We Will Be Sleeping Side by Side by Ndukwu Joseph Omoh

This is a tiny tale of your birth, my child. This story happens in transit, at different points in a journey. I carry across to you everything from different times when I was still conscious enough to keep a record of your history, a narrative of your birth. Yes, you will be born, but it is not the way a child ought to be born. So I hold this story in my blood, so that when you go, I will have affirmed that you lived, that you journeyed through the turbulence of life bravely like anyone else.

I already feel you unfastening yourself from me, from our contract together. We would have shared a longer, fuller life, you and me until I grew old and left, allowing you the honour that mothers leave to their babies, the honour of laying me to rest, for it is the honour of a child to lay his mother to rest in death just as it is the honour of a mother to lay her child to rest in life. That would have been the greatest honour: that you outlived me. But this narrative has its sights on a different ending, and it has chosen different twists, my child.

I know I shall die this night. I feel this as surely as I feel you slipping away from me, breaking my heart. I have been fighting, fighting for you, fighting for me, fighting for us. But my body has refused to sustain you, to nourish you until you come forth whole. And this fills me with crushing worthlessness. I feel like a shameless mother, a complete failure.

The doctor we went to said I showed symptoms of pre-eclampsia, that it was really bad. The woman is too stressed out, I still hear him say. And it seems she has not been eating well. But how can he understand? How can he understand that you don’t choose stress, that stress chooses you? I conceived you after two miscarriages. You would have had more brothers or sisters, but life said such was not to be. I did everything I could to fight against life’s harsh sentence. I guess this was my mistake, fighting too hard. But how could I not? Your father, Madubem, was there like he was not there.  I expected more from him, expected him to step up to the plate and be a man, but he was weighed down by worries bigger than his life, worries that he inhabited alone like a cold, dark cell. He came back home, his body slack with the strain of labouring at the wharf, his eyes clouded over, glum, weary with trying. He would sleep beside me, and in his sleep, I’d listen to his discontent as he babbled in his sleep.  Some mornings he woke up and sat outside the house and refused to go to work, and when I queried him, he’d say, If you are so hardworking, why not drag yourself to the wharf and do the hustling, or something similarly annoying, and after which he would rise and go someplace else where he wouldn’t have to deal with me, to the backyard or out of the house. On the evening of such days, he usually would leave to drink, and when he came back, drunk, it was on me he took out all his frustrations. He didn’t beat me, no. Your father didn’t have it in him to beat a woman, and I still like to think that he cared that much for me. But he screamed. Oh, my child, he screamed, and I do not know which I would have preferred, beating or the screaming. He would scream at me over small matters, scream so loud it would frighten the spirit out of me, and my nerves would feel like they were rubbing against each other and emitting small sparks.

All through those days, I noticed something in him that had never been there when we got married. He no longer knew how to live with us, withdrawing farther and farther, unwilling to even meet my eye. It was as if staying with us in the same house and looking at us brought him in direct contact with deep shame, as if being with his family reminded him of his failure. But I didn’t care too much that he was not as well off as he’d have loved to be, and much as I tried to show this, your father didn’t see it. He saw only what he wanted to see and thought that was what everyone else saw. I know I stink to you now. I know sey I dey smell for your nose, but I will prove you wrong, he had said to me once when we had argued over changing your elder sister’s school. And I had wept for him that day and prayed harder than I remember ever praying for God to open his path. These strains continued until I conceived you.

Yet, in the midst of all these, I fought for your brothers and sisters, the ones you have and the ones you would have had. In the midst of all these, I am still fighting for you. You might wonder if this makes any sense, this fighting, since we are both going to die tonight. Well, I can’t tell you if it makes any sense. In life, you do not just get to say yes or no anyhow, or completely determine what makes sense or what doesn’t. I can only say I cannot help fighting. I have never been that kind of mother. And I know you ache to know what will happen to your brother and sister and all I am leaving behind. Well, I wonder about these too, and I cry many endless nights, because it is never an easy choice for a mother to make – to choose one child over another. And in fact, I have not made that choice. I just know that I feel you dying and I sense my death too. And I rail against this. I want to hold you all beneath bright clouds, and when it is time, be buried beneath your feet. So if we die this night, it would not be because I chose any of it. It would simply be that we fought until we were out of breath.

I planned to have you the way mothers have babies, so I took you to that clinic along the major road. I still remember that I didn’t like the place, the walls felt damp, the rooms smelt of antiseptic and vomit and the nurses were curt, acting as if they were being forced to work. Only the doctor was kind, but he was not always around. “Rest, rest, the doctor will soon be here, they’d say on and on, but he never came around very often. I stayed there, and I began to decay. My leg began to swell and ache; the nurse at the new maternity we would go to said it was God that brought me, that I would have died. I later learnt that I had been treated so recklessly because the deposit I had made was not enough. I should have known the problem was money. There was a lot of calling around for your father. Where is the husband of this woman? What kind of man would abandon his wife like this? When your father finally came, he came to scream, to throw his anger at people. This is ridiculous! Ridiculous! The bill is too much! For what! I heard him through my drug-induced haze. He was close to my door and I sensed he was in a struggle with the hospital staff, they trying to pull him away and quiet him down, he trying to force his way into my room and pull me out of there. I am getting my wife the hell out of this hospital, he kept saying. I didn’t protest much, and I couldn’t have even if I had wanted to, for I was in a state between life and death, floating in a kind of fog. I was grateful to be still alive.

