For as long as I could remember, I was disabled. And that was tough, not only because I was the only one among my four siblings (all girls, except for our eldest, a boy), and being in the middle didn’t help. No, the other reason was because my mother despised me. She saw me as an aberration of her perfect family. Many people speak of a mother’s love—how it’s warm and encompassing, how it is never ending and understanding, how it makes you strong and dauntless. I never felt any of these, at least not directly. The only love I had from my mother was the little warmth of love that oozed from the ones she showered on my siblings.
Thanks to God, my father was different. I don’t know what would have become of me if not for him. For him, I was the apple of his eyes, his golden daughter. My frailty, instead of pushing him away, brought him closer to me. He thought me everything I knew. It was also from him that I learned what happened to me, and why my mother hated me so much.
According to him, I was born okay, everything checked out perfectly. But then, one day, she took me with her for shopping. When she was done and was about to cross the road to her car, my pram was hit by an oncoming vehicle and I was thrown into a nearby gutter, where I hit my spine on the edge of the gutter. I was taken to various hospitals, but the pronouncement was the same: I would never walk again, I was confined to a wheelchair forever.
My mother, being a perfectionist, never accepted that fact. She wanted someone to bear the blame for what befell me, and I was the sorry scapegoat. She always pointed out to me that I was a dent in the image of the family, that I should be grateful for those who still cared for a ‘spineless girl’. As if it was my fault.
Now, at age twenty-six, I still live with my parents, without hope of ever being on my own. Many times I’ve asked my only friend, a Catholic priest, why God allowed such a thing to happen to me. One day he said something, “A wise man once said that God cannot allow evil to exist if He cannot, out of that evil, bring out something good.” Some days I believe him, other days, when the pain and agony of being so alone became crushing, I chose not to believe him. Why should I?
Then everything changed. It was subtle, but by the time I noticed it, I was head over heels in love with Ugochukwu. I had met him at my younger sister’s convocation ceremony. Again, my mother was strongly against my coming to the event.
“But sweetheart, do you want everyone to see your disfigured elder sister? Surely, it would be best if she stayed at home?” she crooned as she gave me a spiteful look.
It was my father that settled everything. “It’s either Jessica goes with us or Amanda celebrates her convocation alone,” he finalized.
At the ceremony, I was lost in the sea of people and the cacophony of voices. Then I saw him. He was a Greek god in human form; he was tall, dark, had very sensual brown eyes and his smile conjured butterflies in my tummy. He had a broad chest, but was sinewy. He was my sister’s best friend. When he was introduced to me, he looked at me with such tenderness, that in that moment, that finite eternity, I was lost to him.
Soon after, we become close, almost inseparable. He turned my world around; he was caring, and never seemed to notice my disability. He wanted to share his life with me and I was completely enthralled by his love. He didn’t need to ask me out—I was already his. Yet he did.
“Jessica, when I saw you, what I saw was a queen ensconced on her throne. I can never explain my love for you, but please, make me the happiest man alive my being my woman.”
The way he said it, the sincerity in his voice made my voice quiver as I enthusiastically said my yes to him. The day we announced our relationship to my parents, my mother was incensed. To her, Ugochukwu was making the silliest mistake of his life by dating me, and I knew that left to her, she would change his mind about me. Whatever did I do to her to make her hate me so?
I suppose I should not be surprised when one day, on the 21st of October, 2016, I visited my elder sister, Mary (one of those rare occasions such things happened). I had one problem which was being too prying into other people’s private affairs. I guess it was because I was used to people talking behind me, and what better way to find out than prying?
Anyway, I went through her private chats and was shocked out of my senses. She and Ugochukwu were sex-chatting and exchanging horrid pictures of themselves. To cap it off, they were dating! As I was reading those gut-wrenching chats, Mary walked in. I raised my face in tears and asked,
“Why Mary? Why did you do this to me, your own sister?”
She was nonchalant and merely replied, “It’s not my fault that he preferred me. I mean, were you seriously deluded as to believe that he would want to be with someone who can’t offer him anything?”
