Back in high school, I wanted her to come back; even as a dream. Or a shadow. I wanted a sign that she was with me always. Last week, as I wrote the piece on the Late Chelogoi, it occurred to me that the first dead body I had seen wasn’t hers. Her death has always been a great mystery.
I remember a few years ago when I tried bringing up her death with my elder sister when I was helping her in the kitchen. In response, she dismissed me from the kitchen saying she could finish up the work alone. Mind you, we weren’t even halfway with cooking. One thing was clear, in front of death she was just a coward. But aren’t we all?
I know fear too well. It’s the chap that made me begin spewing lies about an imaginary mother I made up and told all through high school. I was afraid of telling my story because whenever I did, things would get awkward fast and or I would get unsolicited pity. Desperately, I wanted to become more than just the five-year-old girl whose mom had died. I wanted to move past the anger and grief, but I did not know how.
It took time before I could talk about the issue openly, even with my closest friends. My truth entangled with years of immense pain and hurt; so much that the waterworks were uncontrollable whenever I had to tell it. For that reason, if I wasn’t lying, I was avoiding the conversation.
There’s a special book that had letters addressed to her- I would write to my dead mom complaining endlessly about one thing or another and momentarily sharing my happy moments through the letters (Weird, I know). However, when I was in form three, I opened up about the book to a priest that had been invited to conduct a retreat. He told me to let her rest and together, we burned that book. A part of me got burnt with it.
I remember so little about her; The one time she whooped my ass so bad for peeing in her kitchen after she had repeatedly told me that I was grown and needed to stop peeing on myself. How she would always ensure that there was milk by her bedside in case I got hungry at night which made me treasure milk to date. I also remember the last afternoon she spent at home.
A couple of relatives had come by to see her off to the hospital. As they waited for Uncle Sammy’s van to arrive, I walked up to her and asked her to tie my shoelaces. She smiled then said she was tired, and that Aunt Catherine will help me tie the laces. She must have been very sick because she was lying on a mat. Then Uncle Sammy’s van arrived, and she did not come back. Ever.
Other than that, everything is a blur. Her voice already left my head. The memories are following suit. I still hold on to a picture of her speaking in some gathering. You know, in case I begin forgetting how she looked.
Which is why I gave myself the you-are-now-an-adult-and-deserve-to-know-stuff pep talk last Friday before making my way to the sofa my brother was taking a siesta on so that I could get the facts from him.
“Manu, are you sleeping?”(Stupid question with a success rate of a hundred per cent because after that, I had his attention.)
“Do you have a few minutes? I would like to ask a few questions for the article I plan to write next week,” I explained whilst making myself commfortable on the sofa furthest from him.
“So… um..um. This week’s article was a prelude to that of next week. The running theme is death. I was hoping to write about Mom but then I realized I barely knew her. So I thought I should go to someone who knew her better.”
“Okay,” he said sitting up.
“Who was she?” I started interrogating.
“Where do I start? Well, she was mom. (He chuckles anxiously). A down to earth and hardworking woman. A primary school teacher who taught Home Science and Business Education before she took to English when curriculums changed. She found it easy to relate with people so much that she became the designated chairlady for a local shylock by the name Kiprot Korig back in the day.”
He sat on the sofa opposite the TV set to avoid eye contact. He was smiling, but I could tell from his voice that the topic still evoked emotions. In the event that he would begin crying, I wouldn’t know what to do since none of us is touchy-feely. Furthermore, God knew I had brought only one handkerchief.
“Okay. What did she like doing?”
“She was very passionate about farming. Her specialty was pineapples and she supplied every nook and cranny in the district. You wouldn’t miss her going to the farm with her small black radio tuned to news every single day after school.
She would go through each row in her pineapple plantation, covering up the ripe fruits with grass so birds couldn’t ruin them. Also, she had a dog that would follow her in the morning to school and return once she was past the school gate. It would wait for her to come back from school so they would go to the farm in the evening.”
“Any words she liked saying?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Easy. What was your relationship with her like?”
“Not so good. I was very rude then and I would abscond school to follow tractors around. (We both laugh) She would beat me up regularly and I didn’t understand why she was coming in between me and my happiness. In fact, I changed schools because she thought going to boarding school would make me more responsible and serious with life.”
“I am sure she only wanted the best for you.”
“What was her relationship with your other siblings like?”
“She was very keen about how her daughters grew up. She would sit them down every once in a while, and talk to them about how life is hard and how one needs to bring their A-game while at it.”
“Now onto the hardest part; describe her death.”
“She had been sick for a while before finding out in 1998 (the year I was born) that she had Leukemia. She indomitably looked for medicine, both traditional and OTC to cure her. In 2000, she went to a Benny Hinn crusade that was in Nairobi. I am sure you know Benny Hinn (I nod).
I visited her in the hospital before she died. She told me not to worry and that she would come back. She didn’t look like she was in pain or anything, but then cancer was feeding on her white blood cells. Slowly but surely. She came back home alright, just not how we all envisioned it.”
“Was I allowed to view the body?”
“I don’t think so. You were too young and couldn’t even comprehend whatever was going on. Actually, when we (Mom’s children) were asked to line up at the funeral for introductions, you refused to come along. Then Memo wa Auntie Lily had to bring you to that lineup. You came smiling.”
At that point, I could barely see him because tears were taking form in my eyes. Then I reached out for my handkerchief which I had conveniently put in between my notebook. Then he said, ” You are the interviewer, don’t get emotional.”
One thing he did not know though is that interviewers have feelings too. And that for me, the talk was only thing closest to the closure I had been seeking my entire life.
The interview ended shortly after. Because instead of asking questions, I was heaving and blowing my nose and trying in vain to stop the tears that were defying gravity. The interviewee ended it himself, saying that we had an entire week to collect all the facts we needed. I knew none of us would come back and have that talk again, but I was glad we had it in the first place. I felt so much lighter at heart after that. Like I had cast down a heavy yoke.
I no longer want her to come back, I just want her to rest in peace.