For the Love of Baba Bisi
Bisi roused when she felt a warm hand under her nightgown. “What are you doing?”
Supo, her boyfriend of one year and ten months, cleared his throat. “I was…em…looking for my pair of glasses.”
He was blind without them. “Really? They’re on your face.”
Supo chuckled as he adjusted the black frame. “Indeed, they are.”
Bisi sighed as she snuggled up to his lean body. Supo’s sense of humour was a major plus in her book. “I should get up,” she said after he gave her a tight hug.
“Why? When was the last time you didn’t have to go somewhere on the weekend?”
Her marketing job required extensive travel across West Africa. “We can’t stay in bed all day,” she said.
Supo stroked her cheek. “Yes, we can.”
His lips were inches away from hers when the shrill ring of her cell phone made her jump.
“Let it go to voicemail,” Supo whispered.
As tempting as the suggestion was, Bisi knew she had to take the call. When you have elderly parents you worry about emergencies. “It might be my mother,” Bisi said before she rolled away and reached for the cell phone she’d abandoned on the floor.
It was Mummy. Bisi mouthed ‘sorry’ to Supo before she took the call. “Good morning, Ma,” she said.
“Good morning, my dear. I hope you had a good night?”
She couldn’t complain. “Yes, Ma. Is everything okay?”
“I want to see you,” Mummy said.
Supo had spooned behind her and was playing with her hair. “Can I come and see you tomorrow?”
“I need to see you today. I had a dream.”
Bisi took a deep breath. Joseph’s dreams were tame compared to her mother’s vivid dreams. The scary thing was that they often came true. Bisi was fifteen years old when Mummy dreamt that her sister was injured in a car accident. In an attempt to sway fate, Mummy convinced Bisi’s aunty to stay indoors for a week. On the sixth day, a runaway lorry left the road and crashed into her aunty’s house. The woman still walked with a limp.
The somber tone in Mummy’s voice brought a sense of urgency. “I’ll see you soon,” Bisi said.
“Thank you, my dear.”
Supo had a scowl when she faced him. “My mother needs me.”
“I need you, too,” he said.
“I’ll be back.”
Supo sighed. “Fine. I’ll drive you there.”
She would rather go on her own. “Well…”
Supo gave her a questioning look. “Isn’t it time I met them?”
After two broken engagements, Bisi wasn’t in a hurry to take a new, younger man home. She hoped that the low tone would soften the impact of her words. “We’re not there yet.”
Supo’s expression became guarded as he moved away from her. “I see.”
Before she scooted off the bed, she planted a kiss on Supo’s lips. “We’ll continue our conversation when I get back,” she said.
“I won’t be here.”
“Where are you going?”
“It’s the weekend. There has to be a fun event happening somewhere.”
Bisi masked her disappointment with a bright smile. “Okay.”
Supo was gone from the bedroom by the time she came out of the shower. She got dressed and hurried to the sitting room. He wasn’t there. As she debated what to do, Bisi heard some noise from the kitchen. “Supo, I’m leaving.”
There was no response.
Bisi let herself out of the house without saying goodbye. She should have kept the words to herself.
When Bisi arrived at her parents’ Lagos Island home, their live-in housemaid, Grace, was in the middle of sweeping the large compound. Even though the young woman lived in the Boys Quarters, she was comforted by the thought of her parents not being completely alone.
She stepped out of the car and noticed the swirls Grace’s raffia broom had left behind in the fine sand. The leafy canopy, from numerous shade trees, made yard clean-up a big part of Grace’s duties.
The young woman’s face glistened with sweat as she greeted Bisi with a bend of her knees. “Aunty, good morning.”
“Good morning.” She didn’t have to ask if her parents were awake. They rarely slept in.
Her cell phone rang during the short walk to the house. She dug it out of her purse. “I’m just checking on you,” Supo said when she took the call.
It was his way of calling a truce. She kept a neutral voice. “I’m fine.”
“What’s your week like?”
They rarely saw each other on Sundays. When she was in town, it was the day she prepped for her week. “I’ll let you know by Monday evening.”
Supo cleared his throat. “Okay.”
“Talk to you later.”
A warm feeling grew in her chest. “I love you, too.”
She had practiced saying the words first, but the fear of being wrong about the depth of Supo’s feelings always made her wait.
Bisi opened the door and stepped into an empty sitting room. She took off her shoes before walking down the corridor which led to her parents’ bedroom. She stopped in front of the closed door when she heard her mother’s voice.
“It is true that Bisi has been very helpful,” Mummy said.
