Trying Not To Become The Man Who Raised Me

August 29, 2019

We want to know how young people become adults. The question we ask is “What’s your coming of age story?” Every Thursday, we’ll bring you the story one young Nigerian’s journey to adulthood and how it shaped them.

Sometime last year, my family began to take down photos of my father around the house. He often disappeared for long spells. Each time, when he returned, he was in tatters and broke. This time was different; it was the longest he’d gone. We knew he would return, but we decided there would be no room for him when he did.

My older sister and I wanted to create a normal life while drugs could still relieve the pain of our 56-year-old mother who suffered from diabetes. We craved normalcy, even if it felt a little too late.

When I was born 25 years ago, my parents were traders from Eastern Nigeria who were finding their feet in Lagos. My father had come from Owerri to apprentice with an older uncle and set up his cassette store after a few years. They had my sister immediately. I was their way of celebrating their first decent apartment, a room and parlour in Ebute-Metta.

Life wasn’t eventful while growing up. The exciting things that happened were my mother’s not-so-frequent bouts of illness, mostly because someone always got to stay home with he — usually my sister. But she always got well after a few days, especially when her people sent herbs from home. So we’d settle back into routine; I was assistant daddy, I’d finish from school and go to the shop. My father would tell me stories about his childhood while I helped around. My sister would go to my mother’s stall in the market and we’d meet at home at night.

It was a good way to live if you’re the kind of person who believes in the dignity of labour. Not if you’re ambitious. Definitely not if you dreamed of seeing out your final days in a big house in your village. That was the reason my father gave when we first noticed things were going south with him. And I believed him. On some days, I’d go to his shop and he’d be nowhere to be found. So I’d wait until he returned, reeking of cigarettes and cheap alcohol. He’d instruct me to not tell my mother, but she noticed when he began to return with bloodshot eyes and empty pockets. Then he began to buy big bottles of Regal gin and take long swigs as he wished, home or at work, day or night.

Looking back, we shouldn’t have just watched it happen. When my mother got tired and confronted him for the first time, he hit her across the face. I can still remember the sound and the swelling. I was in SS1 at the time and now had a key to the shop. He stormed out and didn’t return for days. When he did, he was hungry, drunk and a complete mess. My mother rushed out to carry him. She was crying. She cleaned him up, gave him food, painkillers and put him to bed. My sister and I were shocked. It was our father, but we were upset that she seemed to have so quickly forgotten about a fresh wound.

That’s how it began. First, he stopped going to the shop. Then he’d disappear for days at a time, and later weeks, only to show up at my mother’s stall at the market. Sometimes, we’d meet him at home when we got back from church. By the time my sister left secondary school in 2008, our relationship had broken down. My mother’s ugu and condiments kept a roof over our head. We still lived in the same house in Ebute-Metta. Our landlord was nice enough to let us pay our rent every six months as long as we paid on time. My father was a complete no-show, even when my mother had her first crisis in 2011.

They say she was always falling sick as a child. In those days, things like that were chalked down to ‘ogbanje’ so she had several ritual incisions down her back and arm to keep her alive. Still, she kept falling sick. As she grew older, her health forced her to live safe, so she ate well and had no vices, except, of course, my father. Things gradually worsened when she moved with him to Lagos. The pressure of being a sole provider didn’t help either.

Neither myself nor my sister ever gave university much thought. I can’t remember discussing it with my parents. Who would send us? Our alcoholic father? A mother who’s been bedridden for years?

When I left secondary school, I continued to run the CD shop which also became a game centre. Since then, I’ve learned to do some electrical jobs: fixing television sets, irons, minor wiring, installing DSTV. Most of the money goes into getting drugs for my mother.

My sister has had to grow up too. After secondary school, she took up my mother’s stall. But she was never going to stay there for long. She’s hardworking but also very pretty. It’s the kind of youthful beauty that rich people like to spend on. When we were younger, people often gave her money; my father scolded her for it, but we all knew it wasn’t her fault. She has ‘friends’ who ‘helped’ her open a small food place in Jibowu. She sells Igbo food to drivers working in the transport companies. I think she makes new ‘friends’ there too. That’s none of my business. She often comes home, tired and angry. She’s 28 now. I know she’s thinking about her life too.

We don’t know how long my mother has left, but we’ve spent every day preparing since we took the photos down. She doesn’t leave the house anymore, except to attend church or go to the hospital. The day my father came back home, she was asleep. My sister had gotten some area boys to look out for him, in case she ever showed up. Because we’d lived there for so long, they knew the story. He returned with a friend, who looked like he’d been in a drug den all his life. The boys didn’t let him into the compound. When he began to make a scene, the boys carried him away. All I heard was his screaming, and later, stories of what happened. He never came back.

Sometimes, I catch myself waiting for my mother to go so I can start living. I know my sister does too. She talks about it. “Who go marry me when I don be like old cargo,” she says. I want to tell her that marriage isn’t a great idea; the only one we know broke everybody involved. I feel like I’ve settled for a lot of things because of my parents. I don’t have a girlfriend. I can’t afford the girls that I like.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my parents and adulthood, it’s that the people in your life are crucial as the decisions you make. That’s why I move at a steady pace; I don’t want to be like my father. I want to go for a technical program and learn electrical work properly. For now, my life revolves around what’s left of my mother’s. It’s this uncertainty that leads my day-to-day life. What will happen when she passes? I don’t know. For now, we do what we can and hope for the best.

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