A history of violence

We found each other by accident. I was looking for a way to burn time while my spouse was working. I didn’t have any children at the time. She was a cardiologist…. moonlighting as a zumba instructor. My spouse and I had recently moved to a town in New Hampshire. Him,looking for a better paying job. Me, hoping the the change in location will help me conceive.

She told me she was a second generation immigrant. Her parents were originally from some Scandinavian backwater. Her blues eyes always seemed to look elsewhere whenever she spoke of her family. My kinky, black ringlets were the attraction. Africans were not a common feature I found after we moved to Azure. My stint in the zumba class was short lived; I discovered I was expecting my first baby. Ad midst much celebration, for our class was a small, close knit one…I hung up my leotard and focused on my new status. She continued to call on me, which was remarkable because of her busy schedule. In addition to consulting at the hospital as a cardiologist and zumba, she ran a low income private clinic with one of her siblings.

She was a breath of fresh air. She helped me navigate the medical insurance landmines; introduced me to a good gynecologist, pointed me in the right direction for Lamaze classes. She always seemed to be available when it came to me.

When my baby finally arrived, my husband was out of town on business.With no family to help me….she was my life saver. She ferried me to the hospital, was there holding my hand through the delivery. She stayed with me through it all; feeding me ice cubes, wiping my sweaty brow. It was her face Azuka first saw when he opened his eyes, not even mine. Never complaining. Always smiling, always encouraging.She was my main stay

Ours was an unlikely sisterhood of sorts. Our hearts spoke the same. And even though she knew so much about me, I knew very little about her. I knew she had three siblings,all younger. I knew her parents had recently divorced after over four decades of marriage. I knew, even though she admired my relationship with my spouse, she always said she would never marry.

Sam, I called her fondly. Even though her real name was Adele. “If you were a man Samson would be a perfect name. And strong she was, for someone so small. She was a few inches shorter than I was. Her slight frame was quite misleading. Once, at the end of my third trimester  I slipped on some ice during winter.She caught me, and I was amazed at the strength of her grip. Whenever I asked her questions towing on relationships, she would smile and say: Ameze good men like yours are rare.” She told me she had no use for a long term relationship. And when I ask her about children: Don’t you want to have children? She would laugh and tease me. We are not all built for maternity Ameze.

It was almost three years into our relationship before she told me of her mother.

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Raised a staunch catholic, she married her high school sweetheart. They had five beautiful children. The marriage was a tumultuous one. Sam’s father struggled with substance abuse. Her mother was left isolated and stranded as a result of verbal,physical and psychological abuse. Leaving her husband was not an option for her.Marriage was to be endured. Leaving was not an option. When they migrated to North America, Sam was about a year old. Her childhood memories are riddled with her mother’s tears,screams and blood. For years she watched her mother suffer. She learned at an early age to bind her mother’s wounds. In fact, her first visit to the neighborhood library was to look for a book on how to stitch a particularly bad gash on her cheek. She found the library and became hooked. The books were an outlet to the horror their lives had become. She would go to the library after school with her siblings and stay till the library closed, not minding the growling pangs of hunger in their stomachs. The thought of going home to see their bloodied mother…. intoxicated father……. kept them reading.

She said she found herself in the quiet hallways of the library. She believes  there was no bone in her mother’s body that had not suffered some kind of trauma from her father’s fists. Once,after a particularly bad beating, her mother unconscious was not able to stop Sam from calling for an ambulance. Her mother had suffered a skull fracture, several broken ribs. It was a miracle she lived, the doctor said. When she was asked what happened to her mother…..Sam said she told the truth. Her father was nowhere to be found.

Her father disappeared for days. When the police came to their door, herself and her siblings hoped…no, prayed it was to tell them he was dead. If only they were that lucky. He had been arrested for drunken, disorderly conduct.He had begged a policeman to tell his wife. He needed her to post his bail . He could not remember he had beaten her to a pulp, broken her jaw,nose and ribs. He did not remember beating her. Sam said she told the policeman where her mother was, what her father had done to her. When the police corroborated her story,her father was sent away to prison for almost a year.

‘The system has changed Ameze. Now,if my father did the same thing..he will be locked away for the rest of his life. But not back then…..her voice trailed off. Justice really is half blind.”

I remembered Nne Chinye. She lived in a small squat opposite my family when i was a little girl. Her husband would beat her black and blue. She never left him. He worked for the railway service. A tall dark handsome man who always greeted my parents with a smile. A smile that never reached his eyes. His wife was always dressed in a wrapper and a mismatched blouse. Her scarf always tied crookedly…hiding a discolored eye, a swollen temple. She walked with a stoop. Her children very beautiful but always cowering behind their door. I remember coming back from school when I was ten and learning from the hushed whispers of gossiping neighbors she had died suddenly. For many months I would wake up screaming….the dream was the same. Nne Chinye was lynched by a faceless crowd. She would lay eventually immobile, covered in blood and gore…Though a child I felt a sense of guilt. Guilt… that nothing was done to save her…..from the monster she married.

