Bradley – 2

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It was a June lunch hour; bright and hot. The office of Rachuonyo and Rachuonyo Advocates was out to lunch, the laptops left abandoned on desks in an apocalyptic fashion, the fifth floor of Capitol Hill Towers finally still. In the distance, you could hear the lifts occasionally open and close on the floors above and below. Robert Onyango, a lawyer, was in his office nosing through some files, catching up on a case.

Unbeknownst to him, at that very moment, a school van that had just dropped off his three year old son was reversing on him. 

Shortly after, his phone was ringing and it was his wife, Irene, shouting hysterically. “Call home! Call Bradley! Call Jackie!” Then he was hanging up and calling Jackie, their nanny who was also screaming in terror, speaking unintelligibly. In the background he could hear mass hysteria; a wave of what sounded like wailing, like a funeral. He couldn’t make out what she was saying but he could hear his son’s name Bradley over and over in her screams. His heart sank. His hands started trembling. He was suddenly weak and hot. He loosened his blue tie and sat slumped at his desk. 

As a colleague drove him home at full speed, he prayed. He asked God not to let anything happen to his dear son. When he got to the AAR Center at Nyayo estate where a gasping crowd had gathered, he found his pregnant wife holding his son. She was  screaming and shouting at him, “imagine this boy is dead! Imagine this boy is dead!” He stood rooted at the spot, numb, confused. Dead? He took a cautious step forward and looked at his son, cradled in his mother’s arms. His son’s body was broken, something had damaged his small holy body. His teeth and mouth were disfigured. He couldn’t comprehend, how could Bradley be dead? Had he not seen him in the morning a few hours ago? He was in his school uniform and his small school bag with a cartoon character on it. Had he not seen him at the breakfast table, his chin playfully leaning against the table’s edge, Jackie telling him to eat his breakfast?

How could he be dead? 

How did a van run over his baby? 

Can a school van run over a little boy?

This is impossible. This is a nightmare.

When they wanted to finally take him to the morgue he said to a policeman, “don’t touch him. I will carry him.” He was wrapped in a white sheet now, like a mummy. He had carried him in his arms. His son, who was alive and warm in the morning but dead and cold at noon. He was unusually heavy. The weight of horror and pain. Heavy like death. He felt, through the white sheet, the damage the van had done to his son. His little bones had been crushed and felt disarranged. He felt unimaginable pain, pain you can’t describe to anybody who has never carried their dead son in their arms. He felt everything in his own body had been disarranged; his heart, his lungs, his liver, all his bones, his brain, his life. He knew that his life had disintegrated in pieces and he would never find the pieces to put together again. 

Later he went back and begged the doctors to tell him that his son didn’t suffer. Because he couldn’t imagine his son suffering, dying alone under the weight of a school van. 

This was 28th June 2015. 

I – like everybody else – heard about it on social media that same afternoon. My son was only one year old and when you hear such things, you tend to selfishly think of yourself first, you try to imagine what would happen to you if a van ran over your son. Your brain refuses to process that level of horror. 

I met Robert Onyango a year after that event and he talked about having to find the language to tell his two remaining sons (Martin 9, Jason 5) that day that their brother was dead and he had been taken to the hospital and Jason asking, “but when will he come back?” He talked about how much tears washed through their house, how his wife couldn’t stop crying. How Bradely’s death altered their very being as parents, as a family, stained everything in their house with loss and grief. How the night Bradley died his sons all climbed into their matrimonial bed with their mother and she held all of them as they slept, each hand clinging onto one of her sons’ in case death came back for her remaining sons. That night, he crawled into Bradley’s small bed and curled his 6’ 3” frame into the smallest ball he could manage, like a foetus, and suddenly he wasn’t a 40 year old lawyer neither was he a husband nor a father, he was a child again.  “I was so scared,” he told me. “I was so scared.” 

He told me how when everything had crumbled around him, when nothing made sense, how his father stood by him, how his step-mom offered him solace, how his step sister became a steady rock he would rely on  and his friends took over his life and arrangements. He couldn’t sleep at night. He’d leave the lights on the whole night because suddenly darkness terrified him. Sometimes, in the stillness of the night he could hear the sound of the van reversing and the sounds of his son’s bones crushing. How when he eventually cried, he would break down in privacy behind doors and weep  utterly while covering his mouth with his hands. 

Driving back from the village to bury Bradley he felt like a traitor with each kilometer they moved from the village, having left his son under a mound of soil. How it all sank in during that trip back when he looked in the rear view mirror and noticed that one seat was empty. “We were a family of five, now we were a family of four.” He said. “One of us was missing and was always going to be missing.”

The story was Bradley. It’s going to be ten years next year. We sat down with Robert again.

***

You want someone to pay for killing your son. Of course you do; a school van ran over your son! You are angry. You want to fight for his honour, for his name. You want someone punished. How is it possible that you take your child to a place that is supposed to care for him, prepare and arm him for the world, a safe place and the same people leave him to die under the weight of moving steel? How can one be so careless, so callous as not to look in the damn rear-view mirror after dropping a child who still needs their hand held? A three year old child, for chrissake! How do you reverse a whole van over a child?  

You go to court. 

It helped that Robert is a litigation counsel, he knows his way around the legal labyrinth, knows which hoops to jump and what monkey to feed a banana. There were two cases: a civil case and a traffic offense case. The civil case was for his lawyers to prove that the school was negligent and the insurance pays up the damages. Then there was the traffic offense case which involved the government demanding their pound of flesh.

The civil case was at Milimani Law courts. It seemed like an open and shut case however, the insurance companies are not in the business of paying without a scuffle, so of course they lawyered up. They cut through their emotions and they send their meanest and baddest lawyers who intend to tear into the muscle of the case with their bare teeth. This is not personal to them, this is business. “You are put on the stand to testify,” Robert says, “and you have their lawyer cross-examine you and what you don’t anticipate rather naively, even for a lawyer like me, is that the other side will try and make it appear that you are the ones who were careless!”

“I’m used to being in court, so I was not tense but for my wife it was her very first time and she was shocked at the ugliness of the process. It brought out the side of her I’d never seen before.” He says. “When we were dating she lost her father and his passing completely devastated her. Seeing her in court was nothing compared to the devastation of losing her father. I’d seen a different side of her in the amount of sorrow and pain, of having to relieve it all over again, to defend herself and to defend her son. I think it’s the worst I have ever seen her and I never want her to go through something like this again. I never want her to be in that position again.”

Going to court traumatised her.  After court sessions she would stay at home for two or three days, not able to go to work. “She would be exhausted mentally and emotionally, the court having taken everything from her because whereas it was supposed to be a session about how a child died, it turned out to be a trial against you; had you been a better parent your son would be alive today, that was the general insinuation.” 

After one and a half years the court awarded a package which the insurance company contested. Essentially they said, your son was not worth that much. They appealed. At this point Robert and Irene made a decision; they didn’t want any part of this again, and didn’t want to go to court again to fight anymore. So he spoke to his lawyers, told them to tell the insurance company to pay whatever they deemed fit and end this circus of pain because it now felt like “we were negotiating for a dowry prize and it started taking something away from this process.” 

A settlement was reached and the insurance company paid what they thought was fair. The settlement didn’t feel like closure for him. “It is money, it is impersonal. A boy died here, my son got run over by a van. If you take that money and multiply it 1,000 times I would still not feel like it was closure. Nothing would ever make me feel like justice was served and we got what we deserved. This is when you realise that life and money can not be equated.”

Normally there is a minder who rides with children in school buses. He/ she opens the door for them and holds their small hand as they come down the steps. She then crosses the road with them. Or hands them over to their nannies or anyone there to pick them up. She also tells them to sit down, or stop fighting or throwing trash out the window because it’s bad manners. She knows these children. She knows the colour of their gates. 

Nobody knows exactly what happened when Bradley was dropped off and the school van reversed over him. Nobody knows what that minder was doing, what the driver was doing, what God was doing. It’s all unfathomable. 

The driver took off after the accident and is still at large, nobody knows where he is. In his absence the school-van minder was brought to face the law. Robert saw the van minder a couple times during the traffic case at Makadara courts near a church he attended as a child, the same church where he got baptised. He was surprised at how young she looked. She was in the presence of her mother and auntie and a male relative. They sat huddled around her, a wall of relations and comfort. She avoided looking at Robert and Irene. She stared at the floor a lot. She looked scared of them. “My wife was tired of this case before it started.” Robert says. “The morning of the hearing she asked me, “why are we still doing this? Of what use is it?”

On the next court hearing he waited for this school van-minder in the court compound. She came out of a car with her mother, husband, her uncle and her lawyer. He approached them. When she saw him, she recoiled in fright. He shook hands with the rest and asked to speak with her privately. They were sceptical. She was visibly scared of him. “She couldn’t come close to me, she stood far away from me and I remember telling her, ‘just come close, I don’t intend to harm you, I merely want to talk to you.’” He says. “ I could see she was very scared of me and I felt bad that she imagined that I was capable of hurting her. That I was that kind of a person.”

He was surprised to learn that she had just turned 18 when she took the job as a school van minder, and that job was her very first job. She was remorseful.  She kept saying how sorry she was. She broke down and wept. “I held her, comforted her. Her people watched as she cried uncontrollably in my arms.” He says. “And then words just started coming out of her amidst the tears.” 

She said there is no day when she hasn’t thought of that day. That it’s something that has always stayed with her and she doesn’t think it will ever go away. “She said there is no day when she didn’t wish she swapped places with my son and she was the one who was run over and killed instead of him. And at that point I tried to imagine what it was like for her, only 18 years old on your first job and the child under your care gets killed on your watch. You are 18 years old and so you have to live the rest of your life with this burden. As a parent I felt sorry for her. I understood how haunted she might be. My son would never come back, that’s a fact, does another person also have to suffer like we have?”

He told her  they were dropping the case. They were surprised. The magistrate was also surprised and wouldn’t hear anything of it. He told the prosecutor to talk to him because his client seemed to have lost his mind. “I stood my ground, I told the court I’m a lawyer and I know the implications of this, but as a family we don’t want to go forward with this, it’s too costly on us.” But the court refused to drop the case, it being a public interest case. There is a hearing sometime this year. 

“We cannot hold on to some things for life.” Robert says. “There is no better evil, no better good. Only God knows how He does these things.” His relationship with God has greatly changed over time. He’s a member of the Catholic Men Association. “God does things in very mysterious ways. God is the owner of anger. He decides how many days you will remain angry. God is also the owner of forgiveness. As we grow in this world, there are some things you also want your kids to take up, good qualities, like compassion, grace, love. Someday when I’m gone, I’ll want somebody to forgive my son no matter how bad his mistake is. Or him to forgive someone no matter how badly he has been aggrieved. Some debts you don’t pay on earth and I’m not saying this lady has a debt to pay, because it was an accident and of what use is it for anyone if she spends the rest of her life with this great burden when an act of forgiveness can free her.” 

Their youngest son was born two months after Bradley died. Robert feels that God has already compensated them for their son by giving them another one. “Of what use will having someone’s daughter sent to jail for many years be of use to us when we already have another child?” He poses. “It can never give us the kind of retribution we are looking for. So it was at that point that we made an informed decision that we just need to go in good faith.” 

I asked him if that experience in court has affected his legal profession and how he sees law and justice. As if on cue, just before he answers this question the phone rings; it’s his wife. He says jokingly that he has to take it because that’s the law calling.

“It has really changed my perspective when it comes to cases.” He says hanging up. “I’ve come to appreciate that the files and court papers we handle have people behind them. I handle murder cases seldomly and I’m more sensitive when cross examining people who have lost loved ones. I’m sensitive to the kind of questions I ask. It’s these questions that the victim or the family member will always remember.” 

When I ask him if Bradley comes to him in dreams, he says he comes not in the form of dreams but what he prefers to call “visions.” When he sees a ten year old walking from school or in the mall he imagines it’s him, Bradley. Because he’d be that age next year. “I imagine that he could possibly be a classmate to that boy or girl because they are the same age.” For the longest time his last born was a spitting image of Bradley but when he turned three- the age Bradley was when he died –  he got his own face. 

The boys are all grown now. The eldest is in high school, two years away from university.”I can’t believe I have a child in high school.” His dad is unwell, so he shuttles to the village a lot more now. “The sun sets in the west, I’m turning 49 years old this year, this means I’m heading towards my sunset years so I find myself travelling towards the village a lot, towards the setting sun.” 

