The door opened slowly but the boy who lay on the bed staring into the empty space ahead of him did not even notice. He saw beyond the walls to a place tucked deep in his memory.
‘What could be bothering a genius like you?’ The voice sounded close to his ears.
‘Oh! Roland. I did not even know when you entered.’
‘Sure you didn’t. What are you thinking about?’
‘You will not understand.’
‘Try me. We have been friends for a long time, Joseph. You can tell me anything.’
‘It’s about my family.’
‘What about them?’
‘It is so complicated.’
‘Simplify it. I am listening.’
Joseph felt it was time to lift the lid from his past and get the heaviness off his chest. He took a deep breath as he, along with his trusted friend, watched the story unfold, much of it as told by his father.
Julius watched her with sad eyes as she gathered the items into a bag and zipped it.
‘You are not going to change your mind?’ He asked her, probably for the one hundredth time that day.
‘I am sure you can understand plain English.’ She said in that biting voice that had become so characteristic of her.
‘Don’t do this, Hilda. Think of the love we have shared all these years, the love we can still share. And if that means nothing to you, think of your son, our child.’
‘Oh, don’t blackmail me with that. I have my life to live.’
Julius watched as Hilda dragged the suitcase and walked towards the door.
‘Mummy, where are you going?’ The voice of their son arrested her.
‘I am travelling, Joseph.’
‘I want to go with you. Mummy, take me with you.’ Joseph cried as he held unto his mother’s clothes.’
‘You cannot come with me, Joseph. Your father will take care of you.’ She said as she gently released her clothes from his firm grip. She walked towards the taxi that was waiting for her. The driver placed her suitcase at the back of the car and the car drove off.
Hilda did not look back. She drove away from the encumbrances of a family that limited her adventurous spirit. She drove away to a new life in the arms of her rich lover. She did not melt at the cries of her son who wept uncontrollably in the arms of his father. His cries of, ‘Mummy, do not leave me,’ did not touch any part of her heart. She had lost the soft touch of motherhood. Only her ruthless ambition propelled her forward.
Julius looked at the image before his eyes. He just could not tear his gaze away from it. Hilda’s life size picture that lent a warm feel to the sitting room. She was wearing the first dress he bought for her when they started dating. A lovely yellow dress, as bright as her beautiful eyes. He first set eyes on her at a conference he attended in Maiduguri. It was a conference of media professionals. He was representing his newspaper organisation while she represented the television station where she worked. They were in the same profession. They had found a common ground. It was easy for their hearts to connect since their minds were already connected, united by the media profession.
They both lived in Lagos and returned to their organisations after the conference. The conference was over but their love affair began. Julius was intrigued by her voice that worked wonders on his emotions and her intelligence, a trait that was absent in most of the ladies he had dated. Hilda always said that she had never met a man as courteous as he was. He treated her like royalty and she was excited by his blind devotion.
‘You are everything I ever wanted in a woman.’
‘And you are all I ever desired in a man.’ Hilda responded.
‘So why don’t we make this more permanent?’
‘Is that a proposal?’ Hilda asked with that her intriguing voice that he could not wait to come home to hear.
‘Yes it is. And what is your answer?’
‘Yes of course!’
It was as simple as that. The meeting was swift, the courtship swifter and the marriage rolled on eagle’s wings.
Only one person did not share in his transparent joy.
‘I don’t think she is the woman for you.’ His mother said.
‘Mummy, what’s the problem? You always wanted me to get married. I thought you will be happy with Hilda. What has she done to you?’
‘She has not done anything to me. My spirit does not agree with her. I feel there is something not too right about her.’
Julius sighed, exasperated at women and the way they reasoned, his saintly Hilda inclusive. Women were so devoid of logic. He wondered how one could look at a person and know they ‘are not right.’
Julius brushed aside his mother’s protests and clung to Hilda. They were married within three months of their meeting. Hilda was a wonderful wife and delightful lover. He could not contain his joy when she gave him a son within nine months of the marriage. And she was a very wonderful mother. Julius settled down to a life of blissful matrimony with Hilda, his mother’s misgivings forgotten.
Then the signs began to show.
Hilda became cold towards him. She resented his touch after a while and began to complain about everything he did.
‘What’s happening to you Hilda? You have changed.’
‘And so have you.’
‘We need to talk.’
‘I have nothing to say to you.’
‘You are my wife and I demand an explanation for this strange behaviour of yours.’ Julius raised his voice at her.
