Posted in Christian fiction, Short story

A patch and a hope

A patch and a hope

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

My back groans in protest as I heave myself to my feet. It’s been a grueling two hours, weeding, trimming, planting. Yet, the sorry excuse of a garden looks forlorn.

Actually, it mirrors the despair in my heart, the terrifying loneliness, the pain.

 

“Mom, haven’t you finished yet?”

 

Pushing tangled hair away from my face, I am assaulted with my daughter’s image. My heart lurches into its familiar dance of pain. At twelve, she’s the size of a three-year-old. Sadly, she can’t even do what three-year-olds do. She slides on her rear end instead of walking, messes up her face while eating, and I have to clean her up every time she has a bowel movement.

 

She hasn’t always been this way. I haven’t always been a widow.

 

Five years ago, I had a husband and Teresa was like any seven-year-old. We lived a simple but happy life. One bright Christmas morning, we loaded our old car full of food, intent on dispensing cheers to as many people as we knew. We started with my mother, wove our way to Mark’s childhood home where his father still lived, then down to an elderly woman Teresa’d adopted.

 

Tired but happy, we set for home at night. The stars weren’t bright enough to light our path and the car’s headlights were weak, had been weak for ages. I will forever regret the fact that I was talking too fast and that Mark was listening too intently.

 

The next bend came round too soon. Our screams rent the still night air as I felt myself dropping through space, the metallic taste of blood on my lips. Then there was nothing but darkness.

 

When I came to, my mom was staring at me with a look that told me all was lost. She was reluctant but I was eager, so the story unfurled. Mark was dead on impact, Teresa was alive but her condition was critical.

 

The memories flood my head this dry afternoon and cause my head to ache. I reply Teresa. “Yes, I have. I am done with them.”

 

“Will they grow fine?”

 

I look at the tomatoes I’d just planted, doubt if they’d grow at all, if my heart would ever be at peace, if tomorrow would be any better than today.

 

“Will they?”

 

“Maybe. Let’s go have breakfast.”

 

She slides along beside me in obedience. I can’t get her to use her wheelchair. She hates it with a passion, and this was the same passion that had made her live, that had made her come back home to me, even though she was still broken and I couldn’t fix her.

 

The prognosis was bad. If she lived, she’d be a paraplegic. She lived, she wasn’t a paraplegic, but for a reason that confounds medical science till tomorrow, her frame began to shrink. The bones, the skin, everything but her head.

 

“Will the tomatoes grow?”

 

Her repeated question crowds my head and before I know it, I’m snapping at her, “I don’t know. Leave me alone.”

 

Life’s been hard and unduly unfair. Before Mark’s death, I didn’t work, only dreamt of one day becoming a writer. After his death, I was coldly thrust into the breadwinner’s field. We are surviving, but barely so. Teresa’s medical bill gulps money faster than the dry patch of garden outside gulps water.

 

In four years, I’ve toiled endlessly in the garden and have only been rewarded by two harvests. Two miserly harvests.

 

I don’t know how I reached my conclusion; the important thing is that I have a conclusion. Either God doesn’t exist or cares nothing for us.

 

Teresa’s eyes fill with tears but she presses on. “I hope the garden grows this time.”

 

I plunk a plate of rice in front of her and begin to play with my own food. She eats in silence while I sulk at a God I’ve ceased believing in.

 

***

 

The sound of horse hooves on the roof jerks me out of an uneasy sleep. What is going on? Jumping off the bed, my first thought is of Teresa’s safety. My heart begins a long and uneven race as I barrel out of the room.

 

She meets me at the door. “It’s raining.”

 

The horse hooves I had imagined mellowed to pelts of rain, and my heart stops racing.

 

“Mom, it’s raining.” She repeats as if I am deaf.

 

It’s not rained in a year.

 

***

 

Teresa slides noisily into the room. I look up from the script I’m trying to write.

 

“The tomatoes.” She’s fairly bursting with excitement.

 

I don’t understand her when she gets this way.

 

“They’re growing. I saw them.”

 

With a speed I didn’t think I had, I was running out of the door, into the rain that’s been falling for two days. Into hope.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Girls, Short story

This wish

This one wish
(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

An achingly cold night. The Harmattan wind buffets my face, stings at the frozen line of tears there. I hurry on, my slippers plat-platting on the sidewalk, my heart beating at the frantic pace it almost always does these days. Mrs. Brown next door had called thirty minutes ago, saying she had to go out, could I come back ASAP?

I stop to catch my breath at the entrance to the apartment. Our tenement is a huge, squalid structure. Populated by more rats and roaches than people, it should have been torn down years ago. But this is home, has been home for two years.

It was to this building that I fled all those months ago. It was here that I clocked eighteen, here that Kate was born. Katie, the unbelievably lovely product of that one night gone wrong.

“Hello there.” Mrs. Brown is dressed, ready to go. The coat she wears was once fashionable. Now it is just old and frayed. Yet, it is still more adequate protection against the cold than my own thin jacket is.

