by Funmi Iyanda
…on bravery, honesty and thriving.
I remember the first time l saw him at the cemetery.
I had been crying. I had not quite cried since leaving the hospital but when the flames of the incinerator swallowed Remi — in that beautiful coffin we had carefully selected -something gave in my chest. The unceremonious finality of cremation startled me. I ensured Remi got the sort of funeral she would approve of, but in all our many conversations l had never asked her preference. But then, I hadn’t expected her sudden death.
She was Buddhist, I suppose Buddhists automatically want cremation, but Remi liked the attention of those she loved. Would she not have preferred a burial so we can bring her flowers as she did her mother? White lilies, clean, neat, streamlined, as she liked things. Remi was a person who straddled contradictions effortlessly.
So l cried out of a sudden fear l had let my friend down. The deep dankness of grief would not hit until much later.
It was through those tears, on a cold November morning, that l saw Akin, he looked young but he looked old, he had a walking stick and dressed like he belonged in a 50’s swing musical; cravat, pocket square, hat and all. I didn’t think he’d dressed up for the funeral; there was casualness in his formality of dress.
When we were introduced. I said a warm hello, at least l think l did- and promptly forgot him.
Months after, a mutual friend tried to commit suicide so we both found ourselves by his side with two different approaches to wrestling life back from despair. Subsequently we got talking, infrequently but cheerily. I liked the immense amount of know “how-ness” and ribald sense of humor buried beneath his dapper exterior. He was a master of innuendoes and pointless trivia whose engineer’s mind solved and resolved tech problems.
I heard he was homeless but had recently got a tech contract job in Manchester, this must be true because he asked me for a small loan to rent an apartment whilst he waited for his first pay check.
I gave it to him without expectation of payback or much interest in his life, I used to be too busy to live. Soon enough l flew off to some job some where in the world l no longer remember.
But Akin paid me back as he said he would. He also started visiting me periodically from Manchester for long languid brunches where he’d ogle gingers and water his latest plant.
It started with a swelling in my foot after a reformer Pilates class, Akin laughed about repercussions of sexually suggestive inner things stretches. It was the last bit of exercise I’d do in the past two years. In those years the illness took almost everything l used to define myself by.
The early months were difficult, no less because of conflicting diagnosis and confusing doctors-but this is not that story.
What illness gave me is stillness and observation, l began to listen more and finally could hear the story he had told me many times.
You see, in 2009, Akin had been diagnosed with Kaposi Sarcoma; he got cancer at the height of his career and life. He lived in a penthouse by Amsterdam’s beautiful Ijhaven harbor from where he travelled widely and entertained often. He was an affluent Eurocentric Anglicized Nigerian, one of those shiny examples of diaspora success.
He had been HIV positive since 2002 but because he was simultaneously fatalistic and scared, he cloaked himself in invincibility. Soon after his cancer diagnosis, he also developed full-blown AIDS. Without any family in the Netherlands he spent weeks in hospital and months of chemotherapy on his own. He’s talks wryly about that time in hospital, watching others die and the pain of chemo. He talks of his faith in his ability to recover and a determination to live with the casualness the British talk about weather.
I have no idea how he took care of himself those years although he says his neighbors helped. I often ask why no one from his family came to stay with him but he’d say no one thought “it was that bad” because he kept blogging and lived as normally as he could. He was given 6 months off work post Chemotherapy but he took six weeks. He once wrote that his motto through life, cancer and AIDS was to thrive. In his words “I will never live as if I’m dying, l do not intend to start doing that now. I live to live well”.
A year and a half later his cancer had gone into remission and his HIV viral load fallen to undetectable. His doctors thought it was a miraculous recovery.
The disease had however taken its toll on his work and finances such that he had to sell his half a million Euro penthouse. He tells me about the immense relief of letting go of everything he once owned and the power of separating material things into needs and wants.
He had continued to blog though the years of treatment and recovery, through job loss, home loss and eventual homelessness. He still blogs, one of the longest running, never missed a post in 13 years. I suspect blogging became therapy but don’t tell him that.
He has that thing of making the effortful seem easy. He is disciplined, consistent and analytical even about his own excesses.
At the time l met him, his cancer had gone into remission and he was AIDs free, he had come back to London to start over. He was born in the UK and educated in Nigeria speaking fluent Yoruba, Hausa, Dutch and a most annoyingly pristine English. He always insists he is as English as anyone else can claim.
