Mama wanted the hospital visits to stop, so she grumbled about this for days. At first, it seemed nobody in the family was listening to her. Then her youngest son Nwachi died. She grumbled louder. The hospital-going had to stop, she moaned, it had to stop. One morning, after breakfast, she slapped the hand of the person who came to administer her medications. The pills clattered to the floor and rolled in several directions. The person cursed and stormed out. In a minute, exasperated voices besieged Mama in the sitting room where she sat in an armchair, with a walking stick lying across her feet.
“You are acting like a child again, Mama!”
“Why do you want to stop going to the hospital anyway, eh?”
“Mama, you have to take your drugs, biko.”
Mama did not bother working out who and who were speaking to her. It was pointless, her sight was a permanent blur. “Leave me alone!” she lisped at the voices. (Four of her front teeth were missing.) “Leave me alone, all of you. Get out of here.”
A grey-haired man sat in the armchair beside her. His sagged chin rested on the crook of the walking stick clasped in his hands. He was Timothy, her son. He asked Mama – everybody – to calm down.
It was the week preceding Nwachi’s funeral.
Nwachi had died last month. The funeral would have taken place the same month he died (February) but, as Mama had been told, Nwachi’s oldest son Arinze – she believed that was his name – had been away in South Africa for important training that concerned journalists. Arinze – eh, that was his name – had returned two weeks ago, and the funeral preparations had only begun then.
“Leave me alone!” she said again, sensing people still around her. She hunched forward and pressed her palms to the arms of her chair. Her body quivered with the effort.
“Go and help Mama up,” two voices chorused, all exasperation forgotten, and in a second, someone’s hand came to take hers and close it around the crook of the walking stick. The hands were smooth, their owner a young boy, Mama was sure from the breaking voice – “Where are you going?”
She offered the boy her hand. He pulled her gently to her feet. Her wrapper slid off her waist to the floor, exposing her thin legs up to the thighs and diapers bulging around her bottom. The boy quickly grabbed the wrapper and threw it around her waist. She slowly retied it.
“The bathroom,” she said to the boy.
“Please give way, let a human being pass,” she snapped as she and the boy shuffled through the small crowd of bodies towards the bathroom.
At the bathroom the boy made to open the door, but she asked him to knock first. He did. No reply. Nobody said to hold on let them finish. Mama sighed. This was normal. She shared this ground floor bathroom with three persons: Timothy, whose waist and knees were so painful he could no longer manage the stairs; his wife Malubia, who had retired from the civil service three years ago; and the help Doris, whose room, down the hall, was between Mama’s and Timothy and Malubia’s. The rest of the family, when they visited at Christmas, had different bathrooms and bedrooms they used upstairs. Malubia and Doris left early this morning for the market, and Mama had just been with Timothy in the sitting room; nobody could have been using the ground floor bathroom now. The entire arrangement, though made for her convenience, managed to feel like segregation.
* * *
The boy was waiting at the door when she came out of the bathroom. He slipped his hand around her waist and they shuffled back to the sitting room. It was deserted when they got there, except for Timothy still in his seat. The exasperated voices had gone. Upstairs, maybe. Mama stopped, as if to rest. She had never been upstairs since her children and older grandchildren contributed money to build this house – ten bedrooms, she had learned – a couple of years ago. She was already sick then. In fact, the year the house was completed, her arthritis had been so bad she could only move around in a wheelchair. The frequentness of the hospital visits had doubled, too. Every other week she would complain of a blinding ache behind her eyes, or how her meals sat heavy in her stomach without digesting.
Malubia would then ask her when she first started to notice this pain, this stomach trouble, and Mama would wonder what that had to do with anything, if answering the question would solve the problem. But she did not voice this snide remark – like she would have done many years ago, when Malubia had been a younger woman in her twenties, newly married to Timothy. Timothy had said it was the usual mother- and daughter-in-law friction, but Mama had ruled differently: Her son’s wife just didn’t know when to shelve her opinions. If her problem was not that all the knives in Mama’s kitchen were blunter than wood, it was that ugu was supposed to be shredded with the fingers, not sliced with a knife, “to preserve the nutrients”.
