Her nearest and dearest call her Keke. The sound a creaky door makes. It’s the sound of a brittle, rare baby bird in a thicket, waiting for mommy bird to get back from the cloud and feed it. Keke could also be an exotic dance from a small tattooed tribe in a remote part of Chad, of stomping feet and rising dust. It’s a dress, a brash African print; low at the hem and high on imagination. We don’t know what Keke really means, but then we aren’t her nearest, neither are we her dearest.
When Keke thinks back to how it really started she will say that it started with her telling her husband, “Ebu, please stretch my hand for me.” Because Keke’s hand was prone to heaviness. Sometimes she would feel it go stiff and numb, the kind of numbness that comes when you sleep on your hand for too long, or perhaps when you share a bed with those people who sleep on your hand but since it’s romantic you don’t want to move it and so your hand loses all blood circulation and just when it’s about to turn into a tree stump, you push them off because nobody should lose their arm because of romance. That’s a struggle for the heart, not the arm. Her husband wasn’t sleeping on her arm, it was just stiff. So he’d pull it, yank it to stretch the muscles and bring it back to life.
At the same time she was feeling listless. Lethargic. Out of it. Green around the gills. She’d lie in bed and draw a mental trip to the bathroom and it would seem so far away. So she’d call in sick sometimes. Or just get to work a bit late, dropping into her office chair and barely catching the thick sigh in her throat. In the loo, she’d sit on the toilet seat for a bit longer than necessary. At home she’d lie on the sofa more, the TV sounding distant, like people talking in the next room. Sometimes, in the kitchen, she’d stop to lean on the kitchen counter, to catch her breath. Often, tired from being a mother, a professional, a wife, a woman with a stiff, heavy right arm, she’d fall asleep on her sofa with her mouth half open, looking like a baby again because when adults sleep with their mouths open they become babies. (With the exception of politicians, of course).
She finally saw a doctor who did bloodworks: her blood count was low. He prescribed bed rest and some supplements. So for a week she woke up, prepared her kids and saw them off to school then lay down on the sofa watching TV, basked in the sun mid-morning, read a book under a duvet, ate a cold apple from the fridge, or napped in the afternoon. She then waited for the children to get back from school and the husband to get back from his business and for the bustle of family and life to fill the house again so that she could float in it, this broth of love and familiarity and purpose. When the week was over and she went back to work, the lethargy lingered.
“One night I was putting my daughter to bed and she had her hands in my shirt and she said, ‘Mommy you have a ball on your boobie.”
We shall stop here briefly and consider how very endearingly cute that is. Only a child can make something sound so beatific. Boobie. It sounds like a lovely, red birthday balloon, filled with air and love, floating in the air, flirting in the slight breeze of the day. “Hey mommy, look at the boobie over that tree.”
But when you call it boob, it loses its innocence, its air. It suddenly becomes aware of its nakedness, a boob that ate the forbidden apple. Now it’s no longer a balloon that floats in the breeze, now it’s something that has a nipple. If you are foolish enough to call it “jugs” it now looks like something that can be used to keep fresh flowers in. If you call it “knockers” now you are just the guy who goes to Kiza.
After putting her baby to sleep, she went to the living room where the husband was watching news, legs stretched before him, his hands in his pants absentmindedly as men do when watching TV. She said, “I think I have a lump on my breast.” He turned to her and said, let me see. He slipped his hand under her shirt and she guided his hand and he felt for it. As he kneaded it, he cocked his head and looked at a spot on the floor for concentration, as if he was also listening for the ball on the boobie. Indeed there was a lump. It felt like a gololi. You folks know what a gololi is, right?
“We have to call the doctor now.” It was at 9:30pm. So they called her Obs, a Dr. Rukari. For all the men seated at the back, Obs is obstetrician. You hear women say, “My Obs.” Sounds very cool. Dr. Rukari says, “No need to worry. It could be a cyst. Women have them all the time. Come to the clinic tomorrow first thing and we will have a look.” They hung up and went to bed. And they forgot about it, because, who likes going to the doctors, even if they have a cool abbreviation like Obs?
