The language of kindness

The language of kindness

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The glass plate slipped from his hands, impacting the ground with a sharp sound that seemed to drag the breath out of Luke. He stood at the sink, frozen in place, his eight year old face a mask of terror. His hands trembled slightly and he stared up at me with huge brown eyes.

 

I wanted to hug him, to kiss the terror off his face, to hold him close to my breast. But I did not. Yes, he was my son. But he’d been my son for only a month. And in the emotional state which he yet inhabited, he was still Liz’s son.

 

Liz had been my only sister, separated by nine years, separated much more by our lifestyles. We’d both been born and raised in the church with five brothers. Six of us kids stayed within the Christian community. Liz had other ideas. She first ran away at twelve. By then, I was already on my own, had received a frantic call from Mother one late night. Liz hadn’t returned home after school. She came back two days later, unrepentant, letting everyone know that she wouldn’t have returned if not that it’d been near impossible to get food to eat.

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Undue Influence

influence

Undue influence
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
“Are you okay?” She asked him for the umpteenth time that evening. He was going through the motions of dinner, demolishing his food into bit-sized pieces, stuffing the morsels into his mouth, chewing. But there was something wrong with him, she could swear, a cloak of depression that seemed to ensnare him.

She asked again if he was okay. For the umpteenth time, he nodded yes. Pushing her food about in her plate, she decided she wasn’t going to question him again. If there was anything she’d come to learn in the past year, it was that Richard was no longer the same man she’d been married to for three years. Since he started at his new job, he’d become temperamental, given to mood swings, lashing out at her, at their toddler, retreating into the television whenever he was home.

It was their third anniversary, and if not for the fact that she’d been planning this dinner for more than two months, he wouldn’t have come.

“Perhaps we should go home.” She suggested. There was no use pretending, and she wasn’t eating anything either. As it was, they were going to pay for two plates of food none of them had bothered to eat.

As they made their way out of the restaurant, Lara pulled her overcoat tighter around her. The night was blustery, and they had a ways to walk.

“Hey. One moment please.” Richard said to her, already trotting after an impeccably dressed man who had come out of the restaurant at the same time they did. She watched him catch up, watched him strike a conversation, watched his face show the first signs of animation that day, and suddenly understood.

The man he was speaking with could be none other than William, his co-worker at the office. He was the only person Richard spoke about with enthusiasm nowadays. It was always William this, William that.

For ten minutes, Lara stood in the cold and wondered what kind of person William was to have such a hold on her husband. She almost did not notice that the two men had approached her.

“Lara, this is William.”

She shook a hand that was as cold as her freezer and gazed up into glacial eyes. A tremor ran through her and for the first time since she became a Christian, she had not a doubt that she was in the presence of evil.

All of a sudden, she understood why Richard had become the way he was. He was a Christian too, but had never been as strong as she was. And now, William had a hold on him. A hold whose effects were mood swings and a disinterest in anything familial.

When they got home, she discharged the babysitter and tucked her son into bed. When she returned to their bedroom, Richard was already asleep. She sat beside him and ran her fingers along his jaws.

He was basically a good man, under undue influence. If she didn’t do something drastic, William’s hold on him was only going to get stronger, and Richard’s relationship with his family only worse.

She began to pray in the Spirit, perspiring so profusely it was like she had been drenched by a bucket of water. For an hour, she was that way, slightly bent at the waist, her hand on Richard’s.

Then she had a shower and climbed into bed beside her husband of three years.

*

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” Richard announced over breakfast the next morning. For the first time in six months, he’d risen early that morning to have morning devotions with her, then he’d played with their son in his room for a while.

“What’s that?” She asked as she poured milk over Great’s cereal.

“Maybe I should stop working at Mark’s and take that job I was offered last month. I heard it’s still open.”

The new job he was talking about was owned by an elder in their church and she’d pressed him to take it at that time. But he’d been adamant, refusing to even consider it.

Joy surged in Lara’s heart, and hope blossomed as well. Things were going to be all right.

“Would you like that?” she asked.

“The pay’s good, and I’ll have more free time. I’d like to spend more time with you and Great. Or what do you think?”

She nodded briskly and he didn’t see the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

Help, I have chargiamania

Help, I have chargiamania

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I have chargiamania. Now, don’t go in search of your Thesaurus or dictionary. These outdated publications couldn’t possibly have my kind of disease listed in them. Let me explain in a layman’s language, the type you would understand.

I love to be in absolute charge of my life.

Might sound like a pretty good thing, but my family is going crazy watching me try to run everybody’s life. I plan my husband’s day meticulously, haranguing him on what tie best matches his polka dotted shirt. Last Monday, I wept for hours after he left the house in anger when I suggested the yellow shirt went better with the red trousers on the brown shoes.