‘And if I don’t supply one, what will you do? Beat me up?’ Hilda hissed angrily and walked away. She slept in the guest room as she had been doing for the past few weeks.
Julius began to hear stories. Of her rendezvous with a particular man who picked her after work. He denied the allegation on her behalf. He did not want to believe the warning signs were right. He kept on loving her, refusing to treat her badly.
Until the day she came to pack her stuff, leaving him for good, after four years of marriage.
When she asked for a divorce, Julius wept and begged. But Hilda’s mind was made up.
As he looked into her deceitful eyes, one truth jumped at him.
His mother was right after all.
Julius tried with all his might to get his life back on track. He concentrated his energies on his work and raising his son.
‘You need another woman my son. You cannot do this alone.’ His mother counselled.
‘I am okay with my son. I don’t want to end up with another devil like Hilda. You warned me then but I did not listen.’
‘All that is past my dear. All women are not like her. There are many good women out there. You will meet one very soon. Am I not a woman? Did you ever hear your father complain about me before he died? Or do you think I am a bad mother?’
‘You are a mother-in-a million.’ Julius said as he hugged her.
His mother’s words proved to be prophetic. He met her. The one who became the angel of his life. His best friend, Collins introduced them. It was a blind date that became a lifelong date.
‘I never believed I could look at any other woman after Hilda.’ Julius said after they had dated for six months.
‘The heart heals fast my dear.’ Patricia said, warming up to his care.
She became his wife a year after. He took time to study her. He did not want any surprises. Though he still wondered if she was skilled at masking her true feelings, he believed that this time he had done it right.
Patricia was an exceptional woman. She was content with what he had to offer her and was an amazing mother to Joseph. With time, the little boy stopped crying for his mother. Patricia was the only mother he knew. The one he had come to love. Patricia would sing to him, read him bedtime stories and personally took him to school and brought him back home. She cooked all his meals, and tarried by his bedside when he was ill.
Julius could not believe his luck. He was even more scared of a woman that would maltreat his son than one who would treat him badly. But Patricia did not do any of these. She was an angel and she made him change his perception of women as devils. He had a lovely family and his career was on course with rapid promotions. He did not want Patricia to work. She was also content with taking care of the two babies in the house as she called her husband and Joseph. She never called Joseph her stepson and he called her mummy though he had been told he had a biological mother tucked somewhere.
When Patricia rushed into the room, she wept at the sight that confronted her. It was unimaginable but it was happening right before her eyes. She sat on the chair beside the bed with a body that did not feel like her own.
As she held his limp hands in hers, Julius turned. His face was covered almost totally in blood and his body mangled almost beyond recognition. A ghost of a smile formed on his face as he recognised her. She wondered why he was left in such a terrible state with no one attending to him. But her fear for his safety was now uppermost on her mind.
Patricia had rushed to the hospital when she was informed of the accident her husband had on his way to an official assignment.
‘Take…..care……Tak…e …..car…e of Jo..se…ph’ His voice sounded faintly.
‘I will, Julius. I certainly will. We will do so together.’
When his hands hung limp against hers, her scream brought two nurses and a doctor into the room.
‘Madam, you have to leave now.’
‘No, I have to stay with him.’
‘He’s gone. Please madam. Take heart.’ The doctor said in a lifeless voice.
‘No. He cannot go. Who will be such a loving husband to me? Who will take care of my son with me?’
Patricia was torn with grief and had to be sedated several times before the burial. After the funeral came reality. The reality of a world without a husband on whom she depended for everything. Her mother-in-law died not too long after her son’s passing. Probably of a broken heart.
He had been her only child.
‘Mummy, now that daddy is gone, will I still go to university?’ Joseph who was now fifteen years old asked her one day, when the financial burdens weighed so heavily on her. They had to move from the three bedroom flat where they once lived to a one room house in a seedy area where she could afford the rent and their meals were not as frequent as before.
‘Look at me, Joseph.’ Joseph looked into the eyes of the woman who had been a true mother to him. ‘Listen very carefully. Even if I have to wear rags, you will be a graduate. I will do all it takes with God on my side to make it happen. I promised my husband, your father on his death bed that I will take care of you and that I will do, even if that is all I achieve before I die. You are my son and I love you more than you can ever know.’
Joseph was touched by his step mother’s devotion to him. He went out of his way to assist her. During the holidays, he helped her fetch firewood to fry fish which she sold to generate income for the family.
