I was ten when it happened.
I hadn’t been asleep for long when the noise and clattering began.
It crawled into my subconsciousness, lingered distantly in my ear until it finally tugged me to consciousness and I laid there, half-asleep in my yellow pajamas, besides my sister who had marked her fifth year in the world just that week.
She slumbered deeply, oblivious to these noises I had edgily become accustomed to. But it died down in the past, it always did and the next day or hours later, sometimes it took days, and they were back in each other’s good braces: laughing and being cordial with each other.
Those were the lull moments in our household; they made me happy, comfortable and carefree but tonight, tonight the argument seemed to go on unending.
I rose from the bed and trudged towards the door – they always left our door half open to hear us in case we woke up or, in case Ese cried.
The light from the corridor reflected past the open doorway so I hid behind the door, out of sight with only my eyes peeking through the opening I had noiselessly reduced into a crack.
Mum was wearing a jean and a blouse and I wondered why she was dressed in her outing attire at that time of the night: she usually wore her long negligee.
I could see bags on the floor: two matching light pink suitcases, the same ones she had carried on our last Christmas trip to her mama’s house.
Now mum and dad were struggling over the bags. Angry words rented the air at the same time that their hands scuffled over the suitcases.
Dad was trying to stop her, but mum maintained her grip on the bag’s handle, constantly slapping dad’s hand away and kicking her legs at him.
“Ifeoma don’t do this” he pleaded this time, his hands still wrestling “you cannot do this to us, please don’t leave us”
“I can’t live this life anymore!” my mother cried, convulsing with emotion, “let me go!” she demanded.
When he still wouldn’t let her leave, she kicked him in the groin and I watched my father’s hands fly protectively down to his groin, he cupped the area at the same time that his body hunched forward in pain.
Mother hastily snatched the second suitcase and dragged it hurriedly after herself.
She paused when our eyes met. She looked at me and I stared back at her, iced to my spot. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, she just looked sad.
Her eyes shown red from crying and snot lingered down her nose. And even though I didn’t quite understand why at the time, a deep sense of sadness enveloped me and tears escaped down my cheeks.
…It felt like the end.
“Ifeoma!” my father called, recovering from his blow and mother broke her gaze away from me and charged towards the front door.
My presence stopped him as he sped past my door – disappointed to find me standing there yet too determined to run after my mother, he breezed onwards, calling her name, repeatedly.
The front door banged shut; I didn’t know who slammed it but I slowly closed mine and walked back to the bed. I climbed onto the mattress and wrapped my arm around my sleeping sister.
I had closed the door, our mother always warned us never to close our door, we were to leave it open at all times but that night, for the first time, I shut the door…
“Ese,” I whispered to my sleeping sister, amidst warm cascading tears, “I shut the door.”
It felt, like the end.
I woke up to the smell of akara by morning time.
It was Saturday and we always had akara with pap every Saturday morning – there would be no akara if mum was gone so I smiled gleefully to myself, realizing that yesterday was a dream after all!
I looked to my side and it was empty, Ese was up before me. I climbed down from the bed to go find her, mother, and father.
They would be in the kitchen I knew so I began to walk down the corridor that led to our kitchen. Flashes of what I thought I had seen on that corridor visited my mind but I pushed those thoughts aside; mum was in the kitchen, frying akara, just as she did for us every Saturday morning.
I found Ese at the table, busy with her crayons and sketchbooks with our father standing by the gas cooker, turning akara in the frying pan, “Good morning Imoni!” He always called me Imoni instead, of Iminiovwerha.
I looked around, feeling like something was amiss, “where is mummy?” I asked hopefully.
“Why don’t you take a seat at the table” he gestured with the silver frying spoon in his hand. He was smiling, relaxed in his usual self yet his eyes looked puffy like he had been crying.
“Imoni see, see my thing!” went Ese, holding up a painted sketched airplane to my face. “We will fly far, far away-yy!” her voice rang energetically.
I took the seat like a zombie, allowing my mind to replay the events on that corridor last night…
“How do you want your pap Imoni” father’s voice tried to distract my thoughts, “with lots of milk or with little milk?”
“With lots of milk!!!” Ese chanted, rushing to speak before me, as was usual.
“Lots of milk it is then, for my two beautiful princesses,” he said bubbly then reached his hand to grab the container of milk from the upper cabinet.
I remembered mother’s eyes, how we had gazed at each other last night…
It was not a dream!!!
The joy I had felt waking up disappeared and in its place, dwelled confusion and sadness. I looked at father, he was whistling a nursery rhythm much to the excitement and giggling of Ese as he stirred our pap.
I watched Ese, obliviously laughing and clapping to father’s singing and I wondered when mother would return… If.
There was a calendar hung up on the wall in my room; it was a gift from mother.
“With this, I will teach you how to count the days of the month and months of the year” she had said to me and together, we hooked it to the wall and I repeated after her as she pronounced the months and taught me how many days they were in each month.
We crossed out each new day to remind me that, that particular day was the day that we were in.
