It was a mirror that told me my sister was trying to have a child.
My brother-in-law makes lists for everything. Books to purchase for the month, the new skill to learn before the year’s end, items to pack on a trip, complete with the pairs of stockings to take along and notes not to forget his charger, online courses to keep up with, everything. He presents like a person gripped with the zealous need to keep their affairs in a single file, set straight by grid lines, marching towards an unseen destination. He’d paste his lists in conspicuous places in the apartment he shares with my sister, as if telling his eyes to remind his heart not to forget.
I did not know my sister to be like that. I know she loves words. I know she has a handwriting that begs to be shown off, swirls and curves that stand perfect. I know she believes in moulding the physical from the spiritual, that words have an evolutionary capacity, and wishes come through when we utter them. But I’d never known her to make lists or be a person given to displaying anything, even words.
Something must have passed between husband and wife, because soon into the marriage, I noticed that my sister also started taking up spaces on the surfaces of their home. Her tape-ons were usually affirmations and quotes from books or movies she’d seen, lines that often had a sentimental quality to them, lifted as they were from a mass of identical others.
Any time I visited my sister’s home, I’d note who had written something new, who was winning this battle to conquer the surfaces of their home. I would often try to guess the book my sister’s quote was from or how far my brother-in-law was along on any of his study plans. It was another way to get to know them, entering this room with the door slightly ajar, this room whose door was words.
One day, I went into the couple’s room and found something new my sister had written and taped on a mirror surface. It was a two-line passage from the book of Samuel, “I asked the Lord to give me this boy, and he has granted my request.”
I stood there, every other concern fading into the background, the two liner staring me in the face. Even now, I can still remember, with frightening clarity, how I felt reading that note. It was a rush of many things; scalding embarrassment, like I’d walked into a changing room with someone half undressed; shock that then segued into a deeply-gutting, soul-wrenching kind of shame.
I had been vaguely aware that my sister, who was married for three years then, may be struggling with having a child. But whenever people asked, responding with a wink and an “Anytime now,” in the first few months, and an embarrassed “Well, she is still a young woman,” as the months turned to years, I used to phrase my replies carefully. They morphed from “They are enjoying their first year of marriage,” to “They are waiting for her husband to finish his residency, there is more money then,” to the point where I did not say anything, my shuffling feet filling in the silence. I could have just asked her. We were close enough that she might have told me. But what kind of mouth asks that sort of question?
That morning, as I stood staring at that note, I realised I never asked because I was afraid of the truth. I feared its ability to quash doubt and hope, leaving no room for the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘it could bes.’ I feared that if I stood before the truth I’d be naked, unable to hide behind the faith that things could swing one way or the other. In that moment, I knew that some part of me must have guessed that knowing the truth would lead me to the conclusion seeing that note did, the conclusion that made me feel ashamed: that my sister had somehow failed in a fundamental way.
It was new, associating my sister with failure. As a child I thought her perfect. But then every young boy thought their older sisters to be Beyonces. But even when I grew into adulthood, this truth, that my older sister was badass, remained, fastened this time by the empirical. She was born with the audacity to dare, a wanting of more that was such a rare thing in our world where boys barely finished secondary school and the girls who did, got pregnant and married off, almost immediately. With her ambition came tenacity, such that when she found that my parents could not fund her university dreams, she worked as a teacher, saving every penny as she towed her dreams to a polytechnic, then crossed over to a university.
I watched her clear every obstacle with pro-level finesse, only to be stopped by this, something so small that it is taken for granted that at every wedding a deadline of nine months is given. Something any random girl achieved as a matter of course. I felt like a person who’d discovered that their favourite writer actually used ghostwriters. The embarrassment could kill.
Looking into that mirror came with an acute awareness, and my flaws and that of the world could no longer hide. I found myself checking what I said, steering conversations towards safe territories. I tried not to make jokes about babies, and was always careful when such conversations came up. But that was futile. It was me against a world that was tone deaf. A world whose least crime was ignorance, because even when you pointed out how jokes and snide comments could be like a jutting door knob, a tripping child waiting to happen, it’d tell you not to be so prickly, to wipe your tears and let people have a good laugh.
