The day before my mother died, I wanted to cry. For the past few days, a very thin silvery thread had connected her to the land of the living, but today, my mother woke up full of life and asked for a cup of tea. We had only been feeding her ice chips since Thursday, but today she was smiling and asking for something hot in her stomach. She sighed with contentment as I pressed the steaming mug of dité kako into her hands. The warmth of the tea brought colour to her cheeks and greased her creaky joints. I insisted that she rest, but she responded by saying that she was not yet dead. It really was as if she had been given a new lease on life. I held her hands as she swung her legs from the bed. ‘I am fine.’ She was insistent. I believed her.
My mother walked around the house, looking for something, memorising everything, all the while humming that hauntingly depressing Fanny J Crosby song about the imminent breaking of silver cords. When Old Man Rigo saw her on the veranda later that day, he remarked that if he had not seen her with his own two eyes, he would not have believed that she had made such a full recovery. It was almost too good to be true, he added. And it was his insistence that made me remember Ms. Annie.
Ms. Annie had one Sunday afternoon complained of a little headache; nothing much, just a little nagging pain that did not prevent her from doing her work. That little headache turned into a gigantic headache that finally became so bad that she was confined to a small back room in her house. Things went from bad to worse in a matter of days, and by day seven, Father Cétoute had been called to offer her last rites. And then just when all had thought she would surely die—the men had even begun making her coffin—she inexplicably got better. Just like that. She asked for something hot for her stomach, and that tea warmed her enough for her to be able to laugh with her children and even sing some old calypso. But, by the following day, not even the promise of a sulphur spring bath could coax Ms. Annie from her bed. While they were attempting to lure her, at least into the living room, Ms. Annie’s eyes rolled back into her head until you could only see the whites. Then, she took one deep breath, and boom, just like that, she was dead. As it dawned on me that my mother was acting just like Ms. Annie, I crumpled to the floor in a boneless heap. But I did not cry. I could not cry.
‘Vini ich mwen;’ my mother was at my side. She hugged me. I did not flinch because today she did not smell like old people. She instead smelt of barrel – Irish Spring Soap and Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. My mother made herself even smaller and smiled at me through her tears. ‘Pa hélé, piti.’ I nodded. I was nothing if not obedient. She pulled me even closer and hugged me. I found comfort in the crook of her spidery thin arms.
The morning my mother died, I did not cry. She lay on the bed and looked like she was merely resting. Remembering what they had done for Ms. Annie, I procured a small lime from the kitchen. I then covered my mother with a pale blue sheet, the one that Auntie Judy had bought at Harrods and given to her as a gift, the one that she had been saving for a special occasion. Today seemed as good an occasion as any. I did not want to leave her side, but since I was sure that if I whispered ‘Mum,’ she would open her tired eyes and smile at me, I left the room because I did not want to disturb her.
When my father sauntered into the house at around six o’clock—these days there was no need to pretend, and so coming home at four o’clock in the morning no longer made sense—I was taking bakes off from the tawa. ‘Why you not getting ready, child? How is your mother?’ He was already taking over my tasks.
‘Lying down.’ I did not want to lie, and so I continued, ‘She is in her room.’ It was her room. It had been years since they shared a room on account of his snoring and later because they had become uncomfortable being alone together.
‘I will finish that. What you doing that for by the way? Go. Get ready.’
I wanted to go. I wanted to run far away from the house as I did not want to witness my father’s imminent realisation. But I stood still, hypnotised by his energy as I saw him take a bake, cut it, and add some herring and cucumber salad inside. He winked at me. ‘Let me see if she will eat that.’ I wanted to answer him. I opened my mouth, but my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. My father’s eyes could not register my distress because he had already entered my mother’s room.
‘Lydia?’ I heard his voice, normally so strong and vibrant, today fearful. ‘Ly-o?’ He was hesitant. He knew. I entered the room. My father was holding my mother in his arms. My mother’s eyes had somehow opened, and they now looked straight ahead, unimpressed with his grief. I looked at my father and blinked. Ours was not a family where displays of emotions were encouraged, and so I did not know what to do with my father’s sorrow. Part of me wished that he would bring all his emotions to the arms of the dògla lady who lived on crown lands near Ravine Concorde. Another part of me desperately wished that he would hold me like he was holding my dead mother.
