Ijeoma’s Red Shoes

Catherine Dike


I remember June 25, 2013, as the day my life came to a halt. My daughter, who was three and a half years old, died after a brief illness. At the time, my children and I were living in Lagos, Nigeria. I had been separated from their father, my ex-husband, for two years but had been going through a series of marital problems for years before that. All of my life, I have had trouble recognizing the need to walk away from unhealthy relationships.

On June 23, Ijeoma came home from school and ran into my arms. Her body was too warm for my liking, so I gave her a fever syrup medication. The fever increased. I took her to see the doctor at the clinic near my house. He said he suspected pneumonia and gave her more medication. But the next day, her condition was worse. We rushed her to the hospital. I knew somehow that it was already too late.

After Ijeoma was buried, I travelled home with my other daughters to visit my parents in Owerri, Imo State, where I grew up. I needed to clear my mind of suicidal thoughts. After about a month, I had to return to work, but my parents insisted that the children stay with them for a while. I returned to Lagos by myself where I had a strange experience.

As I entered my apartment, I saw that my daughter’s belongings had been packed into a box by my nanny. But she had left Ijeoma’s red shoes out on the table. They were Ijeoma’s favourite item of clothing. She even wore them to bed sometimes. I stood there, shocked, as the shoes stared at me. As I picked them up and held them, I broke down. All the years of marital abuse flashed in front of my eyes. Bitter memories came rushing back. Right then and there, I knew that life waits for no one. My daughter had left behind her favourite red shoes and travelled to the great beyond. But the sight of those shoes also welcomed me back from a black zone of emptiness to a new reality. For the first time, I truly considered my existence and how I too would die some day. If I didn’t live a fulfilled life, what legacy would I leave for my children?

All of these thoughts fuelled my motivation to go back to school. While my children stayed with their grandparents and went to school in my hometown, I moved to South Africa to study media and journalism. In February 2018, my dad died of colon cancer, which was another devastating phase of grief. I made the decision to leave my country.

I applied for a visa to take my children to the U.S. But after a brief time of investigating the opportunities there, I decided it would be better to live in Canada. On December 17, 2018, we crossed the U.S. border on foot. I had only sixty dollars hidden inside my winter boot, but somehow we managed to get to Montreal. After three months in a shelter, and several more living on government assistance, I was able to get a job. I was also granted asylum.

By January 2020, I had saved enough money to fly to Edmonton with my children, and we settled here with the help of a family friend. I have gradually recovered from my grief, and I’m learning to live peacefully with no regrets. Ijeoma’s little red shoes taught me to let go of anger and guilt in order to create space for a new life.

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