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.

 

 

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For the love of God.

My friend Elisha is going to be fifty. The big 5-0! We met twenty seven years earlier at NYSC camp. It was a sunny afternoon. I was sitting on the ground after the routine early morning exercise, practicing my toasting skills on a very beautiful light skinned girl from Anambra. Funny, how after so many years I can still remember the state she hailed from but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name. He reminded me of the wrestler Mighty Igor. Something about the build of his torso..the set of his shoulders. I was a mad wrestling fan back in the eighties. He was from the east…spoke the same language as the chick…and she preferred him to me. I didn’t mind. Before camp was over, he had moved on to other waters. He was a great orator. I enjoyed listening to his stories, his experiences. I came from the south-south and though had schooled in Lagos orientation was quite similar. He was raised by staunch Catholics, so was I. That was part of the attraction,I guess. Our parents religious leanings made our upbringing so familiar.

As life drew us in different directions, our bond waned and we lost touch. We met again a couple of years ago in the banking hall of Guarantee Trust Bank; where I had gone to open a domiciliary account. Elisha was the customers service manager and had sighted me on the queue. We stayed in touch since then. He was ‘happily’ married to Malinda.I was and still remained a bachelor. We would meet one or twice a month. Dates that always coincided with his meetings at work, so Malinda would not burn a gasket. He still was a great talker. We would discuss politics, his relationship with his wife and then religion. I would listen to his woes on his marriage to an insufferably insecure woman. I couldn’t understand why he stayed with her. I am not a religious person. I mean, to be honest, I said my prayers every morning but I wasn’t one of those people who ‘marked register’ in church every Sundays like Elisha, my parents and my brother-Albert. My younger brother had chosen the Pentecostal route. All his sentences were peppered with..GO said this…and GO said that...like he couldn’t think independent of whatever the general overseer of his church said. It wouldn’t irritate me half as much if he quoted from the bible…but no..it was always a quote from his g.o.

Anyway, back to Elisha and his ‘cross’ Malinda. She was the last fish his hook ever sunk into while wading the youthful waters during our NYSC days. I never got over why he married her. He told me then she got pregnant..and her religion forbade abortion. I told him then, her religion forbade what led to the pregnancy, too. All of a sudden, she became holier than thou after the shagging brought forth it’s reward. I never pass judgements anyways….Lord knows I would have dodged that bullet. Back then, I always thought their relationship would eventually fizzle out…so many do when you are younger, grasping for straws in the darkness of immaturity. So, imagine my surprise when we reconnected and he told me he had married her. And not just married but had four children with her.

She was a difficult woman at best, belligerent at worse. A very insecure girlfriend who counted condoms and smelt under wears. She would start a fight with any woman…young or old who lingered after exchanging pleasantries with Elisha. In marriage, her insecurities grew leaps and bounds. My friend had withdrawn from family and friends alike more out of the embarrassment of constantly having to apologize for her bizarre behavior. Despite the difficulties he faced being married to her, my friend was determined to make his marriage work. He said since she found the Lord in church…she was more ‘manageable’.

At least, until a ‘sister’ in church decided to spend too much time with Elisha trying to discuss the process of opening a second checking account for business purposes alone. Malinda had been waiting in the car for him…and had come looking when he still had not come out of the church. On sighting the sisi who had ‘blocked’ her husband…all hell literally broke loose. She dragged the lady to the ground and proceeded to kick and punch whilst cursing her out loud. Elijah said it took, two security men, two deacons, himself included to pull his wife off the poor woman. And it only happened because Malinda paused for a second to re-tie her wrapper which had become undone…exposing her ample buttocks to the full glare of gawking church members and on lookers who had been attracted by all the raucous.The woman had to be hospitalized. Elisha was marked as the brother with the crazy, possessed wife. Elisha said that was the pivotal point in his marriage. I’m thinking..talk about being long suffering. He decided to take her for deliverance. I remember he looked at me like I had suddenly spawn a tail and an extra head when I suggested, maybe, just maybe what she needed was a therapist.