He interrupted my thoughts. ‘Have you told anyone?’
I shook my head no.
‘I –’ he paused. ‘We need to get an iron; if not, her belly will—’ He paused again.
‘Okay.’ I said quickly, filling in the space his lack of words had created. Silence was not the only thing that had forced me to speak though. I had to say something to mask my shock because when my father had turned to face me, he reminded me of the old, rabid dog that Mister Hippo had had to shoot last May.
The afternoon my mother died, I did not cry. I went to the market. If she had died on any other day except a Saturday, then there would have been no need. The women would have come with the men, and they would have brought food. Instead, only men along with young boys were in the yard, and they were sawing and hammering and sanding, and they would soon need to be fed. Mister Boy had dug some sad sweet potatoes that we had planted in a small patch near the front of the house. He apologised when he told us that George had struck again because a hand of mankanbou was missing. So, to the market I was sent.
People looked at me hoping that I would meet their stare. Maybe they wanted to express their sympathy. Maybe they cared. But no one knew how to navigate their way around me. Unlike my father, I did not wear a grief badge of honour on my sleeve; my sorrow was not inscribed on my forehead. I walked around the market stalls choosing the best food that I could find. I walked with the quiet determination of the lady of the house even though I knew I was no lady. My steely gaze kept most of the sympathies at bay, and when I haggled with a vendor and got cocoa sticks for two dollars less than the advertised price, I smiled. I had grown up quite a bit in the few hours since my mother had died. I was proud of myself. Since yanmantoutan was my mother’s favourite, I bought it for her before I remembered that she was dead; she could not eat it. I needed to escape the activity of the market. There were too many people whose eyes were trying to read mine. People were bending over backwards to accommodate me. Others were giving me space, and some others were speaking softly. Most of the people’s eyes extended their pity towards me. I hated them for that.
The house was buzzing with activity when I arrived from the sea of people at the market. I had become used to the sound of my mother’s shallow breathing, and this lively chatter seemed disrespectful. My mother had not been dead for a full twelve hours, and life had only given her a speed bump of recognition. The noise at first annoyed me, and then that gave way to a boiling, seething rage. Some ladies who were in the kitchen grabbed what I had purchased, oblivious to my emotions. Soon, too many cooks were preparing what smelt like dirty socks. I threw up in my mouth a little. Feeling sick, I wandered into the dining room. My Aunt Beatrice was slicing coconut cake. A mountain of bread and turnovers sat on the table, but it was the coconut cake I reached for. I could now pretend that my mother would soon wake and smile shyly while apologising for her very long nap. I chewed slowly. Aunt Beatrice had used the wrong spices – star anise, cloves, and cardamom. I swallowed. This coconut cake was better than my mum’s.
I looked up. Aunt Beatrice was handing me a glass. ‘I cannot drink milk,’ I told her woodenly. I added, ‘It makes me sick,’ when I realised that she would not leave if I did not provide an explanation.
‘Go ahead, child. I boiled the milk and added a pinch of salt too. You will be fine.’
She was right. The milk did not nauseate me. In fact, the milk was delicious. I looked up at Aunt Beatrice, and I tried to thank her, but thanking her would be betraying my mother, and so I continued to chew slowly while staring at the wall above my head.
The evening my mother died, I did not cry. All her sisters and brothers in Christ gathered in our house that was only slightly bigger than a Bata shoe box. Misyé Roumain, who had travelled beyond our hills and valleys, explained that my mother was not really dead. She had only transitioned, he added and insisted that since she no longer walked upright, she would instead become fertile ground that gives birth to living things like trees and flowers. I did not know whether I liked the thought of her giving birth to something else; I much preferred to think of her as finished. Gone. Erased. But then the thought of her rotting proved too much for me, and so I closed my eyes and listened to the thump thump thump of my father’s heart. This thump thump thump reminded me that one day all would be fine. When Misyé Roumain concluded that since we never ever die, those who are alive and remain must never ever mourn the dead, I heard a thousand African drums in my father’s chest. I hugged him tighter. I knew then that he loved my mother as much as I loved her.
