“You judged me before my time.”
I was maybe five when I was finally diagnosed with asthma. We were in the hospital near our old house in Surulere after I had been rushed to be nebulised — before we decided to buy our own. I sat in between my parents as the doctor nodded and spoke to them while they nodded and spoke back. Asthma was a new word to me then, it rolled weirdly on my tongue as I tried to pronounce it.
The doctor held a small white box in her hands, removing the blue inhaler within.
“So, Tony,” she said, holding it between her fingers as she demonstrated to me, “whenever you start breathing hard, just take two puffs of this and it’ll go away. Is that okay?”
She gave the inhaler to me and I did exactly what she said, inhaling it deeply.
It tasted odd.
She continued talking to my parents about triggers, the weather, and all. But I wasn’t listening. I turned the inhaler in my hands, inspecting it. I removed the cannister and put it back again, twisting it in the actuator. I did this again and again, the sound it made was funny and I giggled.
“Tony.” My father said sharply. “That thing is not a toy.”
He turned back to the doctor and they continued their conversation. My mother, though, wasn’t listening either. Her eyes were on me, a grim look etched on her face.
I grew up in a home that was normal to me but apparently, strange to everyone else. When we went to church, it was always my mum, my sister and I. Our father always sat it out. I’d always thought that along with facial hair and reading glasses, not going to church was just another benefit of being a father.
It wasn’t odd for the first few years but as time went on, I started to see them. The cracks, the shakes, the tremors in our home.
And then, the darkness would tiptoe into my vision.
The wheezing would start, my chest would itch.
Instinctively, I would reach for my inhaler.
Since our father wasn’t around us much, his love was always taken as a given. He could pick his favourite and my sister and I would shrug in indifference. Our mother, though, knew us like the back of her hand which she could use to beat us today and tomorrow still have us crawling back to her.
Now, being her favourite was definitely something we could get behind. What could be better?
We would vie for her attention at every chance we got, pausing only to tally the marks. While Rita had cuteness and dedication to the role in her corner, I definitely got points for eagerness, and being the only child to actually know how to read yet.
As we grew, we started to veer more to our father’s side. We nodded our heads and rubbed our chins, being his chosen one had benefits too. Gifts, toys, these were all the things we could get. But still, nothing could beat our attachment to mummy. One kind word, a phrase of encouragement, was all it took and we would run back, our eyes wide. We were like puppies and she’d just shrug.
Mummy didn’t pick favourites.
Like he did for my two younger siblings, my father had my life planned out for me.
Secondary school? Tick.
Course of study? Tick.
‘University’ with silly constrictive rules so he could control every move I made for the next five years and possibly rest of my life? Tick.
The little trouble with his plan for me is just that. It is his plan and really, has nothing to do with me. Mummy was more overt with her affection and thoughts. My father, though, preferred to work silently, putting ideas into your head as time went on. Kinda like a mind reader, editing and shifting information.
“Tony, why don’t you go into the science class? I mean, you’re good at it, you even won the prize in JSS1, you’ll definitely do well there.” He’d say.
“Tony, this your silly writing. You need to leave it and focus on your books.”
“Tony, let’s look at it like this, chemical engineering is the best course for you. Think of the possibilities. And that your writing and drawing hobby can be an addition, you can be multitalented.”
Because he didn’t spend enough time with us, the children he had in his head were completely different from the children he actually had. If we were ever to meet, the time would have been spent gasping, gaping and pointing back at ourselves.
“And you’re meant to be me?”
But of course, we didn’t know ourselves properly either, and any little attention from our father in those early days was like gold. Maybe he was right, I was good at science.
I could do literature in my free time.
Writing could wait. So could art.
Something I never admitted to anyone, even me, for a very long time. But, I struggled. Concepts that my classmates understood in a class, took me two, plus extra reading. My father thought I was a young talent, but I actually just liked science books with pictures in them.
By the time I had turned 16 and was forced into Covenant University, the reality was painfully clear to me. While I had a short fling with science, the arts were my true love and I had denied them for too long. But my father would have nothing of it. Though, he’d never outrightly say it.
“Come, pick any course you want to study, as long as it’s in that school, it’s fine by me.” he said one evening as we discussed about changing courses.“So, I can do an art course?” I said, the excitement rising in my voice.
