When David Kariuki was leaving his former workplace in 2002 he told Betty Wekesa, who also worked in the advertising department, “By the way, you, one day I will marry you.” Betty laughed out loud. She had this characteristic loud laughter. The type you want to join in. They were standing outside in the street, at the entrance of the building. He had been checking her out for a while, but you know how it is when you work with a chick you like? You try keep it under your hat. Besides, Betty wasn’t keen on or even aware of his affection. He found her very fetching. Like his mom, she had a gap between her teeth that he absolutely loved. And then there was her laughter. After laughing at his marriage prediction she said, “You? Ai, never. You Kikuyus aren’t romantic enough.” Those were early days. He hadn’t started calling himself “The Duke of Gatanga” on Twitter, an aspiring ranch owner.
He started a new job at Marshalls East Africa. They lost touch. A year or so later he rung her and they had coffee. He took her to a ka-joint where Four Points By Sheraton now sits. It was called Kwality Bar and restaurant, or something. Two months later they had another date at Kwality, a longer date this time. They did lunch twice in CBD. They then went on a third proper date, lunch in town followed by an evening at Kwality. (I guess you could say David was a Kwality time kinda guy). Betty was thawing under his charm and he kept his foot on the gas pedal. While picking up her purse at the end of one of their dates, she said, “You are not such a bad guy after all. It’s a bit late for you to go all the way back home [he lived in Thika], do you want to come back to my place?” He heard the angels sing. Really, he did. He answered “Yes!” very quickly before she changed her mind.
They started dating. He really liked her. Her heart was always in the right place. She was loving and fun to be around and she filled him with that laughter of hers. What else do you do; when it’s right it’s right, right? So he proposed to her. She said yes. On May 30th, 2008, he slipped a ring on her finger at their wedding in Karen and she became Mrs Betty Wekesa Ndung’u. David says, “That night I told her, ‘Didn’t I tell you that I would marry you one day?’ and she laughed out loud – that laughter of hers.”.
What happens when people get married? They either buy a toaster or they start making a baby. Since they already had a toaster, they started making a baby. They tried for a year but nothing happened. Then they tried for another year and nothing happened. He really put his back into it, literally and figuratively, nothing. It then occurred to them that there was a problem.
“Did you, at some point, think that perhaps you were shooting blanks?” I ask.
He says indignantly, “Of course not! It never crossed my mind.”
“Of course it never did, how could it have?” I chide. “You’re a man. No man thinks it could be them.”
They started seeing specialists. They saw a handful, all giving different diagnoses. They gave him iron tablets and sperm boosters. They gave her dozens of supplements. Then they tried again. Nothing. They saw more specialists, maybe nine of them in total, and they were given more supplements and more hope and they kept trying and finally one specialist told them that her ova were not getting to full maturity, which meant that by the time they met the sperms they could not fertilize.
“Oh, so it wasn’t a problem with your sperm,” I say.
“Oh, no. Mine were very active, they still are,” he says laughing. At our table also sits Ronnie, the editor-in-chief at Futaa.com. He had come to pick a copy of my book from the office and we had decided to have tea downstairs. I had invited him to sit in the interview later, to see how the sausage is made.
They tried Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) which involved synchronising her ovulation calendar and then physically inserting his sperm in her. It set them back some 350K. It failed. They gathered more funds over months and did a second one and it, too, failed. That’s almost a meter in the ground so they decided to chill because they had no more money to spend.
“How did that affect your relationship?” I ask him. “Was it ever like an elephant in the room?”
“It was unspoken. We rarely spoke about it. But there was frustration for sure, frustration in trying and failing consistently. Financial frustrations that came with it. Frustration in going to parties and seeing other people’s children running around, children that belonged to people who got married after you. But there was never any blame involved, I wouldn’t even say that it affected our marriage. We were in it together, that’s how it felt. But there’s some sense of insecurity on the woman’s part when she’s the one with the problem, especially now that we were like five years into the marriage and no baby. There was societal pressure, subtle, but there. For instance we would go to a function and someone would ask, ‘What are you guys waiting for?’ I’d tell them, ‘We are still on happy hour, guys.’”
“What’s happy hour?”
