My story is about a young woman who loses her mother and mourns her loss using the most significant thing in her mother's life – her depression. I wrote this story because I have always been interested in surface-level issues and conversations. They seem easy and not so serious, but upon further interrogation, one realizes that the smallest action is ultimately linked to a bigger issue. I like discovering those links. I like bringing them to the surface.
'Live or die, but don't poison everything…' – from an early draft of Herzog by Saul Bellow.
Gbemi's depression swoops in like an eagle traps its prey. One minute, she is seated in the living room, right in front of the television where a one-legged Asian man attempts to dance ballet; the other minute, an invisible heaviness descends upon her chest, pins her to her seat, her arms flail, and the first thing she thinks is, “this is it”.
A flurry of memories take her back in time to the year 1994, to the letters arranged neatly on her mother's bedside table. Letters lined in pink paper that she, a curious ten-year old, would sneak a peek at when her mother wasn't present. Letters in which her mother constantly talked about it.
It's snuck up on me again, this looming spectre, she wrote to her sister in Italy. It made me cry today. I left the tap on and sat on the bathroom floor, hand clasped over my mouth so as not to wake Gbemi up, she wrote to Gbemi's father, who was in a PhD programme in America. It's about time I explained it to Gbemi, don't you think? She asked Mommy Lolade, her best friend who lived in another city.
Gbemi's mother suffered from depression and so did Gbemi's grandmother, Great-grandmother and so on. It runs in the family, this craziness, her mother said, and then she laughed, kissed her daughter goodnight, went into her bedroom and hung herself.
At age thirty-five, the family heirloom has finally reached her. She wonders what to do with it. If she has the option of choosing what to do with it. The air is still, relegating the sound of the audience's clapping–the crippled ballet dancer did beautifully– to the background; the tune of her own breathing inundates everything; the whooshing in and out of her nostrils, the rise and fall of her chest. Will she end up like her mother, she wonders. Will she come to experience what her mother felt?
Her mind is fierce and strong, (years of work as a litigator, a grueling experience)—or so she thinks. But if this is all she needs, what is to be said about her mother, a certified psychiatrist, well aware of the mind and its intricacies? What is to be said about her?
Girl walks into the living-room, her fingers cradling a plate of fried rice and boiled plantain, which she places on a foot table.
'Boiled it for five minutes. But I forgot to add salt to the plantain,' she says, smiling sheepishly.
Gbemi has always wondered just how Girl's brain works. Crucial information enters through one ear and out the other. What sticks however–and this never ceases to amaze Gbemi–are insignificant details, like the number of cobwebs in the house today and what percentage of sugar would feed an entire ant family for the rest of their lives.
Gbemi thinks it could be a mark of genius. She once said to Malik: Girl might be the next Einstein or Tesla.
'Or a potential amnesiac,' her husband replied. 'Frankly speaking, we ought to pay more attention to this situation instead of romancitizing it.'
Malik, raised by parents who believed in evil spirits and hung talismans around the house to ward them off, is, of the two of them, the partner who tilted towards the scientific spectrum of belief. His faith lies in tests and diagnosis and epistemic theories. A different idea, awash with mere speculation, is aggressively rebutted.
When Gbemi tells Malik about her depression and its arrival, he stares at her open-mouthed and the first thing he says is: 'This is ridiculous.'
Gbemi sees the words before she hears them. Spewing out his mouth in powdery form, floating slowly to rest on the dining table, squirming and twisting, like worms, the words lay waiting to be picked back up, or at the very least, dusted off and rearranged into new letters, into new meanings.
'Ridiculous,' he repeats. 'Please see a medical personnel first. You can't just make assumptions you know.'
Gbemi stares into his face. In his eyes she spies a hint of annoyance and fear, the latter folded beneath his eyelids in lavish amounts. His face is smooth and round and has got a certain structure to it, an indefinable quality she can't describe. She wonders if other women–his co-workers, his friends, random females passing by him on the street–find his face as arresting as she does.
'Tomorrow, I'll go visit Nifemi,' she says.
He reaches across the table and caresses her fingers.
'Thank you, love,' he says.
The previous week, Gbemi turned thirty-five and Malik organized a surprise party and after that ended, took her out to a New Year's Eve get-together where they watched fireworks bloom in the starry sky and when the last of the fireworks died out, he drove her back home and watched her empty her pack of birth control pills into the toilet.
She saw his features soften, felt his pulse race, and when he said to her in a cautious tone, why did you do that? She realized the light in his eyes was hope.
'It's about time we had our own children, don't you think?' She said, offhandedly, and because he was grinning, she found herself smiling too.
Now as she fills out the questionnaire, it occurs to her that if the results come out and it is indeed true that she is depressed, their plans will have to change. She's not sure what she's most afraid of: the idea that if the results come out positive, there is a likelihood her life will play out like her mother's, or the thought of birthing a child and passing iton to them.
'Are you done yet?' Nifemi asks. Dark-skinned and petite, she looks nothing like Malik. Its hard to believe they are twins.
'Yes Doctor,' she says. Nifemi laughs. There is something about Nifemi's face that makes you wonder if she really likes you or is just faking it.
An hour wait in the spacious office spent finishing the last pages of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. The book calms her in ways she cannot describe. The main character David Lurie's misery aligns with hers, fetters of unresolved sentiments bind them together, a man made of words and a woman gorged with blood and skin.
'On a score range of twenty to eighty, your average score came in as twenty-eight.'
'What does this mean?'
Nifemi grins. A flash of white, then its gone. 'You do not suffer from depression, Gbemi.'
'This is good news.' Gbemi says, allowing herself to be pulled into Nifemi's hug.
It should be good news, except it doesn't feel like good news. She feels disappointed, like a child who takes time to unwrap her lollipop, only to have it fall to the ground.
On her way back home, she's stuck in traffic. The driver of the car next to hers is a woman. Grey haired, fair skinned. In the passenger seat, a younger woman. Mother and daughter. The daughter says something and the mother laughs. The mother pats the daughter's shoulder. It feels good to watch them. It is obvious that they have got a connection, the pleasant kind.
If her mother were here, she would know just what to do. How to raise a child. How to address the emptiness building up in Gbemi's soul. But she isn't. Like a bee, her mother has administered her sting and gone. She is left nursing the wound, the pain of being left behind.
'We've been in this traffic for five minutes!' The mother's voice rings out. Her voice is harsh. Gbemi had imagined that it would be soft and motherly. The daughter rolls her eyes and murmurs, 'Come on, there is no need to yell.'
Her voice is low. So low Gbemi can't hear her, but she can read her lips. The daughter looks out the window. Their eyes meet.
Gbemi waves at the daughter. She nods back. The cars are moving now. Already, the car with the mother and daughter in it is racing ahead, gathering dust in its wake.
In her home, she has Malik and Girl. Malik loves her. Girl admires her. But they will never be enough. When she returns home to them, Malik will say:
'See? You mistook your pining for your mother. You mistook it for depression.'
And she'll say: 'Yes yes I do. I was wrong.'
She will not tell them about her plan of reconciliation. They will only know of it as a suicide.
Aishah Ojibara loves to write and sleep. You can find her on Twitter (@aishahojibara) or at the University of Ilorin where she studies Health Promotion