All Was Well Until It Wasn’t

Raheem Omeiza

There aren’t many things I hate more than the rush that surrounds the Maghrib prayer. The correct time for Maghrib is tricky: dusk, but not the beginning of dusk because that is too early, but also not at night when there’s no daylight left because that is too late. It was on one of those evenings that it started.

My older brother was laying down mats in the open, raised platform in front of our house where we said our prayers. I’d have said ‘mosque’ because it is in fact, a mosque, but I don’t want you to get the wrong picture. Ours had no minarets and antique rugs. My brother yelled at our younger brother for being too slow with his ablution. He gave our father menacing looks that packed in the scolding that he couldn’t convey with words. But he wasn’t looking at our father closely. His tardiness that evening was beyond his control.

I’d finished performing the ritual required to cleanse myself for prayer and was playing idly with the water left inside my kettle, so I had time to look around. Our father couldn’t get water to stay in his cupped hands. It was as if he had lost control of his hands. Even closer, half his face was swollen. Nothing dramatic but swollen all the same. His hands refused to obey commands, his speech deserted him, and just before I could cry for help, he toppled over, face down onto brown sand and dirt.

Maghrib was combined with Isha later that night, hush-hush and subdued. Our neighbour had driven him to the hospital. The doctor told us my father had suffered a stroke. They kept him in the hospital for a week. Our mother moved in there to look after him. Occasionally, when we could, we’d pop in to visit him. I didn’t visit often. I knew he hated visits. He hated being that vulnerable, hated being seen like that – saliva drooling down the corner of his mouth because his mouth refused to obey him and his speech became slurred and unintelligible.

He came home on the eighth day in a wheelchair to a full house: children, extended family members, neighbours, colleagues, friends, friends of friends – everyone really. He’d been strong for so long, keeping his tears to himself, away from visitors and prying eyes, but he couldn’t help himself when he came home. He broke into tears and sobbed like a child, shoulders heaving up and down as if they had a life of their own and had decided to sing harmony to the dirge that was their owner’s sobbing.

My father, who couldn’t keep still on a normal day, who had the boisterous energy of a child and was always tinkering with things that didn’t need tinkering, suddenly decided his bedroom was his favourite room. He’d stay there for hours, tracing patterns on the wall with shaky hands and pretending to be asleep when he had visitors. He hated taking his medication and complained about how they made him feel. He wanted to hide, to stow away his vulnerability, to not have his children see saliva dribbling down his chin, to not need help to walk. He wanted to hide in his own house. He stopped praying too. My older brother harped on about how this was a test from Allah and how my father needed to pray and give thanks to Allah. I wanted him to shut up but I never said so. I hated praying too and only prayed because my brother would be cross at me otherwise. I didn’t believe in Allah and His cruel tests. My father probably hated Allah too, for not taking his life and allowing him to suffer such indignity. 

My mother had taken to bathing him. He’d sit on a stool in the bathroom and she would bathe him. I watched them one morning. It had been too early to close the door because it was still dark outside and the day had barely broken, so she left the door open for a small slice of light to trickle in and provide illumination. The tenderness of it all moved me to tears. He sat down, helpless, and my mother stood over him and washed him. She’d help him go to the bathroom if he had to pee and wash his butt when he pooped. There were several accidents, but she took care of it all in her quiet way. She’d wash the soiled clothes immediately and spray a generous amount of air freshener into the room to mask the stench.

But she had to go to work after a few weeks. She was a teacher in a government primary school. You know, one of those schools with too many children. Those schools where the roofs of classrooms have holes that let through yellow streaks of sunlight, or rain. The kind where children have to sit on the ground and have holes the size of eyes or small fists in their khaki shorts. That type. She took her job seriously even though she didn’t have to. She’d go and look for her pupils in the slums they lived in if they missed school twice in a row. She’d bring some home after taking permission from their parents and have us tutor them because she thought they were bright. However, my father’s illness took a toll on her. She had to look after her family, do her job, and take care of an ailing husband whose illness was both mental and physical; a husband who snapped at her because he couldn’t find anyone else to snap at.