In the middle of ‘maaaarrrccching toooooo Ziiiioooooon,’ the head deaconess faltered. Everyone’s eyes followed where her voice seemed to be pointing. We all saw her one or two beats before my father opened his eyes and made contact with the dògla lady who lived on crown lands near Ravine Concorde.
‘But what the hell you doing here?’ My father was outside and was ready to attack.
‘I heard the news and I –’ The dògla lady was flustered. She had believed him when he told her if things were different, he would have left his wife for her.
‘You what? You hear my wife die, so you come to see if you can take her place? Let me tell you something –’ His voice was low, and his eyes were wild. His eyes followed hers, and my father saw me.
I stared at him. He strode towards me, grabbed my hands, and entered the house in one fluid movement. He did not look back. But I did. The dògla lady who lived on crown lands near Ravine Concorde stood staring at my father’s back until he entered the house and sat on the armchair, pulled me into his lap, and closed his eyes, determined to lose his thoughts in ‘Beulah Land, swwwweeeeeeeeet Beeeeeeeeeeulahhhhhhhhh Land.’
Three days after my mother died, I needed to cry.
‘How a child cannot shed one tear for their mother tells me something I wish I never knew!’
I had no words to tell these Christian witches that although I wanted to cry, no matter how much I tried, water would not drip from my eyes. I made my way out of my room. I would go eat something – coconut cake and milk. Aunt Beatrice had made another batch the night before.
‘Papa?’ My father was sitting in my mother’s chair and had startled me.
‘Yes, child.’ He was not meeting my eyes.
‘What’s wrong?’ I was panicking. Intuition was telling me that he too was about to leave. I felt that he was going to leave me. He could not leave me. He would not leave me. He was not the kind of father to give his child a stone. We only had each other now. My eyes scanned the room although I did not know what I was looking for, but when I saw it, I knew.
‘Where are you going, Daddy?’
I knew then I had asked the wrong question. I took a sip of milk to prevent precise words from coming out.
The milk was sour.
‘Papa?’ I was agitated. ‘Why do you have –’
‘Not now, child. Later.’
Later, a thick cloud of dust danced above the ancient Datsun car that had sputtered up our little hill. From the thick cloud appeared a woman whose skin reflected the sunlight and whose feet did not seem to touch the ground.
‘It is for the best.’ She was speaking to my father. No one’s gaze met mine.
‘I know,’ my father’s mouth said. I sought his gaze, but he had turned away and was pulling the suitcase I had seen cowering behind the bookshelf. ‘Everything in here is new.’
‘Come now.’ The lady was tugging at my arm. ‘We have a long way to go. Everyone is so eager to meet you.’ The lady was smiling at me, but her eyes remained cold.
I looked back at my father. I wanted him to explain to me what was going on. I wanted to assure him that he and I would manage somehow. It could not be that difficult. A lack of money would not be an issue. There would be no need for him to buy Ovaltine as I now knew a pinch of salt would help me keep the milk from our goat in my stomach. I wanted him to know that I could eat green fig every day for the rest of my life and that I would be fine. I certainly did not dream of Sunday dinners or any of the stuff that I heard the other children speak about at school. I just wanted to be with him in our little tin house on top of our hill where memories of my mother still lived.
‘Papa?’ I reached for his hands, but the lady was already ushering me into a car on which I saw the words, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Group Home for Orphans. More panic and dark fright rose inside of me. I was scared. I understood clearly. I whipped my head around to look for my father, but strong arms had already pushed me into the car and fastened my seat belt. I could not turn without hurting myself. And already a thick cloud of dust was separating my father and me. I begged the lady to stop. I tried to open the car but there was no handle. I screamed at her. I kicked the back of her seat and stopped only when she threatened to punch me in my mouth and make her hand come out through my rear end. I slumped against the back of the seat. I knew defeat. There was nothing I could do to stop what I was sure must have already happened.
Three days after my mother died, I cried.
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