Chigo walked in two hours late, shell shocked and smelling of tea rose perfume. His ex-wife Tobenna was waiting at the door, a bowl of bitter leaf soup in one hand, a green book of psalms in the other. She swore that her potent version of bitter leaf helped a man in their village who could not pee for two days and whose testicles were on fire, but Chigo did not trust it. What good would the soup be against an ibuonu that was placed on the family years ago? he thought. What good against his cancer? The pungent smell of the bitter leaf was already beginning to sting his nostrils. Still, he took the bowl from her and then watched her mouth slowly twist downward as the smell of Maribel’s perfume stung hers. Tobenna’s hands crushed her book of psalms and Chigo steadied himself. But instead of immediately attacking him or Maribel, her tongue found their only child.
“Filth,” Tobenna began as she adjusted her black wrapper. “Our daughter has run off with her filthy mouth.”
“What do you mean run off?” Chigo said, visibly relieved that they would not be dredging up the past again.
“America has poisoned our child in the year I’ve been gone. She runs around now with eyes the color of a witch, hair so thin and straight I wonder where half of it has gone, and clothes that would fit a one-year-old baby. And this filth that spills from her mouth. What has this woman done to stop it? Or is this all her influence?”
Maribel's name was never spoken, but she was always in the room. Chigo listened to Tobenna’s now familiar catalogue of complaints: Chloe dressed immodestly. She was disrespectful. Raised by apes. Chigo felt the heat of his blood rise. He tugged at the knot of his tie with his left hand and the bitter soup tipped over the sides of the bowl in his right, staining the cuff of his white sleeve brown. He looked hard at Tobenna. His ex-wife had only been back in the states for a week and in that time, she had already succeeded in alienating his fourteen-year-old child. There were times during the week when he wished he could send her back to Abagana. But as much as he hated to admit it, he needed Tobenna. Chigo took a deep breath and remembered how his ex-wife dropped everything the moment he called with news from the doctor. It took her eight trips to the American embassies in Lagos and Abuja before she was granted a three-month stay in America. And before she could leave the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria for Atlanta, she had to pay a line of police and security a bribe of ten thousand naira, the equivalent of one hundred U.S. dollars, before she could take her six luggage bags of bitter leaf out of the country. Chigo sucked his teeth. What is wrong with Nigeria’s children?
“Chloe will be home soon,” he said, “and then we will talk to her together.”
Tobenna opened her mouth to speak again, but Chigo held up his free hand and shook his head carefully. Then he turned and walked down the hallway, leaving a trail of bitter soup on the floor. Chigo closed the door behind him and sat on the edge of his bed with the lights on the lowest setting. The affair that crushed his marriage abruptly ended an hour ago. And all the worry about peeing had given him a migraine. He sipped at the bitter leaf soup. The cancer was headed toward his bladder, and while radiation would presumably give him more time, the prospect of peeing into a bag taped to his thigh for the time he had left was enough to keep him awake at night. But the Foley catheter wasn’t the worst of it. He might need a pill to perform. Chigo was forty-five years old. A hawk without its beak would have a better quality of life. He decided to wait. Try the soup.
Chigo blinked slowly. An ibuonu had been put on his family years ago by a jealous neighbor. A corrupt ancestor. The visioner at their prayer house could not quite see. But when his older brother went missing during the war he knew. The ibuonu. Chigo and his parents fasted and prayed for weeks. They were prayed for. But God was nowhere to be found. A car crash took his parents a year ago and now this. Prostate cancer. His ex-wife Tobenna claimed that it was God’s will, that Chineke has a plan for us all that only he can understand. But what about Chloe? Was it really God’s plan to snatch her father away from her? Last month, after her basketball camp, Chigo told her about the cancer. Tonight he planned on telling her the rest. Chigo stared at the bowl of lukewarm soup in his hand and wished that it were a bottle of Nigerian palm wine. The white translucent drink was so potent it was known to have made village chiefs spill their deepest and darkest secrets. It took Chigo two days and two bottles to open up to Chloe a few weeks ago, and he felt sure that he would need to depend on the palm wine again later that evening.
At first, Chigo wasn’t concerned with Chloe running off. She was a precocious fourteen-year-old, born and raised in Atlanta. She knew the streets, she was okay, he tried to assure himself. But she should have been back by now. He would give her until six o’clock. By his watch it was 5:59. The bitter leaf was now cool. When Tobenna screamed, the bowl of soup slipped from his hands and shattered on the elm floor.
Chigo found Tobenna in the kitchen on bended knees with hands raised, clutching her miniature book of psalms. She was yelling feverish prayers to the dry wall ceiling. “Chineke! Please-o! Whatever evil has touched my child’s heart, destroy it and let her heart be clean again. Papa! Deliver our daughter to us-o! Send your angels --”
The room suddenly filled with the scent of his mother: palm kernel oil and shea nut. Chigo stopped for a moment and studied Tobenna as if she had suddenly rubbed shea butter into her full body seconds before. One year had gone by since the accident that claimed his parents, and Tobenna still wore her black prayer scarf and black wrapper as Nigerian tradition dictated and wandered around the house as if it were a graveyard.