One dreary afternoon left my father and me stuck with each other at home. My mother had already given him a bath and fed him broth before she left for work. My younger brother had gone to school and my older brother had travelled back to the university he attended. I was the only one unoccupied because I’d failed to secure admission into a university that year. My father had to pee and he rang for me. It was easier for him to ring than to speak. Usually, he would have only an ankara wrapper slung around his shoulder in a loose knot but he had insisted on wearing trousers that day. Well, he had to pee and he had trouble unzipping his trousers because his hands were still not following instructions. So I helped him. I unzipped his trousers, took out his penis, directed it at the toilet, and watched him. He started crying again. This time, quietly, in defeat. I understood. It shouldn’t come down to a man letting his teenage son help him urinate. It must have made him feel emasculated.

In the months that followed, his speech got much better even though it came out slurred. His face realigned, and he learned to walk again even though his steps were uneven. He insisted on dressing himself and became unashamed of us seeing him naked. Sometimes he’d fall and call for help, sometimes he’d succeed and be proud of himself. I think his rational side won, and he convinced himself that he needed help sometimes, and that his son seeing him naked wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. He began to read newspapers again. He would even whistle sometimes. A few accidents still happened, but they were few and far between. All was well until it wasn’t.

He got better as months passed. His speech became almost perfect. He could control all parts of his body again, and his walk evened out so well that all that was left from the stroke was a slight limp. He still had to take his medication and he hated it, but he took it because it was working. 

The medication had side effects he didn’t care for. I had heard him on the phone complaining to a friend about “the problem”. He explained to his friend that nothing he did made it come up. That no amount of touching or rubbing would make it stir. In my 19-year-old mind, I thought he was being ungrateful. In retrospect, I can now see how foolish this line of thinking was. His life had been turned upside down by an illness, his ego had been worn down to a knob, and his sense of masculinity had been erased. He was trying to prove to himself that there was something left of him. His medication-induced erectile dysfunction plagued him. 

His friend convinced him that his uncle, who was a herbalist, could prescribe herbs that would make quick work of his problem and that he’d be “firing” in no time. His friend brought the herbs on a Saturday afternoon when the sun was too hot. He gave instructions on how they were to be prepared. They were to be boiled in a clay pot for one hour over a wood fire. The decoction had to be taken in the morning before any meal and at night, after the last meal had been fully digested. He was supposed to see results after two weeks. But nothing happened. 

After another two weeks, nothing happened. I could tell because I could overhear his phone conversations. Ultimately, he decided to discontinue taking his drugs because he no longer felt sick. My mother asked his older sister, my aunt, to plead with him. His doctor visited him and explained how his condition had to be managed because it couldn’t be cured. He broke into tears again, this time in anguish, looking at the doctor and communicating his need for help through tears. The doctor also told him to discontinue taking the herbal decoction because it was bad for his liver and was affecting the efficacy of his medication. Again, for a while, all was well until it wasn’t.

He had another stroke four months after that visit from his doctor. His blood work showed that he had stopped taking his medication for over three months. He’d been pretending to take it. He was flushing the pills down the toilet and, while in there, stroking his penis and hoping something stirred. I’d caught him a few times trying to masturbate because he always left his bathroom door open in case he needed to call out if something happened. His blood pressure had been so high the doctor told us it was a miracle his heart hadn’t failed. I don’t know if it was worth it though – if he had been able to have and keep an erection, to feel something other than desolation. He “recovered” from the second stroke after being in a coma for three days. He came home after a few days? weeks? I don’t remember, but I know he died exactly two weeks after he came back home. In his sleep, naked. I like to imagine that it was peaceful and that he was happy he was finally going to be free of his demons and stop fighting.

Raheem Omeiza is Ebira and writes from Lagos, Nigeria. His writing explores boyhood, grief, sexuality and the liminal spaces where they intersect. He was a finalist of the 2022 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He was also Shortlisted for Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2022. His work is published and forthcoming in Afritondo, Litro Magazine, Isele Magazine, and elsewhere.

 

*Image by Hiroshi Tsubono on Unsplash

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