He Reads a Cancer Booklet
After Carrie Shipers’ He Watches the Weather Channel
Because there is nothing more important
than to know which brand of death is killing him.
Because he needs something to translate the gibberish
of scientists into gibberish he can understand.
Because it is good to know the inner mechanics
of things, like the body, his body—how
at some point, it grew tired of putting all the lights out.
Because it is hard to say why only he, of all the smokers behind
the bombed mosque, was gifted with the plague of decaying lungs.
And no one has told him why the drugs arent working.
Because he learnt that cancer is not some stranger,
but a carnage of his own invention, his burnt cells now
comminatory, now so passionately devoted to tearing him apart.
Because he wonders if they still have any pity
in doing their jobs.
Because there is still no cure for a metastasized cancer.
But my mother constantly natters about dead prophesies
of black seed, about some guy who met some other guy
who was saved from a stage 4 by a self-invented therapy
of hot lemonade,
unripe pineapples, mashed cloves, vitamins…
Because every drug trial that fails or is inconclusive
is one that would not save him.
Because he just wants to be alive but there is nothing
left to do; he cant change a damn thing.
and uncertainty aches, worse than the cancer,
worse than all the chemo, worse than dying.
After Terry Adams’ Pieta
To be with him was to hurt him-inevitably. And that’s what I’d felt as he reached for me: I’d felt as though I were committing an act of violence against him, because I was.
I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love
My father does not let me touch him. He declines my kisses—and no,
it does not have anything to do with me. It might be that he thinks his death
might be communicable or he might be too cruddy.
Or it might have everything to do with me and he thinks I am too young,
too perfect or vulnerable to kiss him while he rots.
But since my mother had kissed him, and every kind of ugliness he became in the
twenty years of their love, he lets her kiss him again.
When the doctors tell us there is nothing more they can do to save him, my mother
drives off to the nearby lounge where she cries
to a friend in another city and tells him there is nothing she can do to stop it—
the dystopian scene of her husband’s execution. How she is condemned to watch him
burn, to stay awake on those nights when something in his ruins weeps out for more.
Everyday, she lays beside him, her fingers dissolved in his, holding him as one would
hold a child trying to escape.
Sometimes she plots the cartography of the craters in his thorax with her fingers.
never mentioning them, never speaking of the impending loss.
Something about how silence could delay pain.
And like every good child, I could end up like my father, wearing his unease to only kiss
the strange women who call to me from the sidewalks on my way home,
afraid to touch anything that could be loved or
anything that could stay long enough to be withered by my own decaying.
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
My father spins the Misbaha beads as if they are small planets in a single orbit. He is
like God trying to undo history until the darkness is without form.
He regrets his debauchery the way God repented of having made man.
The violent ablutions before prayers are like small baptisms, like therapy. It is as if he is
trying to scrub away the cancer as it spreads through his limbs.
He was raised to be Muslim, but he believes in my mother—the way she believes in that
God who, in six days, tattooed the geography of darkness with time.
And she believes in him. Almost as much as she believes in God to undo her husband’s suffering.
This is why she spends the hours after morning mass in supplication, tracing the rosary
like its braille, as if there are secrets in it—mysteries some theorists propose could save
But there are no liturgies to save us, no scriptures on how to grow new lungs.
And when the cancer gets worse, the priests refuse to feed my father with bread and
wine because he is unbaptized, unwilling to acknowledge Christ and His sacraments.
But he concedes much later, after the tumors have spread all over. He endures yet another ritual of water, survives incantations, a baptism with sacred oil…
Today, God’s skin is broken to pieces and planted on my father’s tongue. They say, “This
is how to heal.” They rejoice, even as fresh tears pour from his eyes.
I cannot tell if these are the tears of his divine redemption or of fear-if, like Judas at
Akeldama, he is unsure if he has just betrayed God for a small price.
The Last Smoke
Its a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you dont give it the power to do its killing
—John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
And once, after we learn he is never going to recover,
my soon-to-be-dead father asks for a cigarette. Like the
tantrums of kids wailing for candy in places where they do not exist—
the bodys thirst for things it knows cannot be.
And this is in the car at night. Were past the old overpass,
past the old factory where he once miraculously turned hot metal
into steel bars, blocks, rods… every day.
We are past all the liquor stores, into the congregation of soft wood—often noisy
at this time of the day,
the nigh infinite darkness that pulls us closer to the promise of home
And this is after some sixty weeks of ending his dependency,
with the hoping days over.
I can tell that mother is angry, but mostly surprised.
There are no stores around, she says,
and he says I know.
But we drive back to get it for him anyway.
The worst days are already here.
He doesnt even smoke for long, tosses the embers through the window.