I’d ask how he dressed at the homeless shelter and job centre and he’d say, “same way” in that deadpan tone that breaks into a cheeky laughter. I remembered this as a homeless man screamed “James Bond” affectionately at him two days ago in Manchester; he always stops to give money to the homeless. That’s the constant thing with Akin, generosity of affection and material and stoicism underscored with humour.
In the years l have known him, he has gone from cancer and AIDs survivor to a steady tech contractor with a global bank. He has a new apartment and has returned to regular travels around Europe with stints of dedicated plant watering and ginger ogling. When we are out and about, people –mostly tourists- often stop him wanting a picture on account of how he dresses. I tease him about getting listed as a tourist attraction. Such is his charm and charisma. The only tell tale signs of his battles are his tendency to drop off mid conversation and the pills he takes. The other sign l occasional catch is a clouding in his eyes when he reads about child abuse, he has hinted at childhood sex abuse, but never given me details, l don’t pry, he will tell me when he is ready.
I had a lot of time to talk and not talk to Akin because l was often too tired to leave my home or unable to walk so every other week, he’d get on the train from Manchester to spend time with me, laughing and being as normal as possible. He knows l don’t like to be tragic. Sometimes he’d hear something in my voice, l can hear it too but l don’t like to impose, without asking he’d get on the train and be at my door the earliest he can without mentioning that thing he and l heard in my voice. He is a great friend to his friends. One of his oldest friends still stays over periodically, 30 years after they met in college.
In my time of need, I found the kindest, funniest, most dignifying companionship in Akin. He’s good with my taciturn daughter and great with my idiosyncrasies. I am completely non-domesticated: the broken electric bin, high tech cookware and paper shredder all wait for fixing till Akin comes around. He second-guesses me with thoughtful gifts and gestures. He never wallows so I don’t wallow — at least not when he’s around.
I am a lot better now thankfully so this holiday, l go and visit him in Manchester, l had been planning to do so for two years.
As we walked through the industrial wastelands of a city whose stark beauty feels painfully familiar, l think of that morning when we buried Remi and it seems to me she knew I’d need another good friend so she ensured l got one. Remi was great that way. I imagine her winking at helping me forge another unusual friendship.
We were walking by Canal Street when he showed me Molly House, it is where gay men used to seek shelter in darker days. It wasn’t always easy I said. It still isn’t easy in many places including here, he said. A cross dresser walks by and my daughter who is obsessed with Rupaul’s Drag Race TV series says “That’s not a pretty drag queen” to which he cheekily replies, he’s not a drag queen, he’s what they call a transvestite which is different from a transsexual.
We laughed and l asked after his Patrick, who’s apparently not ginger. I thought he only liked skinny red haired men. Patrick is an academic, filmmaking, lip ring wearing, anarchist but that’s because he cares too much. I cannot imagine anyone more different than Akin but when he talks about him, his eyes are soft and he is bashful, l think Patrick may be the real deal and my friend may be giving up plant watering and all night saunas in London although l hear it’s different with men.
Oh yes, my friend Akin is gay, has been all his life. He didn’t leave Nigeria because he was gay, he’s middle class, to be poor is the only real crime, he left because he wanted to become more than was on offer in 1990. He left a high paying job and a company he was part owner of to start over in London then he moved to Amsterdam. He hasn’t been home in 26 years but my meddlesome determination is that he must come home to visit his family. His younger sister recently died after a long battle with kidney disease. That was the only time l saw him withdrawn and unreachable. He likes to tell us how he survived being born 3 months too early, l tell him it was target practice for surviving everything.
Akin turned 51 last week, he really should visit his aged mother and father in Nigeria, l know he’d like to but Nigeria feels like an unknown entity.
I can’t wait to see his face when he encounters Nigeria of today, still difficult in many ways but warm and welcoming too because Englishman or not, it is still home.
We were talking about this on Christmas Day when the news of George Michael’s death broke, suddenly he turned to me and said, Funmi l want to come out, and I want you to be the one to do this for me, I want people to know I’m gay. I have never consciously hidden it but l want to state it now and make it open.
I asked why, he said, its time, l asked if he was sure. He said yes.
So l wrote this story.
For my friend Broda Akin, Uncle ilu oyinbo.