The Tuesday following that fateful Sunday of adventure found me in the exotically decorated living room of an opulent mansion in our estate.
Mrs Olatunji, the mother of a little darling I regularly babysat, had invited me for lunch a while ago. I just kept putting it off. You see, news of my newly ‘mothered’ state had spread around the estate, and I knew Mrs Olatunji simply wanted freshly baked gossip to feed to her cronies.
I honoured the invitation simply because she was the most generous of my clients; and hers was a power relationship I knew would prove useful in the future.
So I sat through a grueling hour of some subtle questioning and some not-at-all subtle inquiries into my personal life. I diplomatically answered them all though, leaving her with a sense of satisfaction that she had enough fodder for the gossip herd.
As I walked back to my apartment, NJ strapped snugly to my chest, I checked my email and saw that my boss had extended her trip by a week, but still insisted that my ‘maternity leave’ was over and I was to report back to the office the following week.
I sighed as I read the email, wondering again if I was really up to the task of juggling a job and being a Mom. Especially seeing as the ‘father’ figure would not prove helpful at all.
My mind was still deeply processing these thoughts, so I didn’t really notice the Ford SUV parked by my block of flats.
It was my near collision with an overly excited Odiong that snapped me back to reality.
“Welcome ma,” Odiong greeted, a wide smile on his face.
“Thank you, Odiong.”
As I tried to sidestep him, he stepped in front of me again and said, “Madam, your house full well well this period o.”
Annoyed now, I placed a hand on my waist and regarded him sternly, “Wetin?”
“Madam, you did not see the Jeep outside? One woman and one man dey around. She say she be your mother. But Madam, this time I did not open door for her o! I tell her that you will soon come back and…”
I blocked out the rest of his speech and looked past him. Indeed, there stood Mrs Faizah Gabriel, dressed in a flowing pink chiffon gown, tall and dignified, listening patiently to the ramblings of my nosey neighbour, Mrs Gift.
My mother. Here already? This can’t be happening. I’m not ready.
At that point, she had turned and spotted me. She stood staring, waiting for me to come closer.
Odiong was still blabbering. I placed a hand on his shoulder, stopped him mid sentence and thanked him for the info.
As I drew closer, Mrs Gift abruptly stopped talking, and with a slightly guilty look, welcomed me and retreated into her flat.
“Lovely neighbours you have here.” Mom commented, an eyebrow raised sarcastically. (She had never approved of me living in a big city by myself).
“What are you doing here Mommy?”
“Habika Chizaram Gabriel, is that how you welcome your mother you haven’t seen in over six months?” She scolded, arms crossed and chest puffed out.
“Okay, I’m sorry, I’m just…”
“Delighted to see me, I’m sure. Is that the child?” She interrupted, folding back the blanket I had used to cover NJ as he dozed in his carrier.
“Yes Mom, this is NJ.”
“Hmmm. Cute boy.” Mom withdrew and looked down at me. (Yes, my Mom is taller than me. I’ve always wondered angrily why I didn’t get any physical looks from her. I’m short where she boasts a svelte height and I’m chocolate compared to her sunshine skin).
“Are we going to keep standing in the sun and suffer this dear child or are you going to open the door?”
Flustered, I dug the keys out of my bag and hastened to open the front door.
Mom walked to the back of the building and called out, “Sweetheart, you can pause your inspection for now. Habika is back.”
I turned in surprise, and indeed, there was my father strolling out, brushing off the specks of dust clinging to his navy blue waistcoat. A short man, but thankfully lacking the ‘Dad bulge’ a lot of middle-aged men carry like a badge.
“I’ll need to get in touch with the owner of this building. The walls are showing cracks too soon. Might be a design error or that inferior materials were used. But it’s unacceptable. This building should last fifteen years, but from what I see, it’d be a miracle if it doesn’t degenerate in ten.”
(Mr Gabriel, the inveterate Building Inspector. He does this to every building he is going to spend more than ten minutes in.)
“It won’t collapse in the next two years, will it Gabe?” Mom inquired.
“Heavens no! I’m just concer…”
“Then we’re sleeping in it. And Habika can stay until she gets married. Which, if she chooses to have mercy on me, will be soon.”
