Last week Tuesday, close to midnight, the bell tolled. My dear mum, Deaconess Esther Apinke Sulatu Adio, crossed over to the great beyond. She was laid to rest on Friday. A chapter, a very important one, came to a close. Another chapter has been unfurled. My six siblings and I are now in the league of the motherless, a status that needs getting used to. Gone is a part that had always offered stability, so significant, so constant and yet so unobtrusive to the point of being taken for granted. It is the gaping part. But we are comforted by fond memories. We are consoled by good testimonies that abound. And we are grateful to God for her, for her life, and for everything else.
I received the news of her passing early Wednesday with both grief and relief. Profoundly sad not just as expected at the passing of one’s dear mother but that despite the best efforts of everyone involved we couldn’t get her to stay with us for much longer, that her last quarter on earth was agonisingly difficult, that she left us at a fairly young age, and that she departed at a time my siblings and I had only but just started repaying the enormous debts we owed her. But also relieved that the pains that we helplessly watched her endure in her last months had come to an end. She has gone to rest. May her maker grant her mercy, peace and eternal rest. Ameen.
Every soul created shall taste death, and death respects no pattern or logic. It is difficult for anyone that saw my mum during her last two public landmark events to think that her end was anywhere near. My younger brother, Nasir Adio, got married to Kafayat Oke in Ode Omu, Osun State, on 2nd December 2018. Nasir was the last of her children to get married. All of us had looked forward to this event because Nasir was staying too long in the market. But that wedding had a special resonance for her. As expected, she was full of smiles, full of joy, full of life. The second public celebration, and the last she would attend alive, was at the naming of Nasir’s son in Lagos on 6th September 2019. Her joy spilled over, so thick you could touch and hold it. She was clearly elated to welcome her latest grandchild and she was agile enough to help nurse him. The picture accompanying this piece was taken that day. There was no hint of illness. No intimation that the grim reaper lurked. But four months and a day after, she was pronounced dead.
About two weeks after the naming ceremony, Mama was taken ill. It started mildly, but also deteriorated so quickly that by 3rd of October 2019 she had become unconscious. She remained in that state till her passing on 7th January 2020. Diagnosis: cavernous sinus thrombosis. The battle to save her assumed a feverish tempo. A series of tests, consultations, and medications followed. I was broken to pieces the first time I saw her in a state of altered consciousness at the High Dependency Unit (HDU) of University College Hospital (UCH) on 6th October 2019. Ordinarily, she would have sprung to her feet on seeing me and would have tightly embraced her first child who she also lovingly called her husband. But there she was, lying still under an avalanche of lines and gadgets, the attached monitor displaying wayward vitals. But I had to be strong and positive for the entire family and for her. So we rallied. We prayed. We hoped. The dogged fighter that she was, she pulled through many seemingly hopeless crisis points. Then when we had thought that she was at the recovery stage, some of her vitals deteriorated again last Tuesday. The family and the doctors made another spirited rally. It was not meant to be.
Even while still processing the grief and willingly succumbing to emotions that flood in at quiet moments, my overall feeling is that of deep gratitude to my mother for all she went through to give me a decent shot in life. Regrettably, I never verbalised this gratitude to her. So many things to be grateful for. So many things to discuss. So many things to do. We thought we had time. My earliest recollection of my mum, and one of my most abiding memories of her, was not a pretty one. I had taken the 20th position out of 25 pupil sat the end of Primary One. My older cousin living with us and in Primary Three didn’t fare better either. She gave both of us enough beating and punishments to last many lifetimes. She said no kid in her house would disgrace her by coming first from the rear.
The following year, we were enrolled in a school closer home and given less chores to do. At the end of Primary Two, my class teacher was who distributing our report cards, announced that the person who took the first position was… Simultaneously shocked and elated, I snatched the report card from her and sprinted out. I arrived home breathless. The only thing I could say was first, first, first. Mother lifted me high, put me around her neck, sang and danced. Then she set before me a mighty bowl of steamy rice, extracted from close to the bottom of the pot, just the way I liked it. She told everyone who cared to listen about her son that was up to something great, and excused me from household chores for some time. That happened to have been a major inflection point in my life. Between the thorough beating and the princely treatment of a year apart, I knew which one I preferred very early in life. And the abiding lesson here has travelled with me beyond the classroom: excellence is the only thing that is good enough. Thanks, mum.
