Columba let himself into the small, dim room with a flask of hot water and a stash of towels. It smelled of urine, stale food and sweat. He flung open the windows and gulped in fresh air; this cross wasn’t becoming any easier to bear. But what choices did he have?
Behind him, his mother stirred in her sleep. She had wet herself, the smell of fresh urine melded with the old and he thought he would faint. Holding his breath, he picked the plates of half eaten food and dumped them in a heap outside.
When he re-entered the room, she was awake.
“Dominic” His mother said, as she fumbled with her beddings.
“No Mama. It isn’t Dominic. Dominic has been gone for five years now.”
Mama Bessie burst into tears. “My darling Dominic. You were the best child I ever had. Why did you have to leave me now? Why? Why?”
Columba grunted. He wanted to shake his mother till her teeth rattled. He wanted to remind her that Dominic had been a rogue, a thief. He wanted to recount the nightmare Dominic had put them through when he got arrested for possession of illegal fire arms; to talk about Mama’s wrappers and gold Dominic had stolen and sold for a pittance to the Hausa men at Gbogobiri. He wanted to say that getting shot by a firing squad was just what Dominic deserved. He kept quiet instead and dumped the smelly soaked sheets in the blue plastic bucket.
He walked into the bathroom and mixed the hot water with cold. Returning to the bed he undressed her. He tried to avert his eyes from her failing sagging body; the grey pubic hair, the flat, flaccid breasts. He failed. It was hard to believe this was the same woman that had been admired in seven villages for her beauty. It was very hard. Dumping the soiled clothes into the same blue bucket, he wished he could afford disposable adult diapers. Wishes weren’t horses, in any case Columba wasn’t good at horse-riding.
An hour later he was through. His back ached from the bending and turning, cleaning and rinsing. Mama Bessie looked almost pretty in the her fresh clothes. Strands of silver hair curled around her purple scarf. He had to cut her hair, soon.
Mama Bessie didn’t answer. He let himself out.
Work was the usual conundrum: pale paper-white kids in late stages of severe malaria, un-booked pregnant women appearing in active labour and accident victims. He did his best to help them. There was so much one could do when patients came in with a hundred naira or less. Drugs and materials where released on a ‘Pay before service basis’. Columba couldn’t count the number of patients that died because they couldn’t pay the medical fees; he didn’t try.
Someone was calling him. The locals believed the men in the hospital were doctors and the females nurses. It made his male colleagues happy and the female doctors peeved. He was ambivalent. He wasn’t a doctor, he was a nurse. Calling him one didn’t help his pay check and kept Dr Emily laughing. He had to do what Dr Emily asked him to whether he liked it or not. She liked to send him around and bark at him when locals watched in horror; her way of asserting her position. Calling him doctor only reminded him that he never got admitted to read Medicine, it was fresh pepper, sprinkled on his pain.
He rushed there to find the patient still; eyes staring ,mouth gaping. Her relatives were a screaming, praying, wailing mass. He pressed her eyes shut and prepped the body. He couldn’t help noticing she was about his age.
Dr. Emily accosted him on his way out.
“Columba, see me in my office please.”
His stomach kissed his toes. What had he done now? Reluctantly he made his way to her office. It was a small room with faded green blinds and furniture that was decades old.
Dr Emily sat and beckoned on him to do same.
“I am going on a three day casual leave tomorrow. I have to leave a little early to get set for my trip. We just got this box of emergency supplies from the Ministry. I would like you to take stock of them and start using them at once.”
Columba exhaled. Dr Emily was travelling! This was good news.
“Please be very careful with the Zeophyl and Adremonal. A fast intravenous bolus of either can be lethal. Take every precaution before administering. If you have a difficult case, do not hesitate to refer.”
And that was how he found himself in possession of two potent cardiotoxic drugs in one afternoon.
Over the next few days he considered the possibilities. Euthanasia was illegal. Punishable by death. He loved his mother; but watching her lose her body and now her mind was too much for him. Besides no one would know a thing. An autopsy was unheard of.
There would be no witnesses. Mama Bessie was ninety-six. No one would ask the cause of death. His other siblings were faraway in Lagos, Ibadan and Zaria. They didn’t know what he went through everyday. If they did, they didn’t care.
A few minutes later, he made up his mind.
Mama Bessie was awake when he got there.
His pulse jumped and raced. She hadn’t called him that in two years. Most times she called him Dominic and occasionally Francis. He tried to swallow, the pebble in his throat wouldn’t let him.
“What did you learn in school today?”
Relief washed over him in a wave. She hadn’t magically regained her mind. She was still senile, still receding into the comforts of her foggy memory. He felt bad about sending his mother to the afterlife but if she was of sound mind he would find it impossible.
“A lot Mama. We added sums and did some English.” He said. Not a lie, he had balanced the books at the hospital emergency unit. And he had checked up ‘asphyxiated’ in a dictionary.
“Good boy. Make sure you pay attention at school so you can be a good doctor when you grow up, okay?”
“Yes Mama. I want to give you a little medicine to stop your waist pain. Lie still. It won’t hurt much.”
Mama Bessie lay as she was told. He drew the Zeophyl and Adremonal into 5ml syringes. He fetched the transparent strips of plastic from his pocket and used them as a tourniquet. She had prominent veins.
“Do it quickly, Columba.”
A chill raced up his legs. So she knew what he wanted to do. Tremors racked his belly and he felt dizzy for a moment. He fled outside for some fresh air and a chance to think. How could he be doing this? How could he kill his mother?
Somewhere in the distance, speakers were blaring Mbarga’s Sweet mother.
Sweet mother, I no go forget you,
For the suffer wey you suffer for me…
Make you no cry again o!
Tears tumbled down his cheeks and he let them fall. Self-disgust filled him like a foam frothing over a beer glass. He couldn’t do this. Mama Bessie had been been there for him in every way. Granted she had never loved him the way she doted on Dominic or pampered Francis, but she hadn’t hurt him either. And now she knew. She knew!
He made his way back to the room, to clear away the drugs and leave. He met Mama Bessie smiling and still. With a syringe sticking out of her arm and an empty one on the floor.