A dream is never too dreadful that a child cannot narrate it. Say it just as it is.
—A Yoruba proverb
Your mother once had a dream that her mother outlived her. In the dream, though your mother is dead and buried, she sits in her favorite armchair, knitting a brightly colored sweater, her mother humming a song whose lyrics your mother didn’t understand. The two women wouldn’t talk to each other, despite the blue and white colors that shine from the sweater being your grandmother’s favorites. Your mother had the dream before you were born, and she never asked what it meant, because your mother’s mother said interpreting a dream means yearning to see it come true. Instead your mother’s mother fasted for three days, fed the homeless, and prayed the dream away. She believed that a good mother wishes that her child would outlive her, that her child’s life would be more worthy than hers.
The woman had my grandmother’s voice and the face of Mama Chebo, my mother’s best friend. She towered over me, as if from the ceiling, stifling my voice and paralyzing my legs and arms each time she moved or spoke. Half-asleep, I could still sense things in the room: my brother’s loud, jarring snores; the rhythmic movement of his body beside mine; the chilly morning breeze blowing in through the window, opened a crack. But I couldn’t jerk myself wide awake. The woman disappeared as soon as my mother walked in the door and turned on the lights.
“You sure it’s Mama Chebo’s face you saw?” my mother asked. That I’d heard her mother’s voice did not surprise her; my grandmother, who happened to be my favorite person, had recently died.
“Don’t tell anyone about your dream,” she said. “Dreams come true when they are interpreted.”
I had other dreams, which I wasn’t telling my mother, that I wanted to share because I longed to see them come true. Dreams of the time I made out with my crush in the back of an abandoned building, the blue sky closing in on us like a one-eyed god. Dreams of the time my sister and I stole a neighbor’s car and drove it down the street, raising a cloud of dust, even though our legs couldn’t reach the accelerator. At that age, I didn’t know that my mother was teaching me storytelling—that once you tell a story to the world, it is no longer yours. It becomes shaped by the interpretations of its listeners and readers, the way the dream of her and her mother would’ve been willed into reality had her mother not forbidden her from telling anyone. Like her mother, also, she had tucked a deep nest in a densely branched tree, a nest of all the dreams she wouldn’t want me sharing. Burying my dreams in her mother-woven safety nest, she’d thought it best to shield me from the possibility of being misconstrued, of being judged.
I needed these dreams interpreted because I was six, scarred by and scared of nightmares, and I had only started to get lost in the world of fiction, reading storybooks of children whose heroisms were shared in their own voices. Told in the first person, these stories aroused my interest in recounting some spices that singed my tongue, the voices that wrung off my head in my sleep. Waking up from nightmares meant that I had defeated the women and monsters, like the children in the books were defeating their enemies and saving the world, but my victories were short-lived. The dreams returned.
The memory of one dream was often snuffed out by another. A masked man would appear from nowhere in my sleep, masquerading in a colorful regalia, wielding a long whip, in a busy street, nobody willing to stop it from chasing me into a dark and gnawing pit, until my own scream would wake me up, sweat-drenched. On mornings like this, after telling my mother yet another dream, she would tell me stories of her childhood or teenage years, like the magical way she grew her hair back with shea butter after losing it to hair dye, as though to assuage my dream-horrors with verisimilar stories.
Your mother once scolded you in your dream for dragging the chaos of the known world into the calm of the unknown world, where you are standing on a desolate land, soil soft like tassels, sprigs of yellow flowers facing the sky and beckoning rain. You decided to water the flowers. “You are a body of water.” The voice of your primary school science teacher who says this in class before break time echoes in your head. You pull down your zipper, sling out your penis and begin to water the flowers, clear, warm spring trickling out of you. The warmth of the spring burning your thighs wakes you up; the puddle sketching a map across the satin bed sheet alerts you to the mess you’ve made. You hear your mother stealing her tone, her words, from your sleep and using them on your father in their bedroom.
My father had recently lost his job. And we had moved into a bungalow with rooms so small and walls so thin that when the next door children played tinko, I would silently play along without missing a beat of the routine.
-Why are you still seeing Nene?
-I don’t know what you’re talking about.
-Do you still give her out of the money you’re making from your auditing job?
-It’s none of your business what I do with my money.
His old affair with Nene was the reason, my mother insisted, he couldn’t keep his job or invest his money for rainy days. “Now look at us,” she’d say, hands flaring in the air, “putting up in my aunt’s space, my children attending public school.”
Later, my mother would urge me, the youngest of her children, to keep mum about whatever I’d heard her and my father saying. “It’s conversations for adults, and if I hear any word of this from you outside,” she’d say, pulling on one of her ears, “you’ll see what I’ll do to you.” I wasn’t terrified of her; she would never hit me. But I prevented her altercations with my father from leaking through the corners of my mouth because it felt partly like an impending shame worth protecting every member of the family from, and partly like it wasn’t mine to tell.
