I couldn’t help but smile at the sound of his characteristic deep baritone when he answered the phone. That creamy voice of his had been causing havoc amongst women folk for as long as I could remember.
“I’m glad you finally called!” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.
For the first time in a long while, I actually laughed. “I didn’t know you were expecting my call.”
“Actually, I wasn’t. When I heard about your pregnancy, I figured all is finally well with you and my brother. Congratulations, by the way.”
And that was all it took to send me crashing right back to earth.
“I had a miscarriage…” I said quietly.
Atoo cursed under his breath, before exhaling deeply. “I’m really sorry, Cheta. I didn’t know. When did this happen?”
“Eleven days ago…but that’s not the reason I called…” I said, eager to change the subject…eager not to be dragged right back into the dark hole I had managed to crawl out of. “It’s Mammi…”
“What’s wrong with her?” Atoo asked, concerned.
“I might be wrong…and it might not be anything…but I’m worried about her. I went to see her today, and she didn’t look well. She was coughing so much more than before…and I caught her spitting up blood…”
Atoo was silent for a while, before finally speaking. “I was also worried about that cough the last time I was in town. She’s always had that persistent cough, but I thought it seemed a bit more intense…and now that you say she’s spitting blood…” he sighed again. “We need to get her to see a doctor…and quickly. Could you please take her to the hospital for me? I’ll ask Tor to pick you up. I don’t trust him to do it himself, and his wife is just as bad an airhead as he is…”
“It’s no trouble at all, Atoo. I’ll be glad to take her. It will even help put my own mind at ease.” I assured him.
The very next morning, Tor was in my house to pick me up, and we rode together to Ogudu, to convince their mother to follow us to the hospital. At the mention of the word ‘hospital’, fear had flashed through her face and I immediately realized she was hiding something from us. Eventually, she conceded, and we rode in silence to their family hospital in Lagos Island.
Upon sighting her, their doctor had looked a bit alarmed, and with the way he scribbled when he was told about the blood, and that it had been going on for more than a few months, I could tell that all was surely not well.
Tor couldn’t sit through all the tests Mammi had to undergo, so I was her companion at the hospital for the rest of the day while they ran every test known to man; x-rays, scans, ECG, blood tests, all sorts. In the end, it was finally over, and we took a taxi back to Ogudu, with the plan to return in a few days for the results. I chose not to return home to Yaba, and instead spent that night, and the nights leading up to her next appointment, with her.
Being in closer proximity with her accorded me the chance of seeing just how much her health had deteriorated. Beneath her loose clothing, she was even skinnier than we’d thought. And her persistent coughing barely allowed her do anything…her sleep was interrupted and even meals were cut short by the violent fits. But what worried me the most was the blood, which came with each and every coughing bout.
By the time we returned to the hospital, I had already prepared for the worst…or at least I thought I had. Nothing prepared me for the verdict we got.
Mammi had stage 4 lung cancer.
Tor, who had come with us this time, had been this close to grabbing the doctor by the collar, asking questions and demanding answers, before slumping in his chair, unable to say another word.
I sat there with tears streaming down my face, while Mammi, on the other hand, just sat there unmoved, with a sad smile on her face.
“Did you know?” I asked her, as I sat by her hospital bed that night, as the doctor had advised draining the large mass of fluid buildup in her lungs.
“I suspected,” she answered, smiling. “My father died of lung cancer, so I already knew the signs.”
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” I exclaimed, my frustration almost making me want to shake the little old woman. “If we had started treatment earlier, it wouldn’t have come to this!”
“Cheta…we’re all going to die some day! Why should we spend our last days hopping from one hospital bed to the other? Isn’t it better to live one’s life to the fullest, and follow anytime death comes knocking?”
That night, as Mammi slept, Tor and I had given Atoo, and their other brothers, Boseda and Ande, the bad news over the phone. According to their doctor, the tumors in her lung were now obstructing and compromising her airway…but even worse, it had mestasised to her brain. He said she had, at best, a few weeks to live.
“That’s all nonsense!” Atoo had shouted, and I could hear the tears in his voice. “What do those Nigerian doctors know anyway? We’re going to fly her over here, and she’ll get the best treatment! A few weeks to live, what does he even know?!”
After speaking with their brothers, and after Tor had left for the night, I dialed your number. It was almost 10pm but, as expected, you didn’t answer your phone. I was too tired and weary to even feel any anger. So, even though I knew it was probably not the best way to communicate it to you, I decided to send you a text message.
Mammi’s results came out today. It’s cancer. We are in the hospital.
As I hit the Send button, I felt a flash of pity for you. Nobody deserved to get that kind of news by text…but I had given you the opportunity to hear it on the phone, so it was really no fault of mine.
Sleep eventually found me on the chair in the room, and it was the sound of Tor and his wife, Eva, arriving that awoke me the next morning. I frowned at Eva as she wept and caused a scene, with Mammi having to console her. I was so irritated by her tactlessness, crying as if the woman was already dead, I almost sent her away from the room.
“You see why I didn’t say anything before?” Mammi chuckled, when her son and his wife had left. “All these wires…” she said, gesturing to the lines criss-crossing her body, “And all those tears…” she gestured towards the door “…are enough to send one to an even earlier grave.”