There was a little backstory to that incident. Mama attended only primary school. She was first in class from the beginning to the end. Her dad, a well-to-do cocoa farmer, decided that finishing primary school was enough education for a woman. Her teachers were so sad. Some were weeping. Their entreaties to my maternal granddad didn’t make a dent. Mama was inconsolable but later accepted her fate and learned how to trade, then started her life in business. She got married early by today’s standard, but a bit old by the standards of her peers with the same level of education. Her husband, my dad, also had a similar education story, though the circumstances were different. My dad went beyond primary school but stopped at Modern Three, then started working as a factory hand in a textile company in Lagos. The dashed dream was an extra point of convergence for them. They vowed they would give their kids the education they couldn’t get.
One day, dad came home and said he wanted to go further with his education. By then there were three kids between them and my older cousin, making four kids in all. Dad made a compelling pitch: getting further education would allow him to give better guidance for the education of their kids. He went to a teachers’ training college. (Much later, dad told me what really convinced him to return to school. It is hilarious. But this is not the place for that juicy story.) So, here was this young woman raising four kids by herself in Lagos, and possibly supporting the education of her husband and pitching in on other family obligations. But she didn’t see it as a burden but as a little sacrifice towards recapturing her dashed dreams.
After dad got his teaching certificate and was posted to old Oyo State, we all relocated. By then there were four kids between them, with a fifth on the way. I, as the only male then, was chosen to follow dad to his posting in a village school far from home, while mum remained in Iwo with the other kids and the extended family. She switched from cooked food to household provisions, then added children and women clothes later. She was doing quite well, and doing a lot of heavy lifting. But by the time I finally gained university admission in the late eighties, thing had gone really tough for Mama. Her capacity to provide the needed support to my tertiary education had become seriously constrained. Even then, she would get foodstuffs for me on credit, pawn her remaining jewellery, and borrow money.
Born to Muslim parents, Mama was a Muslim for most of her life. However, she converted to Christianity around 1992. Iwo is a predominantly Muslim town, with different strains of Islam, from the very moderate to the ultra-conservative. But it is also a town with a significant Christian population, and indeed we have Christians on all sides of the family, and some traditionalists too. But her conversion was a bit jarring at first. She moved from being moderately religious to being an intense, prayer-warrior Christian. We didn’t get to discuss the reason for her conversion but my suspicion was that she went in search of solution to life’s challenges. But it was clear she found God. She became a deaconess in 2003.
She was an embodiment of many virtues, virtues that I now see as both compass and legacy. She was very affable and accommodating, extremely generous (even in difficult times), respectful to almost a fault, and very, very industrious.Despite deserving a lot from us, she hesitated to demand anything. Even when under the weather, she would tell you it was just a small cold or cough or malaria, and she was already being treated and was feeling quite well. She didn’t want to be a burden. She was overtly, sometimes embarrassingly, grateful for whatever was given to or done for her, and would pray and pray and pray for us. She would still give to others, on our behalf, from whatever she was given. She was the self-appointed intercessor, constant peacemaker, and willing envoy. She took it upon herself to keep in touch with everyone. Every Sunday without fail, she would call, and not just me and my siblings and our spouses and kids but also sundry relatives. How she did it, I still don’t know. I told her many times to stop wasting her money in calling. She didn’t listen to me. In retrospect, it was good she did not. Now, I wish that Sunday-Sunday call would continue.
Sun re o,
Iya wa, Apinke,
Omo Ile Abese ni Oke Ola,
Omo Oba Abese Alawusa
Omo abunba bi ogidan
Omo afiru na’mo bi dagba bi dagba
Ma firu na mi, ara mi o gbegbin
Omo onile oju ona ti nle furukoko furukoko
Omo onise o se lerebi ti o nrajo to dise e lowo…
Anchor,calming presence, counsellor, prayer-warrior and mother, thank you for your life of sacrifice, for the lessons, and for the dreams. Go well.
Adio is the executive secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI).