Elements of this essay have been fictionalized to protect identities.
I first experienced love in the arms of my mother on a Sunday morning. I stood beside the rose bushes, watching my father slowly drive out of the garage. One year, seven months. She came from behind, plucked a lone pink rose from the bushes, still dripping with dew, and tucked it in the hair around my right ear. Then she circled her hands over my shoulders and chest in a warm hug.
Twenty-eight years later, my mother will die on a hospital bed, her left hand clasping mine. It was a Monday afternoon, bright and warm with the sun. But she was cold. And slowly, like clockwork, I watched love die in my life. I saw that love had sheltered me from the glare of the world’s wickedness, the bile of men. With my mother, I had never tasted bitterness. Waking up was like eating the sun—it filled me up with so much light and optimism for mankind, I would feel like saving people I had never met.
Now, I know this is a horrible attribute to have. You cannot love the world. The world is like an intruder who comes into your apartment in the dead of night, brandishing a knife while standing over your bed, waiting for you to wake up. When you do, it kills you. This is because the world wants you to be aware when it snuffs breath out of your nostrils. It wants to watch your eyes widen with confusion and fright as the knife divides your liver and your breath ceases. It wants you to be aware of your pain.
But sometimes the world is kind. It becomes your friend, holds your hand and skips over puddles, laughing to the sky. It tends to your wounds when you fall. It cries with you at night when the loneliness is suffocating. But the biggest mistake is falling in love with the world, believing that its friendliness betrays its heart for you. No such thing. No such thing as love from the world. A true friend does not hold you when you cry, they let you cry and give you water to drink. They let you feel the coldness of pain, then warm you up with tenderness. But the world never does this because the world is not your friend. The world is your enemy, and enemies keep enemies closer.
Love is in the hands.
When my mother was alive, I asked her a question. “How do you know someone loves you?”
She smiled. “You feel it in the hands.”
“Yes. Someone who loves you will hold you like they will hold glass—you do not want it to fall and break less it would cut your hands. You would not hit someone you love. You won’t push away someone you love. You would hug them, stroke them, and wipe their tears away. It is always in the hands.”
Ah, my mother, a hopeless romantic. She believed so much in the good of men, she searched desperately for it. This was a woman with a history of dreams but she fell at the feet of the world for fear of being rebuked. How do you give up a past of glory like a Valhalla returned from war for a future of standing in a hot kitchen baking pastries for a toddler’s lunchbox? But this was my mother—the miseducation of an independent woman. She traded her independence for the fullness of a family, tied it to a post for the confines of marriage.
One Saturday when I was nine, I sat at her feet on the cemented threshold of our veranda, my elbow resting on her lap as she braided my hair in cornrows. Her skin was soft and cool. Mine was warm. The artificial fruity smell of Apple Hair Food clung to my nostrils, strands of my long hair fluttering on my eyelids whenever my mother combed. Pushing them away, I sucked on a Buttermint, listening to my mother’s fingers as she interlocked hair into braids. The friction of hair and fingers sounded like electric wires sizzling in unison. Whether they sparked a light, I do not know. But then, I remembered. This had to be love—the sounds of my mother’s fingers, skin touching hair, holding, pulling, kneading, caressing, the light weight of the edge of her palm on my earlobe as she finished up the rows. Maybe even the pain. Yes, the pain that came with the comb, the stretching, even the softness of the oiling on my scalp as she dabbed it with hair cream. This was the love she talked about, in the power of hands.
I asked, just to be sure. “Does this mean you love me, Mum?”
She stopped, bent her head until she was looking at me. “What?”
“You once said love is in the hands.”
My mother must have understood then because her eyes misted, her brows released from the slight frown that creased her forehead and the small scar on it. She smiled as she tugged my cheeks, her fingers greasy with hair cream. “Yes. This means I love you,” she said.
Then she continued braiding my hair.
