I lost something once, and in that loss, was everything. I was twelve that year, she was forty-six, her mother was eighty-five and her younger sister had died ten years ago.
I am, because she was. She was my one true mother. Now, I have several mothers, as many as my warm memory of her has permitted. I see her in many faces: the faces of women toiling to master the science of living and the art of surviving the weight of motherhood; the faces of mothers negotiating the impulses of self-love and self-abnegation.
Diabetes ate my mother’s body till it could not find any flesh to feed on. But it wasn’t the disease that killed her. Life woke up one day and shut its door against her. Death, then, left me with only memory.
Memory, the kind I live with, is a heap of ash, the debris of burnt cherished photographs. It draws me nearer to itself, into the prism of unutterable longings. I follow it wherever it leads me.
My mother was one of the busiest women in our street. She left the house each day before 6 am and returned after 6 pm. I didn’t like that she wasn’t always at home to welcome me back from school, to stand at the door, like one of my friends’ mothers would, and say, “Nna m, I made rice for you.” Because she sold perishable goods, she could not always afford the luxury of doing some of the things that mattered to her. In spite of my understanding of the nature of her trade and its accompanying demands, my sense of loneliness was grave.
One day, I decided that I would go to my mother’s shop every day after school, rather than stay at home and wait for her to return to me. That decision helped me to overcome the burden of abandonment that I carried. Even though she sent me home the first day I appeared suddenly at her shop and warned me never to come to the market again, especially in my school uniform, I was determined to earn her acceptance. Although I ran back home with the speed of a restless ghost fleeing the market at the faintest indication of daybreak, I returned the next day and the day after. I continued to return until she accepted that I had come to stay, until I became her business partner, until she started asking me, “Chibu, when will you dismiss today at school? We have to send some goods to our customers. I’ll need you later in the day.” She always needed me in the day. I needed her every second of the hour of every day and night.
Now that I am a growing man, I believe that loving my mother, with the devout energy of a monk renouncing all the desires of the flesh at the temple of God, is one of the clearest choices I have made in my life. In an attempt to give myself to her, I received the truest friendship of my life. I was offered the privilege to sit beside my mother and watch her interact with the world, the wonder to see her nurse other children like hers, the freedom to love the world like she does and to learn what it means to be human in this often inhuman world. I came to her naked, and that’s how I remained till her light, at its brightest glow, chose to shine elsewhere.
My mother hugged beauty in her mother’s womb. She had full straight legs. People still say I got her legs, and that’s one compliment I like to hear very often. To have your mother’s legs is to walk on a body of water without sinking, while the world watches in awe; to stop tiptoeing in fear and walk with the charm of children marching to church in their dazzling Christmas cloths; to possess a beauty so ancient it becomes an enduring tradition and so modern it becomes a living art.
At ten, I started learning how to plait hair because I wanted my mother to look like other women who adorned their hair with colourful braids. After apprenticing at my cousin’s salon for two months, during a long vacation from school, I started practising with my mother’s hair. She was always willing to have my amateur fingers work on her delicately textured hair. We did that for about six months till I became perfect at it. Then I plaited her hair: my first as a professional hair stylist. Because we did it only at night, it took us about eight days to finish. She had to cover her hair with a headgear whenever she had to go out until the Bob Marley hairstyle was fully formed, trimmed and relaxed by massaging the braids with a towel dipped in hot water.
Patty Obasi’s music was one thing that united my parents so intimately that whenever they listened to it, they would forget an unresolved quarrel, enraptured by the gentility of the singer’s voice. My father would wink at my mother, his eyes dreamy and desirous. In such moments, they belonged fully to each other.
“Nothing,” my father said one morning as they listened to Obasi’s “Ezinwanyi Di Uko,” a softly rendered song that celebrates womanhood, “is sweeter than spending your wife’s money.” He chuckled afterwards.
Feigning anger, my mother accused him of deceiving her into marrying him by always fetching water for her when she was a nursing student at Amaigbo. “You were everywhere I went. I was the honey, you were the bee,” she said. “You stole my heart with those buckets of water. The containers are empty now and my senses are back to me. One day, I’ll return to my mother.”
My father laughed so loudly and long that he didn’t know when his leg hit our centre table. “I crossed seven seas and defeated seven spirits just to marry you,” he replied, still laughing. “I deserve to be pampered by morning, afternoon and night, and night again,” he added, eyeing her, like a groom enchanted by the beauty of his bride. Then she joined him to laugh. They laughed and laughed till their laughter and the song became one inseparable orchestra.
I inherited my parents’ near-obsession with the music of that great Igbo artiste because most of my childhood was spent listening to the poetry of his voice and reflecting on the prophecy of his lyrics.
My father is not a member of any Christian agency, but his soul climaxes with joy whenever he is listening to Obasi’s songs. His vision of life is enhanced by his openness to religious diversity and his refusal to conform to the tyranny of organised religion. Through him, I have come to see in Obasi’s music a sincere effort to reconnect humans to their spiritual heritage. Although I do not think that the only way for human beings to reestablish that lost relationship with the supernatural is through the Christian religion, I admit that Obasi was a generously gifted artiste.
