What we weren’t told when we both sat through hours of counselling in the white, cheerful office with Asian pottery on Montgomery Road was that “till death do us part” was a boomerang and we were unskilled handlers. When we said it before the clergyman with the Herbert Macaulay moustache, no one told us it would evade our grasp on its return trip and make a fatal home in our delicate parts. Not the clergyman, when he boomed his rehashed marital blessings over our kneeling bowed heads. Not the sea of painted faces carrying long, gaily-tied geles who couldn’t wait for the church service to end so they could be treated to the grand wedding reception after.
It was the same clergyman and mostly the same faces who came when our first child arrived one Sunday evening after hours of painful labour in a General Hospital. A boy. We named him Modara – a child is a good thing.
While courting, we saw what child-raising did to our married friends, how it shaved slices of life off them as if it was the price for the new lives they birthed. How the bond between them seemed to be noticed only in their wearing the same type of attires to owambes and church. So, we made the two years before Modara came be of evenings out, beach outings on sunny weekend days, wild dancing at clubs on Friday nights and a summer vacation in Rio.
When Modara was on the way, we went through the items on several lists we had drawn about what we would do when our first child arrived: what it would wear; how we would take turns at parenting duties so the other would get needed rest; how long each of our mothers would spend with us in taking care of the child (my mother first, his next); how we would take time away from the child to be together, just the two of us; how we would have our occasional Friday nights out and if time permitted, our beach outings.
Then, Modara came with my high forehead and his father’s large, round, eyes, that always had a permanent kindness to it.
He began to walk the day before he turned one. That day, his father said to me, “see who broke your record. Now, we can rest from your ‘I began to walk the day I turned one’ song” and scooped the toddler off the brown tiled floor where he was learning the ropes of how humans walked.
The day after Modara turned one, he began his cries. It was this way he would cry every night after: beginning as a coughing fit, then a loud, piercing wail till it settled into a proper toddler cry rhythm.
Our family doctor checked him after two days of such and said it was a teething problem and with medical care and time, it would go away.
It did go away – the cough.
Then, the fever spells began.
The piercing wails never ceased. This time, they came weaker; in spurts and heaves. The nights found us wide awake either at a hospital or at home, watching or tending to his ailing frame; his cries and the sight of him staring at us, helpless, unable to comprehend what was happening to his body would bring tears into every eye in the room, usually his father, one or both of our mothers and I.
Our nightmares really began when his head began to swell. We had our suspicions. Then, at the hospital our fears were confirmed after a number of tests: there was a tumor in his little brain.
In his large office, with diagrams of different human anatomy and pictures of his family (a wife and three little girls, triplets obviously), where he told us the news, the doctor in charge of Modara saw the fear we wore on our faces. What he didn’t see was the big question on our faces as my husband and I stared at each other in his office.
It was the question that would morph into an accusing silence between us, building a wide gulf where there was not as much as a crack. Whenever talks about Modara’s condition came up (which was all the time), we would avoid each other’s eyes and keep our gazes elsewhere.
One morning, while bathing his always hot body at the hospital, Modara went limp. It was sudden; I had imagined that moment would come with a seizure or a stiffening or some drama; he just went limp. The doctor appeared at my yell to a wet, lifeless Modara in my arms.
In the months following Modara’s death, we would seat at the dinner table in a quiet house, his father and I, our cutlery hitting our plates as we spooned our food with great care the only sound. We would hold each other’s gazes for seconds that could be textbook instances of infinity as though waiting for the other person to ask the question that was on our minds. Soon, we stopped eating together, which was the only thing we still did together. In the mornings, as we hurried to our different bathrooms, the only times our paths met in the house, we would throw our good mornings into the gulf between us to be swallowed in lifeless nods. We would come out of the bathroom, whoever was the first person to finish, rushing into the day, rushing from the other and from the big question that was consuming us.
These days, I spend the evening in the house all alone. I hear him come in through the front door, I hear his quiet steps on the stairs and past the door of what was once our room, now mine, into the room where our mothers stayed when they used to come. He doesn’t bother to tell me if it is still his hang-outs with friends that keep him out till late in the night. I do not ask either.
The thing with guilt like ours is we’ll never know if it was our fault. We’ll never know if it was our lovemaking that night on the cold, tiled floor, when, as we rolled over each other, we rolled into Modara’s cot and tipped it over, sending his sleeping form head-first onto the tiled floor three feet below. This we seem to agree on: Modara’s death has done us part.