(I rolled my eyes. That didn’t take long to pop out this time).
“Sounds good to me.” Dad shrugged. Then he turned to me fully.
“Hello, Daddy,” I replied, walking into his open arms. (I’m a Daddy’s girl through and through).
“Ummm, I’ve missed you baby girl.” He whispered as he pulled back and looked down between us. “This bundle of joy preventing me from hugging you properly must be NJ.”
“Yes Darling,” Mom answered, “And while it’s been lovely standing outside for the whole neighborhood to see, I really think we should head inside now. Habika, hand over the baby so you can help your Dad with the luggage.”
As Dad and I hastened to follow her directions, I surreptitiously sent up a prayer; Lord, keep me sane through this ordeal…
One hour after I had endured sarcastic comments from Mom about my poorly stocked kitchen and profuse concerns from Dad about the sturdiness of my wall hanger, we sat watching a drama series on TV.
Mom had NJ on her laps, casually tossing him left and right as she changed his soiled clothes. In the process, she fired twenty questions at me concerning every single mark she saw on his body.
Dad, having mercy on me, had to pluck NJ out of her seeking hands and ask her to cut it off.
“What? If she chose to be his mother, then she must…”
“Enough Darling, really.”
Ten minutes of sweet silence passed.
Mom had her gaze fixed on the TV screen, but I could tell she wasn’t really watching. She was probably plotting the best way to slip in her next batch of questions.
Just then, I heard the jangle of a set of keys outside my door. My gaze shifted to the wall clock. 5.45pm. I swallowed.
Nathan was back.
Feigning nonchalance, I stood up and walked casually to the kitchen. Once inside, I closed the door and rushed to the window, tapping on it frantically. Nathan finally heard the sounds and stepped back in surprise. I gestured to him to come closer and pushed the window open.
“Is everything alright?” He asked, looking concerned.
“No, everything is not alright. You need to go back to the office. Now!” I furiously whispered.
“No, I don’t.” He replied, amused. “Wait, why are we whispering?”
“You don’t understand, my parents are here. My Mom is here. You need to…”
“Habika, where do you keep…Oh, Hello.”
Caught, I let my head fall against the window pane and let out a groan.
“Good evening, Ma’am. You must be Mrs Gabriel.” I could hear the amusement in Nathan’s voice.
Mom drew nearer, accessing the situation quickly, no doubt guessing what I’d been up to.
“And you must be Nathan Okeke.” She plastered on a big smile.
“Forgive Habika for her bad manners please. I certainly didn’t raise her to talk to men through the window.” As she said this, she slipped an arm around my waist and forced me to stand up straight.
“Would you turn around and walk to the front door? My husband will open it up for you.”
“Okay Ma’am. But can I come back in five minutes? I just got back and I need to drop off my briefcase in my apartment first.”
“No need. Come along with it.” Mom wasn’t risking his escape. “Hurry now.”
As Nathan changed course for my front door, Mom turned me around and cupped my face in her hands.
“I heard the keys jangle too, Habi.” And with a mischievous smile, she walked back to the living room.
After a few minutes of pep talking myself into confidence, I walked into the living room. There was Nathan, seated by my father, exchanging niceties. NJ was playing in his walker and Mom was seated across from them all, unashamedly eyeing Nathan.
“Sit with me dear.” Mom patted the empty space by her side.
Throwing her a disgruntled look, I headed instead for the tiny space by Dad and squeezed in. I needed the comfort of an ally for this interrogation. Also, I could pinch Dad hard whenever I felt I needed his swift intervention to curb Mom’s questioning spree.
Mom bided her time, listening to Nathan’s responses to Dad’s general inquiries about work.
Then she delved in for the kill.
“So Nathan, where are you from?” She asked, sitting on the edge of the sofa, chin in hand.
“Enugu state, Ma’am.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Both of them?”
“My condolences.” Dad interjected, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“It’s been a long time sir. But, thank you.”
“Sorry about that Nathan.” Mom continued, not relenting. “How did they die?”
“Mom!” I protested.
“Don’t you want to know?” “It’s alright Habika.” Mom and Nathan both responded.
I sat back, shaking my head and turning instead to watch NJ as he tried to grab hold of the dangling toys before him, a funny look of concentration on his face.