Chigo gasped as his mind slipped back to that dreadful time. Tobenna had shut herself in their bedroom and made herself into stone. She, like most Ibos, assumed the title of Nigerian saint of devotion and kept herself on bended knees in prayer, her hands raised to the ceiling as tears flowed like streams down her cheeks. She only granted open arms to Chigo if he fell to the ground next to her and raised his arms to God. What God? Chigo thought. While she was on her knees he made all the funeral arrangements, shipped his parents’ bodies back to Nigeria, and then made the painstaking decision to stay behind. Tobenna went alone and filed for divorce shortly thereafter.
The smell of shea nut and palm kernel oil suddenly grew in intensity. Chigo took a moment to gather himself, and then he barked at Tobenna with a faux American accent that made him sound more like a British aristocrat and less like a man from Abagana, a poor farming village in Nigeria. “Screaming at the ceiling isn’t going to bring Chloe back, Tobenna. Get your things. Let’s go.”
She did not bother to look back at him or hurry to get up. She was speaking to God. “Forgive your child, Papa, for he knows not what he thinks.” Tobenna kissed her book of psalms, raised herself up from the ground, and stepped towards Chigo. Her now steely eyes peered into his. “Why, Chigo? Why?" she whispered, as if their child was in earshot. “Why do you choose to hold on with this nkirika speech?”
Chigo blinked. The accent was his botched attempt to eradicate his Ibo. He thought his new voice, a result of years of listening to standard American dialect tapes for actors, would make him seem more knowledgeable in the world of academia. What did his ex-wife know about anything? He was now up for tenure and promotion from associate professor of freshman physics to full-fledged professor.
“Biko, mee osiso,” Tobenna said, snapping her fingers at him as she stood at the threshold of the front door. She gave him a knowing glance and left the house.
Chigo gritted his teeth to keep biting words from shooting out of his mouth. Ibo was absolutely forbidden in his house and she knew this. But at least, he reasoned, she respected his space this second time around. There was no Nigerian flag hoisted on the lawn to take down or pictures on the walls of her forlorn looking nieces and nephews wearing dusty sandals and second-rate American clothing. He removed them from the walls a year ago when Tobenna left because he felt they were encroaching on his lithographs. He replaced the pictures with black and white photographs of his parents and brother from Abagana.
Chigo’s muscles trembled from fatigue as he sat behind the wheel. He wondered how much of it was due to the cancer and how much was due to his driving frenzy around the clogged streets of Atlanta with a migraine. The glaring headlights from passing cars magnified the head pain. Chigo tried to focus. He could start his search for Chloe at his best friend’s house.
Chigo met Bill in grad school. He was a tall Brit who stood out because of his penchant for wearing suits and ties. Chigo remembered the day. An important lecture in Classical Mechanics, and he was distracted by a letter he received from his mother. She was now selling Fanta soda in the market along with her staple of yams and eggs, she wrote. And she really didn't want to bother him for money to buy a goat for his cousin's wedding feast. Chigo didn't make much as a TA, but he decided he would scrape up the money anyway. During the lecture, Chigo mumbled something about "get my goat" and Bill laughed. “This lecturer gets my goat, too,” he said. And a friendship was born that lasted through marriages, children, and divorce.
Chigo tried changing lanes on I-85 and swerved just before he hit an SUV idling in traffic. He would not go to Bill’s house after all. He would try the basketball courts at Piedmont Park. He would find Chloe there. Of this he was certain.
“Please take your time,” Tobenna said. “I did not come back to America to die by your hands.”
Chigo sighed and looked into Tobenna’s face, as dark as the Abagana he knew as a child in Nigeria.
“Maybe if you put that book down for once and help me navigate, we wouldn’t get into trouble. God helps those who help themselves, right?”
Tobenna’s toes curled into talons that dug into the soles of her sandals as she thought about trouble. The trouble of last year. She would have liked to broach the subject of the troubling perfume that assaulted her on the nights before his parents’ death when she lay awake, with him beside her, crying and alone. And now, the same perfume singed the hair in her nostrils. She dug her toes deeper into the soles of her shoes and said, “Maybe I should go back home then, Chigo. And help myself.”
Chigo became tightlipped. He had asked Tobenna to come to Atlanta. To be there for Chloe when he could not be. When they passed Osunde’s African Gift Shop on Peachtree Street, Chigo barreled through an illegal U-turn and parked in the lot. He stared straight ahead and said nothing.
“Why are we stopping when our daughter could be raped or murdered?” Tobenna said. “You are making a mistake here.”
Chigo slowly turned to look at Tobenna. “You want to talk about my mistakes? You single-handedly caused this. You. In one week. Go back to Nigeria!” Before Tobenna could get out another word, Chigo opened his door and then slammed it. He struck the hood of his car and stormed away. But in an instant he felt his lungs tighten. Chigo stopped and looked back. He lost his breath when he saw Tobenna; her prayer scarf had fallen from her tiny head and her bony shoulders heaved up and down for air.
Ogini kam melu?
He wandered into the store and bought a bottle of palm wine. He drank two swigs at the door and wondered how he would make it up to her. He took two more swigs and thought about taking another, but how convincing would he be to Chloe and Tobenna jiggling around like an onunmanya as palm wine dribbled from one corner of his mouth and his words from another.
