It is undoubtedly my favorite time of the year. My husband, Damilare, and I just got back from our Christmas shopping on Christmas eve. We are spending the holidays with his large family in Lagos, and always it’s a lot to take in.
The whole gang is here – his grandparents, mother and siblings, their respective spouses and kids, several uncles, aunties, cousins, and a couple of close friends. I have stopped trying to remember which child belongs to whom. Growing up with my folks in England as an only child, Christmas was a small affair until I met the Gbadamosis – these guys turn every holiday into a party of sorts. Speaking of my folks – they are spending the holiday with a family friend in New Orleans – I should call to check in later in the day.
The day is bright and warm. The three-story mansion is beautiful and tastefully structured with clean lines and has an open balcony overlooking the spacious living room with doors on all sides that leads to other parts of the house. The Christmas decorations are put up by hired experts every year; even so, the place looks homey and inviting.
“Hello, everyone!” I sing hands weighed down with shopping bags as I walk into the living room from the entrance. My husband follows with his ever-present smile and hands burdened with more shopping bags. Lately, his smile has been giving way to frowns. Dammy can fit right into an NBA team with his height, while I’ll most likely end up with Girl Scouts.
I spy my mother-in-law coming into the room from the opposite door that leads to the hallway, and a smile lights up in her eyes as she sees me.
“Kii re? Ahn ahn! Did you raid the store, my dear?” my mother-in-law asks.
As luck would have it, we’ve shared a bond since I married into the family. She dotes on my husband – I understand, I dote on him too. Also, I miscarried my first issue, not unlike her. I don’t know how we could have moved on if she hadn’t spent the next six months shuffling from Nigeria to London to spend time with us. Dammy’s father – God rest his soul – was equally very supportive. Happily, we have two boys now, Kolawole and Feranmi, and they are the joy of my existence when they aren’t up to wrecking my sanity.
“Mummy, E ka ro!” I greet, the words tumble out of my mouth breathlessly, if not a little bit awkward, and my knees move to the floor.
“What are you doing? Stand up. Welcome, my dear.” She moves quickly to my side and pulls me up to my feet. She is pretty still in her blue caftan, and her hair is in braids that fall to the middle of her back. There’s a couple of gold rings on her fingers, nails polished bright red.
I make a face at him not to rat me out and try to convey my sweetest smile to his mother when she looks my way – do I look guilty?
“Dammy, don’t you think this is too much? Why are you making Anike carry these heavy bags?” she scolds and swats Dammy on the head.
He shakes his head, a frown already on his face, “Good morning Ma. Here, these bags over here are for the house.” He sets aside a couple of bulging plastic bags then looks accusingly in my direction. “Jess was indecisive about what gifts to buys for the kids, so she emptied the toy section. I told her to leave them in the car when he got back, but she insisted,” my husband says with exasperation before he leans down to place a kiss on her forehead.
Dammy didn’t tell her that I craved chocolate chip ice cream and wanted to get rid of the evidence outside the house. I blow him kisses, and he rolls his eyes.
Dammy moves to the spiral stairs – its traditional railings draped with fairy lights and garlands, set against the large windows that go up to the first floor.
“I’m taking these up to our rooms so that the kids won’t see their presents before we wrap them up. Jess love, drop the bags, I’ll come back for them. Just sit down and put your legs up.”
“Aye aye, captain! You know, I’m not invalid, even though this cherry doesn’t pop until next month.” I say to his straight retreating back.
I don’t want to make a scene in front of his mother. With her help, I park my very pregnant self in the nearest seat, groaning deeply as the ache down my spine unfurls.
“Where’s everybody?” I ask after she has given me an earful.
The room is deserted, with toys and knickknacks littering every surface – the former is unusual, the latter is unavoidable. The Christmas decorations are still intact, thankfully. Even though there’s no ritual for Santa or sharing of gifts by the tree on Christmas day here – you get prayer and gifts at odd hours – the house comes alive and becomes a marketplace with the arrival of more family members. We trade family secrets, gossips, and everything in between. I can’t complain because I have been having so much fun; it’s taking a toll on me trying to keep up.
“They are at the back of the house. Kunle is flying his drone, and the entire lot ran out to watch.” With a shake of her head, she walks off in the direction of the kitchen.
“That will occupy them for a while, I guess.” Kunle is her son-in-law, Pelumi’s husband. Pelumi, her only daughter, is the doctor in the family and my best girl.
She’s all shades of fun.
