That midnight back in 1996 after Kanu Nwankwo made his long legs a National Treasure and people poured into the streets of Abeokuta singing his name and celebrating the qualification of the Nigerian Dream Team for the Olympic football final as Nigeria defeated Brazil, my siblings and I joined in the carnival and brought back home with us the chicken pox.
My oldest sibling who was about twenty one at the time had the responsibility of chaperoning my older brother and I who were eleven and seven respectively. They had both worn Nigerian jerseys imported from the border—where our village was located—by our insensitive grandmother who had forgotten about me, the third child. I bawled out my frustrations and demanded to be given a share of the national jersey. Nobody cared much for my noise except for my sister who cradled me and gave me a white shirt and a green scarf to wound around my neck. Everyone else in the house told me to shut my mouth, saying don’t let your little sister see you cry, man up. So, confused as a tadpole seeking out parentage in a frog, I settled for my sister’s milk-less breasts and followed her everywhere.
Oke Sokori was in frenzy as the carnival crowd swept through it. People waved the Nigerian flag proudly as if by doing so, some fairy was coming to drop some coins under their pillow when they went to bed. Even our resident fries seller, whose akara and fried yams sold at three Naira had her shack open selling subsidized one Naira fries. So with akara and fried yam in hand, we marched the length of Ijeja singing ‘When Nigeria Beat Brazil, When Nigeria beat Brazil oh, Bebeto Wa Benuje” in the claws of that midnight air, gently caressing our bodies.
If I ever had a memory of childhood, so fresh, so patriotic and so chaotic, that midnight had to be it because mum didn’t insist on imprisoning us in the house while the neighborhood caught the fires of the Olympics. In the biggest house in our neighborhood, Ile Alhaji, a table soccer tournament was hosted and my brother emerged champion after playing three rounds of games with six other boys. His Sprite bottle top team had been skillfully adorned underneath with candle wax and so they looked and fared better than the other guys. So we matched on home after a very greasy night satisfied, hoarse and Nigerian.
It was around six in the morning when the fever visited both of my siblings. We shared a small room at the back of our three bedroom flat, a little far from where both my parents slept, so while my sister wriggled without comfort and cried pain and headache and my older brother echoed the same cries, I woke up but without the feels assaulting both their bodies. I walked the length of our verandah to knock on the door that led to the rooms my parents shared. No one answered.
I went back to our room and watched my brother thaw about on his bunk which was above mine in pain and my sister, sitting by him pull his head on her laps and trying to calm him despite the pain she was in herself. His skin was speaking the languages of pain—hot and feverish—so my sister in interpretation soaked a towel and placed it on his head and went back to her bed. Little by little, though it took time again, my brother went back to sleep. I couldn’t be sure if my sister slept back but I noticed she was still before sleep claimed me.
When the day broke and my mum came to our room to wake everyone in annoyance that we had overslept again, she noticed the fever dancing around my brother’s body and passing the baton of dance to my sister too, how they both shivered despite the stuffiness of our room. Rays of morning had penetrated into our room so she was also able to see the sweat beads that had formed and solidified on both their noses. That was the beginning of a battle with chicken pox. Somehow it evaded me and thankfully so.
It takes an illness sometimes to learn how to listen to the body but my dad would argue if you ever asked him. My dad, Junkie-General of our house, fell ill after years of avoiding it. He lived on pills and would launch into series of stories about how it was better to avoid illness than to treat whenever anyone accused him of drug abuse. There was never a time I didn’t see him take some sort of medication. If it wasn’t his eyes, it had to be his legs or his nose or something else. My dad, the first nerdy human I ever met in my life, tall afro keeping man with thick dark glasses who spent half the time he was supposed to use to father us, buried inside books and listening to BBC despite not nursing an academic ambition or career although he will later guilt us into believing that he hadn’t gone academic because he needed to be home to raise us.
