I know that Maami loves me. She’s never said so to me, but she’s shown me, with gentility and with fire. Her soft, perfumed bosom is home, her thick arms feel like bands of protection encircling me each time they wrap me in one of her powerful, most times sudden, embraces. And those embraces have been coming more and more of late, as though she were taking advances on all the hugs due her in the future neither of us could hope for anymore.
I know that Maami loves me, with the certainty of the heart beating warm in my chest. And for the longest time that was the only definitive truth: the fact of Maami’s love. That we had weathered storms that had seen us from the dingy mud hut in Ogbomoso to the three-bedroom concrete bungalow in Ajah. That we had left an unsavoury life behind, by the graveside of my father, who seemed to have married Maami so that he could play her like the samba, and whose death, for me at least, had been a great relief. And that we had marched off into a new life in Lagos, a city to which neither of us had ever been before, because Maami had heard that Lagos was crazy and thought it would be an exciting place to start afresh, and, I knew, lose the ghosts of Ogbomoso.
We had come to the big mad city with neither map nor plan, but we didn’t need either. We first made home in Ajegunle, on a street nameless like so many around it and paved with black dirt and rubbish, in a house of weathered, ancient colours that sat next to a foul-smelling lake and cholera. On that nameless street we were nameless too. Maami wasn’t wanted and I wasn’t missing or kidnapped or whatever it is they thought of me in that little town I’m glad to no longer call home.
Maami had been the ship bringing me to the new world, a world she and I created, but she didn’t have to. Carving a new life for herself would have been easier without me, would have been safer without me. But Maami loves me too much to have left me behind.
In Lagos, Adunni became Toyin. I chose the name myself. Toyin sounded light and cheery, like prospects and wings, while Adunni felt like deadweight, unyielding, tainted because I could only hear it in my father’s voice, in the thunder of his rage and the shocked whisper of his last breath. Everyone called Maami ‘Iya Toyin’ when we came to Lagos, because, as Maami put it, there was nothing worth knowing about a woman who had a child. She was widowed and I was fatherless, and no one doubted that we had moved to Lagos from Oyo. Maami said I was her good luck charm, that no one paid attention to her because she had me. A single woman her age would have stuck out like a sore thumb. But we still had to take precautions: she cut her hair and taught herself to wear make-up, pencilling eyebrows in bright red that matched rouge lips and were offset by eyelids shadowed in glittery blue or black. Women used to snigger at her in the street and call her “bush.” I learnt English at school but Maami never quite got a hang of the language, and I thought what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. I’ve learnt since that there is nothing that ever gets past Maami.
There was a new freedom in Lagos, something long dreamed of and magical despite the squalor of our surroundings, in the long walks I could take with other barely-clothed children my age as street crept into street in the Byzantine arrangement of Ajegunle; walking barefoot despite the danger of sharp rusted objects or worms finding home in the scuffed callused flesh underfoot and the exorcism of fire that they would require. It was all a joy, the dirt coating my feet and getting under my toenails, dipping in the smelly water with other children and inadvertently drinking it as we splashed and giggled. Lagos was the daydream to Ogbomoso’s nightmare, and I stopped dreading the impossibility of my father’s voice, that he would catch me happy and yell; stopped waiting for him to cast a shadow in front of the door at night. In Lagos, Maami and I truly lost his ghost. And Maami found other men and took them in while I went out to play for as long as I wanted.
I hadn’t always known of Maami’s love. There was in fact a time when I didn’t like her. After my mother had died and Baami married her, I hadn’t been sure what to make of her, with her easy smile and permanently narrowed eyes. I didn’t know what to make of her niceness and I didn’t want her to replace my mother, distant figure that she was, who bathed and fed me without seeing me. But Maami seemed to see me, ask me things, bought me ewa goyin from the village market. She was a temptation and at first my affection for her had been a betrayal of the mother I never truly knew. But she’d shown me a new type of comfort, a new kind of warmth, and she didn’t have to be a replacement for my mother but another mother entirely. My Maami. And she was the one who I had trusted enough to tell of the shadow underneath my door at night, and she had protected me, saved me from what could only have been inevitable.
When we had first moved to Lagos Maami and I had had nowhere to stay. We had slept in a church at night and walked around the new city with its heat wave and unending stream of people, looking for something undefined like a job for Maami and a life for us. It was no shock that food had been our redemption in the end. Maami had always been a good cook. Baami had proposed to her, she told me once, after he had come to her buka, which we left behind too, and tasted her gbegiri.
Maami had found work at a restaurant and the owner had let us have use of a backroom where pots and pans were stored. And that’s how our new life had started, with Maami working magic like an alchemist over a large smoking pot at each crack of dawn while I helped in the period before I started school. We’d make dish after dish and she’d whistle, her sweaty face shining with delight. It was the sort of look she had when she looked upon me sometimes, and then I had long been certain of what it was: pure, unabashed love.
