Written by Jennifer Azubuike
I recall the moment Mark proposed. We were shopping for shoes and had turned into a quiet corner so I could sit and try on some sandals when he went down on one knee. I thought he did so to help me buckle the sandal, but he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little black box. Inside contained a gold ring with an oval cut diamond. He took it out, held it in one hand then looked up at me. All this time I watched him and managed to stay calm but my heart was pounding resoundingly in my chest as I realized what was happening. “What should I say?” I thought. “Should I just say yes? Oh, God! I don’t know if I have thought this through. Maybe I should feign nausea and run to the bathroom to gain time to think.” My thoughts raced and I broke out into a sweat.
Thankfully, he had the decency of not proposing under the watchful eyes of strangers. Yet, I felt a large amount of pressure. My throat closed up and my tongue felt paralyzed in my mouth.
“If you’re so fearful, why are you in a relationship with him? Were you never expecting him to propose or was your relationship not that serious?” You may ask.
Our relationship was serious and yes, I had a hunch he’d propose. The truth is that beyond the fact that a yes to Mark was a big decision with a lifetime consequence, there was more…let me tell it in a story.
* * *
Three years earlier, a bubbly Naya and my bright-eyed self reported to our pastor’s office for an appointment on a beautiful morning. While we waited for our turn, we bantered and giggled softly. It was an exciting time for my sister because she was looking forward to being hitched to the love of her life. While sitting there, however, Naya showed an undercurrent of nervousness. She would occasionally pick her nails or wriggle her fingers.
“Ms. Obi, the pastor is ready to see you.” The secretary called.
“OK. Thank you.” Naya replied to the secretary then turned to me. “Kay, Please wait here for me.”
“Where would I go if you have the car keys? Good luck.” I smiled at her.
I watched my sister walk into the office and fiddled with my nails. Somehow, I contracted her nervousness unwillingly. As I reflect now, I wonder if I was nervous for Naya or myself.
“The wedding could be canceled even on its scheduled day if they fail to meet all requirements specified by the church,” I remembered an elder telling my mother several months before. After eavesdropping on that conversation, I subtly picked up a conversation with my sister to gauge her readiness for the strict rules she could face.
“Of course, I will follow all the rules within reason.” Naya shrugged
“What if they insist you cannot have a bridal train?” I asked again.
“I don’t mind that at all.”
“What if you cannot kiss your groom during the ceremony.”
“That is fine. I want our first kiss to be intimate anyway.”
“What if you cannot exchange rings for your vows.”
“That is not possible. Ring exchange is a significant part of making vows.”
“I know, but what if?”
“Like I said, I will follow all rules as long as they are within reason,”
I noted that my sister was somewhat oblivious to the strictness surrounding weddings here and I don’t blame her. I and Naya traveled to the U.K at the tender age of 7 and 11 respectively, and spent most of our teenage and young adult years there. Two years ago, Naya, finished her schooling and started working to support me until I finished too. We knew it was time to return to our home country after Sunny formally proposed to her. Since we returned, there have been varying degrees of culture shock. Regardless, we have tried to adjust since it is our original home, culture, people, and community.
Today, I am nervous because I know that whatever be the outcome of today’s meeting will set the tone for my wedding in the future since I cannot feign ignorance to any degree. But I convinced myself that I shouldn’t be worried since that future is still far off. I was not in any serious relationship yet. Nonetheless, this church has been my family’s church for several generations and it is where I would be expected to tie the knot whenever that time comes.
Approaching footsteps interrupted my reverie. “You’re done already?”
“You don’t look happy. What happened?”
“Let’s just go,” Naya said in a near-breaking voice.
“Please tell me what happened?”
“We will talk in the car,” Naya said as she turned to walk away.
Seated in the car, my sister wanted to start the engine and drive.
“Hold up! You are making me anxious. What the heck happened?”
“I got into the office and was expecting to get a date confirmed since we had already submitted several dates for the church to choose from. Instead, the pastor asked me a series of questions, and at the end concluded that I and Sunny are not ready to set a date yet.”
“Why would he say that?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, according to him we have not fulfilled the major requirements.” Naya tried to mimic the pastor.
“We can start working on them. Did he specify?”
“He said something about attending preparatory classes, submitting a proposed wedding plan and a unity bible or something I don’t care about.”
“I thought you were attending some classes.”
“Yes, but alone. It doesn’t seem to count if Sunny is absent.”
