She sat on the brown upholstered couch, her favorite spot in the old duplex home. A portrait of her family was in her slightly arthritic right hand, and her phone was in her left. Dike’s number was the last number she had dialed on her phone. His secretary had been the one who picked up the phone, as always. The woman had been crisp and business-like on the phone, not at all fazed by the fact that she was speaking to her employer’s mother. That she had to deal with the secretary, unable to break through the administrative front gate to get to her son, spoke volumes about her relationship with him – with all her children.
It broke Christina Igwe’s heart to know that she had been reduced to the least priority in the lives of her children. They never called, except she called them. Vera, her first child, had always been her daddy’s girl. Christina’s husband had doted very much on his first daughter, much to her chagrin. And now, it increasingly seemed like the ties to her father, who was now deceased, was all the reason Vera ever came home; she’d last been around with her husband and children during the ten-year memorial ceremony the family held in honour of the late patriarch seven years ago.
Dike was her second child, the one whom she considered to be her own, and he too had gradually stopped paying her much attention. Although she got SMS alerts from her bank every now and then, texts that evidenced his deposits into her account, Christina yearned for the care that came from hearing the voice of her son, listening to him complain about how tough the economy was being on business and talk ebulliently about his children. She didn’t even know how many children he had. The last she remembered, his wife had been in the early stages of her pregnancy after two kids.
Jeremy, her third, was the one that broke her heart the most. She loved him, but had hated knowing that he was homosexual. When she found out about him, she’d believed it to be a habit, one he’d picked up from the boarding school he attended, or perhaps some pastime he’d incorporated from those foreign movies he was addicted to. She had tried to make him stop, to make him excise what she truly believed was evil. She had taken his case to her pastor, called on his name fervently in her prayers. But he’d stayed the same. Then they had a bitter fight eight years ago, a fight that estranged them and kept him away from home for years. Dike told her soon after that Jeremy had applied for asylum in the United States, and had already left as at the time he was informing her. Dike had given her Jeremy’s number but she’d resisted the urge to call for the longest time. An asylum meant he’d sought and gotten the validation of another country to carry on with his sinful life; the thought of how depraved Jeremy’s soul would have gotten turned her stomach. However, as she sat in her seat now and stared out at the evening, while thumbing through her phonebook, her heart ached with the longing to hear her son’s voice, to know how he was faring, to tell him everything was alright, to hear him tell her that everything was alright.
Maybe she had been too hard on him, maybe she had been too extreme in her rejection of him after their fight, when she refused to pick his calls or heed to the intercession of his siblings, when she banished them from ever speaking to her about him. Maybe she hadn’t been the good mother she’d often prided herself on being in the past, as evidenced by how stern and overprotective she’d been of the twins, Tochi and Tobenna, in her bid to ensure that they did not grow away from her. And yet they had; when that happened, she would always wonder. Perhaps Tobenna had disconnected from her because of her incessant intrusion and scrutiny of his life when she began fearing that he would turn out like his elder brother, Jeremy, if she didn’t try hard enough. Maybe her smothering motherliness had been the reason why the twins had seemed to be in a perpetual haste to leave home, to attend universities far away from home and to settle even further away after their education. Tochi had moved to Abuja, the same city where Vera was residing, and her twin brother, Tobenna had relocated to Lagos, close to his older brother, Dike, and yet so far away. To the best of her knowledge, the two of them had no relationship to speak of.
The fact of her family’s dysfunction broke Christina’s heart. During the Christmas and Easter breaks, the neighbours’ children often came home with their families in minivans. These were the children with whom her own brood had grown with, played with while she watched from the window. Every time they visited their parents, they dropped by to say hello to her, and to show their own children to her, feed her tidbits of their lives. Christina always felt an aching in her heart whenever they visited and she observed the bright-eyed youth of their children. Oftentimes, she thought of her own grandchildren – what they looked like, how fast they were growing, if any one of them was like Jeremy who’d had the habit of hugging her around the neck whenever he came running out to welcome her home, his chubby hands staying clasped around her neck until she chuckled and playfully spanked his buttocks. Remembering those easier times when her children were still kids drew a melancholic smile from her.