When Joseph gained admission to the University of Port Harcourt to study Petroleum Engineering, she was drunk with joy and paid his fees. It was a struggle to keep up but Patricia remained undaunted. The years raced by and soon Joseph was in his final year.
Then the tone of the music of their lives changed again.
‘I don’t understand what you are saying, doctor.’ Patricia looked at the card in her hands and back at the doctor’s face.
‘Your son needs a kidney transplant. If we do not get a donor soon, it may be too late.’
Too late….too……late. Those were the only words that Patricia heard all day as she walked home from the hospital. The only thing she could meditate on even when she sold fish to her customers. It had been too late for Julius. Would it be too late for her only child?
‘God, I lost my husband and took solace in this boy. He is all I have. Julius and I tried to have a child but could not. I have not remarried since he died. Will you take away the only person who gives me joy? Will you allow tragedy befall me again?’
Patricia wept as she asked the questions over and over again.
Patricia was almost senseless with fear as she ran to everyone she knew that could help. Julius’s former colleagues and some of her friends tried to do a fund raising but came up with only one tenth of the five million naira needed for the surgery. And they still did not get a donor.
As the clock ticked slowly and Patricia watched her beloved Joseph fade before her eyes, she could only pray for a miracle.
‘Doctor, I am anxious to hear the news. Is it good?’
‘Yes it is.’
‘Thank God. So……’ She nudged him to speak.
‘A donor who is the perfect match for your son came yesterday. And she is also ready to pay the bill for the operation.’
‘I can’t believe this, doctor. Who would want to do such a huge favour for us?’
‘Who else but I?’
A confident voice spoke. Patricia turned, surprised, to face the intruder.
Joseph spoke to Roland who was touched by his tale.
‘My mother emerged from the blues, paid the hospital bills and donated one of her kidneys to save my life. When I came out of the surgical ward, she apologised for abandoning me for such a long time. She promised to bring me to stay with her in the United States and sponsor my masters programme. She left a large sum of money with me to complete my education. I have been in constant touch with her since then.’
‘What a story. I did not know you had such a painful history behind your confident smile.’
‘Smiles can hide a lot of pain.’ Joseph said philosophically.
‘So what is making you so distressed?’
‘You know the concession I was given as……….’
‘The overall best graduating student in the school.’
‘I have to bring up my parents to join me as I receive the prize. Since my dad is no more, I have to bring up my mother.’
‘So what is the problem?’
‘I have two mothers. Which of them should stand by me?’
‘What a question. Your biological mother of course. Who else? That woman donated her kidney to save you. But for her, we will not be having this discussion.’
‘I know but my stepmother………………………………………………………………………………….’
‘Stop that sentimental talk. You have only one mother as far as I am concerned.’
‘You think I should call her up?’
‘Why not? I am surprised you are hesitating.’
‘I always value your advice, Roland. Thanks for taking this load off my chest.’
‘What are friends for?’
It was a moment of glory for him. He glanced at the crowd of people gathered in the mighty edifice. Many of them would cheer him in the next few minutes. The excited graduate adjusted his graduation gown as the vice chancellor took his stand. He heard little or nothing of what the man said. All his thoughts cantered on the speech the man would make soon. The part that concerned him.
‘And for the highest award ever given to a graduate of this university. The best graduating student. This year, we have an exceptional performance from a student, Mr Joseph Oladinwe. He had an all perfect GPA of 5.0. He is from the Petroleum Engineering department. He will come up to receive this prize and at the same time invite his parents to join him. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome Joseph to the podium.’
The whole arena exploded in a riotous applause to welcome a boy who had distinguished himself. Joseph was awed by the rousing applause. He thought of one of his favourite verses of scripture: Seeth thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings. He shall not stand before mean men.
Joseph stood on the podium and took the microphone from the Vice Chancellor. His hands shook slightly. He was overwhelmed by the honour bestowed on him.
Before he made his speech, he looked towards the seat he had vacated. Two women sat on either side of him. One was tall with a golden brown complexion that glittered and told anyone that looked at her that she had tasted wealth. The other had a very kind expression on her face, was dressed in a simple print dress and carried a weather beaten bag.
‘I stand before you today as I give this acceptance speech and make a choice.’ Joseph’s voice boomed around the auditorium. ‘And I face a dilemma. Who do I bring up to stand beside me to receive this award? I see them seated before me. The two women who have moulded my life.’ He paused as he looked straight at them.
