Two weeks ago, my mother became the matriarch of her extended family, the way fifty seven year-olds suddenly become matriarchs: her elder sister died suddenly and painfully from a brief illness.
In 2009, I sat in the dark of the swamped living room of a hoarder pastor I had been assigned to live with during my first year of university and listened to her cry on the phone. Her mother had just died at 89 and for months she had worried about her, sworn she’d drop everything to go see her. But she had three sons in university and a whole network of cousins and nieces and nephews whom she supported directly or indirectly. Dropping everything wasn’t simply something she could do then.
For months I’d endured increasingly vicious gas-lighting from this pastor whom I’d once looked up to so fiercely, I told everyone he was my uncle. He demarcated the tiny lecturer’s flat into two, effectively sequestering me into my bedroom, the bathroom and the corridor that led to the outside door. He berated me constantly, threatened to put me out in the middle of the semester because I’d come later than 9 pm. He refused to buy food for a month to ‘teach me a lesson’ for burning meat and waited till I noticed that he’d stopped buying food. I didn’t notice, by then I was too depressed to think of anything other than school. So when my mother called that night, I was finally ready to tell her I wanted to leave. Instead she wept, and I listened, ill-equipped on how to handle someone’s mother dying and made suddenly aware of the fragility of mine.
My mother has always lived an interesting life. As a child she was proclaimed a dada and bribed when she was older to let them cut her shaggy locks. What grew out after that was fine downy hair that never toughened. It was as though cutting off her locks had removed the armour she’d been brought to the world with, and the delicate princess-y curls that grew out after were a wry metaphor for the delicateness she would have find a veneer of toughness to protect. At ten, they found her a much older man and betrothed her to him. It was symbolic they said, a way to keep her from returning to the ogbanje spirits that wanted to lure her back to them. She was different and there were few explanations for a girl as precocious as her, so they chose the easiest one. Her parents sent her away not long after, to live with her eldest brother, away from the man she’d been betrothed to, on the pretext of getting an education. By 18 she was on a train to Kaduna with her first husband, Igbekele, two small children in tow, one voluntarily fostered. My mother grew up fast, as they were won’t to, in the early 70’s.
But she remembers those first ten years with her siblings. Her eldest brother was gone before she was sentient, her eldest sister followed not long after. Her father was a veteran from the second world war so he had a pension but he couldn’t educate them past secondary school so the one after the first two joined the army and the one after him joined the police force. Another died as an infant, and as they aged they forgot everything about her except the fact that she had once lived.
They found out as children their father had sired a child out-of-wedlock, and while they embraced him as their brother and loved him, he remained just on the fringes of their lives.
My mother stayed closest to the children that came after her, Stella and Ojo. Until she was forced to leave, she was responsible for them. They orbited around each other, returning to the village to see their parents every year, then just to see their mother when their father died in 1993. She missed them, in ways that I can never really understand, didn’t really start to comprehend until they started dying.
The first was Ojo. I still remember him. Our house was a halfway house for my mother’s younger siblings and Ojo was the one for whom the doors were first opened.
As soon as she could, my mother sent for him. Stella at that point was already in the throes of love and lost to my mother. But Ojo, he was still a teenager, still malleable. He had a belly laugh and the superhero jaw the men in my mother’s family inherit. He drew people to himself and let them orbit. I remember being six and setting fire to the boy’s quarters in which he lived behind our house because he was the only one who would let me play with matches. He didn’t tell them what really happened, he chose instead to apologise. They fought after that, explosively. But it didn’t measure on the Richter scale of fights they’d previously had.
He was in his twenties by then, it was no longer cute to be living with his elder sister. So he left, and came back with a child, David. Then he had a stroke, then a series of them, and died. I was young, but even I know it wrecked her. He was her baby. She left him the very first time when he was three and spent her life trying to make up for her absence. It drove her and Stella apart at first, then brought them closer, through hard marriages and rebellious children. They made sure we never forgot him.
When her sister Stella died four weeks ago, I knew because I woke up to my brother crying. He’d been to see in her in the hospital a week before, and my aunt had insisted he carry her, now that he was a man. She’d been in terrible pain but she stayed gracious, as she’d been in good health and perhaps that was why it gutted him so much. My mother sounded dry-eyed though I could hear Aunty Biola sobbing in the background. I asked my mother if she was fine, she said she was.
I told her ‘Onise’, which means ‘take heart’ in Ora.
But I didn’t need to.
She’d lived through the deaths of four siblings. By this one she was resigned, she was ready.