I’m in my mid twenties but I have already begun to plan for my great-grandchildren (Failing to plan is planning to fail, they say). The first one would be an astronaut, fulfilling my dreams of doing something out of this world. The second one would be a doctor, helping to cure humanity of its self-induced ailments. I wouldn’t mind one of them being a writer (In case I fail to have my name on the covers of books as an author, at least my posterity would).

I’m positive my younger brother would do better as a chemical engineer but he doesn’t even want to hear about it. He prefers to study computer engineering at the university. Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, as for God…He likes to be in charge too, so we happen to quarrel a lot. Like the time he wanted me to leave my job and be a stay-at-home mom. Who has ever heard of that kind of crap? A twenty-four year-old stay-at-home mom when my whole life was stretched in front of me? (Well, God won that case because my husband supported Him).

Or the time He started pressuring me to eat more healthily. But who eats healthily these days when hysteria-inducing chocolate and pastries dripping with ketchup announce their presence at every corner?

Yesterday, we had a serious quarrel. I wanted to wear my tight pink skirt for that interview I’ve been praying and fasting for now that my baby is two and old enough to be left at the daycare. Perhaps it would clinch me the job (They requested for a smart, career woman in the ad), but God had a different idea.

“Why are you wearing that terrible thing?” My husband questioned as I made a mad dash for the car. I was already running late.

“What thing?” I snapped, even though I knew well enough what he was referring to. “It makes me look smart.”

“Not smart, just cheap. Would you give yourself a job if you came in for an interview like this?”

“I don’t want to quarrel this morning.” I straightened the incriminating skirt and settled into the car.

“Do you think God would be proud of this outfit?”

“Albert?”

“We’re supposed to allow Him run our lives as Christians, remember?”

“Why are you all bent on controlling people’s lives?”  I was beginning to get mad. “You, God, the church?”

“Because when we allow God absolute control over our lives, we are better able to function as humans.”

I gave him an evil eye. “Are you saying I don’t allow him enough control?”

“That’s right.”

I knew he was right but I wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. “We’ll talk about it when I get back from the interview.”

“You aren’t going to change?”

“No. I’ll be late.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll be there in plenty of time.” He made no move to start the car, just sat down there, waiting.

“Albert?” I made his name sound like it was dirt in my mouth.

“Sorry.” He said as he finally shifted the car into gear.

 “Stand ye still…” *

“Did you say something?” I turned to ask Albert.

“Nope.” He concentrated on maneuvering the car into the street.

 “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft…” +

“Al, what did you say?”

“Me? Nothing?”

I was beginning to feel funny, and my insides had begun to tremble. “Stop the car!”

“What?”

“I want to go back home now.”

“You aren’t going for the interview again?”

“I’m not.”

Of course God won that battle. He always seems to win without any apparent effort on His part. Meanwhile, I struggle daily, trying to make sense of His leadings. Why do they have to be so ridiculous most of the time? Even my pastor agrees but he also says we have to follow God’s leading for maximum results, even when we don’t understand. I hope he’s right. I really hope he is.

 

* II Chronicles 20:17

+ I Samuel 15:23 KJV

 

Making Peace

handshake

 

My mother and father are both dying, one of cancer and the other of bitterness. They got divorced when I was five, and even though I am an adult now with kids of my own, I have yet to get to the root of their separation, to the meat of the contention.

Somehow, I am caught between the two of them. There is Mum with her soft words and her longing for reconciliation, and then there is Dad’s harsh words and frightful anger. And now, to further muddle the puddle, Mum’s terminal illness.

“Tina,” She calls feebly. Her face is devoid of colour, as white as her hair is, almost as white as the cool hospital sheets she rests on, “It won’t be long.”

I lean closer, noting for the first time that Mum’s favorite music is playing. She begs the nurses to play it every morning, and because her life’s requests and pleasures are very few now, they oblige her.

“It won’t be long.” She says again, exerting energy she doesn’t have, going on despite the strain, “My strength won’t hold out much longer”.

“Don’t say that.” The words automatically spring to my lips. In my head, I know she is dying. In my heart, I almost cannot accept it.

We are close but haven’t been for long. I lived with a paternal aunt after the divorce and was reunited with my mother when I was sixteen. I had brought resentment, anger and rebellion into our mother-daughter relationship, wondering why she hadn’t been my primary care giver when I was a child. The angst was too great to live under and I ran away when I was eighteen. I resurfaced, lived with dad awhile, ran away again, then returned home to Mum with a husband and daughter in tow.

Her arms had been wide open – open enough for the three of us. Open enough for me to learn how to love her. Open enough for me to hurt crazily when she dies.

“Tina, don’t fight it. I hardly can wait…” She gives in to a spasm of cough. Phlegm mixed with blood drip out of the side of her mouth.

There is a strong smell of death in the air.

“Mum, are you okay?”

