A love story
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Once upon a time, I loved only one woman. These days, I love four. And I do this with an all-consuming passion, a burning ferocity and an unwavering knowledge that I can, would kill for any or all of them.
At the threshold to the living room, I pause for a bit as I am wont to do these days and drink in the scene before me. Thе living room is a mini war field, a combat zone of toys, discarded homework, make-up, chew toys for the dogs, and two bikes. Julia is sitting in the midst of it all, her eyes glued to the TV set.
There’d been a time, when Julia was the only woman I loved, that she’d have fainted at the sight of such disarray and chaos. But time and a passel load of kids has mellowed this woman. And I for one, like what she has become.
“Hi there.” I finally reveal my presence and pick my way through the debris on the floor. When I reach the sofa, Julia clears a space for me by pushing a load of clothes to the floor. Laughing, I drop into the seat beside her.
For us, there is no need for words. Though she is still riveted on the TV, her right hand finds a way into mine, a silent acknowledgement. Just being in this environment, sitting close to Julia, relaxes me like nothing else can. Ten hours a day in a suit and tie, wheedling and dining clients or expounding on a legal theory in a courtroom. Then this, the chaos and utter loveliness of my home.
I can hear Grace and Matthew before I see them. “I get first dibs.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. You said I could go first.”
The outer door swings open, then slams shut as the two kids race inside.
“Hi dad.” Matthew waves a hand. “Hi mom.”
Grace does not bother with greetings. She is already racing for the backyard where she is intent on getting on the tyre swing first.
At twelve, she is two years younger than Matthew, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Wide in the chest, wide in the hips, and taller than Matthew, she is missing a front tooth from an altercation with a bully from earlier in the summer. And it’s much easier for strangers to believe they are twins considering that Grace has been bumped up in school twice, so that she is in the same class as Matthew. I am sure it’s only a matter of time before she is bumped up again and becomes Matthew’s senior in school.
I fear for her most, of all my kids. Life is not always kind, and it’s much more unkind to people who are different. And Grace is indeed different. She is bigger than her age mates are. As a child, she’d shot up in her fourth year, was growing at an alarming rate that had us worried. A surgery on her thyroid gland had stopped her growing stratospherically, but there was no way to reverse the growth already achieved.
Her face looks quite different too. With a huge jaw and a huge forehead, it might be difficult to find the beauty in my child if you are not her father or her mother. But she is beautiful to me, has always been. I remember the first time I held her, the first time they gave her to me swaddled in pink flannel wrapper. I’d cried, overwhelmed by the love and gratitude I felt to hold my first daughter in my arms.
Grace is also exceptionally bright. She’s devoured all the books in the house, and they are by no means small in number, is a regular visitor at the library, and knows things even I a practicing lawyer doesn’t. And she is not afraid to let you know that she knows what you don’t, a trait that hasn’t earned her any endearing friends.
I love Grace in a different way than I love my other kids, in a different way that I love Julia. I love her and ache for her at the same time. At the sight of her, my heart would start a mad dance of anxious love, the same way it had done when her friends got invitations to parties and she didn’t, the same way it does when she is always the last one to be picked for sports, even though she is more coordinated than anyone I know.
But thanks be to God, she doesn’t care. Perhaps she has more intellect than feelings, or perhaps she has developed her thick skin in response to the cruel world, but I can honestly say that she doesn’t care. She has a regal way of holding up her head, of allowing people’s comments slide off her skin, of pretending not to hear.
At nights, I still go to her room to tuck her in, to kiss her on the cheeks and tell her how much I love her. It is important she never forgets this, crucial that she knows that she will always be first daughter and hold that special place in my heart.
I listen to Grace’s and Matthew’s shriek of laughter, their babble and their good natured teasing and I know without a doubt that my daughter will be okay. Matthew is her number one fan, her greatest supporter, and her most ardent crusader. There is no fight he will not fight for her, no sea he wouldn’t cross, and no depths he wouldn’t venture. Between Matthew, me and God, Grace will be okay.
“The girls want you for tea.” Julia tells me during a commercial break, “I was instructed to have you upstairs and to tea immediately you come back.”
I groan and sigh. Vivien and Vanessa are our twin girls, and we have called them the girls forever. Grace is simply Grace and Vivien and Vanessa are the girls. They are five, surprise babies we weren’t expecting. After Grace’s medical scare and surgery, we had decided we couldn’t, wouldn’t do this anymore. Our hearts were fragile and vulnerable, and we weren’t going to tempt the fates by attempting to have another child.
But fate does have a way of asserting itself. Despite our use of contraceptives, Julia got pregnant. And that we didn’t even know that she was until the fourth month is nothing short of miraculous. She hadn’t put on an ounce of weight, only complained that her skirts and trousers were a little too tight at the waist. And the morning sickness that had plagued her throughout Matthew and Grace’s pregnancies wasn’t there. There was no increase in appetite, no lethargy, nothing.
A routine medical check at the hospital made the examining physician ask for a pregnancy test, and that she would be pregnant and with twins too was almost too much for us to bear.
But bear it we did, and when Viv and Van were pushed into the world, bright eyed and soulful, I fell in love yet again. When they placed them in my arms, one in the right and one in the left, my heart felt full to overflowing, very near bursting, and I couldn’t imagine that we hadn’t wanted these precious gifts.
That day, I knew I was going to love these girls, was going to lay my life down for them like I would for Grace. I knew that even if they ended up having the same medical problems that Grace did, we were going to love them and give them the best lives possible.
They are my babies, the ones who are as soft as Grace is hard, the ones who are as girly and pinkish as Grace is not. They are the ones allowing me live out my dream of being a father to a typical little girl, and this blessing has been double what I expected.
No matter how tired I am, they want me for tea parties. Not Julia, because she gets distracted by the thousand and one things still left on her to do list. Not Matthew and Grace, because those ones would rather be roughhousing and couldn’t be bothered. But me, daddy.
I pretend to hate going to the parties, putting up a front for Julia like it was a burden. But I love it so much and already ache at the thought that one day these make believe parties will end, when the girls are preteens and then teens with boys and make-up on their minds.
So I relish every moment of it. I sit in their tiny third chair every so often, my hands around an impossibly tiny cup of liquid, pinkie extended the way one ought to properly drink tea.
I get painted with glittery nail polish and I get made up, stubble and all.
I am loving every minute of my life.
Matthew is my only son, my firstborn child, my first show of strength. I love him with an all-encompassing love, the kind that makes you want to put your arms right about the other person and pull him up to be all that he can be. The kind of love that makes you want to be the air underneath his wings, the kind that makes you envision your future together no longer in the primary relationship of father and son, but of friends.
But I love the women in my life a little differently. Not more, not less, just different.
There is something about a man’s love for his wife that cannot be questioned, that cannot be explained or unravelled or understood by a third party. That’s what I feel for Julia, that pit patter heart hammering when she looks across the room at me, that warm touch that straddles the fence between mother and lover especially when I am sick, the vulnerability that I have with her that I have with no one else alive. This is unexplainable.
And there is something unique about a father’s love for his daughters. It is soft and warm and squishy, and envelopes you in a soft blanket of feelings you never thought you’d ever have. Daughters make you tear up. Daughters make you brave, even when you are not. And daughters make you want to take on the world even when you full well know it’s a losing battle. Fathers of daughters have an inestimable blessing.
And I am a blessed man.