Three months later, I came to her as she sat on the battered La-Z-Boy in the living room, watching Jeopardy . She had her glasses on, the tips of the bifocals steadily sliding down her nose. She kept sniffing to keep them up. The room was slightly dark, but she saw what I held in my hands.
“Scissors,” she said, looking up at me. “What for?”
I grinned at her. “Love is in the hands. Mummy, please can you cut my hair?”
Does it hurt when you walk?
This was the year they found out I had scoliosis.
It was Aunty Arith, my mother’s stepsister, who noticed the oddness in my posture. She had just arrived from Port Harcourt where she ran a business selling expensive gele and lace, her head still shaded by her baby pink fedora, nails painted a fiery pepper-red. It was when I had brought the bottles of Gold Spot and a blue stencilled saucer of chin-chin that she looked at me, one brow lifted up in puzzled curiosity. “Why is our daughter bending to one side?”
My mother had been seated across from her, crocheting. She looked at her sister and me, a cloud of inertia on her face, unsure of who to focus on. “What? Who?”
“She’s not standing straight.” She gestured at me. “ Nne , walk for her. See? See how she bends to the right side? It does not look normal.”
Of course it was not normal because I spent the rest of the week living in the shadow of my mother, who began watching my movements with anxiety in her eyes, the skin of her jaw creased with worry. I felt the fear too, especially the morning after I showered, standing naked in the large mirror that hung in my room. Aunty Arith was right—the right side of my hip bone jutted out while the left side was still normally symmetrical. I also noticed that my left rib was enlarged, protruding like an uncertain hump. After I showed this to my mother, she grabbed her purse and keys and led me to the front door and her Passat on the garage driveway. My father was at the dining table, drinking a cup of tea and reading the newspaper.
“We are going to the hospital,” my mother said.
“Hmm,” he mumbled, wetting his index finger with his tongue before turning a leaf of paper. He barely looked up at us.
Outside was hot. It was the middle of August, the rains still pelted Umuahia with raindrops the size of kola nuts and the trees were rich with bright green leaves and juicy fruits. But today was different. The air was heavy and humid, swollen with heat that left droplets of sweat on foreheads and pools of dampness under armpits. Halfway to the hospital, my mother whipped out her hand fan, the one her Indian friend Indira had given her on a sponsored trip to Singapore. She wound down the windows for me, but the air was stifling with so much heat and the combined street smells of sweaty bodies, red earth, burning wood, and decaying feces that I could hardly breathe.
The doctor, a tall man with sad-looking eyes, had some good news. I had idiopathic scoliosis, which my mother also had, but it could be rectified by wearing a body brace. The bad news was we could not afford the brace. It was sold in the United States and came at an alarming figure beside multiple zeros—in dollars. I could never forget the look on my mother’s face as we left the hospital, forlorn, like a woman defeated. She struggled to hold back tears as we drove home, her hands white as she gripped the steering wheel. It felt like she had given up on me at that moment, this one thing her child needed, a life-changing thing , and she could not afford it. It tore me apart to see her weak and despondent.
I decided I was going to help her. If I was not going to wear a brace, I could trick my body into believing that I was wearing one, perhaps work on my bones and joints to make my posture straight again, just like every other child. Personally, I cared less about my scoliosis. In fact I barely noticed it until one boy in my class made a disgusting joke, calling me high-high low-low , a mimic of the way I walked. Of course I cried, mainly because he was a boy, bigger and taller than me, and I could not fight him. Besides, I hated fighting. But what tightened my heart with angst was whenever I caught my mother looking at me. She began to do it more after the trip to the doctor’s, her eyes following me wherever I went—the kitchen, the living room, even the toilet. She would ask if I felt all right, and if the right side hurt. I would tell her I was fine but she never believed me, and one Sunday after church service I found her crying into a jar of orange juice in the kitchen. The orange squeezer and a pool of orange pulp sat on the table beside the jar. I said nothing, picked a tablecloth and began cleaning the mess. She watched me, her eyes red rimmed, face shining with tears.
