Saturday, 15 February 2020

Her Last Breath (Episodes Twenty-One and Twenty-Two)




Episode Twenty-One
“Are you okay?” I stared at Taofeek skeptically. I could have assumed the worst but his face flickered with a smile.

“I’m perfect!” he exclaimed as he pulled into the parkway.

His hands trembled as turned off the ignition and grabbed his phone from his pocket. Staring at him, I could tell that he was overly-excited he would be seeing his first daughter after months of not being around her. I could tell that he wished he could get to wherever she was in a few seconds and pull her into a tight hug.

“Who knows where she would be now. That girl,” Taofeek smiled as he dialed her number.

Aliyah picked at the first ring. “Aliyah, where are you?”

I watched as he pressed the phone to his ear and listened to her. “A restaurant in the airport? Don’t you know their food is ten times the usual price…you were hungry…okay, we’ll be on our way.” He said and hung up the call.

“You wouldn’t believe it. Aliyah bought food from a restaurant here. Can you imagine how much she’d have spent? Well, I’m sure her mother had given a lot of money,” Taofeek was saying as he pulled off his seatbelt. “Let’s get going. We need to leave here on time so that we won’t get stuck in Ketu traffic.” He stated as he opened the car door.

I took a deep breath before alighting from the car. This was the moment I dreaded so much- the moment I would get to be with Aliyah, my husband’s daughter. Honestly, I thought getting married to a man with children out of wedlock would be easier…but it wasn’t.

‘Taofeek loves Aliyah as much as he loves me. If you love Taofeek, you should love Aliyah. Aliyah is only a teenager, you can handle her.’ I muttered as Taofeek held my hand while we walked down the road.  

We hadn’t arrived at the restaurant when someone yelled ‘dad’ from afar. I could spot Aliyah, who was dressed in a red jumpsuit and black blazer, waving at us…or Taofeek. As we got closer, I noticed she was putting on gold heels and her veil had a row of beads that sparkled in the afternoon sun.

“Dad!” she screamed in frisson as she jumped on Taofeek in excitement. He pulled her into a tight embrace that lasted for minutes.

“How could I have missed this naughty little girl so much?” Taofeek chuckled as he pulled away and stared at her in awe and admiration.

“Am I not worthy to be missed…Aunty Khayrah, Asalamu ‘alaykum. How have you been?” she smiled at me, stretching her hand.

I shook her hand and smiled in return. “AlhamduliLlaah. Never been better. How was your journey? I hope it wasn’t too stressful.”

“Oh, no. it wasn’t. I decided to pull a surprise for my dad and it turned out perfect. I never knew he had missed me this much. And oh…you guys are the power couple oo. Imagine the way people were staring at you while you held hands,” Aliyah grinned.

Taofeek had shown me a picture of Jasmine. Just once. He never did so after that because of the way I had reacted upon seeing her picture. Believe me, I was jealous of my husband’s ex who was already married with kids. Jasmine had the super-model figure and looks. When Taofeek showed me a picture of her, I saw a tall and fair-complexioned pretty lady with the whitest set of teeth.

“One of her parents has Irish blood.” Taofeek had said when I asked how a Nigerian could look that way.

And Aliyah was her mother’s carbon copy. Only younger and prettier.

“Can we be on our way? We need to beat the traffic.” Taofeek said as he placed his hands around her neck.

While we were walking to where the car was parked, I placed a hand over my forehead to prevent the rays of the sun from entering my eyes and pretended to be busy on my phone.

“How are Hassan and Hassanah? Eyin father of three.”

“Ah, they are fine. I would be expecting another one soon,” Taofeek said with a proud one.

I whipped my head up to see Aliyah gasping in surprise. “SubhanaLlaah. So, you’ll become a father of four. I can’t wait to have one more sibling.” Aliyah was saying when her phone started to ring.

We walked quietly till I arrived at where the car was parked. When Taofeek had stared at me with a look of concern and asked if everything was fine, I smiled and replied in affirmative.
***
“Check out this one. I took this with mom in my room. Yes, I have a room there.” I could hear Aliyah from the living room, talking and laughing in excitement as she showed Taofeek photos she had taken back in Canada.

I muttered in between breaths as I sieved the spaghetti and took bulbs of onion from the tray. On a normal night like this, Taofeek and I would be in the kitchen, talking about a random thing as we make dinner. But tonight, he sat with Aliyah in the living room while I made dinner for them.

“…no. Mom’s hair is longer than mine. Very long, black and silky. Gosh, my mother should have contested for Miss Universe.” I heard Aliyah say from the living room.