“It’s that ka-time after the wedding when you guys are just chilling, enjoying yourselves until you are ready for kids.”
Ronnie chuckles at that. Ronnie is not married so he would find that amusing.
In June 2004, when they took a stab at another procedure, it cost them a cool half a million bob. (I have never known why people refer to lots of money as “a cool.”) This time round they did a procedure where fertilisation is done outside the woman’s body, in a lab, and the product is transferred into the woman’s body.
A month after the procedure they did a pregnancy test and guess what, they were pregnant! He was over the moon and over Saturn and Jupiter and he was bouncing off walls. The next couple of months he walked while whistling under his breath. He smiled at strangers. When he saw a child he rubbed his hair playfully. He called them “son,” or “sweetheart.” He went online and read websites on the development of babies. He dreamed of cute naked babies with double chins tickling his undersoles with a feather. (I’ve made this one up, bear with me). He felt like God had finally listened to him. Like God was his homeboy, his wingman. He was grateful to Him and to modern science. Mornings were suddenly brighter and full of promise. The air smelled good. He was going to be a father! He couldn’t even wrap his head around that concept. Would he now be expected to wear trousers with turn-ups? Would he have to own more coats? Would he have to learn how to fix the sink, because isn’t that what fathers are good for? (Apart from scaring away the thief?)
But God wasn’t done.
Three months later they discover they are expecting triplets.
As in, three shundrens!
They wanted one baby but God said, “Aii, we have to replicate Betty’s beautiful laughter so that we can have three children with that laughter filling the world with mirth, so have an extra two.” But they are also scared because Betty has a small body and they wonder if three lito people with big heads can fit in there, eating and moving and yawning and kicking and fist pumping. But Betty is a trooper. They buy baby stuff. In threes. Weeks fall off the calendar. They get to 36th week and they are all packed to go see the doctor in the 37th week. They have booked a bed at Aga Khan, forms are filled, the overnight delivery bag is ready by the foot of the bed and Betty is heavy, yes, she rolls around like a walrus, yes, but she is fine and she is happy and he is happy and they are happy.
One Tuesday evening a couple, their friends, come over to visit them at their digs in Nyayo Estate. He sees them off. They watch some late-night TV under duvets because Betty’s feet would get cold. They brush their teeth and get into bed. He switches off the light. He falls asleep with his hand on her belly. If you have a child you will know that feeling of placing your hand on your pregnant woman’s belly – it’s tight and stretched like a traditional drum- and it’s a great feeling to feel your child kick therein once in a while, as if to say, “Stop holding my mummy! You made her nose big and she eats soil all the time. You have done enough, let go of her, let my mummy sleep!” It’s a special feeling especially because you can’t believe that you, small insignificant you, who can’t even cut his nails properly, made a human being with eyes and ankles! That you are going to be a father and you don’t even know the half of it. You feel so unworthy to raise another human being. When Tamms was an infant and she looked at me I thought she could tell I was clueless and that I was planning to just wing it with her.
When he wakes up with a start, the lights are on and Betty is pacing up and down. She’s saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” It’s just after 1am, according to the bedside clock. He jumps out of bed. She walks out of the bedroom, into the living room where she paces up and down catching her breath. He runs to the kitchen to get a glass of water while he calls the doctor. The doctor says it could be embolism (Oh, I know this bastard, it killed my mother), that she needs to come to the hospital immediately. Can they come to Aga Khan? “No, we live in Nyayo,” he says, carrying the water into the sitting room, “can we meet at Mater? Sawa. Mater it is. I’m rushing there now.”
He steps on red vomit. She has been vomiting blood. He finds her slouched on the couch, foaming at the mouth. He panics. He dashes out of the house, taking three stairs at a time, bangs on a neighbour’s door downstairs. The neighbour opens the door squinting. My wife doesn’t look so good. They rush up. The neighbour has a contact with Kenya Red Cross, who dispatches an ambulance. On the couch, Betty is lying on her side, listless. The neighbour performs CPR. In 12 minutes the guys from Red Cross burst into the room. Two gentlemen. They come bearing equipment, those medical things that look important, and they try to resuscitate her using these important looking machines. He looks at what’s going on like he’s watching ER. At one point, one of the chaps, a medic, feels her pulse and his finger stays on her wrist for a while, and while still holding her hand he looks up at David and their eyes lock momentarily and David sees something in the man’s eyes, and suddenly he feels his whole world crack under his feet and he just knows.