So, today I am visiting his church. There’s a special thanksgiving program for his 50th birthday. I want to see up close and personal what kind of message they preach. What kind of  water do they drink. Elisha has been with his ‘cross’ for almost twenty seven years. He has grown in patience and resilience…but it takes a special anointing which I want to partake of…no joke…to stay hinged to that kind of fire.

At least, until a ‘sister’ in church decided to spend too much time with Elisha trying to discuss the process of opening a second checking account for business purposes alone.

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.

My friends and I.

My friends and I had been a trio for as long as I could remember. We latched on to ourselves in the sand box many years ago, all three of us not yet school bound. I remember our mothers initially sat apart, watching nervously as their children hung on to each other, pouring sand into buckets, holding hands, singing songs we taught ourselves and speaking in a language unified in love. My mother was African. She braided my hair and added beads to the ends of my corn rows. She dressed me in brightly colored tie and dye dresses and adorned my neck with white cowrie necklaces and my feet shod in matching sandals. Her hair was full and more often than naught left to frame her round, lovely face. She wore long ankara skirts and thin strapped tops. My mother’s attire always matched mine. She show cased her heritage with brio and carried herself with such grace, people were always drawn to us. Like bees to honey, we had quite a following on the playground.

My friends were Lily and Anna. Lily’s mother was Japanese and we all called her Pearl, even her daughter. She was a tiny slip of a woman with hair the color of night. Her hair was long and full and hung like a curtain just below her bottom. She always wore dark colored pants and bright colored flip flops. Lily was a smaller version of her mother, her hair cut in a mullet. Anna’s parents were from some Scandinavian back water. They had migrated when she was a little over a year old. Her mother was a good head taller than mine, blue eyes, blonde hair, built like an athlete. She always wore trainers and sweat pants, her laugh was infectious. She was my favorite. I called her Mana, even though her name was Rose. Anna didn’t look anything like her mother though, her hair was dark, her nose a cute little button, her limbs were dimpled.

The mothers were united in their circumstances. My father worked long hours. My mother was satisfied being my primary care giver. Memories of my father back then was of a huge birth of a man who swung me into his arms while I teetered in between sleep and consciousness. He would hold me close to his chest, his stubby chin scratching my soft cheek. He would kiss me all over my face and whisper “Iya mi“. As the years plied on, my father’s hours were reduced and my mother took on work as a librarian in our district. I spent more time with him. When I spoke to him about those nights when I was younger, he blinked back tears and expressed such joy that I remembered. I had small crevices in my heart where I hid delightful memories of my childhood. We all lived in the same apartment building, which housed the play ground where we first became friends. We all attended the same school and always sought ourselves out during recess. No one could penetrate that bubble of love.

As we grew older and a wave of financial prosperity enveloped our parents, we saw a potential pulling away. My parents were talking about buying a home in the suburbs and leaving the city. Anna’s parents were eyeing property in another state, her father had taken a higher management position and had moved a year before. The back and forth between states over the weekends was taking its toll on his sensibilities. Lily’s parents were talking about going back to Japan. Her paternal grand father had passed away, leaving a tidy fortune behind-there was no need to struggle for the American dream; the Japanese dream had become a reality. It was possibly our last summer together, we were thirteen respectively. When my parents asked if I wanted to go to summer camp, I said no. I asked if I could take a trip with my friends knowing they were making similar requests. There was a lot of debate, the mothers speaking to themselves on the phone. A lot of whispering during car pool, with us three seated at the back. I felt a sense of panic as summer approached.

Eventually, our parents decided to take us to a family camp. The day I was told, I was ecstatic. I packed my bags and told my parents, I wanted to ride with Mana. My father chuckled and said if Mana didn’t mind, he didn’t care. The drive to Lake Huron was shrouded in a fog of sleep. I had been so giddy at the prospect of the journey, I hardly got any sleep the night before. And so, the minute I strapped on my seat belt, I fell into such a fitful slumber-I have no recollection of the beautiful landscape my friends captured on their cameras. They also mischievously made a short video of me snoring loudly with fries stuck in my corn rows.  We all stayed in log cabins, a cabin for each family. Lily’s father surprised us in the morning with fish and fries for breakfast, he knew it was our favorite. We ate all our meals outside facing the lake, on wooden benches, our paper plates cradled on our thighs. By evening we had forgotten about the benches and taken permanent residence on an old blanket Mana brought with her. We took long swims and chased ourselves around the cabins, played hopscotch and monopoly.