She sighs. “I am not. Feels like I’m being eaten alive from inside…” She forces a smile, “but I will soon be out of the pain. Tina…your father?”

I know where her question will lead, so I answer quickly. “Still the same.”

Her eyes cloud over and I see anxiety there. “I wronged him once…I wronged him, Tina. But I begged for his forgiveness. I begged God too. God forgave me but James hasn’t…” Another racking cough and more blood and spittle.

“Mum, stop!” I shout, willing this frail woman to live, willing to pay any price for her life, yet knowing it was only a matter of time before death pulled the curtains.

“You need to tell him, Tina. He must forgive me…for his sake. I’ve made my peace with God and I’m ready…I’m ready to go meet him. Your father is not ready…tell him…”

I know she’s right. I know this without saying, because my parents are as different as day and night. But my mission now is to calm Mum; and to calm the wild galloping of my heart.

“It’s okay, Mum. You need to rest.”

“Tell him, honey.” And with that, she rests back, sighs and closes her eyes.

I breathe an audible sigh of relief, feeling my heart begin to return to a normal beat now that she is resting.

I must have fallen asleep as well because the sound of the heart monitor wakes me, bearing the sound of the imminent.

“No.” I console myself. “It’s just a false alarm.” But I know it’s not. She’s resting calmly but even before I reach out my hand to touch her, I know she’s dead.

My eyes water with tears and the impulse to run out of the room seizes me by force. I sit awhile, forcing myself to see Mum as she had been a long time ago rather than the carcass she’d been for a year. She had been incredibly strong, and it’s my turn to be strong now.

I walk unhurriedly out of the room to the nurses’ room.

“My mother’s gone.” I whisper, afraid saying it too loud would dissolve me into a puddle of tears. I am not prepared to weep now. I will wait for the sanctuary of my room, for the solitude of my home.

The nurses, all-efficient, rise at once, pity in their eyes.

“I’m sorry.” One of them offers.

“It’s all right…” I start to say, but stop as I sight my husband running into the room. He is not properly dressed, and I wonder for a brief moment how he could have known that Mum was dead, so soon. Were we telepathic? Could he read my mind from several kilometres away?

“Tina…” he stops running when he sees me. Now that he’s up close, I can smell he’s brought bad news.

“I don’t want to hear it.” I hold out my hand. “Not now. Not yet.”

“But you must. I’ve been trying to reach you on your mobile. Tina…”

I move close to him, wrapping my arms around him. Whatever he has to say, I need his strength.

“It’s your dad, honey…your aunt called me. Tina…” He hugs me tighter.

I hold my breath, waiting, weeping on my inside.

“Tina…He’s dead. He…shot himself.”

 

 

The life of the party

 

wine cups 2

In her eyes, a little girl hides.

 

This little girl has been through hell and back, a hell that entails the stealing of her innocence by her own daddy, the murder of that same daddy, estrangement from her mother. Life in the trenches.

 

This little girl has grown to become the life of the party.

 

After the silence that ensued as people sipped their drinks, Julie is back on her feet. Where the little girl momentarily lived, there is now a sparkle, a gleam that has sent so many men to their doom.

 

“To Tim.” She says, and there is more glass clinking.

 

Silence terrifies Julie. When you’re silent, other people have the power to abuse you, to demean you, to make you do whatever you don’t want to. So she fills her every waking moment with chatter, with jokes, with flirting.

 

Tim is my fiancé, the man who has helped cure me of some of my demons. He is smiling at Julie but there is concern in his eyes too.

 

When I first met Tim, he seemed the last person on earth I would commit myself to. He’d had a happy Christian childhood, was a trainee pastor, was outspoken.

 

My life and Julie’s couldn’t have been more different. Both abused by our father from the time I was six and she five to the time I turned ten while our mother pretended not to know. Late one night, as daddy violated me yet again, Julie ran the sharpest kitchen knife into his side. Again and again and again. He died in my mother’s laps, on the way to the hospital. My father’s sister took us in with her while mother visited mental after mental institution.

 

For reprise, I turned inwards. Into books and magazine and libraries. Into a world where only my imagination was necessary. Julie turned to parties and short skirts and boys. Aunty Rose was patient, but not patient enough when Julie got pregnant at fifteen. After the abortion, she began to have nightmares. In the ethereal stillness of the night, my sister would shoot out of bed, her eyes terror-glazed, whispering daddy’s name. Sometimes she called to mother.

 

Even though we’re no longer kids, and even though this is a Christian function to send Tim forth into ministry, Julie’s blouse is a little too see-through, her skirt too tight, and her make-up too much.

 

In a way, her demons are mine. We lived the same terror for four years, never knowing whose turn it would be to be raped, making a pact never to tell a soul. But for a while, books were my salvation. Then after Tim, I surrendered to Jesus. The memories of those four years have not been wiped from my heart; the remembrance is yet like an itch under the skin that you cannot scratch. But I have come a long way towards healing.

