Kyle Mitch was born in the indecision of youth. The father – barely 30 years old – was still only grappling with the concept of his own responsibility let alone someone else’s. They – he and his girlfriend – weren’t even in a proper and defined relationship. They liked each other immensely, yes, but liking each other immensely has never been a recipe for parenthood. He lived in Kisumu and she in Nairobi. She didn’t tell him when she was pregnant because she wasn’t sure how he would react. Plus she didn’t want to make him feel like he had to step up now that he was locked into this thing. So she said boo, until she was seven months pregnant. Naturally, Steve Otieno wasn’t ready to be a father. He didn’t have a solid job worth speaking of – he was barely scratching the surface. And now a baby?
They named him Kyle Mitch Otieno because, well, why name a child a simple name like Fred? What joy is there in giving a child a name you would give a pet? Kyle Mitch Otieno had a ring to it. Steve stepped up. He had to because the “the boy was gorgeous.” They moved in together in a scruffy part of Kisumu on his meagre and uncertain salary. It was a big three-bedroom house in the middle of shanty-land. “I was doing badly, ” he told me, “before that my son lived at his grandparents house for a bit and that was embarrassing for me, you know, for the mother of your child to live at her parents’.”
He never told his mom about the the baby because he didn’t know how to bring home a woman they had never heard of, and a baby they didn’t know existed. So Kyle Mitch was born into secrecy too. Only John, Steve’s other elder brother, knew the situation from the beginning because he’s closest to Steve and he whispers everything in his ears. But you can’t hide a baby for long, not a bouncing one at least, so one day, Triza, the mother, did what Steve didn’t have the spine to do; she went to Steve’s mother’s house and introduced herself and his grandchild. Steve was away in Nairobi doing some consultancy for Film-Aid International as a program officer. That was in 2007. It was a relief for him.
One morning his phone rang while he was attending a humanitarian training course at Silver Springs. It was his brother John. He ignored the call. John called again and again. After the third call, he stepped out of the meeting room and stood at a balcony. It was 10am. The scent of garden flowers hung in the air. “Of all my brothers, we have bond, John and I, we have this connection,” he said. I picked something up in John’s voice when he said, ‘We are here at the hospital here with Kyle and he’s not doing well. He’s sick. Madhe is here, you might want to come. Take the night bus. It’s nothing serious, just get on that bus, we will take it from there when you arrive.”
He went back into the training room and sat on a cold slab of foreboding. One of the trainers – an older man – noticed his sudden change in mood and pulled him out. “Call my brother for me, ask him what’s going on,” he asked the trainer because he was now scared. John was called. The trainer shuffled away with the phone to his ear, listening, and when he came back he placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder and told him that perhaps he needed to book a bus immediately. Steve called John back and said, “if you don’t tell me what the hell is going on I won’t get into any bus.”
Suddenly his mom (they call her madhe) came on the phone. “You guy, madhe took the phone and just started singing,” he said. “She didn’t say anything to me, she just started singing one of those songs, you know those ones that are so sad? So I hung up, got my stuff, went up to my room and lay on my bed and cried for an hour. Then I took the 1pm bus. The longest bus ride in my life.” In the bus he wondered what he would tell everyone about a child they never met. He hadn’t even met Triza’s parents.
He got to the morgue at 9pm with his luggage. Kyle Mitch Otieno had been cleaned up and placed on a cold slab. “He was the same…same same guy, just lying there. The bugger could be sleeping.” He shook his head as if shaking off the memory. I asked him what he looked like. He takes a long pause. “His face was a bit strained. He died painfully. [Pause]. Knowing that he, my son, died painfully just wrecked me.”
“How’d he die?”
“Asphyxia,” he said. “The house help force fed him and he choked to death. I saw her at the morgue, crying and I wanted to lift something heavy and hit her over the head with it. I was so enraged that I think I spent all my rage at that morgue that night. I wanted her to die like my son died. I was so mad I don’t think I have the capacity to be enraged any more. I think Kyle’s death spent all my rage.”
We were drinking at Dunga Hill Camp in Kisumu last December. You should go next time you are in that neck of woods, it’s a charming makuti/outdoor bar set on a hill that overlooks the lake and the city. From the there, at dusk, when the lights come on and reflect on the lake, Kisumu looks beautiful and calm, even deceptively docile. Hippos come out onto the beach at sunset. From the perch up on the mound of hill they look like sausages. Moving sausages. They nose around in the marsh with their small feet. They make grunting sounds. Hippos are ugly but it’s an ugliness one is drawn to admire. It’s like watching a big sausage eat grass. In the horizon, the sun, an orange circle so perfect God must have drawn it thrice, descended into the straight line of the lake’s horizon. Everybody at the camp turned to stare and take pictures of it. It’s sun worship, but without the praise.
