For Another Caregiver, Many Years Ago
What I remember most about Lydia—her skin. Golden-brown, a few shades darker than my mother’s pale yellow, her fingers on the piano keys, legs tucked back beneath the cushioned bench. The way she smelled, like hair salon, like black soap and makeup, semi-sweet and comfortingly Nigerian. Her face was so soft. I reached up, often, to touch it; she would bend down, sending a warm gust of hair-salon-soap-sweet scent into my eyes, and let me pinch her cheeks. I was eight years old and ever-skeptical of her adulthood, marveled aloud at her youth: “You’re such a baby, Lydia, so cute,” was my daily announcement. “You’re so young and adorable.”
Lydia was eleven years older but she put up with me, let me sit on her lap and bat her shiny brown braids, sang Black-Eyed Peas (“Do ‘Where is the Love,’ ” my sister and I demanded, every time), and read us stories. Over the long summer during which she babysat us we took many naps, most of them preceded by either a game or a story. Wedged between my sister and me in my twin bed, she told us about little village girls and forests and tigers and mangoes, her arms in the air like an artist, illustrating scenes with her hands. When she fell asleep she snored. Wide awake beside her, I’d listen for her deep breathing and then sit up in bed, leaf through books on the shelves, look down at her sleeping face and wonder if this is what my mother looked like coming to America at nineteen years old--soft-skinned and babyfaced as Lydia.
She had only been here for about a year, moving into the yellow house down the block with her two older sisters, Christiane and Vivie, Christiane’s husband Emil, and their little sons Raphael and Samuel. We saw them come in with their U-Haul in June, watched them from our driveway where we sat barefoot on the hood of my parents’ minivan. My sister and I had never met anyone from Cameroon before.
“They make the best rice,” we concluded, standing in their kitchen, barefoot on the oil-stained linoleum, watching the pot rattle on the stove. “Onions underneath, all the time.”
While my sister studied the art of rice-making, eagerly tiptoeing alongside Lydia or Christiane or occasionally Vivie, I played with baby Samuel on the floor and entertained three-year old Raphael. During the summer, the Biya house was alive as a marketplace, Emil stomping through the back door with his absentminded hellos and how-is-your-fathers; Christiane sucking her teeth, her eyes swallowed by her tiny wire-rimmed glasses; Vivie breezing in and out of the house; the kids screaming above Kaïssa and Henri Dikonguéhumming brightlyout of the kitchen CD player; and Lydia, watching Oprah on the sofa, or Lydia at the piano, singing.
“We used to perform as a group,” Christiane told us, showing us photos. “All over, we sang. For the church, especially.”
They had a famed mother, this grand matriarchal figure who ran a church and had once managed her daughters’ childhood music careers. They had made a gospel CD. When the three of them sang together one night, crowded around the piano, my mother got up and said she had tears in her eyes.
My mother loved the three of them almost as much as my sister and I did. Peeling plantain on her little stool in our kitchen, she could not stop talking about Christiane and Lydia and Vivie, invited them over eagerly for moin-moin and akamu and Ovaltine on Sundays, watched Nollywood movies with them in our living room. Quickly she and my father became good friends with the Biyas, taking on the roles of auntie and uncle for Christiane and Emil. The adults hung out in the living room frequently that summer while I looked after baby Samuel and my sister actively eavesdropped. She told me, “They talk a lot about green cards.”
We didn’t know what those were, but they could talk about them for hours, Christiane, Lydia, Vivie, Emil, and my parents, sitting there clamoring about visas and green cards past nightfall.
“What can they do, my brother? They can’t do nothing, nothing o,” my father insisted, aggressively, and my mother would say to them in high pitched emphasis, “Abeg, no worry o, God is in control.”
Then Christiane would suck her teeth and touch her forehead. “Lord have mercy, I don’t know.”
The summer ended on one of those nights. My sister and I returned to school the next morning, Lydia and Vivie to the local college. We would meet Lydia standing on the front porch of our house once we got off the bus, tiny in her long skirt and oversized sweater, red-eyed and fidgety. She supervised our homework quietly and declined our requests to play Monkey-in-the-Middle and TAPS outside. Instead, she leaned over the sink, watched us mess around in the backyard until it got late and there was rice on the table. In the evenings she lay on the couch drowsily, blinking slowly, allowing me to read to her if only I wasn’t too loud: the voyages of Sinbad, Ramona, Boxcar Children, Lemony Snicket.
“Sing? Please?” I’d murmur, bouncing onto her lap in our living room, raising my hands to pinch her cheeks.
She was listless, cold-palmed, yet she complied. “Sit next to me,” she said, patting the cushion. But slowly her voice would grow startlingly shaky, and then all of a sudden she would stop. Sigh. Stroke the edges of my hair.
She wore winter coats in September, grew purple under the eyes, wouldn’t eat. We began going straight to Lydia’s house instead of ours, where she was perpetually absent; Christiane said, “Lydia’s sick.”
Vivie was sick too. Vivie was sick first. One time I saw her come down the stairs from where I was playing on the floor with Samuel, painfully skinny, smiling only when she saw me: “Have you eaten yet?”
There was rice, cold on the stove, and my sister and I ate it with red stew and bananas and did not know what to make of Vivie, speaking hysterical French in the living room, disappearing back up to the bedrooms for the rest of the week. We missed Lydia badly. My mother said, “Lydia is sick, remember? They had to bring her to the hospital.”