It was the first time in a long time all our parents were together. The quest to provide had ensured an incomplete circle. My friends and I stayed up long into the night, Mana had brought along a tent big enough for us three. The tent was pitched strategically from all three cabins; each parent had a view from their bedroom window. We talked about our past, spoke incessantly about the present and shied away from the future. At the end of the summer, Lily had started her period-another stamp on change. My parents also seemed to find something that summer. Long hours apart and the routine that befalls married couples had put a damper on their relationship. By the end of the summer, I noticed an awakening between them, a light in my mother’s eyes, a bounce in my father’s step. They lingered more in each others arms and seemed to see each other more clearly. The jaunt had brought a great gift to us all.

Our journey back was cloaked in silence. Each knowing, each accepting. I hit the ground running when I started high school in the fall. Lily and her family returned to Japan. Skype made the transition easier. Anna and I stayed united for longer. Our parents moved to the same suburb and we attended the same high school because her father was transferred back. We both did our happy dance to Pharrel’s song when we found out. Though we know change is inevitable and distance will eventually separate us, for now, we will bask in the euphoria of the added lease our bond has been given.

Kindness

I ran across the busy road. Some bearded fellow had eventually been kind enough to wave me across. I was on a short break and I badly needed a muffin and some tea. I had just resumed work after a year long hiatus. It was January, which in Chicago meant it was very cold. I had erroneously anticipated a spike in temperature and so, left my office without my scalf, hat and gloves. By the time I got to the coffee shop, I was freezing. I stuttered out my order, rubbing my arms and shifting from one foot to the other, blowing at my frozen fingers, willing some warmth back into my body. The associate taking my order, Theresa was a short, middle aged woman with a sunny disposition. Cold,eh? I nodded the affirmative. She wrapped my muffin carefully while making small talk, I absent mindedly reached in my jacket for my purse….I had left it on my desk! My heart fell to the bottom of my boots. I’m sorry. I stammered, embarrassed at the prospect of not having funds to pay for my breakfast. Realising my situation, she smiled and waved away my apologies.‘That’s OK love. It’s on me.’

That was five years ago. Her act of kindness towards me, a stranger then, continues to stoke the flame of hope in my heart. Hope, that each individual has the ability to be kind. Not bogus acts of kindness, well, those ones are good, too. But those nuggets of goodness we share on a daily basis: a smile, a kind word, an act of genetosity in paying for another’s meal without breaking the bank. It goes a long way.

Back to my story. From time to time, I still stop by her coffee shop. She still insists on giving me muffins and hot chocolate drinks without taking money. At times, she will give me two muffins for the price of one when I insist on paying. Always smiling, never a dull moment in her company.

Be nice, not just to people you know but strangers. An old friend of mine always says: Be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle and carrying some kind of burden, noone else can see.

A tribute to my mother.

It was a routine procedure. The doctor had assured me, the night before. He told me not to worry.”Your mum will be out of surgery in no time”. That day was anything but routine.

The last quarter of that year had been blighted by series of hospital stays, health challenges you tried to shrug off; challenges that hung over us like a dark curtain. I didn’t see it coming, none of us did. You were our oak. The strong beautiful tree that cast her branches for our shelter. The one whose strong roots gave us stability, our quiet place of abode. And so, when my oak began to quake, in denial-I refused to see the signs.

The night before the surgery, I arrived late…..visiting time was almost over. We exchanged kisses and I started to tell you about my day. You seemed strangely disconnected, pensive, as if your mind was else where. After a bit of small talk, you handed me your bible and told me to read to you Psalm 109. My stomach started to knot with fear. The contents disturbed me. Funny thing though, when I was done you seemed more cheerful, more connected. When I bent over to kiss you goodnight, the strange disconnect had descended, again.