He was just too adorable!
“Mrs Gabriel, my father died of a broken heart. My Mother died in a mental institution.”
“Are you going to elaborate?” Mom asked.
“No, he is not Fae. Move along.” Dad held her gaze and they engaged in wordless conversation for a few seconds.
Mom finally gave a subtle nod and continued.
“NJ’s mother, was she your only sibling?”
“My sons let me know that the day your lawyers and the court appointed caregiver brought NJ to you was the first time you set eyes on him since he was born.”
Arji and Barak! Traitors…
“That is correct.”
“Then why would she name you his guardian? Doesn’t make sense does it?”
I waited for his reply with bated breath. Even I wanted to know what his response would be.
“I can’t give you a concrete reason Ma’am. All I can say is my sister had an irrational faith in me. It has saved me, and it has been my undoing.”
Mom considered him quietly for a moment. From her look I could tell she saw something in his eyes that I couldn’t, because she let it pass.
My mother never lets things this big pass.
It bothered me.
“You’re a very handsome man Nathan. Why aren’t you married?”
Dad choked and spat out the juice he was in the process of swallowing. I buried my head behind his back with a dramatic sigh and patted him gently. Mom doggedly ignored us both, Nathan simply broke into a wide grin.
“I’ve not met a woman who’d compel me to give up the comforts of bachelorhood just yet.”
“Sounds sensible.” Dad muttered, earning himself a glare from Mom and a pinch from me.
“You might think so Ma’am, but I just watched you communicate with your husband with your eyes only. I’m more than willing to hold out for that.”
Brilliant comeback. It shut Mom right up.
“Well, pray harder then. You’re not getting any younger.”
“I certainly will, Ma’am.”
“Habika, NJ needs to be put to bed, he’s nodding off.” Mom pointed out. Indeed, NJ was rubbing his eyes with his tiny fists, small mouth opened wide in a yawn.
I stood up immediately and gingerly lifted him out of the walker, tucking him against my shoulder and gently rubbing his back. As usual, he began to tug on my hair bun and try to stuff strands of my hair into his mouth.
“Go ahead and lay him down, dear.” Mom said, gesturing to my room.
I knew what she wanted, free rein to continue her interrogation without my accusatory looks getting in her way.
Dad’s presence was the only reason I reluctantly obeyed and headed for the room. He can stop her from getting too ridiculous.
Closing the door only halfway, I laid NJ down and stretched out beside him, patting his back and singing softly to him. His hand sleepily groped my face, tugging at my lips and sticking a finger in my nostrils.
As NJ finally fell into deep sleep, I heard the bedroom door open. I looked up and it was Dad tiptoeing in.
That could only mean…
I jerked up abruptly, stirring NJ in his sleep. Luckily he slept on and I walked to the door, tugging my clothes back into place.
“You can’t leave her alone with him Dad! You know that.”
Dad stood in my way as I reached for the doorknob.
“Let her be, Habibi.”
“How can you say that? You know how she gets…”
“I do, but I also trust her judgment implicitly. Give her space to really get a feel for this guy.”
“At the risk of embarrassing me for the rest of my days?”
“Now you’re being silly, Habibi. Your mother cares deeply for you. She just wants to be sure you’re not putting yourself at risk with this decision.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation.
“Me? At risk? The concern should be NJ.” I pointed to the sleeping baby for emphasis.
Dad shrugged, “Same difference.”
He placed firm hands on my shoulders, stilling my restless shuffling. I stand just an inch or two taller than him, so we looked into each other’s eyes.
“Trust me, Habibi.”
I sighed and rested my head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me and stroked my hair for a few minutes.
“Am I making a mistake, Dad?”
Dad drew back and placed a hand against my cheek.
“Deep within you, do you have peace about this decision?” Dad asked.
I thought about it. I knew the answer.
“Yes Dad, I do. Just that sometimes…”
“The reality seems overwhelming, right?”
I nodded, “Right.”
“Your Mom and I talked about it and prayed about it. We have our peace too that you haven’t made a mistake.”
“Really? Then why are you guys here? You needed to see things for yourself or what?”
“Well, that, and we …”
“Habika! Gabe! Nathan’s leaving.” We heard Mom call out. Dad and I exchanged glances and headed back to the living room.
