Five verses in the first book of the New Testament where the phrase “Gnashing of teeth” was used to denote suffering (especially the punitive kind).
The first person I ever saw gnashing his teeth was 11 month old Ejima-Nwoke slowing losing the battle to type X hepatitis. It was September of 2007, I can’t recall the date now which is rather puzzling because for a very long time I had every minute detail in my head. I guess it’s just proof that time heals all.
This is a true story so I’ll be using Aliases to conceal the identity of the characters.
I’d walked in just as my mum was getting off the phone, she’d been speaking with my uncle, and they’d already decided I would go. I was briefed, one of the twins was sick, very sick, the boy, “unusual” I thought, it was the girl who was constantly sickly.
Let me give you the background. Father and mother of the sick child were family friends, very close family friends, young couple and obviously enjoying their youth to the fullest judging from the way the babies were popping. Hey, I’m not judging, my parents did have seven of us after-all, but still…..
They had twin toddlers, just 11 months old, the boy (I’ll call him Adam) was healthy based on popular opinion, hardly ever cried, I thought differently. You see, the first things I look out for when I pick up a baby are the eyes and skin, if the eyes are jaundiced in anyway, or the skin not “baby smooth”, you’d have a difficult time convincing me that baby is healthy. Come on, the expression “baby smooth” is used for a reason. Well, that’s just my opinion; at that time, majority still believed the heavier/fatter a baby is, the healthier. The girl (I’ll call her Eve) on the other hand was so skinny, you could feel the bones when you picked her up, and her crying could test the patience of a saint.
So the usually healthy boy had been sick and unresponsive to the standard, ‘Made in Nigeria, Home remedies’ for sick babies…. I could only imagine the night his parents had had, that propelled the decision to rush off to the hospital that early in the morning.
By 6:45am, I was sitting in the back of the car, headed to Awka, holding this very heavy baby boy that kept fussing and turning; his mother (I’ll call her Uloma) sat at the other end with a black poly-ethene bag in her hand and facing the window. I got to know what the bag was meant for when we stopped at a gas station to refill and what I can only assume was her dinner started to come up and into the bag. None of us had gotten the chance to have breakfast. She had 11 month old twins, and she was pregnant, I felt sorry for her.
First thing the doctor did after the short clinical exam was to order an IV line. It took almost an hour, several pricks, a partially shaved head and the doctor himself to get good line in, and even that was on the baby’s foot. I knew my work was cut out for me; an IV line on the foot of a baby that was tossing and kicking out of pain, someone had to hold that foot in place for the fluids to flow, and a nauseated pregnant woman couldn’t be trusted to handle it alone.
When we were informed that Adam needed blood, I began to wonder if this wasn’t why I was asked to come along. Mother was pregnant, father absent, and here I was O+ and very healthy; myself and the other “family friend” (let’s call him Ezeugo) who’d driven with us to the hospital. 30 minutes later, Ezeugo had pumped full a blood bag and was sipping the “ogbonge blood booster”, 33cl of Malta Guinness mixed with 20cl of Peak evaporated milk while they hooked up the blood bag to the IV line.
For more than 6 hours we took turns holding on to that foot carrying the IV line, for the blood to flow in, and I watched.
As Adam’s feet, palms, lips and tongue began to turn a bright red and look fuller, I watched.
As he tossed this way and that, moaning and grating his upper teeth against the lower, I watched.
At intervals, I’d place my palm on his swollen abdomen, it always felt so hard and warm. During and after the blood transfusion, several injections were administered and I noticed he didn’t even flinch at the needles.
For about 2 hours after the transfusion, he seemed to be gaining traction against the illness, although he was still moaning, he wasn’t as restless as before, then things took a bad terrible turn and I knew I should have packed an overnight bag and maybe some biscuits.
I also began to fear. You see, the sound of the grating teeth reminded me of the expression in the bible “gnashing of teeth”, in Igbo we call it “ita ikikere Eze” and it denotes great suffering. It bothered me that this 11 month old child was in so much pain, he was gnashing his teeth. Then there was the vomit, coming up at ten minute intervals and always a brown colored fluid. He vomited so often that I feared very soon there’d be nothing left and he’d vomit his guts. I guess I wasn’t the only scared one because they hooked him up to another bag of intravenous fluids.
