Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Losing myself

losing self

Losing myself

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

As I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

But I always left him behind in bed in the mornings, because he has no place in real life, no place in my everyday hustle.

Life is not for dreamers, I have since realised, it is for people who would hold their lives in their hands to put food on the table.

A long time ago, almost so long I have difficulty remembering it, I had been a dreamer. I had looked at the world with huge white eyes, had believed wholeheartedly that I just had to keep doing what I was doing for victory to come.

As a child, I’d loved to draw. It came to me naturally, and my fingers always flew over paper whether I was using a pen, a pencil, a piece of charcoal. I would look at an image, and it was like my fingers had a brain of their own, because they would remember and render back that image in an eerie likeness. I had entered several competitions as a child, had been lucky to win one of them aged twelve.

And that winning had been the cause of my sorrows, because it had filled my head my head with dreams of one day becoming a professional illustrator. I entered several competitions after that, lost every one of them, but I was firm, almost pig-headed, in my belief that there was a pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow.

And then life and reality set in.

I got my girlfriend pregnant. We were both only 20, and we thought we were going to have a go at it, be fantastic parents, take the world by the horns, be able to provide for this child while still having great lives ourselves.

One thing they don’t teach you early enough is that parenthood is a long, arduous journey and that your middle name becomes sacrifice after you’ve had a child. We were both still schooling, both working at low-income jobs, and we tried so hard to save, tried so hard to make a better life for our son.

We scraped by, we managed. I dropped several courses at school, spread my coursework so that I would eventually spend five years instead of three in school, just so that I could have time to work more. I worked and was so bone tired at the end of the days that I didn’t touch my sketch pad. On days when I didn’t go to work or go to school, I was still so fatigued I didn’t have the patience or the inspiration to put pen to paper.

And then Mariah fell pregnant again. We hadn’t planned it, just like we hadn’t planned the first one. Life became even harder, working to keep a family of four together on minimum wage, while still paying for school.

My dreams went adrift just a little further.

In four years, we had three babies. I dropped out of school so I could concentrate on work and keeping body and soul together. Mariah did the same. We didn’t tell ourselves we had quit school. Instead, we told ourselves we were postponing our education.

And postpone we did. For one year, for two years, for three years.

And then Mariah fell ill.

She’d been complaining that her bones ached for a while. She would come back from work and picking the kids from day care and would literally collapse onto the sofa, unable to bear her own weight anymore. She would cook in the kitchen, her body leaned against the wall, her breath coming in gasps.

I encouraged her to go to the doctor’s, but she didn’t want to.

“It’s just stress.”

I knew it wasn’t stress and I pressured her day after day to go to the hospital. But she wouldn’t, and I knew she didn’t want to go because it was going to cost us money that we didn’t have.

I blame myself till tomorrow that I didn’t insist, that I didn’t bundle her to the hospital myself, that I didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to go get checked out.

She collapsed on the kitchen floor one blustery cold night, and I didn’t find her until thirty minutes after she had fallen into that heap. By the time we got to the emergency room, we were four months too late. She had bone cancer, and it had progressively eaten at her bones for months undetected. By the time she started to feel weak in the knees, she was already at the tail end of things.

They gave her six months to live, and she didn’t even last that long. Two months after we got the prognosis, she gave up the ghost. It had been two months of agony, of soul-searing pain, of nights spent crying silently into my pillow, of mornings spent putting on a brave face for the world.

We buried her on an impossible hot afternoon, left her in the cemetery, and went home to echoing walls and empty dreams.

I was twenty-six, halfway educated, father of three, an unskilled worker, a widower, and I was lost. I would roam the little apartment at night, stroking the kids head, searching for Mariah’s shadow. I would soothe the kids as they shot out of bed with nightmares, but there was no one to soothe mine, no one to tell me that it would be okay.

So, I worked hard. By then, I had become a manager at the shop where I’d once been a salesperson, was earning better pay, but it all disappeared in the face of diapers, baby formula, and daycare. Family pitched in, helped where they could with money, time and kind words, but there was a gaping hole in my heart that no one but Mariah could fill. But Mariah was gone.

And because dreams are only dreams, I now know there would never be a professional illustrator me. There are bills to be paid, children to be cared for, and life to battle.

So, as I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

This morning, I sight the easel pushed into a far corner of our room, shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

I know I am losing myself, one piece at a time, but I do not care.

Life is for realists, not dreamers.

 

 

NB: I believe in dreams, no matter how hard or far off they may seem. I am a dreamer. and I encourage you not to give up on yours, no matter your circumstances right now.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Early

Early

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Four weeks doesn’t seem like much. For heaven’s sake, it is only but a full moon. You can’t build a house in four weeks. You cannot sow and reap in four weeks. You don’t grow much in the space of four weeks.

 

But your life can take a dip in four weeks. In four weeks, you can lose the hope you held onto for eight long months.

 

Experience has taught me to take it slowly, to sit in front of the hut in the evenings with my feet propped up, sipping the bitter juice of the isesi leaves that theoretically delays labour. Experience however, has not taught me to cope with the loss.

 

The first contraction is mild, rippling my swollen belly gently. I prop my feet higher, and try to push panic away from my heart. The next contraction takes its time in arriving, but it is with a little more kick. Terror floods my heart.

 

Five times I’ve been with child. Five times I’ve knelt at the birthing bed four or five weeks too early. And five times I’ve been handed dead children, fragile babies that do not have the ability to suck life-giving air into their lungs.

 

At the third contraction, I hasten off the chair, into my mother-in-law’s hut. Over a slow fire, she is roasting groundnuts, her feet tapping to a song she hums gently.

 

“Mama…the baby.”

 

At the sound of my voice, she turns. Her face is brown and perfectly wrinkled, her eyes deep set and knowledgeable. This evening, they are twin pools of sorrow.

 

“Now?” She asks, rising to her feet.

 

I nod and turn to go out of the hut. She follows immediately and soon catches up with me.