Many of you know the life threatening illness I had a few months ago. My mother came all the way from the United Kingdom on a rescue mission to donate the kidney that saved my life. Without her, I will not be standing to take this honour. I salute you, my beloved mother for your sacrifice and I say I can never forget what you have done. You will not miss your reward.’
Hilda adjusted her rich lace material and smiled with satisfaction as he spoke. She looked disdainfully at Patricia, appalled at her distasteful combination of colours.
‘How could she wear such to a graduation ceremony with all these distinguished guests?’
Hilda hung her bag on her arm, as she made to walk to the podium. There was no contest. She was Joseph’s biological mother and had to share in his glory.
‘I also want to celebrate a great woman. A woman of virtue. She was there for me when I needed to feel the void of a motherly touch. She took care of me when I could barely take care of myself. She fed, me, clothed me, took me to school, tucked me into bed, told me stories and prepared me to be the man that I am today. When my father died………’ At that point, Joseph’s voice broke. His emotions choked him as he pictured the years of pain and poverty after his father died. But Patricia’s broad smile shinning through her tears urged him on. ‘………..She was there for me. She sold all she had, dressed practically in rags, swallowed her pride, though she was a graduate and fried fish in the full glare of her contemporaries to ensure that I entered this great citadel of learning.’
Joseph paused again as he faced Hilda.
‘Mum, you gave me life through the kidney you donated.’ Hilda smiled again. She had been bristling at the praise he showered on that nondescript woman. ‘Your sacrifice was priceless. But I celebrate today the sacrifice of a woman who stood by me in my formative years and ensured I lived to maturity. What if she abandoned me and went to chase happiness with another man? After all, I was not her child. But she put her life on hold to ensure mine was on course. She took care of me while I was sick. She encouraged me daily to study and catch up with my mates when I took a break to recover from the surgery. When the work load almost overwhelmed me, she prayed for me, believed in me and kept saying I will be the best. And today, indeed, I am the best. For this ultimate sacrifice, I introduce to you all, Mrs Patricia Oladinwe as I invite her to receive this award with me.
Patricia sat still, too numb to stand up, too dazed to comprehend what was happening. Joseph walked down from the podium as the audience erupted in even more riotous applause. He walked up to where Patricia sat and held out his hand as he nodded at Hilda who stared pointedly at him, her eyes hell points of rage.
Patricia placed her hands in his and he led her back to the podium.
Hilda was blinded with tears as she rode in the taxi to the hotel where she was staying. She still dared to believe she was in a trance. That incident at the graduation ceremony did not happen. No. It certainly did not. How could Joseph embarrass her that way after all she had done for him? How could he disdain her sacrifice that way? He was such an ingrate.
Hilda tried hard but could not stop them. The tears. They poured from her eyes like mini waterfalls, shattering her sophisticated exterior.
She felt so condemned as Joseph spoke in such positive terms about Patricia. The boy obviously felt abandoned. She had walked away from him at just four years, never looking back and did not even come for her ex-husband, his father’s burial. His subtle hint about her chasing happiness at his expense was not lost on her. Did she think she could just stroll into his life, spray the wealth she got on the altar of sacrifice and be welcomed with open hands? She had sacrificed her son’s happiness on the altar of money.
Oh! She had seen the money all right. Loads of it. Enough to choke her. And her husband, Raymond was a wonderful man who loved her and made her know about that in every way he could. But emptiness filled her life. She was unable to have a child despite all her efforts. She had done so many fertility treatments. Once, her IVF treatment yielded fruit and she had a set of twins but none of them survived.
She began to long for her lost heritage. She hungered to see her only offspring whom she had abandoned in a flight of fancy. And so she put a private investigator on his trail. When she heard about the kidney transplant, she saw that as her opportunity to redeem her inhuman act.
Her phone began to ring and she looked at the caller ID. It was Joseph. She did not bother to take the call. What did he want to tell her? Probably to reassure her that he still loved her. She did not want to hear it. She just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
It was obvious from the choice her son made that her sacrificial offering was rejected at the altar. Like Cain who felt angry that his sacrifice was rejected and his brother Abel’s accepted, she left the arena, her countenance sad.
She tried not to feel as vengeful as Cain once did, towards Patricia who stole her shine.
-Ify Omeni – September 2016, Lagos.
Based on a true story