“You raised her right,” Daddy said.
There was pride in her mother’s voice. “I tried my best. Still, she needs her own family. How is she going to find a husband when all she does is work?”
Bisi took a deep breath. It seemed like the perfect time to burst into the room with an, “I’ve- got-a-man dance.”
“I wish Moyo and Segun lived in Nigeria,” Mummy said. “The responsibility of taking care of us belongs to the three of them.”
The sound of her father’s raspy voice calmed her. “These children have to go where they can find jobs and thrive. At least we are blessed that our children can take care of themselves. Look at the Fagunwas. Not one, not two, but four unemployed university graduates still living at home.”
Mummy sighed. “What are we going to do about this problem?”
“Some dreams don’t mean anything. And even if it was an accurate premonition, I can take care of myself.”
“Nonsense. You are a man who has not cooked for himself in almost fifty years.”
“I can learn,” Daddy said.
Her mother’s voice cracked. “If we plan this right, you should be able to marry that young widow at church.”
Daddy snickered. “Who told you she would want someone like me?”
“What is wrong with you? You are an excellent man who still has a full head of head and almost all his teeth.”
Her father’s hearty laughter echoed out on the corridor. “Today’s women choose mates by different standards,” he said.
They both fell silent. Bisi was about to knock on the door when she heard her mother’s words. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“You’re not going anywhere. And Bisi is fine. You shouldn’t worry about her.”
Mummy snorted. “It’s my job to worry about my children. Just like it’s my job to take care of you.”
“Worrying can’t change anything.”
Bisi heard the bed creak. “Let me see if Grace has finished her sweeping. She needs to go to the market.”
She backed away from the door and hurried to the sitting room. Mummy arrived there as she made a show of just walking into the house. She knelt by the doorway. “Ekaaro, Ma.”
Mummy’s round face lit up. “You’re here?”
Bisi walked up to her mother. “Yes, Ma.” She looked around. “Where’s Daddy?”
“He is the room. You can go and greet him after we talk. Let us go upstairs.”
Bisi followed her mother as she walked up the curved flights of stairs. It had been ages since Bisi visited the upper level of the home. Their parents had built the mini-mansion with the hope that their children and grandchildren would return for frequent visits. The last time they were all there was during her sister’s wedding festivities. That was ten years ago.
Mummy opened the door to the first suite. She made sure Bisi had closed it behind them before she removed a hardcover notebook from a dusty dresser drawer. Mummy placed the notebook on her lap when they sat on the unmade mattress.
“As I told you, I have had some dreams,” Mummy said.
Bisi crossed her legs. “What are the dreams about?”
Mummy’s eyes were filmy with tears when she finally spoke up. “Your father. In every one of them, no matter how much I beg him, he keeps his back turned to me. It is clear that he is angry with me.”
Bisi frowned. “Why would he be angry with you?”
“Because I died and left him.”
Bisi opened and closed her mouth. Her mother had always been a superstitious woman. But this interpretation was on a whole new level.
“He’s supposed to leave before me,” Mummy said as if her words made perfect sense.
“Mummy, are you taking those multivitamins I bought you?”
Her mother frowned. “What does medicine have to do with this?”
Bisi searched her mother’s face. Were they dealing with the early stages of dementia?
“Even in those days when we all went to secretarial training, I had always wanted to be a full-time wife and mother. And all those years, your father worked hard so that I could live my dream. Bisi, if I have to leave him, I need to know that he would be given proper care.”
Mummy’s proper care was shaped by high standards. During their last visit to her flat, she had received an earful from Mummy because she had failed to garnish the jollof rice served with some fresh cilantro.
Bisi sighed. “What do you want me to do?”
Mummy picked up the notebook and held it out to her. “I want to leave behind a care manual, and I want you to write it. This will be our secret. Will you do this for me?”
The question was a directive. “Yes, Ma.”
Seated in his large armchair, Daddy opened his eyes when they walked into the bedroom. Despite the warm temperature, her father wore three layers of clothing. His thin shoulders barely held up the heavy wool sweater her sister, Moyo, sent the previous Christmas.
Daddy pulled himself up and hugged her. Bisi smiled when their foreheads touched. She’d always felt that she was blessed with her parents’ best features. Her mother’s curvy figure, her father’s height.
“My favourite firstborn. How are you today?” Daddy asked.
“I’m fine, sir. I thought I should come and spend some time with you.”
Daddy turned to her mother. “Mama Bisi, your daughter came to spend time with us. I told you she’s a special girl.”
