The only photographs I have on my LG mobile phone are my children’s. They are 17, 15, and 13, and every one of those photos show them wearing big smiles or pouting or frozen in some silly Snapchat filters that make them look like characters in an animated picture. They live in Aba, Nigeria, with their father, and I am holed up in my room somewhere in Montpelier, Vermont—the city everyone I know mistakes for her Mediterranean namesake in France, the one with the extra ‘L’, but less gothic, more lush vegetation in summer, and famous for its delicious maple syrup.
These days I hardly leave my room. Cars no longer pull up under my window bursting with excited families and their dogs and their hiking or skiing gadgets as they used to a few weeks ago, when winter still pummeled the trees and the streets with its blizzard. My college has moved the remainder of the semester online. My fellowship at the college store has been suspended indefinitely and the library has been shut down. After the dreary and gloomy stretched-out months of winter, the sun wastes on the asphalts and concrete curbs because everyone is wary about the pandemic that is prowling from country to country, like the biblical beast of the night. Children and their coaches no longer play baseball or basketball or even soccer on the College Green. Yesterday, I walked over to the college vestibule to pick up the document the kind student services person printed for me. On the doors of the college properties are polite precautionary warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic (a similar notice hangs on the wall of the lavatory sinks which I share with my colleagues in the dorm).
As I crossed the eerily empty street, I wondered if I was, in fact, living in one of those bizarre apocalyptic films of the 90s that scared me away from horror films and warped psychological thrillers till today.
I speak with my children via WhatsApp video or voice calls every other day, and each time they pick up the phone, my last baby, Chu, would ask, “How is Montpelier? Is it still beautiful?” He asks this all the time. He also asks after my friends, whom he respectfully calls Aunty, as Nigerians are wont to do.
“How is Aunty Noni? How is Aunty Amara? How is Aunty Rebecca? Have you seen them today?” he asked two days ago over voice call. He sounded light, happy. If I closed my eyes and imagined I was there in the parlour with him and his siblings, he would be sitting astride my favourite sofa, munching on a piece of biscuit or crackers, his attention half on the TV which most definitely would be displaying his favourite animated show, Avatar.
How is Aunty Rebecca?
My son is 13 years old and has a mild speech impediment, and as such, he chooses his words cautiously and pronounces them just as cautiously. Or recklessly, when he is upset. When we spoke, there was a certain carefulness with the way he worded ‘Rebecca’, because you see, my son sometimes rushes over the /r/ sound, jumbling it together with other easily-voiced consonants, such that if he is distracted or upset while speaking, ‘Rebecca’ would tumble out of his mouth as ‘ehBecca’. But yesterday, he said it right, his tone filled with joy, with laughter. He was not paying that much attention to me, I could sense, but he was aware enough to want to participate in the ritual of asking after all my friends and how the city was treating me.
Everyone is fine, I wanted to say, but his question had ripped a hole into my carefully-stacked comportment, because only moments ago I had shared the kitchen with Rebecca and we avoided each other like awkward strangers on a pathway. Before now we used to be in each other’s space; our arms are wrapped around each other in my favourite photos of us together. Now, there is a huge wall sitting between us because we have to adhere to the rules of social distancing, because we know the importance of keeping our hands to ourselves, because we understand that we both pose a risk and could bring harm to each other.
I wanted to tell Chu about this: I wanted to tell him that I can no longer hug my friends, that there is a weight pressing down my chest these days, and my body feels deprived of love, of warmth; that my classmates and I share amenities in our Glover Hall dorm but ever since the virus began to sweep through the United States, we have been practising new ways of being: how to congregate on video conferencing apps, to wipe down the surfaces with disinfectants after our mates have used them without coming off as rude; that we have to give each other a wide berth and laugh nervously when we walk into walls just so our bodies don’t touch. That I wash my hands too often, much more than I had done in my entire life, and the skin of the back of my hands has begun to peel, and it burned every time I let the lather sit for twenty seconds. I wanted to tell him all these, but only a whimper spilled out of my mouth.
“What did you do today? Tell me,” I asked him instead, after I had quickly gathered myself. He told me the efforts their father was taking to protect them from the disease. They wash their hands often and he no longer hangs with his friends as usual, even though there is no record of the incident yet in Abia State. His father does not trust this and I do not, too. Abia is already a city of polluted air and clogged drainages and potbellied roads and heaps of dirt lying in the streets which the rains wash into homes, into market stalls, into worship places. Every businessperson travels to Lagos (where there are, at the time of writing this, 51 confirmed cases) to buy goods which they take with them to Aba, the central city in Abia. The governor, while addressing the press a week ago, said the virus has yet to infect anyone in the state because: “Abia is the only state that is mentioned in the Bible. We have a promise from God.”
I thought all of that was bullshit. “Do everything your daddy says you should do, okay?” I told Chu. I repeated the same warning to his sisters, and after the call ended, I sent reminders to their WhatsApps, and my eldest, Chi, replied seconds later with laughing and heart emojis. “You worry too much, mummy,” she said. “You worry tooooo much!”
