1.

It is Sunday evening. I am curled up on the raven three-seater settee, reading Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, and staring at my parents. My mother, wearing only a wrapper bound to her waist, rolls out the big mat and lays on it. My father, wearing flimsy gray shorts, picks up the Aboniki Balm from the center table and opens it. 

—Jiri ya nwayọọ—take it easy, my mother says.

My father opens the cap, scoops a blob with his index finger, and rubs it on his palms. The pungent smell of menthol settles in the air. He kneels beside my mother, spiraling his hands over my mother’s back. My mother making subtle moans. 

—Yes, that side, that side you just touched now. That is where the pain is, she says.

He focuses on that part, carefully and intensely, kneading it like dough. Her moan rises a bit higher.

The power supply goes off. I open the curtains and the windows. Grains of the sun, a burning orange, spill into the sitting room. An allaying breeze wafts in, too. As I settle back on the settee, my mother stands, my father gripping her hands to help her up. He lays on the mat as she spreads the balm on her palms. She strokes his left leg and he lets out a shout. 

—That’s where the muscle pull happened on Friday, he says.

—This one that you’re always saying ‘muscle pull’, are you sure that this thing is not arthritis? 

She frowns.

He doesn’t reply. 

After a towering silence, he says:

—One day, we go rest. All these things go end. Ọnwụ ga-abịa. Death will come.

I wish he did not say it. I wish I did not hear it. My anxiety storms in, frantic. He says this all the time. My mother, too. But my muscles are tense now. My breathing is a little heavy. I feel it, the slipping away. The knowing grasps me, crushes my bones, sucks the marrows, and flings me into a fissure of dismay.

2.

My father and mother bore three children in their late twenties. There came an interlude. I, the last child, arrived in their early forties. My mother says it was unexpected. They had stopped being active with their family planning prescriptions. I came. 

I like to think that the reason my parents pampered me was a price for this present troubling reality. They were  gentler with me. When I was younger, my siblings often told me that my parents, especially my father, would whip them with a cane over the slightest negligence. But this father never laid his hands on me. My mother never yanked or twisted my ears whenever I made a mistake. They gave me pocket money, food, and snacks, as opposed to the food that they gave my siblings. My father paid for school excursions and made sure I went on every trip. I was surrounded with sophisticated toys, dolls, and a shelf crammed with Enid Blyton and Lewis Caroll’s books. I got my first mobile phone at eleven, unlike my siblings who got theirs at seventeen. My parents called me Nwakibeya, a child eminent over his peers.

But, later on, reality would hit on me. 

I fell ill during my final exams in secondary school. The West African Senior School Certificate Examination. The sickness showed up, grinding me, puncturing my throat, leaving sores; it drowned my spirit. It was one of the first moments I had to do things without my parents’ help. The letters on my question paper bled into each other. Even with my glasses, they were still blurry. I could not do this alone. I needed my parents. I felt that slipping away, like sand slipping between my fingers as I struggled to hold on. I took an excuse from the strict invigilator. He refused at first, but allowed me to leave, saying he would repeal my results if I returned with any malpractice sheet. I went to the boys’ toilet and I broke down in tears. The vicious odor of the toilet made me gag and I threw up the tea and bread that I had for breakfast: brown liquid with slabs of soggy bread spattering on the floor of the toilet. Something pricked me as I thought of my parents. These people might leave me soon. How would I survive? What would  I do without them? 

I had worked hard for the exam, read hard for it. But at that moment in the toilet I was no longer  interested in it. I just wanted to hug my parents and hide in their warmth. 

3.

My parents are slipping away; I can tell this from the statements they make, the things they do. 

My father’s gait has become slower. Each step he takes is calculated and meticulous. Speckles of gray hair have sprouted over his head and his beards. He now takes a walk every evening after work, and later stays glued to the television, watching Aljazeera or CNN, or BBC News, drinking his coffee. Every day, he buys different supplements: Jobelyn, Well-Man, Omega Fatty Acids, Vitamin D. His voice has become frail. He does not say much. He ignores many things like invitations for weekend gatherings with his friends at the beer parlor, like murmuring over wasted food, but the statements he makes are buttered with idioms. 

My mother clings to religion. Her devotion to her Christian faith is a robust tower, although perfunctory. She attends mass every Sunday and participates in the Mothers’ Union meetings. 

Like my father, she buys supplements, too. The word hypochondriac comes to my mind when I think of her obsession for medicines. Her dress sense has sharpened more, even though she has always had an elegant dress sense. She wears trousers more often, and sleeveless dresses. Often, I tease her: Mommy are you not getting old? And she would reply: now is the time to live your best life, because the next day is not guaranteed. I am old, and I will die soon. 

Mommy stop saying that! I say. She’d smile sadly. 

Doctor Ahamefula is our family doctor. A tall albino who wears round-framed spectacles that make his eyes tiny. Every Saturday evening he comes to check up on my parents and run several tests on them. Before he leaves, he always has statements for me, statements that unsettle me. 

The previous Saturday, as he was leaving, he said: Watch them closely. Take care of them. They need it now more than ever. You know why. 

The Saturday before that, he said: You’re growing older, Chinonso. They are growing older, too. Keep an eye on them.

His statements are true but scalding. The phrase, the truth is bitter, makes much sense now. I hate knowing this. I hate how it pulls me apart. I hate how lightweight it seems at the surface, but heavy when I think deeply about it.

4.

I used to think that I was the luckiest child in my family, but now, I envy my older siblings. They spent their childhood, teenagehood, and young adulthood seeing the younger and more vibrant facets of my parents. 

