It was one late Sunday evening in Summer 1983, I’d just exited the coffee shop holding two cups when I bumped into her. Their contents spilled, more on her than me, but for some reason she didn’t curse me, which was a common occurrence around here. She didn’t even lament. She only reacted to the itch the mild burn caused her. Never being in such an awkward situation, I was a mess and tried avoiding looking her in the eye longer than two seconds. In one of those quick glances I could see she’d started to smile at me. Soon, she was on her feet again. More surprising was when she tucked her hand in mine and said “Let’s take a walk”.
I got to find out the Asian-American beauty was called Anita. Fair, weird and beautiful, I’d never met her type before. She, too, was excited about my weird name ‘Anatoli’. She didn’t know then it was a nick from my high school days in Nigeria that stuck through the years.
I struggled to flow with her speech pattern, but we still hit it off – it was obvious she liked me and I, too, her. All through our walk the only thing I could ask myself was ‘if this is how God answers prayers?’ It was my request at church service today for Him to connect me to my missing rib because my mother, in Nigeria, was getting more worried at my perceived unwillingness to settle down.
Winter 1985: In Nigeria, we stood before friends and well-wishes, the bulk of whom we didn’t know, to exchange vows. Mama had insisted I bring home my ‘onye ocha’ bride for them to see. It was hectic planning our trip as Anita was in the midst of her Doctorate exams, but mama pressed further, saying she wasn’t getting any older and that next Christmas, same as her 70th birthday, must be celebrated with the cry of a baby in the house. She was this close to watching us make love make love after the festivities, until we broke the news to her that we were already expecting. Her joy was knee no bounds. Two days later we were on a flight back to London.
Spring 1986: At the age of 35 I welcomed my first child, our baby girl Fete. Anita liked the name because it was weird and we agreed to it. No amount of joy I felt at the hospital that day could quantify Anita’s – she was 40 and feared her possible inability to give me a healthy child. But I didn’t care about that because I loved her very much. So, even when we tried for more children, without success, we weren’t bothered.
In those years that followed, when we were sure another child wasn’t coming, speaking to mama over the phone become a chore, it meant we’d spend a minimum of an hour casting and binding imaginary entities. It was a good thing she didn’t know Anita’s age, because she’d have never let it go that I married an old cargo. It was the kind of love she understood for her own time.
August 1996: I, Anita and 10-year-old Fete stood over the grave site to bade goodbye to mama. She died of a heart attack. It hurts more whenever I remember she was alone when she died. The young boy living-in with her went to buy kerosene to finish up the half-done food on the stove when it happened.
This was I and Anita’s first time back since the wedding and Fete’s first time on her father’s land. The joy on her face throughout the festivities, unconcerned about the worries that plagued the adults. Two months ago, when mama came to London and agreed to have Fete over for the summer holiday to learn basic customs and traditions, I was elated, even Anita expressed interest should she process her annual leave to fall within that period. With mama now six-feet under, all those planning became mere memories. Anita and Fete left back the day after the burial because of work and school, I stayed behind to join Adannne, my elder sister, and her husband tidy up. The two days spent there brought with it an influx of nostalgia, the burst of the good old days growing up within the walls of the compound felt good. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we’d stay together as Adannne died in a mysterious car accident five years later.
Summer 2003: with Fete away at boarding house, Anita convinced me we were overdue for a romantic getaway, especially as it coincided with her annual leave and our 20th anniversary, we had triple reasons tocbe grateful. We flew to Paris and stayed at a hotel with a direct view to the Eiffel Tower, something she’d always craved.
The evening we arrived we went to an expensive French restaurant we’d already made a reservation for, and had one of the best meals of our lives. We cheered at our happy lives 20 years after our accidental bump-in and raised a glass to many more together, in love.
After the meal, with the aid of a map of the city, we slowly strolled back to the hotel. This was our routine for the next three days – wake up, make love, eat, sleep, runner, walk. On the fourth night, we decided to see the Eiffel Tower up close, we even touched it. At the base of its structure Anita called me by my native name “Ebuka” for the first time in forever. There, she told me she’d recently been diagnosed with cancer – a tumor at the back of her head, she called it. She said her doctor said the chances of her recollecting things after the surgery were very slim, and some other things. As she spoke, all I could think of was, why was this happening? My heart was broken.
12 October, 2003: Anita had the surgery. For a while she couldn’t remember me or Fete, it was saddening. She got better and when it seemed things were getting back to normal an MRI revealed another tumor, that for some reason wasn’t discovered before, hidden close to the first. This one was more malignant and required immediate attention. The issue was that a faction of medical experts believed her head was too weak to go under the knife so soon after the first, while the other faction believed the tumor would kill her if left unoperated.
Anita died the next day while the doctors were analysing the new tumor scans with us; she went into shock. She was buried the next day. When people consoled themselves by saying 60 wasn’t really young and that she lived a decently long life, it took a special strength for me to not lambast and remind them she had a 17 year-old who hadn’t really started living life, she still needed her mother to talk to her about boys, sex and all things female health. A part of me died on the table with Anita, but a new one grew to balance things: a part that recognized I had to keep living for Fete, to keep Anita alive by honoring the product of our union.
That brings us to today. In the presence of God, I, Ebuka’s Anatoli Maduka, hand Ms. Fete Anita Ebuka to be married with the promise that the young man will take care of my baby girl better than I tried to do. I love you, Fete baby. I love you so so much. You might be leaving my house someday, but not my heart; for in my heart there’s room for you even unto eternity.
Have a happy life, Fete.
Letters, such as this, were always written by Anatoli, with the consent of his lawyer, before visiting his doctor for anything. On March 10, 2013 he went to his doctor to complain about a persistent cough. He didn’t come out of the hospital alive. Fete was handed this letter on her wedding day four years later to Mike, her long time boyfriend from Medical school. It made her day, even though she sobbed heavily at first.