“Is he going to attend?”
“I don’t know. He is not finished with his study.” Naya folded her arm across her chest and looked away. I could see she was holding back tears.
“I’m sorry, this is turning out to be difficult.”
“I think that God-forsaken man is making this difficult for me because I turned down his son.”
“You can’t be so sure.”
“You think he would not be more helpful if I had agreed to court his son?” Naya looked at me, convinced that her proposition was true.
“Let’s go. I think I know what to do.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“Never mind. Pray for me if you please.”
The next couple weeks following that meeting were an uneasy one in our household. Exactly a week later, Nayah walked into the house and announced her decision to my parents.
“You cannot be serious!” The sudden raised voice of my mother had me running down the stairs to see what was happening. I stopped short on the stairs when I saw the little crowd gathered in the living room. I immediately sensed what the matter was and knew I should not join in. My mother was standing with hands akimbo in a typical African mother’s style and facing my sister who seemed unfazed by her confrontational stance.
“A proper marriage is first conducted traditionally; where your family and the family of the groom formally meet and get to know each other, then a bride price is paid. A church wedding follows after that so that the church can witness your union publicly and your marriage is blessed. Then if you choose to do a court wedding after, it’s your wish. How do you think only conducting a court wedding can substitute for all these?” My mother bellowed at my sister.
“Choco, please calm down.” My dad gently pulled my mom by the arm to his side. “Come, sit. I don’t want you to get worked up. Remember your blood pressure.”
“Don’t calm me down, just talk to your daughter!”
“I will but I need you to calm down first. Okay?”
My mom instead hissed and stormed away. Dad turned to Naya.
“Come sit beside me.” My sister obeyed. As stoic as she appeared from where I stood, I could feel her trembling. She has never been the confrontational type. I felt sorry for her.
“My Ada! I know something must have happened to make you want to take such a decision. You can confide in me. I promise I will listen. Please tell me. What exactly is the matter, my dear?”
“Daddy, why is the church reluctant to conduct my wedding?”
“You think so?”
“I know so! I was there last week. The Reverend was condescending and cold. He treated me like a child and it was unfair.”
“Okay? Calm down. Tell me what he said.”
“He said he cannot approve a date for our wedding until I and Sunny attend all preparatory classes.”
“Do you know what the preparatory class is about?”
“I have attended a couple of them.” My sister seemed calmer.
“What is it like? I mean what do they teach?”
“They teach lessons on family life, maturity, and managing finances in marriage. Stuff like that.” She waved uninterestedly.
“So is anything wrong with that in this context?”
“No, but Sunny cannot attend it with me. He’s not even back from the UK.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Erm…can we find a means to include him virtually? It’s a tech age, remember?
“We could, but Dad that’s not the point.”
“Okay? What am I missing?”
“Why does the class have to be mandatory? Why is there a list of demands on intending couples? Isn’t planning for a wedding stressful enough, why complicate things more? It’s no wonder my generation don’t bother to wed in church anymore.” Naya pouted.
My dad smiled and tapped my sister on her shoulder. I had since made myself comfortable on the staircase, supported my chin on one hand, and just listened while trying to stay out of sight but I doubt I hadn’t been noticed. My dad has his way with words and moments like this are his teaching opportunities. I guess you can already tell who is the patient one between my parents.
“Naya, I have a question for you. Where do you think the tradition of weddings in church started?
“Europe? I’m not sure.”
“To be honest, I don’t know either but I guess the right question is why is it important to wed in church?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alright, let me show you something. Do you have a Bible App on your phone?”
“Alright, grab a Bible from the shelf.”
Naya looked reluctant but she put down her bag and picked a Bible from the dad’s mini-library. I swiped open my phone and opened the Bible app I had downloaded. I needed to follow through with this conversation.
“Open to Malachi chapter two verse fourteen and read what it says there out loud.”
“You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.”
“Good! Does anything stand out to you?”
“How about the second sentence? Read it again.”
“Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young.”
“Now, does that sentence make any sense to you?”
“I guess it is saying that the Lord witnessed the vows at the wedding of whoever this was addressed to.”
“Yes. To give you context. This was God speaking through the prophet Malachi to the people of Israel many years ago. It was a weird time when husbands were oppressive of their wives yet displayed piety in church and public. They thought how they treated their spouse did not concern God or affect their relationship with Him but that was not true. God was unhappy with them and had to caution them through this prophet. Now, do you know how that applies to you?”