Back in the car with all his senses at perfect attention, he turned to Tobenna to apologize when the scent of shea butter once more captured his nose and his awareness. Chigo smelled his mother again: palm kernel oil and shea nut. He leaned back in his leather seat, closed his eyes, and remembered when he was a boy in Abagana, where yams and cassava grew on a small patch of land to the side of their red mud home and goats bleated in a straw shed in the back. His mother would rub shea butter on her ankles, shins, and knees to soothe her aches and pains after hours of helping his father dig and pluck the yams. Chigo swallowed hard, then turned the ignition and drove away from Osunde’s.
As he drove up Peachtree heading towards Piedmont Avenue, he snuck many glances at Tobenna, who sat clutching her open book of psalms with both hands. “I’m sorry,” Chigo whispered. She began to whisper Psalm 91 vehemently as if she were searching for her soul in the words she spoke. “Please, forgive me.” He pried the book of psalms out of her grip and held her hand. Tobenna looked at him, her eyes distant.
“I did not mean what I said today,” Chigo added. Tobenna shrugged and pulled her hand from his. He nudged her with his elbow and did a little squirmy jig in his seat. “Biko. Biko, please. Forgive me for I know not what I think.” A chuckle escaped Tobenna’s mouth. She had a gap between her front two teeth that always made Chigo smile. He took her hand once more and caressed it. She pulled her hand away.
“I did not come here for you-o. Let us keep this clear between us. I have been done with you. I came only for my daughter.”
“I am sorry.”
“My child does not know herself, Chigo.”
“She needs to know her Heavenly Father.”
Chigo bit the inside of his cheek. “What has God done for this family?”
“You don’t think Chineke blessed you -- eh? Were you not the first from our village to come to the U.S. for university?”
“It was supposed to be my brother, Tobenna. Not me. Him.”
Any mention or thought of his brother made Chigo’s eyes grow wet. He was the person Chigo wanted to grow up to be. Top scorer in school and a stellar soccer player who preferred basketball after an American missionary came through the village and introduced it to the children. Only Chigo’s brother took a liking to it. His brother was always one to break convention. He had dreams of going overseas, becoming a big name in basketball, and returning to uplift his people.
Then came the civil war. The government blocked the Red Cross and food supplies from reaching Ibo land. Thousands of children and babies died on dusty roads from severe malnutrition. One of them could have easily been Chigo. He remembered his family fleeing to Nkpor by foot. He cried often and his brother, the unwavering optimist, never failed to wrap his arm around him and say, “You are safe in my arms. I will never let you go.” One day Chigo secretly followed his father and brother as they scrounged for food in abandoned shops. A military jeep of Ibo soldiers stopped and grabbed his sixteen-year-old brother and forced him in the jeep. “Rapumu aka! Leave me alone!” his brother screamed. His father dropped to his knees and begged the soldier to let him keep his son. The soldier answered with the butt of his gun. Chigo opened his mouth to scream, but his voice was nowhere to be found. The jeep sped away and left only dust for him and his father to swallow.
“Nigeria is useless and God knows it,” Chigo blurted.
“Hey!” Tobenna shouted, looking up to the evening sky for forgiveness.
“Corrupt policemen point guns at innocent people’s heads for bribes at roadblocks,” he said. “I had to pay to get bitter leaf out of the country. What in God’s name are Nigeria’s children doing?”
“Who exactly do you have the issue with-o? The government who steals from the poor or the poor who struggle everyday to live?”
Chigo thought for some moments before responding. “Everyone. Better your minds! Help yourselves! From the time I came to America, barely surviving myself, I have had to send money home.”
“And some of it goes to your nephew's taxi business in Onitsha. He looks to you for inspiration.”
“I am waiting for him to find it within himself.”
They drove in silence until Chigo turned into Piedmont Park. They were relieved to see Chloe shooting hoops. Chigo watched her release an old, dirtied up tennis ball from her hands at the free throw line with perfect form and a perfect arc. Swoosh! Daddy’s little tiger. Her middle school team won the state championships last year with Chloe leading as a guard, and rumor had it that she would be named captain of her high school team as a freshman. The sky was truly the limit for her.
“Nkiru. Nkiru-eh!” Tobenna yelled as she jumped out of the car.
“My name’s not Nkiru. Stop calling me that!” She hurled the ball at the backboard. It torpedoed back almost hitting her mother in her face.
“Chimooo!” Tobenna screamed, guarding her face with her arms.
Chigo jumped out of the car and stood between his daughter and her mother. “Biko, please,” Chigo pleaded.
Chloe stood tall at five-foot nine and was so gawky that her bones protruded at her joints. But there was a musculature about her build that told people that she was not one to be easily broken. Her skin was ebony like her mother’s and father’s, her nose in between the broadness of Chigo’s and the beak-like quality of Tobenna’s. Chigo had always seen his brother in her, but at that moment his throat closed up. For the first time, he saw the horrifying contacts glowing like headlights in the beautiful landscape of her face. And Chigo felt utterly ashamed. Chloe looked at her father with sad eyes. She dragged her body to the bench and plopped down. Chigo sat next to her, leaving Tobenna to stew in anger alone in the middle of the court.
