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As they drove to ancient Ilisan to see their seventy-four-year old paralytic grandmother, Iya Olobi, Olamide looked around at her brother Jide, who sat quietly next to the window in the back seat. She wondered if he was affected by it all. Probably not at all. He would never understand.
Jide, Olamide’s younger brother by two years, had been brain-damaged from birth. He could not speak, could not hear and saw poorly. He stopped growing when he was about 1.6 meters, and struggled against obesity. A wall of autism shut him away from the outside world. He spent most of his time lost in his own musings, nodding, laughing, clucking and crying at pageants only he could see.
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Growing up, Olamide and her elder sister played games, made friends, and went out to movies and parties. Jide stayed at home, entertaining himself on a rocking chair, staring at television or playing with empty glass bottles—his lifelong fascination. During his teens, Jide battled with an emotional overload of adolescence. Seized by fits of anger, he would burst into uncontrollable tears. Or rake his fingernails down his face until his cheeks bled.

He passed through several distinct phases, each marked by a peculiar ritual. First, there was ground-kissing. Ever so often, for no apparent reason, he would stop in misstep, drop to his knees and give the floor a long, passionate kiss. Wiping the dirt from his lips, he would totter up back to his feet and, with an air of accomplishment, continue on his way.


Ground-kissing gave way to spinning in place. From a sitting position, Jide would suddenly stand up, twirl around as if he were unwinding himself from an invisible string and then, satisfied, take his seat, while the world danced before him. He whirled three times—never more, never less.

For years, the family reaction to Jide’s behaviour was embarrassment, anger and resentment. His parents were more understanding, but the two sisters believed he waved his most humiliating stunts when they were in public. As Olamide got older, however, she began to understand that Jide had no control over his actions, that she could not judge him as she judged other people. He wasn’t trying to be difficult or strange. He was simply lost, never to be found.


As she drove, other memories floated through her mind: memories of Iya Olobi, arms like sticks. Her thin, shaking fingers carefully unwrapping packets to avoid tearing the paper, which she folded neatly by her side. And of course, talking, incessantly, so much so that others could hardly speak.

While Iya Olobi could not listen and Jide could not talk, they understood each other perfectly. She played with him, smiled with him, looked more at him, fascination and patience and warmth glittering in her eyes, as if they were both newly bound by a common loss. And it was true. Their minds and bodies had failed them both.


When Olamide and Jide arrived at Iya Olobi’s home and stepped into her room, Olamide saw that the stroke had left Iya Olobi egregiously whittled. The hollow, gaping mask that stared up from a pillow, trembling and unresponsive, was the face of a wised-up stranger. Her mouth hung open. Her wide, misty eyes blinked and stared, but appeared not to see.

Olamide and Jide’s stepmother, with whom Iya Olobi lived, stood around the bed, smiling understandingly, mumbling that everything would be all right. Olamide avoided the woman’s face and concentrated on her grandmother. Stripped of her verbal armour, Iya Olobi seemed exposed and—Olamide realized with heavy sadness—vulnerable.


“We love you, Iya Olobi,” Olamide said, wondering if she was reaching her. Her words hung in the air, sounding distant and insincere even to her own ears.

Jide stood quietly next to the window, his face swollen, tears streaming from his eyes, mucus from his nose. Olamide avoided his face, too. A black bird cawed past the window and Jide gasped. He walked over to the bed. He leaned over Iya Olobi’s withered figure and took her cheeks gently in his hands. Head bowed, he stood there for an eternity, cradling her face and soaking her green blouse with his tears. In this silence, in that wordless exchange, volumes were being spoken.


Olamide felt a rush inside of her of a deep warmth. It surged upwards like an inexorable flood, constricting her throat, filling her eyes, until the room melted into a wash of colours and liquid shapes. As the pictures blurred, her perception snapped into brilliant focus. For better than she, he knew the true meaning of the visit. He knew it perfectly because he grasped it not with his head but with his heart. Because, like a child unrestrained by propriety or ego, he had the freedom, courage and honesty to reach out in pain to his grandmother. This was love, simple and pure.

Olamide realized that Jide’s condition, for all the grief it brought, was in one sense a remarkable and precious gift. Among the many things Jide was born without was the capacity for insincerity. He could not show what he did not feel, nor could he suppress urgent emotion. She stood next to him, consumed by his expression of unselfish love, and stopped wondering why Jide could not be more like her. At that moment, she wanted to be more like him.


As they were leaving in the evening to drive back to Lagos and continue their broken lives, Olamide said, “O dabo, Iya Olobi.” Goodbye. When she turned to look at her one last time, she noticed Iya Olobi’s lips come together, as if she was trying to speak. Somehow, only for an instant, the old woman had mustered the strength to say goodbye. That was when Olamide knew Jide had truly reached her.
That evening, by Iya Olobi’s deathbed, when none knew what to say, Jide had said it all.



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