From the way Mummy looked at him, it was obvious from the softness in her eyes that she saw a different man. “Yes, you did.”
Daddy placed a hand on Bisi’s arm. “You haven’t told me about your visit to Ivory Coast.”
It was her first visit to the country. “I’ll show pictures. I also brought you a present.”
Even though he had never smoked, her father collected tobacco pipes. She had found him an antique bronze pipe while she was in Abidjan. He would be fascinated by the Chinese engraving.
Mummy narrowed her eyes “Ten months in the stomach, two-and-a-half years of breastfeeding, and I get nothing as usual,” she said.
Bisi shook her head. “Mummy, I only stayed in your stomach for an extra week. And I also bought a gift for you.”
“Then where is it?” she asked.
“The bag is in the car.”
“In that case, what are we still doing here? Oya, let us go and see my present,” Mummy said.
She and Daddy laughed as Mummy sashayed her way out of the room.
“How’s the manual writing going?” Supo asked as Bisi took a bite of her grilled Tilapia. They often met up for weekday lunch dates at a restaurant near her office.
Bisi thought about the question as she chewed. They were in week three of their secret meetings. Mummy had asked her to write the instructions under sections titled: food preparation, body care, medical information, and general knowledge. So far, the entries ranged from how to ensure the desired temperature of Baba Bisi’s bathwater to when to add onions while cooking his okra soup. Mummy had insisted that a change in order would affect the taste.
She wiped her hand on the cloth napkin before she brought out her cell phone from her purse. She had taken a couple of pictures of the entries so she could send them to her sister. “You can see for yourself.”
Supo flicked through the pictures. He stopped at an entry from the body care section. It was Daddy’s nail clipping and shaving schedule. His eyes grew large. “Your father’s really being pampered.”
She didn’t know how her mother had done it for so long. “Don’t get any ideas.”
“Who born me? I know I’ll have to gnaw off my long nails.”
Bisi laughed. “No need for that. You’re welcome to borrow my nail clippers.”
Supo shook his head. “They sure don’t make women like they used to anymore.”
Bisi shrugged. “I could say the same for men.”
“Not for us Nigerian men. We’ve been keeping it real since the time of Lamurudu.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”
Supo handed her the phone. “He was your founding ancestor, Oduduwa’s father. I can’t believe you didn’t know that. We may have to revoke your Yoruba girl card.”
“I’ll like to see you try.”
“So what did your sister say about the manual business?” Supo asked.
“We haven’t spoken. Honestly, Mummy’s making me worried. If something were to happen to her, I don’t know what I would do with my father.”
Supo cocked his head. “Maybe you should explore some other care options.”
“Remember, I told you my company got a huge job contract?”
Supo worked for an alarm and surveillance company. “Yes.”
“Well, it’s at one of the new retirement homes on the Island. They have four hundred beds.”
The whole retirement home thing still sounded foreign to her. “They’re very optimistic.”
“Millions of people live in Lagos. I think I have some promotional material in the car. Let me check.”
Supo was out of his seat before she could tell him not to bother.
He brought back a colorful brochure. “They’ve filled more than half of the beds.”
“I’m surprised the home has so many customers.”
“With the kind of hours employers demand, where is the time to care for elderly parents? Some people hardly have any time for their spouse or children.”
Bisi flipped through the glossy pages. The services provided at Heaven’s Gate Old People’s Home were impressive; twenty-four-hour resident monitoring, exercise classes, social activities, laundry services, excursions within Lagos, and private on-site medical services. She thought about how the advertised buffet-styled meals would be wonderful for people like her father who ate daily cooked meals.
A line in the brochure also stated that customized care plans were available for an extra fee. Bisi thought of her father’s manual. She could leave a copy with the retirement home staff. Her excitement grew when she saw the address on Victoria Island. It was a five-minute drive from her office.
“This looks promising,” she said.
Supo nodded. “I know we were talking about your father, but he and your mother can move in there while they’re still relatively healthy. New friends, new adventures.”
She stared at the pictures of the tennis and card playing seniors. Even if her mother agreed to the plan, what kind of daughter leaves her parent’s care to strangers? Her excitement fizzled out. She slid the brochure across the table. “I can’t.”
Supo slid the brochure back. “You can pass it on.”
A long stretch of silence followed as they stared at their half-eaten lunches.
Bisi cleared her throat. “I’ve been thinking about our unfinished conversation.”
Supo gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Forget I brought it up.”
Several thoughts ran through her mind. Supo no longer wanted to meet her parents because he had moved on. Or he hadn’t meant the offer. And since they didn’t see each other every day, there was certainly space for someone younger to slide in between them. Plenty of space.
