In a rickety zinc shack crawling with mice and cockroaches, Theresa lived together with her younger sister, her daughter, and me. Besides her daughter, Theresa had some older children, a couple of prominent men and women, who lived in Monrovia. The men worked as CEO and chief accountants at the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL); while the women operated huge businesses, one of them owning an extravagant restaurant that catered exclusively for American and European clientele.
Theresa was about seventy-one, lean, gray-headed, with a wrinkled face and almost toothless mouth. Two years before I had moved into the shack as a tenant, which had been built by Theresa’s late husband, Theresa had suffered a stroke that had left her right leg deformed. Besides the meager rent she received from me and made a living, she sold pepper and palm oil on a ramshackle table at Red Light market.
Beatrice, Theresa’s daughter of about eighteen, was a frivolous girl who was never fond of helping her mother, except cooking whatever Theresa brought each evening. Then she would leave the house to loiter about the neighborhood, swaying her big hips, flirting with ‘gronna’ boys, and basking in the attention they gave her.
Theresa’s younger sister, Sarah, was short, full-breasted, with a tight face that made her looked younger than her thirty-eight years. She used to leave the house at night, dressed in fancy clothes, high heels, and all made-up. Then she would return early in the morning, wads of notes stuffed into her pockets, disheveled beyond recognition, go into her room, and sleep for hours. No one else knew what she was up to every night until one day I was washing her clothes and found a batch of condoms in her trousers pocket. Only then did I know she was perhaps a nightwalker.
One day it was raining heavy when Theresa returned from the market shivering wet, her teeth chattering with cold. Sarah took her into the room and lay her down on the mattress. She then ran to the local medicine store, bought a few paracetamol capsules, and took them in to Theresa, who swallowed a couple of the tablets gratefully. That was all the medical care she received that day. It did her no good, though. In the evening her illness went from bad to worse.
At dusk, I overheard Sarah and Beatrice fussing with each other.
“Where have you been the whole day?” asked Sarah.
“I was at my friend’s house,” retorted Beatrice.
“What were you doing at your friend’s house when you should have been here to mind your mother?”
“That’s none of your business!”
“All right, I will teach you a lesson!”
“I dare you! You are not woman enough.”
I came out of my room just in time to see Sarah grabbed a stout stick to whack Beatrice, who instantly dashed out of the house and into the yard. Moments later, she was shouting obscenities at her aunt, much to the amusement of the neighbors.
The next morning, Theresa’s cries for help rumbled through the zinc shack – and for hours. When Sarah eventually appeared from her night hustle, she heard Theresa’s screams and went berserk.
Kicking the front door open, she stormed into the house. “What the hell is going on here?” she shouted. “Theresa, I say Theresa, stop shouting in the house for God’s sake. You are not the only sick person in the world.”
But Theresa only sobbed.
“I say Theresa, wouldn’t you keep your mouth shut? Oh, my God, what sort of trouble is this?”
“Sarah, please call Beatrice to help take me to the toilet,” said Theresa in a trembling voice. “My stomach is running and I can hardly get up from the mattress.”
“Beatrice isn’t in this house,” shouted Sarah. “I told the stupid girl to stay here and help you but she just won’t listen. She even had the nerves to abuse me. Now, you have got to shut up and let me hear my ears. I’m already sick and tired myself.”
But Theresa’s sobs and groans only grew steadier.
Disgruntled, Sarah spun on her heels and stomped out of the house.
Beatrice finally came home the following day. Instead of showing remorse for how badly she had treated her mother and aunt, she quarreled with Sarah once more. They broke into a violent fight then. The neighbors eventually had to tear them apart, with both of them pulling and nearly rooting out each other’s hair. Theresa, who hadn’t been taken to the toilet the day before, had already urinated and defecated on herself. Now she lay in her own mess, weeping as flies buzzed about her.
“Beatrice, you and Sarah should take your mother into the bathroom and clean her up,” said one of the neighbors.
Beatrice frowned and folded her arms. “She’s got cholera, and I am not going to catch it.”
“She would have caught it for you, you idiot,” shouted Sarah at her.
“Oh, it’s you again, right? I see, you’ve just forgotten that I nearly pulled out all your hair,” said Beatrice, stabbing her finger at Sarah. “All right, the next time I will scratch out your eyes for you.”
They would have dashed at each other’s throat once more had the neighbors not intervened.
