In the beginning, there was a house. The house grew and gave birth to four boys, loud music, and assurgent laughter. And even though they left now and then, they always returned to this house, to its spirit. Father would be home. Mother would be happy. And this would be true, but only for a while. This was a house of shrinking.
To live is to be alive, to inhabit, to reside, to survive, to persevere, to continue, to endure in, to cope. To shrink is to become smaller, to contract, to flinch or cower, to draw back, withdraw, to move back or away. I have wondered, for the longest time, if everyone else sees, just as I do, how living is shrinking. Survival. Cowardice. And brave men are not known to live the longest.
Saturday, October 27th, 2001
Father had this flat before us—a 3-bedroom apartment in a twin 5-strorey complex in Onitsha. On the day he married Mother, he brought her home, to this house, in an old Mercedes with ribbons all over. We learnt, as we saw the pictures later, that the car was hired because Father never had a Mercedes. He got a Volvo just before Uzo, my elder brother, came along. This, between 1995 and 96, was just as good as anyone could do in this fast-paced city.
On this fateful Saturday morning, there was no music in the house. Father had gone to work and Mother had left as well. I was home with my aunt and Uzo. I now struggle to remember if I had known where Mother had gone to, if I understood before then what it meant that her belly had grown so big, if I had felt the tension as we walked around the house, cleaning, while her life was on the line.
A woman knocked on the gate. I had to have known, you see, that the air was heavier inside and this emptiness was sickening, especially today, because when my aunt answered the door, I was right behind her. This woman would not come in. She would not sit nor have a glass of water. She had just one message to deliver, and with all the cheer she could gather, the words reeled off her lips and flushed into my ears.
“Mummy unu anwugo…”
And while the clouds closed in on me, my aunt broke into a song and danced with joy. I did not understand it. What was there to celebrate? Shouldn’t we have mourned instead? My aunt found me brooding, lost, and asked what the problem was. Then, she laughed some more.
“Mummy unu amugo,” she reiterated. “That’s what the woman said. Ejima.”
It probably did not make much sense at the time but my mind was three, young, and taking in the world all at once. So, I did not ask why “ọ mugo: she has delivered,” and ”ọ nwụgo: she is dead” felt so dangerously close; if life and death should not be at opposite ends of everything, including language. It would take another ten years to learn of the struggles of labour, the complications surrounding my brothers’ birth, and how the woman’s words could just as easily have gone the other way.
Father returned that morning to drive us to the hospital in his Volvo. We had packed some food in a flask for Mother but my brother and I would end up eating all of it. I remember Mother sitting on the hospital bed, holding the older one, while the other lay on his back, punching the air around him with clenched fists. Two little boys had been added to the family, and we were happy in 2001. Or maybe I was just a child.
Saturday, March 21st, 2015
Uzo and I had left home in January, to Obukpa in Nsukka where we studied for our exams. We had both applied to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. This was my second UTME sitting and Uzo’s fourth. The board had announced that no fewer than 1.4 million candidates around the country would sit for this exam, and the numbers went up each year.
With every shot you missed, you had fewer chances the next year. The logic is simple, there was more competition and you were farther removed from your studies. Fresh out of secondary school was when you stood your best chance at securing admission. Your textbooks still felt like yours, you had friends also applying so you wouldn’t feel alone, and you were most hopeful, most confident. Most of my friends took a job after missing the first year. Back then, you were either in school or you weren’t, and you had to be somewhere. So Chukwuka started working at the Bet9ja shop and he would not make it back to school. He would be rich before 26 anyway, and it would not matter by then who went to school and who didn’t. Amara became a salesgirl. She would be married 4 years later, and I would hear nothing of her again. I took to teaching junior secondary school because, even though it was one of the least-paying jobs out there, I still wanted the feel of books in my hands. You see, I was always groomed to be “the medical doctor.” It was crucial that I did not stray too far from my tracks. I was going to succeed Father.
When I missed my first shot, my dreams got smaller. My hopes shrank. And when, one night, as Rev. Patty Obassey’s album blasted through the speakers, Mother suggested that I apply for something that hung lower, more reachable, something like Microbiology, I found comfort in knowing it wasn’t just me who shrank. My parents had lost faith that I could go all the way. They were bidding farewell to the hopes of being called “papa doctor” and “nne doc,” settling—to shrink is to settle—for anything, as long as we went to school. Seeing how fast I swung, lower and lower, I knew there were not many chances left. So in January 2015, I quit my job at the school to focus on exams, to give it my all, because it was now or probably never. And on the 21st of March, we returned home, Uzo and I, having taken the exams, our futures hanging on results that were being delayed.