“Your Nigerian name is beautiful, Nkiru. You will learn to appreciate it,” Chigo said.
“Whose side are you on?” Chloe asked him.
Chigo looked at Tobenna, who had quietly taken a seat on the other side of Nkiru. Tobenna smiled and an unspoken truce was born between them.
Tobenna spoke gently to her daughter. “Your grandmother knew best when she named you, Nkiru. Do you know what it means?”
“No,” Nkiru spat out, still angry with her mother.
“The best is yet to come. This is what your many fans will one day chant,” Tobenna added, pumping her fists as she chanted Nkiru’s name.
They could see their daughter imagining her future, and then to their disappointment, she shook her head violently. “I don’t care. I hate my name.”
Tobenna stroked Nkiru’s limp, barely-there hair. “Let us go to church. We must find God.”
“I’m not going to fucking church,” Nkiru said, gritting her teeth and balling her fists so tight her palms turned red. Chigo held Nkiru’s hands and gave Tobenna a cold stare.
“Ekwerom Na Udi Ifia Ga Eme! I never believed that this type of thing would happen. There is a reason why my daughter is coming back with me. God is saving her from destroying herself.”
Chloe turned to her father. He saw her eyes mist and crinkle in confusion. “What’s going on, Dad?” she asked.
He rested the weight of his head in his hands, not knowing how to proceed. “She’s your mother. If I were to ever --”
“Are you going to die? You’re dying and you’re sending me to Nigeria. With this woman!”
Chigo looked at Tobenna, whose eyes were struck with an overwhelming sadness. She closed them slowly.
“You’re taking everything away from me! What about my life? My friends? My basketball? Are you trying to kill me, too? There’s nothing in Nigeria. Nothing!” And with those words she ran to the car, sat in the back seat, and shut herself away from her parents.
As the sun dropped in the sky, Tobenna’s body crumbled and her heart collapsed into herself. Woman. Not even mother. Chigo reached for her and she raised as firm a hand as she could muster to keep him away.
The drive home from the basketball court was a slow drag through the blood orange of a wounded sun. Chigo thought about what his parents would say about how he was handling his life, or rather, his exit from this life. At this moment, his mother would have placed her knobby hand, hardened by many decades of yam farming, on his head and said, “Put everything in God’s hands nna-o. Please. Man disappoints, but Chineke never will.”
Chigo thrashed around in bed that night under the soft glow of the night light and the sound of the waterfall coming from his ambient sound machine, two habits he picked up when he received his cancer diagnosis. It was ten p.m. when he scrambled out to the kitchen for a glass of wine. He tiptoed past Tobenna’s room, then Nkiru’s, and moved slowly past his parents and brother in the hallway. In the kitchen, he started to reach for a bottle from the wine rack, then grabbed the bottle of palm wine he had left sitting on the counter. Chigo jugged down half of it and recalled the last moment he spent with his parents.
He had been sitting in that same spot at the table drinking a glass of Pinot, a habit he had acquired over the years to escape the constant arguments with Tobenna about tradition and prayer. He had been sitting there with a drink in hand, thinking about another woman. It was an innocent meeting three months ago; he had been searching for someone to help cure Nkiru’s acne and Bill recommended Maribel, a dermatologist he knew personally. Her skin was as gold as the sap from the acacia tree and she smelled like a floral shop. Thoughts of Maribel fell away when Chigo’s father shuffled into the kitchen dressed in a cream colored danchiki, the pants to match, and a fez hat. He had a piece of kola nut cradled in his mouth, which always turned his teeth and lips a subtle hue of yellow. His mother followed clutching her Bible and wearing a navy blue lace wrapper and an elaborate ichafu. They were to go to the annual Nigerian Independence Day party held by the Nigerian Men and Women’s Association of Atlanta and then take a flight back home to Nigeria the following day. They always looked forward to these outings as it was their time to catch up with old friends who had immigrated to the United States, eat an abundance of egusi soup and fufu, and praise God. That night they had pleaded for Chigo to follow them.
“My friends joke that I do not have a son, Chigo. They feel you think you are too good for your people,” his father said.
Chigo sighed deeply. “They are not my people, Papa. Please, have fun with your people.”
His tiny mother faced him. Spit flew from her mouth as she spoke. “You are mistaken. You are as African as me and your father.”
His father fixed his old, watery eyes on Chigo’s. “When a parent dies, the first thing God will ask is how we helped our children, and all this poor man will be able to say is that I have lost them both.”
After the Nigerian Independence Day party, a man going seventy-five on a thirty-five mile-per-hour street crashed into the car his parents were sitting in as it turned into his neighborhood. They were pronounced dead on the scene.
Where was God?
Chigo packed away their things, but kept his mother’s bible, a thick, King James Version bound by black leather, floppy and ridden with cracks and wrinkles from decades of devotion. It was collecting dust in his garage on a collapsed shelf between a bunch of rusty nails and an old can of ant spray.