Three days later Dr. Rukari calls her. She’s at work, you know, making hay. Daktari says, “What happened, you were to come to the clinic!” She makes excuses; oh work, oh life. Daktari says, well, I think you should come in now. She says she can’t, she’s at work. Daktari puts her foot down, so she packs her shit and tells her boss that she has an important doctor’s appointment she had completely forgotten about. Her boss is the nice type, not the kind that come to work on a flying broom. At the clinic Dr. Rukari checks the lump and prescribes antibiotics and asks her to come in after a week. A week later, her Obs feels the lump with a slightly anxious look this time: the gololi has grown bigger. She has to get a mammogram.
We are seated in a booth upstairs at Java, Lavington. I’m asking her to describe how a mammogram is done. Standing against the machine, you place your boobie on a plate, a second plate comes in and presses your boobie then it rotates, taking X-rays. “Are you thinking at this point that you could have cancer?” I ask.
“Not at all,” she says. “I’m thinking I have to get back to work.”
Two days later the results are out. The clinic says she has to come in and do a further test, a biopsy. “That [biopsy] was painful,” she says. In a white-walled sanitized room, two radiologists with severe looks did an ultrasound-guided biopsy; sucked out suspicious tissue from the gololi in the boobie. The result, they said, would be out in seven days. It was election period in 2017, so they packed up and went to vote in shags in Kisii. They travelled on a Saturday to vote on a Tuesday. On a Monday a call comes in at 9am, while she’s in the kitchen. It’s the clinic.
“Could you please come in and see the doctor?”
She told them she was in shags and she would go in when they got back to Nairobi. Tuesday they vote. Wednesday a Prof Wasike calls her. “Please come in on Sunday, whatever time you land, you have to do CT-scan asap.”
So they come back to Nairobi and do a CT-scan. Later, when the results are out they sit in the prof’s office, and there he tells them that she has cancer. And it’s stage 3.
She remembers sitting there feeling normal physically but also feeling removed from the proceedings of the moment. It was like being under a swimming pool and listening to people speak. She vaguely recalls the prof saying the nodes are in her neck and armpits and her husband asking, “Do you mean to say she has breast cancer?” in a suspicious tone, like the prof was lying or they had made a grave mistake and those results didn’t belong to them. These discombobulated (there is a word full of fat) conversations came at her and seemed to literally pass through her; “stage 3 breast cancer…treatment plan options…immediately. She’s listening to a conversation that doesn’t concern her. She should be at work, at her desk, asking her colleague what they are eating for lunch.
She remembers little of after they left Professor Wasike’s office or of them sending their report to India for a second opinion and the doctors there saying, sure, Dr Wasike’s treatment plan seems bang on point. The coin doesn’t drop that day or the next, she just goes about her duties as a mother, as a team-player at work, as a wife, as a child of the planet. Because she can’t get stage 3 cancer. How?
The coin only dropped when she had to sign a consent form for the mastectomy surgery; to chuck the bad boobie with a gololi.
“I have a bit of a delayed reaction to things. Call it ignorance or denial.” She’s having a green smoothie. I can smell the garlic from across the table. “I thought, why would I get breast cancer? This is not something I saw myself having. Panic set in. I started thinking about dying and leaving my kids behind. Thoughts of death filled my head and I tried to imagine what place death was; a place with no light, dark and empty and you are all alone there, you can’t talk to anyone…you just sit there in that darkness. You start thinking about your whole life and about the ones death has taken.”
These thoughts take her back to her early 20s in the Soviet Union where she went to study way back in 1997. She lived in a small town in the southwestern part of Russia called Voronezh, a small town by the Voronezh River, where she went to study medicine in Voronezh State University, an old institution established in 1918. Voronezh wasn’t like Moscow. It was a city that had been destroyed during the second world war and was coming up anew. It still had the heavy communist air, there were few foreigners, and even fewer black girls studying medicine. “We ate black bread and beetroot soup and what I remember about my time in Soviet Union is the cold and how terribly homesick I was.”
