You have had dealings with other women. You have held them, and they have held you, and they have whispered in your ear how much they love you. And you look at this woman, your mother, and though she has never said those three words to you, you see quite clearly: no woman in the world will ever love you like her again. Though you were to meet all the women in the world, though you were to seduce (or be seduced by) all of them.
The other men you know, your friends, all swear by their mothers. When they are angry, when they fight, it is each others' mothers they curse. It has always seemed a bit like posturing to you, when they speak about all they will do for their mothers, once they have the money. And so you have tried, when you are alone, to understand your own feelings for yours. Their roots deep within you, the first person you ever felt anything for. Yet not quite emotions, not exactly. Seeming to exist in a previous state. It occurs to you that what we start with, what exists before emotion, has no name. Only: it is strong, and it is wild, and we barely have any control over it. And it is out of this uncontrollable product of our hearts, this raw material, that we forge what we call emotions, shapes we can recognize, feelings we can begin to describe. The connection between you and her exists in this pre-emotional state. You will go out into the world, and you will come back home, and always it will be waiting, while she yet has breath in her (and you cannot even begin to think about the alternative, coming home to not find her there, you are not yet, perhaps never will be, equipped for such grief…). So when the other men speak of their mothers, you are silent. There are things we hide within us, jealously guarding them, never sharing them with anyone. When you are feeling scientific you attempt to explain it to yourself. The bond between mother and child, how you grew up inside her for three-fourths of a year. But most days you are happy without an explanation, happy only to sit next to her, and talk. To listen to her speak, your mother, how she laughs when you crack a joke. Leaning over you, putting her hand on your shoulder. Moving with a lightness through the world that you have seldom seen in the men of the country, the proud rulers of their homes, full of faida. And you think, even as you grow into a Gambian man, how you would like to be more like her. But you think this in the same way a Gamo-kat speaks about being more like the holy Prophet. An attempt - nothing more - to reach heights you know you will never be able to, levels of goodness-of-heart you cannot even begin to comprehend how to achieve…
Sitting on your bed, she asks you a question, something about your life away. An illness you had suffered from in your absence, and how you battled it. And then she said, but it's over? And you said yes, and she nodded, and then she looked down at the clothes she was folding. Just like that - a nod, a look between you, that lasted only a second.
But in that second you knew. You saw it clearly written on her face, and you did not know how you had missed it, all these years. For what you saw in her face was a special specie of kindness, self-sacrificing, wholly given without expecting reciprocation - no more and no less than that. Later you would expand the act, break it apart into its constituent elements, add degrees to it. But in that moment you did not need to - it was as if the whole of human nature was written in that look, and if this were true you saw how there was hope for humanity after all. In their sermons Imams spoke about the wrath of God, and the wide expanse of its devastation. They spoke of how in the night God looked on the Earth, and saw the evil in men's hearts, and raised His mighty hand to destroy it, destroy all of creation that brought Him such displeasure, once and for all. But then, in His omniscience, God saw a Waaliyu, a holy man, a saint, standing atop a prayer mat, prepared to spend the whole night worshipping his God. And God saw this, and because of this man He delayed the coming of His wrath upon the world, and all of creation was saved once more. You always liked this story, this idea of God taking pity on Man, because of one man's actions. The earth's savior, unknown and unthanked, alone in his room bowing down before God, not knowing what power he held, to alter fate, to waylay destiny. But you think they got one part wrong. You think it wasn't a man praying that God saw. It was a Gambian mother, in bed, tired from a day's work, tired from buying firewood and tending the fire, from cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes and taking them out to dry and the million other things it takes to run a home, and still having time to raise the children. To love them as they ought to be loved. In your version of the story, this is what God saw, and what stayed His hand.