His wife is dead. The realisation is short and heavy and intense and it grabs his throat, cutting off air. His wife is gone. Gone with the beautiful gap between her teeth. Gone with her wonderful laughter.
“I just knew from his look that Betty had died,” he says.
Ronnie folds his hands across his chest, as if a chill just came over him. At this point I’m thinking; shit, how does God pick who gets the rotten cards?
But they had the babies to think of.
“They had a stretcher, these guys from Red Cross,” David continues, “and getting my wife’s body on it was difficult because she was heavy, maybe 90-plus kilograms. But we heaved her on it. I don’t remember if I helped or they did it alone. I honestly don’t recall much at this point. But I remember the difficulty of going down the narrow staircase with her heavy body on it. The Red Cross guys were rushing down it seems, like there was a chance of saving my babies. I don’t remember the drive to Mater.”
He says it takes about eight minutes to save babies after the death of the mother. They take over 15 minutes to get into Mater. At the Emergency unit they place her on a table. A doctor checks her airways and vitals then turns to him and tells him, “I’m so sorry, she’s no longer with us.” She’s wearing a brown deera. He stares at her feet, the ones that were cold earlier in the evening when they were watching TV. They wheel her into an adjacent windowless holding room of sorts. “All the while I was numb, but when I saw her being wheeled into that room I started crying,” he says, then pauses. He looks away. “I really cried at that point.”
“What are you wearing at this time?” I ask him.
“I’m in my sleeping shorts and a t-shirt.”
“Do they have pockets?” I ask.
He gives me a strange look. I don’t know why I ask that, to be honest. But I want to picture him. I want to know where his hands are, is he hugging himself? Are his hands in his pockets? How cold is it? The cold of loss and the cold of 2:46am. Is the moon out? What can he smell? He doesn’t remember if they had pockets but he remembers that he had her phone which had died when he was calling her people from it. He had his phone too and he called his sister, her best buddy, tried calling her sister, told his own sister to tell his mom that Betty had died and they were at Mater. He makes these calls tearfully, standing before that small church at Mater, holding onto the railings. It’s a church I know too well, I saw my brother cry in there a few times when my mom was hanging on a string in HDU some eight years ago. It’s a church where hope and grief sit on the same side of the pew.
His best buddy showed up and took charge. He’s called Peter Maingi, and he’s a Clinical Officer at KNH. He took him to the cops to report the death. Then he took him back home in the small hours of the morning. The house help opened the door with a smile, thinking that perhaps he had good news of the baby’s birth given that she had slept through the commotion of the previous night. He walked right past her and into their bedroom. His bedroom now.
The lights were still on. The room smelled of her. The room felt like her. The room still had her heat. Pieces of her clothing, pieces of herself dotted the room because bedrooms ideally belong to the wives. We just keep our socks there. Her sandals were at the foot of the bed, on her side. There was a cup on her bedside table. The cord of her charger ran from the socket. Her flat pregnancy shoes were by the wardrobe, with one of its doors half open. He looked around the room, like a stranger. He stared at her side of the bed, a rumpled bed sheet, the space where she had slept a few hours back, taking her shape. The pillow, depressed under with the shape of her head, was thrust against the headboard. His lips trembled and he bit them. His eyes got misty.
He walked over and slipped into the side of the bed that belonged to his dead wife. He slipped into the shape of her 90kgs, six of which belonged to his three children, now dead. Children he would never meet. He would never take them to school, or colour with then. Fatherhood had become a mirage. He slipped into his dead wife’s shape, placed his head on the depression of her own head in the pillow. It smelled of her hair, of her face. And there, waves upon waves of grief, deep hungry grief, beat him and ate at him and as exhaustion took over his body and mind and sleep stole him, he wondered how he would ever be the same again, not even as a man but as a human being.