It was Christmas, another festive season she feared she’d have to spend alone. She’d already tried to speak to Vera, but her daughter’s number wasn’t reachable, and neither was her husband’s. The automated female voice on the other end telling her to please try again later tested her patience, calling on the urge for her to scream out loud in frustration. Perhaps they had traveled out of the country to see Vera’s in-laws. Vera’s husband, Benedict, was part Nigerian, part British, and his family resided in London. But a Christmas trip to see them was unlikely, if Dike was to be believed; he’d told her awhile ago that Vera and her family only visited her in-laws during the summer, when they could spend a longer time abroad.
As for Dike, she was yet to get through his secretary to him. Tochi hadn’t answered any of her calls. Tobenna was the only one she’d been able to get through to, and he had told her he’d be working all through Christmas and so would not be coming home. He’d said the same thing last year, and the year before.
This would be the seventh year since she last saw any of her children, and the pain of the separation burrowed into her heart like a sickness. She looked down at the framed picture in her hand. In it was a representation of a happier time in their lives, a period that was at the cusp of the serial deterioration the family had subsequently suffered. She stared into her face, one that was much less lined, less weathered than it was now. Next to her was seated her husband, Chijindu, and flanking them, around the sofa they were seated on, were their children. She stared at their youthful faces, one to the other, all five of them, the only thing that she had done with her life that made her laugh, yet cry at the same time. Her eyes suddenly began to smart, and she blinked, slightly startled when beads of tears began to slide down her worn cheeks. She sniffled and looked up and away from the photo, her eyes sweeping around the vast space of the living room. Every year that passed, the house seemed to get bigger and emptier for just her and the little maid to occupy. She used to go over to the next compound, to the neighbours, the Nwankwos, when the house got too lonely, to gab with her friend, Eunice. But recently, she’d started to feel detached from them. They seemed so whole, Eunice and her husband and children and grandchildren, like they’d never suffered any devastation, the way she clearly had. Their happiness only served to accentuate the cheerlessness in her life.
Christmas Eve was waning just as uneventfully as it dawned. Christina was indoors, like she’d been all day, cushioned in her favorite seat and staring sightlessly at the television.
Just then, she heard some activity coming from the front of the house, beyond the gate, a faint crunch of tires on graveled soil. She looked up. Then she glanced quickly at her thin leather watch; the time was 4: 21 pm. She was thinking about how it wasn’t that long ago since the driver went out to fuel the car for tomorrow’s Christmas service, when a car horn honked from the other side of the gate. She was startled by the sound, wondering how the driver could have been so quick with his errand. Last she’d checked, the queues at the gas stations were horrendously jam-packed.
She heard the gate groan as the gateman, Okon, pulled it open. It must be somebody she knew because there were standing instructions for Okon not to open the gate to any driver that wasn’t a close friend or relative. Mere acquaintances or people whose ties to the Igwes he wasn’t sure of could park right outside on the curb.
She heard the car pull up in the driveway and doors opened and slammed, the sounds interspersed by a flurry of voices. She tensed when she thought she could make out Dike’s voice, and her heartbeat suddenly accelerated. She got up and made her way to the window, the very same window where she had stood and watched her children play. As she moved to it, she could hear some commotion right outside, footfalls on the porch. Just before she got to the window to draw the blinds apart to see if that was Dike outside, the front door was jerked open, and there indeed was her son on the threshold.
At the sight of that familiar, wide smile of his, a wreathing of his features that was proof of his ebullient nature, she felt her heart first constrict and then expand almost immediately, that she felt like she was going to have a heart attack. The pleasure that rushed through her was so acute, it drew tears to her eyes.
“Mother,” he gusted, before coming forward to embrace her.
His smells were not familiar, they were rich with the scent of his perfume and fatigue from a long journey, but the smells were his and they surrounded her. Those tears blinded her and slid down her cheeks as she hugged back. He seemed fatter, the kind of fat that made him look even more like his father.
