Muhammad Ali: The Power of No

Muhammad Ali jpg

I never liked boxing. I still don’t but my parents were hooked onto it. When the forthcoming fights were announced, they would make sure they were home early from work, giving themselves enough time to get the meals for my brothers and I. Once that was done, we were put to bed promptly and out of the way. When the fight began, nothing could interrupt. From my bedroom, I would hear shouts and screams from my parents, which I imagined occurred towards the end of the fight or when someone had been knocked out.

My brother’s held a mild interest but Muhammad Ali only came alive for me when I watched him being interviewed.  I was intrigued, I was shocked and I was fascinated.  Here was a black man who showed confidence, perhaps arrogance. I didn’t understand it! How on earth could he like that? Why did he not show fear?  This high-esteem was something I had never seen before.  It was self-actualisation at its best. Added to all that, he was full of clever witticisms and impassioned by injustices dished out to his community. I remember watching him being interviewed by the British interviewer Michael Parkinson. He passionately articulated the problems experienced by the black community. It was an awakening for me; it also illustrated and answered questions about the racism I experienced in London.

The other incredible thing was his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Wow, was I transfixed. This was somebody who was able to say No, without any difficulty. He had the courage to use when necessary, and used it as a safeguard against mistreatment. Hearing him resist war, racism and injustice, it was refreshingly cathartic.

My fascination with Ali, stayed with me. Years later, whilst at school, I would visit a popular black bookshop called Headstart, where I came across books about Martin Luther King jr, Bobby Seales, Angela Davis, George Jackson and of course, Malcolm X.

Ali was not just important because of his boxing but of his impassioned commitment to racial injustice; his outspoken views made him unpopular with the press, liberals and the right-wing alike; even the Civil Rights establishment did not forgive him for being a member of the Nation of Islam, and of course, his loathing of Lyndon Johnson’s war. While being surrounded by this sea of resentment, he remained true to himself.

I will always be grateful for the presence of Muhammad Ali, of what he gave to the black consciousness movement, and eventually gave to everyone.  Parkinson disease is a cruel disease which does not discriminate, and it took away Life’s favourite son. My heart and prayers are with his family, and I ask that God rest his soul in eternal peace.

Can a book forecast a dream?

October 2015 was a strange month for me. The staff I had working in my house had played me up during the year but it became too much so I said they had to go! It was dramatic but my husband handled it so I was glad it was over.  But while this was going on, in the background I had thought of a title of a particular book I had read.  I couldn’t remember its name nor the author.

After quickly washing up the dishes and tidying up the living room, I went upstairs to our fully stocked library and searched. I couldn’t find it.  Was it at one of the other houses or did I take it with me to London?  No I thought, it’s definitely here…somewhere.  I searched high and low, pulled out a book thinking I had found it due to the cover design.  So what was it about this book that preoccupied my mind? It was about a young girl’s experiences of living with her mother who had dementia.  Throughout the mother’s struggles, she never forgot about her children and her responsibility towards them. Even while fighting the authorities, or being in the mental institution, she tried as hard as she could to be there for them. But for me what was striking about this book was its ending.  The young girl’s recollection of a dream she had about her mother when her mother had already passed away. The girl dreamt of her mother visiting her and how she was so prettily dressed and wearing a bright smile.  She sat with her daughter in the warmth of the sun and the two smiled constantly at each other.  They spoke of nothing in particular but the daughter felt they were the only two in world, and for the daughter, this was an everlasting feeling. Eventually, the mother told the daughter it was time for her to go, and how everything would be fine, and that there was nothing for her to worry about.  As she spoke, she was moving closer and closer to the light until she became a tiny speck in the sky.  The little girl cried.  When I had read the book for the first time some years ago, I remember then being impressed with the book’s ending.

The following day I checked my emails for the first time in the week.  There were so many things to do in the house now that the staff had gone plus, I had just began the beginner’s class in Iyengar Yoga, forcing me to completely forget my mails.  Anyway, there was an email from the residential home where my mother resided, saying that my mother had been admitted into the local hospital on Monday. (I should add at this point that I live abroad but I travel to London twice per year).  The day I checked my email was Wednesday. I was surprised and annoyed.  Why should it take them over a day to contact me? I was about to call them when I changed my mind and decided to call my brother David instead.  David, who lives in London, also said that he only just found out and was annoyed how they delayed with the information.  He said I shouldn’t worry as he would quickly go to the home. But I called the home and spoke to the sister in charge for the evening. She said my mother had not eaten or urinated in 24 hours so they sent her to the hospital.  The hospital put her on a drip but found it to be ineffective so the consultant had decided as my mother was not responding to treatment they would discharge her. The other key thing the sister told me was the reason also for my mother’s discharge was there was not anything else the hospital could do for her.

The following day I called the home to find out what ward she was in.  They did not know so I called the hospital.  It was only after the fifth attempt that I managed to find out the name of the ward and was put through.  The Ward Sister said that my mother was in a poor state and that the intravenous feeding was not having an effect.  There would be a meeting with the consultant and they would decide what to do.  I then called my brother and we talked. Later that evening my husband and I agreed that this coming Friday, I would go to London.

The following morning, it occurred to me that one of the words of the title of the book which had escaped me was ‘Pilgrim’. After an hour or so on the internet, I managed to find the title: Pilgrim State and the author was Jacqueline Walker.  And would you know when I went to the library, there it was!  I searched for the last pages and found what had been on my mind.  Now that I had read it, I was still wondering what was the big deal: why was I compelled to read this.

Friday had crept up quickly as before I knew it, I was in my seat, on a British Airways flight to London.  When I had arrived to my mother’s house in Tottenham, I rushed up to what used to be my bedroom, grabbed the car keys and went to the garage.  The weather I would say was in-between warm and cold. Lots of leaves on the ground and yet, still lots of leaves to fall from the trees.  I warmed up the car for some minutes before leaving to see my mother. When I arrived it was a relief to see her, and to see that well, she was no different from when I had left her on the same day I was leaving for Nigeria, which was exactly one month ago.  Perhaps she was a little gaunt but still had the same glazed expression and jerking to every sound she heard. When I called her name, she jumped, looked about herself but she could not see me due to glaucoma.

Every day I would go to see her and spend most of the time with her. But as the week drew to an end, her breathing had become shallow and short, her mouth was permanently open and her eyelids never seem to close. Each time she paused before taking another breath, my heart would skip a beat. There was a day I fed her some soup, and it surprised the staff as it was the first time in ages that she had taken something to eat. It uplifted me but the following morning, her beautiful unlined face was shaped into the famous visage in the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch.  Not a flattering description I know but it was the image that came to mind upon seeing her. But I was depressed as it was clear that her situation was not going to improve. I believe I spent the rest of that day waiting to exhale.

On the last day of the month my mother passed away just as I was about to leave to go home. It’s a strange experience witnessing death take over as life makes its exit. I remained with her alone in her bedroom for another five hours before the suited undertakers came and removed her body.

Weeks after the cremation, I thought about the book Pilgrim State. I now understood why I was preoccupied with locating the book; it was a sort of preparation of what was to come. Since I quickly forgot my dreams after waking, perhaps it was for me to know, through the ending of Pilgrim State, that Mummy wanted to let me know that there was no need for worry, fear or upset as everything would be alright.

I was happy that I arrived to the UK in time to spend one last week with my mother. I had time to tell her I was sorry for my misunderstanding, that I forgave her when I felt that her support was not enough, to thank her for sacrificing her time and needs, that I loved her, and to say good-bye.  May she rest in perfect peace.