The new place we went to was warm, a maternity clinic that was also the house of an aging nurse. She took us in and attended to us with a kind of warm urgency, and then I began to sense I was in a really horrible shape. Her every gesture said, why did they let you come to this?

This woman in this new place had an assistant, a nurse, a young, light-skinned lady with two black marks cut into her cheeks, one on each. The young nurse was eager, and I knew she was an apprentice. Hers was the eagerness of a learner who wants to master a trade fast. So when the old nurse, whose method was treatment through medications and prayer, was around me, examining me, rubbing anointing oil all over my body and muttering prayers,  the young nurse would draw close to my bed – very close – and keep sounding ami ami, rubbing her palms together in supplication.

I liked that she was eager for my well-being, but I still wished she would not stand so close to my bed, for her smell. She smelt of incense and palm kernel oil, a smell I, for some reason, thought was not good for you.

When they prayed for me, I responded. In my weak state, I kept nodding and saying amen. I was clinging on to the robe of God. Perhaps he might give us a chance. But that was not to be.

After a while, I was unable to see – it was not blindness. My eyelids just refused to open. They slid over my eyeballs and swelled; my face also became puffy, and I was sure I looked like a frog in a swamp. Soon too I grew heavier, my legs became weaker and more swollen, and I stopped being able to walk without some pain. I became almost completely dependent. The old nurse carried me everywhere – my arm thrown over her shoulders: to the toilet, to the bathroom where I was practically given a bath, and then when I was finished back to the bed. The young nurse for her part fed me. I was miserable, my child, and how could I help it? I cursed life.

On some nights, the old nurse would lift a lamp to my face and pull back my eyelids, put in my eye drops and say something I could not quite hear, but which I suspected was a prayer. But nothing happened. Pus began to pour from my eyes and I felt miserable. I started reacting adversely to the drugs and injections, started kicking back against the treatment, started vomiting, started losing my desire to hold on to life. But the old nurse, she was not going to have a death on her hands. She would hold my hands and rebuke me: “Stop this, stop this. Reject this death, will you? And after everything, she’d offer more prayers and give injections.

This woman, the old nurse, she was gentle, and there was a calm understanding about her that convinced me that she too had known a similar suffering. One time she came into the room and met me humming a song and patting my stomach – something I did to reassure you, and myself – and she settled beside me and said, “Yes, that is the spirit, that is how you reclaim life. She then joined me, and we sang together. It was one of those few times I felt there was still some joy in life.

I am in this maternity barely two weeks when your father comes demanding to take me away.

“This is God’s fight now, Nkem,” he says, lowering himself over me. The old nurse is by the door, warning him against his rash action.

“Her case is complicated. She needs full medical attention,” she is saying. Your father doesn’t listen. He puts my right arm around his shoulder, holds me around the waist and helps me up from the bed. As he does so, I protest, “De, are you sure?” I ask, no longer certain what course of action is wise. Your father tells me to be calm, that God is in control, that I will not die. I want to believe him, but believing in anything now is hard.

I am carried outside, supported on the shoulders of two men, your father and another whom I do not know, and they put me in a bus which jangles as we drive out of the compound. The sounds irritate me, and two women, sensing this, draw closer to me and hold my hands, comforting me, saying, “Be strong; it will be fine. Somewhere in the bus your father is talking to someone he calls Pastor, seeking reassurance from him. I wish he would find strength more within himself, wish he would act more on his own instincts.  I turn my face to the wind rushing in through the window, to shut out his voice and the ceaseless jangling.

We stop and I am helped down. Every step is a pain. At somewhere that seems like the entrance of a house, my slippers are taken off, and I am led in on barefoot. The room is lit with candles and the bare cement floor is cold. It is on this floor that I am spread out on my mat and wrappers.

Suddenly I begin to see people rushing down a balcony, holding lamps high in the air and peering through their lights. I cannot be sure if this is real or if I am only dreaming. I just want to raise my hand and call your father and tell him to take me away from this place. He could do that for us. But he is nowhere near, instead what I hear is a man’s voice. He places a hand on my forehead and repeats what he had said before, “Sister Frances, today I tell you, God has won the victory.” And then, I sense people gather around me, and they begin to pray.

In the heat of the prayers and muttering, I begin to shake, like I am having convulsions, and your father rushes to my side and holds me, imploring, Pastor, let’s do something, but the pastor tells him to leave me. “God is doing his work,” he says. By this time I have stopped seeing, and now it does feel like blindness, such that even if my swollen eyelids are pulled back, I still may not be able to see out of my eyes. However, I find a way to see. I draw up the people from their voices and their positions around me, but my imagination is tired so they all appear like blurry sketches, like things drawn in chalk on a blackboard and partly rubbed off. They continue praying for me, sprinkling water on my puffy face and my quivering body, and my child, I do not know if I should curse them or bless them.