“Merry Christmas, mum,” he said as he pulled back from her.
“Merry Christmas, my son,” she husked as she stared longingly at him, her eyes scouring his face with maternal hunger.
“Merry Christmas, mama,” she heard someone say.
Christina turned and took in the presence of Dike’s family. Her daughter-in-law, Jumoke, stood respectfully away from the mother and son, her buxom figure clad in a red dress and her sleek tresses pulled back in a chignon. She looked beautiful, and Christina suddenly couldn’t believe she’d once been fiercely opposed to Dike marrying her. Memories of that part of the past surged through her like it had happened just yesterday. She had refused to give her blessing to their union when Dike had brought his fiancée home to meet her. She hadn’t appreciated the fact that he was thinking of marrying a Yoruba girl. They had fought, mother and son, and Dike had gone on to ignore her and pursue his nuptials to Jumoke. As a statement of her disapproval, she had refused to attend the traditional marriage, and wore a long face of mourning during the white wedding, a countenance that wasn’t lost on the wedding guests.
Somehow, they had survived that debacle. Dike had remained devoted to her, and Jumoke had stayed the dutiful daughter-in-law who called her often to enquire about her welfare.
She stood now, just by the doorway, an infant in her arms, and two little ones standing in front of her, watching the display of affection between their father and grandmother. Christina stared at them and felt her heart grow heavy with sudden crushing guilt over the beauty she had almost ruined. She moved toward them, reached out to her grandchildren. She knew the name of only the first, William, who was eleven and looked big now – as big as his father had been at his age. Dike had told her on the phone when William was born, that he’d decided to name him after her own father. She pulled them, William and his seven-year-old sister, Tejumola, to her bosom and pecked their foreheads as her tears wetted their hair. Then she hugged Jumoke, kissing her on the cheek. Jumoke relinquished the bundle of the sleeping infant to her, and she peered hard into the baby’s face. She was fifteen months old, named Amaka. Christina could see that she had the same birthmark, a mole, as she did, right beside her right nostril.
Christina slowly sat on a sofa, with the tot still in her arms, and she began to sing a song women chorused for newly birthed mothers, even though the child was well over a year old. As she sang, she clasped Jumoke’s hand. The younger woman’s tears had begun to drip from her eyes, and she smiled through them as she moved her body in tandem with the rhythm of her mother-in-law’s crooning.
“Achogim ego,” she singsonged to Dike, as she observed Okon lifting food items and luggage from the car through the open doorway, “I don’t want money…I don’t want food. All I want is to be able to see my children and my grandchildren and play with them, even if it is for one time before I die, so I will have something good to tell your father when I join him.”
Dike smiled as he observed his mother fuss over his baby girl, who was now awake and expressing loud and teary disapproval of her new surroundings. He observed that his mother’s hair had grayed, that she squinted as she peered into Amaka’s face and cooed at her to calm her angst. She was talking about how good the children looked, commending Jumoke for taking good care of her grandchildren. There was a flash of her old cantankerous nature when she remarked on how children were not supposed to be stick-thin and how she couldn’t stand the sight of that in Mazi Nwobodo’s grandchildren.
He also noticed that she was thinner now, and she was not adorned in her pearls and the gold jewelry she loved to wear, even when she was at home, as though she felt a need to stamp it in everybody’s minds that she had come a long way from her impoverished background and intended it to be permanent. Her withered frame was not clad in the rich fabric of blouse and wrapper he was used to seeing on her. She was instead wearing a faded T-shirt with a St. Paul’s Cathedral logo emblazoned at the back. He remembered she used to throw such branded T-shirts out back when they were growing up; she’d thought them to be cheap and tacky, and did not believe people with class should be seen wearing such hideous attires.
He watched as she strapped a calmed Amaka to her back and bustled about the house, first getting William and Tejumola settled, before moving to assist Jumoke in the kitchen, despite her protestations that she let her do the work. The laughter of both women bounced off the walls of the kitchen, filling the entire house and intermingled with the caper of the children.