For goodness sake, Bisi, clarify. Because of her irrational fear of not wanting to look desperate, the necessary conversations that should have been had with the men in her life weren’t initiated until it was too late.
She held Supo’s gaze. “What exactly do you mean by, I should forget?”
Supo ran a hand over his head. “I wish you could have seen the terrified look on your face. You couldn’t wait to get away from me. If you don’t see a future for us, why should I force things?”
Why indeed? The journal writing sessions with her mother had opened her eyes to another dimension of her parents’ relationship. Yes, Mummy was a unique woman with an interesting way of doing things. But there was no way one could achieve that level of intimacy without vulnerability.
“That was the cue for you to say, Babe, I’m not just using you for your fine body. We have a deep spiritual connection. And I want to spend the rest of my life basking in your love glow.”
The earnest look on Supo’s face gave her the giggles. “Love glow, sha?”
He puffed his chest. “This isn’t all Vaseline.”
Things weren’t that simple. “Your parents are not going to have a problem with my age?”
“We don’t have to show them your birth certificate,” he said.
“What if they ask?”
Supo sighed. “I think you are the one who has a problem with our age difference.”
She did have a problem with the five-year gap. Supo was the same age as her baby brother. “I’m afraid you would trade me in when things are no longer perky.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything but some things are already pointed south,” he said.
She gave an audible gasp. “Supo.”
“Yes, my love.”
“I’m not joking.”
“Neither am I. If I were the kind of man who would leave my wife for another woman, it wouldn’t matter if she was older or younger. Bisi, I don’t know how else to convince you that my feelings are not skin deep.”
Neither were hers. She had to take another chance on love.
“If you still want to meet my parents, we can plan a lunch at my place. That way, you can leave whenever you want.”
A slow smile transformed Supo’s face. “I would like that very much.”
That night, when Bisi walked into her quiet apartment, it was almost nine p.m. In another six hours, she had to get ready for work in order to avoid the rush-hour traffic.
She’d expected to fall into a deep sleep but hours later she was wide awake. A warm bath and a large mug of milky tea didn’t work their magic.
Bisi rolled off the king-sized bed and picked up her cell phone from the nightstand. She might as well call her sister. With the five-hour time difference, it was only 7 p.m. in Toronto.
Moyo picked up on the third ring. Bisi could hear the regular background noise from her nephews.
Her sister sounded worried. “It’s midnight at your end. Is everything okay?”
“Mummy and Daddy are fine. I couldn’t sleep. Did you get my email?”
“Yes. I read the bathwater preparation, and I lost it. Mummy actually uses a thermometer to make sure the water temperature is within a certain range?”
“That’s what she said.”
“I don’t think she’s going anywhere soon, but it may not be a bad idea for you to bring the children for a visit. I’m sure that would make Mummy happy.”
“We can’t come. Femi is now down to part-time hours at work. I had to pick up some extra shifts at the call center.”
Moyo and her husband lost their lucrative jobs when the automotive company they both worked for closed and moved operations to Mexico. Moyo told her the company wanted cheaper labour.
“It’s okay. I thought you should know what was going on.”
“I had called Segun after I got your email,” Moyo said.
Segun, the baby of the house, lived in Australia. After years of bouncing around Eastern Europe on foreign student visas because he didn’t want to come back to Nigeria to face uncertainty, he had found work at an opal mine in Coober Pedy and married a local girl. Six years later, their parents were still recovering from the Skype announcement.
“How are they doing?” Bisi asked.
“They’re all fine.”
Segun had fraternal twins. “I’m happy to hear that.”
“We had talked about the long-term plans for Daddy,” Moyo said.
Relieved that her sister had introduced the topic, Bisi shifted on the bed. “I’d been thinking about that, too.”
“Well, Segun and I thought that since you’re in Nigeria, you can move in with Daddy if something was to happen to Mummy. It’s not the best solution but…” Moyo’s voice trailed off.
Bisi had told their parents about the plan to move out on the day after her 37th birthday. They weren’t happy with the news. To them, it made little sense since she worked in the same city. She had reached the point where she no longer wanted a curfew. “I should move back home?”
“Or Daddy could move in with you. But you know, he would be more comfortable in his own space.”
Bisi was stunned into silence. Who were they to plan her life?
Her sister continued without missing a beat. “With our families, we obviously can’t come home. And you have fewer responsibilities.”
Bisi knew what her sister really wanted to say was that she had no husband or children. “I have a hectic job. When I have to travel for work, who will take care of Daddy?”