“If it hurts you better tell me!”
“It doesn’t, Mummy. I promise.”
She sucked air through her teeth, stared at the ceiling. “God, how can you not give me this one thing? This one thing! My only daughter . . . how can she be walking sideways for the rest of her life? Look at me, no salary for two months. We can barely feed. Why are you doing this to me?”
I had come to realize that asking God rhetorical questions was a futile act but I kept quiet and indulged my mother. I held her hand and comforted her. And the next day I went to PE classes with the intent to realign my hip bone. I walked instinctively, pushing my left hip forward, trying to disguise my posture. It was uncomfortable and awkward, and soon my left hip bone began to hurt, but I did not stop. I rode my bicycle harder to put pressure on my pelvis. I played tag. I joined the long jump team. Then one day, while climbing the almond tree in front of our house, I swung from a branch, lifted my left hip bone to the sky, and let go of the tree branch.
The impact to the ground was not detrimental because it was October, the rains had stopped and the tree had been shredded, leaving a bed of dried, brown leaves. They cackled and cushioned me as I landed on the ground, sharply, the edge of my hairline cutting on a buried stone. I saw the blood before I heard my mother’s scream. She had been in the kitchen, filling up small transparent bags of nylon with moi-moi , tomorrow’s breakfast. The blood was on the tip of my nose as she ran and slid down to the dirt with me, cradling me in her lap, her face a cocktail of panic and shock. In those few seconds, she kept shouting hysterically for my father.
“I want to walk normal again,” I said, smiling, disoriented.
“Walk anyhow you want, we will live with it,” she said. “Anene, Anene!! ”
Her voice was loud and beautiful.
If love was a walking human I would have killed it a long time ago. I would have stabbed it in the throat, sliced an artery and ceased oxygen to its heart. Love is stupid, amongst other things.
My father was addicted to Lipton tea. Every morning he sat beside the third window of the living room, the window that overlooked the front yard, his Bible or a newspaper in one hand, a steaming cup of Lipton tea in the other. He always made it himself, only asking me to boil water or fetch the hot water flask from the dining table. He would dip the bags into the mug meticulously, like a clock master repairing a watch. He loved them dark and bitter but on stressful days he added a spoonful of creamer and two cubes of sugar. I should have known that day was a stressful day because he told me to bring the dairy creamer and a packet of St. Louis from the third shelf of the kitchen cupboard. But I paid no particular attention because I was excited. My art teacher had given us homework to draw animate objects in our homes, and I had painted our English spaniel, Snoopy. This was my first painting, and my insides fluttered with pride. I was eager to get to school and show my work to the class. I brought the creamer and sugar for my father, then hurried to my parents’ room where my mother was wearing her shoes with a frown on her face.
“Go to the parlor, I’m coming.” She sounded upset. But of course, I was not paying attention. I went downstairs and sat at the dining table, watching my father drink his tea in noisy, intermediate sips. The steam made his dark face shiny with sweat.
I began to pay attention when my mother reappeared a few minutes later, shouting. So many words, but I saw her holding up a stack of receipts, pointing them at my father and asking questions. He dropped his cup of tea and watched her, his eyes suddenly bloodshot. That look sent me into déjà vu, faraway to a certain night in 1994. A night filled with raised voices and sounds of drizzling rain, wet concrete roads, and dark looming trees. Bloodshot eyes, shouting, a door flinging open, my mother pushed onto the gravelled sidewalk of the highway. Her feet in red shoes were the only thing I could see from the back seat of the car. The rest of her had fallen in the bushes, hidden in the shrubs. Screaming, lots of screaming.
I blinked and returned to the living room. My mother was no longer shouting. Now my father was and he was standing. Now he was facing her, his Bible clasped in his hand. This was the moment of tears and blood, isn’t it? Is this the moment you are going to save her again, not because you love her, but because you are afraid?
I stood up, a bitter taste in my mouth. My ears were filled with the thunderous voice of my father, droning, cursing . . .