 

Julie hasn’t.

 

“We should have some music.” She says a little too loudly, sealing her designation as the life of this party. “MaryAnne, don’t you think so?”

 

“Sure.” I say, wincing as she swings her hips a little too hard on the way to the CD rack. Tim’s four friends are watching her with a mixture of fascination and horror. I catch Tim’s eyes again and see sorrow. Sorrow and compassion.

 

He knows our story, is yet prepared to be my husband and Julie’s brother-in-law.

 

“Don’t let it bother you.” He whispers to me. “It’s only a matter of time.”

 

By this, I know he means that a day will come when Julie will give her hurts to God as I did three years ago. By this, I know he means that we need to continue to love this crazy, outgoing, skimpily-dressed woman the same way that God loves us – unconditionally.

 

I nod. Suddenly, I am not as embarrassed by my sister as I was before.

Crux

Crux

 

My eyes involuntarily travel to the painting. This is what I do every morning as I clean our humble living room: gaze at the painting of Jesus dying on the cross. The painting is from another time in our lives. An era so far away I sometimes wonder if I’ve made things up, allowed the all-too-real reality warp the edges of my mind.

 

But the painting is there; a constant reminder.

 

At a silly, immature point in our lives, we’d gotten snared by religion. Gotten ourselves sucked into church. Into God.

 

But where had He gotten us? Where was He as we journeyed through multiple fibroids, multiple operations, multiple hopes, a single conception, a single delivery…and a single death? They’d placed her three-day-old body in my hands and murmured all the right words of consolation.

 

We picked ourselves up, tried so much to believe again. Then Umoh’s leukemia. A fractured hip, chemotherapy, wheel chair…, the stench of death, the fear of widowhood.

 

Where is He now?

 

I look at the painting again. Perhaps it would be the next thing to go. The artist’s made himself quite a name and his paintings now go for ridiculously high prices. And we do need the money.

 

Sitting with a little unease, I begin to recount all the ventures our fortune had been drained into. Fertility treatments, chemotherapy, physiotherapy. Where is God?

 

“Hi there.”

 

I whirl around at the sound of Umoh’s approach. He has learned to walk again, shuffles like an unsteady toddler, holds on to walls for support when he thinks I’m not watching. If it were only the baby God had taken, it would have been okay. Did He have to take my husband’s vitality, his pride…?

 

“Up already?” I force a smile, “I didn’t want to wake you yesterday when I came back from work. I checked the kitchen and saw you’d eaten, so I just crawled into bed beside you.”

 

“I heard you.” He shuffles some more and sits beside me. It’s early in the morning, but he’s sweating. From exertion…from worry?

 

“You didn’t stir.”

 

“I heard you…” he twists his fingers with his other hand. There’s tension in his body, I can feel it…and it’s not from his little walk.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Ben came around while you were out.”

 

“Yesterday?”

 

“Yes.”

 

We’ve tried without success to put Ben where he belongs; in the past when we had religion, but he’s one stubborn man. He pops in at the oddest times, peddling Jesus, trying to save our souls.

 

Umoh sighs and lifts his head. I follow his gaze. He’s staring at the painting…at Jesus…at the cross. “He said something to me…for us…”

 

“What?” My palms are sweating and I think of getting them around Ben’s neck. How dare he come to upset Umoh?

 

“He asked me what the essence of the crucifixion was. I didn’t know and told him so…”

 

“He had no right to bother you.” I push hair away from my face, panic away from my heart.

 

“He said that’s why we’ve believed God has abandoned us.” He wrings his fingers some more.

 

“What?”

 

His next words come out choked, as if he’s trying to fight off tears, “Surrender. He said the essence of the cross is surrender. Letting God be God during the good times. During the bad times.”

 

My tongue gets stuck in my throat. The room seems to be closing in on me. The painting on the wall suddenly seems larger. Brighter. I try to speak, but no words would form.

 

Umoh is a strong man, not given to emotions, but he is weeping with abandon.

“Maybe…maybe if we learned to surrender…”

 

My heart feels like it’s been shredded into crimson pieces. But I’d surrendered when he took my baby? I’d surrendered, hadn’t I?

 

“I promised him we’d be in church tomorrow.”

 

I still can’t speak, but turn away from the glare of the painting, turn to Umoh.

 

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go…” he bites his lips, “but I want to go.”

 

After a while, I find my lost voice. “But you can’t drive?”

 

“Ben will come for me.” There’s a finality to his tone.

 

I turn back to the painting. Jesus’ life is ebbing away. He’s giving His life for the world…in total surrender.

 

The tears arrive, one drop at a time until my face is a glistening river. Umoh is standing to his feet, shuffling…shuffling towards Jesus…towards the painting…towards the cross.