He tried to remember the last time he’d seen his mother this pleased, so delighted that she was not picking on anybody, pointing out their mistakes, or simply sniping randomly at the people around her. He could not believe how mellowed she’d gotten. He knew he had to call his siblings, to let them know the mother they remembered had vanished.
We should leave her, just leave her with no one to pick on or yell at, he remembered Vera rail one evening during the period they’d all come home for their father’s ten-year memorial. All the siblings, with the exception of Jeremy of course, were crowded in Dike’s room, where they’d sought solace from their mother’s shrewish attitude.
We should all just leave after this memorial and never come back, Vera had spat, her features twisted in an expression that was too similar to their mother’s than she’d like to accept. Maybe then she will understand just how horrible she is and how important we are.
And for the next seven years, whether purposefully or unwittingly, they had all heeded Vera’s words.
He knew he should call Vera to let her know that they had punished their mother enough. He should also call Jeremy – for their mother and for himself. It had been years since he and Jeremy had spoken to each other. Their estrangement had happened after they had a fight on the phone when Jeremy had lashed out at him for intending never to speak to their mother again, following her bad behaviour during his nuptials. The woman’s attitude was unforgivable, and he had been prepared to sever all ties with her. His wife had objected to it, and tried futilely to get him to forgive his mother. When he remained intractable, she reached out to his brother, who called him to have a conversation with him that quickly derailed to a war of words. Jeremy had pounded him with the truth of his birthright as the first son, and how he didn’t have the luxury of simply abandoning their mother in her old age. He tongue-lashed him for pandering to his wife’s mother, all the while acting like his own mother was dead to him. Dike had bridled at his brother’s recrimination and fired back with verbal abuse of him being a faggot, a disgrace to their family and a white man’s whore. In a twist he didn’t see coming, the son their mother loathed got him to forgive her in the same vein that ended the good relationship the two brothers had.
As he stood surrounded by his childhood, he felt a sudden overwhelming surge of regrets. He was suddenly struck by an awareness of how much the fabric of his family had been eaten away at by discord and resentments. He wasn’t even in very affable terms with Tobenna, and despite the fact that they lived in the same city, he only ever saw his younger brother about once a year when Jumoke insisted on Tobenna being present for their Easter dinners. The strife between the brothers had started when he wouldn’t pull any strings to automatically hire him in their father’s company, which he’d taken ownership of and made more successful in the years after the man’s demise.
He could not believe how indifferent he’d been when Vera told him the news of the senator’s son who’d impregnated Tochi and ditched her with the kind of callousness that made tabloid headlines. Tochi had suffered the full brunt of the media’s feeding frenzy, while the senator’s brat had come out of the scandal with an engagement to another politician’s daughter.
The remorse he felt lay like leaden weight on his soul as he picked up his phone and began scrolling for the first number to call.
Tochi was the first to arrive on the twenty-seventh. She flew in with her four-year-old son. Her twin, Tobenna arrived later that same day. He made the trip from Lagos via commercial transport.
The reunion between their mother and first Tochi, then Tobenna, was as tearful and as emotional as the welcome she’d given Dike and his family, even more so. The birth of the twins had been an especially difficult one for Christina. The delivery had lasted twenty-six hours, primarily because they had been entwined with the umbilical cord in her womb, and the doctor hadn’t seen that on time. These days, anytime she suffered back ache or waist pain, she remembered her last born children.
When she welcomed Tochi, she hugged the younger woman tight to herself, pulling her peach pantsuit into creases with her fierce hold on her body. Tochi didn’t seem to mind as she cried her mascara away onto the fading white T-shirt their mother was wearing.
Then she turned to hug Tochi’s son, Jesse – a grandchild she hadn’t even known she had. Tochi had kept the knowledge of her son from her for four long years. When she enquired about the father with a voice that trembled with sadness and fear for an answer that’d show the life that Tochi had kept from her, her daughter wiped at her tears and rasped, “It’s a long story, mum. In good time, I will tell you all about it.”