Within the nest that my mother wove to shield me, she shared with me stories that were otherwise only shared among adults. While children my age, eight or nine, were gossiping about the raggedy clothes of their peers, I already knew why everyone avoided an auntie at the family party, which auntie eschewed her religion to marry a rich man of another religion, which father abandoned his children for another woman in another country. She didn’t swear me to secrecy, but it remains unfathomable how, in my childhood years, I’d managed to keep those stories to myself. She owned a photo album, my mother, the size of an encyclopedia, and I’d rearrange the photographs of people in the album according to their stories, scribbling vague, incomprehensible words like Abanishe studio living goddess or RIP mama full rubber beside them, leaving much to the imagination of visitors who pored through the pictures. It was my first attempt at writing a book.
I was a secondary school graduate when a friend introduced me to the library section of the American Corner in Jos. The shelves, nailed from one end of the wall to another, were so densely packed that they were caving under the weight of books: memoirs and autobiographies about family ordeals, about childhood traumas, about men and women battling addictions or surviving terminal diseases. I’d spent my childhood reading works of fiction, studying the alchemy of creating a world with words, but I hadn’t learned how to use the laboratory of words that I was building to recount a life that I, or someone dear to me, was living. In memoirs, I discovered that people exposed their layers of pain, their gut-wrenching rejections, and their most embarrassing truths for evaluation, seemingly without shame or fear of being reprimanded. And I realized that the stories from my home, revealed to me in snippets when I was a child, were already being crafted into a whole by my mother.
I remember the Saturday morning that the tall, slightly hunched child my father fathered with Nene sauntered into our home, and I remember my mother telling us to tell our friends he was our cousin from Kogi. A colleague of my father had suggested Nene as a tutor for my siblings, who struggled with math. She would come to our house every weekend to tutor them, after which my father would offer to drop her off at home. The affair began when my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later. She added that Nene often visited during Eid celebrations, running around the house with the children and helping with the chores. My father, at that time, drank, and my mother didn’t. So Nene would join my father and his friends after sundown on Eid days at the balcony, drinking bottles of Gulder and Star Lager, laughing at guests drunk-dancing to Sunny Ade’s juju beats blaring on the stereo.
Eventually, she and my father started traveling out of town, stealthily, sometimes away for the weekends, and my father would return home, midweek, his breath heavy with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol. My mother said she couldn’t share this with anyone at the time because women whose husbands cheated were known for physical confrontations with the cheaters in the markets, on the streets, in beauty shops, and she could never yell and create a scene.
Your mother once told you a dream that stayed with you long after it had ended. In it, her mother tries to feed her amala and okro soup that smells of curry. Your mother reluctantly collects the food and flings it away, laughing mischievously. Annoyed, with a feeling of rejection, her mother walks into streaks of light shining from a distance and never looks back. One interpretation you will take with you is to keep your tongue away from food in dreams; another is that in dreams, tears are scarcer than laughter.
At the time my mother started telling me these stories, my grandmother had been dead for seven years, and my mother had told me that her mother had passed after resisting treatment for cancer. She had instead resigned into forlornness as the disease vegetated her. My mother showed me the letters her mother wrote to her, in Yoruba, about the earthenware and aso-oke she bought from oja ale, and told me how, after her mother’s death, my mother had abandoned everything that’d belonged to her because death, my mother thought, was contagious, and it had spooled my grandmother’s belongings, evoking ethereal meanings.
I was a freshman at the university when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had her mastectomy in November of 2011, and afterward, went silent, as though she’d lost her tongue under the knife.
You remember the time your mother sought help to end your incessant nightmares. She takes you to a purveyor of dreams. Before entering her house, your mother assures you that the woman will help you dream only good dreams. Your mother didn’t know you already know how good dreams feel, you only didn’t share them with her because you didn’t want her to stifle you from expressing the good-good feelings to others. The purveyor’s parlor is empty save for a mirror twice your height nailed to the wall; so you sit on the tiles, which are so warm and clean they squeak under your skin. Because of the number of strange women that had appeared in your sleep, you look at her askance when she holds your hands and traces the lines on your palms with her index finger as if studying a map. She asks you to cup your palms before spitting some words in them. “Rub them in your face,” she says, “again, again, again.”
Growing up, my mother led me into the pages of books, perhaps because she wanted me to speak like the children we watched in Children Panorama on PRTV, because she’d understood that books improved vocabularies. She introduced me to Shaka-Shaka, a gap-toothed middle-aged barber who ran a small library inside his barbershop at Jenta Danboyi and lent picture books to children when they came to cut their hair. It was she who suggested that my father enroll me at St. Luke’s, a private Anglican primary school, where children were taught cursive handwriting and poetry. She bought me my first collection of secondhand storybooks at Terminus, their back covers carrying the smell of dust and damp.
