Abide With Me

The church bells ring, signaling the congregation to take their seats for the service to commence. The priest walks in, places his right hand on the coffin, and heads to the altar. He then reads a passage about the afterlife and leads the congregation on an acapella rendition of Abide With Me.

After the sermon, the priest calls on Kosi — the next of kin to the deceased — to deliver the eulogy. Kosi’s brother Femi had collapsed the previous day, leaving behind a widow, an infant son, and a real estate empire that spans two megalopolises. He also left behind a will with explicit instructions for the lawyer to execute it only if the funeral took place within 24 hours of his death—that explains the hectic morning. 

Understandably, the emotionally distraught Kosi struggles through the opening parts of his monologue. But he eventually settles into his speech to recount how Femi had tackled a bully in school. After flinging the poor delinquent to the floor, Femi fed him sand and forced out an apology. Kosi cracks a smile as he recounts the reassuring softness of Femi’s hug after the incident. All twenty-nine years of unconditional friendship, fights, and achievements, summed up in this one story. 

My mind goes back to last night. Crazy to think that I’d received the distress call from Kosi at the exact moment when the bartender handed me my third glass of Long Island iced tea. What started as a fun evening of TGIF bar surfing with the lads had ended abruptly as I sobered up to the news that Femi had collapsed on his way up to his apartment. The doctor proclaimed him dead on the spot. 

This one hit hard. We’d gone out together to celebrate Kosi’s birthday. As usual, the conversation swings back and forth between sports banter and politics. I remember Femi saying this might be one of his last escapades because the wife had been complaining lately. I remember making fun of him for being whipped. On his way out, he gave me a fake gut punch and said, “Take it easy, Ron the stallion”. In the most endearing tone, I told him to sod off. That was the last time I saw him alive. 

My mind drifts back to the ongoing church service as Kosi ends his tribute and starts heading away from the altar. Before Kosi reaches his seat, Femi’s toddler son walks up to the gilded wooden box, knocks on the side, and presses his ear to it with the curiosity of a landlord eavesdropping on the conversations of shady Millenials. 

A young lady dressed in black scurries towards the sanctuary to scoop him up and hurry back to her seat. The congregation chuckles in unison as the young lad flails and wails in protest. When the noise subsides, the priest summons friends and loved ones to queue up for one last viewing before Femi leaves for the cemetery. 

A slight confusion ensues as those in attendance contemplate who should go first. As I take my place at the back of the queue, I see the toddler gleefully scuttling away from the flustered mum. But right before he can jet past the door, I grab him by the collar to foil the escape. The toddler’s resistance is futile as his mom drags him away to the front of the procession.

The line proceeds slowly as everyone tearfully pays their final respects. When I reach the coffin, I cross myself and say a short prayer. Femi’s skin still looks like he is sleeping after chugging a bottle of Absolut vodka. Seeing the lifeless body of a young man who had been bar surfing with you less than 24 hours ago can do things to one’s imagination. It gets real once you see them in a casket. Life, what a waste.

My short prayer is interrupted by the soft thuds of little feet. I turn back to see the same toddler standing behind me and pointing at the coffin, this time with a wry smile. The annoying prat! 

As I reach out to grab him, I hear the mother let out a piercing scream, which reverberates in the half-empty cathedral. I look up in confusion to find out what’s going on, in time to see the priest breeze past me in full flight towards the exit—the congregation joins the receding helter-skelter. 

Before I can piece this sequence of events together, a movement in the coffin attracts my attention. I stare in shock at a human hand emerging from the coffin to grasp the railings, followed by a pale, befuddled face. As soon as my eyes meet Femi’s, I feel a slight jolt pushing me backward away from the coffin. 

“Ron?”

Hearing the voice of a dead man brought it all home for me. No way! As I race away from the casket, I follow the priest’s cassock flailing in the wind. I trip on the wires beneath my feet and hear some church equipment crashing to the floor, but I barely break stride as I race through the door. 

I don’t stop until I reach the priest, who is hunched over in the street, holding onto his knees and pointing to the church as he tries to catch his breath. 

“What—what—what—the ghost!” exclaims the priest as he hyperventilates in a struggle to make sense of what is happening. I look back one more time into the church to see the silhouette of Femi and the toddler heading toward the exit and motioning in our direction. 

“Ron—bro—wait. It’s me!”

Without hesitation, I pat the priest on the back as I jog across the street to catch a cab. Whatever this is, I won’t be around to find out.

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