 

“Perhaps the baby will live.” She says.

 

I want to keep hope alive. I desperately want to hold my own child in my arms, not because arrangements are already being made for Soji to marry another woman, one that will bear him living heirs. Not because it is extremely shameful for a woman to be besieged by series of stillbirths.

 

I want a child I can love. I want this extension of me. I want this validation that I am a whole woman.

 

“Go on inside. I will get the midwife.” Mama says at the entrance to my hut. As she hurries away, another contraction hits me right in the middle of my stomach. The pain roots me to the spot. My feet tremble as a sudden cold descends on me.

 

As the contraction eases, I realize that I am sobbing, praying, pleading.

 

“Oh God, oh God. Let this baby live. Please…please, oh God.”

 

In a raffia basket near the bed, the birthing equipment are ready. A dull knife, a sharp knife, a clamping cord, coarse soap, palm oil for the baby’s skin. In another raffia basket are baby clothes, hand stitched the first time I got pregnant.

 

I’d been wild with joy, thrilled at the honour of becoming pregnant only one month after we were married. At the village market, I’d purchased yards and yards of good material, had laboured for months, stitching together beautiful garments, waiting for the birth of my first child.

 

That baby came six weeks early, had not even drawn a single breath before she was laid into the ground.

 

The sobs rend themselves from my throat, exploding from me not unlike a burst of gunfire.

 

I sit on the edge of the bed, awaiting the midwife’s arrival.

 

 

 

 

In ancient Africa, the mortality rate was very high as there were no equipment to save premature babies.

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Preparations

Preparations

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

“A woman that can master the tea pouring ceremony has proven herself to be a good wife. You will learn to pour, even if it kills you.” For the past year, this has been the mantra in Nagomi’s home.

It is not enough that she cooks perfect meals, that she has learnt how to manage a home, that she has practiced child rearing with her elder brother’s children. It doesn’t matter that Yaotsu is a semi city, nor does it matter that people have abandoned the old ways for the modern.

Her mother wanted her to learn the tea pouring art, so she learnt.

Yesterday, Nagomi had done the final rehearsal, her mother acting as the guest.

Today, there would be four guests to attend to.

In the tea room, Nagomi fills a stone basin with fresh water and purifies her hands and mouth. Even though her heart is threatening to beat out through her chest, she proceeds calmly to the middle gate. Mahito is already waiting, his parents in tow. The father is as tall as he is, with the same broad face, slanted eyes, and button nose. The mother is buxom, her face filled out into a cheery roundness that eases some of the anxiety in Nagomi’s chest. Nagomi’s father rounds up the number of guests.

Nagomi bows to her guests, and they bow back. No words are spoken as Nagomi’s mother, today acting as the assistant host, then Mahito, then his father, then his mother, then Nagomi’s mother make their way through the chumon.

At the stone basin, the guests and host’s assistant purify themselves and enter the teahouse through a sliding door that is just three feet high. To enter, everyone has to bow, and this signifies that all are equal regardless of status or social position.

Inside the stone house, Nagomi sits, the guests sit and greetings are finally exchanged. After this, Nagomi brings in the tea bowl that holds the chasen, the chakin and the chashaku. She places the tea bowl next to the water jar. She bows and stands again to go to the preparation room. When she returns, it is with the waste water bowl, a bamboo water ladle and a green bamboo rest for the kettle lid.

In silence, her heart going pit-a-pat, she purifies the tea container and tea scoop with a fine silk cloth, fills the bowl with hot water and rinses the whisk. She then empties the tea bowl and wipes with a tea towel.

For a terrifying moment, she forgets what the next step is, feels a searing heat begin to burn in her face. Then she remembers and peace steals into her heart.

She lifts the tea scoop and container and places three scoops of tea per guest into the tea bowl, ladling enough hot water from the kettle into the tea bowl and using the whisk to make a thin paste. When she’s done, she passes the tea bowl to Mahito who bows and accepts it. As tradition demands, he admires the bowl by raising and rotating it. He then drinks some of the tea, wipes the rim of the bowl, and passes it to his father who does the same thing.

When everyone has tasted the tea, the bowl is returned to Nagomi who rinses it, and cleans the scoop and container. She offers the cleaned scoop and container to the guests for examination.

Everybody seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the ceremony has gone well. Nagomi catches her mother’s eyes and sees fierce pride in the older woman’s eyes. The roar of fear in Nagomi’s heart finally quiets. She’s done it. She’s proved to her fiancé and his parents that she has the patience to be a good wife and mother.

Mahito is smiling at her as she rises with the utensils and heads for the preparation room. When she returns, they can all relax and talk about the wedding preparations.

 

Chumon – Middle gate

Chasen – Tea whisk

Chakin – Tea cloth

Chashaku – Tea scoop

The tea ceremony, known in Japan as chanoyo or sado, is unique to Japan and is one of the country’s most famous cultural traditions. The strict rules of tea ceremony etiquette, which at first glance may appear burdensome and meticulous, are in fact carefully calculated to achieve the highest possible economy of movement.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

A white day

A white day

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I should have known, should have prepared myself for the happenings of the day.

 

Yi never wore white, yet he went to work that morning wearing white shoes, a white cap pulled low over his head.

 

I stood at the doorway, fought the melancholic pull in my stomach, waved goodbye to the man I’d called husband for five years.

 

Fighting the unease that churned my belly, I swung my mind to happier thoughts. Yi’s company had just promoted him and my seamstress business was growing daily. And we’d finally decided to try for another child, perhaps a brother for Ming.

 

Of course we’d pay a yearly penalty for as long as the baby was a minority, because we’d in essence be breaking the law of one child per couple. But I longed for the easy camaraderie of siblings that had existed between my two brothers and I, and it was unfair, government or not, to deny Ming such a pleasure.

 

Three-year-old Ming was still sleeping, the two braids I’d pulled her hair into before going to bed last night coming unraveled.

