My dearest son,
I try to remember the beginning and my memory goes back to immediately after your mum and I got married.
Now that I think of those turbulent early years of our marriage, I can’t fathom in fact, the contents of the glue that kept our marriage alive…barely. Our coming together was the classic Romeo and Juliet tale – we’d found each other, met our parents who did not like us and warned us not to get married or… We maintained our grounds though and months later we were married. Six months after the wedding, you came along – a squalling cute bundle of tiny limbs and HUGE Barney eyes in a tiny face.
We were not the loud type, your mum and I, so hardly anyone knew that I first left her two months before you turned two. We made up and I returned home but it didn’t get any better after that. I left again three months after your sixth birthday; and returned yet again. I could never really figure out why we kept working so hard to stay together. Sometimes I thought it was because of our parents and our determination to prove them wrong, other times I thought we were just too lazy to go through the demands of a broken up marriage, the rest of the time I felt it was fear, fear of re-entering the singles terrain which we’d signed off from amidst fanfare.
Whichever reason it was, it did a fine job of bringing us back together each time. Until the last time – or more rightly, what should have been the last time – I left home. I was tired of it all, the pretending, the awkwardness, having to always wear poker-faces, all of it. So I decided to end it one last time.
With nothing else left between your mother and me, you had become the center of both our worlds. You had just turned nine so I felt that you were old enough to understand when we separated; we would remain parts of your life but we wouldn’t have to stay together anymore to do that. I was convinced we could make it work when I kissed your sleeping face in the wee hours of the morning, ten minutes before I threw my bags in the car and left.
When your mum called towards evening of the same day, I remember wondering if it was time to share stuff already. Moments after I took the call, I was bounding down the six flights of stairs, into my car and on the way to the hospital.
Between seeing the doctor and all the paper work of getting you admitted, a lot of things happened which I don’t remember now. But I remember clearly, the way your eyes lit up the moment I walked into the room. Those huge eyes of yours transformed to orbs with a luminescence that made my breath catch. You came back, was all you said before falling asleep in my arms. I looked over your head at your mum, she was crying. I felt a wetness in my eyes.
The doctor said it was severe pneumonia and kept you hospitalized for almost three weeks. You were almost fully recovered – the remaining two days you were billed to spend in the hospital were more precautionary than necessary – when the offer came. It was a huge deal, the biggest contract I was yet to handle and perhaps, would ever handle. Taking it meant that I had to leave the country immediately to procure the required materials. I was reluctant to go but after I spoke with the doctor, he reassured me of the stability of your health. Your mum and I decided that it could be providence because we needed time apart to think things through. So I took the job.
You cried when I told you I had to leave; I thought everything isss-okaay, you said, what did mummy do again? I blinked back tears while I absorbed the sobs rocking your little body. I had no idea that all the times I left had affected you that much, hell, I didn’t even think you would remember that I ever left. I would have given it all up for another four patchy years before another break up but the game had grown stale on me. I had to stay away from your mum for a while so I could sort out my feelings for her. She didn’t know it then but after the hospital room scene, I had made up my mind that come hell or high water, I was staying married to her. I was sure I could make it work…for you. I just didn’t know how at the time.
I consoled you as best as I could. I told you that everything was really okay. But daddy had to go work abroad for two weeks after which he would be back in the house with you and mummy. Daddy will not leave you and mummy again, I promised. You insisted that I pinky-promise, complete with the finger grappling and all. I did and for whatever reason rules a child’s mind, that convinced you and after a while, you slept off.
A trip that was billed to last two weeks eventually took up almost double the number in years. As it turned out, my supplier with whom I’d dealt for almost a decade was a notorious tax defaulter. I happened to have the additional ill-luck of being in his office premises when his nemesis in the form of tax enforcement officers came calling. I should have gotten out of the mess in no time had it not been that my transactions with him was one of the portfolios from which he generated his tax defaults. All in all, I spent forty months entangled in a foreign legal system. At the end of which I returned home free but empty-handed.