I became aware of how our world was unfair in expectations, cruel in its demands, so that while it was two people who set out to find a fortune, failure was deemed, automatically, to be the burden of the one person. I found it unjustifiable that even though there were two parties in the throes of waiting, it was one who felt the lack so acutely that they had to paste it on their dressing mirror, as though that kind of thing needed any reminding. And even I was in the dock, guilty of original sin; gender bias, the offspring of the eternal crook, patriarchy. Because why had I felt ashamed? Why had I assumed that my sister did something wrong, that there was something wrong, that there was something wrong with her? Was it concern for the one I loved, or was I no better than what the society spewed?
One time we were in church, at an evening service where the atmosphere was lax. The subject that day was on romantic relationships, the kind I stayed away from because I had realised early that regardless of how enlightened any preacher was, there was always the sprinkle of sexism in sermons about marriage or relationships. I remember being resigned, hoping to suffer through the service, when somehow the pastor dived into the story of David and his wife Michal. It had been something about how Michal’s barrenness had been God’s punishment to her. It was not just that he twisted the narrative to suit the sermon, but how he told the story, making Michal the butt of his joke, making infertility something that could be made light of. Usually, when stories like that came up, it’d set my heart awonder, causing me to pause and examine the Old Testament Jehovah that always appeared temperamental, gloriously petty. But that day an analysis of God’s personhood did not occupy my thoughts. Rather, I’d felt like that old woman, the one who could not endure a joke about a rundown basket. In my discomfort I’d looked at my sister sitting a few seats ahead and wondered how she felt, if she had joined in the laughter like everyone else so she would not appear particularly offended. It broke my heart.
In this life, there is nothing you cannot find an explanation for, no human condition you cannot mould into the vessel you want it to be. That is why memory can be a safe harbour where you can anchor your weary vessel or an opium to dull the sharp blade of reality. Failure can be the spur one needs, the secret ingredient to success or the final declaration of one’s incompetence, grounding steps to a halt. Knowing can birth or quash hope, depending on whose side you are on, life or death. It took a while after I’d looked into that mirror, but I eventually decided what I wanted to do with that knowledge and unmade my sister the recipient of pity. I chose instead to be as she was, the image of hands lifted in supplication, a person yielding to a superior power. “I asked the Lord to give me this boy..”, I started praying myself. How do you receive a miracle if not by faith?
It was my father who told me my sister was pregnant.
My father is the family’s storyteller. He walks around with a bag of tales. At a moment’s notice, he could reach in for stories of MKO Abiola, the president that nearly was, or the mutiny he witnessed during the civil war, mothers running behind children as hell fell behind them or even when Bill Clinton came to Nigeria and the many children named Clinton just because of that historic visit. Mostly, he reached to the past to draw into the present, a sad reminder that he probably has more memories behind than before him. But sometimes, he also told stories of the now, people we knew, neighbours who died a careless death, the one whose daughter got married to a person from a different tribe and a fight broke out between both factions at the wedding, that sort of thing.
The evening he called, I remember how acutely tired I felt. I’d been in my final year for two years, and was mentally done with the university but still stuck there anyway, like a bad marriage. I went through the motions: classes, quizzes,assignments, with the only light at the end of the tunnel being that the ordeal was going to be over soon. Prone as I was to ignore calls that were school-related, I was keen to take my father’s because for those precious minutes I’d be in his world, where people were getting married and birthing children and going abroad. I would be standing in a moving static bus, and looking out into the world.
“I have not been feeling well,” he said, a few minutes into the call.
I laid on my back on the bed, my legs on the wall, noting again how terrible the room’s paint was. A dark blue that swallowed the light, highlighted the dirty parts, and brought out the ugly in the room. My roommate and I could not do anything about it because we were almost done with school and who spends money on a place they’d stay for just three more months? I knew my father was still at the other end. He had announced the sickness like it was the beginning of a climax, like he was about to take off. I knew there was more to come. I waited.
“I have since gotten better recently since the news your sister gave me.”
“What news?” I asked, a bubble of hope ballooning, threatening to burst. I was anxious, and my heart was thumping.
He began the vague mumbling that the older generation often adopted when telling a secret. I did not have patience for prodding or waiting for him to make up his mind about sharing. I needed the good news confirmed, so I called my brother.
He said, “Why don’t you call her yourself?” But the news was like a light hidden under a bushel, it could only escape. So, he told me.
The news still sounded too good to be true. When I texted her to ask about the news, she sent me a smile emoji and asked me to start preparing to be an uncle.