Mom was all smiles, while Nathan had a wry, slightly harassed look in his eyes.
“What did you do, Mom?” I demanded, not caring that my Dad cast a disappointed look my way.
“Oh Habika, you worry too much. Learn to trust your mother, will you?” Mom brushed my question off.
As I opened my mouth to respond, Nathan cut me off.
“Can you see me off to the door, Habika?” He asked.
“Why? It’s right there.” I replied, not in the mood to be courteous.
Mom gasped. “Habika Gabriel, what is with you? See your guest to the door right now.”
Grumbling, I complied. I could hear Dad snickering and Mom shushing him as we left.
I yanked open the door and stood aside.
He looked down at me with a gentle smile on his face. It only served to aggravate me more and I narrowed my eyes at him in warning.
Nathan turned back to the room.
“May I speak with Habika outside for a few minutes Mr Gabriel, Mrs Gabriel?”
“No.” I answered belligerently.
“Sure Son. Take your time.” Dad replied.
“Gabe, it’ll be dark soon.” Mom admonished.
“Okay then. You have ten minutes Nathan.”
Laughing, Nathan thanked them and pulled a reluctant me outside.
“That wasn’t so bad.” Nathan said.
“Speak for yourself. This was just day one. She’s here for five days.”
“I think I’ll survive.” Leaning against the railing on my verandah, he raised a hand, as if to brush back the stray lock of hair getting into my eyes, but checked himself and looked down at me intently instead.
“How are you holding up?”
Surprised, I asked, “Why do you ask that? Don’t I look like I’m holding up? And if you say I have dark circles under my eyes again, I’ll toss you over this railing.”
Hands raised in surrender, Nathan stepped away from me.
“Nothing. Just an innocent question.”
“I don’t believe you. What did you and my Mom talk about when Dad left?”
“She just laid out some ground rules is all.”
I groaned. I could just imagine the sort of ground rules she’d laid out.
“What exactly did she say?”
“Stuff like I pay for all NJ’s expenses; I pay for his doctor’s appointments; I give you a stipulated allowance monthly; I send her weekly updates on what’s happening because she believes you won’t…”
“Congratulations! You just got recruited into the ‘Spy on Habika’ gang.”
Nathan chuckled. “I guess you could call it that.”
I shoved both hands into my hair and let out a muffled scream.
“Habika, don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic about this?”
I drew near to him, stood on tiptoes, so close the tips of our nose almost touched and said, “Say that one more time. I dare you.”
“Nope. I think I’m done.” Nathan retreated, heading for his apartment.
“Wait! Is that all she said?” I called.
Slotting the key into the keyhole and opening the lock, he looked at me over his shoulder, a contemplative look in his eyes.
“One more thing. She said I should never be alone with you in a room. NJ doesn’t count as company. So I guess that means a babysitter is necessary after all.”
I hissed at his retreating, chuckling figure and stormed back into my apartment.
Over a dinner of Jollof rice and moi-moi (Mom makes a mean moi-moi. All attempts to find her secret ingredient have proved abortive), Mom and I had an epic disagreement over her instructions to Nathan.
“First off Mom, I’m a working woman. I do quite well for myself. I don’t need his money.”
“Really? Then why did you insist that he pay you back for what you spent on buying NJ’s clothes and knickknacks?”
Is there any detail Arji and Barak didn’t divulge to my parents?
“That was different.”
“Also, I’m not a naive child. I’ll need his help from time to time, and it’ll surely entail me being alone in a room with him.”
“I don’t care. You have female neighbours who could help.”
“Oh, you mean Mrs Gift, the relentless gossip? I’d see my story on the cover page of a tabloid if I let her anywhere near me.”
“You have other female neighbours. Stop arguing with me, Habika. I’m not changing my mind.”
“Dad, tell her she’s being unreasonable.”
“Fae, I completely agree with you.”
My fork clattered noisily to the floor as I dropped it in shock. NJ looked at me from his chair, eyes wide as though to say ‘naughty move, Mommy’
“Oh! Why, thank you, Darling.” Mom dropped a peck on his lips and continued eating.