During my time overseas, I had called home a number of times but each time I asked to speak with you, you declined. You did not look me in the face at the airport, not even when I hugged you. I did not blame you, I was ashamed of me too. Back at home, my business had fallen apart and my attempts to revive it hit dead end upon dead end. The government wouldn’t award contracts to an internationally black-listed contractor and the individual-owned companies wouldn’t touch me with a mile-long pole lest they incur the wrath of the powers that be. Simply put, I was taboo.
It was a terrible time for me. When I look back now, I realize that it was then that you slipped away most. I was so preoccupied with regaining my dignity as a man that your increasing coldness towards me did not matter much at the time. All the forces of the evil world seemed to come crashing down on me all at once. Your mum was God-sent during these trying times; the time I spent locked up overseas had afforded me the luxury of time for contemplation and I had decided, long before I came home, that she was the one for me. She proved me right in the months I spent struggling to get back on my feet.
I did get back up. I found a new line of business and by the time I’d spent one year at home, I was making good money again. It was then your coldness started getting to me. You were never disrespectful or haughty with me…just cool, way too cool. Plenty times, I watched you have a heated argument with your mum about trivial things like the sanitary state of your room and whether or not you had the right to perm your hair. And every time this happened, I wished it was me you were arguing with. I wouldn’t have minded your saying, I hate you, or asking, why do you have to be such a damper?! You would at least have been talking to me.
I tried so hard to get back in your good books, son. You were a good kid; always home on time and helping out with chores even the ones I expected you to scoff at like cooking. You and your mum had a very adorable kinship going, a friendship that made my insides warm with joy but always flagged my spirits low. I envied your ease around each other and wanted to be part of the mummy-son team. I remember how even though I loathed the heat of the kitchen, I’d always sit in there after a long day at work to watch you and your mum cook. I did it once, twice…and on the third day, you stopped, looked over at me and asked, do you want something, dad?
I wanted to say: yes, I want you to smile at me and bump against me like you just did with your mum. I want you to call me daddy mmuo nso so I can call you nwa mmuo nso. I want you to put soap suds on my head when I’m not looking and then start singing onwere otu nwoke toro abu n’isi. But I did not say any of that. Instead I smiled, took a beer from the fridge and left.
Your mum tried just as hard if not harder than I did. I remember how she forced – I’m convinced she did – you to help me with washing the cars on weekends. You know that movie, Iron Steel? Where the same guy that did Wolverine in X-men played a robot-controller? Well, I might as well have groomed some fuzz and played his role the first time we washed the cars. And the second time and the third time. I remember how on one of those occasions, I was bent over cleaning the interior when I felt a dollop of water splash my back. My heart raced in the hope that we were going to have a water-fight but when I straightened, the grave look on your face said different. I’m sorry, you apologized.
I wanted to say: don’t be sorry, do it again! But I did not. I just smiled. After then, I considered sparing you the agony of that hour spent with me but it was all I was getting at the time and I wasn’t going to lose it.
Then there was that time your mum faked a fever so I could take you to play that match. You were already seated in her car ready to go when I came out to tell you about the change of plans. Don’t you have to work?, you asked me. Not today, I answered and smiled at you. You smiled back and my heart swelled with joy while sending sub-conscious tweets of thanks to your mum upstairs. I tried to hit up a conversation but you responded only in monotones; after a couple more awkward tries, I shut up. The moment I did, you started flipping through channels on the radio. My formerly-obese heart deflated.
At the game, I sat with a bunch of parents and for the first time in as far back as I could remember, I felt like a real parent. I remember how you did very well by your defensive duties, blocking attack after attack and even scoring a fine header. Then things started to go awry in the second half with the introduction of that striker-kid everyone called Bebe. My boy, Bebe dealt with you. He wove you in and out, and around the 20-yard area, scoring his first goal with a ball that he had fluidly slipped through in-between your legs.
It was all hilarious but I lost every inclination to laugh after catching a glimpse of your face; you looked like you were taking the game too seriously. When Bebe came at you again and you rushed at him like a bull, I knew what you were going to do. You slid in with a scissor tackle, studs up and cleared him well into the air. The ooomph! that resounded from the crowd around the field sounded like trumpets on judgment day. You were sent off of course but I did not breathe easy until the fallen boy got up. Luckily, he was not seriously injured.