I winced in anger as I imagined Taofeek thinking of the woman he had once professed love to. Feelings do not easily fade away. How could I be certain that he doesn’t wish he were in her husband’s shoes?

Water spilled from my eyes as I sliced the onion. I fumed as I watched tears drool down my face. It wasn’t because of Jasmine and Aliyah. It was the onion. But I wasn’t 100% certain!

I tried to drift my thoughts to something else- beans and plantain tomorrow morning. Trying out the red gown to Quwam, my cousin’s wedding. Calling Janet and maybe… visiting her on Sunday. There were so many things to do…better things other than getting jealous of my husband’s ex or disliking her daughter.

I spent about seven minutes to make the fish sauce. I served the food into the three plates and called out from the kitchen. “Food is ready!”

There was no response from any of them. I placed the plates in a tray and headed for the living room. I froze in shock as I spotted Taofeek on a call, grinning sheepishly and speaking in a vibrant tone. Clearing my throat and trying to maintain my composure, I strode over to where they were sitting and placed the tray on the table.

“…how is that my fault? It felt like you had stolen my daughter away from me.” Taofeek snickered as he listened to the caller on the other end.

“Thanks for the meal, Aunty Khayrah,” Aliyah said as she took a fork and started to eat.

I took a plate and turned towards her. “Who’s he talking to?”

“My mother.”

“Okay,” I swallowed hard as I turned on the TV and pretended to watch The Johnsons.

Taofeek ended the call about twenty minutes later with the excuse of having to pray at the mosque. 

“We need to pray Ishai’ at the mosque. I guess I’ll eat when we return,” Taofeek said as he took his plate of cold spaghetti and headed towards the kitchen.

“You both go to the mosque to pray ishai’?” Aliyah asked.

“Yes,” I replied as I wore my hijab.

Taofeek hurried out of the kitchen and headed towards the room. “Please, give me five minutes my love. I need to ease myself.”
***
The sonorous voice of the unknown Qur’an reciter filled my ears and made my eyes misty. One of the reasons I loved to accompany Taofeek to the mosque was because of the calm atmosphere the night exudes. And sitting in the mosque would be the best feeling of the day. Most times, I would wish that I remain there till daybreak.

As I supplicated and glanced at women that walked in and out of the mosque, I reflected on the past few years and the blessing ALlaah had bestowed upon me. I never believed that I would live for more years. I had lost hope that I would find love and even carry my unborn child. Sometimes, I forget that I have a terminal illness. I would read stories of people with a similar condition and thank ALlaah over and over again.

‘Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?’ The reciter read a verse from Suratul Rahman and I couldn’t help the tears that filled my face.

My phone started to vibrate and I knew that it was Taofeek notifying me to leave the mosque. I was about to leave the mosque when someone called my name. It was Mama Kawthar, one of the estate women.

I winced as I turned slowly towards her and gave a pretentious smile. “Asalamu ‘alaykum, Mama Kawthar. How have you been?”

“Wa’alaykumu salam warahmatuLlaahi wabarakahtuhu. AlhamduliLlaah. You haven’t been attending our meetings.” She scanned my face closely, expecting an explanation.

“I’ve been busy. You know this is my first pregnancy experience. It hasn’t been easy. And…”

“Your husband doesn’t approve of you attending the meetings again, abi?”

“Well, yes.”

Mama Kawthar smiled. “But you’re not restricted from paying me a visit?”

“Ah, no. You’re my Muslim sister.”

“Okay. I’ll be expecting you tomorrow oo. I’ll prepare a special delicacy for you. If you like yourself, don’t come,” she laughed and I joined.

“Thank you, Mama Kawthar. I have to be on my way. My husband is waiting for me.” I smiled at her as I walked out of the mosque.

“What took you so long?” Taofeek asked with a frown as I joined him on the dark path.

“I was discussing with Mama Kawthar.”

“One of the women that attend those ridiculous meetings?”

“Not tonight, Taofeek. Not tonight.” I said in between breaths as I started to walk away.

Taofeek hurried to meet up with me. “What is wrong with you? You’ve been acting weird since this afternoon. You even called me by my name. Taofeek.  Tell me if I did or said something that got you offended.”

“What happens to the phrase, ‘leave me alone’?”

“I get it. Pregnant women act moody sometimes.”

“What did you just say? So, you’re implying that I’m acting crazy? If the other women you impregnated acted moody, that doesn’t mean that I would do so!” I yelled at him.

It was pitch black but I could register the shock that engulfed his face. “What has gotten over you? Don’t you know that we’re outside? What is it, Khayrah? I’m trying to find out what is making you upset and you’re making it all worse. You know what? I’m leaving.” Taofeek said as he started to walk down the path.