Triza – John’s wife – was there, quiet with watchful eyes. Two of my friends were with us too. The men drunk whisky. The ladies drunk chardonnay from an ice bucket. It’s hard to talk about death in December, especially death of your first child. Hell, death of any of your children. So we shelved it because Jesus was about to be born and we didn’t want to ruin his birth with sad tales. I came back to Nairobi the following day.
Recently I phoned him at 10pm and we continued to speak about Kyle for two hours. It has been ten years. The death of your child never goes away. It lingers. I asked him what kind of a boy he was.
“Handsome boy, so handsome you wouldn’t believe it. He was the kind of boy strangers would walk up to and say, “This boy is very cute!” he says. “Even though life was very tough for us at the time, he made the struggle worthwhile. It made going back into that shanty estate worth it. We didn’t see it as a struggle because we had him and because we had him and we loved him he brought us closer together.”
“What do you remember most about grief during that period?” I ask him.
He talks about going through the funeral arrangements with no feeling. He remembers friends, even those he didn’t have expectations of, surrounding him with comfort. He remembers the unfairness of knowing his son was lying in a mortuary while the sun rose and set. He remembers the surreality of choosing a coffin. How absurd was it that at 30-years he was not only burying his seven month old son, but choosing a coffin for him? How unfair God had been to him. It was a white coffin, barely the size of a hotel’s mini-fridge. On the journey to shags in Gem, it fit in the back of a station-wagon. “I had insisted on driving the car that carried my son’s remains but my brothers would hear none of it,” he says. “I remember seeing Kyle being stuffed at the back of that station wagon like luggage and thinking, “Is that my son in a box?” This was the first death in our family, I had brought death into our family and they didn’t even know Kyle.”
When he stood up to eulogise his son, his three brothers stood around him. They mobbed him, three pillars of strength, because he was the last born. “I couldn’t say anything because I was always spoken for. As the last born, I was always introduced at the end. But also I couldn’t speak because everytime I opened my mouth to say something I just cried. So I just stood there with George, John, and William.”
Kyle was buried next to his grandfather. Then they went back home to grieve as parents. They blamed each other, they comforted each other, they got closer as a couple and then they made the marriage official. They lived the way parents who had lost a child live, with days filled with pain and anger and questions and uncertainty and lying in bed not wanting to wake up and face the ghost of a gone child. “I often wondered, did my son die because I didn’t have the heart to introduce him to everybody else? Was he taken away because I showed through my reluctance and cowardice, that I didn’t deserve him, I wasn’t proud of him enough to announce him to the world?” he says over the phone. “I struggled with those questions for so long. I blamed myself.” It also affected him later as a father, “My wife will tell you that even now if I see a child choking and coughing, I scream like a woman. As in literally.”
Three months after the burial Triza got pregnant. She realised that she was pregnant three months after she buried her son. It was like a miracle. “It’s God taking with one hand and giving with another,” Steve says. “We were excited. I was away when she sent me an email with the ultrasound picture. It was a girl. A small little girl with small feet, curled there in her womb, our little saviour from the pain. It was like God had sent us a letter to say, “See? I told you it was going to be all right.” We were over the moon. There was a renewed energy with this pregnancy, it felt legit, we didn’t have to hide the baby anymore, she was going to come to a proper family that was expecting her.”
Sandra Imani Otieno thus came into a great mood of beauty and renewed hope. She came underweight. She had swallowed meconium and stayed in the nursery until she was given a clean bill of health. They took her home, little Sandra. She wheezed when she slept but the doctors told them not to worry, she would outgrow it. They fussed over Sandra because when you lose a baby, the second one comes with its own unspoken fear.
“This time round I vowed that nothing was going to happen to any of my children,” Steve says. “I was going to be there. Daddy was now here to protect her and everything was going to be just great.” Sandra hardly fed, and she didn’t sleep as well as Kyle would sleep. The wheezing also never stopped. They would take turns with her at night. Her cot was wedged against their own bed, an arm’s length away.