He had gone to the burial ceremony of his stepfather and returned gravely ill. He would complain of incessant joint pains as if the pain was mobile and was travelling from one end of his body to the other in a race against each other. He hadn’t been interested in attending the ceremony; he had detested the man while he was alive, and blamed him for the collapse of his parent’s marriage while a boy. He had been irritated by the insistence of his mother that he must play a role in the ceremony. So he complained the length of the trip whenever anyone asked for money or anything relating to the burial but he had gone and taken all of us along out of duty. He had been careful not to exert himself at all at the place, while performing his position as the first born child of his mother.
So when we returned home and the illness assaulted him, his paranoia had attributed the illness to the unfortunate dead stepfather. Daddy complained and complained and complained and complained. Everything had to be in place whenever he requested them and when he recuperated from the illness and anyone brought up how he was babyish most of the time, he would deny it with a straight face as if straight faces compensated for endless days of ass-holery.
My mom has a very specific and rarefied genotype which makes her superhuman. Until the evening of Monday July 12th 1999, I didn’t think it was possible for her to ever fall ill. She is also quite the over-worker, the type whose work ethic would guilt you for being lazy if you slept a little more than necessary. So when a stranger walked into our house with a face so grave that evening, both of my older siblings had soiled their faces with tears. My little sister had been with the stranger; she had travelled with Mum and had had to return with a stranger. My older sister, had literally shaken the words out of Dupe, asking her what happened to mum. The little girl must have taken the question as blame or something because she answered in tears and was inconsolable. The stranger who came with her took the opportunity and in a Yoruba laced with an accent that was foreign to our ears launched into a sermon about how man plans but God divines and how we must all take the news like strong people.
It was the first time I would see my dad openly express an emotion beyond his display of abusive slurs whenever he was in argument with his friends about our Head of State at the time, Abacha. I assumed it must have been the suspense of not knowing what happened to mum at that moment that took control from him because he wept and spoke and stabbed the air with his fingers as if mum was there in front of him. Nike, this wasn’t what we agreed on and collapsed on his chair. I remember walking up to him and patting his back and telling him that nothing was wrong with my mom that she was probably just a little hurt. It was as if I knew something the rest of them didn’t know. My siblings, teary eyed looked on at me as if I was a stranger but it didn’t dissolve my resolve.
The stranger thereafter took control of the moment and informed us how mum had been hit by a truck driver but miraculously didn’t die. He went on to give us a detailed description of what happened, how Dupe had wanted to cross a busy road in Osogbo on her own and mum had ran into the road while yelling for Dupe to stop and didn’t know that she had stepped into the front of a speeding truck who despite his best efforts almost crushed and killed her anyway.
I had just returned from Abuja the other week where I went to get a visa to attend the 51st Belgrade International Theatre Festival in the Republic of Serbia, so I didn’t pay much attention to my body. Naturally, I didn’t think there was much attention to be paid anyway. The trip from Abuja had been event less except one considers the bizarreness of the cab driver who made a bet with one of the passengers that he wouldn’t use his horns for the duration of the trip and how he kept his word despite the incredible distance between Abuja and Abeokuta.
So when illness made its first deposit into my body, I chalked it down to stress and took a few days off work and slept my way through those two days with the help of normal doses of piriton pills. I resumed work the following week to begin an unsuccessful crowd funding drive for tickets for my trip which came on such a short notice. But despite all our efforts, the Serbian embassy took all its time and didn’t make delivery of our passports with visas until the day we were supposed to make our appearances at the festival. My fellow invitees and I agreed that it didn’t make sense for us to go on the trip because of the delay since ticket prices are known to soar on last minutes like that.
The morning after, my eyeballs ached me awake; I could hardly keep them open. I noticed two large pimples had popped on my nose and I busted them open as was my way. Before evening that day, fever joined the symptoms that had been playing around my body. I called my friend who was a doctor and told him about how I was feeling. He gave me a prescription which I took to the pharmacy and began using immediately. Three days later when my anti-malaria pills were close to exhaustion, I noticed that the pimples I busted earlier had developed into a clout and was releasing liquid. I also noticed that I had developed lots more pimples in strange parts of my body especially in between my crotch.