My immediate elder sister had her university convocation in 2015. My parents were still strong, so full of life. I was at the event and I heard one of her friends say: Your mother is so young, are you sure she’s not your sister?

I feel intense discomfort in my chest when I think of my convocation in the future. Save the incessant strike actions by the Academic Staff Union, I should be done with university by 2024 or 2025. But with the strike, I might still be in school by 2026 (heavens forbid!). I hate to think that my parents might be gone before my graduation. 

My siblings are flourishing, independent, and stable adults. My parents adore that. I hear them, almost every day, speaking in awe of how these three have grown quickly, how they make them proud, and how they have made them grandparents. They say it to the neighbors, to their friends. And they tell me that my siblings are also my parents because I will be left with them in the end. I always want to howl every time they say this: it is you people that I want, not them!

I am nineteen. I still have a long way to go. I always have an impulse to quicken my ambitions, to hasten my studies. I do not want my parents to leave me before I achieve these accomplishments. If I ever have kids, I want my parents to see them, to see the miniature of me. I want my parents to feel my books with their palms. I want them to see me own an exotic house. But death is vile; it sneaks up on you, and snatches the ones you honor. I tell myself that my siblings almost have nothing to lose if my parents leave us. I have nearly everything to lose. How awful it must be for your parents to leave you while you are young, not accomplished, naive.

5.

I dream a lot. Some of my dreams come true. Some don’t. My father and mother have died many times in my dream. According to my Nigerian Christian belief, which I am more familiar with, it implies that they may die. That the evil forces are plotting their demise. These days, I consult Google and it tells me that the dreams may not necessarily mean actual death. That it may mean an opening of a newer phase. And I think I see it, the shift in their behavior. I pay more attention to how I feel after dreaming, rather than the dream in itself. On some days, dreaming of the death of my father or mother leaves me indifferent. On other days, I wake up with tremors in my hands and fingers. I try not to think too much about it because I do not want it to be true, but it comes screaming in my face while I carry on with my daily activities: Your parents will die soon, and you cannot do shit about it. Face it!

6.

My parents sometimes provoke me. Sometimes they are too intrusive. My father would barge into my room for no reason, saying he’s just checking up on me. Sometimes, he sends me on needless  errands. He would call me from my room and say: Bring the remote from that table. 

The remote is right there, resting on the stool beside him. 

My mother murmurs a lot. She transfers her invasion to me. She blames me for almost everything that goes wrong in the house. And I shun her. 

There are days when their provocations hit the cellars of my being. I talk back to them, walk away, or slam the door of my room shut. They knock. I do not answer. But then, a thought comes: What if they die now, will all of these matter? Sometimes, I shove these thoughts away. I try to ignore them.

I block my ears from these thoughts, but they scream louder. Although pride sometimes pins me to my bed, I wrestle with it and apologize for my rudeness.

7.

I initially chose the University of Nigeria, the Enugu campus, to study law because I liked Enugu. I wanted to feel that eastern bustle. One night, my mother collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. The doctor said she suffered a low blood pressure. I could not sleep that night. I sat on a low chair by her bed, thinking. The next day, I took five thousand naira from my account, and I got an institution correction form. I transferred to the University of Lagos, Akoka to study the same course. I could not afford to stay far from my parents. 

The first night I stayed in my hostel, I kept trembling inside the brown blanket, hyperventilating. I needed my parents. The next morning, while ironing, I burnt the white short sleeve shirt I was supposed to wear for the Legal Methods lecture. I wore a white long sleeve shirt. 

I called my parents very often to ask how they were faring, how the home was without me. It went like that for a month. Then one day, after I came back from school, I called my parents, and they did not pick up the call. I called hours later and they did not pick up the call. I called the next morning and they did not pick up. I suffered panic attacks. I could not concentrate in class. What if the silence meant they were dead? Did our gas cooker explode? Did daddy have a heart attack? Was mommy involved in an accident? What if somebody had died? What if they have both died?

I screamed a little loud. My seat partner heard me. The people who sat near me heard, too. 

I said sorry, and I buried my head in the desk.

My mother called me that night, saying there had been no power supply and that the generator was faulty.

8.

Slipping away is inevitable. I have made peace with this. 

These days, I take pictures of my parents and record them unawares. I ask them questions about their youthful days. About their love story. About their thoughts on things. Many things. 

Sometimes, I do things for them to please them. I wanted to study law, but I would later realize that the law is not justice, but a means to it. I would later come to agree with my subconscious about my aversion to critical pragmatics. But, somehow, I have to push on. My parents have nursed this dream of becoming a lawyer since my childhood. I have to carry on with it. They did not coerce me, but there are things we know we should do without being told to do them. Things might change; I may not finish it. I may move abroad and study Literary Arts. 

I want to enjoy the now with them. Every moment with them holds meaning for me. I count one to ten when they provoke me; it cools the burning fury in me. I ask them if they need water or food. I call them to check up on them. I get little gifts for them when I go out. I write letters and read them aloud to them. I feel happy doing these things. I now sleep at night knowing that I tried my best, that I made them happy, that we shared profound memories.

About the Author:

Chinonso Nzeh is a law student at the University of Lagos, an African literature enthusiast, and a lover of old-school music. You can reach him via Twitter: @chinonso_nzeh. Or Instagram: @chinonso.nzeh. Or his blog, where he writes about his mundane personal experiences: https://nonsoscorner.wordpress.com/

Feature image by Loke_Artemis / Pixabay