“We will go to the hospital tomorrow,” Malubia said after Mama told her when the discomfort had begun. And the next morning, she would tie a scarf over her browning-and-greying hair and drive her husband’s mother to the hospital; and Dr Ebuka would ask the same questions he had asked on several previous visits, and peer into Mama’s eyes, and update her prescription – a frown zigzagging his eyebrows. It was around that time she was also diagnosed with urinary incontinence. Sometimes Timothy joined them to the hospital with complaints of his own – mostly about his knees – and Mama wondered at the madness of it all. How did her destiny bring her here?
Nwachi’s death had jarred her. Worse than when her husband Paulinus was crushed in his car by a brake-failed trailer. (Paulinus whose expression used to blink between pride and gloom when he narrated how he shook the Princess Alexandra’s gloved hand in 1960 while wondering if Independence hadn’t come too soon.) But it had been different then, when Paulinus had died; Mama knew three or four other widows within their social circle. Today though, she could swear that every adult she had known at the time she married Paulinus – June 22, 1935, she couldn’t forget the date – was dead.
The night she learned of Nwachi’s death, Mama had lain in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, a rosary entangled in her fingers. Who would bury her when she died?
“Won’t you sit down?” Timothy asked, steering her attention back to the sitting room.
The boy helped her back into her chair, and left the room. Soon, she heard his feet slapping up the stairs.
“Do you want to say something I will not like?” she said. She straightened the edges of her wrapper with her gnarled hands.
Timothy grunted. His thick eyebrows shielded his sunken eyes. She could not have deciphered his thoughts by looking into his eyes even if she had been able to see them clearly. It had been like this ever since he was a little boy; she used to have to squat to look up into those eyes, to know if something was bothering him, or if he had misbehaved.
“I understand how you feel,” Timothy said, “and I think the rest of the family does too. Old age is a burden to both the old and the young. It is as if we are dragging our children’s lives back with our many problems.”
Mama snorted. “You talk as if you are old.”
“Am I not?”
“No. Wasn’t it only yesterday I was still wiping shit off your bottom? You are not really old.”
“I have arthritis and seven grandchildren, Mama.”
“My child, you are only unfortunate. You may never be lucky like me. You should look after yourself properly,” she said, mother to a son that still had much to learn about life. She shook her head, and fell silent.
* * *
Later that evening Mama joined the rest of the family in the dining room for dinner, and, when she was done, Doris put a small mound of pills into her palm, refilled her water glass, and placed the pills back in the small cupboard.
Mama swallowed the medicines without fuss. She set her empty glass down, and gripped the edge of the table, drawing on its solid strength for support.
A chair – or was that two chairs? – scraped back. Someone placed a hand on her back and put her walking stick in her right hand.
“Take Mama to bed,” someone said needlessly.
The person who had just given Mama the walking stick raised Mama’s left arm and hung it around their shoulders. The shoulders were small and sloped. A young girl. Teenage. Would this one be a grandchild or the child of a grandchild? Mama could not be certain. There were so many of her relatives who had arrived home for Nwachi’s funeral. Some, she remembered their names and that they were this person’s child or married to that other person who was her child or grandchild; others, she was not quite sure when they joined the family, if they belonged in the family. These details were small worries nowadays.
“Goodnight,” she said to them.
“Goodnight, Mama,” they said back, their chorus tangled with the clink of cutlery.
In Mama’s bedroom the girl helped her change into fresh diapers and a peach nightgown; she sat on the bed, offering each weak hand to a sleeve as instructed. She lay down. The girl gathered her legs into the bed and covered them with a blanket. Mama thanked her.
“Who gave birth to you?” she said.
“Patrick Ilo-Amadi is my father,” the girl said.
Mama groped in her memory, searching for who Patrick Ilo-Amadi was. He wasn’t any of her four children, three of whom were dead. No. The name rang familiar though. “Which of my children gave birth to your father, or is it your mother now?”
The girl paused for some seconds – probably trying to knit the threads of the family web in her head – and Mama concluded she might not know. She was very young after all. She would have known her grandparent by Mama orPapa if she’d met them at all.