In Children Panorama, the children who spoke well also played the piano, the drum, the guitar. I admired them for being so bold, for having the luxury of speaking to the world on TV without any adults lurking over their shoulders, forbidding them from sharing a particular kind of story. My mother believed that a child with a quick tongue for words would conquer the world. She thought that I could grow up to become a lawyer or a TV personality. So if she armed me with so much books and knowledge as a child, with the hope that I’d someday make her gleam with pride watching me on TV reading news or lawyering— if she’d chosen me as the next dreamer in the family, one who’d experience the magic twist of forms dreams take—why then would she prevent me from sharing the stories she’d trusted me with, the stories unveiling themselves through different characters in my dreams?
Three years after I graduated from the university, three years after I assumed my family had healed from the worries of my mother’s illness and had permitted me to share her story—our story—with the world, I defied her and my grandmother and wrote about my mother’s battle with cancer. My mother had by then stopped telling me stories, and she would never talk about the disease that altered her anatomy, but I recalled all of her stories from the days long before her diagnosis, all of the stories about our family during her battle with the disease, and I told them, as memories allowed me to, in an essay. I wrote to find healing from those years of hoarding the hurt in the stories that I’d heard growing up.
This story is not yours to tell, an editor wrote when returning the draft to me.
I was the first person my mother told when the lump in her body began gathering life. I had been massaging her arthritic knees with Aboniki when, to my surprise, she raised her bra and showed me her right breast. “Fi owo kan,” she said. I touched it. There was a hardness to the part underneath her right breast, as if stuffed with wet cotton wool. “You feel how hard it is?” I nodded, still feeling, trying to shut down the nagging thought that was coming to mind. “That hard thing has been there for about a year now,” she said. “It’s beginning to pain me.”
The day the doctor told my mother that she had cancer that had metastasized to her armpit, a part of me must have withered. It was a cold evening, the November wind rustling things in a slow hum. In front of the hospital, a mango tree shed dry brown leaves, and a woman with a rake waited for the dead leaves to pile up before sweeping them into a drum for incineration. I would later learn it was something she did from morning till evening, this woman, because the hospital soon became my home, and I would occasionally sit under the shade of the tree whenever my mother was asleep in her ward.
I missed classes in those days because of my mother’s regular visits to the hospital. I stayed with her while intravenous drips pumped poison into her body; handed her tissue when she threw up in the hospital toilet that reeked of Izal; consoled her when her hair started falling out and her eyes welled up with tears each time she sat at her mirror table, the comb in her hand webbed with swabs of hair. Friends noticed my distress because my grades plummeted, my attention span shortened. My mother moved from one doctor’s appointment to another. Drugs and chemotherapy hurt her already declining health. And still, I couldn’t share the stories that’d knotted pain inside me, because I didn’t want them misinterpreted; I didn’t want my family judged.
As a child, I read storybooks that had happily ever after endings. A big yellow sun dipped on the last pages of some of the books, offering a glimmer of hope. In my teenage years, the books I read constantly informed me, through the author’s narration of vivid, real-life scenarios of their experiences, that stories humanize, that we make better sense of the world when we tell our stories and others heal from those stories. For my mother, our personal stories were dehumanizing, embedded with shame, and to hide that shame she forbade me, the way her mother forbade her, from sharing our stories. But how long must we live in someone else’s life before we can share the part of their memory clinging to us like a shadow?
There is a story of my mother’s mother that, before my grandmother’s death, my mother never talked about. She once lived in a village called Freetown—though it never resettled free slaves—and wove baskets for market women. After the Nigeria-Biafra war, she wanted to live in a house that overlooked a flowing river so badly that she cried and cried when her husband, my mother’s father, couldn’t afford it. It was as if she was returning from a very troubling place, my mother said, and needed peace of mind. My grandfather was a maize and root crops farmer who had fields scattered with scarecrows. From her kitchen, my grandmother could see his farm. She hated bats, and there were lots of them on their roof because her husband also grew cashew trees and sold the nuts to men who came aboard Benz 911 lorries from Enugu. Telling this story before her mother’s passing, my mother later said, would mean dishonoring her mother’s marriage, inviting strangers to mock her mother for settling for a small, uncelebrated life. And I imagined this, perhaps, being the reason why my grandmother, later in life, became forlorn. I imagined my mother carrying this story alone for years, the memory of her mother’s self-imposed solitariness haunting her. I imagined it being one of the reasons why my mother eventually stopped telling her stories.
You once dreamed of your father’s half-completed house caving after days of torrential rains. The house, before collapsing, sits on a mountain that overlooks overgrown grasses, surrounded by a still stream. The house collapsed in bits: first the dining room, then the children’s room, then the kitchen. All efforts to prevent the entire building from falling apart failed. When your family gathered over the crumbles of blocks, sinking in a pool of brown water, it was your mother who was most worried, as though a treasure she adored had been buried with the ruins of the house.
You didn’t tell anyone this dream. Not even your mother.