His wife had been complaining about his behaviour. It had been more about his demeanour- he would sit on the wooden chair facing the window, during the day, eyes half closed and not sleeping, looking out to the Mount Pati. Sometimes she would hear him say, “It’s green up”. Other times he’d be quiet and so still that she would have to peer in his face to serve him his meal; at such times, he would remain still and bat his eyelids. When he doesn’t bat his lids she knows he’s asleep and even after patting him on the shoulder he would refuse to lie on the bed.
When he does finally come to bed- around midnight-he would trace his hands through the base of her once full hair till he reaches her temple. Such a gesture might have been taken for an old man’s idea of romance or foreplay even. That would be a mistake. The weaving of fingers through the hair had a meditative quality about it; he seemed to be contemplating something indefinable about the hair. The gentility of the act had initially excited her but after weeks when it never led anywhere; she grew tired of it and him.
She had called the children.
One of the children had volunteered, at least so she was told, to take him away from Lokoja. He had to travel against his will, he hated travelling. He had once remarked that travelling made him feel like a sack of rice.
She took him to the park- really just a restaurant and filling station with an expanse of parking space. There they waited both standing, she with arms folded across her chest, he a wizened man stooping and holding a bag touching the ground. High above them in the upper storey a speaker played old gospel music interspersed with announcements of the buses arriving and leaving; the announcements are made in a thick Ibo accent and she finds it hard to follow. The place itself crawled with hawkers and stationary sellers of boiled groundnuts, rust coloured smoked fish, bottled drinks. She thought one could find anything locally edible and cheap here.
“Announcing the arrival of Eagle line from Abuja to Benin…”
She unfolds her arms and is about to tell him but she sees he has lifted his bag. She sees his arm rising to her head and she bends slightly to prevent him from stretching fully. It’s a conciliatory gesture now, one to which she accedes to with a grateful smile.
As he walked toward the bus his face showed determination against this moving mammoth medium of immobilization.
His son lives in Benin and in a house without a window looking at mountains. So he’d lie in the visitor’s room till his youngest grandchild totters her way to the room. Facing the wall most times, he’d hear the awkward sounds her small feet make on the carpet. Holding her up, he’d try to contemplate how her face would have changed when she’s ten. He stores the picture.
Naturally, she has more immediate concerns. She stretches her arm letting her fingers brush his wrinkles and abruptly she hits him vigorously, her body quaking with the effort. She does this every day till he is convinced she’s trying to beat his stubborn lines into evenness. The sound of the whacking is probably loud as the mother always appears at the time to offer to rid him of the burden. Always, he shakes his head and looking embarrassed, she walks away. Mostly, he’d set the girl on the carpet and sit on the bed watching her play. He never stops her when she reaches between his open legs for the snuffbox under the bed. He lets her be when she opens it and licks then chuckles at the look on her face. She does this for five days before the taste becomes indelible in her memory and she never attempts to even look under the bed.
Two weekends after his arrival, his son takes the family to a church picnic where he sits away from the gathering. Minutes later when the feast begins, he spreads his palm on the grass; he is thrilled by the coolness and he lies on the grass, tilting his head up so the grass touches the nape of his neck. A smile happens on the face, his lips trembling at the sheer thrill. The other picnickers look at him but say nothing- either for respect of age or in awe of senility. In religious circles, motives are hard to tell.
On the way to the vehicle, the daughter-in-law picks blades of leaves from his native trying not to appear insistent; so it wouldn’t look like he has embarrassed the family.
He insists on the front seat which he gets. As the son drives he notes the tension between both seats. It is so obvious he thinks mother and daughter behind cannot see the windshield.
He allows himself to smile at his own metaphor.
He hasn’t been a good father so far. And how much time had he left? He thinks. His son can’t even look at him. As his son shifts gears, he places his left hand atop his son’s. The young man is startled but maintains composure and slips his hand from underneath. He looks straight ahead and continues driving.
How much time left? An apology would be good, advice better. He knows. However both habit and not speaking for weeks prevent the words from forming. Besides, he realizes he can never be fully absolved from his deeds or misdeeds.
But one can try…
When he does speak, cracking the thick silence, he says’ “put fresh grass in, make the grass plenty”. He’s ashamed he can’t replace giving errands with giving advice. He believes silence was better than his speech and in chagrin, looks out the window. He sees amusement on his daughter-in-law’s face as she holds the sleeping child in her arms.
She’s amazed at the extent of his calm senility.
Two days later, she doesn’t hear the whacking sounds after sending her little girl into the room. In its place, she hears cries. She walks to the room and sees her father-in-law on the ground, still, and the girl squatting beside him crying.
She leaves the girl there and walks to the master bedroom where she dials her husband. Before it connects, she recalls what are now his last words. She understands what he meant now. She cries at her understanding. The husband rushes home uttering the condolence clichés, “he’s in a better place; God has taken…” misunderstanding the source of her grief.