“My father’s mother was younger than Mpa Timothy,” the girl said slowly.
Mama clasped her hands on her chest with an “Ah” of recognition. Her children: Caroline, Timothy, Ure, Nwachi. Born in that order. Ure was this girl’s grandmother. She had died before any of her own children were married.
“You know what I remember the most about your grandmother?” she said to the girl. There was a smile in her voice.
“Trees. My daughter Ure loved to climb trees, like a boy. She was very healthy the day she died. She came back from school – she was a teacher like me in those days – ate lunch, went to the bathroom to urinate and had a heart attack. They found her on the toilet seat, like she had merely fallen asleep there.”
The girl said nothing.
“What is your name, my child?”
“Jenny. You will marry a good man. Will you not like that?”
“I will, Mama.”
Mama grinned, showing the dark vacuum in her dentition. She wished she was not this tired all the time, this sick, weak, old. She would have gathered the young children of her family together and told them stories of the tortoise’s craftiness, of extinct festivals and watered-down ones, of the days when children had to trek to the stream to fetch water before going to school.
“Is that pillow fine?” Jenny asked.
“Eh,” she nodded. She pointed to the foot of the bed where there was a stool. “My rosary is there, give it to me.”
Jenny found the rosary and brought it to her. “Goodnight, Mama.” She snapped off the light on her way out, leaving Mama to think of darkness as emptiness and inexistence; and that, trapped in it, one felt alone in the sense of the only entity in existence; and that the spirit of God must have felt this way too in the beginning: alone and restless in the watery darkness. No wonder it had created – for company.
Mama remembered this feeling of aloneness from when she repeated Form 3. A long time ago now, around the time of the Aba Riots. That year, it wasn’t her father’s cane or the taunts of his other wives – and their children who didn’t go to school – that had made her cry. No. It had been sitting in a classroom with pupils who used to be a class below her. It was looking around at their faces, while the teacher wrote on the blackboard, with the cruel realisation that her peers had gone ahead of her.
* * *
Someone knocked on the door, entered and switched on the light, making her aware of other things in the room besides herself. She peered at the door.
“It’s me,” Timothy’s blurry figure said.
He carried something that looked like a slim book. The manner in which he held it, thrust away from his body, stirred her interest.
“The funeral programme for next week,” he explained. “The printer delivered them just now.”
She took her gaze off him and faced the ceiling, her curiosity satisfied and lost. Why was he telling her?
“I came to show you something, Mama…” He leaned his walking stick against the bed, opened the programme to a page he must have marked earlier, and faced the page towards her, three feet between them.
Mama started to muster her strength to snap at him – how did he expect her to see that from where she was! What was wrong with this child’s head? But Timothy went on talking. On this page she was looking at, he said, was listed everybody Nwachi was survived by: his widow Salome, five children, eight grandchildren, many nephews and nieces and cousins, Timothy himself (as brother), an uncle … A total of fifty-three persons left to mourn him, Timothy said, and closed the page.
“Nwachi was the youngest of your children,” he said, “yet he has so many of us surviving him.”
Mama’s chest heaved.
“It’s not good for you to … To harm yourself just because you think nobody will bury you when you … ”
“May thunder strike you dumb!” Mama hissed from somewhere deep in her stomach. Her slackened cheeks trembled under her rage. She clenched her fists, pressed her arms to the mattress to pull herself to a sitting position. She failed and gave up.
She asked Timothy if he did not know that the worst curse was to go grey with her own children, to bury them instead of them burying her. “Get out of this room and take your stupid talk with you, thunder strike you!”
And tomorrow – she resolved quietly as Timothy picked up his walking stick to leave – tomorrow, she would go to that small cupboard in the dining room, find the bottles of pills there, and empty all of their contents into her mouth.
About the Author
Kelechi Njoku is a broadcast journalist. His short stories and nonfiction have been published in the Kalahari Review, Nigerians Talk LitMag, Reindeer, Aerodrome, My Mind Snaps, Africa Book Club, The Clip and the Naija Stories anthology: Reflections of Sunshine. He lives in Abuja. His Writivism Short Story Prize shortlisted story is titled Survived By.