It was like the end of a long sigh, a held breath easing its way out. Now that it happened, everyone could finally talk about the hurdles crossed, the rivers forded. While we waited, no one spoke about it specifically. We skirted around the subject, acknowledging it by unacknowledging it. My parents expressed concerns during prayers, asking God to bless my sister with the fruit of the womb, a peculiar expression that took out the sting from the lack. My siblings never mentioned it but I was sure they, like me, made little promises to God every chance they got, a nephew for more selflessness, a niece for a more consecrated life. But when the news came, it was as though a gag order was lifted. We cried and laughed and held each other, said, see? See? My mother claimed to be the source of this blessing. She said, “Do you know how many sacrifices I made? In our fellowship, I gave and gave, asking God, ‘won’t you do for me like you did for other women? Now look at what He has done.” We did not begrudge her sharing the spotlight with God. We were sure God did not mind too.
It was a beautiful thing to watch, the transformation of brother-in-law to an expectant father. There are people that seem continuously on the precipice of a breakdown, like a little push would be all they need to go spiralling. My brother-in-law is the opposite. He presents like he drinks a bottle of sunshine with each breakfast. And when his wife became pregnant, full ran over and he dripped joy wherever he went. He walked around with a new zest for life, spring in his steps, a tightness to his hand grips. I was happy to see him happy because his happy was the kind that was infectious, the kind that invites you in and wins your heart by its innocence.
But it was my sister who bore the physical imprint of the miracle coming into their lives. I watched as her life became a before and after, split into two by the impending arrival of the baby. The baby took up space in her narratives and she spoke of it in the present tense, made space for it in the now, factored it into the future. The arrival was a fixed time post in the future, and she tied her plans around its arrival.
My sister told me, “By the time you are done with law school, I’d have had my child. You will miss his dedication.” She wrote on her status on WhatsApp, “Wear your bodycon dresses now that you can, because sometime in the future you will not.” Once I tried to help her lift a bag and she’d slapped my hand off, hefted the bag, her yellow dress straining across her navel.
“I am pregnant, not sick,” she said.
She tried to hold on to a slippery thing, her life as she knew it before the pregnancy. She started teaching in the first trimester. Years before, fresh out of secondary school, she had worked as a teacher, spurred by the pinch of lack, and an ambition she needed money to carry. This time again necessity took her to the path of teaching, because, as she said, she didn’t want to get so fat sitting all day at home.
But this was a battle she lost. Her body was the first to surrender, knees down, hands up in the air. She walked around, belly first, unable to hide even if she wanted to. She acquired folds on her face and neck, huge lips, plump hands; everybody said pregnancy suited her.
Not once did she complain, or speak about backaches or want the many cravings pregnant women are said to have. She, instead, acquired a certain kind of bemusement at the world.
One time she and I went to buy bananas just after a Sunday service. She was, by then, early into her third trimester. As soon as we arrived, the seller fetched a seat for her, all the while chiding her, “Madam, don’t be standing for so long, mind your condition.”
The man buying a banana with us paid for the fruits, said it was for the baby.
As we walked home my sister said, “I have not been respected in all my life the way I have been since I became pregnant. Everyone calls me madam, me, madam?”
She began to talk about how the world opened up to her, treated her with kindness, with consideration, and most of all, with respect. It was as though the universe suddenly gained sight, became aware of her worth, that only in birthing another human could her full agency be acknowledged.
She spoke without judgement, instead with a certain kind of bemusement, marvelling at a world that had perfected the art of posturing.
And in that moment, like several others within that period, I tried to imagine what it was like in her head, whether a bulb was turned on or whether creepy things snarled in the darkness. Because it had occurred to me that everyone else spoke of the miracle, basked in it, she, its bearer, rarely ever talked about how it had been for her, or how it was for her at the moment. It was almost as though the years got erased, like everyone forgot all the time spent waiting. But of course she didn’t, couldn’t. It took only opening one’s eyes, looking, to see the burdens she’d had to carry getting along all those years alone. Yet she never spoke about it. Maybe it was because she knew I’d never fully understand. There was a chasm that separated our experiences, a void only someone who’d walked her path could even begin to fathom.
So I kept silent and listened and we walked, me, my sister and the miracle she grew in her belly.
It was Zinny, my sister’s friend, who told me my sister had given birth.
