Thoughts on Returning to My Motherland

It should have been obvious after this, whatever day that was, when I was it looks like about oh, say four years old. The look on my face says it all. As if it didn’t already before then. When I was two, for example:

My grandmother and me, around age 1–2

or from the very beginning, at my baptism:

I’ve not been one for smiling artificially for pictures.

L: me, age 4, in the photo. R: my grandmother age 5, smiles for hers.

Specifically, I remember now: I remember deliberately not looking at the photographer while he tried to take my photo that day. I couldn’t see why I should smile at him. Who was he and what was he to me anyway? A stranger. Why on Earth did he think he could boss me around? He had no right. That is exactly what I remember thinking. I thought I would prove it, so I didn’t smile or look at the camera that day. I pretended not to understand.

I did not care and gave no fucks. That’s when they should have noticed I was strange. Surreality is my reality.

Just guessing, I didn’t want to be wearing that dress. It was dark. I loved pastels. It was blue and not pink. It was not for girls like me. Plus it had a stupid pinafore. I didn’t like it. (Although I later liked pinafores. Perhaps for the name alone, but certainly only with pink dresses). Mom maybe pulled my hair too tightly when she brushed it. It wasn’t a ponytail. Or, I wonder even, did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed that morning? Had I had a nightmare, as I so often did when I was younger?

Sometimes a giant tiger or spider or men with guns chased me until I fell down a dark flight of concrete stairs. But in the most terrific (as in horrifying) night terror of all I was forced to climb up an exceedingly high ladder — a lean-to ladder, that leaned on nothing. The ladder stood suspended and towering into the air even higher than the football stadium walls, as if it was made of magic yellow wood. I don’t remember who told me to climb, but I had to, no choice, there was no possible way out, and everyone, everyone in that stadium, everyone I knew, perhaps everyone in the world, was watching me, so I could not chicken out no matter how desperately I wanted to, no matter if I cried and it felt like I did, as I stepped up, one rung at a time, going further and further out of reach into the sky. No one could hear me if I cried up there. And then, once I was that far up that no one could hear me and I could barely see anyone, the ladder would start to tilt and fall forward. Slowly at first but then the stadium and air would rush quickly up into my face silencing my screams. I’d wake, bolting up in bed just before I hit the ground. I’d undoubtedly already peed myself. I remember this happening more than once, more times than I could count. That’s how I started wanting to sleep in Mom’s bed next to her. I loved our bedtime stories. Things were alright until I fell asleep … and started falling through mid air.

One night when our family had a guest spend the night he alerted my parents that they had better take me to a doctor soon because I snored like a man and even seemed to stop breathing in my sleep. It turned out I had sleep apnea and had to have my tonsils removed when I was five. I expected ice cream. I got jello, which I’ve always hated. What I can’t forget about that time is how the nurse pulled me away from my mom and out of her sight through a heavy door, how she shoved me down on the operating table, as I panicked and screamed for Mom, the nurse covering my face involuntarily with the mask. I remember passing out, extremely distressed and frightened.

Later in age, around 9 through 12, I had different nightmares and dreams in which I talked with or knew something about Mom and her looming inexplicably cruel mortality. In some dreams she died or had died, sometimes she came back to life but more often not. I spent time with her as a child, with her cousin Simone, who would also die in a car accident, in my dream. We were in Mom’s girlhood bedroom, with the slanted ceiling and blue rose wallpaper, playing paper dolls, an actual favorite game of all of ours. I had to tell them that they would both die at an early age. I don’t know why I had to tell them, but I did tell them, and I cried in my dream. The fun was spoiled. Had I done it? Why??

I started to think of myself as a potentially magical witch when I was about 8. I was very excited to turn 9 and 9 remains my favorite number to this day. I was unusually attached to my mother since forever and wanted to do absolutely everything she did always and wanted her with me almost all the time. Luckily she always supported my fascination with pagan spirituality.

Maybe I wouldn’t smile for any number of reasons that picture day, but why was I so unhappy and not disposed to smile in the first place? Maybe it had been in my dream already. It really might have been. It was so depressing and burdensome to have this vague feeling of doom and prescient loss I could not even explain rationally. It was never something I felt all that comfortable sharing with Mom, either. Telling her I was upset because I’d had a dream in which she died? She didn’t want to hear that any more than I wanted to see or experience it in any dimension. She said she wouldn’t die, if I asked her. So I buried my fear within, or tried to, however unsuccessfully. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like she lied to my face. But I’m sure she didn’t mean to…

When I was a teenager we started going out to lunch together, once a week, Mom and I. On Fridays, like today.

I get sad sometimes on very sunny beautiful days (like today, but today thankfully, I’m not sad. I’m writing and working…) and for the longest time I really couldn’t for the life of me understand why. It drove me kind of crazy why on such beautiful nice days sometimes instead of being able to enjoy the sun and expose my skin, I’d look up to the sky so blue and tears would begin to run down my face, completely inexplicably. Now I think I know why. Of course, it’s sad. But it’s better to know. She’s not coming back. Never again in that beautiful, cheerful, joyous, real, talkative, laughing, physical, and divinely down-to-earth form. That was Pamela Sparks, that was my mother, Mom… and so much more.

