Nov. 1, 2020

Poor People

Poor People

So, I went home three weeks ago to see my parents and my siblings, and it was the first time I would be seeing them in almost two and a half years. Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have gone home if I wasn't spurred by the necessity of attending a friend’s wedding.

Anyways, I got home and stepped into my parent’s apartment and a wave of nostalgia hit me. Nothing had changed. Everything was just the same as I remembered them from my last visit almost three years ago.

I hugged my mom and allowed the hug to linger, as I tried to remember her smell. My dad hailed me in his usual way "o boy, wetin you dey chop na?" He teased, smiling, as I shook his hands.

"Normal food" I responded.

For a moment, I stared around the three-bedroom apartment that almost looked as old as my parents’ marriage. Every wall crack and stain from the leaky roof had remained the same. The only difference was the place seemed smaller. I looked around and, at that moment, I realized something - my parents are poor people. And that realization hit even harder when it dawned on me that for the longest time, I had deluded myself in believing my folks were roughly "middle class".

I was very mistaken. But not about them being poor but about my perception of what poor meant. My mom is a teacher who is on the verge of retiring but due to some bogus state policy may be forced to stay longer in service than intended. She has aged well. She still looks beautiful, with a smile that mirrors mine.

For the longest time, she has been the major source of income in the family and I figured if hers and my dad's marriage had been dysfunctional in some way, she may have one day, in a fit of rage, when they had an argument or something, blurted out the words, "we all know who wears the pants in this marriage" alluding to the said fact.

But that is likely to never be something my mom says. She's way too cool to be prideful and honestly, my dad is way too unconcerned about that kind of stuff to even mind if it was ever uttered.

But I digress. I was speaking about how I was wrong in my perception of what poor meant. Yes, after two and half years away from home and finally seeing my folks and siblings I became exposed to the harsh reality of the myth that is called the "middle class". But I also found something else there too that was as shocking as it was unexpected. The hope that thrived there.

My mother is one of the most positive persons I know. Her favorite phrase is "e go better", which mirrors mine: "no wahala". But unlike mine that is just my way of saying "I'd rather not talk about this anymore", hers is more her way of saying and believing that, indeed, “everything will get better".

And so, whilst I was hit with the harsh reality that my parents, in the socio-economic definition of poverty, were poor, going back home reminded me of why for the longest time I had never really seen them that way. The hope, the positivity, the outlook on life that made them keep moving each day was like a blinding sunray that kept our eyes away from the truth.

I remember during one of my many conversations with her, she mentioned how she was really grateful that while I and my sister were in the university, we never were ones to demand so much. In her own words, she said,

"Even Irete (my sister) wey I think say she be girl and go need so many things, she no even worry us like that"

This was her referring to my younger sister. She was saying this as I laid down on the floor next to the bed in her room while the ceiling fan spun in quiet agony. I remembered thinking back to my own varsity days and recalling how I had once gotten up the courage to ask my mom how she and my dad were able to send me money whenever I ask without a word of complaint. And I recalled her response:

"Dat one no be your concern"

So, at that moment when she spoke fondly of myself and my sister not being demanding, it made more sense to me. It became apparent that the truth wasn't that I and my sis were not demanding back in our university days, as though we were some considerate kids who knew the struggles of their parents and were trying hard to be understanding or some noble shit like that (although that would make for a compelling tale); but no, it was that we had parents who kept us safely in the dark by ironically flashing a blinding torch of hope in our eyes

But then life happened, and we had to leave their nest. We had to go far away from the reaching distance of their blinding torch rays. And slowly but surely, we began, at least, I began, to see things clearly.

Reality has always been something that as much as we can define what it is to us, it will always remain hampered by the definition of another. For the longest time, my definition of my parent’s reality had been "middle class and surviving" as opposed to the real definition that should be "poor and amazingly optimistic".

And truthfully, this definition is what scares me the most about my own life and the decisions I make. I see my parents and marvel at their strength in being able to always see light at the end of the tunnel even when the batteries on their torches have been depleted. I see how they perceive their own reality not as a constant but as a moving variable of hope in the future of their children. And at this point in their lives, I don't think my parents care about being labeled as "poor".

I know for a fact that my mother is one to share the last meal in her home with a hungry stranger than turn that person away with an excuse. I know for a fact that my dad is one that is willing to get on the road at 11 pm to get to any destination if anyone of us were to call him about being in any trouble or having any issues that required his presence. And for the longest, I have often wondered what the secret to their optimism is and how they can so easily be in the reality of being "poor" but never worried about poverty? Well, now I know.

It turns out that while most of us wear our fears on our faces, masked by fake smiles and vibrant social media presence, we are still very much shaken by the worries of tomorrow and an uncertain future. However, my parents are the type to have learned to embrace their fears, warmly, with a hug, shushing them with a comforting lullaby of hope and belief.

Yes, I do reckon that their faith helps make the melody of this lullaby soothing, but more than faith, I sincerely think that it is their own self-belief in consciously weighing the cost of worrying and not worrying about a future they had no control over or a present they can only endure. And I think that has been what has kept them going for as long as I can remember.

Indeed, visiting my folks after two and a half years was eye-opening for me as it made me realize that they are poor people. Truthfully, I saw their old apartment where they have lived for fifteen plus years and I was burdened by the fact that I could not simply flick my fingers and change their situation for the better as they deserved. And at that moment, I wore my fears on my face and was deeply saddened by my inability to change their reality on the spot. However, I failed to realize that the only reality worth changing was the one that was still riddled in fear of the uncertain.

And after the warm hugs and kind smiles that they greeted me with when I arrived, despite the fact that I did not waltz in with a bag of money, it is fair to say that the "reality" that's worth changing wasn't theirs but mine.