“When you wed in a church, other Christians witness your vow exchange. God is always present wherever Christians are gathered, so He will also bear witness to your vow. Does it make sense now?”
“Sort of. Is there a benefit to God witnessing wedding vows?”
“Excellent question! To answer that let us read that last verse again. Go ahead, read it out loud again.”
“But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.”
“In this instance, The Almighty God became an accountability partner to these couples in keeping their vows such that when the husbands became unfaithful, He called them out on it. You see my dear, God likes to be involved in our lives but only if we let Him. From my personal experience, it is a good idea to involve God since a marriage could face challenges that were never anticipated. There may be problems in childbearing or rearing, finances or health, and you never know how either of you may respond under such big life pressures. You could fall or pull through; however, if you decide to not just make your vows before God but also be conscious of His presence in your lives, then no situation you face as a couple would overwhelm you. Get it?”
“I think I do.”
“So will you be more open-minded and follow the church’s laid-down principles?”
“Yes, Dad. But what if it takes a long time to complete? It’s a long list of demands!”
“Don’t worry. Your mom and I will help you. It will all work out in your best interest.”
“Thank you, Dad.”
“You’re welcome, Ada.”
Religion is a big part of my parent’s life. However, what impresses me about them is that beyond religion, they live out the principles they preach, and they never pretend to have all the answers and that to me is genuineness. Anyway, I took the words my dad shared with my sister to heart even though I am not too religious.
* * *
My sister started the journey to her wedding based on church guidelines. I watched her express the spectrum of emotions but somehow kept pushing. Soon, Sunny finished his program and returned home too and his presence helped Naya a great deal.
Six months later, they completed all required classes and picked a wedding date. Naya was beyond excited to finally get started on wedding planning. However, based on church rules, each couple must complete medical exams with an independent laboratory before the wedding day, so these two were not completely off the ropes yet.
The wedding was set for September 4th. On August 14th, their medical results came back. Normally, those results were interpreted and sent to the marriage committee of the church. Right away, my sister and her fiancé were summoned to the pastor’s office.
“Good afternoon Ms Ifunaya Obi and Sunday Martins. How’re you?” The Senior Pastor smiled at the couple.
“Fine, sir.” Both chorused.
“Great! Well, your results came back and I’m afraid I don’t have all the good news, but before we discuss any further, I’d like you to individually step into the administration office. Our medical officer will discuss the results of your tests privately then we will reconvene here in 35 minutes. Is that okay?”
“Sir, I am sorry but can we have the results read out to us together?” Sunny protested and glanced at Naya.
“Yes, we are okay hearing it together. There’s nothing to hide.” Naya agreed.
“Alright, if that is what you choose I will invite Dr. Mike into this room then.”
Two minutes after the pastor made a call, the six-foot-tall Dr. Mike Eze strutted into his office carrying a file and took his seat beside the pastor’s desk. His gaze, like his height, could strike fear in his audience but these attributes, in this situation, were made more obvious by the tension of expectancy – what was the bad news? Thoughts ran through Naya’s mind at the speed of light. She could not think of anything that was wrong with her or was she pregnant? That was not possible! She regretted not having insisted on conducting the tests at her own doctor’s office. Was it even right for these strangers to have access to her health record? Isn’t that illegal? Right, but she’s not in the UK. It will be illegal there, not here. Her dad’s words came back to her “Be open-minded Naya, it is only in your best interest.” Naya took a deep breath and grasped the armrest of her seat for support. Whatever it is, I’m sure we will get through it. We have come far enough!
It looked like it took several hours before the doctor finally opened his mouth “I will go straight to the point. We conducted tests on your genotype, blood group, Hepatitis B & C, HIV, STDs, and pregnancy test for you ma’am.” He nodded at Naya. “You two look compatible from the blood and genotype tests. And Ms. Godwin, your results came back perfect. You two seem to be in perfect health except that the HIV result was positive for you Mr Martins.”
Sunny shot up to his feet. “How? When? Where? I mean how?”
“I am sorry.”
“Sorry about what? What are you talking about? How’s that possible? I just finished my master’s program and had to do a medical clearance and this never came up?”
“We did an ELISA test and confirmed it with a NAT test which tests for the viral RNA in your blood. Both could not be wrong.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll have to re-do this test with an independent lab because I don’t believe you.”