That afternoon, Father had a stroke.
We first grow and then we shrink. It’s the natural order of things. Age shrinks a man alright, but this process is slow, like growth, it’s unpretentious, unmarked. There are more drastic natural forces that squeeze us into dead things or just reduced versions of ourselves. I have come to learn of some of them.
Mother had left the house on hearing that Father was unwell. He had been rushed from our hospital, where he was the doctor, to a different one where he would be a patient. They would not return that night, and I would know that it was serious. I would visit the hospital the next morning to find him shirtless, seated, breathing. I had not seen him in three months, so I would wonder if it was just the sickness or if he had been this tired for much longer. I would say good morning and he would not answer. He would not hear. Half his body, including his left ear, was numb. Shrunken. He would raise his eyes once to catch me stealing glances at him, and in his eyes, I would catch a glimpse of anger and helplessness, and shame. And I would hope that whatever mix he found in mine, there would be no pity in them. I look forward to being a Father myself someday, and when the time comes, I pray my child never feels pity for me. Hate, we can take, but not pity. And I can say this with certainty because I am an emerging image of my father.
Saturday, May 27th, 2023
Mother was at the hospital when I returned from work yesterday evening. She spends most of her days there now. We had moved out of the apartment, and into the hospital building in December 2015. Father could not commute to work and back daily after the stroke, so we’ve had to live here. He has given away the Volvo and no one drives in the family now. The hospital has not been the same either. It has gone from running with over ten staff to idling away with just one—one live-in nurse. We’re counting the days till she leaves, and it will be just us.
I sat with Mother and we spoke about how I had bought roasted corn for ₦30 and today, it’s ₦200; how houses used to go for ₦1.5 million, but now go for upwards of ₦100 million. The economy plummets into this black hole and we do not know that there’s an end, a limit, to this fall, this shrinking.
I have returned to teaching secondary school since graduating from Microbiology, University of Nigeria. I now do not remember why we fought so hard to go to school. Uzo had eventually gotten into the University of Port Harcourt to study Petroleum Engineering in 2016. He graduated three months ago, after 7 years of back and forth, and has since then fought to get a job as a gas pump attendant. We do not even call him Uzo anymore. He goes by Makua now, and this is another testament to this shrinking; further separating us from the memories and realities of when the times were good. It’s almost like we are all different people now.
The twins have had it the hardest, having to wait for me to finish school before they could apply, and learning even then that they still could not go because things did not get any better. Silver is the youngest but has always had more will and fight in him. He did not wait around to be smothered by this house like the rest of us. He left the first chance he got, to serve and learn a trade in Abuja. The last time we spoke, he told me he still writes poetry even though no one would read them. I do not tell him this, but I keep him here, alive, with poems of my own. Makua has stayed back in Port Harcourt, too.
Victory, the older twin, who has worked since finishing secondary school, has now decided to give it another shot. He has been admitted into the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria. We may have failed Silver—he had lost his admission into the University of Port Harcourt because we could not afford it— but we’re determined to see that Victory goes through. He leaves in a few months, and we shrink some more.
Last night, we opened a bottle of wine to celebrate life. You see, in this country, to live is to survive, to persevere, to continue, to endure, to cope. Despite the storm. Despite this shrinking. We learn, each day, to live with our new names, blurred dreams, and reduced bodies. We are not brave people, but that is okay. Brave men are not known to live the longest.
It’s Saturday morning and I am writing. We do not play music out loud anymore—we keep them private with our earphones. Our backs are bent, our smiles are dented, for we carry so much more within ourselves. Yet, I write with everything in me, because I can still gather crumbs of hope, enough to build a new house and wish that its walls are elastic. Because it’s now or probably never.
Tochukwu Precious Eze is a Nigerian writer and mental health enthusiast. His chapbook, “Tobé” was published in the Poets in Nigeria Chapbook Series (2020). His stories and poems have appeared in Writers Space Africa, Nalubaale Review Magazine, Cónscìò Magazine, The Muse, and others. He is the author of poetry collections Agụ, Mirror, Dreamer, and Hypnosis; and the novella Adaeze.