My father weeps.
I never thought I’d ever write those words in reference to him. Not Simon. Simon is unbowed. Simon is a titan. A Viking. He’s from the dated school of thought that subscribes to the maxim that crying is feminine. That a man should keep his emotions under his hat and all that doodah. And I agreed with him, for 34 years.
But now, Simon weeps soundlessly, albeit with a great measure of embarrassment. With an almost laughable sense of phony self-preservation.
The only other time I have seen him exhibit this kind of emotion was when his father – my gramps – died in 1996. The hearse had just driven in the compound and as usual, where I hail from, this turns out to be a spectacle; wailing, honking and general gnashing of teeth. And poor cows, poultry, goats fall under the knife. He stood at the edge of the compound, one leg on an anthill, arms folded across his chest and in the dying light of the evening, I saw something glistering that I assumed were tears stream from under his spectacles. Although it was brief, this sight, it jarred me. It shook the foundation onto which he had built the monument of what manhood was.
But now as my siblings and I approach him where he is seated outside the morgue, he seems to take a deep breath and look upward, as if willing the tears back. But they don’t. He seems to struggle to get up on his feet, a man besieged by death, stalked by a dewy future, a future filled with loneliness.Simon looks old, older than I have ever seen him.
He hugs my kid brother – our last-born – first, and then hugs my other brother, and then finally my big sister melts into his embrace. She sobs in his large chest. I stand, respectfully, at the side, hands thrust deep in my pockets because I don’t know what to do with them.I stand waiting for my hug, like a refugee in a queue, waiting for his food portion. When we finally hug it’s as I expected it to be; awkward. Why shouldn’t it be anything but awkward when it’s the second time we embrace in my life? Why shouldn’t it feel like I’m embracing a Mugumo tree? Or Gumo, for that matter? (Hehe, I don’t know where that came from.)
I’m sure you are thinking; kwani Biko was adopted? Negative. My old man didn’t raise us to hug and kiss. I started watching fathers hug and kiss their sons in the Godfather and, later, The Sopranos (deep down Italians are pansies).We were raised to be men; stoic and sturdy. Eh, and not to wear skinny jeans. But now, seeing my father’s eyes wet, seeing his composure breached, seeing the man I have looked up to as the archetypical male completely compromised fills me with almost as much sadness as the reason we are here.
You see, up to this point, I haven’t cried. It’s been 24 hrs and I haven’t shed a tear. Not that I’m Samuel L. Jackson or anything, no, I just haven’t felt the tears come. It’s been 24 hours and I haven’t succumbed.
The doors to Aga Khan Funeral home in Kisumu opens into a small empty room -like a holding area. The walls are white. The undertaker who leads us inside is a chirpy portly chap who is literally bouncing off the walls. Surely, it can’t be the formaldehyde, I think, it’s either weed or this guy just likes to piss off death.
Together with a handful of my aunts, uncles and cousins, we are led inside the inner room. Aga Khan Funeral Home, can only hold nine bodies at any given time. They are put in these huge elegant metallic drawer-like freezers. If you stumbled into this place by mistake you wouldn’t suspect it’s a morgue; it’s spotlessly clean. You could unwrap a sandwich in there. Chirp N Dale(Oh, the 90’s) walks to the end of the room and, with no ceremony at all, opens the bottom drawer of the last row. There is a slight sigh as the drawer slides open, it’s like opening a crypt.
Cold mist rushes out briefly and when it clears I see, Jane, my mother.
She’s Jane, all right, but at the morgue they don’t call her Jane any more, they call her “the body” and it fills me with such anguishing sorrow, such alien desolation to hear my mom referred to as “the body”. I mean just because she stopped breathing doesn’t mean she has lost her identity. But understandably, they would easily call her “the body” because she didn’t nurture them, or take them to school or admonish their truancy. They would call her “the body” because they don’t know her favorite colour, or meal or music. And so even though she is kept in the freezer like an object, she still is my mother. She still is Jane.
There is a small sharp gasp in the room when all these registers – when we are fully brought to consciousness of her presence – andit takes me a moment to realize that the gasp came from me. I’m standing at the back of this group and I see my brother bring a handkerchief to his face. I hear my big sister break down and cry; a low, gutting animal-like cry. A cry that sounds like her insides are wounded, and it’s a cry I won’t forget in a hurry. I hear my dad say, “Mummy has rested now, she is peaceful.” And I hear my heart break like cheap porcelain. My breathing changes, it becomes short and terse.
The first to walk out of the room is our last-born brother. He’s called Jamoh; he’s always played rugby (Homeboys club) so he’s a tough young man with a small waist, a chiseled chest and ripped biceps. But even a flanker can’t stand to see his mother on a cold slab because the flanker has always been mother’s pet. Jamoh walks out.
My big siz strokes my mother’s short hair. She strokes her while she cries so bitterly, so hauntingly, so horrifyingly painful that I can’t fathom there ever will be any pain to match this pain she feels. At some point, one of my uncles will hold her and lead her out. I avoid looking at my father because I don’t want to embarrass him by seeing him vulnerable, I don’t want to intrude into his grief, yes, but also because I’m afraid he will make me vulnerable. So I stare at mom, lying there, looking like she’s having a power nap. Finally, I walk through the small throng and stand right next to her.
