Rotimi Wright, 1985
I’m back from school and Mom is in the living room. Her bony shoulders are slumped back against one of the flowery print sofas. She’s crying again. A short sigh escapes me as I watch Fola and Dayo my younger brothers run up the stairs after a hurried hello to our crying parent who waves dismissively back at them. Boys will be boys and pretending that there’s no problem is often the best way to deal with a dilemma you don’t know how to solve. And we all know the dilemma in the Wright’s household is none other than Dad and his many flings with just about anything that walks in skirts.
My eyes follow the receding backs of my brothers. I’m tempted to follow them; tempted to ignore Mom’s sobs. My ingrained good manners wins and I find myself opening my mouth to ask the two questions that I’ve asked for the millionth time in my 14th year.
“Mummy, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
I know her answer before she replies. Like the very predictable chorus to a song, it’s always the same every time.
“Nothing,” she says, her smile tight. Then she resumes her sobbing like I’m no longer there.
I shrug, feigning nonchalance but the fact is, her tears this time bothers me. So I stand there, refusing to budge and for the first time, I allow myself to acknowledge the physical changes to her body. She’s become thinner. I remember that two months ago she went to the hospital to have an operation. I still don’t know what was taken out of her body but she did look slimmer, less bustier, even prettier after the operation. But now, I’m not so sure. Now she looks too slender. Too weak. It suddenly occurs to me that my own mother is disappearing right before my eyes. Like a fading fragrance. To think that it’s over my errant father makes my blood boil.
“Should I call Celina to bring you something? Water?”
She shakes her head.
My long arms hang down my sides gawkily even though I long to reach out to her and hold her, tell her that everything is going to be all right. That Dad is nothing but a loser, a thorough jerk for constantly cheating on her. But of course, I tell her none of these things because truth be told, I’m getting just as sick at Mom as I am at Dad for her continued demonstration of helplessness, crying over a man who apparently doesn’t give a hoot about her. Between my parents, Dad is the most fun, a man who plays with his boys like one jesting with his buddies -but there’s the word on the street that he is planning to marry a second wife and I can’t forgive him for that. One would think that after three boys, my father would stay committed to my mother. Isn’t that what all these typical Yoruba men want? Boys to continue their legacy? To show the world how virile they are? And Dad has got to be the most Yoruba man I’ve ever met. A man who till date requires all his sons to fully lie down in prone position when greeting him good morning and expects us to do the same every night when we go to bed. Then, he’ll guffaw loudly and call me “Goliath” because I look ridiculous prostrating on the floor with my long limbs.
But seriously, why does he run after other women? I don’t get it, but even more difficult for me to understand is this: Why does Mom allow Dad to roughshod her so?
Finally, she looks up at me after what seems to be like several hours even though it’s only in seconds.
“Rotimi,” her voice is hoarse from her tears. “What are you still doing here?”
“I want you to tell me why you are crying.” My voice is more hostile than I mean it to be. From her raised eyebrows, I see that I’ve surprised her just as much as I’ve surprised myself. I mentally note that my left foot is tapping the very ugly, dark green carpeted floor of our living room as I wait for an answer from her.
God, but I hate this carpet. I wish someone would yank it off and throw it out.
Mom doesn’t reply but starts crying again and this time, I lose it big.
“Is it Dad? I swear to God, I’ll kill him if he keeps up with this, dammit.”
She gasps, shocked at my antagonism while I think to myself that I like the way dammit rolls off my tongue. Suddenly, I feel quite americanish.
“Why do you let him run over you? Why do you let him make you cry?” I want to say dammit again, but I figure it’s best not to overdo it.
Again, she doesn’t reply. She doesn’t cry either. She only stares at me for a long while, her eyes filled with a melancholy that threatens to soften my rage. I’m tempted to cower in shame at my disrespectful tone, but I don’t. Instead, I dock my head to the side. I’m too tall for my age and it’s a little uncomfortable to have my head in this position.
“What I’m about to tell you Rotimi, you have to promise not to tell your brothers. Okay? I don’t want to unsettle them. They are too young.”
The oddness of her request has me raising my eyebrows, but I nod anyway.
Minutes go by and Mom finally decides to open her mouth to talk to me. It’s one that will tear my soul apart like those detonating bombs thrown around in Sylvester Stallone’s movies my brothers and I watch on Saturday mornings.
“I am dying, Rotimi. I have cancer. Breast cancer.”
I gasp. What is she talking about?
“The doctors treated it some months back,” she continues, “but now it’s come back and it’s malignant.”
My eyes widen as two big words pop into my brain: Cancer and malignant.
I look at her chest, and I see that it is flat under her blouse. Understanding slowly descends on me.
“Dammit,” I mutter. It comes off my tongue just as awful as I feel inside.