I braced myself for the scream I knew was coming. I heard the gate squeak when the maid came in, as she did every morning. My immediate concern now was how to act surprised, pretend the reason for her scream was novel to me, to lie that the redness in my eyes was from sleep and not a reaction to the dirge that disturbed my mind.
My room was where she came next; I got my act together. I tossed the pillow aside; its dampness a fortress of tears, the liquid emotions of a man who had committed a grave sin. I heard her approaching the door and put up a quasi surprised face. Acting is hard; it’s harder if you have poisoned your mother.
I am not mentally disturbed. I shall not attempt to justify what I have done. But I will try to rationalize it.
Who sat and watched my infant head…
My mother was the best person I had ever known. She gave me everything a mother could ever give a son. If she could afford it and it caused no harm to her child, she would give it.
She fills my childhood memories. I remember in primary one, when we sang poems in class; my favourite was and still is that one by Ann Taylor. While the other children probably recited it because it had a beautiful tune and they loved the rhythm, I did because it meant something to me. Even at that age, I understood the importance of my mother in my life. I recited because I believed it, every word. I recited it because my mother was that woman and I had her best intentions at heart. “I’m sorry.”
When pain and sickness made me cry…
My father left us when I was young. He didn’t run away, he died. Cancer. I was ten, Afam was thirteen and Chiboy, fifteen when he asked to be taken to the hospital. It was unusual because my father never went to the hospital; he took a shot of local concoction every morning. “It keeps the doctor away.”
The doctor diagnosed malaria, my father was adamant it wasn’t but he accepted the drugs anyway. When he didn’t get better, we went back to the doctor who said there was also some typhoid in his system, more drugs were reluctantly accepted and swallowed by my father. When he still didn’t get better, he was taken to another hospital. The doctor came up with a diagnosis of poorly treated malaria and typhoid. We were incredulous, we argued but the doctor was very convincing. It also helped that is voice was a deep baritone, and his white coat was pristine, like the hair on his head. He had been doing this a long time. Surely, he couldn’t be wrong; he was. My father got worse, and we took him to the government hospital, where the doctors ordered a barrage of tests.
We were in his room when the results came in. The doctor wore a smile that made a futile effort to hide his sombre mood. We were asked to step outside but monitored proceedings from the window. We watched as my mother’s mouth widened in horror, and tears began to streak down her face. My father tightened the grip on her left hand which he held in his right. His message, albeit unspoken, was clear.“Be strong for the children.”
For the next two months, mother went alone and we watched as she came back every day, cheery of spirit and acted like nothing was amiss. Then one night she came back, her face puffy and eyes red. She came to us, where we always sat and waited for her every night for the past month. She managed to wrap three of us in her arms at once, her petite frame magically shielding us from the ills of the word, temporarily. And then the tears flowed; I was young but not too young to understand, I would never see my father again. His kidney had not survived the tyranny of cancer. He was only forty-four.
Who taught my infant lips to pray…
My mother put all his moneys to good use so that we never missed him financially. We still went to the best schools, had the best tutors and ate good meals. In the evenings, she would gather us for bible lessons. She never failed to show us the way of the Lord. We grew in spirit and became even stronger as family. She thought us to believe God has a purpose for everything. She never failed to remind us that we would eventually unite with my father – who made his peace in his last days – in heaven. We all looked forward to this prospect and never deviated from the teachings of the holy book. My mother would have been the quintessential single mum but for Chiboy. He walked into the shoes my father left behind and after a few wobbly steps, strutted in those boots like he owned them. He became the father we knew. He was my mother’s husband and she never took any decision without consulting him. He was wise beyond his years. God blessed her with a wise son to bear the pain of her husband’s passing.
Five years after my father died was the first time I saw my mother’s faith waiver. It was the night Chiboy died, cancer again, the brain this time. He was twenty years old. I heard her question God for the first time ever. “Why?”
Who could blame her?
Afam joined Chiboy and my father in heaven when he turned twenty-four. He went to bed complaining of a headache, took some aspirin and was supposed to get better by morning. He didn’t. That was when mother gave up on God.
And can I ever cease to be…
I am forty years old now and unmarried. I’m single because I live everyday in fear, fear that one day the angel of death will come down in the form of a mysterious illness and swoop me up to heaven to be with my father and brothers. My mother thought I was being ridiculous, she said that God had a reason for taking the ones he took. She began to believe again after I turned thirty and routine investigations had yet to reveal anything wrong with me. I, however remained apprehensive, but my faith never wavered. I had grown up believing there was a reason for everything and God knows best, and even though my teacher had stumbled, I had attained the spiritual maturity to decide for myself. Turns out my fears were not entirely unfounded and the illness, the one that killed my father and brothers isn’t so mysterious anymore.
“Von Hippel Lindau.”
That’s what the doctor called it and then said it was a rare genetic condition; my doctor is a funny man. He tried to explain some scientific mumbo-jumbo but his words just hovered without any real penetration. The funny man said it was a rare condition. How rare could it be if it had taken three men from one family and put the fourth on death row? Malaria was rare to me, this Von whatever wasn’t.
Ah, no! The thought I cannot bear…
The reason I never started a family was because I never wanted to leave a family to go through what we went through. The idea of my mother outliving me never occurred to me. There had even been rumours in some quarters that she was a witch who gave up her husband and children for sacrifice. It is the reason we never visit my father’s kinsmen anymore. Those people don’t know my mother, but that’s irrelevant. If I die, they may stone her to death, but that’s also irrelevant.
When thou art feeble, old and grey…
My healthy arm shall be thy stay…
And I will soothe thy pains away…
This is what is relevant; I currently have three months to live, my life expectancy cut short by tumors I carry in my kidneys and brain. I couldn’t tell her about them. She might have lost all faith, she might have cursed God, and she might have committed suicide. Although all these might also not have happened, she had stumbled before. There was only one way to ensure she spent eternity in heaven, to ensure we all get reunited again; kill her while she still believed.
That’s why I played God.
I have made my peace already.
I know where I am going.
That is my story.
Joseph is a medical doctor in Nigeria. He spins tall tales whenever he isn’t working and also to help keep his sanity.