It must be the false utopia of our minor victories. Like a life jacket
given to a drowning man at the heart of a sea. Like the proverbial rich man
getting a drop of water in Hell.
There was no more risk anyways. To smoke on bad lungs,
is to throw a tinderbox into bush fires. Its a metaphor,
you put the killing thing right between your teeth,
now that it can no longer kill you,
not any faster, not any worse, not any more
If One Must Hope
Enough with the foolishness of hope …. If one must pray, I imagine it is most worthwhile to pray towards endings.
Through the transparent walls of hospital rooms, it is easy to discern
which incarnation of death waits eagerly, like it, too, is family.
It is easy to witness the fold of men bound around the refectory table of a rented bed,
dining on an unholy communion of suffering.
It is easy to get electrified by the way florescent lightsflood the scene of yet another
mother who can no longer bleed as she numbers the beads that suspend the Cross on
her Rosary. And she strokes the thinning hair of her only child as his life grows more
monstrous with time.
Her mind is so used to joy so that when it is lost,
she is willing to be brutalised by the hope of its return.
For this same reason, despite being sure that Pa would die, my mother still kissed soft
prayers into Saint Peters toes, a petition for reprieve, begging for grand exceptions to be
But hope is a plot device for the story ahead of us, which we can hardly touch but try to
But death snubs our bribes of tubers of yam and prayers mailed to God,
repeating things He has always known.
one night, in the ward, I clinched to my fathers whittled arms while I sat beside him,
listening to a refrain of sounds that poured like silent prayers from his lungs.
at that point, his chest became too reluctant to fold any more air, a side effect of the
cancer, of bearing a set of genomes carefully decapitated by burning tobacco.
And Ma sat beside me all night, intoning Psalms, litanies about jars of ink, miles of
pages invested in Gods inventory of hairs—when my father has no hair.
A side effect of all the chemo and trading body parts for a few more days to refuse Gods custody.
and on the next morning, after spasming, my father does
not wake, my mother wails so loud, loud enough to be mistaken for madness,
then, she speaks nothing for days.
the loss of words, the loss of silence side effects of hope—how, when its gone, it
bruises; how grief becomes, like faith, the substance of things longed for but not seen.
but hope is necessary, Ive decided, in the way that [for a while] it keeps the world sane.
My Father Dies
My mother says no one can fight it —the body returning to God
my father dies on a hospital bed at the end of several
rituals to capture his memories within the soft murals
of his body. the triage nurses cannot tell if he is just spasming
or leaping in excitement (possibly terror) at the sound of a procession
of angels blowing their hallowed horns for the ten-thousandth
time this day—in pitches only the dying would hear.
I dont know how else to say this: there seems to be nothing new
or extravagant about dying, at least to angels, just the sum
of the bodys small tragedies, a measure of how much of these
the body would outlast.
while my father dies, my mother strides in with a box of matzos
and freshly-baked-sugar-dusted-jam-stuffed doughnuts. the nurses are too
busy wrestling death in an absurd tug-of-war in which my father is just
one rope, the other being the tendrils of a defibrillator stretched out
to spasm him even more. to keep him alive. but nothing seems
to be sufficient to do this:
not the 200volts jolts wading fervently to save his heart or the 2mLs
of epinephrine stabbed into his varicose veins, not my mother wailing
in falsetto, let me see…, let me see him,
as she gets hauled away by frustrated ward maids,
not the collage of mashed donuts—their gooey strawberry jam now
patching the clinic floor like a red vine of blood.
and death, the grim reaper herself, the always so immediate becomes even more
immediate. dressed in black, steel chains swaying around her neck, she cranes
over his bed, as if caring, but holds the bloodied sickle in her hands
with which she pulls him, pulls us. but we do not follow
I watch you disappear
Until youre subtracted from the visible escarpment and Im a throbbing waste-heap of ghost.
your dying is like a science and I watch it—
the inner workings of a body in its purest revolt.
I bear witness to your execution, to the carnage
of smaller stars coming awake in the dark cosmos
of your body—
flaming hotter and hotter until it is almost
possible to feel each lonely ember, to point to where
each lump exists in the geodes of your skin.
and the days between each scan compare to awaiting
nukes in the Cold War.
—the efflorescence of a silence as we are transfixed
by a forecast of little fires everywhere.
I watch you disappear, from bleachers
into the wards.
I watch you transfigure as the tumours
gnaw you away and the long obedience
of your body comes to an end.
I see it cram all the motion of a lifetime into just a
few minutes—a fact of spasming,
as if a huge debt of motion had to be paid in such little time.
and at your funeral, your body is immobile, wan as the
skins of painted actors playing ghosts
in low cost horror movies. no polished mahogany lined with
soft white, just the fires of an incinerator wiping you
away, burning the cerements, replacing your skin
till you are little enough to hold in an urn.