Calling home was expensive and so her kindly Russian lecturer called Olga Alexivich would invite her to her flat in a block of grey Communist flats, with its withered wintry tree branches scratching its windows, to call her mother from her landline. Unlike her bare hostel room, Olga’s flat was warm and motherly; Russian rugs on the floor, thick insulated windows, frosty from the cold, heaters along the wall, glowing red like a stubborn wound, a fireplace often crackling with burning logs, a domestic cat with a bushy tail, lounging on one of the sofas, staring at the 20-year old black girl, seated on a straight chair, on the long distance call home, the receiver held tightly against her ear with both hands, speaking a strange language.
“Everytime I’d be on the phone with my mom, I’d be crying. I desperately wanted to come back home,” she says. “It wasn’t easy.”
When she was in her third year she came home for holiday and when she saw her mom waiting at the Arrivals, she was taken aback by how weak she looked. She was frail. Her eyes were tired. She resembled those wintry Russian trees outside Olga’s flat. “She had been sick and nobody had told me. She had bone cancer.”
She refused to go back to Russia when uni resumed, not to that withering cold of Voronezh and it’s pale-faced locals with warm hearts. She left everything in Russia, the dream of medicine, her bookshelf full of books, clothes, shoes, her friends. Mom was dying and she needed to be here. She enrolled in USIU. Her mom died on Easter Monday of 2002. She was 24.
“When I think of death, I think of it taking my mother. I lost my dad at 12. It was an abrupt death; he was poisoned, and 12 years later it now took my mom. When I think of death it’s my mother’s death that I recall with great pain because I was already much older and we had accumulated and shared many memories and emotions together. She was my best friend. We talked a lot.”
She recalls standing in the morgue at Aga Khan, and a mortician in gloves pulling her mother’s body out from the fridge. A man in gloves! Why would anyone want to wear gloves to handle Mom!
“I remember touching her cold body but somehow feeling her warmth and shaking her, telling her, ‘Mom, wake up, let’s go home.’”
She recalls the day of the burial. How early that morning her brother, as customs demand, had broken the first soil on the grave her mother would be buried in. How it started raining as they lowered her into that wet grave in a white casket, because her mom was pure royalty. Umbrellas popped out from nowhere. Thin needles of rain falling on the umbrellas. She shivered with grief.
“I was wearing a black dress and black Ngomas,” she recalls. “I was standing next to Aunt Matilda. She was holding me, or I was holding her, I don’t recall. And I was crying so much. Funnily enough, when my dad was being buried, I was standing next to Aunt Matilda. Aunt Matilda has stood next to me at the possibly worst periods of my life.”
I love talking to people who have lost their mothers. I find kinship in them. We speak one language, a special language of bereavement that other people can’t understand. On the other hand, I fear talking to people who have lost their children. I try to avoid that conversation. I don’t walk through their door of grief. I suspect that grief is the worst kind. And so listening to Keke talk about death is almost like listening to the same sad song we both like.
Now as she signed her consent form to get in surgery these vivid memories of death came bubbling to the surface. She was facing her own death. People die during surgery. Who was going to stand next to her children if she died? She was scared as Professor Wasike, scrubbed up, put on his mask and told her gently that she could change her mind if she wanted. She was scared when the anaesthetist told her to start counting backwards from ten.
When she woke up in a private ward it was 8pm and her husband was staring at her. He was saying things she couldn’t understand. She was woozy, like someone had stuffed cotton wool in her head and now the cotton wool was wet. A thick bandage ran across her chest. She thought, “Oh my God, I’m now a woman with one breast.”
By this time she was about four years married. They had met at her cousin’s wedding in 2010. They were both involved in organising her cousin’s wedding. “He was the guy in charge of transport,” she says.
“Of course. It’s always the guy in charge of transport,” I say. She laughs.
“What was he wearing the first time you saw him?”
She doesn’t hesitate. “A striped shirt and a coat over some blue jeans.”