The following day, I had an important board meeting but all I thought about was getting to the hospital. Hoping I could shake the feeling of unease that had enveloped me from the night before. It was a miracle I made it there in one piece considering I drove like a bat out of hell. You were already in surgery, and so I stayed with Daddy; both of us not speaking. I was speaking to God, making deals attached to your safe and full recovery. ‘I will be a better person, I will……I will……’As if a person’s destiny cannot be truncated by vows. With each promise that left my lips, I felt a deeper sense of despondency. It’s been over a decade and I still remember that day like a disturbing sequence of events I have tried to banish from thought but still replays itself, in slow motion.Then, I saw two of my father’s colleagues in LUTH, neither meeting our eyes. They led him away, I followed closely behind, knowing but not accepting. I heard a deep, curling  scream and wondered who was yelling-then- realizing, it was me.

I have read stories of people describing their days in color: yellow depicts a sunny day; blue relating to visiting a body of water; white connotes a wintry horizon. A couple of people have asked me how I felt when my mum was taken. Black would be my color of choice. For until you have walked that path of loss, the deepest loss- where your heart feels like its been ripped from your chest , where tears stop and all that’s left is maddening screams; it’s indescribable. Pitch blackness, absolute blackness. I remember the following days in shades of grey: Receiving visitors; I was in auto pilot. I spoke, but have no recollection of what I said, or to whom. Rarely eating. Hardly sleeping.

I would lock myself in your closet, cramped in a corner immersing myself in the fading scent of your perfume. As your scent faded, I was reminded you were gone. My mind would drift back in time and I would remember snap shots of memories; vibrant colors that came to the fore, as the darkness threatened to engulf me. Our relationship, a beautiful tapestry woven by a strong bond of love and trust. As a child, you were a disciplinarian, never faltering in your responsibilities. As I hit my teens and the flash flood of friends hit the horizon, our relationship transitioned into one of friendship- a great friendship. A friendship that enriched me with a fountain of wisdom, one I still drink from. You were my confidante. There was nothing I didn’t and couldn’t tell you. You were my compass.

Over the years, l make myself anxious when I make a decision, second guessing myself, not having my compass has not been easy. However, when I get to a cross road I remember your words: A decision made from a place of love can never be wrong, irrespective of the outcome. Love is the litmus test.

As another year rolls around, another anniversary of your transition, I remember the last two verses of Psalm 109: With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord; in the throng of worshipers I will praise Him. For He stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them.

Forged in the face of autism

Elvira  and I met at the beginning of a year long beginners violin class. I had always wanted to learn the instrument but could never find the time until then.She was a bubbly, smiling woman who stood barley five feet tall. A second generation immigrant; her parents originally from Malaysia. The program was three times a week and so,we spent a good amount of time in each others company.Her husband, I rarely saw but her daughter, her only offspring she was rarely without.

Her daughter was a lovely slip of a girl with beautiful brown eyes. She had a head thick with long, thick ringlets; I always wondered how her mother was able to brush. Her daughter was enrolled in a vibrant program which catered to speech, physical and occupational therapy of children with learning and broad spectrum disabilities in a private school. Prior to meeting Elvira, I knew very little of broad spectrum disorders. We spent long hours in each others company. Her spouse had a very demanding schedule and worked long hours, so, she shouldered most of the responsibilities involved with raising their daughter.

She opened the window into her world, initially I hesitated but charmed by her devotion to her daughter; I climbed through the window and joined them….a quiet spectator. I watched her struggle with the emotional and physical demands of catering to her child.

Iman was five years old but her communicative skills was, at best, that of a year old. She communicated verbally in grunts, and was not yet fully potty trained. She had a green marble she could spend hours looking at, holding it up towards the sun to watch the flashes of iridescent light. She would twirl it around on the car seat, roll it on the table during her lunch breaks. If her mother left her with her nanny, she displayed no separation anxieties. However, if she lost her marble she would scream and throw such a fit, you would think someone was trying to kill her. Her repetitive movements: rocking back and forth on her heels and clicking her tongue as she played with her marble made me ask more and more questions about autism. Elvira  supplied me with many materials on the disorder. I watched the Temple Grandin movie and read several literature. I attended symposiums with her on some weekends and my admiration for her grew.

Her marriage had not escaped without being singed with fire. The fire of  tension that came with the challenges of caring for a child with special needs. Her husband was a big, burly man with a gentle disposition. He was a great father and husband but they had faltered under the weight of caring for Iman.