 

Standing at the door to her room, I felt my mind fill with pride, my heart with joy. Yes, she was a girl, and most women I knew had quietly aborted their pregnancies when they realized the only child the government allowed them would be a female. But I loved my daughter, reveled in her powdery smell and chubby arms, basked in the glow of her affection for me.

 

That morning I stood in the doorway, happiness slowly gaining ground on my agitation.

 

Until I saw the opened window…and the white feather.

 

Pigeons usually patrolled our neighborhood and sometimes settled on the windowsills, but I’d never before found telltale signs of a shed feather. And a white one at that.

 

Panic bubbled out of my heart, flowed into my fingers. I strode to where Ming lay sleeping, snatched her off the bed and woke her in the process.

 

Her face scrunched up and she let out a long winding cry. Placing her on my hip in the hopes of soothing her, I made my way to the kitchen.

 

I sat her down, gave her a shrimp to nibble on, and set to cook.

 

By the time I finished cooking the fresh mushrooms in oyster sauce and walnuts in butter soup, it was afternoon and my heart had become calmer. Not entirely calm, but much calmer.

 

I’d just finished putting Ming to bed for her afternoon nap, was digging in the store for an old dress I wanted to remake when I felt the first rumble.

 

Then that deafening roar that burst my eardrums. The building tottered like an infant learning how to walk and I felt myself sliding. I struggled to stay upright, grabbed at a box only to find it sliding with me, down, down, down.

 

All of a sudden, the noise and the movement ceased. I sprang to my feet, realized the room was slanted, clawed my way out of there, my head filled only with thoughts of Ming.

 

When I got to the doorway, I saw that the passageway was no longer there. In its stead, a cloud of dust, thick and blinding rose to torment me.

 

Then the second rumble. The plastered ceiling rained down on me, the floor on which I stood gave way, an iron rod caught me squarely on the forehead, and I sank into the waiting arms of darkness.

 

*

 

I woke up in a hospital in Shaanxi, haunted by dreams of a certain man in white with a smile as wide as the heavens. Though no one told it to me, I knew his name was Jesus.

 

When I opened my eyes, his image yet burned behind my eyelids.

 

Blinking my eyes, I turned to the nurse and learnt the truth.

 

An earthquake of incredible proportions, more than 70,000 people killed, a whole lot more injured, several missing. I’d been in a coma for five days.

 

When they brought the list of dead people, Hwong Yi was number 34,200. Hwong Ming was number 63,212.

 

The tears would not come. The grief settled into a hard ball in my stomach. I closed my eyes and saw the man called Jesus yet again.

 

 

 

 

*The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 affected more than 45.5 million people in 10 provinces and regions in China.

* In China, colour white is associated with death and mourning.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Not anymore

Not anymore

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I stepped into the cool foyer, relieved to be home after a very long day of negotiations and tantrums. I could hear the faint whisper of a TV set, the dull roar of a toilet flushing, and Melinda’s snores.

 

These were the sounds of home, the sounds that I loved so much it made my heart ache. In the living room, George was multitasking as usual, watching the TV, facebooking, doing his homework. He waved to me from his seat and went back to his chores.

 

My heart froze inside of me, like it did every night. There was a time he’d be flying across the room, a time when he would entwine his skinny arms around my neck and pepper my face with sweet little kisses. Not anymore.

 

In the hallway, I cracked open the door to Melinda’s room. She was fast asleep, curled in the fetal position, her mouth slightly open, the room awash with the pings and pongs of her snoring. There was a time she’d stay awake till I returned from work, her hair smelling of fruity shampoo, her mouth of toothpaste. The smell of girly innocence. Not anymore.

 

In our room, my wife came out of the bathroom when she heard the door. Her face was scrubbed clean of make-up, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her body in a modest nightie. In the past, she would be wearing fresh make-up, would be wearing a see-through negligee, would be waiting with a chilled glass of wine. Not anymore.

 

The sad truth I had to live with was that it was all my fault.

 

“Hi there.” Betsy reached up on her tippy toes and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek. I wanted to hold her close, to lose myself in her, to be one with her as before. Instead, I replied with a hi of my own and dropped my suitcase on the floor. As I loosened my tie, she told me my dinner was sitting in the oven, could she warm it up for me?

 

Betsy still did all the things a wife should, only that they were now empty chores. She cooked, she cleaned, she listened when I spoke, and we still had a sex life albeit a sporadic one. Everything was there. Everything but joy.

 

I couldn’t remember when the process started, but it must have been when I got the promotion three years ago. I was working hard, then harder, then hardest than I had ever done in my lifetime. Motivated by thoughts of being able to provide my family with all that they desired, I took on more responsibility than I was assigned, got home later and later, was too tired to sit up with my children, too tired to listen to them, too tired to appreciate Betsy, too tired to be a family man.

 

They tried really hard. The children were extra careful not to fray my already frayed nerves, Betsy gave me rub-downs to ease the tension in my back and forearms. I receded further and further into myself.

 

They got the message. The children found lives separate from their father’s, my wife’s bubble laugher finally faded into nothingness. I buried myself up to the neck in work.

 

The food was served, the water was poured. Betsy slipped under the covers, her back unconsciously turned to me. I ate slowly, not because I was savouring the meal but because my mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. I wished I could turn back time. Yes I would still have taken the promotion. But no, I wouldn’t have allowed my job to consume me. I wouldn’t have pushed my family away. I wouldn’t have.

 

I cleared the plate without even tasting its content, washed the plate and tray with warm water, finally climbed into bed beside my wife.

 

Even though she was asleep, I held her and promised that I would change things.

 

She did not hear me. And perhaps she wouldn’t have cared.

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Healing

Healing

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Smells and sounds. The cloying odour of disinfectant just applied. The mewling sound that starts from the throat of one canine until it is repeated, echoed, chanted from every dog in the enclosure, until the sound is a boomerang in my ears.

“They know we’ve got visitors. That’s how they behave when.” The vet explains.