“Fascinating,” I say. “If you asked him what you were wearing the first time he saw you I can bet you he won’t recall. He will probably think hard and say, ‘Well, what I remember for sure is that you had on shoes.’”
Ho-ho-ho. We high five.
He was the calm guy in charge of the wedding transport. What attracted her the first time was that calm. He would constantly walk out of the planning meeting to take a call, pacing outside in his calmness. Two months later they had their first date at that restaurant at the end of Riverside Drive; Honey Brown?
“What did he have to do for you to decide that he was the guy?”
“He was honest. He said he had two kids from another relationship. I liked that; he didn’t hide. He said he liked me and that he wanted to be serious with me. So, no pussy-footing there. He was sure of what he wanted.”
They married in 2013 at the AG’s. I have never witnessed an AG marriage, so I was happy to hear from her how it was. She had on a kitenge. He had a suit on. There is a registrar in a room that smells of the government. It looks like a place Vioja Mahakamani guys would hang out between takes. The registrar isn’t there to socialise with you. He isn’t your friend. He doesn’t care how long or deep your love is. His job is to marry the two of you before the government and move on. There is a queue of lovers waiting outside his door. This might be love for you, but for him this is work, complete with KPIs. When he goes back home and his wife asks him, “Babe, how was you day?” “I did 23 couples today. My goodness, there is a marriage flu going around I swear.”
A clerk in a pale shirt and a tie the size of a panga comes out and calls out your names. You shuffle in holding hands. The registrar is seated at his desk. He doesn’t look sociable. Before him are two seats, you can choose to sit or you can choose to stand, the government doesn’t really care. In fact, if you don’t sit it’s better for him because then you might get too comfortable and start telling him how the two of you met and that’s a story he doesn’t want to hear. He wants to finish and go for lunch. Today he feels like eating fish.
“We stood,” she says. “We were with my best friend and his cousin as witnesses.” [Yeah, so that the man doesn’t ruka that story later. These transport guys.]
“The registrar goes about that event like a robot. You confirm your names. Then he reads through the oath – and he was in a mad rush – and he says you may kiss. I don’t think he even looked up at us.” We laugh at that. I really like this registrar at this point of this story. He’s my favourite character. I wish I could follow him to the fish place and ask him, “Is there a couple that came in to marry and you looked at them and thought, ‘If this marriage lasts two months, I will eat my shoes?’”
Anyway, we were at the hospital, after the surgery, her husband was looking at her, she was woozy. After a week, I think, she was discharged.
“At this point I wasn’t thinking of death anymore. I was confused. I wasn’t even mourning my breast yet, I was just confused.”
The long road to cancer treatment started two weeks later. “Chemo is horrible. Just horrible. You sit in bed for eight hours every week for seven months. You are dropped and picked. It’s painful. It’s agonising. You get mouth sores. My body rejected the treatment at first. I had nausea. I would get hungry but I couldn’t eat because I had those mouth sores. I was going through counselling at the same time, to deal with all this.
“This time I was getting an immune booster jab and when I woke up, I saw my own hair on my pillow. I was heartbroken, because I loved my hair. I really loved my hair and now it was coming off on pillows and when I comb it and even when I run my hand through it. I would cry so much when I started losing my hair. I felt like I lost a lot of my femininity and I needed a lot of counselling.”
I look at her hair. She’s wearing short natural hair, with a cut on the side, like the one Malcom X had. I think it’s a nice look. She could pass for a jeweller.
“I lost weight. Initially I was 72kgs, now I’m 45kgs.”
Cancer also takes away your clothes. You can’t fit in them anymore, you float in them like Casper the friendly ghost.
“I’d cry all the time. I’d never draw my curtains, prefering to be in that darkness. I’d see the worry in my children’s eyes and feel so helpless and scared of losing them, of leaving them behind and of them growing up with the grief of losing their mother, like I did mine, only they are so young and they need me for so much longer.”
