He pushed the pedal all the way_ and even though the sole of his right foot was almost flat on the floor, he applied more pressure. The loud responsive rev of the engine belied the slothful pace at which the antiquated Opel Astra climbed up the hill. He pushed the pedal harder still, slapping the steering wheel and biting his lower lip in sheer frustration, the Astra slowed and sputtered, its entire frame spasmed as the vehicle threatened to go off. He quickly stepped on the clutch and shifted gears to neutral and pushed the pedal down again. Thick black smoke emitted from the exhaust pipe as the vehicle made coughing sounds, regularly at first, then intermittently, until all that could be heard was the loud cry of the ancient engine. He pressed the pedal a few times more then engaged the first gear.
A sharp pain seared through his right shoulder just when he started the calculated process of lifting his foot from the clutch and pushing the accelerator down, the resultant reflex action caused him to lean to his right and lift his foot off the clutch pedal, the vehicle lurched forward and died an instant death.
“Hurry up!!!” came the belaboured cry. He turned, and the sight of the woman in the back seat threw him off even more.
In all of his adolescent through to adult life, this was the most beautiful and put together woman he had known… well, up until thirty or so minutes ago when she threw all she knew about poise to the wind and was thrashing about uncontrollably in the back seat, keeping her legs as wide open as possible and cursing with every breath.
Pearly teeth, beautiful eyes, superb afro, fist sized breasts, unbelievable waist, not so wide a hip, a perfect curve of a rump that could pass for a Guinness book of records contender, and above all of these; a beautiful mind with the sweetest demeanor… well, that was until fourteen months ago.
He had done the right thing, he had married his queen. He loved how she still decked herself in her finery, her denim pants and turtlenecks when outside and her wicked bum shorts when they were alone. How glorious that day felt when five months into their marriage, she showed him the result of the pregnancy test. She still wore her tight fitting outfits, she was still smashing hot, but the demeanor diminished with each passing trimester.
Her cravings were unbelievable; if she wanted coffee, it had to be from the Colombian mountains and they had to be beans of a certain weight and harvested at a certain altitude…
if she wanted chocolate, it had to be made from cocoa plucked at 5:15 in the morning in the south of Ghana…
if it wasn’t catfish with three pairs of whiskers with the exact same length caught from the ikogosi warm spring (an impossibility mind you), then the peppersoup was cyanide to her. Her demands became more unimaginable as her denims became more difficult to fit in.
There was a low rumble, like the sound of distant thunder. He looked at the sky; it was clear, the only change in it was the characteristic orange hue of late afternoon.
“Hurry up, Enyinnaya, aaaah!” she grunted in pain.
Enyinnaya could smell blood and body fluids. In his confusion, he reached for the key in the ignition and felt the sharp pain again, then he looked at his right shoulder, her fingers had torn through his flesh and dug in deep. Blood trickled down his skin and stained his white under vest. In their hurry to get to the hospital, he had not worn a shirt, just as she had thrown only a wrapper around her chest on her nightie.
“Chikamso, you are ripping me to bits.” He said and eased her hand off his shoulder.
“Drive, you bastard.” She yelled and returned her grip on his shoulder. He winced in pain and snatched her hand off his shoulder, reached for the ignition, and noticed from the corner of his eye a tree pass by. He thought he heard a light thud other than Chikamso’s hysterics from behind, then he rolled over a bump; only then did he become aware of the fact that the vehicle was rolling back downhill.
He hit the brakes and pulled the hand brake before the front tires could roll over the bump that he could have sworn wasn’t there before. He turned the key in the ignition;
Sputter, sputter, cough, cough. Silence.
He turned the ignition again;
Sputter, sputter, cough, cough, cough, sputter.
He felt a stinging pain on the back of his neck, “Move this vehicle, are you not good for anything? Aaaah.” She had slapped him.
He turned slowly and glared at her, he could taste blood. She grunted again. The look on her face. He turned quickly, pumped the accelerator severally and turned the ignition. Like a note gradually hitting crescendo, the engine came to life. Quickly engaging gear, he nudged the vehicle up hill, climbing the strange bump again with his back tires.
