Child is Wealth

There are few memories of Aunt Polly that don’t inevitably leave me with grief. She gave me countless piggyback rides. She loved the corny plots of old Nigerian movies. She snuck me candies during family gatherings. Her favorite foods were red palm oil beans and fried plantain. I was her favorite niece.

Aunt Polly was half inhabited by the spirit of a carefree child. My six-year-old mind had this firm conviction. We bonded deeply on many frivolities. We argued which Powerpuff Girl was the best. Played Waddington Whot card games that ended with good-natured insults. Played hide-and-seek in my grandmother’s spacious redbrick flat. In her, I found my confidant. Someone whom I could trust, someone who saw me as an equal.

Sometimes I would commit a mischievous wrongdoing and she would look down at me with the cold chastisement of a wise monarch. Aunt Polly was nearly fifteen years my senior, but most of my childhood encounters with her would leave me grappling with confusion as to whether she was an adult to be venerated, or someone of my own age.

As I grew older, an uncomfortable awareness started to take form. Aunt Polly behaved different from the other adults in the family. And even if I did not come to this awareness on my own, people around us would make it so that I did. She was not allowed to babysit any infant in the family. She could not go to certain places unescorted. There was a certain callousness, a slight patronizing variation, in the way she was treated compared to others.

I started to notice strangers who looked like her. The same bitter kola shaped eyes and facial profile. It had seemed like some form of sorcery. I was a preteenager and could not conjure up the bravery to ask my father, her oldest brother, the outrageous questions–what is wrong with Aunt Polly? By now, I already knew that there were some individuals who were deemed special, or of special need. But I struggled with comprehending Aunt Polly as a special needs person. She was just Aunt Polly.

One day, I stumbled upon Down Syndrome on the web. It was a chromosomal disorder that was more prevalent with geriatric pregnancies. A myriad of strange words jumped out at me from my cracked smartphone screen. Trisomy 21. Brachycephaly. Genetic abnormality. I was inundated with images of individuals who had similar features as Aunt Polly. Now, it all made sense. This revelation happened before my first year of university.

I frantically went down the doomsday rabbit hole of a medical Google search. What were the causes of Down Syndrome? What effects did it have on life quality? Was it inheritable? Could it be cured? Did it cause health issues? Did it cause pain?

Google showed me that the average life expectancy for Down Syndrome was 55 years. I rushed to ask my father how old Aunt Polly was. He rattled off her age–she was somewhere in her late twenties. I was not completely pacified, but his words calmed me down somewhat. We were not going to lose her anytime soon.

Aunt Polly got married. I missed her wedding because I was hundreds of miles away taking my second-year university exams as a hapless biochemistry student. The ceremony was a grand occasion, not only because she was my grandmother’s lastborn child out of six, but because it was an apparent miracle that she had found someone to share spousal vows with in the first place. At least, such as the unsubtle sentiment of reputable family friends.

A few years after her wedding, Aunt Polly started experiencing epileptic episodes. They would usually occur in the night, as told by my grandmother. When the episodes had reduced quite a bit, my father decided to invite her to our house to spend a few weeks during the Holidays. She had not done so in a long time.

She slept in me and my sisters’ bedroom, taking the bottom portion of our red bunkbed. During that season, we enjoyed the keepsakes of old. Oil-stained card decks. Debates about village films with terrible CGI. Hide-and-seek. Being older now, I could no longer ask Aunt Polly for a piggyback ride. My long 5’10” frame towered over her 5’2″ stature.

On one of those harmattan-laden nights at our home, Aunt Polly had a seizure. It was the most blood-curdling sight ever beheld. White foam, white eyes. We cleared the area to ensure no object would bring her harm. We fearfully waited for the convulsions to subside. We took her to the hospital the next day. The physician said she was now fine.

Sometime in the late 2010s, Aunt Polly died unexpectedly. She was not yet thirty-five. Amidst wailings of despair, few people had wished that she had given birth before passing on. Perchance to signify that only something as concrete as a child would prove that her presence indeed roamed the earth. That their memory of her was not worth wasting away.

There were conflicting emotions when I learned of her passing. There was sorrow. A vital portion of my life was now shrouded in black. There was anger. A frustrating feeling of powerlessness was now every waking sensation. What exactly I should have done to prevent her early departure still remains a dispiriting mystery to me.

I never heard the phrase Down Syndrome mentioned in the family whilst she was alive. Neither in English, nor in our native Yoruba dialect. I relied on a Google search to be equipped with the information I needed to gain understanding. To most people, Polly was simply a unique individual. But she also needed unique medical attention. Most of the health care she received was curative. Seldom preventative. It felt crippling; the impossible wish that impending illness had been thoroughly investigated before becoming acute.

In the trenches of an absolutist West African society, the needs of individuals with disabilities are often dismissed. People with genetic disorders are habitually plonked into poorly fit institutions which only serve to worsen their conditions. The stench of stigma paralyzes families into performative and culpable nonchalance, precluding their relatives from living full lives.

There is not much to be said of our forefathers not knowing any better. There is much to be said of the timely exigency to plant disability infrastructure in places that lack. To raise an awareness which counters the normalized belief that disability makes one less than. That disability makes one a curse from the gods.

There are few memories of Aunt Polly that inevitably leave me with grief. When I meet someone with Down Syndrome, I think of her. I think of the fact that I don’t remember our last meeting. What day it was, nor the last words spoken to each other. I remember that in my late adolescence we ended up growing apart–me facing my studies, she adjusting to the adventures of newly married life. I remember that I was not there on her wedding day. All I have are the photographs, where she looked resplendently beautiful and had the purest of glee reflected on her face–with its glorious color of burnished bronze. I remember praying that Aunt Polly had had abundant life experiences that brought her unadulterated joy. I remember praying that I was a small part of those experiences.

I willfully remember, the humid weekends of 2004, inside of that little redbrick apartment, with me riding high on the shoulders of my best friend, and the smell of red palm oil beans sizzling in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Atinuke G. Oyinbo is a PhD student from the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences, studying Clinical and Population Health Research. She hails from Nigeria and sees writing as an effortless medium for self-expression and the analysis of humanity. This piece was awarded Honorable Mention in the 18th annual Gerald F. Berlin prize for creative writing.

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