I carry you with me. our aunts gather your clothes,
the left-over cereal boxes—what is left of you.
and we inherit these and the darkness the fires would not burn,
we inherit the silence of a body no longer inhabited
by what we loved.
After You Died
The one who left never left, or leaving, leaves a painted shadow
My mother spreads an immortal grief, the same way we
dispersed your ashes over a tumid Badagry creek—no ceremony!
She buries the loud shrieks of departure in laughter.
speaks silence in the same dialect with which she wails.
Some dialect not quite of language or of anything meant
to be heard. But somehow, I hear it.
How everything that echoes is your name. My mother endures daylight,
expects darkness to reinvent your absence into something
more companionable. As you wanted, Malik inherited your
skewed chromosomes, even the way they carry wounds.
At the clinic, when he coughed
up a pint of blood, mother and I were already too familiar
with this bohemian scene of dying things. So that we
were unable to cry. Even for days.
I know there is a way leaving takes our voices to a distance,
without our consents. But this was not the case.
There are no words for this grief, no metaphors
to stuff it undamaged into minds other than ours.
And there is a strange potency to absence. How it takes a shape
outside of us.
How it turns our homes into those haunted obituary corners
where people stay perpetually in love with the ones who could not stay.
My mother now stands still on one side of our portraits
as if waiting for someone hidden or not there.
She sleeps on half of the bed as if the autonomy of loss
has taught her subservience
— that the ones who stay can never grow large enough
to occupy the space that leaving leaves behind;
as if it has taught her silence.
so that she now speaks alone to stones.
After Michael Lavers
you the light that not even your absence diminishes
—Terry L Kennedy
Thats me, I say, pointing at the taller of two boys of this photograph. And thats you—the
stouter one with the only smile more adorable than Mas.
I show you pictures, rewind the world with each flip of a page, for the giddy delights of rediscovering the simple pleasures of our childhood, while knowing this would not
matter, that we mostly keep memories as duplicates of things we know are lost.
In between coughs, you laugh at my short impressions of bossy English physicians, of
an angry kid in the next ward, spiralling out of control after a dose of Ketamine.
I tell you about how once, I caught mother, hands trembling with the memory of touch, bruising
her palms over the Blu-Tack, the scratch marks that illumine the walls where
our fathers photographs once existed; as if to savour the prickly texture of grief that lost
things quicken; as if peering for him through the cracks.
We come to a picture of our father. It is an old photograph, black and white. And we go
quiet. What shrouds us now is a kind of fear; the kind to keep unspoken—the
understanding of transience—of how things dissolve into the intangibility of the past.
And I disappear through blinds, through doors, into blurred spaces as I become distance.
You disappear in doses, your weight dipping as if in competition with our father in his
last days. But we speak nothing of this as if there is a promise of silence.
We just take pictures, stop time in this way, sneak moments through dimensions and
space, gather days into portraits—trying to capture what part of us is still here,
to store it on paper that is both prison and inextinguishable light, a thing that time
cannot touch or decay.
Its in your loss that you learn the alphabet of silence
My mother taught me how long to grieve.
The threshold is often when friends begin to roll their eyes.
At which point we translate the anguish of our bodies into grief sounds
that seem like groanings—things that cannot be uttered.
Not loud enough to be heard, not so quiet that they would not
keep us up all night trying to describe them,
to whisper to the mind what it doesnt yet know
but aches to hear.
Out here, we talk only to stars, to their monopoly of speechless eyes
that look like they demand our attention.
we whisper our translations of grief into the wide ears of
absence, hoping that the absence would listen to us somehow.
we lose count of all the dawns we spent while we sat learning to mime
the posture of our mothers minuscule lips as they tried to clap.
How we tried so hard to bear her unfinished songs
like they were the commandments of some new religion.
Isnt this how we learnt to speak?
Listening to mother talk only to broken dishes
or the night, in dark lulls and sighs—those intimate conversations
between broken things, conversations about weathering.
Watching father latch his lips around bisque tobacco pipes
to kiss his secrets in a vague idiolect of whiffs,
in the odour of charring nicotine…
You better not tell anyone this,
that I was young when I learnt the right measure of air
in the fluid craft of weaving a dying fathers
name into tender explosions of bland sighs,
that I was too young when I learnt the language of loss—
how our dried voices now pitch sounds no one else can hear,
speaking silence that outlives the tenure of ears.
Feranmi Ariyo is a storyteller from Nigeria. He won the inaugural Edition of the Punocracy Prize for Satire in 2019 and was selected as a fellow for the Unserious Collective Fellowship in 2022. His work has been featured on African Writer, Kalahari Review and Rattle‘s Poetry Podcast, amongst others.