by Edwin Okolo
Two weeks ago, my mother became the matriarch of her extended family, the way fifty-seven-year olds suddenly become matriarchs, her elder sister died suddenly from a brief illness.
In 2009, I sat in the dark of a swamped living room of the hoarder pastor I had been assigned to live with during my first year of university and listened to her cry on the phone. Her mother had just died, at 89 and for months she had worried about her, sworn she’d drop everything to go see her. But she had two three sons in university and whole network of cousins and nieces and nephews who she supported directly or indirectly. Dropping everything wasn’t simply something she could do then. So she wept, and I listened, ill-equipped on how to handle someone’s mother dying and made suddenly aware of the fragility of mine.
My mother has always been an interesting person. As a child, she was proclaimed a dada and bribed when she was older to let them cut her shaggy locks. What grew out after was fine downy hair that never toughened. It was as though cutting off her locks had removed the armour she’d been brought to the world with, and the delicate princessy curls she had after, she would have to protect manually. At ten, they found her a much older man and betrothed her to him. It was symbolic they said, a way to keep her from returning to the ogbanje spirits that wanted to lure her back to them. Her parents sent away not long after, to live with her eldest brother, away from the man she’d been betrothed to, on the pretext of getting an education. By 18 she was on a train to Kaduna with her first husband, Igbekele, two small children in tow, one voluntarily fostered. My mother grew up fast, as they were wont to, in the early 70’s.
But she remembers those first ten years with her siblings. Her eldest brother was gone before she was sentient, her eldest sister followed not long after. They couldn’t afford an education so the one after her joined the army and the one after him joined the police force. They found out as children their father had sired a child out of wedlock, and while they embraced him as their brother, he stayed on the fringes of their lives. Another died as an infant. But my mother was closest to the ones that came after her- Stella and Ojo; she stayed closest to them. Until she was forced to leave, she was responsible for them.
They orbited around each other, returning to the village to see their parents every year, then their mother when their father died in 1993. She missed them, in ways that I can never really understand and didn’t start to comprehend until they started dying.
The first was Ojo. I still remember him. As soon as she could, my mother sent for him. Stella at that point was already in the throes of love and lost to my mother. But Ojo, he was still a teenager, still malleable. I remember being six and setting fire to the boy’s quarters in which he lived behind our house because he was the only one who would let me play with matches. I remember him covering for me. They fought after that, explosively. But it didn’t measure on the Richter scale of fights they’d previously had. He was in his twenties by then, it was no longer cute to be living with his elder sister. So he left and came back with a child, David.
Then he had a stroke, then a series of them, and died. I was young, but even I know it wrecked her. He was her baby, she’d left him the very first time when he was three. It drove her and Stella apart and first, then brought them closer, through hard marriages and rebellious children. They made sure we never forgot him.
When her sister died three weeks ago, I knew because I woke up to my brother crying. He’d been to see her in the hospital a week before, and my aunt had insisted he carry her, now that he was a man. She’d been in terrible pain but she stayed gracious, as she’d been in good health and perhaps that was why it gutted him so much. I patted him on the shoulder and waited for him to calm down before taking the phone. My mother sounded dry-eyed though I could hear Aunty Biola sobbing in the background. I asked her if she was fine, she said she was.
I told her ‘Onise’, which means ‘take heart’ in Ora.
But I didn’t need to.
She’d lived through the deaths of four siblings. By this one she was resigned, she was ready.
Edwin writes to explore concepts that he seeks to understand but cannot directly experience because of gender and genetics. He used to run the experimental fiction column ‘The Alchemist’s Corner’ and created the YA series Seams at The Naked Convos and serves as a fiction editor at Stories NG. He has written for Thelonelycrowd, Sable Lit Mag,Omenana and the Kalahari Review and was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. He is obsessed with children, cats and Paternak, exactly in that order.