“She’s sleeping. And I’m sorry I had to call you like that, but it is really important that I go out.”

I am not paying her, so what rights do I have to her time, to her help. “Thanks.” I say and put on a smile, so that she will know that I am not mad, even though I am dissapointed

She hands me the key to my room and waves me bye, picking her way through the perpetual flow of garbage in front of room three. I open my door, glad to be somewhere warm for the first time  that evening.

Kate is asleep indeed, curled up on the thin rug in front of the television. She was twenty two months last week, has a heightened sense of observation and has recently taken to the television. I don’t want her to watch so much, but with me working most of the time and Mrs. Brown stepping in as an adopted grandma, there is nothing I can do about it. For now.
It was on the TV that Kate first saw a Christmas tree. At least six feet tall, with gleaming balls and red bows. The presents underneath the tree must have been at least a hundred. Big packages, small packages, tiny packages, all done up in elaborate dressing.

Kate’s eyes had gone wide, then she’d clapped her pudgy little hands together and looked at me with her piercingly dark eyes. “Mama, tree.”

As I watch my little angel sleep, silent tears wash my face. I have been saving for as long as I can remember towards a present, perhaps two for Kate this Christmas season, but not in a million years would I be able to afford a tree.

Pulling off my jacket, I walk over to the far corner where the hot plate and eating bowls are. In one of the bowls, I lift out my egg nest, all of two thousand Naira.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should pray at a time like this or just give in to the overwhelming emotions and cry. I am only twenty years old. I shouldn’t be saddled with decisions like this. I am a child myself, so how can I be a mother? Why would God entrust me with Kate’s life, her upbringing. Why?

I sink to the floor, desperation clutching at my breast. My daughter is only a little girl, a baby with a past she didn’t create and a future she can’t decide.
An unseasonably warm September night, and I’d been out alone. Running late, I’d cut through the alley, hoping that I’d be home before Dad. The unexpected blow to the back of my head. Two boys with shaven heads and dead eyes. That was the night I lost my virginity.

It took two months to realise I’d lost more than that. I sunk into murky depths. Who would believe that my pregnancy was the fallout of a rape, one I’d never even spoken to anyone about?

No one did, and Dad was very quick to show me the door.

Jagged sobs rouse me out of my reverie and it takes a while to realise they are mine. Kate turns over, a contented snore issuing from between her lips.

I should be able to provide for her, give her the beautiful things she deserves. I should be able to stop the world for her, offer it to her on a platter. Something as little as a Christmas tree shouldn’t be so hard, so unreachable a goal.

There is a very soft knock at the door. Wiping my tears, I stand to open the door. It’s Mrs. Brown.

“Back so early?”

She smiles, a soft motherly smile. “I didn’t go far, just around the corner to the second hand shop. It’s Christmas Eve, and every little girl should get their wish.” With that, she steps aside.

That’s when I see the tree.

It is short, and sporting a few miserly decorations. But to a toddler, it would look like a giant, and a very beautiful one at that.

My vision swims for an instant, and then clears so that I can see the angel in front of me. Hope surges into my chest afresh, lifts me up, envelopes the whole of my being. I look again at the angel sent to me and say the only word I can at this time, “Thanks.”

 

***

Whatever your situation at this time may be, I plead with you not to give up hope. God sees it all and answers our prayers, no matter how small (irrelevant) or huge (impossible) they may be.

 

***

And please remember to stay safe. This evil virus too shall pass soon.

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Life commentary, Short story

Into God’s Kingdom

Into God’s kingdom

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

It is a decision no man should have to make.

 

Twenty minutes seems so trivial in the detritus of daily life. It is all that is required to take a bath, finish a meal, make a phone call.

 

It was also all that was needed to bring us to this point, to this decision.

 

Underneath the profusion of life support machines, she is pale, perfectly still, her stomach pushing through the blanket. I hold her limp hands in mine, rub them vigorously as if that would call back life into them, falter at the unbearableness of the situation.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

It takes the weight of the doctor’s hands on my back for me to jerk out of the hopelessness. His eyes are rimmed with compassion, yet I know he is just doing his job. Today, it is my family’s tragedy, tomorrow it would be another’s.

 

“No.” My voice comes out hoarse, scratchy, dead. “Give me a couple of minutes.”

 

He eases out of the room. I’m sure he will pass through the throng of family members that have come today. Mima’s parents, the sister who flew in from London, the other sister who has not left the hospital for more than two hours since all this began.

 

Mima, sweet Mima. Mima of the twinkling black eyes, infectious smile, gregarious personality.

 

Life goes fast when you’re with the woman you desperately love. Two years of courtship, five years of marriage. One evening, I came home to soft music, dinner by candle light, and exciting news. We would be parents at last.

 

She practically blossomed during the pregnancy. Her eternally thin frame took on a robustness that was endearing, her cheeks were infused with color, and her delight was contagious.

