The language of kindness
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
The glass plate slipped from his hands, impacting the ground with a sharp sound that seemed to drag the breath out of Luke. He stood at the sink, frozen in place, his eight year old face a mask of terror. His hands trembled slightly and he stared up at me with huge brown eyes.
I wanted to hug him, to kiss the terror off his face, to hold him close to my breast. But I did not. Yes, he was my son. But he’d been my son for only a month. And in the emotional state which he yet inhabited, he was still Liz’s son.
Liz had been my only sister, separated by nine years, separated much more by our lifestyles. We’d both been born and raised in the church with five brothers. Six of us kids stayed within the Christian community. Liz had other ideas. She first ran away at twelve. By then, I was already on my own, had received a frantic call from Mother one late night. Liz hadn’t returned home after school. She came back two days later, unrepentant, letting everyone know that she wouldn’t have returned if not that it’d been near impossible to get food to eat.
She ran away again at fourteen, came back a week later with the news that she was pregnant. By then, I was married, had been trying unsuccessfully for a baby for a year.
She delivered Matt at home, relinquished his care to Mother and promptly got pregnant again. By the time Liz was eighteen, she had three little children, fathers unknown. Then she seemed to grow up, at least enough not to get in the family way again.
While she battled her own demons, I battled mine. Mark and I had been to numerous hospitals, were told we were both okay yet we couldn’t make a baby for the life of us. After seven years of trying, of raised hopes and dashed hopes, we’d settled into the detritus of daily living; wake up, pray to God, go to work, come back, eat, sleep, wake up.
Then hope, albeit a strange one.
Liz, now twenty-two, now on her own, called one late night. She was pregnant again, had also just been diagnosed with HIV, did we want the baby?
I wept, I leaped, I laughed, I sorrowed. And I said yes.
For nine months, I cared for Liz. For nine months, I was sick with her, was ecstatic with her, had cravings with her, couldn’t stand the smell of perfume with her. And went into labour with her.
When my boy Luke was born, Liz took a look at him and shook her head. No way was she giving him up.
I wept, I sorrowed, I despaired. I returned home alone distraught, knowing there was no way Liz could care for that baby on her own, no way she could manage her disease with him, no way she could be a mother to him.
For eight years, she struggled. And for eight years, she taught Luke the language of fear. Unable to control the disease that ravaged her body, she lashed out. A kick here, a scratch there. Irrational anger, screaming fits. Hunger as punishment.
I wanted to take Luke home with me, wanted to drain the sadness out of him and fill him with joy but Liz wouldn’t let me. But I was there, on the periphery, doing what I could. Loving my sister, loving this little boy who looked so much like our father.
The night his mother died, he phoned me, his voice a broken whisper. I met him hunched over her body, his body wracked with dry sobs, mucus clotting his nostrils.
In grief, I buried my sister. In joy, I brought my son home.
Love was to him a foreign language. And I couldn’t speak it for the fear of alienating him. I couldn’t hug him, couldn’t pepper his face with kisses.
We loved him.
We wanted him to unlearn the fear his mother had taught him.
So with the plate that shattered at his feet, I didn’t hug him. But I patted his back and smiled down at him with my eyes.
“It’s okay, buddy. It’s only a plate.”
He squinted at me, then bent slowly to the ground. I bent with him. Together, we picked the shards.