She hasn’t changed a tad. It’s her. She has my forehead. She has my sisters’good heart. And she has my daughter’s chin. Even though she departs with parts of us she still leaves us with a part of her.
I touch her forehead and I immediately wish I hadn’t.
She’s cold. Mom is cold like steak. Death is cold, gang, cold like a witch’s tits. It’s inhuman. The act of touching her seals her death for me, it brings it home. I step back and at the end of the room I find the Undertaker guy and I ask him if I can see my mom’s heart when he’s doing the embalmment and whatnot. He looks puzzled. I tell him I want to see how her heart changed after eight years of heart disease. I’d dying (nice pun, eh?) to see how it looks like. My dad overhears this mad conversation and says it’s “unafrican” and that I should “let go because it’s God’s will” I cede reluctantly.
I walk out and up to this disused staircase on top of the physiotherapy department and there I sit at the end of the staircase overlooking these old municipal housings. And there I think of one scene from the past:
It was on a weekday night. We had rushed her to Mater where before admission I took her to the X-ray room to have her chest X-rayed. Is that right, Dr Karimi, can I say have her chest “X-rayed”? Oh, Dr Karimi is the official High School doctor in case you are wondering.
My mom had lost a great deal of weight because of her heart condition. She had become frail and wisp. The disease had eaten everything on her except her spirit. I walked with her in the X-Ray room and the radiologist asked her to hold this rectangular thing on the wall in order for her chest to be X-rayed. Her blouse was off but I had to stand behind her because she was so weak and there was danger of her falling back. But it wouldn’t have been possible, I mean, she was so light that if she had started falling back, I had time to nip around to the dispenser to fill my Styrofoam cup with water and get back just in time to grab her before she hit the floor.
And so as I sat on that staircase, I remembered this scene. I remembered how frail she looked, how the veins in her arms popped out as she struggled to hold onto that rectangular thing, how the muscles on her back trembled from that strain. I remembered how deeply saddened I was looking at her in this state, how helpless I felt. And it ate me like cancer. I marveled bitterly how this disease had stripped her off her dignity that her son had to watch her bareback as she clanged onto that slab., a most odd metaphor of her struggle with life and failing health. I remembered how fuckin’ tired she must have been to continue carrying around a heart that had betrayed her.
I thought of that night, and I broke down.
I cried so hard I was surprised that I still had that amount of grief in me. It came flooding out, choking me, squashing my heart in a tight fist. I cried like a kid who had had his lunchbox stolen. Jesus, all that Zulu braggadocio shit flew out of ma pants and I cried the way my daughter cries when you force her to wear a sweater she hates. At that staircase I was nothing but a child who had lost his mother and I remembered thinking; shit I need a handkerchief.
You should have seen me up there, sitting on that last stair, crying into my t-shirt and not caring even as two buibui-clad girls across the fence stopped momentarily to stare at me and perhaps think to themselves; he looks like a fairly decent chap, why would anyone make fun of his forehead and make him cry so?
When I was done, when I had wiped off my tears and my lips had stopped trembling, I walked down to where my relatives were and acted like I had only gone for a long bathroom break; “must have been that chicken pie I had in Narok,” I said.
My dad avoided my eyes.
It’s midnight as I write this. Tomorrow morning- Friday – I will be at the airport to pick up my little sister. A couple of hours ago she Whatsapped me from her stopover in Amsterdam and said, “I’m scared of coming back,” and I thought; hell, I’m scared of picking you up from the airport.
The amount of crying she will do when she sees me is going to be unsettling, if her crying over the past few days is anything to go by. I’m even more scared of crying with her, not because I’m embarrassed of it (OK, a bit) but because it makes me feel so vulnerable and I hate being vulnerable because it makes me feel weak.
When you lose your mother, bottom falls off. Literally. You feel alone even when you have a million pole messages in your phone. You feel lonely even when someone sends you a verse. And you dislike God a little. How can you not? He’s the giver and taker of life andso he has to take the rap, so you blame him even though you know that he knows better, even though countless of verses in the bible proclaim his superior wisdom. But even more poignantly, when you lose your mother, you momentarily stop being a man, a son, a husband, a professional, a boyfriend, a giver, a taker, a dreamer, an aspirer. You are reborn in reverse and you become a child once again. A sad child.
But like everything else, all these will come to pass at some point and the sun will come out again. Like my friend Gathurai – who lost his mother in the most sudden and tragic of ways – told me, “It will get worse before it gets better.” I don’t think it can get any worse than this.
Gang, I’m done pouring heart here, if I continue any longer I might break into an SDA song and it’s not that bad hehehe. Time check; 12.23 am, I’m hitting the sack, pray for me and my people.
Ps. So Crazynairobian (www.crazynairobian.com) walked away with the Bake Awards for the best creative blog. I was in that category and after this dust has settled, I plan to lodge a complaint to the officials at Bake. I mean I think it was unfair to put me in the same category as a writer who had declared his sanity, or lack of it.
But thanks to those who voted; I’m grateful for your support. But the way I see it, if this award is to come to High School next year, we either have to buy those judges or better still take out Crazynairobian. And I don’t mean to dinner.
Nonetheless, the only comfort in losing is knowing that you lost to a worthy opponent.To Crazynairobian, congratulations to a well deserved win.