Chigo thought of his mother’s bible now as Tobenna put her ears to the wall in her bedroom. It was a room bursting with ferns at its four corners, colorfully dyed wrappers hanging on the walls, and blessed water in glass pitchers sitting on the floor. She was grateful to Chigo for the sound of waterfalls every night. They reminded her of the flowing springs in their village back home. Tobenna closed her eyes and imagined a life that could have been. They were a loving family living in Nsukka. Chigo was a big time professor in the University of Nigeria who guided the young minds of tomorrow to new heights, Nkiru was a basketball star who lifted the spirit of her country, and Tobenna was simply happy.
For three weeks, Nkiru locked herself in her room after school. At night Chigo knocked, banged, and even yelled her name at the door only to be ignored or told to go away. Some nights, he drew his ear to her door and heard whispering and worried about who she could be talking to at so late an hour. But each night before he lay his head, he ran down a list of things that eased his mind: No teachers had yet to call his home complaining about skipping class, there were no strange boys lurking in the bushes near her window, and she did not reek of Marlboro Lights and Heineken.
On one of those dreary nights, Tobenna and Chigo sat at the table eating their dinner in silence, their thoughts like heavy boulders hanging in the air. Tobenna snuck desperate glances at her book of psalms sitting next to her plate as she picked at her jollof rice, and Chigo, who had grown to like her bitter leaf, busied himself by licking it from his bowl. His hands shook as he spoke.
“What am I going to do without you?” Chigo said, smiling nervously. He wanted to say more, but did not know how to broach the subject of his last will and testament.
“You are not alone,” she said as she pushed the rice around her plate. “You have someone else.” Then she shot a cold look at him and quietly asked, “Is she good to my daughter?”
Chigo looked down into his empty bowl of soup. “They get along,” he said. He felt it was not Tobenna’s place to know about the failure of his relationship with Maribel. On the day Nkiru went missing, Maribel went missing. “It's good Tobenna is here for you,” she said that last day they were together.
Tobenna stabbed at a grain of rice. “I loved you, Chigo.”
Chigo eyed her book of psalms. He shook his head and chuckled before he grabbed the prayer book and brandished it in the air. “You loved this. This was your husband. This is where your heart was.”
“Heart. Don’t talk to me about heart-o. You did not even have the heart to attend your own parents’ funeral.”
Chigo slammed his fist on the table. His lips began to tremble and he choked out the words he never said out loud. “And I will pay for that decision until the day I die.”
Tobenna turned away. She got up from the table with great effort, and carried her plate to the sink. “I leave in two months. This is more than enough time to teach you how to make the bitter leaf soup.”
Chigo sighed. His voice trailed to a whisper. “When it is time, I will sell my assets and make arrangements for you to pick up Nkiru. If I am able, I will deliver her to you myself.”
Tobenna set her plate in the sink and clasped her sweaty hands together, praying silently until the bones in her fingers ached. “Let us all look to God for help,” she said finally.
Chigo stomped across the campus lawn, crushing the green grass underneath his feet, grumbling. In fact, he had been grumbling for weeks. What did the doctors know about anything? The concept of time is an invention of the mind. Chigo had all the time in the world, as far as he was concerned. “All the time in the world,” he shouted defiantly to the heavens. No one or thing was going to tell him otherwise. The November wind lapped over him and he reached into his pocket and cradled a chunk of kola nut Tobenna left on the kitchen counter. His stiff muscles soon relaxed with visions of his father nibbling on the nut while teaching him and his brother how to fish in the River Niger with a net. He jumped when a loud voice snapped him out of his reverie.
“Hey Professor Chi.” It was Ben, a studious young man who, until recently, made a point of coming to every office hour Chigo held. This last month he abruptly stopped.
“Mmm Hmm …” Chigo said, hiding his agitation with a stiff smile.
“Are you doing okay today?”
“Great! Great! Thank you, Ben.”
“You’re really okay?”
“Yes, Ben, I am. Thank you.” Ben’s gaze lingered a little too long for Chigo’s comfort so he peeled away from him. But every few steps, one of his students would run up to Chigo and inquire about his health. Chigo counted ten reminders of his cancer in that one morning alone. He hurried to his office. A pile of test papers sat waiting on his desk, and one by one, with the help of the bitter taste of the kola and the soothing action of his teeth grinding against it, Chigo slogged through them. After finishing the pile, he pondered the idea of proving or disproving the existence of a spiritual reality on the photon level. Acquiring tenure was just a few months away, and though he had already published many esteemed works, showing that he devoted his life to his work would help his cause, a cause that would catapult him to the elite of academia, bring him a higher salary, and bathe him in a bliss so deep not even his cancer would be able to pull him out.
When Bill walked in, Chigo greeted him with a yellow-toothed grin. Bill had already acquired tenure and was chair of the department, though they both entered Emory as lecturers in the same year. But Chigo harbored no ill feelings for his friend whose family took him in and set the bar that Chigo had been chasing for almost twenty years.
“Your lips are yellow again, Chigo.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot I’ve had it in my mouth.”
“Some students are concerned. They see the yellow and think that you are very ill. That the cancer’s giving you jaundice.”
Chigo laughed. “That's absurd.”