 

Until that evening.

 

Watching a football match in the den, I suddenly became aware of a silence that should not be. Jemima had gone into the bathroom for a shower for over ten minutes yet there was no sound of water. Easing myself off the couch, I went in search of her.

 

She was naked, bluish, crumpled haphazardly on the tiled floor. A knot the size of an egg was on her forehead.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance came. I realized I must have called them, must have wrapped Mima in a blanket, must have lifted her off the floor and cradled her in my arms. I was numb with a cold that seemed to originate from my heart, yet my face was flushed with sweat.

 

They hooked her to an oxygen mask, ran a battery of tests all night long, brought me the news the following morning as I warmed my cold hands with a cup of coffee in the reception.

 

Mima was brain dead. The fall had rendered her unconscious and her brain had been denied of oxygen for too long. There was nothing they could do.

 

At five months, the fetus was too young to survive, the neurologist said, but they could keep Mima on life support long enough for the baby to have a fighting chance. Even then, there was no telling if the baby wouldn’t be damaged. For it had partaken of the deprivation of oxygen with his mother.

 

For a week, I hovered in the twilight of grief and despair. Surrounded by family members, I felt alone and raw. I slept in the same room as Mima, prayed endlessly for a miracle, was horrified at the prospect of delegating her to the position of a womb just so our son could be born, didn’t know what to do.

 

Sighing, I release my wife’s hands, rise to my feet and run my hand through my hair. Cracking open the door just a little bit, I call for Dr. Richard.

 

“I’m ready.” I say quietly, not knowing if my decision is right or wrong, but intent on giving my wife and son the freedom they should have.

 

When the doctor nods, I walk over to the life support machine, hesitate for the briefest of moments, and flick the switch just as I’d been shown.

 

I release my wife and son into the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

*Luke 13:29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Short story

Bare

Bare

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

It took all of three hours for my home to turn from full to empty. Three hours, a drunken truck driver and a faulty traffic light.

 

They called me at work, buried in the midst of the ancient tomes I was quite proficient at translating. I can’t remember going down the elevator, getting into my car, driving. But I found myself at Mary County Hospital, in the ER, clutching at the blue scrubs of one of the attendants.

 

I was in the wrong place, for there was nothing more that could be done for my two kids. They were pronounced DOA by the attending ER physician, had been transferred to the walk-in refrigerators.

 

The week passed in a blur. At the funeral, our pastor tried gamely to speak of short but eventful lives but even he was at a loss. How can a ten-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother have lived eventful lives?

 

I retreated into myself. Mark sank to the bottom of whiskey bottles. For the first time since we’d been married, the house was exceptionally quiet. No laughter, no sounds of children horsing around, no false-cheer of early morning cartoons. Even the old house refused to creak. It sat there like a dead mouse, unmoving, deathly still.

 

I walked unceasingly through the barren rooms of my home, expecting to see Sarah and Michael as I turned corners. Sometimes I saw them but by the time I hurried to gather them in my arms, they were gone.

 

They took me to a sanatorium where there were no sharp objects, where I was constantly monitored. But I wasn’t suicidal, merely empty, merely hollow.

 

For the two weeks that I spent in that white forlorn room, Mark visited only once. And then he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes were glazed, as if his soul was on another planet. I remember thinking that he needed to be committed even more than I needed it.

 

When they finally let me out, I was surprised to realise that the sun was still shinning, that people still went to work, that the world had moved on without me.

 

I returned to work, and it was good for me. Not that it made me forget, but it made the pain more bearable. It faded to an itch below the skin, accessible yet distant.

 

I returned home late one night, found Mark in the living room, his eyes unusually clear. He smiled at me and my heart started to race. Even though he hadn’t smiled in a long time, he still had such a lovely smile and the haggardness of his face lent him a somewhat exotic but handsome form.

 

When he put his arms around my waist and I smelled not whiskey but shampoo on his skin, I gave in to the tears I’d not shed in months.

 

“It’s okay baby. It’s okay.” He said as he shushed me. “We’ve got each other. We’ll be fine.”

 

In the kitchen, he’d broken every last bottle of whiskey, dumped the contents down the drain. In the middle of the dinning, he’d made a picture collage. When we were newly wedded, when I was pregnant with Sarah, Sarah’s first picture, Mark with Michael. In the centre of them all, in the most prominent place, he’d put a picture of Jesus, torn from Sarah’s preteen Bible.

 

“He’s the one that makes our lives full.” Mark said, “Not alcohol, not work, and not our pain.”

 

In that moment, I started to let go. Not of the memories, because how does one forget ten years of being a mother, of sticky smiles and mischievous grins? But I began to relieve myself of the hurt, of the pain that gripped my heart every time I thought of my children, and of the bitterness that stung when I thought of the drunk driver.

 

And for the first time in months, my heart was full again. Filled with Christ and His healing grace.

 

 

 

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, 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 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.