First published in the Survival Issue.
Perhaps it was the colour of her eye-liner – swimming-pool blue – that made me wonder if she had been crying. They say mothers know when their babies are hurt, in distress, in pain, that some part of us just rings like an alarm, a distress signal, and this is how we know when to breastfeed our children or when to pet them to sleep, how to rock them in our arms and when to amuse them with a toy. Perhaps this is how I sensed that my twenty-seven-year-old daughter had been crying the minute I entered the ward. As I hurried to her side, I became sure that she had been crying, and I knew it was out of anguish.
‘He’s dead. They killed him. He’s dead.’ She said before I could speak.
Now, when you hold that little baby in your arms for the first time, all your hopes and dreams seem to crystalize into that moment, you do not think of when she’d start crawling, growing teeth or walking, not when she’d celebrate her first birthday or her tenth, definitely not when she’d be married or have a child of her own. No. You stop thinking, and you lose yourself in her world; you see every blink; hear every sound she makes and feel every stretch; you immerse yourself in her existence, and you fall ceaselessly in love with her, in multiple ways. There is no one way to feel this immersion into the life of someone who came from you. No one way.
I remember when I found out my daughter was pregnant with Ireti. We had just returned from her supermarket. The grey evening was shutting its eyes to let in the darkness. You could see the yellowing sky fading into oblivion. There was nothing unusual about the sunset, just another sun going sleep, another day going to die, as all days do. Sinmi and I got out of the Hyundai Elantra with the tiredness of the day thick on our backs. We shared our words in silence, communicating what we could with actions memorized from the monotony of routine. When she opened the boot, it meant I would get the fruits, usually oranges and bananas. While I did this, she would pick up her things from the back seat. Once the boot was closed, she would lock the car and we’d walk to the door together while she brought the house keys out of her handbag. We completed our routine with our eyes half shut, dull and slow like the drawn out yawn of an overfed cat looking for sleep in the recesses of constipation. That night, when we got to the door, she turned the key in the lock, paused and let out a sigh. Then she said, “Mummy, I’m pregnant”, offering nothing further. The tiredness of a long day and the memory of the last two miscarriages coloured what should have been pleasant news in despair and ordinariness. It was like she’d said, “Mummy, another one is here o”; passive like the coming on of a fever that was sure to pass. I remember having the same conversation with my mother, feeling the same passiveness Sinmi had felt and rejecting it with what I thought was righteous indignation.
Generations of women from the Orimogunje household have suffered the same fate my daughter suffered. My mother told me, like her mother told her, that Orimogunje, my great-great-grandfather married Abike – the wife of his late brother who drowned when he went to fish in the Osun River. She told me that Orimogunje had wanted to marry Abike but she had chosen his younger brother, Olawale, who was more successful in his fishing than Orimogunje would ever be. And so when Olawale died, he took Abike, who at that time was childless, and made her his third wife. For two years she remained childless, scorned and alone, because Orimogunje refused to touch her. But after she complained to the elders of the village, he finally agreed to touch her. He went into her, but each time he was about to empty children into her womb, he pulled out and emptied on the mat she lay on. Four times, he did this – moaned, grunted, pleased himself, but never gave her children. The fifth time he went into her hut, he found her lying on her mat with blank eyes staring at the thatched roof, naked, her thighs spread apart, her pubic mound cleanly shaven. She was dead.
Orimogunje slept with his fathers, early, without understanding what his eyes had witnessed that day. Four times his daughters, his daughters’ daughters, would get pregnant and four times they would lose their pregnancy. Only on the fifth try would a child be born. Generations fought this; shrines, rituals, sacrifice, promises, prayers, incisions and baptisms, all resulted in the same outcome. Each daughter learnt about her cross, and refused to carry it until her last child taught her acceptance. I, too, fought this – it was asinine, a bloody superstition, I was born-again. But time reveals all. After all the tales I had told myself, the reality of the birth of Sinmi, Durosinmi, taught me to accept the truth about who I was. It was this acceptance, this helplessness in the hands of fate that I knew she also felt as she told me she was pregnant again.
But Sinmi was unlike others before her. It was her third pregnancy, and she had already learnt to accept fate. It was as though she’d offered the child to death before it could taste life. And without a word said, I put my left arm around her, shut my eyes and somehow hoped that she knew I knew how she felt, that I was the only one who did. We breathed in together; a cool breeze blew across, and put some ease on the tiredness of the day. I took my arm off her shoulders, she opened the door, and the moment was gone.
That moment was replaced by another. We waited and waited; days strolled by, and months walked in while Sinmi’s belly grew bigger and bigger, with Ireti kicking and kicking. It was like the moment after a piece of china falls off a table, the moment before it hits the ground – when you are certain it will break and you want to save it but know you cannot. This moment lasted, and never ended until Ireti was born – 4 kilograms of innocence.
Sinmi held him in disbelief and tears rolled down her face. Her fingers trembled and mine twitched. I had felt this before – the joy of holding one’s own. It is both fragile and unbelievable, this joy, that a part of you is re-born, that you get to remake yourself again. And when you wait this long for it, you do not want to let go. It scares you and you tremble. It feels like it was yesterday that I held Sinmi in my arms, and now she holds her own. Amid her tears, Sinmi smiled at me as if saying: I know you know how I feel, you must have felt the same way with me. I smiled back – I did, I do.
But just an hour later, walking towards her with the weight of the sad truth I was about to reveal, I could see in her eyes how deeply she hurt. I do not know how she knew what I was about to say, but she did. Her eyes told it all, even before she said, ‘He’s dead. They killed him. He’s dead.’
Three minutes; three minutes was all it took to show that that hope had survived, wasn’t dead. Three minutes and she was lost in his innocence, in the possibility of a different tomorrow. He became all she believed in – a change in destiny. And after those three minutes, her boy, her belief, began to have seizures. He was rushed into the theatre, an hour later he was confirmed dead. They had killed him.
I am not sure how exactly I let the truth leave my tongue as she lay weak on the green sheets. I got to her bedside in pieces. She already knew, I just confirmed it – Ireti was gone.
I was the only person she wanted to hold her, as if saying that if I knew how she felt holding that child in her arms, I would know how it felt having that child taken away from her, forever. But, I didn’t. Lord knows I have imagined it happen several times, but I didn’t know how that felt. It was one thing to expect to lose a child before it was born, it was a cruel thing to gift that child to a person, after expecting to lose it, and then take it away after it was born, after it had become a he.
And as she grieved in my arms, hopelessly lost, I was lost too. I tried to find the right way to feel. There’s a way as a woman each feeling has its signature. I tried to find a similar way to feel my daughter’s anguish for the loss of her child; I had to get it right for her. But I never did. You only find what you’ve lost, not what you never had. The simple truth was, no matter how deeply hurt I was, no matter how hard I tried, I could not fully comprehend how my daughter felt. In that moment, she was alone, and this was what hurt me most.
It has been two years since Ireti was born, my Sinmi insisted on giving him a name, post-mortem; that hope has survived in her heart, cautious but alive. Her belly is big again. She has had a cot made in chestnut-brown. Sometimes, I find her staring at it, lost in the harrowing confusion that hope sometimes is, I presume. She pats her belly gently – it is a hope that perhaps her fate wasn’t as stolid as she thought; a glimmer of the sun piercing through waters. For once, she is like everyone else, uncertain about what tomorrow holds for her belly. She too is like the beach before an ocean, unsure of what the waves and tides would lay at its feet. So she does what most people, if not everyone, do every day – she hopes.
Photograph:Woman Face by Maarten Korving
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