"The Worst Thing That Happened"
from Love Is Power, or Something Like That
For the fourth time in almost as many years, Ma Bille had to go in for eye surgery, this time to have her cataracts removed. She was not afraid: at sixty-eight years of age she had been in and out of the operating room so many times that the antiseptic reek of hospital walls was as familiar to her as the smell of baby poop. The thing that worried her, that made her wake up this morning with her heart hammering in her ears, was the suspicion that she was all alone in a world that had seen the best years of her life.
While she waited for sensation to return to her legs, she ran her mind over the tasks for the day. Her domestic routine, established after her husband's death and perfected in the years since the last of her five children had left the house, was the cogwheel of her existence, the real reason to live. After the last operation she had shuffled around the house for five days with a blindfold of surgical gauze over her eyes, condemned to do nothing but eat, bathe, sit on the toilet bowl, and listen to the sounds of the street outside her window. She had emerged from that invalid's limbo with a renewed zest for workaday duties, but since she noticed the fog creeping in again from the edges of her vision, she had begun to wonder if she was fighting fate.
At first, glaucomatwo failed operations, and one success. Now, cataracts, which, the doctors said, was a complication they had expected. Next time, God knows what else. She was tired of the hospital visits, of the countless eye tests, of the segments of her life that were stolen by anaesthetics. But, especially, she was fed up with the troop of jeans-wearing surgeons who attended to her, who reassured her of complete recovery in happy-go-lucky tones, who declined to describe her ailment in comprehensible language and dismissed as inconsequential her complaints of blistering headaches, of the nausea that was triggered by the flash of bright lights, of the pain that seared her eyeballs night and day. After three operations, all that remained of the worst symptoms were the memories of how she had suffered. Now, quietly, without the theatrics of physical discomfort, her eyesight was fading.
She could feel herself slipping back into sleep, so she pulled aside the duvet and looked down at her legs. The sight of her stumpy, varicose, bunion-knuckled legs never failed to shock her, always seemed to mock her, to impose on herat the start of each new dayan intimate image of decay. Mr. Bille used to say she had the finest legs in all of Ijoland, and sometimes, God forgive her, she thought it a good thing that he died before he could see what arthritis had done to her legs. The worst thing to happen to you, she said to herself, then dragged her legs to the side of the bedhuffing from the effort and wincing from the shocks of pain that shot through her kneesand edged them over.
When she opened her bedroom door Cardinal Rex loped over to meet her with his tail raised. He rubbed his sides against her ankles, purring and flicking his tail; then he padded after her as she went about her housecleaning, shining his yellow-fever eyes at the back of her head and resting on his haunches to lick his charcoal fur whenever she stopped too long at a spot. After she wedged open the kitchen door and swallowed her morning dose of celecoxib tablets and cod-liver oil capsules washed down with two bottles of lukewarm spring water, she scraped the leftovers of last night's cooking into his green plastic plate. She sat on a shortlegged stool in the center of the courtyard and with a chewing stick cleaned her strong, yellowed teeth. While the morning air washed over her naked, collapsed breasts as she waited for the water on the stove to heat up for her breakfast and bath, Cardinal Rex ate at her feet.
A. Igoni Barrett. "The Worst Thing That Happened," from Love Is Power, or Something Like That. Copyright © 2013 by A. Igoni Barrett. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.
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