From the zenith of the hilly, isolated road, he could see the lights of the hospital in the distance, dusk had set in now. He hightailed the vehicle and in a little over twenty minutes, he burst through the door to the reception.
“My wife, she’s in labour, come quickly, please.”
A grumpy attendant stared at him through bespectacled eyes, then stretched out and reached for a folder. Taking all the time in the world, he thumbed through the papers in it, every so often adjusting his glasses to keep them from falling off his nose.
“Sir, my wife, she’s in labour.” Enyinnaya said again.
“My friend, you are in a hospital, stop raising your voice.” The attendant said at the top of his voice.
“But you are…”
“Are you trying to teach me my job? Do I look foolish to you?” The attendant asked, “Do you not see that I am trying to ensure that paperwork gets done? Where is the respect in the world today? My third child is about your age… I’m not surprised in any way, the whole lot of you—”
Enyinnaya stared in disbelief, the several months of torture he had faced raced through his mind, and now this? He slammed his fist in the reception desk and threw a tantrum. Soon nurses were running down the hallway with a screaming Chikamso on a gurney and a seething Enyinnaya on their heels.
“Sir, we can’t let you in yet.” One of the nurses said at the door to the delivery room.
“You dare not keep my man away from me, you dare not.” Chikamso said and held on to the edge of the door like her life depended on it.
“You need to fill out some paperwork first, then it is up to you to stay by her side or outside—”
“He is staying by my side.” Chikamso yelled.
“Sir?” The nurse inquired of him, he nodded absentmindedly, the smell of Chikamso’s fluids coupled with the characteristic sterile smell of the hospital was wearing him down.
“Do you have insurance?” She asked again, Enyinnaya stared blankly. When nothing was forthcoming after a few seconds, the nurse eased him away from the door and back to the bespectacled attendant who had himself received a tongue lashing from the doctor on call and was extremely displeased.
Just as they made the bend to the reception area, they saw him (the attendant) end a call and stand up with urgency, he ran past them down the hall towards the admin area and disappeared behind the door to that area.
When they got to the empty desk, the nurse went round and provided Enyinnaya with the necessary documents to fill, which he did; his trembling hands almost making his writing unintelligible.
The nurse eyed the finger marks on his shoulder and the blood stained vest. “Labour pains?” She said and Enyinnaya exhaled noisily. “Now to get you sterilized and dressed.” she led him away. The bespectacled attendant ran past them again, out of uniform and fully dressed in his own clothes.
Soon afterwards, Enyinnaya was by Chikamso’s side. Nothing he had imagined or heard from other fathers or seen in the numerous documentaries of childbirth he’d purchased prepared him for this. Her screams were blood curdling, literally. In his confused state, he left her side and stood in front of her open legs and wretched when he saw the baby crown. He returned to her side and held her hand, his tummy in knots.
“I hate you!” she yelled.
“I hate me too.” He replied breathless.
“See what you are putting me through.” she grunted.
“We were in it together.” He replied, his mouth felt dry.
“Breathe.” The doctor ordered.
“I’m breathing, it’s quite difficult through this mask though.” Enyinnaya said.
“Not you, you idiot.” Chikamso said.
“I was referring to her, sir.” The doctor chuckled, “Breathe madam, just like they taught you at ANC.” He said.
Chikamso huffed and puffed a few times when the doctor gave the order,
Chikamso pushed as hard as she could, the veins visible on her face and neck threatened to burst. Her eyes filled with tears. Enyinnaya felt satisfied for a second, it was evident that the child was meting out punishment for her terrorist acts against him these few months on his behalf, he was going to get it a BMX bike once it came out.
“We’re almost there.” The doctor announced.
Enyinnaya rubbed her back and whispered in her ear to soothe her; just as the doctor ordered. Suddenly, her grip on his hand became vice-like.
“You’re crushing my hand.” He winced.
Chikamso let out another blood curdling yell.
“Breathe.” The doctor ordered again. Chikamso did as directed, Enyinnaya bested her at it as he breathed enough air for them both.
“PUSH!!!” The doctor ordered again. And Chikamso pushed with all the strength she could muster.