She came from a relatively large family. The first of six children, her parents had been delightfully excited about the baby. It was her mother who first noticed Iman had stopped making eye contact at four months old….and then other symptoms raised their ugly heads. She didn’t respond to stimuli and shied away  from being touched. Elvira and her husband were devastated. Her parents kept on hoping, even after the prognosis. She told me she could not afford to hope like her parents did.”I won’t be able to make the right choices for my daughter if I am constantly roaming in the corridor of hope. I won’t be able to open doors for her to walk through”.

In the beginning, she  imagined something twisted and ugly in her DNA had somehow corrupted her baby. She cried till she was hoarse, cursing the body that brought forth her daughter. She had struggled with infertility for several years, you see. Several miscarriages and procedures into their marriage, Iman was born. Her husband tried to be supportive but their relationship continued to spiral. Frustrated in their relationship, he picked up more hours at his job, staying away from a wife he could not encourage, a child he could not ‘fix’ to some how compensate with more income.

She told me how on her daughter’s fifth birthday, her siblings ignored Iman. How they spent the whole afternoon oohing and aahing over her nephew who was a year younger than her daughter. I didn’t know how to empathize without being a hypocrite. One of the symptoms of autism is resistance to affection due to sensory overload. How do you bond with a child you cannot hug, you cannot kiss or show affection to? Difficulty in showing expressions of affection for a third party could be so easily frustrating. I remember a birthday party I attended many years ago with my children where a boy who suffered from some pervasive developmental disorder became disruptive. I remember his mother’s embarrassment, how she unsuccessfully tried to soothe him. I remember the knot in my belly as I tried to explain to my children he was not deliberately being naughty. My relationship with Elvira showed me where my heart had been. It wasn’t nice.

My Elvira continues to care for Iman with absolute devotion.Today, I celebrate her and all parents out there who persist in the face of adversity. Your children may not be perfect, but whose is?

 

An Old Friend

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Today, I looked up an old friend of mine. We were friends as freshmen in college, twenty five long years ago. The years have flown by so fast. I was sixteen, a free spirit; he was eighteen, cocky, funny with a winsome, easy smile. We were innocent, without the many layers that come with age and blighting experiences.
We had common friends, so we moved in the same social circuit. Attended the same parties, dated each others friends. The beauty of youth minus the pressures of paying bills and caring for children.
We had our futures in front of us. We all had stars in our eyes in those days and the world was our oyster. So, today we spent the morning together. Met for a late breakfast and caught up on the happenings in our individual lives. Our respective spouses were absent, so there was no need to pick topics, looking for comfortable grey areas that would not alienate them.

We talked about an old girlfriend of his. It’s been eons since they broke up but he still wanted to talk about it. I thought that it was sweet. I guess in walking backwards in time to determine what went wrong, we try to fix the future. They were no longer together but the circle of friendship still existed…..some friends closer than others. We spoke about the girlfriends he did away with before finding his missing rib. What made him make up his mind about her and how from knowing what he didn’t want in a woman, he found what he really wanted.

He laughed at what he called my ability to analyze behavioral patterns to the letter; how he could never win an argument with me. I found it extremely refreshing, our ability to communicate with candor without feeling judged. The simplicity and honesty of expressions, not putting each other under a microscope.
Candor is so lacking in our generation. We always feel the need to wear a mask. We hide our pain, anxieties and fears from each other. Always trying to measure up to some high expectations we have set for ourselves. Thus putting pressure on our selves and relationships with our loved ones. We wear our plastic smiles all day……..and when it slips, we rush into the powder room to put it back in place!

After we say our goodbyes, I feel six feet taller. Him, with the same winsome smile, though his smile is now framed with a hoary mustache and beard.
He reinforces my commitment to my special circle of friends. Some are faces from the past. People I used to care deeply about. Circumstances and pressures have driven some away from the circumference, but they remain within the arc of interest.

Old friends are definitely better than new ones. They know your “quirks and twists”. Though you have long months of silence , you pick up from where your last conversation stopped with no hard feelings.They stay true,their interest in you is not feigned.
“An old friend is like wine, its true value is in its antiquity”