“I know it is, but your yellow lips and teeth aren’t something this population is used to.” They both shared a laugh. “I know that you are going through a lot …”
“People give this cancer thing more power than it deserves. You know what I need to do, Bill? Remember Ted Williams? The baseball player who died and had his body frozen earlier this year? Why don’t I just do that, but skip the dying part? Take me in my sleep and throw my body in a steel vat of liquid nitrogen. Wake me up when there’s a cure for every disease known to man.”
Chigo would rather have had Tobenna spend her last night in America with him and Nkiru, but did not express any objection to her attending the Christmas party held by the Men and Women’s Nigerian Association of Atlanta. What would the three of them do anyway? he thought. Play charades shouting at Nkiru’s closed door? She still was not talking to either of them. She mumbled hi, bye, and good morning to Chigo. To Tobenna, only silence.
Some comfort finally came to Chigo when Tobenna stopped wearing her black mourning outfit and donned colorful wrappers and buba tops. She was a queen when she stepped into the kitchen in her gold lace wrapper, buba, and gold heels for the festivities that evening. He had forgotten just how beautiful she was. A Miss Nigeria. Seeing that she had grabbed Chigo’s attention, Tobenna seized more of it with a slow twirl around, sashaying her hips from side to side, holding her arms out gracefully as if she were a Nollywood movie star. The nape of Chigo’s neck began to perspire, along with the rest of his body.
Headlights beamed in through the window, capturing the two of them staring at each other in silence. And in that silence was an awakening. “Are you sure you do not want to follow me?” Tobenna asked.
“If anyone asks, I am grading papers.” He waited to see if she would respond. When she didn’t he turned as if to go to his room, and when he heard the front door close he tiptoed to the window and peeked out through the curtain. A van full of Nigerians was now in his driveway. Chigo chuckled. A middle-aged man and woman stepped out and embraced Tobenna with hearty laughter and hugs before she stepped into the van. He watched the van whisk her away, staring until the headlights were no longer visible to his eye.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was buzzing with all manner of travelers running, strolling, and sprinting to their gates. Chigo’s throat and chest grew tight as they neared Tobenna’s gate. The line was already forming when they got there, and he did not know whether to say good-bye and leave or wait with her until she reached the checkpoint. When they arrived, Chigo decided to stay. But his mind was tangled with so many thoughts that he could not speak. He avoided eye contact, hoping Tobenna would just bear his presence or start conversation. Tobenna grew impatient with the awkwardness and decided to end it.
“Well, I must go.”
“Yes, yes,” Chigo said. “Yes, yes.” He took her waist and said, “Bye.” He hugged her and gave her a peck on the cheek. Tobenna looked to the ground.
“Not a word. No good-bye or I will see you later?” he joked, gently shaking her at the hip. She shook her head adamantly.
“I don’t know what to say to you, Chigo. How can I say either when they mean you are close to meeting God?”
Tobenna’s last words followed Chigo for weeks. It was the end of a chilly January day when he plunged into the last container of what should have been a two-month supply of bitter leaf soup. He took his bowl into what used to be Tobenna’s room which was now bare except for two items she left folded on the bed: a men’s sky blue danchiki and matching fez and a girl’s drawstring skirt and matching puffed sleeve top in a kaleidoscope of earth tone colors. Chigo sat down and stared at Tobenna’s gifts for a long while until he heard Nkiru’s steps traveling down the hallway.
Now that Tobenna had left, Chigo saw more of Nkiru around the house. Just yesterday, she left what Chigo had now termed her cave and ventured out into the kitchen for a sandwich and stayed there to pick at it. Her already slight frame had now wasted away to bones. Chigo caught her furtive glances between small bites of lettuce. He playfully offered her a spoon of his bitter leaf soup and she winced as if what he was offering her was dog poo. He watched her and his mind filled with fears that the ibuonu might strike again. He asked Nkiru how school was going. “Fine,” she said. He then asked about her basketball practice. Another one word answer. “Okay.”
The following day was grey and cloudy. Chigo left work early to pick her up from school to shoot hoops like the old times. He had been fatigued lately. There were days when he could not even pick up a pen to write.
He turned into Nkiru’s school’s parking lot and saw her standing at one end of the walkway of the school with a boy; his pants started halfway down his bottom exposing green paisley boxers and his hair was braided into cornrows that were covered by an ill-fitting sports cap. Seeing the boy next to his daughter wouldn’t have bothered Chigo except for the fact that she was attending a predominantly white school in a well-to-do neighborhood.
Chigo yelled for his daughter using her real name. Nkiru and the boy with cornrows scurried in opposite directions. Chigo studied his daughter as she approached the car. Her hazel eyes glowed and her pressed strands of hair fell flat in the breeze. Chigo chose not to interrogate Nkiru in fear of driving her further away from him, so the ride home was quiet.
Their one-on-one scrimmage felt more like two novices figuring out the game of basketball than two seasoned players. Nkiru’s signature arc at the free throw line turned into flat trajectories that produced air balls and bank shots, and Chigo sluggishly moved around, at times not even attempting to follow her to the basket. “Are you okay, Dad?” Nkiru asked every time she saw her father bend down to catch air.
