doctor and an elder in the chapel, the chapel of the university teaching hospital where we worshipped so I was the first person the Sunday school teacher, a substitute taking us for the first time strayed to once she saw him slump.
“Get your father.” She said to me, the calm in her voice a complete contrast to the panic in her eyes.
I wanted to protest, I was the one who’d ‘discovered’ him. I had to make sure he was okay. But the Sunday school teacher was so afraid that I didn’t argue, I just barreled my way through the small crowd around him and ran out of the youth hall for the ‘big’ church.
Father was panting when we got back; He wasn’t in the best of shape, the years off his feet and behind a consulting table showing in the gut he carried in front of him. He got the scared kids to clear a path for him to the middle aisle between the two rows of pews where the Sunday school teacher had laid him on the floor, undone the buttons of his shirt and put a rolled up shirt under his head. I knelt beside my father and helped him open the small physician’s bag he always carried with him, fishing for his thermometer. My Sunday school teacher was seated gracelessly on the floor, crying openly now.
“What’s your name?” my father asked as he pushed the thermometer I’d found between his teeth and searched for a pulse with his stethoscope. All he did was twitch. My father slapped his cheeks a few times but his eyes stayed unfocused.
“Ekile, His name’s Ekile Dozie.” I finally said, surprised I even knew his name.
“Ekile, can you hear me?”
There was no response. My father took out the thermometer, it was 45 degrees centigrade. My father took out his mobile phone and dialed a number.
“Yeah, I’m the youth church.” He said immediately someone responded, skipping the pleasantries. “One of the teenagers is unconscious, a severe fever and swollen nymph nodes. I can’t diagnose accurately and I don’t think anything I can do will help. Send an ambulance immediately and announce so his next of kin can meet us in the emergency room.”
My father turned to us. “I need cold compresses, immediately. Cloth soaked in water, towels are preferable. I need to bring his fever down.”
I don’t know how it happened, but before long there were about half a dozen hand towels all cool to the touch, being thrust at my father. I collected them because he was too busy checking Ekile’s pulse and spread them over his face and chest. I ended up raising the one on his face so it only covered his forehead, putting it over his nose and mouth reminded me too much of someone being smothered. The whine of ambulance sirens distracted all of us and we gave way again as two paramedics dressed in starched whites, made their way into hall with a stretcher held between them. They gently but firmly made my father step aside and hoisted Ekile onto the stretcher. Father followed behind them as they carried him out, one of his arms limp over the side of the stretcher. As the ambulance drove out, we heard the massive public address speakers come on and the service interrupted for the announcement.
“Ekile Dozie’s family is needed in the church parking lot immediately… Ekile Dozie’s parents are needed in the Church Parking lot immediately! And while they leave can we please say a prayer of healing for him? Thank you.”
One of the girls perked up and turned to the Sunday school teacher, who’d managed to pull herself together, even though the shock hadn’t quite left her.
“Miss,” she said, “Ekile always comes to church alone, his parents don’t come here, no one in his family does.”
We all fell silent. Even the substitute. One of the felt figures, the one of Mary and the baby Jesus on the donkey fell loose off the board and fluttered to the ground. We all just stood there and took it in; an unexpected remorsefulness for how self absorbed we’d all been to not have realised how little we knew about Ekile. How alone he must have felt while we migrated in our little clusters to find our cars and our parents in the maze that was the church’s parking lot while he walked home alone. Reluctantly the Sunday school substitute walked over the board and replaced the Mary figure before she went for her purse and took out her phone to inform my dad that Ekile had no one coming to claim him.
Dad stayed with Ekile for most of the night. He was the one who had made arrangements and he’d felt responsible somehow as no one had come seeking Ekile by nightfall. Mother drove us home, as I ate my lunch and did my organic chemistry assignment, my mind kept wandering back to him. If they had gotten the fever down and found out if it was Malaria or Typhoid that had made him so sick. By the short break in school the next day I was practically obsessed with knowing. So when Mother came to pick me up from school and there was hollowness in her voice when she said my father was still in the hospital, I told her I wanted to drop off there and see how Ekile was doing.
As I walked down the hedged road that led to the hospital’s emergency ward, I gripped the four leaved clover stalk I had plucked for good luck and the little emergency kit of offering money, sweets and chocolate we’d donated the day before, and wished furiously that he would be alright. Father was just outside the ward. His hospital coat was slightly browned and his dark circles shadowed his lower lids but he genuinely lit up when he saw me. He walked over to me and pulled me to his side.
“Your mother sent you?” He asked.
“I just wanted to check up on Ekile.”
My father sighed before he let me out of his embrace, giving direction to Ekile’s room. He didn’t follow. Ekile sat cross-legged in the middle of his hospital bed, twiddling his fingers and looking outside through the window adjacent to him. I noticed his eyes were red and his cheeks were puffy but at least he was conscious. He noticed my presence in the room and tried to smile but it came out more like a sigh.
“Lewis, Hi.” He said.
I replied instinctively but inside me, I gasped. I’d never even imagined that he knew my name. I sat at the end of his bed with my back to the wall and pushed the little Ziploc bag that held the emergency kit with the stalk on top of it.
“The bag’s from the youth church. The substitute teacher took a donation yesterday in case you needed to take a cab home or something. The clover is from me; my dad says it’s an Irish superstition that brings good health or something.”
Ekile reached forward and took the emergency kit. He left the clover untouched.
“I doubt that would work now.” He whispered. “Your dad talked with me this morning, I have cancer of the bone.”