They removed her uterus a day after her 43rd birthday. Her son drove her for the procedure. He was 19 years old but already looked eerily like his father, already sounded like him, even behaving like him. [He always left the fridge door open] When the procedure was finished and she stirred awake, he was seated by her bed reading a book by the light from the window. It was bright in the room, suggesting it was high noon. He hadn’t noticed that she had come to, so she watched him read for a bit. He held the book delicately in his slim fingers. His nails were short and studiously cut, his knuckles perfectly smooth like river pebbles. With his head bowed, he looked like he was taking a nap. When he eventually realised she was awake he quickly shut the book and reached out for her hand. His hands were warm, as if they had been heated by the book. Her sweet little boy who wasn’t a boy anymore but a young man. He smiled and said, “I ate your food while you were asleep.” She tried to smile but her insides hurt.
They almost died when he was born, the two of them. He had worked his neck around the umbilical cord , strangling him as he tried to come out. She couldn’t stop bleeding. For days she didn’t see him. She kept asking the doctors, “where is my son? I want to see my son,” but nobody brought him to her. They told her to focus on getting better. Nobody looked her in the eye – or so she thought. When she was finally strong enough and they brought him to her, she felt like they had handed her her heart; She felt like she was looking into her own heart.
He was slow to develop. He was a poor eater. He didn’t walk until he was almost one and a half years old. He was mostly underweight; a scrawny baby who bruised easily but never cried much. He fell sick often and she saw the hospital at all times of day and night. Nurses knew her. Doctors smiled and tickled his cheeks and said, “one day you will be a big strong boy?” Her husband told her that he himself was a weak baby who almost never survived. A miracle baby. “If I made it, so will he,” he said. He always drove her to the hospital at night while she cradled him, feeling his hot forehead. Those numerous late night hospital runs were marked by great anxiety and urgency. She could find the paediatric wing from the car park blindfolded.
He seemed to grow up haltingly, like he was afraid to grow older. “Let the child be, he will form into whoever he will form into,” her husband urged. He believed children just become whoever they are meant to be. It felt defeatist to her, to surrender their son’s development to the hands of fate. It felt irresponsible, even. He was right but he was also wrong. “You just don’t watch a child grow from the sidelines,” she said, “you participate. You get involved.”
They tried for a second child soon after because that’s what you do in a young marriage, you fill the nascent space with babies. She got pregnant but it was a dreadful pregnancy that wrung the life off her. She was constantly unwell. Her body felt invaded and foreign. “It was like someone very irresponsible had borrowed my body and was wreaking havoc on it, and my body was fighting them back.” On week 29 she dreamt her period had come and she hadn’t worn a pad. When she woke up there was blood under her. Her husband woke up, leaned on his elbow and blinked at the bright red against the white sheets. He looked scared for once. He said, “shit.”
“Loss of a pregnancy is like mourning,” she said, “it’s literally like a funeral that goes on and on and on because the baby is buried in you.”
Her gynae had advised her not to try again. “It’s just too dangerous for you,” she told her, “you have a son to live for.” So she lived for the son she had and mourned the one she never held.
Her husband seemed to move on like nothing happened. “That made me so mad, how he could just bounce back like we had only just lost a bet.” But he was mourning in his own way, her male friends told her. “Men mourn from the inside,” they said. When they mourn, their insides are all red, like they have measles inside their body.
When he was five, he fell off a table and cracked his head. For five days she never left his hospital bed; she stayed awake for days staring at him, afraid that if she closed her eyes and opened them again he’d be dead. At 10 he suffered his first heartbreak; he lost a swimming competition that he was sure he’d win, that he should have won, only the other boy was a lot faster and worked harder. He wept inconsolably in the back seat of the car the whole way home. His father drove on, unperturbed by his tears. He filled the driver’s seat with his wide back and long legs, his two paws on the wheel, he could have been an Uber driver who had nothing to do with the boy crying at the back. She looked at him, imploringly, with pleading eyes. “Please, tell him something!” She mouthed. He grinned and told him nothing because he knew that he needed to wallow in this loss, to appreciate its pain, to find himself in the humility of it all. Later, while he sat on his bed, he addressed him like he wasn’t ten. “You are ten years old, you will win a lot but you will also lose a lot in life. If you cry every time you lose, you will run out of tears before you reach 15.”