We went out to lunch and got salads and loaded baked potatoes. It was so, so nice. We could talk about anything, but we often read from a book: Embraced by the Light by Barbara Edie. The book about one woman’s first person account of traveling to God/Heaven/the Afterlife and back to Earth/Life from death. A near-death experience. She writes of meeting angels and the goodness surrounding our planet. It’s a compelling fantasy … Especially for a girl having lunch with her mom who will die in the next two years, but they have no idea, because it will be random (but they do know somehow, maybe).

Our favorite movie to watch together on rare, celebrated girls nights, if Dad took my brothers out to a ball game and for some reason we didn’t go too, was “A Little Princess.” The touching fairy tale of a rich white girl whose mother is dead, and whose father is off at war, who befriends a black servant girl at her boarding school, and, through the power of her imagination, manages to overcome their cruel and negative surroundings and mean authority figure.

It was a shocking tragedy when Mom died at the age of 34, a wife and mother of four young kids. After she died, at her funeral, one of the three that there were, due to so many people wanting to pay respects and needing some shred of solace, I interrupted and asked to say a few words. I told everyone (including my loudly pounding heart) that she, my Mom, is still here with us, that her spirit always will be. Something like that, so we should not be too sad. She is free and everywhere and love, I wanted to believe. Her last words were in the car to all of us, her children and her mother, her family, her usual chipper “I love you guys!” But I was so sad. And so very angry. It drove me mad.

I was angry that she didn’t listen to me. I had tried to save her life! I tried as hard as I possibly could. I whispered. I protested, I cried, I yelled, I kicked, I compromised. We went on. Once in Lagos, I fell asleep draped over Mom’s lap like the pieta. But she woke me up and said it was time to go. We got in the car. All of us. Me too. She didn’t adhere to my pleas. So she left, however unwillingly. She left me. Forever. How could I not be upset? Mom was my very best friend. Often it felt like she was my only friend.

She was my best friend and my favorite person on Earth. When she died in that car accident, after I finally came to… Well as soon as I remember coming to, which is about a week or two after the accident, while boarding a flight directly from the American Hospital in Paris to Texas Children’s Hospital, I had to forgive her. I had to forgive her because I wanted to forgive her so badly. Desperately. I wanted to forgive her because I knew I had to, or else my life would be ruined, too. But deep within, growing, hormones raging all around me, my premonition of Mom’s death replacing my memory of how it happened in all its grisly detail… Internal bleeding that in the States would not have meant death. Internal bleeding caused by her seat-belt, which only one other of us was even wearing in the vehicle. I couldn’t.

I couldn’t forgive how much pain this caused us, how much senseless pain this caused me, my siblings, my whole family, herself, how much this damaged all of our relationships. She let Kyle get stitched up his whole leg with no anesthesia at an animal hospital when he was only nine years old. Haley lost her mother and her ability to walk (for several months) when she was six. At the dawn of our difficult teenage years, as Brandon and I struggled to become adults our parents would be proud of, Mom you suddenly died out of nowhere! You left us without our very best role model and our natural mentor. Without your warm, nourishing, tough love. You died in Nigeria, with all the rest of our bodies flown into a ditch on the side of the road, like so much human garbage, like road kill, in the middle of nowhere.

Why didn’t you listen to me? I tried to warn you! I said in no uncertain terms, something bad is going to happen. Like, you are going to die. I have a really bad feeling, I said. And you said, “I do too.” You did too! You knew!? But instead of changing plans, no. Instead of making a brave if difficult decision…. Instead of retreating from this monstrous unknown threat, you and I talked about what signs you might send to me if you were “on the other side.” Passed away. That is how we passed away the hours in the kitchen of my uncle, your brother’s house, in Chicago, before it was time to go to the airport. How could I look for you. That’s what we were musing. After you were gone. As the wind in the trees, as birds. What else? I don’t know. A perfectly sunny day?

I remember when I was 15. My dreams of rushing through my school’s empty hallways as, for no visible reason, an alarm out sirened everything, blurred with my reality of walking along our high school’s iconic black and white checkered floors, past rows of beige metal lockers, to class after class, with a sinking feeling of dread or even panic in my center, again, for no clear reason.

As if you would be here. Now. Fifteen and a half years later. As if you could come back from that, then. As if I could survive it. But I have. Somehow.

That was the hardest thing about being 15 for me: that my mother died in a car accident in Nigeria; that I was in the accident too; that I had just begun my freshman year of high school, which was my first time being in school since kindergarten, when I threw (as in deliberately gave wrong answers to) an alphabet test, arguably so that my mother would eventually decide to homeschool my (one brother and future) siblings and me, which she did. I knew how to read– books– since I was three. At five, I did not feel like I owed anyone a performance or proof of my knowledge. I always held a haunting secret suspicion that I would one day be torn away from my mother violently. Violently, certainly, because that was the only way I would ever let go.

You were stubborn. So am I. I have insisted on finding my way through my grief. Unbearable though it has been more than anything else. It has nearly taken my life more than once, more than twice. But I hardly ever have nightmares anymore, not for years, maybe since the accident. Then again, with the weed habit I’ve picked up, I only remember my dreams occasionally, anyway.

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