The day I learnt for certain that Maami loved me I had cut myself with a razor blade. It was back in Ogbomoso, and I had been trying to cut my nails –or maybe that was what I told myself and the nurse till it was something I believed –but I had cut open a vein on the inside of my left wrist. And what I remember vividly was the panic that gripped me as I saw the blood. A stream of it. A geyser of liquid red.
“Maami!” I screamed and she’d come running. She saw it and her lips parted in utter shock, all that blood pouring down my fingers to the floor.
Maami had fallen on her knees before me and done something unexpected. She took my leaking wrist with a fierce grip and put it to her mouth, then she’d scooped me into her arms and started to run, beating an unsteady path towards the community clinic, struggling to stay on her feet while holding me like a baby and keeping my left wrist braced against her sucking lips by supporting the elbow of my bleeding hand. She ran all the way to the clinic, her eyes wild with determination.
When asked by the clearly repulsed nurse at the clinic what she had been thinking drinking my blood, Maami had said through bloodstained teeth that she’d panicked when she’d seen all that blood and she couldn’t let any of it go to waste. What was amazing to me was that she’d thought nothing of it. She’d seen me bleeding and she’d latched on, no doubt imagining she was staunching the flow. Like it was the most natural reaction. That was when I knew, how I knew that she loved me.
If she were my birth-mother I’d have had her blood in my veins, but with us it was the other way round. She was the one with my blood flowing inside her. I had birthed my own mother.
And I had had to mother her for the first time when the diagnosis came. It was stunning for me to realise as Maami found comfort in my arms and the doctor gave us some privacy in that desolate consultation room that I wasn’t a little girl anymore, but I wasn’t nearly old enough to be dying. I was the one who the doctors said had cancer, that the migraines I thought were just migraines were in fact unexplainable tumours that spread like fungi, but I had been overcome by an unnatural calm, a weird distance. In my mind it seemed fitting somehow, a poetic epilogue. We had it coming, didn’t we, Maami and I? We ran but we didn’t escape.
My prognosis isn’t good, and this is an understatement. Chemotherapy is still an option but all bets are off. Maami and I were at the hospital earlier today. Trailing after a nurse who was leading us to a doctor that was not in his office like he should have been, we’d walked past a private ward with the door ajar. Inside, a shrivelled middle-aged woman who turned out to be an eighteen-year old was hooked to beeping machines and IV lines and a catheter.
‘Wetin dey do am?’ Maami asked.
‘Cancer’ was the nurse’s casual response, and I’ll never forget the look Maami gave me then, full of meaning and terror. She hasn’t spoken much since we returned home to this lovely bungalow that belongs to her new husband and his two surly teenage children.
I am in my bedroom, about to fall into pained sleep, when Maami lets herself in without knocking. She comes and sits by me on the bed, bearing a coffee mug in her hand. There is ice-cream in the mug, my favourite which she pronounces as ‘fanilla’ and I think of the women who laughed at her back when we had just come into Lagos.
I am not hungry. I have no appetite at all, but I thank her and force myself to eat. Maami smiles at me and there are tears in her eyes.
‘Na eighteen she dey’ Maami says, and there’s disbelief in her voice at what we both saw. ‘You even old pass am.’ There’s something about the way she says this, the way she sounds like she’s imploring and making an explanation that makes me nervous, even more so because the cancer is something we have never spoken of here at home. The disease has always existed outside our safe space before now.
I don’t know what to say and so I keep eating the ice-cream, thinking nothing of the odd medicinal taste until I scrape the bottom of the mug and find a pellet of something that definitely doesn’t belong in ice-cream. And then I understand.
Maami knows to do the hard but necessary things. Like she did after I’d told her of the shadow beneath the door and she’d whacked Baami over the head with a pestle again and again when he’d come to rub himself against my thighs as he had started to do after my mother’s death. That was hard, but necessary. Burying my father in the backyard that same night by the light of a lamp. That was necessary. Running away because the lie that Baami had travelled in the dead of night was only going to hold for so long before someone had questions about the patch of freshly-turned earth in the backyard. Hard but necessary, too.
I hand the mug back, thank Maami, and act like I don’t see the tears standing in her eyes. I want to ask her if it would be painless, if I would just close my eyes and wake up in the land of the disembodied. But even this question answers itself. She loves me.
As I lie back down on the bed I want to thank her meaningfully, for doing the hard and the necessary. Always. All these years. And for me, this very last time.
I want to thank her for loving me that much.
Chiedozie Dike (@) is a Lagos-based writer, an arts and music enthusiast who is obsessed with British drama, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. He has a degree in Law, is fairly bilingual, and likes to bake for no reason at all. He likes his drinks very much too. He’s currently working on his debut novel “With This Ring.”
Related country: Nigeria
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