And then there was silence…
Chikamso exhaled and fell back in the bed with her eyes closed, pulling Enyinnaya along until he almost fell on her. The doctor lifted the child by its tiny legs so it dangled upside down in midair, it was dead silent. He lifted his hand and was about to smack its rump when it let out a shrill cry. The nurses and midwives quickly wrapped the child in a blanket and presented it to its mother.
Enyinnaya fell to his knees and almost passed out.
Chikamso looked from her baby to her husband. “I love you so much, I love you. See what you made me do.” She said.
“Yeah, I did that.” He said.
She kissed him long and deep and handed his child to him.
He collected the baby in his hands and tried to adjust it properly so it would rest comfortably on his hands when he felt something like a swelling in its lower back region, and in its middle there seemed to be a hole; it was big enough for his finger to fit in, the hole felt like it had a membranous layer covering it.
“Doctor, there seems to be something wrong with the baby.” He said.
The doctor reached for the baby and almost immediately felt the swelling and the hole for himself. “Oh God, no!” He exclaimed and rushed out of the delivery room with the baby.
Enyinnaya went after the doctor, Chikamso’s delirious questioning floated after him.
He followed the doctor through a set of swinging doors with “ICU” boldly written above them but was stopped just inside by a stern faced, middle aged nurse. His eyes followed the doctor as he went down that hall and entered a room on his left.
The middle aged nurse pointed at the swinging doors, indicating that he wait outside.
“Is there anything you can do for the child?” She asked.
“Outside.” She ordered.
Enyinnaya walked out sullen. A few minutes later, the same nurse who gave him the forms to fill ran past him with a feeding bottle filled with milk. She was a sight to behold. This was not the time for that. What was going on?
He reached in his pocket for his rosary but couldn’t find it. He said a few Hail Mary’s aloud and about a hundred Angeluses when the doctor came out with a grim look on his face.
“Doc, my baby, how is it?” Eniyinnaya asked, fear that the worst had happened overwhelmed him.
“Alive, he’s having his first meal.” The doctor replied.
Enyinnaya lifted his fists in the air, “Chukwu daalu. Thank you Lord. So it’s a boy.” He said, relief flooding through his system. “Chukwu gozie gi, doctor (God bless you, doctor). When can I see him?”
“He’s in NICU at the moment, we don’t allow people in there anyhow, but I’ll see what I can do.” The doctor replied.
“Thank you.” Enyinnaya said. “But doc, I wanted to ask, does NICU mean National Incoming Childen’s Unit or something? Seeing that you brought a newborn here. Plus, you really scared me with the way you barged out of the delivery room. Thank God my little Chima is doing well and eating fine.”
“Enyinna… can I call you that?” The doctor asked, Enyinnaya nodded. “First of all, your child is alive, and we should be thankful for that, but there’s a challenge at hand….” He said.
“Challenge? What challenge is that?” Enyinnaya asked, the smile on his face beginning to wane.
“The NICU is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, we treat life and death situations of newborns in there.” The doctor said frankly.
“Wh– What are you saying? My child is dying?” The colour had drained from Enyinnaya’s face. They heard the approaching sound of a blaring siren outside.
“It’s the swelling on his back,” the doctor paused for a second,
“Enh henh?” Enyinnaya cut in, “Is it abnormal to have a boil?”
The doctor continued, “I wish it was that easy. What your son has is a condition called spina bifida, split spine.” Enyinnaya stared blankly at him, he continued. “When your baby was developing in the womb, his spine did not develop properly, that is, the region it usually is in didn’t close up properly, hence there’s a hole in his back that leads straight into the spinal canal and in essence his spinal cord is exposed to the open, except for the membrane covering the hole. This is the easiest explanation I can—”
Another nurse burst in with blood stained gloved hands from the direction where Enyinnaya and the doctor had come in some minutes before, “Doctor, come quick, it’s an emergency.”
“Would you excuse me?” The doctor said to Enyinnaya and sprang to his feet, “What is it, Bose?” He called after the nurse who had dashed back out. There were shouts coming from the other side of the swinging door….
Enyinnaya’s world was set on pause.