Zain Asher Describes the Day That Changed Her Mother’s Life Forever

I can’t remember most of what happened that Sunday in September.

I couldn’t tell you what the Gospel reading was at Mass that morning or whether Aunty Fatou came over to braid my hair in cornrows, or which Culture Club song was playing on the beat-up radio in my bedroom.

None of that really matters anyway. Everything about that Sunday was so routine, so plain, so unremarkable. Until the phone rang.

My mother had been waiting for that sound since morning, never straying too far from the living room just in case she missed it. Everything she’d done that day—frying plantains, leafing through the Argos catalog, ironing my brothers’ school shirts—was all a plot to fill time.

She kept telling us to turn down the television so nothing would drown out the sound. She was anxious, fidgety; we all were.

When the phone rang at 6:30 p.m., she finally gave herself permission to exhale.


It was supposed to be my dad. He was supposed to explain why he still wasn’t home; to apologize for the eight hours of worry he’d put her through.

But the voice on the other end of the line wasn’t his.

This voice was nervous; it hesitated and stuttered. It took a deep breath and mumbled two sentences that brought one chapter of our lives to a swift and sudden end and started an entirely new book.

“Your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead and we don’t know which one.”

It’s human nature to fear the worst when we don’t hear from a loved one for several hours, but usually, the worst doesn’t happen. Usually, everyone ends up all right.

This was not one of those times.

My father and eleven-year-old brother Chiwetel were four thousand miles away on a father-son road trip; long-awaited quality time together after a busy summer. My brother gazing out the car window, wide-eyed and inquisitive. My father pointing and explaining: the sprawling textile markets, the street hawkers selling okpa, the overcrowded yellow buses with conductors riding on the outside. All distant flashes of rich culture, a universe away from the corner shops, brewpubs, and lollipop men that littered our neighborhood in South London.

Somewhere along that six-hour stretch of bumpy highway between my father’s home state of Enugu and the buzzing West African metropolis of Lagos, the man driving my father and brother swerved into the opposite lane to cut traffic. As their car veered around a bend, it was crushed by a speeding tractor trailer. Everyone in the car was killed instantly, apart from one person in the back seat, where my father and brother were sitting.

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