I could barely laugh along to her joke, because I saw that, in the less than 24 hours that we’d been there, she was looking even more frail than before. Time was definitely ticking.
That afternoon, you had finally called me, frantic. Calmly, I relayed to you the events of the past week.
“Why didn’t you tell me anything?!” you had demanded.
“Tersur, you were the first person I told when I noticed Mammi was not looking well!” I answered, careful to keep my voice low. I had to restrain myself from reminding you about the cavalier way you had dismissed my concern. Thank God I hadn’t ignored my gut.
That evening, you had arrived and I guess it was seeing your mother connected to all the machines that made you break down and weep like a baby. As tempted as I was to join you, I had to remind myself what it was doing to the poor old woman, seeing us cry for her as if she was already dead.
That was how the hospital became my second home. Apart from a quick dash home to get more clothing and supplies, I remained a permanent fixture in her room, keeping her company. When we thought she would be discharged, her stay was extended again, as the fluid in her lungs seemed to be accumulating faster than it could be drained. She wasn’t at all pleased about it, but we knew we had no choice but to accept the development.
The following Friday, almost a week after her admission, Atoo arrived. He had walked into the room, like a ray of sunlight, just as I was catching a short nap and as Mammi slept. Thinking I was sleeping, he had gone straight to his mother, stroking her hair as she slept.
I watched him through barely open slits in my eyes and found myself getting transfixed, yet again, thinking how God surely took his time with your him. As he spoke gently to your mother, all I could think was how beautiful and perfect a human being he was.
“Hey…” he had said, smiling to me.
I smiled back, trying to navigate my mind away from dangerous zones.
“You’re here to take her back with you to London?” I asked.
Atoo smiled sadly and shook his head, and I knew that he had accepted the reality of what loomed ahead. I knew the doctor had probably explained the futility in taking her abroad, and he had accepted it was best to allow her go in peace.
“Boseda and Ande will be in a few days…” he had answered, and my heart broke when I realized it was to say goodbye.
Atoo and I had made small talk until later that night, when Mammi’s sedatives had kicked in and she was fast asleep.
“She’s refused to undergo chemo or radiotherapy.” I remarked.
Atoo had nodded sadly. “So I’m told…” he shrugged. “The doctor says it won’t really make much of a difference now anyway…”
I reached out to touch his hand. “I’m so sorry, Atoo.”
He nodded, and from the tight way he held my hand, I knew it was taking a lot for him to hold it together.
We made small talk well into the night, with me asking him about his job as an IT Consultant in London, and him trying to get more details about my miscarriage.
“It’s so amazing how dynamic life is. Who would have thought, back then in ‘87, ’88, that we would be here one day, sitting together by my Mom’s deathbed?” Atoo had remarked.
“Who would have thought in ’87, ’88 that I would be married to Tersur?” I mused.
“True. I never would have called that.” Atoo smiled. “Back then, I thought that would actually be us one day…me and you.”
I gave him the side eye. “Atoo, this joke of yours has gone far enough. You expect me to believe that you had a crush on me? Drop dead gorgeous Atoo who could have any girl he wanted at the click of a finger, wanted plain looking Cheta?!”
“There was nothing plain looking about you, Cheta. In fact, I still remember the very first day I laid eyes on you.” Atoo smiled, reminiscing. “It was Christmas Eve of 1986, and we had just moved to Lagos from Gboko. After midnight Mass, you were outside with your brothers, throwing firecrackers…”
“Knockout, Atoo! The word is knockout!” I laughed.
We had laughed heartedly. “I couldn’t get over this incredibly beautiful girl, with the wildest afro hair ever, who had the audacity to wear jeans and a tee-shirt to Church!” he said.
“Don’t forget the trainers!” I laughed. “I was always dressed like my brothers. I didn’t know any better.”
Atoo smiled silently for a while. “All I wanted was to be a part of those jokes you were always sharing with your brothers. I would see you guys laughing, but the minute I approached you guys, you would just clam up and sneak away.”
“That’s because I was too awe struck by you to speak!” I laughed.
But Atoo didn’t laugh back. “I should have had the courage to speak to you then. I should have been brave enough to tell you how I felt then. Maybe things would have been different today.”
“Well, why didn’t you?” I heard myself asking. “You were slick and smooth with everyone else. How come you were tongue tied with me?
“I wasn’t ‘slick and smooth’ with anyone, Cheta. Back then, I didn’t have a clue how to relate with girls. Not a single one. I didn’t lose my virginity till I was 21, so that should show you that there was nothing ‘slick and smooth’ about me,” he shook his head and laughed. “Hard as this may be to believe, Ter was actually the slick one!”
Actually, it wasn’t that hard to believe.
“But I’m very different from the way I looked when I was a teenager…” I said, smiling sadly. “Look at how ugly and fat I am!”
Atoo tilted up my chin. “You are even more beautiful today than you were all those years ago,” he said, “Today, as a man, I see your real beauty, inside and out…and it makes anything I felt for you before seem like child’s play…”
As he spoke those words…and as his lips met mine, my heart melted…
You can catch up on Cheta’s story here: