They met in the corridors of the university. He was like a tanker rolling towards her; his shoulders filled the corridor, his very presence blocking her way. He towered over her like a watchtower. He seemed to radiate magnetism, something that would send little spasms down to your feet if you touched it. Unbeknownst to her, he was in the university’s rugby team which meant he was famous and he had a posse because rugby guys rolled in packs. Although he was famous and everybody knew him (because rugby was a cult, a religion) she didn’t know him. She’d never heard of him. Never seen him around campus. She was as interested in rugby as she was about sumo wrestling. So when she said she didn’t know him, he seemed taken aback by her ignorance, intrigued by it, even.
“You don’t watch rugby?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Is that so surprising?”
“Yeah. Everybody in campus watches rugby. What do you do with your time?”
“Of course, I’m sorry let me rephrase it; what do you do with your free time?”
“I don’t have free time.”
“Interesting. And what’s your name?”
“Is Ruth short for Ruthie?”
“No, Ruthie doesn’t have a short form.”
“Do you have a number, Ruthie without a short form?”
“Yes, do you want it?”
“I will be greatly honoured.”
When she told her best friend that she had met a rugby guy with wide shoulders, who was overly confident but also very charming and kind-looking, she had asked what his name was and when she told her, she had squealed “What?! Do you not know who that is?!” She had said no. “Sweetheart, he’s a big deal in rugby circles! Don’t you know anybody?!”
It didn’t help that he was a medical student, so he had brains too. “I thought he was hot, my friend seemed to agree.”
He was Luo but born and raised in Nairobi. She was Kikuyu, born and raised in a small town in Central. She would have ended up marrying a local boy with a string of matatus, or one of the chief’s sons, but instead her brains became the flying carpet that ferried her to Nairobi to study medicine like this charming boy from the other side of the river who grew up the only boy amongst sisters. “Because of growing up around sisters, he was sensitive and respectful and he cared for women.”
When you ask her why she thinks he liked her, she says it’s because of her brains, but also because she has ample wide hips and is “built like a Luo”. It so happened that he liked some meat on his woman. They dated and she started hanging around the rugby crowd because to love a man you have to at least understand what he loves. So she would ask why the rugby ball is not round, like a football. She learnt that it was a “try” not a goal, and also about dropkicks, scrums, hand-offs, sin bin, touch-line and that there are actually hookers in a rugby game. She would sit in the bleachers for floodlit games, and watch men crash into other men.
She wore an ivory dress for her wedding. An A-line, an expensive dress. She glittered in it like a diamond. You couldn’t measure her smile with a tape measure if you tried. Everything seemed so aligned, all corners of emotions meeting seamlessly in perfect right angles. They waltzed on the dance floor at the reception with a big ballroom chandelier hanging over their heads, the weight of his big hand on the small of her back, her nose to his throat. He smelled like a man should. He held her hand through all the speeches and also in the back of the car to their honeymoon suite. “He had kind eyes and warm hands.” In all her wedding pictures, she seems to tilt her head towards him, as if he possessed a gravitational pull.
The baby came almost immediately. A girl. You could say he made the try fast and made the conversion even faster. He had started doing his masters and he found himself in wards more than at home; doing rounds, peering at patient files, taking pulse rates and all those things doctors do and when he got home he’d have very little left to offer as a father and a husband. He was barely home because of work. She got depressed, postpartum depression. She’d cry when he was away in the hospital or out drinking over the weekend. She felt alone. She’d find it difficult to do anything that humans do with ease; get out of bed, shower, eat, change clothes. She’d lie in bed, red-eyed, tired, dejected.
“Life felt like one unending darkness and I felt like a hamster running in this darkness. I’d struggle with the baby, trying to do my best but when I would go to the doctor he’d say the baby isn’t gaining weight that I’m not doing enough. I felt like this baby belonged to only me.”
Her life, she felt, had been diminished to baby tasks; feed baby, change baby, clean baby, shoo baby, while he was out making moves in his career. She felt tired all the time. There was also a sense of failure, something she hadn’t quite grasped up to this point. “I thought I was going to be a supermom, but now it seemed like I wasn’t doing anything to bring me closer to being super.”
She talked to him about it but she didn’t know that she was depressed. She just thought she was worn out and unhappy. He was understanding but helpless. He would wake up in the middle of the night to help with the baby, but that didn’t seem to take away the feeling of despondency.
One day – three years later – he drove back from a funeral in shags and left the car at home to go to the local for a drink. He looked tired from all the driving and the lack of sleep in the wake of the previous night. At the bar, he got a call from their neighbour who was at the airport and had forgotten his passport. Could he kindly drop it to the airport for him? On his way back from the airport he fell asleep at the wheel (from fatigue) and the car rolled. She got the call at 8:40pm as she was brushing her teeth, getting ready to sleep. He was unconscious when she got to the hospital, doctors had gathered around him. She could see his feet. They were shoeless.
He suffered diffuse axonal injury. This is when your brain shifts inside your skull and the connecting fibers in the brain called axons are sheared as the brain rapidly pings around the hardbone of your skull. It’s not pretty. He stayed in the ICU for two weeks. Then HDU for another two weeks. Then the general ward for a month. In that period he had to learn how to walk again. He had a tracheostomy done. He couldn’t stand on his own. He had no bladder control and he had to shake her awake often, to have her take him to the bathroom. He had no balance, so she had to walk next to him for support or he’d topple over like a sack. He later got a walking stick and he’d slowly tap around with it, stopping to catch his breath, to look at the three meter distance he had to cover. When there was sports on TV he’d skip that channel and watch something where there was nobody running or kicking a ball. His speech was shit. She talked to him like you would talk to a child, repeating things, slowing down words. Although his short-term memory was good, he couldn’t remember things that happened a long time back. He couldn’t remember who the president was, what kind of car he drove, or what happened on the night he had the accident. He was depressed. She was depressed. But slowly his memory started coming back, in little drips, like a leaking faucet.