By the time he was released, there was no home for him to return to. With him in prison, there was no income to support the family. We lost the apartment. A kind neighbor employed me in her dinner. She also helped my siblings and I secure a small apartment. For two years I worked and attended night school to enable me care for my siblings. My mother needed therapy.She was in a facility for almost a year. In the midst of all that madness,I found joy and peace because Papa was gone. My siblings did beautifully well in school. We had hit rock bottom,the only place to go was up.

When my father came out of prison,he reconciled with my mother. I had no expectations of her. Her choice to hold on to a dead marriage was not going to destroy my siblings and I. My years of living in the library paid off. I found an attorney to represent my siblings and I pro bono. I appealed to our neighbors who had stood idly by as my father continuously abused my mother to stand has witness for us. They showed up en masse in court to support myself and my siblings.I was old enough to file for custody of my siblings and was ready to make the sacrifice to keep us together. My parents cried that day in court. Both clinging to the other. Their tears made me angry. Very angry. The judge ruled in our favor. My parents wept hysterically that day. They kept on begging…. calling out our names. My brother’s face was blank but I knew he was crying inside. My sisters were too young to really understand what was happening but years of turmoil and chaos had taken its effect on their sensibilities. All they knew was, our father was not in the picture and that….. for them, was more than enough.

My parents would come around to the small apartment I shared with my siblings. They would bring groceries and always maintained a united front. I never saw a bruise on her again. He enrolled in a drug rehab program. I guess the loss of his children was the catalyst he needed. When they visited, I would either go to the library, or work extra hours. I couldn’t afford to soften towards them. If I did, we would be back to square one. I couldn’t risk it. I did not go back to school until my last sibling had gotten into high school.

She raised up her hands: These hands, Ameze, have been working for almost twenty two years.

When her siblings started to date, they made bad choices. She said her youngest sister always seemed to be attracted to the dead beats of the society. Men that would take her money.Her other two sisters too made quite a few judgement calls. Her brother dated women with questionable characters. Women, who took his money and gave him sexually transmitted diseases.Each misstep a throw back to their orientation. After series of heart aches, the three girls found relatively stable relationships. Herself and her brother stayed single. She did not trust men. She did not trust herself to choose well.She looked at each man that approached her as an actor. They were all caricatures pretending to be something they were not. The monster would soon escape from the pressed shirt, tailored pants and attractive exterior. She would never marry. She would succeed in dodging the bullet that threatened her mother’s existence.

Her brother was her succor. They encouraged and validated each other.

Her parents, she avoided like the plague. Her mother had tried several times over the years to reconcile with Sam, her father same. They never gave up on her. My friend says they are both poison. Her father was a monster and her mother was worse. She allowed them to be held prisoner because of her fears.She lost her childhood because of a misguided belief in a God that her mother served. When we have conversations on religion and divorce. Sam would say, many of these so called preachers should be sent to the gallows. The pastors tell the women to forgive,they tell them to be docile…to love the man and be submissive. They read their bibles upside down. They keep these women in dead and evil marriages. When she rattles on…. passionate and angry; I listen and smile. I know where she has been and so I do not judge her. I think back to my gentle and loving father. He gave me the blue print of what a good man should be. I shudder to think of what my life would have been if I had her kind of father. I didn’t watch my father raid the family purse to quieten his cravings. I didn’t have to sleep hungry days on end; stitch holes in clothes too small to wear….a father, I prayed fell into a gutter and died.

Our relationship was one of mutual respect. I saw her more clearly after I knew her background. I loved her more, too…if it were possible to love her more than I did before. Perhaps in my love for her, I could make up for the misguided guilt I carried for Nne Chinye.

 

 

Mother’s Day Special

During this special weekend, I will be sharing a few stories. I have a few friends who have shared their stories with me. My friends and I have a lot in common, most importantly, we all had spectacular relationships with our respective mothers.

                                                                                 * Peter

I was born into a big family. The last of eight children. I have very little recollection of my father. He never came back from Vietnam. My maternal grandmother was our matriarch. For a woman who stood barely four feet five inches tall, she commanded such awe and respect. My mother with the assistance of her mother raised five daughters and three sons. She was a school teacher and her finances were spread thin catering for our household. We didn’t have much material wise but our home was awash with love. I excelled in athletics, especially in wrestling and was able to clinch a full scholarship to college. My mother was ecstatic. My two older brothers had both joined the army-our ‘mothers’ were not happy with their choices. My sisters had gone on to college and were all experiencing great things in their chosen careers. I had dabbled into the wrong company in high school and had made some wrong choices. Back in those days, in the late seventies-drugs had become a common feature in the social circuits. We were the generation sprung in the shadow of Woodstock. There was so much decadence…so much indulgence.