Christina did not care much for what story there was to tell; she was too contented with the sight of her family here, around her. She lifted Jesse to her body, fussing over the little boy who kept staring at her like she was an alien.
Tobenna came in around 6pm, about the time that the women in the house were preparing dinner. As his mother enveloped him in her embrace, he fought hard not to show how overwhelmed he was with emotion. He had always been the stoic one in the family, capable of internalizing his emotions so much he constantly looked like he was buzzing with electricity, a tightly-wound up man looking to erupt at the tensest provocation. However, in his mother’s arms, his eyes were moist and red, as crimson as his holdall. He even hugged his brother when Dike came forward with outstretched arms and a teary gaze. Then he broke down when Tochi came forward. The twins had always shared a strong bond, a fierce love for and loyalty to each other. When the news of her messy breakup with the senator’s son began making headlines, Tobenna had gone to Abuja and located her ex-boyfriend in a posh bar, where he’d proceeded to beat the living daylights out of the privileged brat. He was arrested and detained, and it looked like the key was going to get thrown away, so unmoved was the police by Tochi’s tears and pleading every day she visited the station, asking to see her brother. Eventually, she located her ex-boyfriend’s father and groveled so abjectly before him that the politician had relented and instructed for Tobenna to be released.
Vera was the last to arrive. Dike drove to the airport on the morning of the twenty-eighth, to fetch her and her family. Vera was a force of nature, tall and robustly built, like their father had been. She walked in through the door and had no time for the niceties of an emotional welcome with their mother. She could not believe the living room looked exactly the same as it had seven years ago. Hadn’t she suggested a redecoration to Dike like four years ago? Why hadn’t he jumped on her idea then? And how could he be comfortable with how depressing their childhood house had become? She fussed over the fading white T-shirt their mother was wearing, asking if all the money she sent to her monthly was not enough to buy her good clothes. She moved about the house, full of energy, speaking fast in her affected British accent, her hand moving to sweep wisps of her weave from her face in an obvious idiosyncrasy. Her husband, Benedict, was very laidback in comparison. After the initial bustle that followed their arrival, he remained seated in a sofa, contented with watching the people around him and holding the sleeping weight of the five-year-old girl in his arms to his body.
Christina observed that her first child had come home with five children; awhile back, Dike had told her Vera had four kids. She’d only met the older two, Edward and Lizbeth. Vera had come with them to the memorial seven years ago. They were older now, and together with their siblings, they looked very out of place in their grandmother’s house. As her mother bustled about the house, Lizbeth stayed glued to Tochi’s side. Her aunt was the only other family she knew in this place, seeing as Tochi was present in their lives back home in Abuja.
“Jeremy is dead,” Vera finally announced as the adults lounged in the living room, idly enjoying the end of a late breakfast.
The words dropped from her mouth like a bomb, and the explosion was a keening wail of abject anguish that came from their mother. She slid from the sofa she’d been sitting on to the cold Terrazzo floor, still wailing, her body trembling with grief and her hands thrust in the air as tears slid in torrents down her face.
“What happened?” Dike rasped, looking aghast as Tochi moved to their mother’s side to console her.
“He had cancer. He fought it, but it got the better of him. His husband called me a month ago when he died, and I had to fly over to the States for his cremation.” As she spoke, the devastation that had started to ravage the members of her family got to her. Veins stood out on her neck as her throat tightened against the ball of misery that had risen to choke her. Benedict was beside her and shifted closer to her, holding steady the sleeping girl in his arm while lifting the other to hold his wife.
Christina was still writhing about on the ground, her anguish bursting from her in fits. Next to her, Tochi was sobbing while valiantly trying to console her mother. Dike looked like he’d been iced over, and was blinking rapidly over what looked suspiciously like tears. Jumoke looked distraught beside him, her hand placed on her husband’s back in steady comfort. Tobenna had lost his stoicism and sat with his shoulders slumped and his face cradled in his palms as he wept.
