My alarm went off and I groaned.
I had been up all night playing Fifa with Jo, my nephew who was visiting me for the holidays, and had managed to crawl into bed at 3:48AM.
I reached for my phone and peered at the screen.
5:15 and the words Morning Mass swam before my face.
‘That’s not possible,’ I mumbled. ‘Didn’t I just get into bed?’
I reset the time for 5:45 before rolling over and pulling the pillow closer.
Any other day I would have turned off the alarm completely, I have become champion at doing that – every night I promise myself I would attend Mass the next morning; every morning I renew the promise to attend tomorrow.
But I could not pull that today. It was very important I attended.
At the turn of the day, the love of my life clocked an extra year and though I was awake at midnight and beyond, I knew calling her to wish her a happy birthday was out of the question. Church was one place I was sure I would see her to get my birthday wish in early, so I had to attend Mass today.
I headed out at 6:15AM and got to church with minutes to spare before Mass began.
I stood at the entrance and looked to my far right towards the front of the church and there she was; she had her own zone in church, Sunday or week day.
I made a beeline for her sitting figure, her head bowed, no doubt, in prayer. I got to her and squeezed in next to her ample rump. She raised her head slowly, everything about her when she prayed was calculated and deliberate.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you….” I sang in a whisper before she completed the turn in my direction.
The smile that curved her lips and stretched the lines of that weathered face, the crows feet at her eyes warmed my heart as it always did.
“Happy birthday!” I whispered fiercely, giving her a quick squeeze. “See you after Mass.” And I was gone.
After Mass I walked quickly out of the church to meet up with her.
“Happy birthday,” I said yet again.
“Are you riding with the neighbours?” I asked.
“No o, I came on my own.”
“You get any meeting? Abi you don ready to go house?”
“Oya nah, make we dey go. I go drop you for house.”
She took my left hand in her right hand then and I looked at her, momentarily thrown.
“I know you are not my mother.” I wailed. “One day you will go and show me my mother, even if she is dead. You will show me her grave because I know you are not my mother.” The tears flowed freely from my eyes, the anguish in my chest threatening to crush me.
Between the tears and blowing snot into one corner of my t-shirt, I saw a look pass across her face. At that moment, I knew those words must have hurt, but I was past caring. I wanted her to feel the pain I was feeling too.
She paused the flogging she was giving me then, dropped the length of cable, turned and walked away.
I have always had a mouth on me. I say things without thinking them through. I just let the words roll out of my mouth before they are fully formed in my head; I got away with most of it because I said them outside the house. At home I only thought the thoughts, I never let them out of my head. That was until the day Mama told me my children would give me as much trouble as I was giving her.
“That means you must have given your father the same trouble.” I retorted, already feeling the earth shift beneath my feet. The words seemed to crystalise and hang in the air between us, visible for all to see, impossible to take back. I knew I was a dead man.
When my aunt came to visit two weeks later, she called me to the room and told me how Mama loved me. I snorted at that.
“It is because she loves you that’s why she beats you.” My aunt said with such sincerity of feeling I would have believed her if I did not bear the scars that told me otherwise.
“How come she does not beat the others as much?” I asked.
“You know you look a lot like her, you are special to her.”
‘Yeah, specially marked for beating.’ I thought, casting my eyes to the floor lest she read my thoughts.
Mama never needed a reason to beat me. It always felt like she would take a look at me and tell herself, ‘this child is due for a beating’. I did not help matters myself, growing up I was a handful and then some.
The years have been kind and harsh in turn, and I grew up watching as Mama mellowed, and the truth of what my aunt said all those years ago came to me.
Mama loves all her children as equally as any parent can, and she did the best she could by us. The thing was, Mama grew up in a time when it was a given to love your children and there was no need to verbalise it, and if they misbehaved, you set your children straight any way you could. That was reassurance enough of your love.
Mama kept her love in her heart and raised us with an iron fist. She taught us a lot of things, she also taught us the value of self and the value of a good name.
The first time I heard her say “I love you”, it was to my niece and Mama was clearly flustered saying those words. They come easier to her now though.
So when on the morning of her birthday she took my hand in hers and swung it as we walked to the car, I smiled.
I could tell her in very flowery words how much I love and appreciate her, but they just will not do. I have resolved to show her that I understand.
At the car I went to get her door for her and bowed her into the car, a wide smile on my face.
We chatted about the most random things on the drive home, but my mind was on that gesture of hers, my left hand still tingled where she had held me.
Back home, I enveloped her in my warmest hug. She had tears in her eyes when I told her again,”Happy Birthday Mama.”