“Yes, yes,” he was quick to say, shooing away the idea that there was something wrong with a wave of his hand. “It’s the cold air making it hard to breathe. Where did your technique go?”
“In the dust.”
Nkiru held the ball in her hand and was about to throw it when Chigo took it from her. She dropped her head. “Nkiru,” he said. She looked up at him and he saw that she was on the verge of tears.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “Do you hear me?”
Chigo suddenly realized just how unconvincing he sounded and dropped to the ground. Nkiru joined him, her eyes fixed on the basketball between his bony legs.
“If you do not care about basketball anymore, I won’t force you.”
His daughter looked at him with a ferocity he had not seen since the days she ruled middle school basketball. “I want to be one of the greatest in the world.”
Chigo remembered his brother saying those same exact words, and he smiled.
“How are your grades?”
“Friends? Are they encouraging you to do the right thing for yourself? If not, there is no space for them in your life.”
“Everything is fine,” she said, and yet two weeks later she would quit the varsity team.
Worry followed Chigo into bed later that evening and the sound of water falling did little to bring him peace. He finally jumped out of bed, went to his table and wrote the first of two letters.
January 15, 2003
This is Chigo. I call for you always and you seem to never answer, so I thought I would write. I am sure you know that I am fighting for my life. I am frightened, Nkem. I don’t know if I am going to make it and I am frightened. I don’t feel as if I have measured up to you, and I think about my Nkiru. What I have done to her. Please put your arms around me as you promised you would, and tell me that everything will be okay.
Your dearest brother,
The following day, Chigo wrote to Tobenna.
January 16, 2003
I hope you are doing well. I want to apologize for the damage I have done to you, our marriage, and our child. I was foolish. Find it in your heart to forgive me.
As the winter days passed, Chigo thought of Tobenna often and at times would spend moments in her room imagining that she was still there praying, sprinkling the home with blessed water, and cooking her delicious bitter leaf soup and jollof rice. What he had once considered annoyances now seemed more like quirks.
One February evening, Chigo sat at his desk in his room jotting down notes on his next article. Then came a pain so excruciating it made him call out for his mother, his father, his brother, and then God. “Please. I am not ready. Please,” he whispered. His chest tightened. He thought of his child, questioned where he should be buried. Then he gripped the letter to his brother, which he had tucked in the waist of his pants earlier that day. He limped past Nkiru’s bedroom, past his parents and his brother in the hallway, and managed to drive himself to the hospital. He thought about the ibuonu and knew that the cancer had spread.
Dr. Nelson, a gruff, old man with a gravelly voice, told him that he needed to stop this watchful waiting business. “I should have never allowed for this option. You need to take action if you want to prolong your life.”
“The bitter leaf helped,” Chigo insisted.
“There’s no proof of that,” Dr. Nelson shot back. Within five years a Nigerian professor named Ernest Izevbigie would be given a patent for bitter leaf based cancer treatment in the United States, and Dr. Nelson would be one of the first to champion the bitter leaf. But for now he remained a skeptic.
“With treatment there will be side effects. But you can buy yourself more time.”
Chigo sighed deeply. The palliative care nurse who was assigned to him was a tiny, black woman in her late fifties. She asked him how he was coping with his cancer and the thought of leaving his daughter behind. “Are you spiritual?” she asked.
Chigo then spoke out, “My mother, she always told me to lean on God. That God would never disappoint me.”
“Do you believe her words?” the woman said, as she rested her veiny hand on his lap.
Chigo looked into her old, caring eyes, and smiled softly. “I am trying.”
Chigo took to nibbling on kola during lectures to ease himself from the fatigue of radiation therapy. To hell with anyone who is put off by it. No one at Emory, even his best friend Bill, knew about his episode at the emergency room and his state of health. Chigo would ask Bill to share it with the faculty only after he acquired tenure. By then, it would not matter anyway. The only person he felt comfortable telling was Tobenna. He called her using a Reach Out and Call Africa phone card the day he returned from Dr. Nelson’s office. He was pleased to hear that she received his letter and that it made her day bright. She told him to take courage. That he was not alone. He learned from her that the Men and Women’s Nigerian Association of Atlanta was holding an Easter party on Saturday, April 19. That if the mood struck him, he should go. He said he’d think about it.
In the evenings, Chigo began surfing the web, researching reputable doctors in Lagos and Abuja and peering over pages that advised owners on selling their home. He would wander onto sites for The University of Nigeria at Nsukka and Nigerian basketball. During these times, he often found himself holding his brother’s letter and thinking about the days after the war when he stood at the bank of the River Niger, carrying his brother’s basketball, waiting for his return.
On April 19, Chigo paced back and forth in Tobenna’s room for hours pondering over whether he should attend the Easter party. He then thought about his mother and father; how their last day on this earth was with him, and how they urged him to follow them, and how he stubbornly refused.
He put on a pair of slacks and slipped the sky blue danchiki over his white t-shirt. His breast tissue had increased slightly from the hormone therapy and he worried how he would look to his fellow Nigerians. He put the fez hat on his head and stared at himself in the mirror. He nodded his head in acceptance. He knocked on Nkiru’s door. She opened it and stepped back in shock and confusion at the image of her father in traditional dress. “Do you want to follow me?” Chigo asked.