I watch Caroline, try to gauge her reaction. Her face is set in the kind of concentration only an eight-year-old can master. Today, she’s done her hair into two pigtails. The pigtails are held in place by barrettes; hot-pink barrettes Mark bought her not quite two years ago.

A constriction rises to my throat but I swallow it, send it to my stomach where it sits like a truck of sand. I follow my daughter to a cage set apart from the rest. This dog has not joined the chorus. It lies on its front paws, liquid brown eyes staring at Caroline, one ear cocked as if it hears something we cannot.

“Is it a boy dog?” Caroline asks the vet.

“He is, but I’m not sure you’ll be wanting him.”

“Why?” She sounds so grown I have a difficult time believing she’s only eight. Her missing front teeth however, make a mockery of her grown-upness.

“His hind legs are crushed from an accident. We picked him off the streets. Come take a look at this one. He’s so cute.” He’s already moving away, steering Caroline towards another cage.

“He’s the one I want. I’m going to call him Pickles. Mum, can I?”

The psychologist had set me in the direction of getting a pet for Caroline. Will give her something to do, help her cope with her grief, he’d said. What he’d not said was that she would choose something sick, perhaps dying.

The answer to my daughter’s question lies thick and fuzzy somewhere deep in my throat. My memories take me back despite myself. Caroline at the kitchen table, hurriedly doing her homework so she could be allowed, be free to sit with her dad.

At the door, I’d listen, irrationally afraid to go in, scared that Caroline would literarily fall apart if she ever saw the jelly I was reduced to at the sight of her dying father. I’d hear her reading to him from one of her numerous storybooks.

Inevitably, I’d hear the sobs. The sobs of a seven-year-old who couldn’t understand why her father couldn’t talk back to her, couldn’t hear her. I myself didn’t know how to explain, because I had my own questions. How could a thirty-seven year old man, so full of life and vitality one day, be struck down by a massive stroke the following, reduced to a specimen until a kind doctor told me to take him home to die in peace?

“Mummy, can I have him?”

I shake my head to clear my cobwebby thoughts. “Why don’t we look at other dogs?”

“But I like this one. I promise I’ll take good care of him. I’ll even clean his poop.” For the first time since Mark died, her eyes are aglow with light, with life.

How can I deny her? It is one dog after all. When I nod yes, light bursts from her eyes and she grabs me in a hug, one so warm and tight it forces the breath from my mouth.

**
Two bodies, same bed. Both asleep, both snoring. A half smile pulls Caroline’s lips slightly apart. Her arms are around Pickles, whose breath keeps puffing the thin blanket.

I put out the light, and let out a sigh as I close the door. For four nights, since the day Pickles came to stay, there’d been no scream from Caroline’s room in the middle of the night, no terrifying nightmare that made her leap from her bed, drenched in sweat, crying out for me. For her daddy.

My room, the room that used to be mine and Mark’s, is still brightly lit. I shrug off my housecoat and slip into the covers of my blanket. Sleep doesn’t come easy – for several months now, it hasn’t – but there’s a lightness of heart, an ease of burden I can’t quite explain.

I finally fall asleep, thinking of the last vacation we had as a family.

 

 

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Natural surrogates

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I stepped into the cool foyer, glad to be home, yet wary of the conversation that was bound to be.

The pit-pat of soft shoes from the staircase made me look up. There she was, her eyes shining with something that was between gladness and sadness. For as long as I’d known her, all of my sixteen years, she’d always been like that. When she looked at me, I could feel her tenderness, all of her love and something much more. Perhaps it was because of the uncanny resemblance between me and Danny, the man who was my brother yet my father.

“Hi there young man.” Mama stopped at the foot of the stairs and held out her arms. “Been expecting you quite a while. Thought you’d be earlier than this.”

“Had to meet up with some friends at the mall.” As I enveloped the soft little woman in my arms, a wave of tenderness tore through me. And despite where I’d been for the past five days, peace stole over me. Quietly, quickly.

“Come into the kitchen. Your pa’s making sandwiches.”

I knew there would be more than sandwiches and cold tea waiting in the kitchen. They would expect to hear all about Danny and his family. His pretty wife and his rambunctious twin boys. But most of all, they would want to hear about how it had gone between me and Danny this time.

Pa was sitting at the dinning table, stuffing bread into his mouth. Mama shot him a disapproving glance, to which he paid no mind. But he beamed at the sight of me. “Hello boy. Back too soon. I told your mother not to expect you for another hour or so. I knew you’d be at the mall.”

I dropped a quick kiss on his leathery cheek. He was sixty-one and Mama only fifty-nine, but life had not been very kind to them. High school sweethearts, they’d gotten married before they were barely out of their teens, before they’d had a taste of life’s difficulties. Then they’d waited more than half a decade to be parents. A mother at twenty-six, Mama quit work and devoted her life to training Daniel.

A quiet introspective boy, given to mood swings but never anger, it was a surprise when he came home one day from school, weeping like his heart had been blown to smithereens. His girlfriend had just told him she was two months pregnant and that under no circumstance would she attempt abortion. She also let him know that she wasn’t interested in mothering. She would have the baby and give it to him. He could do with it as he pleased.

A few days to his seventeenth birthday, Danny became a father. Tara was true to her word. Barely two weeks after delivery, her family moved away to start a new life. The new baby became the ward of Danny’s parents. Danny never held him, never spoke to him except it was absolutely necessary. When he turned twenty, Danny moved out and started a new life, one that did not revolve around his parents and his son.

“How’s your father?”

I did not reply. Rather I settled myself into a chair opposite Pa and got hold of a sandwich. Danny might be my natural father but that was about all. All my life, my grandfather had been my Pa, my grandma my Ma. With them, my life was just as it should be; quiet, secure. There were no great or wondrous adventures but at the same time no danger of emotional collapse.