With my choosing to go to college, I had effectually turned my back on all the negative influences my mother worried had the potential to destroy my future. My choice was a small liberal arts college that had a vibrant African American community. I took long walks, wrote long letters to my grandma and mama. I spent my days fully engaged in my academics and athletics. My mother was my compass and I kept my eyes fully fixed on the prize. I left school within record time and was able to secure an appointment as a teacher in an elementary school. My feet were firmly planted in the direction of my beloved compass! I moved back home into my old room-across the corridor from Mama’s bedroom. I was enjoying the warmth of my mother and grandma’s constant love. Mama had retired but was a part time volunteer in the high school she had spent thirty five years of her forty years of public service. Many of her students had gone on to do great things, in fact, the current principal at my return was one of them.

Two years into my return home, my mother fell ill. In hindsight, I felt a nagging heaviness I could not shake. The constant hospital stays, the tests and the shadow that fell upon Mama’s face were a constant reminder a storm was gathering. My siblings and I kept a roaster. We all did our part: constantly encouraging, echoing bible scriptures our mother had taught us as children. My grandma seemed to shrink within herself…almost like she was fading away. I remember I woke up one night and found my Grandma sitting alone in the kitchen, staring into an empty tea cup. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. My mother had undergone a procedure the day before, the prognosis wasn’t good. “I will not bury your mother”. She spoke in a raspy whisper, I almost didn’t hear. She died a week later, in her sleep. Grandma’s death crushed us but in light of Mama’s health we couldn’t fall apart.

My mother passed exactly a month after the surgery. I don’t think there are exact words to describe my life after my compass was broken. I took a couple of months off work. I remember the wake, the burial and weeks after that. I spent my days in my bedroom, blinds closed and completely turned my back on the world. My brothers went back to their posts, ,my sisters all lived out of state. We all grieved for our loss but in retrospect I think my loss was the most devastating. My brothers had their commissions, my sisters apart from their chosen carriers had spouses and children. I was the only one whose family, whose center had been completely obliterated. Remember the choices I had turned my back on when I said yes to college? Well, I fell head first down that dark hole. I was in so much pain, I snorted everything that took the pain away, even though they were temporary fixes. It seemed I stumbled into a dark room and some how, couldn’t find the door. Teaching during the day, shooting up or snorting cocaine at night.

I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me, I was going to die. If I continued to make the wrong choices, these choices my Mama prayed against. These choices I promised my Grandma I would never make-I would eventually die. Alone. I couldn’t remember when last I slept properly in three years. I had lost almost forty pounds. And so, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and enrolled in a rehabilitation program. Failing was not an option for me. I went cold turkey. My body was racked in so much pain, my head felt like it was going to explode. My nights were plagued with dreams. I would find myself running down a dark corridor, ahead of me I could make out the familiar posture of my Grandma. And even though, I was running I never caught up with her. I would find myself getting tired and would slowly come to a stop. At times, I would hear my Mama’s voice calling from far away and would wake up drenched in sweat.

When I came out of rehab, I moved to another town and went back to school. My siblings and I sold the house and I was able to have a soft landing from my share of the proceeds. I eventually went back to teaching after a stint in the public relations industry. I found my compass again, it was etched in my heart. Though I went through fire, I came out singed but not destroyed. My Mother and Grandma were my center, my voice of reason, my compass. It’s been over twenty years and from time to time I still catch myself feeling deep sorrow. I don’t think one ever fully recovers from some losses.

Hollowed out: Addiction.

A beautiful specimen of a man was how I would define Ayo*, not his real name. We both attended the same university. I had recently transferred from another university. He was taking two laboratory courses in my department. We were matched as lab. partners by virtue of our peculiar situation. I didn’t know most of the students in my class; he was from another department, two years ahead….just trying to get enough credits to graduate. He was funny, easy going and always managed to attract a lot of female attention. Tall, dark…a real eye candy, he always seemed to juggle more than one girlfriend, at a time. Our relationship was platonic. We frequented the same circuits, had common friends. I would later introduce him to his future spouse.