All those hours and not once did the Adam cry, not once did he sleep, not once did he Stretch out his arms to his mother. I believe that besides the pain, he was conscious of nothing else. He just tossed, and turned and moaned and vomited and gnashed his teeth.
It must not have taken me more than a minute to run to the doctor’s quarters and back but it felt like ages. He seemed to be expecting me because he was out before I could even knock. This was around 10pm and Adam was convulsing violently.
When we got back to the ward, the baby was in a mid-convulsive pose and the Uloma just held him and stared. I can’t remember what I had thought; that she was tired? That she was shocked? But I took him and started massaging his arms and legs, his very stiff arms and legs. I don’t know what I’d aimed to achieve. I heard the doctor say “stop” but I went on; wasn’t this what I had seen my aunt do the day my cousin had that terrible convulsion? Hadn’t she kept rubbing down his limbs with that oil? Only I didn’t have any Okwuma, so I just kept rubbing with my hands.
“Stop”. This time he took the baby from me, and did a quick exam. When he was done, he handed the baby back to me, asked the nurse on duty to stay with the mother, and told me to go with him. I was almost out the door with the baby before him. In his office, Doctor, asked me to place the baby on the examination table and go get his clothes. I was off again like a rocket. I didn’t ask why we suddenly needed the baby to be fully clothed, I was on “do whatever the doctor says and do it fast” mode.
When I got back with the clothes, he was on the phone with someone and emptying the contents of a big brown carton and I heard him say to whoever he was speaking to in Igbo “Ama’m na Oga’anwu, mana aga anwalili ka ike anyi ra”.
This was when it hit me. ADAM was dead.
He wasn’t moaning anymore, he wasn’t restless, I couldn’t hear his breathing anymore and he wasn’t gnashing his teeth. For the first time since we’d gotten there, He was peaceful.
As he lay there on the examination table while dressed him in his clothes (I would later learn that this is called “last office”) I half expected him to moan, cry, cough, open his eyes, anything that would negate the conclusion that he was dead. At the same time, I was scared that he’d suddenly wake up, and grab my arm and attempt to kill me, you know, like in all those zombie movies.
Back in the ward, Uloma was sitting in the same place I had left her; we didn’t say a word to each other as I gathered up all our things, all of Adam’s things. When I was done, I took her hand and tugged; and she just stood up and let me lead her, not saying a single word, not shedding a single tear. We were leaving the ward to spend the night in the doctor’s guest room. Maybe this is where I should mention that Doctor is my father’s cousin.
Neither of us slept for a long time, we just lay there, I didn’t know what to say to her; I never know what to say to the bereaved. Several times I almost got up to go to the doctor’s office, to check if maybe we’d been mistaken, if maybe he’d woken up and was crying because it was dark and he was alone.
It would have been easier if she were crying, then I would have said things like “sorry” or “stop crying” and “God Knows best” but she wasn’t crying. She was unsettlingly quiet and staring, at nothing in particular, so I just held her hand till we both drifted off to sleep.
At dawn, Ezeugo was back with the car, the brown carton holding Adam was loaded into the boot and we set off for home. We attached green branches to the bonnet and door handles of the car; I have never understood why or how, but this was supposed to prevent the car from getting stopped or delayed on the road. Still, the doctor gave me a death certificate to hold on to incase we ran into any excited policemen on our way.
By the time we got back with the corpse, a small casket was ready. His father’s kinsmen and the church had been informed and after the Umunna had examined the corpse and satisfied themselves that there was no foul play, everyone took off for the plot of family land where he was to be buried.
I didn’t attend the funeral. I went home, took a bath, slept, woke up, ate some food and slept again.
Exactly, three months later, we were back at the hospital with Eve. This time, it was I sipping the “ogbonge” blood booster.
She’s 10 years old now and very healthy.
I had to finish with this because I love happy endings.