Life was uncomplicated until I turned thirteen, until Danny’s wife decided I had to spend some of my holiday time with them. Thus, three times a year, I left the comfort of my home, traveled upstate to spend a hellish week with people I neither loved nor hated.

I kept my voice as bland as I could. “I saw Danny only once. He had several meetings. Aunty Becca and the twins said to say hello.”

I saw Mama’s eyes fill with tears. Things had not changed. Danny neither loved nor hated me. He was merely indifferent, couldn’t care less if I came to visit or not. But at least I knew him. What about the mother I’d never known.

“Welcome home, Son.” Mama said.

I nodded and blinked back tears.

 

Posted in Girls, Short story

Lost years

Lost years
©  Folakemi Emem-Akpan

For five years I hid my eyes behind my hands. Figuratively. For the same five years, my sister hid away from me. Figuratively.

And for five years, a wall of silence sat between us. Literarily.

I sit in the living room of the home where we grew up together. Asides from the musty smell of an aging lumber house and the fine dust that covers the perfectly-arranged furniture, nothing has changed. Three easy armchairs, once green but now an indeterminate color. Two exclusively for Dad and Mom. Sophia and I would squeeze ourselves into the remaining one.

The mantelpiece still houses the memorabilia our parents collected over the years. Mom’s tiny china cups, Dad’s sport paraphernalia. A dozen or so picture frames. Sophia and I grinning behind candy-laden mouths in identical clothes, aged five. Expertly made-up faces the night we turned eighteen.

Memories clouding my head so terribly, so urgently it feels it would burst.

I try to sit and await her arrival, but my itchy feet carry me to the kitchen. A huge airy place that still has a dining with four chairs, four settings. It’s in this huge kitchen that Sophia and I played many a games of hide and seek. She hiding, me seeking, unconsciously playing out a role that would later define our future.

A solitary engine rolls to a stop outside. By the time I reach the entryway, its occupants have alighted.

Five years have filled out Ben. His cheeks are fuller, his black hair and eyes seemingly darker. He walks with the same self-assuredness I remember so well, his hand unconsciously grazing his chin in its customary fashion.

Beside him is a mirror image of me. When we were young and mischievous, the only person who could tell us apart was Mom.

Sophia walks slowly, uneasily and she’s helped along the pathway by Ben. Five years has not changed either of us. If anything, we seem to look more alike than we’ve ever done.

Anger wells up in me, tinged by sadness. This isn’t the way things should be. Two identical twins should not have been forced apart by a man. By Ben.

“Hello.” Ben’s voice is still as deep as ever, and I am unwillingly transported to the day I met him. Seven years ago. The day I got the call that Dad was dead, Sophia ill, and Mom distraught.

I shake away the cobwebby thoughts. “Hello Ben.” I sweep my gaze to Sophia. She nods her hello, her eyes a pool of sadness and grief.

“Thanks for calling.” Her voice is hoarse, as if she’s been crying non-stop for hours.

I turn and head for the living room. Their echoing footsteps tell me they’re following. In the living room, I sit in Dad’s armchair, Sophia in Mom’s, as if by a mutual unspoken agreement we’d agreed not to sit in the chair that used to be ours both. Ben takes our chair.

“Are you okay, Hannah?” Ben asks.

For the two years that I loved him, he’d blossomed into a caring man. And it seems that for the five years after that that Sophia’s had him, he’s become even more so.

To Ben, we were friends. Close pals and nothing more. But I’d loved him desperately, had spent countless hours rhapsodizing to Sophia. She would be my bridesmaid, would marry Ben’s best man, and then we would live within walking distance of each other. That didn’t stop her from accepting to marry him when he proposed to her instead of me. To me, the ultimate act of betrayal.

 

What I didn’t know, couldn’t have envisaged was that Sophia had loved him too, had kept quiet when I rhapsodized because she’d thought there was no way Ben was interested in any of us. In her.

“Yes, I guess.”

Mom’s death was not a surprise. Yet it came as a shock. For the past year, she’d succumbed to one illness after the other until the hospital had become a second home. I took care of her in the hospital. When she was well enough to be sent home, she went to Sophia’s and Ben’s. Somehow, through it all, my twin sister and I synchronized our movements such that we never met after the debacle of their wedding five years ago.

Until now.

“The hospital called last night. They said she slept and never woke up.” I sigh and draw in a shaky breath. “We could have met up at the hospital but they’ve already released the body to the morgue.” I can feel a thousand pinpricks underneath my eyelids. For the first time since I received the call, I allow myself to feel. The tears wash my face.

I do not see Sophia stand but I can feel her arms around me. She’s crying too. Comfort, almost long forgotten, seeps into my being, into my bones. I feel like I used to feel when we were little and I got hurt and Sophia hugged me to share my pain. I feel like I am being hugged by myself. I feel the stars and the moon and the sun shift back into their rightful places.

Somehow, I know things will be fine. Eventually.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Girls, Short story

Release

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

It is a letter no one would ever read. Not your wife. Not your son. And especially not your daughter.

 

There are tears in your eyes that you do not know how to shed and the tear in your heart will take all of eternity to mend.

 

In your study, in this place where you are secluded from the world but vulnerable to your God, you kneel at your desk as if it were an altar. You hold the pen as if it were sacrament. You close your eyes. And see her.

 

Since the very first day that Janet pushed Jennifer into the world, you’d called her medley. Medley because she had your nose, medley because she had your wife’s eyes and ears, your grandmother’s full lips, her maternal grandma’s raven black hair. And she had your dead brother’s long fingers.

 

The combination was stunning. You took overwhelming pride in your daughter’s exceptional beauty, and even more pride in her vivaciousness. An energy ball, a combustible package, a live wire.

 

You begin to write furiously. You tell her of the day she was born, of the love that completely filled your insides. You tell of the first day she grabbed your little finger and smiled up at you from her Winnie the Pooh bassinet. In your letter, you remind her of her lazy left eye that followed the right one only reluctantly. You write of skinned knees and kisses, of baby powder and olive oil scents, of Barney and Teletubbies, of all things pure and good and innocent.

