“The Replica” by Mayowa Koleosho

I had lost my mother ten years to the date. Ten years since a vital part of me left, effectively upending my life and what I came to know of it.

She was gone, yet I refused to let go. It took me a decade to finally come to my next conclusion. The thought scares me as I jot it down. I feel like I need some type of record to archive this. Scared said thought might flee my head if I don’t do it this way.

I am about to undertake one of the most important decisions of my life. I expect to face some obstacles, especially from family members. But if I don’t do this, the regret will plague me for the rest of my life.

I am going to resurrect the dead!

At first it sounded so blasphemous when it came up. My mother was a staunch Christian and I wondered how she would have reacted to such a notion when alive. Superstition had always played an interesting role in my life growing up. I lived with and around people who worshipped in church on Sundays but sought out herbalists and witch doctors to supplement their faith. It sounds like a contradiction and perhaps it is, but one must keep in mind, that prior to colonization, Africans had their beliefs and religions that have remained even though open belief in them tends to lead to condemnation.

My idea would not involve unearthing the dead or doing rituals to communicate with spirits. Mine would be much more practical yet the thought scared me because I didn’t know how others would react. I was going to digitally replicate my mother, a virtual twin of sorts, and in that space, she would and she could live on without ever having to die again.

There were a few obstacles I knew I would face, the primary one being I had to create a convincing replica of her. One that would be believable enough to not feel like some hollow mockery.

The other was actually figuring out who my mother was in order to give this creation a personality. No small task because in that moment, I realized I did not really know who she was. All she had been to me was from a maternal role. Surely she was someone beyond wife and mother. The guilt was so overwhelming that it took me a few days to get past the fact that whilst alive I had not done enough to truly understand my parents. I had taken them from granted and now for one of them, it was too late.

As grandiose as my plan seemed, I still needed to know if my idea was possible. Would it be a holographic recreation or was it going to be a virtual experience where I would be digitally transported to a certain area to see her? I researched fastidiously, eventually settling for virtual reality, which also seemed like the cheaper option. I reached out to a few creators and companies and, whilst some expressed reservations about the project, I connected with others who were genuinely intrigued by the prospects of immortalizing loved ones in a digital format. They agreed that the more information I could dig up on my mother, the more useful if would be in creating a well -rounded character.

I knew to undertake this, I would need to get my father on board. There was no getting around it. If there was anyone alive who knew more about my mother, it was him. I kept the details to a bare minimum when I contacted him. Simply suggesting I was coming home for a month or two for research. It would be the first time in fifteen years that I’d be spending more than ten days at home at a stretch. My father was thrilled that we’d get to spend time together but what I didn’t tell him was that my research would involve retracing my mother’s life, sometimes to places where my father might not want me to go. I knew and was prepared to face obstacles along the way. I was just unsure how I would handle it.

I was a single man with no attachments. I rarely took vacations from work so I had stacked up enough leave days to embark on this trip. This was going to be the equivalent of jumping into the unknown but I was grateful my family was still in Nigeria to help me navigate the places I’d be going.

A month after notifying my father I would be coming back, I headed for home, to revive the dead. Phase one of my plan was now underway.

*

Going back home to me is such a surreal experience. As the flight descends into Lagos, one thing is immediately glaring. From up top, one can make out the sparse array of lights, like little fire flies blinking in and out of existence, an instant reminder that rampant power outages are still a reality many Nigerians have to deal with. I had been coddled and spoiled abroad for so long that the mere thought of a night without electricity brings a sense of dread. Yet I knew this was one of the issues I’d be dealing with going back. I secretly hoped that I had the mental fortitude to last the length of this trip.

My whole family had come to receive me at the airport, and the joy on their faces wiped away any doubts I might have had about this trip, at least temporarily.

I was born and raised in Lagos. I lived here for seventeen years before going abroad for my collegiate years. Yet I felt like a foreigner in an alien land. The sights, the smells even the warm summer breeze on my skin felt so unique. I still hadn’t told my family about my plans. But seeing my father again after so long, I wondered if it were a wise course of action to tell him the full intent of my plans. As we drove back to my father’s place, my sister bugging me about my travels, I made a note somewhere in my mind, to refrain from doing anything hasty. Eventually I would tell them everything, but for now, I would be more judicious about my plans.