IF I WERE with my family in our bungalow that sits at the edge of the hill—the small house with its high fence and simple decor, the yard dotted with guava trees at the sides, paw-paws at the back, and my small herbs garden behind the kitchen which blooms with nchuanwu and curry and waterleaf and onugbu plants—I would restrict the movements of our neighbours who throng in to see my children every day.
The state governor has yet to take precautionary measures against the virus and Chi tells me that people still carry on with their daily activities, still moving in cramped spaces. Chi will be 18 this September and is now as tall as I am. She carries herself with a grace that belies her age and has eyes that reminds me of my late grandmother who spoke less and listened more, traits I also find in my father.
Chi knows the long history of my anxiety. She also knows how to tame them. Her favourite speech consists of reminding me that my middle name is not ‘Worry’, that she has become the new mummy of the house and is capable of keeping an eye on her siblings, and I should enjoy my time in America. She graduated secondary school a year ago and insisted, despite my pleas, that she must to take a year off school to learn how to make things with her hands, and I caved and registered her at a tailoring school and bought her a sewing machine. The first dresses she made were for her sister, Som, who has become, officially, her style muse.
Will there ever come a time when I learn how to stop worrying? And how do I deal with this guilt that pokes every time I laugh too loud with friends, every time I share a glass of wine; this guilt that says a good mother must never be too ambitious, must never leave her children’s sight? There is a weight sitting inside my chest, lodged somewhere between my lungs and my ribs, which always makes breathing difficult. Last week, I woke from a feverish dream; something had terrible happened to my son and although the details of that nightmare flitted away with sleep, all I could remember was the horror I felt inside. My body was suffused with sweat. I called home and Chu told me he threw up the night before and in the morning and even that afternoon. “Daddy gave me medicine but I am still sick. My body is hot.” A wave of dizziness washed over me and I sat down and began to pace my breathing.
Their father, G., took the phone from him. “Nne, you have started again. Stop that! I can tell you are shaking. He is fine. Do you hear me? I say he is fine. It is just malaria,” he said, urgent Igbo spitting out of his mouth like a prayer, the same tone he uses every time we have a heated conversation.
And there was something beautifully depressing about those words. I can tell you are shaking. G. knows me well, knows how powerless I become before my anxiety and guilt. He repeated the comforting lines again and again, and I listened to him switch the gears of our conversation, listened as the minutes ticked by, as a cold breeze shook my window blinds, and something warm eased the knots in my belly, in my shoulders. I unclenched my jaw and the headache thrumming in my temples simmered into something comfortable.
I spoke with Chu one more time before we ended the call. “I miss you more than you miss me,” he said, and I held back happy tears, repeated the same lines. Later, I took to Twitter and got lost in the rabbit hole brimming with pensive news and ‘hot takes’ and breaking news about the pandemic. It was better that way, else I would be left alone with my thoughts, vulnerable to the moodiness that always lurked around, seeking the tiniest opportunity to wrap its talons around my mind.
TODAY, SOM PICKS the call on the third ring. Som is my second baby, the bubble of light and laughter who uttered her first clear word, mama, when she was barely six months old. She will turn 16 in a few days and had sent me the list of things she plans to do at home with her siblings. Today she says she will bake the cake herself; she has looked up a recipe on YouTube, and will follow the instructions to the letter because, “Mummy, this cake must be purr-fect!” I have never seen a child with so much energy, with so much light, the way her eyes shine, the excitement and joy sifting from her very pores.
Chi comes on next. She shows me the designs she has drawn of the dress she is sewing for Som, a birthday gift she thinks Som will absolutely adore. “Don’t tell her. This is supposed to be a surprise,” she says, and I zip my lips and toss the imaginary keys away. She smiles.
Chu’s happy face appears on the screen. He gives me a wide, toothy smile. Then his face squeezes into a mask of concern. He peers into the phone, bringing the gadget so close that I can see the nerves of his irises and the red caves of his nostrils. “Mummy, what happened to your eyes? They look different today.”
Something catches in my throat. He sees me; he sees through my oft faux positive demeanor. Lately, I have had trouble concentrating on anything; I’m often tumbling down in the bottomless news about the pandemic shared on Twitter. My anxiety revels in this atmosphere, eating into every inch of my mind, sucking all my will, all my strength, making it difficult for me to lift myself from these stories. I spend all day, lying in bed and fiddling with my phone, my thesis deadline ticking like a bomb waiting to explode, waiting to sink the ground underneath my feet and drag me in.
But I don’t tell Chu all of this. I do know, though, that talking with my children has become a saving grace. I give him my best smile, and bring the camera so close that my nose almost butts against his face, so that I can see, for the longest time, the concern and love swimming in his eyes. All just for me.
“I am fine, darling,” I say. “I am better now. How are you today?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Kano, Nigeria, and now lives in Vermont. In 2014, she was named one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital for the Africa39 project. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary fellowship in Writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program. Ukamaka, a finalist for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, has had her works appear in the New York Times, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Rattle, Waxwing, Jalada, Brittle Paper, Hunger Moutain, Sampsonia Way, and more.