 I cleaned my eyes and walked slowly towards the house, wishing no one would be present. Not Taofeek or his daughter.




Episode Twenty-two
I woke up with a throbbing in my head. Not just because Tijani had appeared again in my dream. But because I had spent a major part of the night tossing, holding my stomach in pain and sweating profusely. It had been long I felt that sick.

When I woke up the next morning, it felt like I had spent the night carrying heavy metal objects.  My bones hurt and I struggled to take steps towards the bathroom.

Taofeek noticed that I wasn’t feeling okay, but he was too angry to ask. I could see his mouth quivering as if to mention a statement, then he would fix his eyes on the Qur’an and continue reciting.

I was a step away from the bathroom door when I felt a strong urge to puke. I opened the door with a loud thud and poured the slimy liquids from my mouth in the water closet. A gurgling sound came out of my throat as I bent and continued to puke.

“Are you okay?” Taofeek’s voice came as he poured water on my head.

“I feel sick…” I muttered as I rested on my head on the wall, feeling almost unconscious.

Taofeek flushed and carried me out of the bathroom. He placed me on the bed and covered my wobbly body with a blanket. “You don’t look so fine. When did this start?”

“Last night.”

“Last night and you’re just informing me?” he gave me an incredulous look. “So, if you haven’t puked, I could have just remained here, wondering if you’re sick or not.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Look, I’m sorry about yesterday but you know you’re the one at fault. You wouldn’t even tell me what I did wrong.”

“I’m not the one talking to my ex like I’m still in love with him,” I said in an angry tone.

Taofeek jaw dropped. “You think I still like Jasmine?”

“Yes. She is beautiful and all that…but didn’t you even remember that your wife was seated in the same room while you spoke to her for a long time?”

“She is the mother of my child!”

“I didn’t ask you to impregnate her.”

“But I hadn’t even met you, Khayrah, and I was ignorant. You know I’m a changed man.”

“And I don’t want everything to change because your daughter is back. This is hard for me, okay? I haven’t said this before but I’m doing so now. It’s really hard. I’m just trying to get used to all of this. Jasmine and Aliyah…and Funmilayo and Hassan and Hassanah.”

“Sometimes, the past does not leave without imprinting a scar that can never fade away. If I could turn back the hands of time, I wouldn’t have indulged in fornication. But I thank ALlaah for guiding me to the right path and I pray it remains this way until I take my last breath.”

“Aameen,” I smiled at him. “I guess I overreacted. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, yes you did. But believe me, Aliyah has a good heart. You’ll get to love her more than you can ever imagine. She is a lovely girl.”

“You love her so much, don’t you?”

“I love her so much. I’d nurtured her since she was a baby. She has nothing against you. She likes you a lot. At first, she was scared things wouldn’t remain the same between me and her when we get married but she has come to terms with the fact that I still love her as much as I do.”

“I love you, Taofeek.”

“Same here, Khayrah. And I’m bothered about your health. Shouldn’t we visit the hospital?”

“You have to go to work. Let’s watch my condition till the end of today. If I don’t get better, then we can know the next step to take.”

“Okay, love. Let me take my bath and prepare for work.” He kissed my forehead before grabbing his towel and heading towards the bathroom.
***
Aliyah grinned excitedly as she watched me put a spoon of rice into my mouth. I chewed slowly as if I was scared it would taste bad, but it turned out I was wrong. The meal was very delicious.

“You love it?” Aliyah chuckled.

“I do!” I laughed as I took more spoons.

It was over four hours since Taofeek left for work and Aliyah had promised to make breakfast- a delicious Italian dish she had learnt from her mother. She called it Paella.

“I’m a good cook. My dad taught me how to cook when I was seven.”

“Nice,” I smiled at her as I continued to devour the delicious meal that had a unique taste, different from the regular fried and jollof rice that I ate at least thrice a week.

“Aunty Khayrah,” Aliyah started, clearing her throat. “I didn’t really mean to get my dad upset by not returning to Nigeria early. I guess I just needed to change the environment. I forgave my mother for leaving me when she narrated all that happened.”

“What happened?”