It has always puzzled you, the gender debate that has sprung up around the issue of women in Gambian society, and their position in relation to men. Women are weak, men are superior to them, almost everyone you talk to tells you, man and woman alike. And you think, this must be a very peculiar form of inferiority, for a moment you think, perhaps I do not understand what the word means after all. For in all the years you have lived in this country you have never seen a single woman complain about the work she does in the house, for her husband and her children. You still find this hard to believe, when you think about it. You can imagine yourself, for one day, taking on the duties of the house. You would sweep the floors of all the rooms, and later wash them. You would get into the kitchen, and on your knees on the dirt floor, eyes stinging, light a fire to cook lunch on. You would go to the market, and buy what little you could afford on the small depaas you had been given. And, because this was only for one day, you would do all this without a word. When your husband came home, and complained about how much salt was in the food, you would take it with grace and silence (though looking closely someone would be able to see just how brittle your smile had become, just how close to breaking). One day, you would repeat to yourself, it is only for one day. But you cannot, even in your most charitable moments, imagine doing this all your life, as the days turned into months, the months into years... Every single day, come rainy season or dry, come a chill breeze or the dusty harmattan. You think about what depths of unselfishness it must take, what mastery over one's ego. Doing everything one did, without expecting praise or payment - and for what? You do not understand - what's in it for them, you think over and over, and you can never come up with an answer. And before you ever ask her, this woman, your mother, you realize just how foolish the question is, how foolish and ridiculous, like asking 'when is the moon coming to dinner?'. It is a question that will make no sense to her. And you think about your own self, and how selfish you are. How you want every good action you do to be recognized, to be praised. How even when you claim to people you are modest, and do not want their praise, still in a secret part of yourself you hope they will not stop, they will continue to confirm what you have always believed about yourself and your own talent. What inferiority then, you ask yourself. Certainly not that of character - and what else should a man (or woman) be judged by?
Nights of insomnia, days of grouchiness and an over-bright Sun. You lie in bed in the dark and think, I have never shown her how much all she does means to me. You think, all these years I have taken her for granted, and never thanked her for anything. The best things in our lives we seldom notice, until it is too late, until they are gone… And then what heartache we feel, what regret. Once you saw a mother pleading with two paras. Her son in a knife fight, someone called them. They came to pick him up. She was one of the most quarrelsome women on your street, known for her razor-sharp tongue and her raunchy wit - all the men of the street fearing her. Yet there she stood before the para - who looked younger than her own son - and about her waist her headwrap was tied, and her hands were clasped, and she was almost on her knees. My son, she said, you know I would not do this, it is only youth. Please forgive him - please do not take him away. And the para, resolutely refusing her pleas, and the look of increasing desperation in her eyes. The way she tried to catch their eyes with hers, and the way they continually looked away, so she would not succeed. And you knew why: what you saw in her eyes made you want to forgive every crime her son had ever committed, on her word alone. And for a moment you felt what it must be like. A part of yourself, grown within you. A creature completely dependent on you, helpless, unable to feed itself, or walk, or do anything on its own. The only child in all of creation, the first and the last, the most beautiful thing in the world. Nights filled with its screaming, as red-eyed you sang to it to calm it down. All your days centered around it, sleeping only when it slept, eating only after it had been fed. Its cry getting you on your feet and running to where it was before it ever reached your brain, perhaps even before you had quite heard it… All the sacrifices you had to make, for its welfare - and yet every single one of them worth it, when holding it in your arms it looked at you and grinned - pink gums, eyes crinkled up, face so tiny… Growing up so fast - the first days at school, the scabbed knees and dirty shorts, beginning to discover a world outside of the one you had constructed for it so meticulously, beginning to explore its possibilities. Able at last to stand on its own, yet not ready, never ready, to leave - the world filled with shadows, and dangers, and a cruelty which would crush it - your fears, your worries, wishing you could live its life for it, absorb all the pain alloted to it, all the sorrow that awaited it in the future, and you would suffer it all gladly so it could live, so it could be happy, and nothing would ever mar that happiness…
Lately you have begun to think about writing an essay about your mother, and your relationship with her. How could you write about returning home, after all, without including the person without whom home would not exist, the heart of home, its pulse felt through your life no matter how far you went; and its skin, spread out so it could hold everything and everyone together, no matter what. The best person you have known in your life. But every time you try to get started, every time you sit before your laptop and open a fresh page, you come up with nothing, words fail you. Perhaps, you think, I am not a writer of sufficient skill - perhaps a better writer could do it without even thinking. But the last time you try, looking at the icons on your computer screen, you think, that is not true. For there are things that cannot be written down, that cannot be explained. For sometimes words are not enough, fall just short of the uses to which we would like to put them. And so you close your computer, and you walk away from it. You go into your mother's room, and you sit down on the floor, and lean against a wall. She is sitting on the bed, listening to the BBC world service, the radio held up close to her ear, a look of concentration on her face as she attempts to decipher the words over the static. She turns to you where you sit. Come, she tells you, patting the bed next to her and smiling, get off the floor and come sit next to me.