“On the contrary, I know exactly what I’m talking about. And yes you’re welcome to re-do the test on your own”
“Mr Martins please sit down. We can discuss the next step.” The pastor pleaded with agitated Sunny.
“What next step? Tell me! What next step? Do you think I don’t know what this is really about? You think I don’t know that you had wanted my fiancé for your son? So you want to frustrate us.”
The pastor shot up to his feet too. “I’m sorry young man but there’s a procedure to follow if you want to wed in this church and that’s what I have followed in your case. Unfortunately, it’s not in your favor.”
“Well, how sure are we that you have been objective in following that procedure?”
“Don’t be silly!”
“Yes, go ahead and insult me, O holy man of God! You know what? I am out of here! Naya, are you coming?”
There was no response. Naya was still seated and in a daze. She later admitted to me that her mind could not immediately process the information so she just sat there speechless until Sunny pulled her up to leave. Poor girl!
As soon as my parents heard about Sunny’s diagnosis, they would not let her see him until the situation was cleared up. Naya cried nonstop, and I cried with her too.
* * *
One of those days, my parents talked with Naya.
“Do you think you need to repeat the test?” My mother asked anxiously.
“The HIV one.”
“Well erm…since you have been with him.”
“She doesn’t need to repeat the test.” My dad cut in. “But I guess what we want to know is if you had any sexual intimacy with Sunny?”
My sister sighed. “No, I didn’t. We were saving that for our wedding night.”
Both my parents heaved a sigh of relief.
One week later, Sunny begged to see Naya but my parents would only let him in our house when they were home. His face was flush with embarrassment as he tried to talk with Naya because my parents sat right in the dining area giving them no privacy.
“I am sorry for all the trouble I caused you.” He started solemnly.
“Did you do the test?” Naya had trouble looking directly at him.
“Well?” She stood to her feet and looked at him expectantly. “Please answer me!”
“I am sorry! I am.” He broke down crying.
“But how? What happened?” As Naya asked, her resolve to not cry was quickly ebbing away.
“I have a confession.” Sunny pulled himself together and resumed. “When I finished my last paper in the UK, Turo, my housemate, hosted a small party. We had friends over to celebrate. It was that night in the midst of being drunk that I had a one-nighter with one of the guests. I am so sorry for my carelessness.”
“Well, how do I believe you?”
“Please Babe, you know me. You know I ordinarily don’t live like that.”
“So, what becomes of us now?”
“Naya!” Sunny went down on his knees. “Baby please look at me. I have made a horrible mistake but…”
“But what?” My mom jumped into the conversation. My dad tried to hold her back in vain when she rose from where she had been pretending to read a book beside my dad and marched towards the couple. “Answer me! But what?”
“Mom please!” Naya lost it and balled into a stream of tears.
“Hold it!” She snapped at Naya and turned to Sunny. “What were you going to say?”
“I was going to say your daughter deserves better. I am sorry for hurting her and your family.” Sunny said downcast.
“Very well! Naya may not have the courage to tell you but I am going to say it right now. You cannot marry her! Yes, you cannot marry our daughter.”
“Mom, I can handle this,” Naya begged my mom.
“No honey, I will take it from here. Please go to your room.”
“Dad?” Naya turned to my dad who looked confused about who to support.
“Naya, please go to your room. I want to have a word with Sunny.” Dad finally said calmly.
Naya left them looking defeated. I followed her. Mom and Dad spoke with Sunny for a few minutes. I am not sure what they said to him but he and Naya ended their relationship, to the heartbreak of my sister.
She did bounce back after several months but the experience left a mark on me.
* * *
I’m not sure if my story completely explains why my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth when my boyfriend asked me to marry him. Mark asking me to marry him is a different ball game from just being friends.
My dilemma was that at this level of our relationship my family, our church and their rigorous process will be involved, and I won’t have much of a say especially because I have learned that they exist to protect my interest.
I looked at him still kneeling and asked him one question. “Are you sure?”
Mark smiled broadly and replied, “Yes Kay, I love you so much not to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“Yes, Mark. I’ll marry you.”
He slipped the ring onto my finger and we hugged. I will not let the unknown future stop me from embracing my joy. Mark was sure of what he feels for me and it is mutual. Whatever lies ahead of us I will dare to face it with him.
Disclaimer: This fictional story is not intended to infer that HIV/AIDS diagnosis is a death sentence. There are innovative treatments available to manage HIV and improve the quality of life of people living with it. Please consult your physician or pharmacist for details.
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