The heat of the day had ebbed to the comforting warmth of the late afternoon. The sunshine had lost its brightness and the colours of the verandah were softened. Jumoke was inside, minding the children. Benedict was also inside, taking a nap in his wife’s room, the room they’d be occupying during their stay here.
The Igwes sat on wicker chairs in the verandah, spent from their grief and yet still overcome with bereavement. They were talking about Jeremy, remembering him, laughing over the good memories and occasionally lapsing into silences brought on by guilt, remorse and yearning for the man they’d loved and lost.
“He made me forgive you, mother,” Dike said in a low voice that sagged with pain. “After everything, he loved you so much he couldn’t bear the thought of me abandoning you.”
The Igwe matriarch sat, staring sightlessly at the evening, her eyes still damp from crying. It was obvious to her children that she was bearing the heaviest burden of guilt – the mother who’d turned away her son when he needed her, who never got to tell him she loved him after eight long years of acrimony before he passed away. This would most likely be her burden for the rest of her life.
“At some point, I stopped knowing him,” Tochi husked. “We simply stopped having anything in common, and sort of drifted apart.”
“Me either,” Tobenna offered, instinctive in his need to lighten his twin sister’s burden of pain. “I loved him, but it felt easier to do so from a distance. The gayer he got, the more distant I sought to get from him.”
“You can never be too gay,” Vera said. She looked very little like the fireball that had arrived that morning, slumped into her seat like she wanted to disappear altogether. “I’ve come to realize that. Jeremy was such a beautiful soul. I always knew this. And I loved him.”
She had loved him truly. She had been his staunchest ally when the knowledge of his homosexuality had threatened the foundation of their family. When he’d sought for asylum in the States following a string of disastrous affairs involving the police and some blackmailing miscreants, she had backed him up emotionally and financially. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she was his first call. He’d gone on to extract a promise from her that she would never tell anyone about his illness.
“‘I will beat this, sis.’ That’s what he said to me,” Vera recounted as tears trembled on her lashes. “He was so optimistic about his survival. He had so much to live for. He didn’t want anyone to worry over something he could overcome, something he believed he would overcome.” She choked to a stop.
Christina let out a trembly sob, and began shaking in her seat. Tochi inched closer to her, ready with her consolation.
“He had so much to live for,” Vera said again.
As if on cue, someone moved behind them. They turned their heads to behold the five-year-old girl who had walked out into the verandah. She was very pretty, light-skinned with doe-dark eyes, rosebud lips and a thick crown of curly dark hair. She was the child who’d been sleeping in Benedict’s arms.
Upon her entrance, Vera’s breath caught in her throat, a sound that drew the girl’s attention to her.
“Esther…” Vera said.
Responding to her name, the girl went to Vera, who promptly gathered her in her arms. She was crying now, her face buried in the body of the little girl as her tears fell. She heaved and caught her breath, occasionally murmuring, “Esther… Oh Esther…”
“Vera, what is the matter?” Tochi asked, intuiting to an unknown, a circumstance that Vera seemed to only be aware of.
Vera raised her teary eyes to her family and said in a raspy voice, “When I went for Jeremy’s funeral, I asked his husband, Sean, for a favour. It took some pleading but he eventually agreed. I wanted him to let me bring their daughter, his and Jeremy’s, home to meet you.”
A startled silence descended on everyone as they stared with shock at the girl who, until now, they’d all assumed, with the exception of Tochi, was Vera’s daughter.
“Jeremy had – that’s his… How come…” Christina stumbled through her words, grasping for understanding.
“Surrogacy, mother,” Vera supplied. “He and Sean had her through IVF.”
Christina Igwe turned and looked into the eyes of her granddaughter, and saw her son buried in those lustrous depths. And suddenly she felt hope for the possibility of forgiveness, for a chance at a do-over, for an opportunity to love again and rightly this time.
“Come, child,” she beckoned as tears began dribbling down her face again.
And Esther rose from her aunt and walked toward her grandmother’s embrace.
Written by Peaches