“Baby girl, you’re a grown, single woman and Nathan is a grown, single man. Two of you alone in a room, no matter the circumstances, is a recipe for unintentional disaster.”
“I’d like to think you raised me better than that.”
“Of course we did. But like my dear Pastor would say; all single persons are guilty until proven innocent.”
Mom laughed heartily, “Very true Darling.”
“Both of you are just…ahh!”
I pushed my chair back and scooped NJ up, headed for the bathroom to give him a bath and get him ready for bed.
“You’ll thank me later, Habika. I promise you that.” Mom yelled as I exited. “And I love you!”
I didn’t respond. But I heard their muffled laughter at my expense.
As I lay in bed, about to doze off, I remembered one important thing I’d almost forgotten to do.
“Next time I see you, I’ll bite you!”
I sent the message to Arji and Barak. Then switched off my phone and went to sleep.
The next day, Mom and Dad took NJ and I on a shopping spree. NJ got some new clothes and toys, while I got some new clothes from Dad and books on parenting from Mom (she can be a real buzz kill sometimes).
On our return, Nathan invited us over for dinner at his place. He was so courteous and proper I wanted to gag.
After the first forkful of Yamarita Mom tasted, she paused and asked Nathan, “Did you prepare this?”
“Only you? No help?” She prodded.
“Haba, Fae! The fact that I can’t boil water to save my life doesn’t mean all men can’t cook.” Dad responded.
(Truly, my Dad is hopeless in the kitchen. But he loves a good, home-cooked meal. One of the reasons Mom goes with him everywhere).
Nathan laughed. “It’s all me Mrs Gabriel, I assure you. I like to cook.”
“I didn’t know that.” I said, looking at him suspiciously.
“Well, now you know.”
“Good for you Nathan.” Mom complimented warmly, “This tastes delicious.”
The rest of the meal went by amicably. Mom didn’t ask any more embarrassing questions and Nathan successfully charmed their socks off with his wit and intelligence.
As we all trooped to the door to leave, Mom paused mid-stride.
“Habika, let me have NJ.”
Surprised though I was, I dutifully handed him over.
Mom promptly thrust him into Nathan’s hands. Shocked at first, Nathan held him tight to his chest, then held him out at arms length like he was some fragile porcelain doll.
“Mom!” I made to grab NJ, but she stopped me with a look. Then she fixed her gaze on Nathan.
“In the time I’ve been here, you haven’t for once held your nephew. You just observe him from a distance like he’s an artifact you found at a museum.”
“Mom, please not now. Let’s just go.” I pleaded, seeing the deer in the headlights glaze in Nathan’s eyes.
She ignored me and kept looking steadily at him. I looked at Dad imploringly, but he just shrugged and shifted his gaze between Mom and Nathan.
It was a standoff.
Finally, Mom gently pried a squirming NJ out of Nathan’s stiff hands and soothed him, dropping a kiss on his forehead.
“Let’s go, please.” She said, already going out the door. She paused and added; “Thanks for dinner, Nathan. Goodnight.”
Then she walked out.
Dad looked at Nathan as he stood still, jaws clenched and hands curled into fists. He shook his head and gestured to me silently to follow him out.
I stared hard at Nathan, willing him to unfreeze, feeling deeply sorry for him and not knowing why.
“Nathan…” I began.
“No Habibi,” Dad cut me off, tugging my hand and pulling me towards the door, “Some other time baby girl.”
I went straight to find Mom as I entered my apartment, finding her kneeling by my bed and taking NJ’s clothes off so he could have a bath.
“Why did you do that, Mom? Was it totally necessary? Did you see the look on his face? You hurt him!”
Mom rose slowly, wincing as she stood (I suddenly realized, my Mom is not so young anymore).
“I saw the look on his face dear. And it confirmed my fears.” She headed for the bathroom.
I followed her in. “What do you mean? What fears?”
“Oh Habika. Look beyond what you see.”
That was Dad, standing by the door and observing us.
“Both of you don’t start with the veiled proverbs. What is it?”
Mom and Dad exchanged a look, then Mom replied;
“We need to pray for Nathan. That man is haunted by the mistakes of his past. He is petrified of kids. And until he learns to forgive himself and reach forward, he will never be a father to NJ.”
Photo credit: DBW