On the morning of June 29th each year, his wife wakes up and says wearily, “It’s that day.” They used to stay at home on that day, but at some point he decided to go about the day as if it was another, even though it never can be because at exactly 1pm, “wherever I am, my life normally comes to a standstill.” She, Irene, on the other hand, would spend the day in the bedroom sleeping the whole day. “She could be in the room for two or three days, unable to go to work.” 

Her WhatsApp has always been the profile picture of Bradley. She has never changed for the past nine years. “It’s the longest profile photo I’ve seen on anybody’s WhatsApp. It has the words, ‘Forever in my heart, baby boy.’” Nobody knows what Irene thinks of when she sits quietly in traffic, or in her office. I asked Robert to request her for an interview. Maybe she will accept it. For now, we can only imagine what she has gone through and what she continues to go through. 

What Robert knows for sure is that she is insanely attached and dedicated to their last born son. “The bond they have together is difficult for me to comprehend,” he says. “My son is almost nine and whenever he gets off the school van from school, his mother is always there to meet him…always, without fail! I mean, our house is literally 200 meters from where he is dropped off but she will always be waiting to receive him and walk him home.”

***

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46 Comments
  1. I remember Bradley story. Thank you for writing this coz I have always wondered how the family is doing. I will echo the comment I wrote.

    That In a moment like this, silence seems to be the only expression that fits. What can we, as mere men, say to a grieving and shattered heart? We speak today because we have a living hope. Death is no respecter of persons. Death is no respecter of youth. Death is a painful intruder and a pernicious reminder of our human condition. But I know that we have a living hope and that causes us to rejoice greatly. You see, our hope today is found in the fact that Jesus is no longer entombed. He lives. And because He lives, bradley lives. Because He lives, the grieving broken heart has hope, and reason to rejoice.

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  2. This was so heart wrenching.
    The God of all comfort be God to the family.
    Keeping you in prayer.
    God bless your heart for forgiving the minder.

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  3. This has just reminded me how scared I am as a parent, SO SCARED! Lord remember the Onyangos, give them grace, give them peace

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  4. loss has to be the hardest thing anyone has to deal with in these life,, it feels like a punishment to the living as the gone one rests
    may God always help us.

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  5. ”you tend to selfishly think of yourself first, you try to imagine what would happen to you if a van ran over your son. Your brain refuses to process that level of horror.” This is me, while reading this article. I can’t even begin to imagine what Irene and Robert went and are still going through

  6. I balled my eyes out! so very sad for Robert and Irene. As a parent i cannot imagine what it must be like to loose, to bury a child. The biggest lesson I have taken is to pay forward to forgive because you would want you and yours to be forgiven for someone to have mercy on you if it came to that. May the healing continue, glad to see they went back to some form of normalcy.

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  7. this was gut wrenching the first time and now almost ten years later reading it is like reliving the nightmare again. May God continue to comfort Bradley’s family

  8. I honestly feel like some stories should come with a triggering warning. I reread the first one before this one and for all the time Robert couldn’t cry, i felt like crying now for him. My heart goes out to his poor family. No one should ever have to give such an interview. No one

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  9. This story will always break my heart. It was horrible nine years ago when it first happened and it was fresh, and its even more horrible now that I’m a mom to a 6yr old and living in the same estate. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of pain and emotional damage something like this brings to a home, a father, a mother, siblings, even grandparents. Unfathomable. May they continue to find joy in the little things, solace in every experience they have with their kids and in each other, and peace that surpasses understanding.

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  10. Some things are just utterly difficult to comprehend. Such is life. In other news Biko, “What drives one to join a book club?”

  11. May God continue strengthening Robert, Irene and their family. A great lesson on forgiveness to all of us, no matter the weight/circumstance.

  12. I almost shed a tear reading this. I can’t imagine the pain Bradley’s parents felt and the strength it took to let go of their pain and forgive. Indeed, God is the owner of forgiveness!

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  13. Bradley’s story and Rose (the lady who’s daughter (Hope?)was mauled by a leopard) are hardest and most gut wrenching to read. As a parent you cannot imagine the pain they went through. I want to hug them and lend them my tears, carry some of their pain because losing a child is like the world goes dim and never regains its previous light.
    I pray that the passage of time has lent its healing. I hope that mama Bradley agrees to speak with you, but if she doesn’t, we understand.