“No,” she said.
Chigo smiled. He knew her time would come, eventually.
The Easter party was held in a large convention hall at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis on Peachtree Center Avenue. It took Chigo a few minutes to get out of his car. He made his way into the hotel and was directed to a crowded room on the second floor. A voice called out to him from the sea of strangers.
“Hey!” An elderly man with a knobby dark wood cane hobbled over to him. His head was the color of fresh snow and his eyes were grey floating in the middle of a milky white. He pointed his finger at Chigo, waving it, wearing a big smile that showed teeth decayed from age. “Are you not Chibugo’s son?”
“Hey!” He called other elders and told them that Chibugo’s son had arrived. He looked back at Chigo and touched his face feverishly. “You are a direct copy of your father-o. Direct copy. Hey!” He studied his face a few moments more. “Kedu?”
“Odi nma,” Chigo answered. The other elders cheered at his acknowledgement of the Ibo language and that Chigo was doing well that evening. Chigo smiled.
“Nnamudi,” he said pointing to himself. “I knew your father well-o. We are from the same village of Abagana.”
“Yes, sir,” Chigo said, wide-eyed. Another elder skipped over with a plate of kola nut to receive their guest.
“He who brings kola nut brings life,” the elder said, patting Chigo on the back. Chigo grabbed the kola and put it in his mouth.
“Dalu, dalu,” Chigo said over and over again to them, overwhelmed with a mixture of emotions he had never felt before.
Nnamudi embraced Chigo and whispered fiercely in his ears. “Your father was a great man. He never failed to help those who were less fortunate, though he had little himself. Your mother was a great woman who worked hard and dedicated her life to the church.” Chigo nodded. “Your brother was a great child --” Chigo’s eyes grew wet. Nnamudi tapped Chigo’s heart. “They are alive in you, my son. Every step you take, they take with you.”
Chigo began to weep. Nnamudi brought him closer and cradled him on his shoulder. “Take courage-o. Take courage, my son.”
Chigo contacted an appraiser shortly after the party to get the value of his property. He stacked empty cardboard boxes along the walls of the garage, near his mother’s bible.
At the end of May he received the news that he was granted tenure, a position he would enjoy for only a few short months before it was time for him to go. Bill held a party for Chigo and another newly tenured physics professor in the teacher’s lounge. The room was graced with tenured professors acknowledging with “welcomes” that Chigo had joined their ranks.
Chigo had to sit down frequently. The ibuonu at his side. He could not get himself to fully enjoy the moment he had worked half of his life to achieve. Dr. Sharma, the only woman on the faculty, placed her hand gently on his shoulder and asked how light his workload would be, considering his situation.
Chigo chuckled nervously. “You know me, Dr. Sharma. I am not one to ever slow down.” He patted his jacket pocket and panicked when he did not feel his brother’s letter. He scanned the floor of the lounge, fearing that one or all of his colleagues now knew his secret.
“Bill, I need a breath of fresh air,” Chigo whispered.
“Sure, senior professor,” he said with a congratulatory pat on the back. But when he drew closer to Chigo he knew. “What can I do?”
Chigo searched for the words. “I just -- I need --” Then he hustled out of the room.
Chigo was parked near the building entrance. When he got into his car, he reclined his seat until he disappeared from view. He closed his eyes. If they found the letter, they were either pitying him or laughing at him. One of the two. Chigo sat up slowly, and put the car in gear. He drove off the lot, and away from Emory.
When Chigo pulled into the driveway, Nkiru was sitting on the porch. Waiting. She was sweaty and spent. Her head was cocked to the side and a basketball was at her feet. She was holding a folded piece of paper in her hand. Chigo barely heard her say that she found the letter on the floor of the kitchen. His heart dropped as he took it from her hand. He kept his eyes on the paper and blinked. He searched for one word. One word was all he thought he could manage. But Chigo came up empty. And then Nkiru, his Nkiru, stood up and folded her long arms around her father. And all fears of the ibuonu fell away.
Chigo found his second wind after Nkiru fell asleep watching a game. He covered her long legs with a blanket and then hobbled into the garage. He found a clay pot crafted by Nkiru in the third grade and placed it on top of his mother's dusty bible. He carried the clay pot and bible, one on top of the other, into the kitchen. He left the dusty bible on the counter, and placed the clay pot in the sink. Then he lit a match and watched as the letter to his brother burned bright.
Waiting is a personal piece inspired by the passing of my father. He was an unwavering optimist who loved his homeland of Nigeria dearly. Despite its third world standing, he always believed that Nigeria would one day become a nation of progress. I thank my father for instilling in me the importance of remembering where I come from.
Chigo, the main character in Waiting, is a Nigerian expatriate who has abandoned his heritage out of bitterness and hatred. As he faces a terminal illness, he realizes that he must reconnect with his past in order to save his wayward but gifted daughter Chloe, repair his relationship with his ex-wife Tobenna, and reclaim his lost and broken spirit.
Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. She was raised in Augusta, Georgia and now resides in Brooklyn, NY. She graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts and has studied creative writing under the tutelage of Laura Pegram at Kweli. She is currently working on a short story collection and a novel.