His mother returns with a glass of juice, a bowl of chin-chin and chicken, for me to eat, and I dig in.
The rest of the gang wander back into the house. The older kids act like they couldn’t wait to get rid of us, their phones pressed to their noses. They make me feel so old. The younger kids act like we don’t exist in whatever fantasy world they inhabit – except when they get hurt or hungry or both. I get swarmed by them, exchange greetings, and swat at my boys when they come circling me like hawks.
The room quickly devolves into barely contained mayhem, and I waddle-walk to the kitchen to escape.
The house took two years to complete to accommodate the large family, and sometimes I’m left speechless at the sheer size of each room. The kitchen is at the other end of the house on the ground floor, with double screen doors open to the back. It is hazy with steam from several cooking pots, and people bustle around. There’s a rhythm to how they work, like hands on a clock, talking loudly and sharing jokes. My mother-in-law is the undisputed captain of this ship. I find it mesmerizing to watch, but one disapproving glare from her, and I know it is a bad idea.
“I don’t need your help because I have enough hands; willing, and unwilling. There’s a roster this time. You’d be in it but for your condition.” She smiles mischievously and moves to oversee the girls arranging the glassware.
I glimpse Dare chopping onions, tears streaming from his eyes, and I can’t stop myself from laughing. He’s my husband’s older brother. He currently oversees the family business and can be intimidating, but the way he acts around his mother is proof of how scary she can be.
“Dare, how’s it going?” I tease, and he scoffs. “O da bo?” I say and relish the redness in his eyes as he shoots daggers my way – my cue to retreat before I get into more trouble.
‘Aunty Jessica’ rings in my ears wherever I go – only the older family members call me Anike; the reason it is so is a mystery. Anyway, it seems everybody is busy except me.
Soon I’m cornered by the grandparents. Oh no! I need a translator. I can barely string short sentences in Yoruba, and I only manage to say a spattering of words; my kids are doing better than I am. With them rapidly speaking, I am unable to understand a single thing. It gets awkward because they barely understand English too. Our conversations are always one-sided with a series of facial expressions, hand gestures – some indecipherable sign language of our own making. The general take from the encounter is a good one.
Uneasy and unable to commit to being treated like an egg, I go in search of my husband. The ache in my back has returned, and it’s starting to feel very uncomfortable. I check upstairs since it was where I last saw him head to, and find him on the floor in our room – toys and wrapping paper cover every available space.
“I thought we were supposed to wrap the gifts together,” I say and startle him. I reach back to lock the door to prevent the kids from stumbling in. “I was looking all over the place for you.”
A smug grin appears on his face, “Did you miss me?” I nod without hesitation. Being an only child helped me become independent at an early age. Lately, it can be upsetting dealing with ‘everything’ without Dammy. I can’t say how it happened when being apart from him turned difficult. However, I find myself looking for his face whenever I enter a room. I try not to be needy – in my defense, a gentle reminder that I am preggy – my hormones and nerves are off the chart.
“Your face is puffy and tomato red; you promised to put your feet up.” He says, again that frown turns up.
“I did. For a while, then I got bored. Besides, everybody is busy. Your kids are making a raucous downstairs with the rest; somebody put the music on my way up. Your family members are party freaks.” I say diplomatically.
He fakes a cough, “They are your family too. If I recall correctly, the last time we came around, you danced the night away.”
“Yes! Oh God, they’re contagious.” I try to say it with a straight face, and we both laugh because everybody knows I love to dance.
The bed is thankfully toy free – I can’t resist clean sheets, so I make a beeline for it. When at last, I reach the bed, I kick off my flip-flops and try to sit down, but my back shoots a lance of pain that my brain registers on the high side.
“Babe, please come help me sit. My back hurts.” Dammy springs up and rushes over. “I’m alright, I think I overdid it with the shopping and running around, but I’m fine. I only need to rest a little…”
“That’s it. You are not leaving this room again today. You’ll take your meals here, and I’ll insist that nobody disturbs you.” He says firmly, then helps me lay on my side, propping up the pillows to make it comfortable.
“Why won’t you listen to me?” Damilare grumbles as he sits beside me and rubs my back. I wince when he touches a sore spot, and the frown on his face deepens.
“Let’s trade. You can carry the babies while I do the fussing. I can do a better job,” I say cheekily. “Sit down, Dammy love! No, you don’t, that’s enough thinking for one day, you’ll hurt yourself,” I mimic his voice, and my reward is a smile. His hand comes to rest on my belly, and I place mine over his.