“My mother was the pretty innocent only daughter of a wealthy father. She had only her father who was overly-protective of his only child. So, when she started studying in the university and she met my dad, she didn’t know what love entails,” Aliyah chuckled and then continued. “She called him a playboy. He didn’t love her but she was madly in love with him. Well, she thought he loved her until he broke up with her barely a month after they met. The painful part was that he started a new relationship with another lady from the same department. She was devastated and she felt her world was over. She didn’t know the worst was to come. She got pregnant and her father couldn’t take it. He withdrew her from the school and waited for her to deliver the child. Thereafter, he commanded that she take the baby to the father and flew her to Canada immediately. My mother spent those years thinking about me and praying for my welfare. Years after, she found love and got married. Then, she was too ashamed to come back for me. Her husband urged her to return to Nigeria and look for me, which she did.”

“I’m so sorry about that. Well, your dad is a changed man. I’m sure he regretted all he did and have learnt his lessons the hard way.” I laughed as I glanced at Aliyah and noticed that her eyes were moist.

“You’re lucky. I mean you have a loving sister who is like your best friend. Spending these few minutes with my siblings in Canada is a whole new experience and I enjoyed every moment. I grew up in dad’s family house and….my grandfather wasn’t really nice to me at first. People weren’t nice to me. They saw me as a taboo,” she smiled ruefully.”

“We should thank ALlaah for being a merciful God who forgives us of our sins and guide us right.”

“Yes. AlhamduliLlaah.” Aliyah remarked as she sipped from her cup of water.   

I stared at her and cleared my throat, willing the words to come out. “Growing up was fun…but it all ceased in my third year in the university…when I was diagnosed with cancer.”

Aliyah watched me with sympathetic eyes. “How did it all start?”

“I felt sick most of the time but it wasn’t a big deal to any of us because I’d never been a very healthy child. I usually parade the hospital for one treatment or the other since I was little. But it became worse and my parents knew that we had to consult a doctor. It was then that the doctor broke the dreadful news. But he gave us hope because the cancer was in its early stages. He made us hopeful that I could live longer than I would ever imagine.”

“How did you take the news?”

“Or how did people take the news? They started to stare at me on campus like I was a dead person walking in the land of the living. I would be walking to the lecture hall and overhear people whispering, ‘Chai. This young lady has cancer. I pity her oo. Imagine counting your last days.’ That would break me and I would sometimes spend the rest of the day in the toilet, shedding tears. I couldn’t cope with studies. I failed most of the courses. I had to withdraw from the university. I secured an admission to further my studies at the University of Nottingham. A week before I travelled out of Nigeria, my mother convinced my father that I remain in Nigeria because she couldn’t bear to see me stay far away without knowing how I would fare. So I remained at home and enrolled in an online bachelors programme.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty Khayrah. I didn’t know you went through all that.”

“That’s not all. Before all this, I was in love with my neighbor. His name is Abdul Lateef. You know these love stories you would see in movies where a man would wash his car downstairs and his lover would stare at him from afar, watching his abs and smiling seductively at him? That was our love story. We were madly in love… I mean, I was madly in love because when I reflect on the past, I wonder if he truly loved me. Abdul Lateef deserted me when he discovered I was terminally ill. So, I was all alone with my family members, until I met Taofeek, your father.
“We met on Facebook. He sent a message…and messages sprouted out of that single message and before you know it, we were head over heels with each other. We met and got married. The same Khayrah people had imagine would never get married, tied the knots with the best husband in the world. Aliyah, your father is a blessing from ALlaah. I met him when I’d lost hope in life. He proposed to me when I counting my last breath and just waiting for death to arrive. Your father have given me reasons to live, love and be happy.
“You see, cancer has taught me a lot. To appreciate life and remember that our stay on earth is limited. When I received the news, I became more conscious of ALlaah. I started to use the hijab and study more about the deen. I also realised that being terminally ill is a way of being conscious of life that could end any second. One of my colleagues in school, who had consoled and wished me well, died just a week afterwards. She had no terminal illness and no flick of an idea that she was just counting her last breath.”

“Aunty Khayrah, you should write a book to tell the world about your story.”

I laughed loudly as a smile passed across my face. Taofeek was right. Aliyah was a sweet child with a pure heart.” That’s just a cliché. I do not even own a diary. Really I don’t have…” I was saying when my phone beeped.

I picked it up from the table and realised that I had a new message.

Don’t forget your promise oo!
-         Mama Kawthar.

I jumped up and packed the plates into a tray. “Aliyah, would you like to accompany me to a friend’s house. She stays in the estate.”

Aliyah shrugged. “Okay. I’ll just go to my room and change my clothes.”

“Okay,” I replied as I strode towards the kitchen.

Suddenly, everywhere appeared dizzy and I struggled to maintain composure. At that very minute, the contents I was holding fell on the ground. I could hear the cracking of the ceramic plate as I slumped and became unconscious.

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Episode Twenty 



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