On our way back, I did not know what to say to you. I knew I was supposed to caution you about self-control and the spirit of sportsmanship but a part of me was proud of that tackle, the speed and precision of it. I had played a bit of soccer as a teenager – defensive wings as well – and I knew exactly how good one had to be to pull of such a tackle. You might have gotten a little carried away but it was no more than a professional foul.
I remember looking over at you and watching your eyelashes flutter. I hadn’t even noticed how long they had grown; they framed your huge eyes so endearingly. My heart swelled again and in that mood, I play-punched your left shoulder. The startled look in the eyes you turned on me almost made me laugh. You played a very good game, I said. You nodded. But, I added, that was one hell of a kolo that guy gave you oh! I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until you laughed and I let it out. The sound of your laughter was so sweet, like a warm towel pressed against my abdomen. I was still savoring it and thinking of something else to say when you started fiddling with the radio dials again. Soon, Majek Fashek’s ‘Little patience’ was playing. Gawd! I remember thinking then that I would be needing more than just a little little patience.
I remember that last weekend when your mum travelled home to the village leaving just us two. I left the office by noon, then we went shopping for groceries. I told you that I was going to do the cooking, I waited for you to offer to help me but all you said was I’d better start with my homework then. I wanted to say: leave the stupid homework, let’s mess up the kitchen a bit, please. But I did not say it. I just smiled and took the bags in the kitchen.
I can’t decide which it was that drew you downstairs two hours later, the wafts from the burnt mash-up I had concocted or the shrieking of the smoke detector alarms. You took one look at the ‘food’ and burst out laughing. I remember thinking that all the heat and smoke of the kitchen was worth the sound of your laughter. You said my turn was up, that it was your turn to cook. I gladly acquiesced, grabbed a beer and moved to the sitting room.
I woke on the couch six hours later. My food was set out on the table with a note tagged to the plate: Just microwave. I remembered then how on certain nights when you were much younger, you would jump on my back till I woke and went with you to kill the ojuju hiding under your bed. It hurt that you couldn’t wake me then, not even to eat my dinner. I was so disappointed that I just left the food there and turned in. I swear it never occurred to me that you would think I did not like the meal you had made.
The next morning, I woke to find my share of the previous night’s dinner in the trash and a breakfast of bread and tea laid out; you had already left for morning lessons. It was not until I got in the shower that it dawned on me that I had messed up yet again.
When I came in at about noon and saw that you had served my lunch, I sat down still in my office clothes and even though I wasn’t very hungry, downed every last bit of the food. It wasn’t just my way of making amends for the previous night, the food was indeed delicious. After I ran a few errands, I planned to take you out for games, maybe a movie then dinner but on returning from the errands, I found you asleep. Tucking you into bed had been a ritual for me when you were much younger. I vividly remember the feeling of tingles traipsing down my spine as I indulged myself again after so many years.
When I think now of how the unbearable night heat woke me, I often wish I had switched on the air conditioner before sleeping that night. Because just before my finger hit the power button, I heard what sounded to me like a conversation coming from the direction of your room. I was going to dismiss it as a call in progress – I’ll never know how you got the staying power for those all-night calls – but I could hear more than one voice. My curiosity drove me in the direction of your room. As I drew closer, the conversations started to sound more like shrieks, hushed screams. Alarmed, I burst in.
Your eyes were the first to give you away; they met mine with a look caught somewhere in-between terror and blatant surprise. You had both hands in your pyjama-pants and a tube of Midnight Essence lotion uncapped on the table beside your laptop. You had earplugs in your ears – you must have failed to plug the cable all the way in. I didn’t need to see the protrusion in your pants you were trying so hard to hide or the naked bodies writhing on the laptop screen. But I had to see to be sure. So I advanced into the room and confirmed my fears.
I can’t lay a finger on the particular emotion that coursed through me at that point in time. There was a myriad of them…disgust, shame, anger, pity, surprise and many more. It is not like I was a saint or anything of such ilk – I had done my own fair share of porn, still did on a couple of bad days – but you? What could you have wanted with porn for God’s sakes? Plus you were masturbating with a finesse that was eerie for one so young. You were barely fifteen, still a baby by all standards, MY baby! I hit you. I remember the feeling of the back of my right hand connecting with your cheek.