That first night in Lagos, I had an unsettling dream about my mother. The details are blurry now as are most dreams, but I do recall the sense of helplessness I had, chasing my mother all over the globe. From subways in Chicago, to the busy streets of Tokyo and finally to Lagos. One thing was clear to me, she wafted through these scenes as if teasing me. Every time I thought I was close enough to reach out to her, she dematerialized and escaped my clutches.

When I told my father about the dream, he told me I had to come to terms with her death. It was then that I revealed that I would need his help retracing my mother’s life for a book I was writing on her. I do not know if he believed me or not, I suspect he did not, but I couldn’t tell. He simply nodded in agreement and told me he would do his best with the aid of my siblings. Our first start would be my mother’s remaining family members, some of whom still lived in the same state.

It was finally happening, I thought to myself. This idea that had seemed so impossible a few months back was getting closer to reality by the day. Whatever guilt I might have had was superseded by the fact I would create something that would immortalize my mother. A noble goal I thought to myself and perhaps one that would revolutionize the way we viewed death and loss.

The next day, my father and I set out to find my mother’s father who was still alive. My father cautioned me to temper my expectations. The man was old and quite frail. He may or may not be able to remember much about my mother and I must not push the issue if he was not willing to talk.

I kept mum for most of the trip, bracing myself for a visit to the grandfather I hadn’t seen in decades. There was a certain level of guilt welling up within me. I had moved abroad and detached myself from the lives of these people. I had wrapped myself up in a cocoon of my own doing, justifying my absence from their lives as the result of my own problems abroad.

Lagos itself looked so different to me.

I had once roamed these streets and, whilst there remained a familiarity, I knew I was an in-betweener now. Never truly fitting here, nor in the place I now called home.

Shortly afterwards we pulled into a familiar street. Victorian era-style houses were lined up on each side. Peddlers took up spots along the street. Nostalgia reached out to me and I embraced back. This place hadn’t changed much, at least this portion of my life remained intact. I remembered the days my sibling and I would come out to play ball, dodging oncoming traffic and getting into all sorts of mischief when we came to visit my grandparents.

As the car came to a stop in front of a black corrugated gate. I got nervous realizing I was unsure of what to ask my grandfather. We all got down from the car, my siblings wasting no time in finding their way inside whilst I fidgeted nervously with my outfit, knowing I would be walking into that house as a stranger.

My father must have been a mind reader as he nudged me and told me not to worry. He would take care of things. I looked at him with gratitude and followed him into the compound.

Memories flooded my mind yet again, pieces of me that had once roamed this area reached out. It was overwhelming to say the least.

Inside, an attendant ushered us into the living room and told us that grandfather would be with us shortly. We were offered food but we declined politely. I didn’t want to be distracted from the task at hand.

A few moments later, I heard a shuffling sound, followed by the appearance of a man of once great stature, now bent with age, slowly walking into the room, squinting to make out the shapes around him. His attendant gently led him to a seat and whispered something in his ear before leaving.

My dad stood up and walked up to him, bowing his head as he addressed him. A smile broke on grandfather’s face as he reached forward to embrace him. Dad would then beckon to us to come over and introduce ourselves. I was last to do so and was shocked at how different my mother’s father looked.

When it came to my turn, he looked me over for a moment or two, as if discovering something new. A bunch of emotions ran through his face so quickly that I thought he might be getting sick. His grip was firm and he clutched harder, pulling me into an embrace. “Jide, Omo mi, kabo. Ajo o da bi Ile. Jide, my son, welcome. The journey can never replicate home.

He would hold me for another five minutes, showering me with praise and prayer. Lamenting over the loss of my mother and mildly excoriating me for not coming to visit in so long.

Finally he let me go and turned towards my father. They would talk briefly about the country, the politics and the state of things around the nation before my father finally brought up the reason as to why we had come.

“We wanted to know more about my late wife,” he said. Father fed Grandfather the lie that I’d told him. Pangs of guilt welled up again, here was yet another person that would be expecting a non-existent book from me. How would I break it to this old man that I was doing this for something entirely different?

I may have felt guilty in the moment but going home with the wealth of knowledge I received from my grandfather that day is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. I found out about what type of person my mother was growing up. How stubborn she was and how it got her into a lot of trouble. “She was daring and mischievous,” her father said, regaling us with tales and adventures that had all of us hooting with laughter.

He would tell us about my mother’s greatness on the track and how she consistently dominated as a track star throughout her secondary school years.

He pondered loudly if she could have been an Olympian with proper support. He came off hurt for not pushing her enough to chase those goals. Instead, she went off to nursing school.

