Like many kids, I had a long pile of books sitting atop one another in a corner of my room. Save for a few exceptions, the stories were mostly the same: a young lady who suffered but sat in the woods, singing happily to the birds and sparrows; a poor, wretched man who hits a fortune and becomes a philanthropist; a homeless woman who marries the Duke or prince and becomes the queen of kingdoms; a wanderer who goes in search of treasure and finds it. Whichever it is they seek or dream of, they eventually get it and live happily ever after. In this world of tales and fantasies, there are challenges and the journey is fraught with hurdles. But there is love and riches at the end of it all, their efforts pay off, and life rewards their level of consistency and hard work.
If there was one thing I constantly wished for, it was that life should be just as it was in my fairy books – full of roses, strawberries, and peppermints. But even as a kid, I knew things didn’t work that way. After living in my world of fantasies through those books, I would climb out of it to face the harsh realities of my real world.
On several occasions, life has shown me that this world in which we all live is not a fairytale book where people will eventually be compensated for their suffering or where the end of human pain is riches or the love of a prince. One of such reminders is the death of a woman I loved.
My mother’s friend and her husband raised their 7 kids through their blood, tears, and sweat. My parents had known them for a really long time and through the years, things hardly got better for them. One day, her husband was taken to the hospital and he never returned.
Years after we had all lost contact with the family, my father unexpectedly met the firstborn, asked after his mother to which he answered, “she is dead.” That night, as I sat on the floor, my hands wrapped around my body, I wondered what this life is really about and if there’s no way the universe can say “listen, she has suffered much, let her fortune improve and let her enjoy life before death takes her.”
As I think about her, I see her in the bakery, as a hawker, as a seller, I see all the struggles, the lines that defined her faces, the streaks of white hair sparsely sprinkled on her head, the sharpness of her shoulder blades and the perfect slimness of her waist. I was rooting for her. I was counting the years until her children would be grown and rich and happy and their mother would eventually be comfortable, wear the finest of robes, and with a huge smile declare that although she had suffered all her life, she is now fulfilled and happy.
One of the biggest lies we have been fed with, I believe, is that if we put in all the work now, suffer now, life will eventually reward us and we’ll get everything our hearts desire. So young ones are grinding and hustling non-stop without resting, they are depriving themselves of good things so they can have them later. And then they realise there may be no ‘later’ and the expectation-reality mismatch is making a lot of people unhappier than they should.
My mother’s late friend’s story is one of many all over the world. People have put in all the work and suffered a lot with the hope that things will get better eventually. That didn’t happen.
As we walked through the streets one night, cars whooshing past us, my sister casually said, “sometimes there are no happy endings in life, and there’s no need to wait for it. Just live your life as best as you can and try to enjoy every moment.”
My mother’s friend reminds me of Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood. For a long time, I considered the writer to be unfair; surely, Nnu Ego couldn’t have suffered all her life to have ended up a pauper who just died by the roadside. If I had written the book, I would have ensured that even without the kids, the woman would have lived a swell life. Suffered? Yes, but still finding contentment, and perhaps fulfillment, in the long run. She deserved it. Still, if I were to be the writer, I would have been out of touch with how the world truly works, for life never rewards us because we are kind, we have suffered, or we deserve it, and uncertainty inhabits the abyss between what we dream life should be and what life eventually gives us.
So. You. Live. Now.
Of course, context matters and people’s lives are unique. Many have had that big break, put in the work and achieved their goals. They have gone on to dream and conquer the world. Their suffering has paid off and life has rewarded all their efforts. So I am not saying you shouldn’t expect life to be fair to you or that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I am saying one should not live one’s life solely expectant of what’s to come while forgetting to live each day. For it may never come. And it is not because one is undeserving, life is just life-ing. There is no big break or happy ending lurking behind curtains waiting for us to unravel it, and death is no respecter of time and season. So stop waiting and start living.
When I talk to the universe at dusk, I ask why my mother’s friend died just when her children were grown and it was time for her to ‘reap the fruits of her labour.’ This question singes my throat at night, still, there is no answer to this. As we grind and hustle, let’s just learn to live each day whole, while still working towards and hoping for better things to come.
Stop saving yourself for tomorrow, it’s not assured. Enjoy each moment, enjoy each day, while you plan for tomorrow.