“Mummy, please let’s go,” I said to her. My voice had not broken yet. This was my tactic, a safe way to lure her from what may happen, what will happen. But today, my mother was ignoring me.
“Go to the car.”
She glanced at me and saw it, the look of desperation laced with panic. And then she knew. She turned to Daddy. “I’m going to work,” she said in a quiet voice and headed toward me.
It was fast. Later, it will replay in my head continuously in a loop for as long as I live. How he leapt for her, flinging the Bible at the curve of her back. Grabbing her perm curls, tugging, throwing her like a handball across the room. Her startled shout and my shriek coming together, unifying in the quiet space, like liquid and oil. She standing up, dazed, him running toward her, his arms like large, dark logs as they went up in the air and came down with thuds of slaps on her face. She staggers to the floor, him lifting her and slamming her on the gray sofa that sat beside the TV. My favorite chair. I hear a crack and realize it is her head hitting the wooden canister above the sofa. This was also when I realized I was rooted to the spot beside the dining table. The blows were coming now—rhythmical like song, each descending on my mother’s face like notes on a lyrical page. She is saying something between the blows but they are coming out in gurgles of spit and blood, punctuated heavily with flying fists. In that moment, she turns her head toward me. What I can see from the bruise thickening around her eye is a look of acceptance, hopelessness even, beseeching me to turn away. She did not want me here, her hands were not blocking the blows but were waving me away toward the door instead. This was normal to her. It was at the sixth blow, the one that sent a splatter of blood and a tooth flying out of her mouth and to the floor, her head lolling back like a rag doll’s, that I realized if I continued standing here, watching, comatose with terror, she would die.
I ran to them, screaming. He was still hitting her, his chest heaving, white vest spotted with blood like Gothic art. Drenched in sweat, eyes fiery with rage, his breath hot like the Lipton tea he had drank an hour ago. I felt urine escape my bladder, startlingly warm as it rolled down my leg to my pink stockings and brown Oxfords. He had not seen me yet even though I was screaming at his face, trying to stop his blows. Finally I crawled up my mother’s lap, through the opening that he had created by pinning her legs down with his knees, and I threw my body over her face and shoulders. The next blow hit my head, expectant and unwavering. My eyes were shut but I still saw the stars. The pink neon lights that flashed in the void of darkness, the blinding pain that traveled from the point of the blow like wildfire, enveloping my skull until it became a swimming motion, like the incoming tide at a beach. I shrieked and he noticed me then, because he stopped.
He stopped. He stopped.
I do not remember him leaving, but I remember opening my eyes and he was not there. The living room was the same it had been that morning—sunlight streaming in from the louvered windows, lace curtains fluttering in the breeze. The smell of home and breakfast, the teacup on the stool, finished of its contents and left with dregs clinging to the base like burnt clay. My head still throbbing, I looked at her. There was a woman lying still, her eyes shut and swollen with quickly darkening bruises. Her nose was awkwardly twisted to the left side, her nostrils streaming with blood. Her lower lip was split open, a tiny gaping flesh. Blood was everywhere—smudged on her forehead, dripping to her collarbones. But her chest was still rising and falling, rising and falling. She was still here with me.
It was the landlady, Mama Cameroun, who came in and found us.
The only death that can kill a woman is death to her spirit.
That evening, as I sat on the veranda close to the cashew tree, my eyes looking through the curved holes of the barbed-wire fence, dried leaves crushing eagerly underneath my bare feet, and ants crawling hastily to shadows of sand, I saw her walking toward the house. I recognized her by her dress—it was the red-and-white polka-dot gown she had worn to one of my aunt’s weddings in 2001. I hated the dress; I thought it made her look fat. But she loved it. The evening sun made her skin glow, her dark hair glistened from pomade and sheen. She was dragging a suitcase behind her, full and heavy, and when I realized it was really my mother I was seeing walking toward me, I stood up and hurried to her. The sun warmed our hugs; her fair skin refreshingly cool, like an oasis in a desert. Her gown smelled like her, heavy with lilac perfume, faint with camphor. She was smiling at me, a colorful reminder of her ingenuity and her love that burned my soul even from a thousand miles. Taking the box away from her, I led her to the veranda of her friend’s house, the house I have been living in since I came here for my university education. The smell of broiling potatoes from the kitchen, the sound of gravel as a car drove by, and the chirps of birds on the cashew and moringa trees in the small yard filled our noses and ears as we sat down on the blue plastic chairs.