 

What you do not write about are plentiful. Of the graduation gown she will never wear, of the aisle she will never walk down, of the babies she will never have, of the tough life decisions she will never make.

 

Instead, you remind her of how much her mother had loved her, of play dates and dough caught in their hair, of playing with make-up in front of the huge mirror in the hallway, of dress up in Janet’s clothes.

 

You do not write of the leukemia that turned her eyes a deathly shade of black, of the way her six year old body shriveled and bent until she weighed less than fifteen pounds, of the host of tubes and machines that struggled valiantly to keep her alive.

 

You let her know that even though Robert never said it to her because he’d reached the age when boys thought showing affection was being weak, he’d loved her as fiercely as only an only brother can love an only sister.

 

You do not write of the way your heart dropped to your feet each time you saw her in the hospital room that became her prison. You do not tell of the way Janet’s body shook with uncontrollable chills each night, of the wasted look that Robert tried so hard to conceal.

 

Finally, you write of heaven. You explain it the way she can understand. You write of glittery skies, of glowing fields, of trees laden with fruits of all kinds, of joy that curled ones toes.

 

When you are done, you realize that you are crying. Dry sobs that begin somewhere in the region of your heart and explode out of you in huge gasps. Salty tears that cascade down your cheeks like a waterfall gone mad.

 

The letter you just wrote to your dead daughter is wet, the ink already running. But it does not matter because this is a letter no one would ever read. Carefully, you begin to tear. You rip and rip and rip until your letter is at last a little heap of rubbish. Until your fingers ache from the repetition.

 

On your shoulders, a burden seems to be lifting.

 

In your heart, light finally penetrates.

 

You release your daughter into the kingdom of heaven.

 

Posted in Life commentary, Non fiction, Short story

Journeying through the valley – My hyperemesis story

 

Journeying through the valley – My hyperemesis story

 

© October 2018 Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I am a survivor; been through hell and back, proud of my war scars, but not quite willing to do it all over again.

It began early February; that slightly bitter taste in your mouth, those slightly swollen breasts, and those occasional flashes of nausea that clue you to the fact that you are most likely pregnant. The PT strips, all of them, confirmed my suspicion. But just to be doubly sure, I had a blood test done.

I had a week’s respite between getting the positive results to when the morning sickness hit.

I wasn’t new to the game; had been to the rodeo twice before. I had a twelve-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, and neither of the two previous pregnancies had been that smooth sailing. My first pregnancy, I was a wide eyed, naïve newly wed whose world was rocked to the foundation by the intensity of morning sickness when I fell pregnant.

I wasn’t used to bending over the bathroom bowl puking my guts out, or curling up in the foetal position on the bathroom floor begging for respite from the nausea. Working full time as a journalist, it was a terrible terrible time, and I was vomiting at least eight/ten times a day, whether I was home, in the office or on the field.

The second time around, I kind of knew what to expect, so the sickness and the nausea and the dizziness and the vomiting eight/ten times a day was no surprise. By this time, I was still working as a journalist but as a freelancer, so it was easier on me, as I could decide when to go out to source for stories and when not to.

With those pregnancies, the morning sickness lifted around four months, and life returned to a semblance of normalcy.

This third time, I didn’t really expect the same thing because I have been told over and over again, had read countless times that no two pregnancies are the same. I had no expectations, but certainly hoped that I would have an easier time of it. This was going to be my last pregnancy. I was much older, much more financially stable, had my own business, wrote my own bills, worked for myself. I was ready to put up my feet and enjoy every little bit of it.

How wrong I was.

The first week seemed it would follow the same pattern as the previous pregnancies. Frequent visits to the bathroom to throw up, and hyper salivation; that inability to swallow your own spit without puking your guts out. It all seemed normal; at least normal by my own standards.

The second week, everything changed. One day, I started to puke and couldn’t seem to stop. I seemed to spend all the time in the bathroom. No sooner would I be out that I would go back in, until sanity demanded that I get a puke bowl and place beside me so that all I had to do was to turn my head sideways and be sick into that bowl. It became necessary because I couldn’t walk back and forth to the bathroom anymore.

Have you ever heard of someone puking 40 times a day? Well, it happened to me. When I puked 30 times a day, it was a good day. When it got to 51 times (as I counted once), it was a very bad day. 40 times a day was the average.

No off days, no weekends, no rest. Everyday puking. Everything made me puke. My own saliva. Chewing gum. A sip of water. The smell of perfume. The smell of food cooking. Even sudden movement made me puke.

One day after puking blood and having no energy to stand, I curled up on my living room floor, asking for God to take the pain and the misery away. That’s where my mother met me and carted me off to the hospital. I was barely five weeks pregnant, had dropped from my pre-pregnancy weight of 65kg to 50kg, couldn’t walk unsupported and couldn’t even hold a sensible conversation because talking tired me out.

That was the day I was officially diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidum.

A quick definition: Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) is a pregnancy complication that is characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possibly dehydration. Signs and symptoms may also include vomiting many times a day and feeling faint. Hyperemesis gravidarum is considered more severe than morning sickness.[

This definition that I have given (from Wikipedia) is one of the milder definitions of hyperemesis. To get a better understanding, imagine what morning sickness feels like in a normal pregnancy. Now multiply that awful feeling by twenty, all day long, no respite.

I had a three day stay in the hospital where I was pumped full of fluids and received anti emetic medication. The fluids brought colour back to my cheeks and gave me a semblance of strength I’d not had in weeks. The anti-emetic did not work. Even as I received the fluids, whatever food came in through my mouth ended up leaving through my mouth too.

I got discharged after three days and promptly fell into the waiting arms of sickness again.

Here’s how HG affected me:

Ptyalism; the inability to swallow my own spit without feeling nauseous or throwing up. This means I constantly had a bowl beside me to spit in, and a closed bottle whenever I went out. The salivation did not let up, and I often woke at night feeling like I was about to drown in my own spit.