Later, I hear your father, in broken phrases. He is calling the doctor.

After the call, he comes back to my side and takes my hand in his. The prayer has quietened except for a few women still speaking faintly in tongues. A woman comes to your father where he is squatted beside me, and asks him if the doctor is still coming. The pastor comes and I feel his presence heavily and I know he has stooped beside your father, perhaps with  a hand on his shoulder  and he says, “Brother Dubem, she will be fine,” and then he says to me, “Sister Frances, have no fear, for the righteous shall live by faith.” And I hear him rise to leave. A worm of anger immediately twists through me.

“Nkem… Nkem… Nkem…” your father keeps saying in a voice that I know has more to say, but which I know he will never say. I hear in his voice that he is pleading for us to stay, trying to tell me that things would be better, that he would be a better husband and father, I know these are the things he would have said if he didn’t always hide behind shame, behind defeat.

“Take me away from here, De,” I manage

“Everything will be fine, Nkem. The doctor will soon be here,” he says, still holding on to my hand.

When the doctor enters the room and comes to my side, my quivering has calmed, but still, I feel his anger, and as he examines me, I sense also that he fears for me.

Why did you let things get so bad? Why? The question is directed at your father. He makes to say something, but something chokes his voice, some kind of helpless confusion. I feel his presence by my side, and I imagine tears in his eyes.

He is a good man, your father. I know, that’s why I married him and was willing to stay with him, but sometimes a person may become lost in storms of his own making and storms not of his own making. A person may lose himself trying to live. I only wish things had gone differently.

The doctor now has a glove on, and he is fitting me with a drip. Gradually, I begin to feel nothing, and then, as if jolted by something, I am suddenly awake again, and I hear the doctor’s voice, urgent and afraid, “We have to get her into labour.

            They are going to take you out of me, and I don’t know if they have detected it, but I have. Your heartbeat is slowing and so is mine. The pulse is weak in my arm.

Now, my child, I shall tell you of a time when I attended a funeral, my own funeral, and women sang, and some laughed, and some cried, and several held your father’s hands. Seeing this, I felt a violent rage at your father, and at the same time felt the need to forgive him, for I knew how his life has been heavy, and ours too; I did not want to be the one to add another burden. At this funeral, there were no black colours on backs, only colours of the rainbow, red, orange, green, cyan, purple. At this funeral, a slight rain was falling, and there were only two men by the grave, your father and someone that looked like him, who was holding a child. He placed the child by the grave like a mud-splattered bouquet. And I knew it was you. So I screamed, and screamed, till the women came at me, fierce like dogs, barking, barking, shooing me away with Bibles raised threateningly. I twisted through them in a mad dash, and a sudden whirlwind flipped everything and everyone into disarray, and suddenly I had you in my arms, and I ran through the burgeoning rain and the shrieks ripping behind me. But you didn’t cry, my child. You were still, but somewhere along the road, you raised your hand and touched the streams of water crawling down my face. And I knew you were still with me.

I ran until I grew tired, and then I walked, and then I sat beneath a tree and then I suddenly realised that the world was empty, that it was just you and me and there was a chilling silence. I didn’t know if I continued walking or if I just sat there until darkness covered us. I don’t know. I only know that I am tired and that you are too, and that we feel a heavy sleep spreading over us.

Now, my child, it is strange how many stories happen to us in one tiny moment. Strange. But I tell you what I know – a story cannot have two bleak endings. A person never has only one story. In another, you are born and have children of your own. In yet another, you are an old man with a stick, full of stories. In another, you are a doctor healing women. In another your silence is not the silence of the grave; it is the silence of quiet meditation. I like to think, even now, that your silence has never been of the grave, but rather, one of meditation. I imagine you are a thinker, solemn and heavy with ideas. Sometime in the early months of the pregnancy, I felt you only as a tiny stirring within. Even when the scan showed that your arms and legs had formed, you seldom kicked and stamped as your brother and sister had done. What was it, were you contemplating departure? Had you always known? Well, I guess now is not the time for such questions. Maybe some other time I could ask you all your thoughts. Now, however, I imagine all the ways it would have been with you, imagine who you’d have been: favourite colour, favourite food, schools you’d have gone to, girls you’d have loved and those that would have loved you. I imagine too what you would have looked like. And every time I do, I see a small, serious face behind eyeglasses, a thinker’s face. The image of you is too grave; I put it in a photograph beside me, but it is too weird, so I try to imagine another face for you, but your thinker’s face is stubborn. It insists. I try to imagine your voice. It sounds like Dubem’s, but more certain, surer. I smile sometimes, thinking these things. I know you’re still there. I don’t know, something tells me you didn’t enjoy this story much, and I wish I could tell you a better one. But I do not have another, so for now, my child, let us content ourselves with this one, and let us be comforted, too, in knowing that when the worst has happened, we will be sleeping side by side, you and me.

 

 

Ndukwu Joseph Omoh is a Nigerian writer living in Benin City, Nigeria. His work has been published in Saraba, Africanwriter.com and the Kalahari Review. He tweets @Joseph_Omoh_ .

 

Featured Image Credit: Chris JL

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