MY RED BUTTON
By Jumoke Giwa
Monday, June 28, 2010.
Pelu is screaming again. I am not surprised though I wonder what it is this time around. I reluctantly curl out of bed as I try not to wake Dare. I do not want to hear another sermon; just need to get to my baby. I catch a glance of myself in the hallway mirror as I tiptoe along.
Who is that woman? She does not look good, I think to myself. I stop momentarily, sweep my hair back, dab my eyes, and pat my lower lip then continue down the hallway.
As I get closer to Pelu’s room, the sound fades. I freeze at his door then peek in. He is on his stomach, drifting back to sleep. I go in anyway, pat his hair, kiss him softly, put his cover spread back on, and silently stand and wait for the heart beat that tells me he is still here. There it is.
“Good morning, Titi,” says Dare, as he walks into the kitchen.
What is good about this morning, I wonder, looking up at my husband? “Morning, Dare,” I offer.
“What are we having for breakfast?” he asks, stroking my hair and planting a peck on my forehead.
“Breakfast? At 1 p.m? Common, Dare, it is afternoon already. You slept in, yes, but the world does not stop because you are dead to it. I already had breakfast. Look in the fridge, may be you will find something for yourself. There is left-over dinner from yesterday. I just made a fruit bowl. How about some toast? Just help yourself to whatever you can find,” I reply angrily, returning to the magazine I was reading.
“Someone is grumpy this morning,” Dare says, smiling and sauntering across the kitchen towards the fridge. He grabs the fruit bowl, serves himself a helping and come over to sit with me at the table.
“What is it, Titi?” Dare asks, scooping some fruits into his mouth, a warm smile dancing on his lips.
Dare did not just ask me that question. No, he did not, I think to myself.
“You are asking me what is it, Dare? What is what? What is it that makes me ask to be left alone, to be allowed a moment of silence while I read this magazine and try not to fall asleep at mid-day? Well I have some questions for you too. What is it that makes you dead to the world less than 10 minutes after you fall asleep? What is it that prevents you from hearing the loud screams that come from Pelu’s bedroom not once, twice, but sometimes four times in one night?
“What fatigue prevents you from hearing your own son when he is in agony and can hardly get any sleep? Why are you oblivious to the several trips I make in the middle of the night in response to the shrieks coming from Pelu’s bedroom? How are you able to sleep through such loud noises as he makes and such rushed trips as I have to make to check that he is ok and tuck him back into bed? What is it, Dare, that prevents you from being a part of all these?”
“Honey, I am sorry,” Dare starts.
There he goes again. Yet another sermon, I think. He always starts his sermons with an apology.
He scoops another spoonful of fruit mix into his mouth and simultaneously courtesy towards me in jest, as he continues: “But you know, your majesty, I have to work so hard. I hardly get any break even at lunch time; some of my meetings run into the lunch hour. And you know your darling now; I try to embrace the little sleep I get, so I stay healthy and strong for you.”
Dare is smiling again. He does that all the time. He thinks most things are funny and often just wants to play and laugh it off. I do not think so. But he continues his questioning:
“Did Pelu have another episode last night? What happened? What did the Dr. say when you took him there yesterday? And what did you do when he woke up last night? Is he ok? Where is he now, in his room? Do you need me to do anything today?
“I have to be at a board meeting at 4 p.m. but I can watch him for a few hours if you need to get some sleep right now. I am sorry, Titi, but tell me what you need done and I will get to it right now. Is the laundry started? Do you need me to do grocery while you sleep? Here, I will get lunch started and you can just go back to bed. And if you would rather be here with me, then just relax while I make lunch, ok?” Dare says, looking at me from across the dining table, his smile now fading into concern and genuine interest in my needs.
“No, Dare. Not ok. Just leave it. I will do everything myself. It is Saturday and you promised to stay home this weekend. Now you are saying you have to be at work at 4 p.m? That is ok then. I don’t need you to do anything for me. I will get lunch started and laundry is already running. Just go back to your beauty sleep while I slave here, night and day, trying to make us all comfortable.
“I will wake you close to the time for your meeting. I never get any help from you in the night. You offer to help during the day; you want to do dishes, laundry, clean, fix things, and I appreciate all that but I wish you will help at night as well, especially with Pelu, but somehow, you always sleep through those screams. So no, I do not need your help right now. I can handle this,” I retort, standing up from the chair and storming out of the kitchen in anger.
But can I really, I ask myself, as I walk towards the laundry room?
What do you think, I inquire of myself further. I have been doing this lately. I come from a lineage of women whose husbands have talked more with their hands than they have with their mouths. My father was this way. So were my maternal grand father and even the great grand father.