The inability to drink water: Yes, I couldn’t even drink water without vomiting. I had to resort to taking very little sips per time. A surefire way to vomit was to drink a quarter cup full of water, and everything would come back up. I couldn’t even sip room temperature water. My water had to be freezing cold with pieces of ice floating in it, if it were to stand a chance of staying down.

The inability to eat food and drink water at the same time: Another sure-fire way to vomit was to eat and drink water at the same time. So, I resorted to drinking water first, then eating whatever I had to eat after and making sure I didn’t as much as sipped water for the next two hours.

Vomiting everything: There was virtually nothing that would stay down. As soon as food entered my mouth, it almost always came back out. Even when I didn’t eat, I would still vomit. If I chewed gum to stop my salivation for a while, the sweetness of the gum would make me throw up. In the very early days, even swallowing air sometimes made me vomit and I averaged about 40 times a day. Once I passed the first trimester, average puking per day moderated to about 20 times.

Nausea: Nausea is different from vomiting, and in my case was much more dreaded than the actual vomiting. Nausea is that feeling that you are about to be sick that does not relent, that does not let up until the minute you submit to the urge and throw up. The terrible thing is that you can be nauseous without it ending in being sick, and that nausea is a very terrible place to be in. And to be nauseous every waking hour is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Vomiting blood: If you have never vomited blood before, it can be quite scary. My very first time of vomiting blood scared the hide out of me. By the second, third, fourth, fifth time, I was no longer as surprised or as scared. The doctors explained that the lining of my stomach was bruised from the constant squeezing and contractions of puking and sometimes, that bruised lining would bleed, hence the redness in my vomit. The blood was never much, and was never quite red (more of a brownish or wineish tinge) but I always knew when I was about to throw up blood. First, I would get this pinching feeling in my throat and lungs, then in my ears. And the only way to relieve it was to vomit; and there I would see the blood.

No smells please: My husband’s perfume became public enemy one. Even if I was sleeping and he sprayed perfume, I would bolt out of sleep feeling sick, sometimes choking. After a while, he had to go out of the room and into the living room to spray his perfume. Even then, the smell would carry and I would pinch my nose closed until the worst of it had passed. There was a policy of no spraying of air fresheners, always closing the kitchen door whenever cooking was going on there (especially the smell of noodles), using very little detergent to wash clothes so that the smell didn’t carry too much. A whiff of something, whether pleasant or otherwise, was enough to get me puking.

No motion: Nausea can be complicated by movement and HG made it so that movements made me sick. After eating, I had to stay in one position for at least thirty minutes to increase the chances of keeping it down. I would practically freeze into position, afraid to even as much as turn my head. And car rides were hell. I felt every bump, every rise, every pothole in my innards. For the few times I went out in a car (I couldn’t even drive so I had to be a passenger always), I always went with a coverable puke bowl, that I could be sick in and then push under the seat until I got to a place where I could properly dispose of the smelly contents.

Dizziness: I had never felt so dizzy in my life. Standing up too quick, sitting down too fast, turning my head too soon made me feel dizzy.

Lethargy: I have never been a lazy person in my life, and when HG hit, it hit in all of its lethargic glory. I would lay down on my bed, psychologically encouraging myself to get up and go to the bathroom or get up and go take a bath. The task I needed to do might require nothing more than 10 minutes, but I would have to encourage myself for nothing less than 2 hours before I could get up to do it. To walk to the bathroom and take a bath needed more psychological prodding than I could handle and I am ashamed to admit there were two/three days I didn’t take a bath. When I did muster enough strength to get to the bathroom, I had to sit on the edge of the bath up to get through the ordeal. Days when my husband was at home, he sometimes had to bathe me. Also, my laptop would gather dust for days, sometimes weeks on end. Running your own business, you never get off days or sick days, and even though I worked from home, a lot of things needed my attention. I would take calls, put the caller on hold while I puked into my bowl. Then I would wipe off my mouth and continue the conversation. Clients don’t want to deal with business owners who appear weak, so my energy was conserved for those calls. I would put life and enthusiasm and force into my voice, and not one of these people ever got an inkling that I was going through a personal hell. I also work as a freelance editor and writer, and those nine months, I had to turn down so many writing projects my bank account knew It was missing something. An avid book consumer, I read an average of three new books per week. During this period, if I got to finish one book in three weeks, it was a record. My brain was active. It was filled with ideas. My brain wanted to read, wanted to work, wanted to fire. But my physical strength couldn’t just match up with my mental strength, and I would lay there, my brain working feverishly, but my body unable to carry out the demands of my imagination.

Dental issues: Of all my family members, I have always had the need for more dental care, being more susceptible to cavities than all the others. During this journey, I learnt that journeying through HG while having prior and underlining dental problems is no joke. The stomach is full of gastric acid whose job is to break down food enzymes. Now, when you bring back food that has gone into your stomach, it comes back not alone but with gastric acid and this does a number on your teeth and gums. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t brushing regularly, I had to pay two very unpleasant visits to the dentist during this period to fill cavities that wouldn’t stay filled. The filling would crack and break and fall into my food, and the pain would begin. The last cavity fell out when I was about seven months pregnant and I chose to bear the pain of it until after delivery. But it wasn’t fun.

Insomnia: The only thing that made all the ugliness of HG go away was sleep. When you’re sleeping, you’re not sick or nauseous, and it was a glorious time to forget it all. But I just couldn’t sleep. I wanted to sleep. I wanted that blissful oblivion, but couldn’t get it, couldn’t attain it. I would lay there, awake while everybody slept, exhausted and fully aware of all the aches and pains of my body.