At 13, his father took him away to Mombasa for a boy’s trip. When they came back he announced, “your son is now a man. He is circumcised.” She was furious. Didn’t he think she needed to know!? He said no, it was entirely a man’s affair. “He is my son!” she cried. “Yes, but your son also has to become a man.” He wore shukas and an impish smile around the house and avoided milk. At night her husband would go to his bedroom before bedtime and stay there for an hour. He could hear his voice through the walls; a droning baritone, like a big car idling on the tarmac. It felt like a cult ritual was transpiring in that room. It sounded like chanting. “What do you tell him?” She’d ask him when he came to bed. “How to separate yourself from your mother,” he’d joke and turn to sleep.
He became a very quiet teenager. Suddenly, it felt like he had run out of words. He seemed to sneak around in the house, like a passing shadow with footsteps as light as a ghost’s, keen to reduce his carbon footprint in the house. He disappeared behind a wall of headphones and locked doors and silence. “One day I was working on my laptop in the living room and when I looked up I let out a small scream because he was standing before me and he suddenly looked so tall, I thought a stranger had broken into our house.” He was a stranger, technically. Suddenly there were two deep voices in the house. It felt like there were men in the house. When he and his father conversed in their deep voices, the vases seemed to shudder. The house was filled with thunder. “I felt small amongst them, like something that needed to be cared for.” At 16 his father would teach him how to drive on Sundays using her car because it was smaller and who cares if her small car crashed? When they came back at dusk they would not be speaking to each other. He’d hide behind a book, in front of the TV on mute, and then he’d disappear behind the closed door of his room. “Did you shout at him again?” She’d ask him and he’d mumble, “how hard is it to reverse park a small car?”
“Nobody is born reverse parking, Patrick.”
“Yes, but nobody should be taught how to reverse park twenty times.”
“You are too hard on him!”
“You treat him like an egg. He is a man!”
“He is a boy!”
She insisted everybody sit down together for meals even if they weren’t hungry. At dinner they’d avoid each other’s eyes; son and father, similar in temperament, trying to find their own space in the relationship. “It was amusing to watch them sulking, their egos coming out of their ears.” But there were many happy moments when from the kitchen, she’d watch them sitting under the avocado tree, their mouths moving, their body language leaning into each other and when they laughed she felt like an outsider. She felt she was a woman and they were men, not her husband and her son. She felt like she needed to find a new language to speak to him in.
There was a girl he liked in the estate. Joy, from the next court, house 397. Older. Because he was very tall with his father’s shoulders, most girls would mistake him to be older. He saw how they looked at him at the mall or in the supermarket. Their eyes lingered on him a little longer than necessary. One time she saw them standing by a streetlight as she drove in from work. The distance between them was not enough to pass air through. Another time she knocked on their doorbell, she was wearing something that showed a lot of her midsection. She was busty, like her. She opened the door and they stood eye to eye, or bust to bust. She was polite but she didn’t like her. She looked like she would pollute her son with the mischief that she could see dancing in her eyes. She knew they had broken up when his moods plummeted suddenly and he stopped going for his evening walks. “You know a man’s heart is really broken when they start eating less chapatis.” She chuckled. She felt sorry for him. She wanted to comfort him, to tell him that the woman he would genuinely love was perhaps only 5 years old then, but she understood heartbreaks, knew not to say a word. These incidents that brought him pain seemed to make his father prouder. He seemed to derive satisfaction in his pain. “It builds character and grit.” He said. “The world owes him nothing. It’s better to taste the world’s cruelty now than later.” And maybe he was right.
“You should talk to him about girls!” She’d tell him and he’d dismiss her with a wave of the hand. “Nobody is taught about girls. Girls teach you about girls.”
Half way into his 17th birthday he spent days seated across his father’s hospital bed. He was diminishing from a rare autoimmune disease that was eating at him rapidly. And just before his 18 birthday he wore his first black suit and a white shirt and he held his mum in his arms as his father’s body was lowered into the ground in a golden coffin that he chose himself. “It felt unfair that he was losing his father at a time when he was becoming a man. I mourned my husband deeply but I also suspect that I mourned for my son. For the kind of man he would turn into; a man who already lost half of his manhood by burying someone he looked up to.” It felt like they were burying his manhood itself in that golden coffin. She thought his father’s death would be his death knell, but it wasn’t. He filled the space left by his father. He seemed to own his absence.
He surprised her. He quickly grew into the man he would later become. He no longer was the broody type that kept away and used mono syllables or only came out when everybody was asleep, opening fridges and beating eggs. He was more deliberate and compassionate. He sought her out first thing whenever he walked into the house. When she couldn’t muster the strength to leave her bed, to eat, to do anything, he’d stick his head around her bedroom door and say, “mom, let’s go for a walk.” Or bring her sandwich cut in half; his and hers. He’d do what his dad did; bring flowers, only his were the tired roses you found in traffic in the evening. The ones whose beauty nobody saw. It’s almost like he knew she felt like those roses, those whose scent was long gone. He’d try very hard to make her laugh. He’d play her his guitar on Sundays. “He was not awfully good at it but the thought counted.”