“I nursed him at a time that I was also struggling with my own issues in the marriage. This was not how I envisaged the first five years of marriage. It was too heavy for me but with counseling and medication for both of us, we somehow pulled through.”
He slowly resumed work a year later but he was a shadow of his former self. A smart man before, he had problems linking ideas. He repeated himself often. He had to relearn things. But he became a much better father as a result because since he wasn’t back to work full-time he would be home when their daughter came back from school. He would walk her to the bus. They talked a lot, they became close. She takes after him – a happy spirit, who likes laughing and has a beautiful smile. “Our daughter would always challenge him to a race not knowing of his physical disability and I’d watch them running, him really struggling to run because he didn’t want to disappoint her, and her winning each time.”
They were happy again. As happy as they could get. It’s almost like the accident had allowed happiness back into their lives. But that didn’t hold because one day they received a visitor in the night. She came home from work at 7:15pm to find him in bed. The bedroom lights were off, so not wanting to disturb him because he was normally really exhausted at the end of the day, she removed her clothes in darkness and changed into her favourite orange Egyptian loose dress, like a deera, but with gold embroidery on the front. She had dinner with her daughter by the television then tucked her in bed. When she went back in the room he was snoring, so she knew she had to change the position of his neck to stop the snoring. In the process he woke up.
“He looked very confused, like he didn’t know where he was. I asked him if he knew who I was and he said, ‘You are my wife.’.” Then he started convulsing and when that abated she started doing CPR on him. He then lost consciousness. She called an ambulance, which took him to the hospital a few minutes away. When they got there, he was declared dead.
There is that one event that happens in your life that you know will completely alter its course. Hers was that night. How surreal it all seemed, like it was happening to someone else. She, in her loose dress, being told that the father of her daughter, the man she saw in the morning, would never get up from the bed and go home.
“My first reaction was anger. I was angry because I had sacrificed so much for the marriage. I had stayed even when he had physical disability, when he had to be fed and taken to the washroom and be washed. I stayed and served him and then he just dies. This was not supposed to happen; we were supposed to have grown old together.”
She didn’t know what she would tell her daughter had happened to her father. She was sleeping in her room not knowing that she was already fatherless. She remembers crying a lot, going back home at 3am and her friend and their neighbour coming over and sleeping with her in their bed, on his side of the bed. She remembers being in bed in her deera, and not being able to sleep, thinking about what happens to her next, and to her daughter. She had become a widow at 34. Surely, she thought, there was an age where someone should become a widow, not at her age.
If you ask her to describe grief she says it’s a sharp pain in the chest. A sharp physical pain. Like someone is drilling through your chest. A long-term pain that endured from the day he died, through to the day his body was loaded in the plane as cargo, like you would flowers or pots. She vaguely remembers the wake in Nyanza, she remembers all these things like it was a movie she watched a long time ago. But what she can’t forget is the pain in her chest.
She was now officially a widow, something she thought only happened to old women. She wore it like you would wear an oversized shoe, dragging it everywhere clumsily.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a widow. Is there a role description? Are there some targets that you must meet? Is being a widow being a wife without a husband? What do you do now? Do you just make decisions without talking to someone? Do you just wake up and change the paint in the house without going over it with someone? I had never lived alone, I left my father’s house to go to university then got married straight out of campus. I had always had someone, now I didn’t.”
Being a widow at that age is complicated, she found out; she still had a whole life ahead of her, but she also felt like she had lost a great deal of her life. She was required to grieve properly, to honour his name. Society also expected her not to move on too fast. What was a safe time to have coffee with another man without raising eyebrows? When was a good time to fall in love and get married again? How long should you honour your dead spouse before you start thinking about yourself and what you want?
“When you get married you are in love but then the reality of marriage hits you. He snores and does things that are not attractive but then later you realise those things are not important. You realise he’s a good father, he’s still gentle and kind, he’s all the things you need. You then fall back in love with the person but it’s a different kind of love, it’s mature. The love is more deliberate, more of a choice. At this point, in my case, my husband died. He died when I felt like we had passed our test of life and we now deserved to be let by life to live our lives.”
She remembers widowhood as trying to keep things as “similar” as before. To get into the mechanics of survival: wake up, wash your face, brush your teeth, get dressed and go to school, “Like the children’s song, only now you are an adult and you have to do adult things.”
“Slowly, after the pain, which never really goes away,” she says, “you start to rearrange your life.”
Her family and friends kept her going. Her mum would check up on her constantly.
Two years after she buried him, she fell in love with someone else. “I wanted to get married because I didn’t have a normal marriage: the first three years I fell out of love with my late husband because I was depressed and resentful. Then we fell in love again after the accident but it still wasn’t your normal marriage, given his physical challenges.”
They didn’t get married, but they got a baby together. She’s not very hot on getting married anymore, she has settled into this arrangement where he lives in his house and she lives in her house and they do life. It works. She likes her space and independence, the idea of not operating within a boundary drawn by the government. She loves him differently, they fight more because she has learnt to be on her own.
“I lost the person I loved the most, what can a new man threaten me with? That he will leave me? My greatest loss is behind me.”