“Mummy, welcome. What happened? What are you doing here?”
“They transferred me here. My office was shut down, so they posted me here to retire.”
“Really? That’s good!”
She was looking at me with the eyes I have known since I could count my 123s and sing my ABCs, but for the first time I noticed the crow’s feet at the corners of her lids. The shadow of darkness that circled underneath her eyes, caused from years of wearing bifocals. The smile lines were now deeper—they had engraved themselves so prominently that they were even visible when she was not smiling. Her hands were still soft and slow, the skin of her fingers still wrinkled, just like mine. And I realized that she was getting older. This was not just a woman with stories as a nurse during the Biafran war, of seeing tears and blood at the Red Cross clinic in Port Harcourt, attending to soldiers with bodies torn apart from bullets, heads shattered from shrapnel, women and children crawling on the floor on bony arms and knees, delirious with severe malnutrition. This was not just a woman with stories of walking from Port Harcourt to her village, a basket of food supplies on her head as she maneuvered soldiers so her family would not starve. This was not just a woman with stories of sitting at the reception of Central Bank for a day, waiting patiently to see the governor without an appointment, hoping to get a job without a university degree.
This was a woman with stories of her own; a brutal reminder of life taking away the beautiful things. I looked at the finger—she had the gold band on. I always remember it shining; she washed it with water and detergent, cleaned it with a crisp white handkerchief. Easy to clean a ring, but can you save a marriage? Can you wash it and wring it out to the sun in its bright light, hoping for the rays to dry it, for it to flutter in the breeze? Can you clean it with a handkerchief until it sparkles in your eyes? What can you do to an ever-after that leaves you breathless, choking for freedom? What can save you before you save yourself?
The scar from one of the beatings was still on her arm, and 1998 came back to me again, fresh and alive with the teacup. The gray sofa. The bloodied face. “Mummy, what happened?” I asked again.
She began to cry—she knew I knew. When a bond exists, you can only tug at it, but it tightens with each grip. “H-He . . .” she was gasping to speak. I placed my palm in hers and entwined my fingers with hers.
“ Gwa m. Tell me. What did he do?”
“He picked the wrench. That wrench in your room. He picked it and raised it to hit me. I was ready. I told him to do it, to end it. After all, you were not there . . . nobody will save me like before. This is all I have gotten from this life. I told him it was better dying than living this way—being beaten like a dog.”
Tears clouded my vision, and I shut my eyes. The liquid was hot and tepid as it flowed down my cheeks and landed on my lips, tasting like salt. “And?”
“He threw the wrench at the wall and left me. This happened yesterday. I packed this suitcase and ran to the bus station this morning. He was still sleeping when I left. Everything else is there.” She blew her nose loudly into a handkerchief, rolled it into a ball and dabbed her eyes. “I do not want to die. The doctor told me those one-sided headaches I always have are from the beatings. I c-can’t go back . . .”
I said nothing. But slowly, I raised my arm and circled her shoulders, watched as they jerked with sobs. And then, something amazing happened. She placed her head on my lap and cried. My mother. The Valhalla that came home from battles fought with emotions, the soul that had understood independence and held to the pillars of strength for fifty-four years, she placed her head on her daughter’s lap and cried. Tears a river; flowing, imminent to wash sorrows that burdened her heart from years of pain and antagonism, eager to shed them away.
And in that moment, I understood what love means again.
Love is patient, love is kind. But Love is leaving while you can.