I recall the screams coming from my parents’ room; from as early as when I was eight. I would often pretend to be asleep while I listen to my mom pleading with my dad, sometimes for hours on end, while the rest of the world slept. Or so I thought. My mom would wake up in the morning with bruises on her arms, a swollen face on many occasions, and sometimes bruises on her legs.
Yet in the morning, she still found the strength to hold me, then bath me, dress me, and get me to school. She said education is liberating and that I must get some so I can be a better person than she would ever be. On those trips to school, she often said to me: “there is power in silence, Titi.” I believed her, but could not understand why she was always so sad. Neither could I understand why my father always beat her so much.
The power in silence she talked about then eludes me till today. I could never bring myself to be silent. Even when there is no reason to talk, I make one up and talk all the same, especially when I am with Dare. I feel like I need to keep talking. I think may be if I talk endlessly, I would have helped my mom somewhat. I sometimes feel like when I speak up while with Dare, my mom is able to live through me and indeed speak up so my father would not beat her the way he did.
After I came home from school one day to find so many people in our front yard, all wailing and screaming in mourning, I vowed never to be silent. I had just turned 14. I left for school that morning on my own. My mom was too weak to get up, but she bade me good bye from her bed, gave me lunch money and told me to be careful on the road. My parting words to her were: “you be careful too, mom. I love you.” They were the last words I ever said to her.
According to the account from our next-door neighbours, they heard screams coming from our house but did not intervene, as usual. After a few hours, they saw my father leave, with a bag slung over his shoulders. They then went in to help my mom but found her lying still, in her bed. She was already dead. Just like her mom. And her grand mother before her. I never found out the details of what happened. My father never came back and neither was he ever held accountable for the crime.
So I stand here over the laundry machine, more than two decades after that incident, and as I wait for the spin cycle to end, I wonder if I can really handle this.
Can I really handle this, I ask myself again?
After my mom’s death, I went to live with her only sibling, who is a nurse in one of the big hospitals in the city. My aunt Rose took care of me, made sure I went to college, and was ecstatic when she saw me to Dare’s family house on the night I became his wife. Yet she warned me repeatedly about the signs. I remember asking her what these signs are and how I am supposed to know them.
She advised me to look out for signs because according to her, my husband will hit me too. She said I should know when to run so I do not end up like my mother. She told me the story of how she and my mom witnessed their dad hit my grand mother. And she vividly remembered my great grand mother’s story as well. It all seemed like yesterday, she said. She would like me to keep watch because she is still watching too, at her age, in her own marriage. In all the years I lived with her, I never saw her husband hit her though, but neither did she ever say he did not.
As a result of this, I constantly feel like I am on the run. And run I must, because this cycle has to stop and I intend to be the clog in its wheel. I intend to be the first woman in my family whose husband will not hit her. And if I ever get hit, I intend to be the last because I have vowed to myself that I will avenge my mother, grand mother, and even great grand mother in the only way I can. The man who lays his hands on me will not go unpunished, I promised myself.
But where are the signs? What are the signs I am supposed to look for? It has been over five years since Dare carried me through the threshold of our house. Our son is turning three next week. When is the first shove going to come? And the slap aunt Rose warned me about?
Why has he not struck me yet? What am I not doing? This does not look normal. Where are the signs she talked about, the similarities that could be between Dare and my dad, because the men in my family always hit their wives? Why has Dare not uttered his first scream yet? Why has he not yelled at me yet?
As I head back to the kitchen, in continuation of my daily ritual, I could hear Dare coming up behind me. He is walking softly, as if on eggshells. I turn around, stretch my arms, and lose myself in his embrace. I am exhausted. Again. I walk with him as he steers me towards our bedroom.
We both get back into bed and just lay there in each others’ arms. He must have seen me like this too many times already in all the five years we have been married. He must think it strange that I flare up over little things like this too often but he never raises issues about them. Often when he is not rushing on to something else, he would cuddle me and re-assure me, calm me down, and just steer me back into the moment, like he is doing right now.
I must have drifted off to sleep when I got into the bed with Dare because the next thing I knew, I was back in my parents’ house. How do I always end up back here? I am in our back yard, with my mom. She is washing the clothes while I am washing the dishes. Suddenly she pause and say to me:
“Titi, you need to understand that sometimes, some things happen in life that we can not understand. I do not understand why my father beat my mother. I still do not understand it today. I do know that after I woke up one morning to find that she had run away and left me and your aunt Rose behind, I was very sad and I promised myself never to leave my children.
“My mother used to shout at my dad a lot. They always fought and will be making a scene in the village every day. My father would hit her and beat her all the time. My sister Rose and I were always ashamed and afraid, but we could not stop them. My father would say to my mother that she is going to end up dead like my grandma, who was always disobedient to her husband.
“So many people have told me to leave your father but I can not do that. You are my only child and I will be here for you, no matter what. Just know that whatever happens, I love you and I will not leave you here by yourself.”