“What! This is outrageous,” shouted an old man. “You both have sand for brains. Theresa is sick, and, instead of tending to her, you are both fighting. And for what? Nonsense. Look, if you don’t get into your senses I will take both of you to the police station at once. Understand?”
They both nodded their heads.
“Now, both of you go into the room, bring Theresa out into the bathroom, and get her cleaned up,” ordered the old man. “The neighbors and I will clean up the room.”
Only then did Sarah and Beatrice tend to Theresa. They went into the room, together with the old man and a couple of neighbors. Moments later, Sarah and Beatrice came out of the room, carrying Theresa between them like a sack of rice, and took her into the bathroom. Beatrice went to fetch water.
Moments later Sarah and Beatrice came out of the bathroom, with Theresa shuffling between them, either of her emaciated arms draped over their shoulders. In fact, she looked terrible, pallid with her eyes having sunk deep into their sockets. They carried her into the room, which the neighbors had cleaned up as best they could, and lay her down on Sarah’s mattress. Her own mattress, tainted with feces, had been carried out into the sun.
“Patrick, please write a letter to Theresa’s elder children,” Sarah told me. “Tell them that their mother has fallen ill, that her condition is terrible, and that they should take her to hospital at once.”
“All right, sister Sarah,” I said, got a pen and a sheet and then sat down to write.
When I had finished writing the letter, Sarah sealed it in an envelope, said she was going to take it to Theresa’s elder son, and left.
At dusk, she returned and, much to everyone’s happiness, said that she had given the letter to the elder son, who had relayed its contents to his brothers and sisters, and that all of them had decided to come the following day. That was Monday.
Monday came. However, they did not show up.
Tuesday. Growing anxiety. Still no children.
Wednesday. The elder brother’s houseboy came and told us that the children were sorry about their absence and that they would surely come on Thursday.
Thursday – and yet no luck.
Theresa died on Friday.
Theresa’s children eventually arrived on Saturday and got out of their flashy cars – two BMWs, a Chevrolet, and a Continental- richly dressed, annoyingly pompous, and chatting on cell phones. They went into the house but soon came out with handkerchiefs over their noses, though Theresa’s corpse had not yet begun to rot. The elder brother called St. Moses Funeral Parlor and requested for a hearse.
Moments later, the hearse drove into the yard and came to a stop. The children all went to the driver as he got out of the car.
The elder brother said, “Hurry up and get the corpse into the car. I want to get the hell out of here at once. At this moment I should have been at a meeting with a Swiss banker.”
“And I should have been meeting some big client from England. He will boost the publicity of my hotel.” That was the elder sister.
“I just don’t understand why these people did not bury the corpse long ago, of course,” said the younger sister. “They should have understood that we are very busy business people.”
“They just want to have us lavish our money on a wake,” said the younger brother. “Well, we will spend whatever money we can so that these poor and helpless people won’t tarnish our reputation and say we neglected our own mother.”
The others nodded their approval.
It must be noted that they had all spoken barely above whispers. I was leaning against the hood of one of the BMWs, and they did not want me to eavesdrop.
Theresa’s corpse, wrapped in a drab blanket, was brought outside and then put into the hearse. Sniveling and dabbling at their faces ostentatiously, the children all got into their cars, together with Beatrice and Sarah, and followed the hearse to the funeral home.
A week later there was a big wake-keeping, attended by all of Theresa’s children. Both brothers wore expensive black coat suits, their shoes polished to a glitter; while their sisters, together with Beatrice and Sarah, were dressed in purple and white gowns that made the neighbors gawked with wonder. The wake lasted whole night long, with people eating and drinking and fighting each other in their drunkenness.
At dawn, the coffin was taken to the Du-port Road cemetery and placed in a tomb overlaid with expensive tiles, a door made of pure gold at the entrance.
The following night, armed robbers descended on the tomb and robbed it. They ripped off the door, removed the corpse form the coffin, and stripped it of the several gold rings and a huge god chain round its fingers and neck. They even stole the coffin and left the corpse in a bush beside the tarred road. The corpse was then put into another coffin, a very cheap one, and placed back into the tomb. Then the entrance was sealed with cement.
No more splendors. No more thieves. No more trouble.
Next day, I passed by the cemetery to pay homage to Theresa, and met the bouquet of flowers, which Theresa’s children had given her, strewn over the ground and trampled on by robbers’ feet. Looking down at the flowers, I shrugged and said to myself: ‘Theresa wouldn’t enjoy these flowers anyway. She’s already dead and gone.’