My time in Lagos has left me tan – mercifully, the sunscreen I slather over every inch of exposed skin saves me from sunburn. I’m tan, and he is dark. We didn’t expect to stay so long in Nigeria when we arrived a few weeks ago to visit. We stayed back for Christmas because my mother-in-law insisted she wanted the kids to be around, and our boys were fine with it.
“Stay with me. I bet your babies need to cuddle. They must feel left out of all the celebrations,” I say, hinting at how I’ve felt the last couple of days.
When the doctor told us that we were having twins, I swear my husband whooped and pumped his fist in the air as if he heard that his team won the Premier League. He got sober shortly and has since had this haunted look.
The birth of each of our boys was difficult, but thankfully the doctors did their best. The pain of losing a child is a brand in our hearts; perhaps it’s the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Pregnant moms of multiples don’t have it easy because everything intensifies. The worry and stress Dammy puts himself through all the time I was pregnant is hard to watch, but I understand that he is only trying to do the noble thing.
“Okay.” He scoots over and lay down beside me, holding me loosely in his arms. We talk about our plans for a new house when we get back to London and then again about our future, and it feels like old times when it was just the two of us. It doesn’t take long before I fall asleep.
My back is on fire. When I try to move, the pain stabs at my sides and knocks the air out of my lungs. Tears burn in my eyes, and I whimper pathetically. My hands thrash helplessly; all I want is for it to stop hurting.
“Jess! Babe, what’s wrong?” The lights come on in the room, in a glance reveals that it is still dark outside. Dami is next to me in a heartbeat.
“It hurts,” I manage to say. My thoughts scramble, the one that is worried about my babies the most persistent.
“Where? Your back? I’ll get Pelumi. Will you be alright by yourself for a couple of minutes?” he asks.
“Yes. Go quickly.” I cry.
Several agonizing minutes later, my husband returns with Pelumi – one hand holds a medical kit, the other hand holds her night robes close at the front. She is not the only one. A small crowd ends up outside our room like we are having a bizarre slumber party. I don’t know what Dami was thinking, waking them up at this odd hour. If I didn’t feel like roadkill, I would have laughed at the sight. I hope the rest of the house is still sleeping because I wouldn’t want my boys to see me like this.
While Pelumi checks me, my husband hovers like a hawk until she throws him out of the room and slams the door shut in his face. My body is so sensitive, and I’m grateful that her hands are gentle.
“Are you on any medication?” She asks softly. I shake my head.
“I’ll see what I can get for you to help with the pain.,” She says. From experience, I know that it is most likely Paracetamol, and I want to suggest something else. She didn’t say anything about my babies– I need to know that they are okay.
As if hearing my thoughts, Pelumi answered, “Your babies are fine, sweetheart, try to relax. Strong painkillers are not advisable in your condition, and from what I see, your back pain is likely from the weight of the babies. I’ve got chamomile tea; I’ll send it up to you.”
When she finishes, she calls Dammy in, and together they help me to the toilet to relieve myself, and I endure a warm bath. I feel a little better after taking medication and getting a rubdown (my mother-in-law bullied her way to my side).
I’m allowed to see the crowd of well-wishers. It takes a while before Pelumi removes them from inside and outside our room; the sun is already up.
“I’m not an invalid,” I say haughtily.
I am still in bed trying to talk Dammy out of changing our travel plans. He swings from not going at all because of my condition and going at once.
“Feeling better?” he asks.
“Yeah. You can stop making that face.”
“You look constipated when you frown,” I tease, and he hits me on the head gently with a pillow.
“Merry Christmas to you, babe,” I say then, give him a kiss for being amazing. Whatever happens, we will get through it together. I’m looking forward to the new year because it promises to be full of new beginnings.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, relief shining through his eyes, masking for a moment his worry and stress.
Kola drags his older brother Feranmi into the room; his other hand grips his Batman action figure. They are still in their jammies. The latter greets and heads to the toilet, while the former jumps on the bed and throws himself at me. My husband is quick to intercept. Kola is four, just a baby.
“The other kids say Santa did not show up because Nigeria is too far from the UK. Is it true, mummy?” he asks and fires out more questions in the same vein. I feel a stab of guilt for not paying closer attention to them since we arrived and quickly talk to God that I’ll do better, and can he please tell me what answers to give without technically lying. I tell my husband to bring out the presents; we are doing damage control. It looks like today is going to be a long day.
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