I nodded to my mom and told her I love her too and will protect her and care for her. I thanked her for taking care of me and continued with the dishes. But I did not quite finish them when I suddenly woke up again. Pelu’s shriek sends both Dare and I scampering and running to his room.
“It is ok, honey. Mommy and Daddy are here,” I offer, while Dare scoops him up and holds him. But it seem just a hold will not do. The screaming continues even as Dare tries to suppress it by pressing Pelu’s head against his chest. Then with the same intensity the shriek started, it winds up. Pelu settles into his father’s warm, beary chest then return to sleep.
“Bring him to our room,” I whisper to Dare.
Dare and I lie on the two ends of the king-size bed while Pelu is tucked between us, his head lying gently on Polo, one of his favourite baby panda toys, whose twin lives permanently in Pelu’s bed. I could hear Dare slipping back into sleep and in the enveloping silence, I imagine his heartbeat match Pelu’s. I turn on my back and gradually release myself to sleep too but could not really sleep again so I sit up instead and just watch my two boys do it for me. They look so peaceful and handsome.
It could not have been more than a moment. But I thought that was all I needed. Or may be not. Just as I slid back on my side to get some sleep, the screaming starts again. This time around, there are two screams and they both will not let off. I hold Pelu and call out to Dare but they are both busy. Screaming. So I turn my back and reach for the button.
Where is my button, I wonder, rushing out of bed and searching frantically?
“Titi,” Dare calls out to me, rolling over the other side to catch Pelu, who is now playfully running towards the door. I look up from my crouched position beside the bed and in Dare’s right hand lies my precious button.
“I took it to bed last night, because I thought you may need it and I did not want you to have to get out of bed so I figured I should help you keep it close by,” Dare, my loving and caring husband said, as he runs after Pelu and they both continue running into the living room, screaming jokingly all the way.
I grab the button from him and just stand there, staring into the empty space where Dare had been a second ago. Now he knows I have this button, I thought. I wonder how long he has known or what he thinks I need it for. He does not even know what it is meant for. If only he knows. Neither does he know about the fate that befell my mom or the other women in my family.
My aunt Rose gave me the button. She said I am going to need it one day. She told me how my mom had refused it even though she needed it and her mom did too; so did her grandma. She said being hit is a family ritual and that it is a natural thing, that when I need the button, using it will come to me naturally and I should not hesitate. So I look for opportunities to use the button. I pick on Dare and pinch Pelu. I scream, yell, throw fits but still do not get a chance to use my button. When I realize that I am inching closer to recommending the button to Dare than I am to using it for myself, I gradually start thinking it may be time to change course and tell Dare about it all.
How will he know unless someone tells him, I think? How long more do I need to live this way, constantly waiting, hoping, wondering when it is going to be my turn? Why do I think I will get hit? What if Dare is not like my father? It is time I stop wishing this upon myself. What if the cycle is already broken and I just do not know it? Why am I anticipating an act from someone who obviously has no intention of ever performing such act? May be it is time I face my fear.
I run after Dare and Pelu. And while Pelu is cheerfully eating the food Dare just served him, I pull Dare into the living room and take him on a journey that three generations of women in my family have been on for decades. It took me less than five minutes:
“Dare, do you know what this button is for?” I ask him.
“Not really. I rarely see you use it,” Dare reply.
“It is my panic button,” I say.
“Panic? About what? Your panic button? Why? Is everything alright, Titi? Why would you need a panic button?” he asks, genuinely concerned and instantly gathering me into his arms.
“Aunt Rose gave me this button because she thinks I may need it one day. My mother was a victim of spousal abuse, just like her mom, and her grand mother. My aunt thinks you will hit me one day and she says when it happens, I should press this button,” I tell Dare as I look at him to see his reaction.
He is sad; very sad. He pulls me into his arms and he says to me: “you will never need that button, Titi. I promise you.”
I believe him. And to confirm that to myself, I give the button to him and I say: “you probably need this button more than I do. You have needed it since you met me, but just did not know it, what with all my doubts and stirrings that might have made some other man lose his cool a long time ago.”
Dare takes the button from me. He takes my hand and leads me to the garbage can. “Neither of us needs this button, Titi. We do need each other though, today and always. And we also need to trust and believe each other,” Dare says to me. With that statement, he toss the button into the garbage can, lift me off the floor and carry me back into the living room to join Pelu, who is now engrossed in his play with his twin pandas.
As I close my eyes and lose myself in Dare’s loving and caring embrace, I hear my mother’s voice one last time. She says not to worry, that she is still here watching over me. She says all will be fine. I tell her all is fine. She knows what I know. Dare knows what she knows. I know what she and Dare know. All is fine.
Jumoke Giwa is a writer and academic.