One day after school they took us to her—it was a white, white hospital, everything pristine and shining. I was, initially, ridiculously excited, first to see my mother (in the daytime! on a weekday!) and second, to visit Lydia. I remember getting lost among the lack of color, looking for her in vibrant yellow and green, walking around for what seemed like hours and feeling unbelievably tired.
“It’s this room,” Christiane announced finally, pointing down the hallway.
Somehow the door opened. In my Mary Janes and school uniform, moving in front of my sister, I thought, hesitantly, Lydia is not herself.
There were wires. There was maybe a tube. She was puffy, her face, her exposed arms. I wanted to climb onto the bed but I was afraid. She was excited to see us, raised her hands weakly for us; we skirted solemnly over to the bed, clinging to her sheets.
“I am coming home soon,” she whispered, pulling us in, as if we were about to take another summer nap. “Don’t worry about me, I am coming home soon.”
Then she started to cry, and my mother swooped in with her hands, flat as paddles, shooing us up and out of the room.
Lydia returned the next week, her face and arms and legs swollen from all the medication she had to take in order to be well. She walked slowly and erratically around the Biya house, shaking, feeding us potato bread and beans, watching Oprah on the couch with us and shaking. Every motion was slurred, like the world was a daze. She could not stop moving her hands. Most of the time she could not speak, her mouth couldn’t form any words, she stuttered even trying to laugh, and when she tried to laugh she would begin to cry, and then Christiane would appear to take her upstairs.
In the beginning I kept asking questions: what’s wrong with Lydia? why does she look like that? how does medication make you look like that? what’s wrong with Vivie? what kind of sickness do they have?
My mother was vague. “She’s just sick with something,” she’d respond, as if she herself didn’t know, and eventually I just stopped asking.
Of course, I did not ask Lydia anything, not even if she was feeling better, because clearly she was still very unwell and I thought it was best to leave her alone. My sister and I spent sullen, somber nights on the Biyas’ sofa, cartoons flickering blue into our faces. The adults crowded in the living room again, this time quietly, carrying out tense conversations I couldn’t understand, or tried not to hear. There was Lydia on an armchair, wrapped in a quilt, trembling violently from the medication, slurring; Vivie with her eyes gigantic, rimmed with black, bruise-like shadows, collarbones jutting out of her skin; Christiane, arms crossed, sucking her teeth, snapping; Emil in his exhausted silence; and my parents, the elders, the know-it-alls, the halfway-Americans, facing Christiane on the couch. One night the famed mother was called up and put on speakerphone, her voice so loud the whole neighborhood must have heard her declare, “Just wait, my daughters—I will be there!”
My mother cooked the day she arrived, egusi and fufu and jollof rice, and cut up watermelon and pawpaw and pineapple. There was an elaborate dinner set up in our dining room, the famed mother designated to the head of the table opposite my father, a spot usually reserved for an uncle. My sister and I brought out the bowls of water and towels and waited nervously for her to finish washing her hands. We were not sure what to call her because auntie felt more appropriate but she looked like an old grandmama with her big headwrap and shimmering ankara, blue and orange. She didn’t seem to care what we called her; “You’re so well-behaved,” she told us, “so well-mannered, so pretty.”
My mother was overjoyed by the compliments. Made us play piano for her and sing.
There are very few substantial memories I have of the Biyas beyond this. All of a sudden it was June and I was sweating in my uniform, bouncing off the schoolbus for the start of summer vacation. My mother sent my sister and me to day camp and when I was not a member of the nine- to ten-year old Junior Wolves program, trading lanyards and playing Nok Hockey till I couldn’t feel my knuckles, I was in my parents’ bedroom watching Avatar on Nickelodeon, reeking of chlorine.
“Don’t worry,” my mother said often then, out of random, “everything will be okay with Lydia.”
My sister and I were aware of the fact that my parents visited the Biyas without us and invited them over when we had gone to sleep. But I could hear my mother talking to my father about them early in the morning, when I woke up to watch Ben 10 at six thirty before summer camp. And when we came downstairs to eat cereal at eight, the chairs in the living room always smelled of them; the famed mother more than anyone else.
So, of course, then we knew that she was leaving.
The famed mother decided to take her daughters away in the middle of a storm. I was out on my front lawn, pulling flowers in the rain out of boredom, shivering in a t-shirt and shorts. It was a dark evening. The street lamps glowed orange onto the wet streets and sidewalks, highlighting my mother in the haze of fog and gloom, a huge looming shadow approaching the house. She was wearing a black rain jacket. From the mudroom, through the window screen, my sister hissed, “Get inside.”
And then in the car my father drove us all to Lydia’s house, which is the last time I played with Samuel, which is the time I tried to teach him to walk, and distracted by Lydia’s crying, let him go, which is when he fell down and lost a tooth, blood on the wood, nobody turning around fast enough for his screams—Christiane picking him up off the floor as slowly as if she were in a dream. The last time I saw the famed mother in her headwrap, green and blue, sitting at the front of the room like majesty, Lydia in her blanket unable to sit still, Vivie crying and laughing…
At nine there was nothing I knew about deportation, but I heard the famed mother tell us, “We will go back to Cameroon, all of us, before this nonsense begins,” and I didn’t know this had anything to do with green cards, or visas, or fear.
“Lydia and Vivie,” my mother said, years later, “They were so scared. Sometimes when you get so scared it can make your mind sick…”
What I remember least about Lydia—her hands, wiping away our tears. Whatever she said, stammering, to comfort us, what she did, how she looked. The final few minutes.