He went on to graduate and as was customary with his older siblings, went ahead to graduate school overseas. I lent a shoulder to his girlfriend when their relationship suffered the attendant strains that come along with long distant relationships. I encouraged her to date; actively kicking against the double standards that exists between men and women in dating. I knew Ayo would be actively dating and didn’t think it was fair she should be left holding the short end of the stick. He would call me on the phone from time to time, asking how I was faring…then once he said:” I hear you are the one encouraging my wife to cheat on me, Mobs.” To which I quickly retorted: Ol’boy it’s not over until it’s over. He laughed, albeit strained. He made it home a year before I got married. His first couple of months back were riddled with series of conflict between them. I initially gave the altercations off as the adjustments they were both going through with his recent return. They argued incessantly. Once after a particularly bad blow out, she came to see me. I had gone to bed early that evening and remember waking suddenly to find her sitting at the foot of my bed. Her eyes bright from unshed tears. He was always drinking. When he drank, he was different. He became aggressive and vulgar. I was in shock. The picture she painted did not correlate with the Ayo I knew. I thought back to our early days together. I remembered the slurred speech I chose to ignore. The way his eyes were constantly bloodshot during our laboratory classes, the way his car perpetually stank of alcohol. I saw the signs but chose not to read them. I felt ashamed.

When I confronted him, he refused to accept responsibility for his actions. He wasn’t an alcoholic, he laughed me to derision. I was overreacting just like she was. He was under pressure at work. She wasn’t understanding, she wasn’t supportive. He went on and on. Every body was to blame for his choices. My head spun. When I pressed him further, he grew angry. He said I was part of the problem, putting ideas in her head, encouraging her to do away with their relationship. Like a volcano, I erupted. Words like molten larva tumbled over themselves over black ashes. There was heat in my anger and destruction in its path.The beautiful tapestry, that was once our relationship began to unravel. I was too angry, he was too proud.

At my wedding, he gave me a hug. He whispered his apologies in my ear. I held his face between my palms. All was forgiven. My friend he stayed-warts and all. Against her better judgement, she went ahead and married him. I hoped, no prayed starting a home would cure the restlessness that drove him to drink. There seemed to be a brief period when they were happy, when he seemed to settle down somewhat. When his eyes were clear and not cloudy, his face was not slack from drink. Then it all went to hell. The more he drank, the more he broke the boundaries of their relationship. It was one misstep after the other. He would pick fights with her at the drop of the hat. He imagined ghosts in their relationship. He grew paranoid and increasingly aggressive. She suffered three miscarriages and became increasingly embittered and disillusioned. Family waded in, it didn’t help none. I tried to speak with him, he refused to listen.It was his marriage, not mine. He drew an invincible line in the sand.

Finally, at the end of their fifth year of marriage, she left. She packed her bags and took a job transfer to Abuja. He was out of the country when she left. He came back to find their home deserted. She didn’t leave a note. He was devastated. When I saw him, I was shocked at what he had become. A shadow of his old self. He had lost weight, his trousers looked a size bigger, his suit was rumpled and he spotted a five o’clock shadow. Still, he blamed everyone but himself. He blamed his job. He blamed his family. He blamed his wife. He never once accepted responsibility for his choices. And so, that day, I knew there was no redemption without his coming to a place of acceptance of what he had become. I asked him at what point would he accept responsibility? “At what point Ayo, will you look yourself in the mirror and take ownership of your choices?’ He looked away and mumbled under his breath about how he knew I would always take sides with his wife. He struggled to get to his feet and swooned. I couldn’t believe he was drunk already. It wasn’t even yet noon!

She divorced him, moved again to South Africa and remarried. She started a family. Our relationship tanked, a casualty of her marriage to my friend. I guess she felt, she couldn’t move on- if she stayed friends with me.

The years of alcohol abuse eventually took its toll. He fell gravely ill. His family was distraught. I prayed. Every time my phone rang my heart would skip a beat. I wore my fear like a cloak. I had lost my Mum a few years earlier…..I couldn’t imagine loosing my friend, too. He eventually succumbed to his ailment. The day I got the text, his sister had tried to call me several times that morning and as usual, I had refused to answer-a premonition, I guess. I got in my car and drove to the Faculty of Science of the University of Lagos. I sat on our favorite bench. I cried till I was hoarse. “How did we get here, Ayo?” I replayed different sequences in my mind, each ending with him rising from the horizon…., not dead, forever silenced.

How do you move on from the death of a friend that sticks close like a brother?I don’t

know. I purposed to live for him, for all my loved ones who shared a common dream, a common path-way. From time to time, when my tears threaten; I deliberately focus on the good times, my fond memories of my friend. When he was whole, not hollowed out by his addiction. I prefer to remember him the way he was when I was strangely ensconced from his demons: tall, dark, witty and happy…. bent over the work bench in the Biology Laboratory while we swapped anecdotes and studied our samples.