What has come over you?, I yelled but you wouldn’t talk. Just sat there with your right hand craddling your cheek and, I could see, a tiny dribble of blood oozing from the corner of your lip. I just lost it. I grabbed the lapels of your pyjama shirt and pulled you up by them. I was shaking you, still yelling when from nowhere you started yelling back. Leave me alone oh, leave me alone! Is it not your fault? You promised you wouldn’t leave me and mummy again but you did. Now when this…thing started, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I have tried to stop but it won’t leave me alone. Just leave me alone oh, leave me alone.
In all the five and a fraction years since I had been back, you had never spoken those number of words to me at once. And never so impassioned. It took me a millisecond to adjust to having your voice directed at me in that tone, then all the fight left me.
But I’ve been home for over a year now, why haven’t you told me?
How? How would I have told you? I did not have an answer to that so I said something else.
But I called back then, every week!
You promised you wouldn’t leave. You said you’d be back after two weeks. You lied to me!
What?! C’mon, you know I was in prison…
I don’t care if you were in a stupid prison or not. You promised, dad, you pinky-promised!
I had nothing left to say so I just stood there and watched you; standing with feet askance still clutching your bruised cheek, the eyes you fixed on me were crying profusely but beyond the tears, they spoke volumes of emotions I was afraid to read. The moans from the ‘movie’ still in progress sounded much louder in the silence. I pushed the lid of the computer shut. As if on cue, you rushed still crying into your adjoining bathroom.
Please, son…come out and talk to daddy. I’m sorry I was never there but I’m here now. Please let me help you. I said that and a lot of other things I cannot now remember but none worked. I stood at that bathroom door for a very long time before I gave up. Clutching your sleeping laptop under my arm, I shut your door and retired to my room.
One minute I was laying down with the laptop clutched to my chest, wiping tears from my eyes, wondering how I had managed to mess up so badly and wishing your mother was there. And the next minute, I was waking to the opening creaks of the garage door directly beneath my window. The clock said 7am and I cursed loudly. As I got to the window, you had wheeled your bike out and were getting on it. Where were you going?! It was Sunday for Chrissakes!
I yelled your name. You looked up at me and it is uncanny how the look you shot me even from a full floor below made me want to shrink back to my bed. I tried to inject a little force into my voice tone. Where do you think you are going, young man? I didn’t expect a reply and you didn’t give one. Just rode out down the short driveway. The crunching sound of the gravel beneath your tires was like whipping to my ears. I didn’t know what else to say. Put on your helmet, I yelled.
You would return, I knew, only I didn’t know how long it would be before you did. I turned from the window and took my first step towards the bathroom when I heard the worst sound of my 49-year old life. A looooong unending screech punctuated by terrified human screams.
I didn’t go back to the window to look out and see what had happened. I didn’t run to the road to find out who had been hit. I grabbed my keys and ran straight to the garage, already dialing the hospital with my cell phone. Backing down the driveway, I remember the crunching sound of the gravel beneath my tires sounded like judgment in my ears. I had the worst feeling.
So here I am, my son, sitting on your bed amidst all of your stuff. Your mum cleans your room every Saturday, just as she always did. The laptop which I long returned to your desk sits staring at me, mocking me, taunting me. I wanted to break it a long time ago but I couldn’t. It is yours.
Please come back to me. Be the baby in your mother’s distended belly. I promise I will never leave again. I promise I will fight harder to be your daddy mmuo nso. I promise never to just smile and walk away when I should say all the right things. I promise to initiate the water-fights. I promise to stand and applaud at all your games, even when you maul down the entire eleven of the opposing team. I promise to ask, even beg to help you cook dinner. And to stay wide awake to eat it together. I promise to talk to you about your sexuality, to share my experiences with you even my mistakes and to listen to all your problems and fears. I promise to sit at your door, whenever we have a fight, until we have talked it over. I promise that if I ever have to hold you lifeless in my arms again, my last words won’t have been “Put on your helmet”
Just be unborn yet, son. Come to me again. I promise to be a better father.
Written by – MCO II