He expressed regret that be never pushed his children as much as he should have education-wise. He told us he was a fool who believed then that marriage was a woman’s main goal. He was glad my mother had not been deterred in going to nursing school despite little to no support from him. He heaped praise on my father for not being as backwards as he was and told my sister not to stop for anything or anyone in pursuing her goals.

We stayed for a few hours, my notebook full of notes and stories that I had never heard of my mother prior to this meeting. Some that I would like to keep close to the chest. I left my grandfather’s house richer. Now armed with a wealth of knowledge about my mother, I knew I could build a personality that would exhibit some of the traits her father had told me about.

On the way back home, we talked about some of the stories her father told us. Some my father knew, others were just as surprising to him as they were to us. I don’t know if my siblings caught it, but there was a tenderness to him as he spoke about my mom that I rarely saw come out. The encounter I thought to myself was meaningful. It was a good start and I looked forward to continuing with even more investigation on my mother.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. I was hit with a bout of malaria that sidelined me for a good week. By the time I got back on my feet, my siblings had used up their time off from their different jobs, leaving me with only my father to accompany me on my fact-finding mission. This was problematic considering he didn’t do much driving at his age and I didn’t have a driver’s license.

Hunting for an affordable driver was something I had not planned for, but eventually we settled on Mojeed, a recent graduate from the University of Lagos, who was having difficulties finding work post-graduation and resorted to using his car for taxi or rental services.

Our next port of call was to visit my mother’s three siblings who luckily still lived in the state.

The eldest was affable and warm, receiving us into her home and regaling us with tales of our mother, most of which we had heard but a few were surprising. We left feeling fulfilled, my knowledge quota on my mother had once again been topped and I promised not to lose connection as I had previously done in yesteryears.

The second sibling, the one born before my mother was not as welcoming. She criticized my father for keeping her sister and her kids away from the family. She lamented about the detachment and blamed my father for it. She didn’t criticize me much but mentioned how family shouldn’t act the way we did. She hadn’t heard from me in decades and felt disappointed that I had refused to reach out to her.

To be fair I sensed she was in pain. Some of the blame could be appropriated to my parents distancing themselves from their immediate family and for good reason. However, I also saw a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her sister. She didn’t say it out loud, but I felt she alluded to the fact that she felt guilty that she and my mother weren’t on good terms when she passed away.

From her, we didn’t glean much about our mother. Her bitterness was too evident, though my father had warned me ahead of time that she’d react that way.

Seeing my mother’s youngest sibling was more emotional than the other two. She cried a lot. It was if seeing me was a reminder of my mother and she could not handle it. Whilst alive, she had been the closest to my mom, and through sobs, she revealed the altruistic side of my mother that even I didn’t know.

My mother had always been generous from my recollection, but some of the stories her younger sister told us that day simply blew me away at how much this woman gave away to those in need. I wondered if I could ever live up to her values.

On my way back home that night, I asked my father about her flaws. There had to be aspects of her he disagreed with. So far all I had gotten were the positives but even I knew that was not the summation of a person.

I still recall his sigh, caressing his eye-brow as he thought up the right words to say.

“She was too trusting,” he said. “Trusting to the point of naivety at times. She was a very savvy woman, but she believed that people were good by nature and in this country, such a trait is bound to be exploited.”

I wanted to press him more on that but he seemed tired after a long day. I filed it away, planning to ask him again but I would never get the chance as the thought slipped out of my memory after that.

The last few days of my vacation in Lagos involved tracking and catching up on the aspects of my mother’s life that I had been oblivious of. From the now defunct grade school she attended, to the nursing school she had graduated from.

With the aid of my siblings, I was also able to trace down some of my mother’s closest friends. Most received us warmly but a few were more reserved, including one who flat out refused to let us in, saying our mother had abandoned her in her time of need. I tried to press my father on this but he simply said it was a falling out between friends and only my mom would be able to give her side of the story.

My trip was now nearing an end and I had collected enough information to create a fully formed concept of my mother. This construct would have all the information required to create a convincing copy. There would be flaws of course, but that was a price I was willing to pay.

I still had not solved one big problem; telling my family about my plans.

I took the coward’s option and waited until the night before my departure to tell them. I simply couldn’t imagine letting any sort of disagreement fester between us for days before I left. To be honest, I did try several times to talk to my family about my decision, but I couldn’t work up the courage to do so.

I can still hear the generator humming outside, the whirling of the fan as it dispersed humid air around the room and the silence that followed after I outlined my plan of bringing my mother to life.

