Dapo went on his knees in his office, his hands thrown up in gratitude.
“Thank you, Father. Oh, thank you!”
It was big victories like these that made the small setbacks fade into the background. If there was one thing he’d seen in his years as counselor and team lead, it was unbelieving believers. They prayed without expecting an answer. They prayed and acted surprised when they received their answers, like God was a child who liked to play hide and seek. He had begun learning years ago, that prayer was not just to pass time, it was not to fulfill all righteousness, no. Prayer was power. Not powerful, power in itself.
It was exactly seven days since Lara was taken, and God had brought her back.
“Good God,” Dapo cried in thanksgiving. He couldn’t wait to hear about this wonderful victory.
He picked up his phone and dialled.
Lara’s return was supposed to lift the black cloud that had come to settle over the orphanage but somehow it hadn’t.
“I feel like we have had a lot of sorrow the past week, and the children have forgotten how to smile,” Mrs Osakwe said to Imade, two days after Lara’s return. “I know I was a terror during that time, to them, to others and even to myself. Imade, I can’t explain the depth of fear I was entrenched in during the time. I mean, to be completely honest, I still have random panic attacks.”
“I can imagine,” Imade replied.
“I keep having…these flashbacks, you know. Flashbacks of…what happened to my family. And then the panic attack comes on after.”
“Have you seen a doctor about it?”
“Google is my doctor,” Mrs Osakwe said, in a solemn voice. “I can’t really afford those trips in and out of the hospital. Plus, I think it is my cross to bear, after all, I am the only surviving member of my family.”
“Don’t say that, Mrs Osakwe. You’ve come this far. Plus, you have Joy. Joy is your family now.”
“Imade, I think I need to say goodbye to this…job. I am getting too old for this. Maybe it’s time to rest.” Mrs Osakwe sighed.
“You don’t know how much impact you make in the lives of these children. For some of them, you are the only mother they will ever know.”
“But I don’t want to be!” the older woman cried, raising her hands in exasperation. “I just…I want them settled in loving families. I want them to experience love from a family, I want them to feel wanted. To have people who love them because they chose them, not just because they have to. And I fear, my love will never be enough for these children. How can I have enough love for them and what happened to Lara, happened?”
Imade could sense Mrs Osakwe’s agitation. When they had gotten to the police station that day, the police men had informed them that they had a child in their care and they needed proper identification. Mrs Osakwe had held Imade’s hand as they entered the small room where the child lay, curled up, asleep.
There were fresh bruises on the child’s arms and legs, scratches that looked like a rake had run across the skin. The child was bald. It was the child’s baldness that almost made Mrs Osakwe turn away, saying it wasn’t Lara. Lara had a head full of dark thick curls.
Imade had held on to her hand, asking her to look closer, to let the child unfurl herself from her cocoon before jumping to conclusions.
The nurse who sat beside the child had then lifted the child up slowly, tipping the child’s head back to reveal her face.
Mrs Osakwe had gasped in recognition. “Lara!”
Yes, it was Lara, but a shadow of the girl they all knew. In the space of one week, she had lost so much weight that her collar bones stood out extraordinarily. From what the police had gathered, one of their inter-state patrol officers on the Benin-Sapele road had stumbled across a big brown sac that seemed to be moving, breathing, crying. After overcoming their initial fears, they had summoned the courage to check out the contents of the bag. It was a small child, frantic and crying in agitation. When they examined the bruises on her body, it was concluded that she had been tossed out of a moving car, it was a miracle she was still alive.
If Lara had been selectively mute before, she had now gone completely mute, not saying a word to anyone since she had been brought into police custody. The police had been unable to elicit any information from her about her ordeal.
Mrs Osakwe and Imade were allowed to pick her up that day and they had gone straight to the hospital to have her checked for everything. Even though Mrs Osakwe had not said anything, Imade knew that the real purpose of the hospital visit was to ensure that Lara had not been violated in anyway. That her bruises remained only physical.
The doctor’s tests had come back negative. No, it did not look like she had been violated sexually but she insisted on a psychiatric evaluation for Lara because the doctor was concerned about the effect of the traumatic experience on her mental health. Even though Mrs Osakwe had assured the doctor that she would ensure that Lara was taken in for the psychiatric evaluation, she had brought Lara home instead.
“I’m scared,” she confided in Imade, later that day when Imade kept asking when Lara would go in for the psychiatric evaluation.
“I know she isn’t okay, but I don’t want a doctor to confirm it.”
“Because we can’t afford to treat any illness that isn’t physical. I mean, look at the medical bills already just for the treatment of her wounds. If not for Pastor Dapo and his team that have been handling the payment, where would the money have come from?”
“Mrs Osakwe, come.” Imade placed a hand on hers and led her gently to the chair that sat in the verandah of the orphanage. “Are you a believer?”
“What…what kind of question is that, Imade?”
“Please indulge me, ma’am. Are you a practicing believer? Born again? A child of God?”
Mrs Osakwe frowned, looking away.
“Please, just answer me, ma.”
Her voice was low as she said: “I…I don’t know what I am anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I…I think I’ve been lying to myself for years.”
Imade said nothing, waiting for her to continue.
“I…thought I knew God. I thought I loved God. Then, what happened to my family, happened and I just didn’t know what to think anymore.” Mrs Osakwe said, a hollow, faraway sound in her voice.
“I’m not okay with God yet. I thought I was. I mean, I still go to church but there is an emptiness I feel when it comes to my personal fellowship with God. It’s like there’s a wall between me and God. I know I built it subconsciously when I lost my family. I just…I didn’t want to talk to God or hear from him because…I didn’t want his excuses or his reasons why he had to take my entire family and leave me. I heard ‘God knows best’ from a lot of people during that time that I just…I didn’t want to know what He knows. So, I’ve been pretending, going through the motions but deep down, I’m at war with God.”
Mrs Osakwe sighed, “I’ve never said this out loud to anyone, not even myself.”
And she began to sob.