That Saturday morning, after breakfast, I went to my room and picked up a pencil. I circled the present day: it was the 5th of January 2002.
I would circle each day until our mother returned.
My father was a Lawyer. A very busy Lawyer.
When our mother was around, he drove us to school and picked us from school every day. Then he would drop us at home and drive back to work to return only when the sun had gone down.
But on Monday morning, when he dropped us at home, he did not go back to work. He stayed to give Ese and me a bath, then he cooked us a meal and watched us eat. Afterward, he saw to it that we observed our siesta.
We woke up from our nap to find him working on the dining table, papers spread out on the entire table – which was unusual as he barely worked when he was home with all of us.
“Where is my mummy?” Ese asked, for the umpteenth time since Sunday. “I want my mummy,” she repeated, rubbing her right eye with her fist.
Father rose from the chair to where we stood and lifted Ese into his arms, he reached his free hand down to me, I took it and he walked with us to the sofa. He placed Ese on the chair and lifted me to sit beside her. He squatted in front of us and said, “Mummy has gone on a journey, very far away…”
“Like my airplane?” chipped Ese.
Father smiled and touched her chin, “Yes, like your airplane.”
“But I want to go with my mummy,” Ese insisted, “I want my mummy to come and carry me,” wiggling her small legs persistently against the sofa’s cushion.
“Is she coming back?” I finally asked father, before he could cook up an answer for Ese.
He looked at me thoughtfully and with sadness in his eyes, he nodded and said, “I hope she does.”
“I want my mummy, I want my mummy!!!” Ese began to chant, almost tearfully. Father and I stared at each other in silence. He broke his gaze to lift Ese back into his arms and straightened up on his feet.
He spun her around, tickled her stomach and she laughed, forgetting her desire for mother at that moment.
They were laughing and goofing around that I too, instinctively chuckled.
Dad’s mama came to live with us in the days that followed. During that time, father told us he was reconstructing an old building attached to our house into an office.
“Why?” I remember asking him.
“Because I want to be closer to you girls.”
“Is mummy not coming back?” I had asked, even though afraid of what his answer would be.
“I don’t know my dear” he responded, brushing Ese’s hair and I picked up my pencil and made a circle around the date which read 15th January 2002.
Dad started to go to work at his new building next to our house, and so did his staff.
I don’t know how he quite did it but he was always there for me and Ese.
Grandma was old and always coughing but she kept an eye on us alright, always chasing sluggishly after us with her slipper.
Dad would come home frequently to check on Ese and I. He still assisted us to bath and drove us to school every day. He cooked our meals and woke up late in the night to iron our clothes and do our laundry.
He took us to the salon to braid our hair, and he went to the market to buy our clothes and shoes. He helped us with our assignments and he took us to the park every Saturday evening.
Dad would ask me to watch everything he did around the house: when he swept, I was there, when he dusted and mopped, I was there, when he cooked, I was there, and when he did the dishes, I was still there – watching, learning and helping out.
When I clocked eleven that November, I was able to cook simple meals, clean the house, and help a lot with Ese. Dad even taught me how to use a needle and a thread.
I circled December 31st, and the dates on my calendar became exhausted, there was nothing left to circle. “I’ll save that for you” father said to me and took down the calendar.
He never replaced it, and I too, stopped counting days to our mother’s return.
Ese and I returned from school one day to find grandma gone. She had been asleep as usual when our father drove us to school that morning.
Father said she had gone to heaven, in her sleep.
After grandma passed, father created a room for us at his office. The room held a big twin sofa, a table, and a TV with an adjourning bathroom. We went there every day after school and returned home with him.
Even though our house shared the same fence with his office, he couldn’t bear to let us out of his sight.
I got admission into a boarding house and I went off to secondary school, leaving our father with Ese. They came to see me during visiting days in my school and Ese would tell me all about how doting father was over her.
He even bought her a puppy.
Mother never returned.
I do not remember her calling on our birthdays either. She was gone but father did his best to fill her space in our lives.
He taught us the things we needed to know as good human beings and the feminine things he could not teach us, he always employed someone to do so.
He was our friend, he was our teacher, but most importantly, he was our father. And although his hair grew grey beyond his peers and his eyes were tired and the skin on his face grew soft and wrinkled, like that of a man twice his age, he never stopped caring for us.
…Today, as I scooch by his gravestone; twenty-five years later, placing a rose to celebrate my third father’s day without him in this world, I am reminded that Ese and I turned out to be fine women because of him…
I felt my husband’s hand lovingly squeeze my shoulder, out of my reminisce. I looked up at him and smiled sadly.
He nodded understandingly and I dropped my gaze back to the still new looking headstone. I kissed my fingers and touched the tombstone, then I rose to my feet and allowed my husband to wrap my arm in his.
Side by side, in comforting silence, we walked back to our car.
In less than two hours, we will both be delivering a speech at a Pediatrics conference. I made a mental note to ring Ese afterward: she should be done with Court by then.