My usually vocal sister was the first to register her disapproval. Her expression said it all but instead of voicing her thoughts, she looked at father, and ceded the floor to him.

I expected a lecture from him, which would probably have been better than his terse response.

“I don’t agree nor support this plan of action. Leave the dead be. I am going to bed, good night.”

And with that, he got up and walked into his room. Right then and there I knew he couldn’t be swayed to accept this. I wish he had outlined his reasons for disagreeing. That would have been easier to digest than living with the briefness of his dismay.

I recall my sister lashing out at me. Some of the words stuck but it all felt like a blur because the one person I needed on my side was unwinnable. I was reeling from self-doubt and could not sleep.

On the threshold of pulling off something that I thought could change the way we as human beings dealt with death and grief, by prolonging and digitizing the memories of our loved ones, my family had given me serious reason to question my plans. Only my younger brother didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he thought whilst the whole thing was weird, he saw no reason to doubt the sincerity of my plans.

The next morning, the household felt like all the joy had been sucked out of it. I emphasize this because when we are all together, we tend to be boisterous. People unfamiliar with my family might assume we are quarreling but with my siblings, banter was as natural as breathing.

We avoided each other or to be specific, I avoided everyone else. I felt sad that my last day was spent like this. I didn’t know when I’d be back but to leave like this felt wrong. There was no way I could repay these people for their time and service during my brief stay here. I had a few hundred dollars left so I divvied it up between my siblings.

My sister who I could tell was still mad at me, gave me a terse hug. I knew she was fighting emotions but I understood where she was coming from.

The ride to the airport was a solemn one. I was appreciative for the radio that broke the silence and gave some life to an otherwise dreary commute.

I had achieved my goals but at what cost? My father still had not said anything to me since that night, though he had accompanied me on my way back to the airport.

I tried to imagine his disagreement with my idea. For him, seeing someone he loved being brought back in such a manner, even though it was just a digital replica must feel like an affront to his sensibilities. No matter what popped up on screen or in the virtual world, it would never be my mother.

No one on this planet knew her better, yet as the scenery flashed by my eyes that night, for the first time since dreaming up this concept, it began to dawn on me that I was pushing for this because of my guilt.

Guilt that I had not spent enough time with her. Guilt that I hadn’t done enough to save her. Guilt that I hadn’t been in a position to take her away from Nigeria and to the states where she most likely could have been saved, and most importantly, guilt that I didn’t know my mother well enough as evidenced by the treasure trove of information I now had at my disposal.

I wasn’t doing this for family or for the greater good of humanity who might want to use my virtual reality creation bridge the gap between life and death. No, in all honesty, I was simply doing it for me.

I was in this state of contemplation when we arrived at the airport. Disembarking, my siblings helped me unload my luggage as the time for farewell had fast approached.

Goodbyes are always tough, and I remember the first time I left for the States. I remember the wistful look on my mother’s face as she let her first son go. This time, the wistful look was mine as I was bidding farewell to the ones I cherished the most in the world.

My sister’s stance had changed and I could tell she was no longer mad at me. She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a long hug. “I am proud of you, Egbon mi,” she said. “Don’t forget to call as soon as you get there.”

With tears in her eyes, she pulled away and walked back to the car. I know for her, saying goodbye was especially tough considering how little we saw each other and the unpredictability of not knowing when next we would see ourselves again.

With my brother, it was a quick hug, a handshake and a playful punch aimed at his shoulders. He was like me in many ways, pretty much all we had to convey to each other was unspoken. Our relationship was that solid.

Finally I turned to my father. So many thoughts rushing through my head, but most importantly I wish I could explain how important this project was to me. I understood his reservations, but I was going to treat this with the most utmost of respect. I didn’t expect him to ever see it, but I wanted him to know it would not be used to tarnish his wife’s life.

Instead he was the one who saved me from myself yet again. Laying a hand on my shoulder, he looked me directly in the eyes, his words boring deep into my soul.

“Jide, regardless of what you do. I am proud of you and so is your mother. She is always with us, never forget that. God speed and let us know when you get home.”

Now to those who may be unfamiliar with my family, those words might not mean much, but couple those words with my father’s hand to shoulder gesture and the sincerity with which he conveyed his message, looks even more profound than I initially thought in retrospect.

My father has never been the expressive kind. His emotions have always been even keeled, never given to random fluctuations in emotions.