“Tony,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “You wouldn’t perform well there. It’ll be… harder for you in arts, you’re not used to that system. There, an answer can be wrong for one person and right for the next. Just stick to what you know.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, chewing my tongue, “what about chemistry? Chemical engineering is too much for me, I’m not even interested in it.”
“No, no.” He said, waving his hand. “That’s not feasible. Think about the future.”
“Uhm, what about civil engineering?”
“Civil, civil engineering.”
He thought about that one for a moment. “No, no, that won’t work. You have skills for more than that.”
I sighed, “Okay, so just chemical engineering then?”
He brandished his hands in agreement. “See? I told you were good at science, you can do that instead.”
My mother stayed out of the whole conversation that went on and off for three years. She’d try her best to advise me but like in my spiritual life, she realised that the best way I would learn was by myself, for myself.
And my father wouldn’t have allowed an audience with anyone else anyways.
All decisions were made by himself, for everyone else.
I was sick.
I didn’t know what it was but I could tell that something was wrong.
My appetite had gone down, I was drowsy and sleepy, lethargic. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
I couldn’t write, I couldn’t paint. I didn’t know why but I just couldn’t.
I was getting shakes, edgier. Night time got worse, I couldn’t sleep.
Dreams had jagged edges. Those thoughts intruded in my mind again, stronger than ever.
This happened a lot, but never this bad. It was never physical.
I couldn’t continue, that place was killing me. I told him I just couldn’t handle it anymore. The regimented life, the skewered spirituality, the damn course.
I couldn’t do it.
I told him, time and time again.
A surprise to no one, he didn’t listen.
That was it, that had to be it. I mean, it couldn’t be anything else.
We went to the doctors at Vedic Care, and some blood work was done. My mother had left the room and just when I was about to leave too. A tiny voice lingering behind me told me to stay back.
You might as well, it’s not like you have anything to lose now.
I sat back down in the chair, looking at the doctor. He was maybe in his late twenties. He had a kind face. “Hey, can I, uhm, you know, talk to you about something? Something personal.”
He blinked. “Yes, of course, what’s up?”
I looked at my fingers as I shuffled them. “I’ve been having these…you know…”
“I know…” He continued.
“I don’t know but I’ve been having these, these thoughts of killing myself. Trouble sleeping.” I scratched my head. God, this was awkward. “I haven’t been able to do anything that I usually do. I don’t eat well anymore…”
“How long has this been going on?” He asked.
“Oh, a while.” I answered.
“No, like in days, months, years?” He prodded.
“Oh, three.” I nodded. “Three years.”
“And do you do…drugs? Smoke?”
There was a pause. “I’m asthmatic,” I said, showing him my inhaler.
“It’s fine, you know, you can tell me.” He said, putting his hands on the table.
“No, nah, I really just don’t.”
“Have you told your mum, though?”
“No.” I said, my head dizzy.
“Why?” He asked.
“I don’t want to worry her,” I lied. “It’s not like she can do much about it.”
“But she’s still your mother.”
“Yeah, I know, but…”
We went on like that before I decided that, what the heck, I might as well.
My results came in. It wasn’t malaria. Physically, there really wasn’t anything wrong with me. My body was fine. My mind on the other hand, was a mess. It was an old weather-battered shed. The shelves were aged and broken, tools had been thrown to the ground. Something had died in the corner. The paint on the walls was peeling off and someone left the door open.
As they talked and he handed her a number, I didn’t say anything, I just listened. I didn’t have the words anymore, they were long gone. She looked at me, though, in that doctor’s office.
That same grim expression, from all those years ago, plastered on her face.
Over the years, my mummy and I had grown apart and then closer. Friction from my father on both ends had left us cautious, abrasive. Things had happened, words were said. Scars were made.
My reason for not opening up with her was that she wouldn’t understand, that hearing her throw aside what had been happening to me like it didn’t matter would have been too hard. From my father, that was just another Wednesday, but to get that from her would have been too much.
But that was a lie.
There was a deeper fear. An unspoken one that went far behind that look. That maybe, just maybe, she understood what I was going through. More than understood, though, but lived it, went through it, for all those years.
And I, focusing on my inhaler, had never seen it.