She had spoken to the children before and prepared them for what would come. That mom would get very sick and very thin and very weak and sometimes she’d just sleep a lot or cry.
After chemo came radiotherapy that darkened half her side. She did 45 sessions over two months.
“When did you first look at your chest and the scar where you breast used to be and how did that make you feel?” I ask.
“I avoided looking at it for the longest time. It must have been four months after the surgery when I first dared look, and this was after months of group therapy,” she says. “But before that I noticed the first time I wore a t-shirt, how one side flopped. It was so flat on one side. Losing my breast came with different emotions at different stages; anger anxiety, and even fear. I wondered if it would recur. If the cancer would come back.”
“Please allow me to ask this foolish question,” I say. “But does losing one breast affect your balance, you know equilibrium?”
She chuckles. “Actually, it does. I noticed that I’d stoop a lot. Yes, it did affect my balance. I was also very self conscious, so I would wear baggy things to hide it.”
“Has cancer, and losing your breast affected your marriage?”
“Of course! It has to.” She sighs.
“How so?” I ask.
“First, imagine losing the one thing that made you identify as a woman. It’s gone. Which means your very composition as a woman is sort of shaken. That comes with massive emotional waves like you wouldn’t believe. So even before anything else, it changes you as an individual. It’s not easy to live with cancer, you are constantly frustrated at all the turmoil happening inside your body, the fears and insecurities, all these things make you lose a part of yourself. So for my entire ecosystem, adjusting to what was going on could not have been easy at all. Especially for my husband.”
Cancer, I gather, is like a furious hurricane that blows through a home and everything that isn’t fastened tight to the wall or to the floor is ripped off and they fly out of the house. It’s this powerful force of confusion and transformation and pain and fear and angst, and it tries to tear down everything that you thought would not tear down. It changes perception. It changes you. It changes the kids. It changes your very ecosystem and when it has blown through, you gingerly step through the debris looking for what survived.
“How do you think this affected your husband?”
“He didn’t say much. I asked him how he felt but he didn’t say it. He’s a generally quiet guy. But I wondered what all this was doing to him, how my physical and psychological changes affected him. I think he dealt with it in his own quiet way. At some point I blamed myself for having cancer, for bringing this into this marriage and disrupting our lives.
“I blamed myself for not being the wife he expected me to be. Because I was constantly tired from chemo and I couldn’t be the wife he married. I was crying constantly. I struggled to be the wife he wanted me to be but I couldn’t be that wife, because I wasn’t the same person to begin with. I was different. I was staring at death. I was sick. So things changed, intimacy went completely because it’s hard to feel sexy after a round of chemo, or even with one breast. Some of the meds I was taking also induced early menopause, so it’s just a mess. I was crying all the time. I don’t know what that would make a man feel.”
“Why would you blame yourself for being sick?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” She sucks her green gooey drink. “But I will tell you this much; having a strong support system is key to fighting cancer. I got a lot of support from my family members and from my friends and my powerful prayer group. I don’t know what I would have done without that. It’s a slow, agonizing and confusing journey.”
“How do you feel now? You look strong.”
“I am. I feel great. I’m on long-term treatment. For the next five-years I will be on drugs.”
“Is there a positive in all this, in losing your breast to cancer? Did it get you closer to your husband, to your friends? Are you a better person because of it or not?”
“I think it changes you in many ways. But it also makes you realise that you have people who really care for you. I have made many friends as a result, doctors and just people. I think the lesson here is for anyone who will be reading this; listen to your body. If you have an ache, pain, have it looked at. Go for screening frequently. Don’t ignore your body when it’s telling you something. And don’t wait. Don’t say, ‘Ah, I will go tomorrow.’ Go today. Go now.”
“Do you miss your breast?”
She smiles a small smile. Then she thinks about it for a bit. “Do I miss my breast? No. I don’t. It was infected. But I have a prosthetic breast now, so…” She lifts her small shoulders in a shrug.
“How much is a prosthetic breast?”
“It was 25k.”
“What’s your level of happiness now?”
“I’m a five.”
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