I am in love with Obasi, because he sustained my mother’s life with the blessing of his music. If I were God for five minutes, I would resurrect him and charge him to go into the world and save more people like my mother. He was a philosopher and a faith activist, and the world, especially now, needs faith and healing.
I miss listening to my mother argue with my father about the political activism of Obasi’s music. He did not always agree with her that the artiste was politically conscious and that his music was capable of initiating a true political renaissance. He thought, rather, that my mother was so engrossed with politics that she had become incapable of not seeing it in everything, even in a tender music that should be simply enjoyed.
My mother was right that Obasi was a political activist, because politics, as I see it, is both external and internal. Internal politics, which is deeper and more personal than the former, harnesses the pressures of the body and the mind. I think we are all political activists, since we have bodies and our bodies have needs and those needs are expressed and pursued. The ordinary act of having, identifying and expressing a need is political. My mother’s struggle with diabetes illustrates the internal politics, the politics of survival. She died six months after her own mother’s death.
But what would have become of my grandmother had she lived to witness the death of another daughter?
My grandmother, Martha, became a seer after the death of her last child. Edith, Martha said on the night of the first anniversary of her death, was the child who closed her womb and gave her the permission to reclaim her body from the pillage of pregnancy and childbirth. So, when Edith died at thirty while giving birth to her fifth child, my grandmother’s grief, like her prophecy over her own life, was absolute. Praying that night, she revealed to us that she would rather die than witness the death of another child of hers. As her pain calcified and turned to depression, I realized that although Edith’s death was difficult for my grandmother to bear, what broke her completely was the uncertainty of tomorrow, the fear that she might again live through the anguish of losing another child.
I am a vicarious witness to the pain of childbirth. The labour room is a place of dreams and madness. When a child arrives, his or her presence anaesthetises the pain of labour and fulfils the mother’s dreams of joyful motherhood. But a stillborn leaves with the mother a legacy of madness. It is so that the grief of losing a child is one memory that defies the therapy of time. Even when it seems like the passage of time aids in the process of forgetting, the weight of loss comes back, even heavier, each time a mother sees other children born in the same month or year as her dead child. The irony is that forgetting and remembering are two different branches of the same tree.
A labour room is a charmed space. It is for both the strong and the gentle. There: patience is tried, faith is tested, knowledge is challenged, science is strengthened, miracle is affirmed. The attendant nurses and doctors exhibit the firm tenderness of a parent while discharging their duties. They remind the woman in labour that she can deliver the child. They reassure her that the pain will be over once the baby comes out.
My experiences have taught me that a child is the harvest of love and labour. And I understand better why it was impossible for my grandmother to let go of Edith. Her hopeless sense of suffering makes me think of what life in a mortuary will look like.
Young people, I like to imagine, do not rest even when facing death. The energy of youth still intoxicates them. They do not get tired of moving about and they refuse the coldest places in the mogul, because their bones may weaken. They chatter from morning till evening and at night snore like the vibrating engine of a rickety Volkswagen. It is the old that suffer most in a mortuary. The promise of rest after a long tiring life is ruined for them, because they expend their energy taming the young people whose ears, it seems, were lost at the places death met them. Old people, unlike young ones like my mother and her sister, Edith, who still dream of the things of the world, like marriage and parenting, know that soon the earth will swallow what is left of their bodies, so their last desire is to be allowed some peace to reflect on the indignity of eating sand for the rest of their days.
My heart is a grave, and there I bury this continuum of loss. But today, I have come to resurrect you, mother. I am here to make the grave vomit what it swallowed. In my right hand is faith and in my left is anguish. They are all I have ever since that Tuesday morning when your eyes blinked and shut down, like a dead computer. I’m afraid God’s way is full of traffic jam. I cannot wait.
Let me tell you about yesterday. You missed the glory of the All Saints procession. It was not Father Zacharias that delivered the homily. Many priests have come and gone since you left. Our present parish priest is a very tiny man, almost invisible. He never looks someone in the eye. Maybe he’s afraid of something. Maybe he was forced to leave his childhood sweetheart and be joined in holy matrimony with the Blessed Virgin Mary. His message was solemn, affecting. He said that God allowed Lazarus to die to demonstrate the weakness of death and that Jesus raised him to show the power of life. I confess now that Jesus’ way appeals to me.
I will not let you eat sand, mother. That is why I am here, kneeling before this silent tomb, looking beyond its cracks, emboldened by years. I don’t know what Talitha Cumi means, but if it raised the dead girl, I know it will raise you.
We’re going home tonight, mother. Gather your things and follow me.
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is a literary conversationist and writer. A 2018 César Egido Serrano Foundation Ambassador of the Word for Nigeria, he is the curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. A participant of the 2011 Longman Creative Writing Workshop, he is a postgraduate student of Literature at the University of Ibadan. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Boy Review, Ovis Magazine, Praxis Magazine, Coal Magazine and elsewhere.