I became alarmed, I self diagnosed myself of some killer disease since the fever was still very strong on me at the time. I called my friend again, he told me to go to a hospital nearby because he wasn’t available to physically examine me. That afternoon, I was informed that chickenpox had finally taken me.
That year when it took my siblings, I had been quarantined against my wishes, my mom had not allowed me to see their Calamine lotioned faces and the ensuing disgusting disfigurement of either of them, so I wasn’t ready for what would happen to me in my time with the pox. The first thing I noticed was that my body resisted the Calamine lotion despite using several medications, the ensuing fever as my body popped with pimples-looking-solid-sweat-easy-to-burst stuffs was legendary. At some points I thought I was losing my mind as everything appeared in doubles. On the third day of the pox, the pop ups took over my body, appearing in every single spot even my palms. I begged my brother to get me a pain medication which helped me manage the fever.
After then, I became a restless wreck, my mind decided to remind me of my deadlines and the books I needed to read. I didn’t want anyone to see me like the monster I had become so I took no visitors. I tried to read, to do some editing or even work a bit on my novel outline but no, the illness took my eyes and both of them did a great job of turning the words on the pages against me. I’d scroll through twitter and Facebook without any form of satisfaction and even when I tried seeing a movie, I couldn’t concentrate.
So to fill in the space in between, my mind took me back to the times when illness visited members of my family and my role in each of their recoveries. How when both my siblings recovered from the pox that year and Nigeria won the Olympics gold medal, neither of them took me celebrating with them and the wedge that would last till our adult years began till we decided to fall back after ourselves and find home in each other again.
I remembered reading stories I made up to my dad while he lay on his bed complaining to everyone else about how the illness might take him before he survived it.
Also my mind took me on a trip of forgiveness, because I had no other choice. After almost twenty years, I still felt murderous towards my uncle who mistook me for my older brother and beat the shit out of me when my mum complained to him during her years of invalidity and despite everyone—my mum included—shouting to inform him to stop beating me, how defiant he was while saying, they are all the same, both Tolu and Yomi, it is only cane that can straighten their lives as he designed my back with his military styled horse whip.
As long as I know, I have hated the man, not caring about how many times he had tried reaching out or the times he begged me to try and reach out to my autistic cousin who is his son. I hated my cousin too for being related to a jackass of a father and when I saw them both at the funeral of my brother-in-law three years ago, my hatred for them rose like bile to my throat and it took the intervention of my older brother before I said hello to either of them.
Now I remember him fondly, since I have learnt forgiveness. I have chosen to allow my body to replace the memory of that afternoon and the days after, when the welts from the beatings swelled into a monstrosity of pain with the memory of him rescuing me out of a financial jam back in my final year in school when I couldn’t call my dad and he happened upon me and gave me five thousand Naira when I needed only two thousand Naira.
This illness has taught me many things, forgiveness and patience being chief among those many. My body now lectures me on patience on the daily especially whenever I try to do something from my pre-illness state. I try to fight it back and say, is this not how one indulges laziness. My face is now a house of scars. My brother teases me and calls me Scarface. I laugh in wait for when the scars will be expelled and my glow returns. The scars are a reminder that the pox visited. I wish there was a wand that can clear them up. Every day is now a lesson in patience, because at every time I try to lift a thing or stand for too long and fatigue sets in, my body takes the moment and begins the lecture, first showing me clips of those feverish days and so without anybody telling me, I set myself down like a used cutlery and put the patience into use.
About the Writer
Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer. His works have appeared on Catapult, The Wagon Magazine, The Magunga, Expound Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Elsewhere Literary Journal, Nthanda Review and a few other places. He lives in Nigeria and can be found on Twitter via @iamToluDaniel