(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan
I don’t love easily and I don’t scare easily, thanks to a childhood filled with torment at the hands of permanently drunk parents who showed love to each other and to me with numerous ear cuffings and head knocks.
I was forty when I got married; it’d taken me that long to find someone I could be myself with. Maureen was twenty-eight, so petite her shape was almost like a child’s, with eyes so round and wide she seemed to be in a permanent state of wonder. But under that fragile exterior lay a woman of steel, a woman of strong and final decisions.
For the first time in my life, I understood what love was. I felt what love was. I breathed was love was.
I was forty-three when I became a father. Sarah has eyes as big as her mother’s, huge round dimples that are made for kisses. The first time I held her in my arms, I fell in love again. And I swore I would protect this little girl of mine with my life if need be.
For four years, I kept that promise. For four years, we lived a wondrous, tension-free, joy-filled life, all three of us.
Until that day.
For days, Sarah had been complaining of a full tummy, headaches and knee pain. She’d been throwing up her meals and there were purple marks all over her body. Her pediatrician sent us home with antibiotics which did not help at all. By the time we took her back to the doctor, she’d started to break out in night sweats and could not retain any meal that was not liquid in composition.
The diagnosis at the specialist’s numbed me to the very core. Leukemia. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. The fan in the room seemed to stop spinning, the clock seemed to stop ticking, the floor started to rotate. The doctor’s voice seemed to come from far away.
I had learnt love from Maureen and Sarah. Now, I was to learn fear.
As they dripped the poison which was to kill the bad white blood cells in her system, fear consumed me. What if she didn’t make it? How do you learn to unlove a child you’ve loved for four years?
As my baby lost her hair and even more of her appetite, as she lost her laughter and her Sarahness; as Maureen lost her wit and her wonder; I died a little each day.
I went through the motions. I was with Sarah each day as she underwent chemotherapy. I held her teddy to her chest when she was too weak to hold it herself. I peppered her feverish forehead with kisses.
In the dead of the night, I held Maureen as her body shook with uncontrollable sobs. I brushed her thick black hair. I made breakfast so she could rest.
And inside, I died a little each day.
In those terrible months, it came to me why some people choose to live lonely lives, why some people choose to die as old maids and old codgers.
It is because love is sometimes a burden too great to bear.
And then Sarah started to get better. The purplish marks faded and disappeared, the headaches lessened in intensity, she started to eat better. A month later, she was allowed to come home. Two months later, they could not find the cancer cells in her blood anymore.
Sarah’s hair grew back, although fluffier and not as dark. Life reverted to normal, almost.
It’s been two years now. Sarah is still in remission, but I have not lost my fear completely. I am always checking her skin for the telltale sign, always second-guessing myself when she does not clear her plate.
And now that we are expecting our second child, I worry about Maureen. I worry about pre-eclampsia, breech birth, post-partum depression.
Love, I say, is a burden, but a delightsome one and the only way to go.