This was as good as it gets, and that little moment was as good a blessing as any. I hugged him back, then prostrated as we do in my culture before bidding him farewell.

I walked into the airport briskly but turned around one last time to wave goodbye to my family.

These people meant the world to me and I vowed to make sure that I would make them proud. I was finally able to sleep soundly on the plane, refreshed to pursue and finish my mission as soon as I got back home.

I’d love to tell you that things went smoothly as soon as I got back. For a while it did actually. I collated all my information. Weeded out the unnecessary ones and created what I felt was an accurate depiction of my mother. Along with pictures, video tapes and voice mail recordings, I took everything I had to the virtual reality specialists and watched as they created magic from my research.

The very first time I saw my mother’s replica on screen, I burst into tears. It was surreal and overwhelming. This time it was simply a static form staring back at the world, lifeless in every sense of the word. I was told from then on, they’d input actions, commands and aspects of her character that they now knew from all I had given them. In essence we were creating life on that screen and it shocked me.

I was restless for the next weeks as work continued on her. Deep down inside I was unsettled. What we were creating was not my mother but something wholly new. I questioned and challenged myself but kept my resolve, believing this would have a profound impact around the world.

On the day I was called in to launch the project, I went in unsure of what to expect. I don’t think I have ever felt as nervous as I was then about anything. I was going to be reintroduced to someone I thought I had lost forever and my nerves were all over the place.

I was ushered into a room with a virtual reality visor tethered to the most complex computer I had ever seen in my life. Every single person that had worked on this project was gathered in the room, making me even more nervous than I initially was.

Andy, the lead engineer ushered me to the console where he walked me through what to expect. While, movement was restricted for me, my mother would be able to move around freely in the virtual construct. I could talk to her and she would respond based on the algorithms programmed into her.

After a few moments I told him I was ready and allowed the gear to be fit on me. It took some adjusting but then I found myself in an all-white room with no walls or roof. It simply looked infinite. I looked down to see if I had a body but all I saw were polygonal shapes to represent my limbs.

It was a bit disconcerting but I didn’t have time to fixate on it because approaching me was a person who looked exactly like my mother. I gasped and almost fell, but sturdy arms in the real world grabbed me and held me upright telling me it was okay. I knew I was crying because I could feel the wetness on my cheeks. Was it possible that this was my mother?

She moved closer and I was blown away at how realistic the replica was. She even smiled the same way my mother did.

“Mom,” I said.

“Jide,” she responded.

An alarm went off somewhere in my mind. It wasn’t that her response didn’t sound like my mom, in fact her voice was accurately performed but it was the way she pronounced my name that felt wrong.

I shrugged it off and commented on how good she looked. She thanked me, yet once again, her response felt odd. It was robotic, cold, complete opposite of my mother, whose whole persona was bubbly and full of vigor.

Clearly, there were still a lot of kinks that would be sorted out as this project went forward.

I asked her a few questions, she responded as accurately as she could. This was a great program indeed and the engineers had done their work well. I asked to take off the gear, and was presented with a room full of eager people, looking for commendation on their project.

I didn’t disappoint them, heaping effusive praise on all who had been involved with this, but I asked to be given time to mull over what I had just seen before given the go-ahead to fully launch the program.

The rest of my day was spent in contemplation but it wasn’t until that night that I got my answer as I went to my favorite spot in the city overlooking the river.

My reflection stared back at me but I also noticed something else. My mother’s facial features mixed with a bit of my father’s. I had always been told that I looked more like my mother than my father, and my recent trip to Nigeria, including the visits to her sibling who could barely look at me was even more confirmation of this. Now I understood what my father was getting at when he talked to me last. I grabbed my phone and dialed Andy.

“Andy, I have come to a decision. I won’t be going forward with this project anymore, I understand and apologize for the time you and your crew have spent on this. I promise to properly compensate you for your time and effort, but for personal reasons I won’t be moving forward with this. Can you erase all data and delete the replica?”

Andy seemed baffled on the other end, and I truly felt bad but he agreed to do as I had requested. Hanging up the phone, I felt relieved. I looked into the water once more, and at my reflection.

My mother wasn’t dead, she lived on within us and quite frankly, that was good enough for me and my family. I didn’t need a replica to remind me of her, I had my book of memories at my disposal now. Coupled with what I knew of her, there was no way I would ever forget her. Her legacy would live on with my siblings and I. We would be her reminder to the world of her existence. Our great deeds would pave the way for that.