When he woke up, sunlight was beating through the window, but it didn’t feel bright. Because you can be in sunlight but still be in darkness. The light overhead was still burning. He heard voices in the next room- his relatives and her relatives and neighbours and people who had been called by loss. They were voices of sorrow, low voices because death lowers our voices. He didn’t want to get up. He wanted to lie there until he was old, until he also died and joined his wife and his three children. He didn’t want anyone opening that door. He wanted to lie in this bedroom that had become an incubator of pain and hopelessness.
There was this prayer he had written on the third month of their pregnancy. It was a prayer for a safe pregnancy. He had read it throughout the pregnancy. The first thing (and the only thing) he did when he got off the bed was to tear it up.
“I hated God,” he says. “I questioned him. I mean, I have prayed for children, begged you for them, and then you have made me wait for eight years to give me, not one, or two, but three children.” He pauses. “Then you keep these children for all these months and then just a few days to delivery you decide that, you know what David, you don’t deserve these children. I thought to myself, you know what, this guy [God] is a joker. He was never serious about helping me. He was playing with me and in the cruellest of ways; taking my wife and even my children. If he didn’t want me to have those children, if I was not deserving of them, he should have at least left me my wife.”
He didn’t leave the bedroom the entire day. He went back and slept on his wife’s side. But when he finally came out in his shorts and he started grieving, he hated it when people told him, “It is well.” He absolutely hated it. “How do you know it is well?” he asks me. “Have you lost a wife and three kids? How can you say it is well? I think the only person who can say it is well is me and I can only say it when I feel it is well right here,” he points at his heart.
He was only 37-years old then (now he’s 40), and a widower. (“There is no age to be a widower. As long as your are married you are a potential candidate for the widower slot,” he says.)
I want to ask him if he saw his children but I’m so conflicted about it. On one hand it feels so intrusive and on the other hand, the parent in me doesn’t want to know. It fills me with dread. I really don’t want to know because I’m also burdened as it were with this story and honestly, I want to finish it and go away. I don’t want to burden him with those horrible memories but I’m also anxious for it to stay in my head and infect me with fear as a father.
“Did you ever see your children?” I finally ask him, secretly hoping that he says he doesn’t want to talk about that. But he does.
He did. He saw them. Two days after the death. Chief Government pathologist – Dr Johansen Oduor – asked him if he wanted to see his children. “Are you very sure?” he asked him. His children were in a room. He left everybody else outside and went in alone. He tiptoed in. The room was so cold. His babies were placed on a table with a lime green cover. Two girls and one boy. The boy was between his sisters. They were naked. They each weighed around 1.8kgs. They had small feet and cheeks and small hands folded in small fists. They could have been asleep.
“Imani, Keith and Neema,” he says in a new voice that he hasn’t been speaking in.
I glance over at Ronnie, he’s staring at him like he’s superhuman. I hope he doesn’t continue, I hope he stops there. I don’t want to hear anymore about these children. But he doesn’t.
“I stood there for maybe 15 minutes hoping that they would jolt to life and start crying and I could take them home.”
We sit in a very brief silence that could have quickly gotten awkward.
“Did you touch them?” I ask.
“No. You know us Kikuyus don’t even view bodies that much. But these were my children, I had to see them. Even during burials coffins always remain closed.”
“Us we view, sometimes leave the coffin open.” I say, then I look at Ronnie and say, “Ronnie, what tribe are you, by the way?” He says Luhya.
“I remember that they were light-skinned, like my wife. She was light-skinned,” he continues, then adds with a mischievous look, “but mostly I remember how good looking they were, just like I am.”
We laugh at that. We laugh at death. And it feels good. It’s a f*k you to death and the ugliness the world brings.
His wife and children were buried in Gatanga, his shags. They were buried in the same coffin. One child was placed on his wife’s chest and the other two in the crook of each arm. Sleep tight, angels.
Why am I fascinated by these stories of pain and grief, I have been asked many times. I think it’s because I want to know how far down a human being can plunge, how below rock bottom we can go before we rise again. I want a glimpse at the fighting spirit of man. I want to be assured that whatever shit life throws our way, we can rise, we can triumph. I want to see humans rise and triumph.
And the Duke of Gatanga rose. Gradually. One day at a time. It was difficult, ghosts filled his days and he felt his heart pump pain, but he rose.