I couldn’t breath, was this coming from my sister? The person I grew up with? As if matters couldn’t get any worse, Ugochukwu walked into the house. The look on his face tore my heart open; he seemed to shrink in size out of fear and guilt. So it was true then?
He knew I had found out, about his deception, about his lies. He came, crouched in front of me, and jabbered the worst lie I’ve ever heard.
“Jessy, I know it seems like I’ve deceived you, but believe me, I never wanted this to happen. I fell in love with you out of pity, but with Mary,” he paused and looked at her, I wanted to spit on his beautiful face, “It was different. I was free. I hope you can understand.” He said as he clasped my hands in his. I drew my hands back as if I’d been scalded.
With utmost equanimity, I wheeled myself out of the apartment and told my driver to take me home. At home, I recounted what happened to my father. He tried his best to console me, but I couldn’t be consoled. Why always me? Why did he decide to treat me like that? Was I really pitiable as he said?
“In no way would I blame the poor boy for coming to his senses. What were you really hoping for, eh? A Cinderella kind of story?” my mother, ever at my neck said, as she waltzed in.
She had overhead me talking to my father.
“Silence woman!” my father ordered. He looked ready to beat the crap out of her, only my gentle hold on him restrained him. My mother just danced off, singing an unknown song.
Few days later, I met Kasie, my priest friend. I didn’t want to tell him what had happened between Ugochukwu and I, but he could always read me like a book.
“What’s wrong, Jessica,” he gently prodded. I looked up at him and saw beyond him. To that day and how Ugochukwu had brazenly announced that he had fallen out of love with me. I couldn’t hold back the avalanche of feelings that assaulted me, and quite naturally, the tears came. In their torrents.
He made no move to stop me from crying. In a way he knew that I needed to cry it out. And when I stopped, I told him everything, the way I read my sister’s messages, what her reply was, and how he reacted to everything.
“Kasie, he pitied me!” I exclaimed. That part was like a shard of sharp ice driven into my heart. How would I ever get it out of my mind?
“My dear, I know how you feel. But I want you to try something,” he said and I glanced up at him expectantly. Anything to stop this dreadful pain. “I want you to try to see the good things in all of this. Please try.”
Just that? I was thinking he would say something else, something more insightful that would help me out. But instead, he just delivers this? Did I have an option? I promised him I would try.
With nothing else to do, I reverted to an old, and forgotten talent of mine—painting. Back in those days, it was a way I found release from the hurt I felt. And feeling such inexplicable hurt, I decided to try out painting again. At first, it was hard. As I stroked my brush on the hard canvas, I recalled the times I spent with him, the way his voice sounded, how he smiled. How could all of that have been pity? Slowly, I painted my first work, then the second, and soon, I was always buried in one painting or the other. I was mindlessly driven as I fought to get over the hurt.
Then the strangest thing happened. I got a call from someone congratulating me for winning the annual African Art Exhibition Award. I had never heard of such an award neither did I submit any entry. But the caller—a man—was sure I was the one he meant. Later, I called the only person I knew had any of my works and who could pull such a stunt without informing me—Kasie.
He agreed to sending the entry in my place. He had submitted my painting, Undercurrents which showed a motherless buffalo calf looking forlorn as a lioness played with her cubs. I then called the agency back and I was given details on how to receive the award.
On the day of the award ceremony, I was marveled at the number of prominent personalities in the African art world I met. Just because I won an award I didn’t apply for. Then I was called up to give my acceptance speech. I was tongue-tied. What would I say? As Kasie and my father accompanied me to the podium, what kept reverberating in my head was how I felt when I saw Ugochukwu and Mary wedded. Strangely, I was happy for them.
Then I spoke. “All through life, we get to certain points when everything seems lost, seems like we have no hope. I felt that too, and believe me, it’s no fun. But what I have learnt is how to bring out the positives from each problem, how to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Someone once told me that if you’re faced with a really bad situation, you should try to see the good things, and that’s what I need when I was really down and today, I dedicate this award to him. This is the moral behind this painting, you may be down, but not out. So no matter what, try to see the good things. Thank you.”
The ovation was deafening. I looked at the sea of faces in front of me, none of them pitied me.