Now. Moving on from hyperemesis, I also had some other trying issues. It seemed every side effect of pregnancy seemed to want to make their abode with me. From month two onwards, I had tail bone pain. There was no painkiller for this and this means I was in agony for seven months. We tried massage, hot water therapy, cold water therapy, everything that could be tried. The pain meant that I couldn’t stand for long. It meant I couldn’t sit for long either, so I was always alternating between sitting down, laying down and standing up. It didn’t help. The pain also meant that I had to walk very slowly. Moving up and down the stairs in my house was a chore and there were times I didn’t come down from my room to the living room for days.

Throughout this trying period, Google was both a friend and an enemy. There is virtually no information under heaven you can’t find on google, and I became an instant authority on HG. What I discovered was frightening. Online, I read the stories of women who had gone through the same valley that I was going through. I read of triumphs and failures. I read of women whose HG resolved in the first trimester, and of those very few who battled HG the whole nine months. I read of women who had to have PICC lines in throughout through which their food and nourishment was delivered. I read of women who had ten and more hospital stays in the course of their pregnancies. I read of women who were so sick they considered terminating their pregnancies, even though the pregnancy was planned and the baby very much wanted. I triumphed with the triumphs, and I sorrowed with the losses.

I heard all kinds of opinions. Some felt I was just being lazy. I wasn’t the first woman to be pregnant, was I? And it wasn’t even my first baby. Some attributed my being sick to my advanced maternal age (I wasn’t a spring chicken by any means). I took it all in stride. What was harder to swallow was the assumption on behalf of some that my faith wasn’t strong enough. A born-again Christian, I profess faith and have enjoyed divine health for years. For more than fifteen years, I haven’t visited the hospital except for deliveries, dental interventions and annual checkups. To be so confronted with illness was unexpected. I prayed. I cried out to God. I lay myself bare before Him. I put all of the faith I had, or thought I had, on the line. Yet I was still sick.

And unlike most HG cases that resolve by 20 weeks, I was one of the unlucky ones who bore the full brunt of it for the whole nine months. At the end, I wasn’t puking 40 times a day anymore, but was averaging 8 times. And the very last time I spat in my spit bottle was after Israel was born, right there on the delivery table.

Why this story/article?

First, it serves as my catharsis, my exhale after the long inhale of pregnancy. Imagine what it feels like when you hold your breath for so long you feel you are about to die. Imagine the sweet release when you finally exhale. This is how I feel right now. All the emotions I felt, all the feelings I felt that I couldn’t express as at that time, herein is the expression.

Secondly, I write because I write about every major event in my life. Whether I decide to share my writings with others is another matter entirely, but I write whether I am happy, sad; jubilant, crushed; whether on the verge of success or failure. I write because writing is like fire shut up in my bones. It must find a way out.

Thirdly, I write because of my darling Israel. Now that he is here, he is worth the nine months of hell. They put him on my belly the moment I pushed him out, and as my hand reached out to stroke him and as he let out that indignant wail every new mother wants to hear, I fell in love. I had loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant, but this was another kind of love. He was real; he was here; and he was mine. I fell in love irrevocably, and my heart is forever bound with his, just like it is with my two older ones.

But would I do this again, if I had been told at the very beginning that the journey would be so emotionally arduous and physically debilitating? I don’t think so. And that’s why I thank God daily that I didn’t have a clue that I would be so sick. If I had, I would probably never had attempted to get pregnant, and then Israel wouldn’t be here. So, thank you God, for keeping me in perfect oblivion.

Fourthly, I write for my family. For my husband who was a bulwark of strength; whom I had never seen to be so tender in all of our thirteen years of marriage. I write for my husband who would encourage me, and bathe me, and come home with all kinds of fruits and food, encouraging me to just take a bite.

I write for my older kids. They emptied bowl after bowl of vomit. They curled up on the bare floor with me and cried with me. They bought treats with their own money and coaxed me to eat. They effectively lost their mother for those nine months because I couldn’t cook, couldn’t help with their school work, could hardly speak to them. I write because I am ecstatic to be their mother once again.

I write for my mother, who cooked meal after meal, and brought them to me. She cooked not just for me, but for my family, so that we could retain a semblance of normalcy. For my husband’s birthday, she made a feast and brought it to my door, so I didn’t have to cater to the few visitors we had. In those nine months, we made a full transition from a mother/daughter relationship into a friendship. How glad I am of her friendship.

Finally, I write as an apology to two sets of people.

I write in apology to every challenged Christian who’s been judged by other Christians as not being prayerful enough, not holy enough or not with enough faith to get that problem solved. I find that we Christians are about the most judgmental people alive. We tend to think that if someone has a problem and can’t get hold of a solution, he must either be a closet sinner or a faithless Christian. I used to be one of the people who thought that way until I went through my own valley. Through it all, I never questioned my Christianity and God’s love towards me, but I questioned whether I had enough faith. If the Bible has said that we can with faith as tiny as a mustard seed move mountains, why wasn’t I moving the mountain in my path. I will never understand why HG decided to pitch its tent with me, but perhaps it was for me to get a better understanding of the prejudice and silent criticism faced by challenged Christians.

I also write in apology to every pregnant woman who has symptoms and complaints no one else seems to understand. Our society has a way of labelling a sick or complaining pregnant woman as being just plain lazy. We are fond of asking if they were the very first woman to be pregnant. Now, I realise that if its not your body, you just don’t know. We have no right to question a woman’s unique symptoms. Is it your body? If not, how can you tell that she’s exaggerating. Quite the opposite; a lot of us tend to keep quiet and suffer in silence because we don’t want to be labelled as whinny. Even in hospital settings, even face to face with our doctors who are supposed to be serving us, we hold back information. We don’t speak up because we’re told, “it’s just a sign of pregnancy”. I want to encourage you. Speak up. Ask questions. Say how it is. Refuse to be intimidated.

My journey through the valley of hyperemesis gravidum produced a most bountiful fruit; the fruit of a baby boy whom I have fallen helplessly and forever in love with. And my journey through this hell has taught me patience, compassion, and a renewed appreciation for family and loved ones.

For this, I am eternally grateful.