“Grief for me was an extreme emotion, the very end of hell,” he says. “Your head is heavy. You have questions. You cry a lot. You, (pause) I don’t know. You’re just…lost in space…in thoughts, [pause]…in everything.” His best buddy, Maingi, was there for him. Always.
“For a while he moved into my house, for a week, in fact, until the day we buried,” he says. “He’s married with children but he knew that I was useless standing on my own two feet, so he moved in and he somehow took care of stuff I couldn’t until I was strong enough to face life on my own. And during this time he didn’t say much, we would just sit in silence, we didn’t even drink. Just TV and silence.”
“That’s the coolest stuff I have heard today,” I tell him. “Right, Ronnie?” Ronnie says, “Very.” You know those guys you ask something and they say “very”? That’s Ronnie.
“Si today is cold?”
“Kwani jana you slept early how?”
[Peter Maingi, if you are reading this huko at KNH, you deserve a big trophy, one of those elephants that curiomakers carve in maasai market. That and a bottle of your favourite.]
What do you do with your dead wife’s clothes and stuff? Do you give them away and when? I ask David.
“They were in my house for two years. I never touched them. We had lots of baby stuff, clothes and lots and lots of diapers and shoes. Many! I just didn’t want to give them to anyone, I didn’t want to dump them in a children’s home and leave. I wanted to give them to someone who would appreciate them for their taste – my wife had very good taste in clothes. I gave them away in pieces, one at a time.” He never moved out of their house because, well, he owns it. The house is now rid of her stuff, but there is a pair of earrings he still hangs onto. And the first X-ray scan that showed the triplets.
He joined a group of other widowers. Yes, widowers have a whatsapp Group. He’s in one called Brothers. They talk about grief, adjustments and everything that comes with loss of a spouse. They share experiences and challenges like family, healing, dating and things: When do you introduce your kids to a woman? What do you do if your kids like her more than you do or you like her but your kids hate her? Things like that.
“How long should one wait after the death of a spouse before they start dating?” I ask him. “Because you can start too soon and guys are like, aii, Duke of Gatanga, yaani you couldn’t wait?”
He laughs. “Funny you should ask, I used to have a neighbour who lived across from us, a lady, she must have been 52, or something, as soon as we buried she started inviting me for dates and stuff. Of course I know when it’s more than an innocent date, but she was relentless, man,” he laughs. “You get a lot of women – some of who knew your wife – wanting something. They offer to come help in the house or want to feed you. Some are too forward others not so much.”
“Are you seeing someone now?” I ask. Mostly because I’m nosy. Because really it doesn’t matter. But I’m sure you guys also want to know. Stop pretending. You do.
“Does she have a gap between her teeth?”
“No,” he laughs. “But she also has a big laugh, just not so pronounced.”
“How do you make sure that when you are dating you don’t go looking for your dead wife in these women?”
He pauses. I like when people pause when I ask them a question. It means I have asked a good question.
“It’s a tad difficult.” He sighs. “It’s difficult, even though I try and seek the good and the uniqueness of an individual.”
“Does your current chick ask about your departed wife?”
“No, she doesn’t,” he says.
He wants to get married and have children one day and if his wife lets him keep the wedding band that he now wears on a finger in his right hand, he will. He says grief doesn’t get better but it gets easier to handle. You have to learn to wake up daily and face life, he says, even on days you don’t want to. You learn different ways of getting off the bed. Some days are harder than others, but you get up. Then it gets better. You meet new people. You make plans.
He still thinks of the children. They would have been three today. He would be picking them from school. Driving him crazy with toys all over the house. Some days he thinks of his late wife’s laughter. But the thoughts are not as dark as they used to be. Some days are tough, but most days not so tough.
I ask Ronny to ask him one question. He asks something about lessons.
“Appreciate what you have when you have it,” he tells Ronnie. “Anyone can go at any time, without warning, so appreciate anything and everything and let them know. Say you love them, show them that you genuinely love them, appreciation is very important.”
“Ronnie,” I say, “in short he’s saying just marry that chic and stop this dilly dallying.” The Duke of Gatanga laughs and says, “What chick, Ronnie?”