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  14. As a father, this breaks my heart into a million pieces. i cant fnish reading this. Our kids make us weak…….very very weak

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  15. wow! I remember the first time you interviewed him. Tthe emotions are still raw. My heartstrings are in shreds. May they find peace

  16. This is still heart breaking as it was when we first heard it. Can’t stop crying. I am glad that they have forgiven and I wish I could have that grace to forgive more. Wishing them well in the healing journey.

  17. I cried when I read Bradley’s story the first time. I cried when I read this follow-up today. It doesn’t get easier, and I can imagine how hard it is for the parents. May God continue holding the family close.

  18. I don’t even know what to say but, indeed God has been faithful in holding your family together for all this while…It has not been easy but I hope all of you especially the wife find closure… May you look back on the precious memories and find peace in knowing that you both are amazing parents. This too shall pass….Sending you lots of hugs and then some more….

  19. Wishing Robert’s family all the grace they could get, reading the story in 2015 was absolutely heart wrenching. Not to forget the minder as well, I hope she forgives herself for I cannot for the life of me imagine the trauma she has lived through over the years.

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  20. Broken hearts never mend and scars we carry are a testimony for our darkest past. May peace be with Robert and Irene. They’ll see their son during that resurrection morning.

  21. When I first read this story, my (only) boy Leo was still 22 months away to Existence, and it made me extremely sad.
    Leo is now six, in grade 3, dropped off by a yellow school van – and when I read this follow-up story this morning, it broke me up in a whole new way, shattered heart and all that, and with a terrible pain for Robert (and sorrow for his missus). And, yes, courtrooms are battlefields, not exactly where opposing litigants show compassion for others (surprised they didn’t sue the actual school for that act of homicidal negligence by its servant/agent, the darn driver).

  22. Biko, this new series with references to past posts have been Soo emotional for me, this one in particular I have cried from start till end.
    May Bradley keep resting peacefully ❤️.

  23. Thanks Biko for doing this series, its giving us closure too. There are stories you read and keep wondering what happened? This was one of those for me. Kudos to the family for looking past their pain and looking at the plight of the young van minder that day. The horror her 18 year old self went through must have been out of this world. Indeed, their forgiveness must have eased the burden a bit. May little Bradley continue resting in peace.

  24. Losing a loved one is never easy…
    My take home….

    Someday when I’m gone, I’ll want somebody to forgive my son no matter how bad his mistake is. Or him to forgive someone no matter how badly he has been aggrieved. Some debts you don’t pay on earth and I’m not saying this lady has a debt to pay, because it was an accident and of what use is it for anyone if she spends the rest of her life with this great burden when an act of forgiveness can free her.”

  25. God comfort you. Only He knows how to.
    Some things you read numbed with horror. I pray you find peace good people

  26. I saw Bradley 2 and it brought shivers coupled with a lump on my throat. I recall this story vividly and was around the same time God had blessed us with a son (was roughly 1 year old) whom coincidentally is called Bradley.

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  27. 10 years ago when this story was written i was not a parent. now i have two kids and i am so scared to even go back and read it because my heart cant take reading sad stories about kids.

    May Irene continue to be brave i cant imagine as a mother ever getting over the loss of a child. EVER.

    May Robert also continue to be a steady rock for the family and receive healing as well

    May the young van girl learn to eventually forgive herself.

  28. Saddest thing I have read today. And to think another child was also run over in Katani this week by a school bus too

  29. ‘The sun sets in the west, I’m turning 49 years old this year, this means I’m heading towards my sunset years so I find myself travelling towards the village a lot, towards the setting sun’ ,This is profound.May God’s grace comfort this loving family.

  30. Only God can give them comfort and healing. Sad that such incidents are still happening.

    Dear majirani. Just to let you know that we had a fatal accident next to Kavesu Road junction. A PP1 kid from Goodrich International School was sitting with the driver. He opened the door and fell. The bus drove on his head killing him immediately .

    Please talk to your schools and emphasis on the need for children safety while being transported. What happened today could have been avoided. That young soul shouldn’t have died.

    School buses should also be driven on acceptable speed limits. There were accusations that the Goodrich School bus is always overspeeding on this our very rough road.

    It has been a very sad evening. May it never happen again to any of our children.

    Thank you to all the neighbours that came to give support when the accident happened. happening.