At 20, he left for university abroad. His father had worked for an American company that had pledged to educate him through university. They sent him abroad. What good luck; burgers and Trump. He was just growing his dreadlocks, which made him look like a young thug, but a polite one. Mama’s thug. His flight was a late night one, the type where everybody looks like they’re sleepwalking. It was a cold and very dark night. [Horrors start like this]. She and her brother saw him off. He was wearing a mitumba winter jacket, jeans and brown boots. He was very lanky but with such bright grey eyes that drew you to them. He seemed fearless, almost foolishly trusting in the white world to receive him with love. It scared her to death. America scared her. “I was afraid for him, that the world would not see him like I saw him.”
They stood outside the departure terminal trying to slow the inevitable. The vestibule of time and fate waited patiently. When the time came to leave, he held her in his chest like she was a baby. She smelled soap and his father’s cologne on him. “I broke into tears and I sobbed in his chest.” He hugged his uncle and they patted each other on the back like men do when they don’t want to show vulnerability and off he went, disappearing through the doors, getting swallowed by another life. She saw him place his jacket on the security tray and empty his pockets. The world had claimed him. “That night I slept in his bed. I felt like I had lost him. That I’d never see him again. That if I saw him he would no longer be my son, he would be someone else.”
At 22 he came back home for holiday. Two years since she had last seen him, and he had grown a big Adam’s apple on his throat. His hands were bigger. When he moved he seemed to displace more air around him. He was very confident, assured. He was his father again. She couldn’t get over how big his shoes were. “I’d see his shoes at the doorway and it’d take me a moment to realise that they belonged to my son, who was now a big man.” He insisted on visiting his father’s village. “He said he wanted to know his people. To connect with them. That was strange, seeing as he had never had any interest to connect with his father’s people. My husband was himself not deeply rooted to his own people.” He asked her more about him; how did they meet? What did she love about him? How were they alike?
She admired him. This man he was trying to be. He was charming and attentive and he still left the fridge door open. She took him everywhere and she enjoyed the look her friends and colleagues and acquaintances wore when she introduced him. Some thought he was her lover, which was very flattering for her but also very weird. “I was so proud of him, then I was so afraid that I couldn’t be everything he wanted. That he needed other people to complete him.”
At 23 he graduated. She flew out to the small midwestern American town he lived in. It was spring. The air smelled of flowers and fruits. It was her first time in the US and it felt perfect, this life her son lived. Things worked. Clocks worked. People got their mail delivered. Even the dogs looked like they had their own dogs to walk. He introduced her to his girlfriend whom she had heard of; a blue-eyed brunette. Of course, busty. They had dinner at a small cosy restaurant next to a narrow channel. The water looked cold and unfriendly but it sparkled seductively in the light. She caught the whiff of fresh flowers. After dinner they walked over a stone bridge and she threw a pebble in the water. On her last day, he told her they were planning to get married and start a family. She wept and said she wished him well and then added, “who am I left with at home?” an unfair question and selfish to ask your son who was charting his own life.
He got married and had a baby. He’s 27 years old now. He’s never coming back.
She has the whole house to herself. She lives with the memories of him, his dead father and her dead son. She lives with the house help who lives out back in the quarters. She hardly sees her. Suddenly the house seems excessive, like a colossal mistake made from mortar. She spends most of her time in this tomb. She has fewer friends now, having freed herself from most dead weight. She hardly goes out. She aches for love, something genuine, but dating in Nairobi is so hazardous, something you need to approach with caution, preferably while wearing a hazmat suit. She tried finding a new hobby; hiking, but hated it. She tried visiting an art gallery but art bored her. She reads books and she disappears but when she comes out of the fantasy and magic of books she finds her life staring at her. Meeting people is harder when you are older. She stopped drinking. [Maybe an odd glass or two of wine]. Her career is working, has worked for many years now, and it feels like she doesn’t need to feed it any more fodder. She was reading up on purpose and it occurred to her that her purpose was raising her son and now that he’s gone she wonders if there is any other purpose left in her.
“There is a certain loneliness that comes with where I am in life. I can’t even describe it.” she said. “It’s not necessarily the bad kind. It’s a selfish loneliness. You have everything you need but you are guilty of wanting something else. At the same time you are also too comfortable or safe to try anything new that would reveal something new about you, something you don’t want to deal with.”
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