Moyo tried a reconciliatory tone. “Grace is there. We can also hire one more person. Segun has promised to start making monthly contributions towards Mummy and Daddy’s upkeep. I’ll send what I can. That should help you.”
They were helping her? “Segun’s money should pay for a private room at this nice retirement home that just opened up near my office.”
Moyo sputtered. “You want to put our parents in a retirement home?”
“Are you willing to come home and take care of them?”
Her sister ignored the question. “You know good children don’t put their parents in old people’s homes. They take care of them.”
Bisi wondered what would happen to people like her who may not have children. From what she had read, getting pregnant after the age of 40 wasn’t easy. Who would take care of her?
“Don’t think that because you’re the firstborn, you get to make all the decisions. They’re my parents, too.”
“Yes, they are. So don’t tell me you’re helping me to take care of them.”
She interrupted Moyo. “I’m not done talking. I hope you people also discussed how to repay your portions of the loan I took for Daddy’s hip replacement surgery.”
“We haven’t forgotten about the loan.”
“That wasn’t a yes.”
Moyo gave a weary sigh. “I’m sorry for my rash words. We just got a ridiculous hydro bill. And the boys keep growing out of everything.”
“Electricity and water. If things don’t change, we may need to start using candles.”
Her life was powered by a diesel generator. “Welcome to the club,” Bisi said.
“Are you still angry with me?”
She was more hurt than angry. “You people need to remember that I’m dealing with my issues, too. And it’s easy for you to say what should happen when you’re not here to deal with any of the demands.”
“I know. I have to get some sleep.”
“Goodnight, Sis,” Moyo said.
Bisi heard high life music as she walked up to her parents’ house. During their childhood days, her parents had filled their home with the music from Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, Rex Lawson, and Victor Olaiya.
Her parents often shared the story of how they met during a dance at Benson’s Caban Bamboo Nightclub a month before the civil war ended They were married the following year.
Standing on the front verandah, Bisi could see through the sheer curtains. Dressed in outfits made from matching fabric, her parents sat side-by-side, thighs wedged close as they balanced a large photo album on their laps. She also enjoyed going through the albums.
“You remember the day we took this photo?” Mummy asked.
“Of course, it was a bright sunny day, and we were standing outside.”
“Ha, Baba Bisi.”
“Over the years, we’ve taken many pictures,” Daddy said in a defensive voice.
“It was the day after you became a Chartered Surveyor. I was so proud of you. Just like I’m proud of you now. I have to tell you every day. Just in case.”
“Stop worrying. The truth is, we both don’t know who’s going first. And it is time for me to take care of you.”
Mummy nudged him with her shoulder. “You’ve always taken care of me.”
“Over this past month, I have wondered if I should have done more. I don’t need my bathwater to be a specific temperature, or my handkerchiefs ironed and folded into perfect triangles. I let you do all those things because I know how much doing them makes you happy.”
There was a wistful tone in her mother’s voice. “There were days when all I wanted to do was sit under a tree with a bowl of ripe mangoes.”
It was rare for her father to call Mummy by her first name.
“Yes, my dear husband.”
“It’s still mango season.”
“I know,” Mummy said.
Bisi watched as Daddy closed the album, placed it on the center table, and reached for her hand. “I now know what your dream means. We’re turning our backs to the old and embracing the new.”
“We are?” Mummy asked in a hesitant tone.
“Yes. No more weekly shaves. I’m going to grow a big grey beard for you to run your fingers through.”
Up until that moment, she hadn’t known her mother could giggle. “Baba Bisi o.”
“My dear wife, all I need is your peace of mind.”
It was what Bisi wanted for them. Over the past week, she had agonized over what to do. And she had decided that she would discuss the options; living at Heaven’s Gate, living with her, or her moving back home when the time came. She wanted to offer the gift of choice. Just like her parents had given her on occasions too numerous to count. She took a deep breath, turned the doorknob, and walked into the house.
Yejide Kilanko is a writer of novels, short stories, and a poet.
Kilanko’s debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path (2012), a Canadian
national bestseller, was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize and
the Nigeria Literature Prize.
Her work includes a novella, Chasing Butterflies (2015) and a children’s
picture book, There Is An Elephant In My Wardrobe (2018). Her short
fiction is included in the anthology, New Orleans Review 2017: The
African Literary Hustle.
Kilanko currently lives in Ontario, Canada, where she also practices as
a therapist in children’s mental health.
“For the Love of Baba Bisi” first appeared in the New Orleans Review 2017: The African Literary Hustle.