Zinny has the umbrage of two people. Three when she gets mad. She is the person you call when you want a warrior. She’ll rally a troop at midnight, knock down doors and get what needs to be done done. You couldn’t be foolish around her. So when she arrived at the hospital that morning, the security guard pointed at a sign pasted on the gate, and mouthed, “One person at a time. It is not yet 12 o’clock,” I’d expected her to protest. But what difference does thirty minutes make to a person hurrying to meet a miracle? So Zinny decided not to fight, or rather won without fighting. I sat outside while she went in to see my sister.
My sister had woken me that morning to say she was going to the hospital. Her bag was packed and the man that’d take her was there. The night before she’d walked from one room to the other, a mop in hand. God forbid that her baby would arrive to a house that wasn’t sparkling. In between cleaning, she took calls from her husband, and it appeared they were arguing about something. I wondered how my brother-in-law felt, far as he was from Nigeria, if the ache of loneliness was as gripping as the pangs of loss he surely felt at not being present bodily for the birth of his child. The next morning my sister was at my door, in her red maternity gown, normal, like she was going on an errand within a short distance. A dash and back.
The moment was disappointing in its ordinariness. I’d been conditioned by Nollywood to expect some colour, anything from abrupt piercing shouts, to frenzied running up and down, or at the least, choreographed hand wringing from neighbours and friends as my sister made her way to a waiting vehicle, supported on both sides by helpful women who’d encourage her to breathe, take it easy. Even if not for the momentary theatrical quality, a turn of events that way would make the retelling better. “Do you know that I was in labour for twelve hours…” Imagine a story beginning that way. But that was not to happen. My sister’s presence was even made plainer by the message she gave me,
“I am going to the hospital. I’ll call you and then you can start coming.”
The theatrics came later. This was after Zinny and I had gotten to the hospital and my sister was being prepped in the delivery room. I sat outside the hospital ward, watching people milling around. Some children were playing in the open court, and I wondered if their new sibling was a girl or boy, fair or dark skinned, had black or brown eyes. I borrowed features from the children to recreate their younger sibling, imagining how the new child would look. Soon, I heard some people singing. And as I watched, a group processed out from the recesses of the hospital, leading, as if by hand, a small white bus carrying a casket. A young man who worked in the hospital had died. They were taking his corpse out for burial.The hospital was run by a Catholic church, so there was the presence of the solemn, the holy, Reverend Sisters and priests dressed in their habits, rosaries hanging from their necks and habits. The group sang mournful dirges as they trudged behind the hearse in unhurried paces, accompanying their colleague on a last walk. The entire compound fell into a silence whose depth was grief. When the group got to the hospital’s gate, they handed the corpse over to the late man’s kin, who for some reason, did not venture beyond the gate.
The other group was made up mostly of young people, men and women who wore anger on their faces. They snatched the songs from the dead man’s colleagues, and began theirs. Their songs held violence, held anger. It did not invite to contemplate, it did not stir pity. It was accompanied by loud shouts, and masquerades ran amok, shaking trees, uprooting anything that was unfortunate to not be held firmly by the earth. The young people wanted anyone listening to stop, as if they were saying, look, a terrible thing happened to us. It was how it was done. A person cut down in his prime ought to be sent out with aggression so that the other side would recognize that his was not a death they took kindly, so that the dead wherever he was could know that his death was mourned, not condoned.
So the gate was the bridge, reverend sisters and priests waving as their dirges tapered out and on the other side comrades in violence, both sides of a man’s journey through earth.
As I sat and watched, it was hard not to draw parallels. This house of joy was at the same time the site of mourning. The people waiting for a miracle and the people mourning a fresh loss, a dead not long gone. But I tried not to dwell on that. There was no need giving the devil a foothold. I was being a little superstitious, I knew. But an African never quite outgrows the superstitious. So I channelled my thoughts to other things, sunnier thoughts. Then Zinny’s call came.
“Your sister has given birth. Come and see your baby.”
I looked around and wondered if they knew, if they could sense it, the joy filling me up, tearing at my seams, the relief coursing through my system, if they saw what happiness was doing to me. But it was of course selfish and reckless futility to expect the world to stop and stare, especially this place that had experienced so many miracles it was akin to the mundane. So it had to be enough that I knew. That private moment was enough. It was solely mine.
About the Author:
Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. He was a finalist for the 2022 Miles Morland Scholarship, the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize and the 2021 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Review. He equally won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the Flash fiction category and judged the prize in 2022. His works have been published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Lolwe, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Kalahari Review, Prachya Review, and elsewhere. He was selected for the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie and has a Law degree from the University of Nigeria.