One night she woke up and suckled well. So well that they were surprised. She burped. Then she slept. A deep sleep that she had never before slept. Steve and Triza thought, well, look at that, this baby is healed, she has never suckled this much. They all slept an uninterrupted sleep for the first time. At 7am – unusual for them to sleep until this time- Steve woke up first. There was a lot of light in the room, he remembers. And it was quiet, that deep suspicious silence; a stealthy silence like something else was in the room, something that wasn’t supposed to be there. He turned to Sandra, who was still asleep. She wasn’t wheezing like she normally does. “Instinctively, I rolled over and touched her,” he says. “She was warm, but not that warmth of life. It was an odd warmth that I can’t describe to you, I wouldn’t know how to. I shook her and she didn’t wake up. She didn’t stir. Sandra was dead.”
Death was still in that room, he now says. It was still lingering there, with the life of his daughter in its embrace. He could feel it. He had snatched her while they slept, a cowardly act. He freaked out. He went crazy. He felt himself going crazy in the head, horror, unimaginable horror. Disbelief. Pain. Gut-cutting pain. “I woke my wife up,” he says. He woke his wife up to hold the body of her dead daughter. “I told God, why? Why would you do this to us again after such a short time? Wasn’t the pain of the first child enough for us?”
Triza did what a mother would; she tried to wake up her baby. She carried her. Rocked her. She spoke to her. She shook her cheeks, begged her to wake up. She cried. No, wailed. “Sandra, wake up, please wake up.” He stood in the middle of the bedroom crying. Helpless. Confused. He was just there, next to her and he couldn’t save her. He called his brother John. He called his aunt. Triza cradled Sandra, rocking her, feeling the last of her body heat, crying in her body. There is a unique cry that a mother who has lost her child cries. It has not been documented. It has not been captured in words. It’s a cry that transcends everything you imagine you know about loss. That’s how Triza cried.
Steve went and sat outside the house and waited for his brother, who arrived with his aunt. His aunt washed Sandra and placed her back on the cot, like she was sleeping. Sleep, little Sandra. She treated her with the dignity of the living. Little Sandra didn’t wheeze no more. For 24 hours she lay on that cot; facing up, like she was sleeping. When Steve talks about this little girl on the phone, I’m seated at my desk and all I can imagine is a scenario where one of my children doesn’t wake up the next day and their school uniform, pressed, hanging from the wardrobe and their shoes, shined, in the corridor never to be worn again, and I feel the terror of death creep into my heart. Terror.
“After the burial, my self-esteem suffered. I thought something was wrong with me, that I was a man unable to keep my children safe. I felt like I kept failing them,” he says. “I got to a point where I thought having kids was not for us. I told Triza, ‘Let’s forget this story of babies, we were not meant to be the couple that gets babies. I didn’t want to think about children.”
It’s now almost midnight. I ask him if Triza is awake and if she would be willing to talk to me for a minute. He says she is awake in the bedroom but he’s not sure if she will be okay to talk about it. “Chill I ask her,” he says. I hear a door opening. Footsteps. Another door opens. I hear him say, “Mom, you haven’t lalad?” then there is a brief muffled conversation. Triza’s probably asking, “Aii, still talking to Biko? Kwani you guys are chicks talking for over two hours? “
He comes back on, “Biko, she’s easy to talk. Here she is.”
“Trizzzaaa! How’z it? You good? Sorry about this, I know it’s late but just one quick question. It’s, uhm, about Sandra. When you lose your baby at two and a half months of age, what happens to your body? I mean because here you have a body and a mind that has transformed to bear motherhood and nurture a baby but then suddenly, well, the baby is gone. Does your body instinctively pick up on this loss and does it change in any way?”
She contemplates this and then says, “I was told that the breast milk just keeps coming even if the baby is gone but that there is a drug you can take to dry up production. I didn’t take any drug because two days after we lost the baby my milk simply stopped coming on its own. Apart from that, there is the baby weight, that doesn’t exactly go, it’s just a reminder that you had a baby and now you don’t have a baby.”
She says that the second time was tough because she started thinking that perhaps something was wrong with her. Some people theorised that maybe it was tied to some tradition, like a juju and shit. “There was a lot of talk and opinions but counselling helped me, so much so that even when I got pregnant a third time and miscarried, I coped better than I would have otherwise. Counseling helped me work on myself better, I was more positive in the end.”
It has been many years, does she think about Kyle and Sandra? I ask.
“Once in awhile, but when that happens it’s never with grief. It’s with positivity. All my passwords have their names,” she laughs. We speak some more, I thank her and ask her to put Steve back on the phone. She walks back to the other room and I hear her tell him, “Ba, here…”
When Steve comes on I ask him, “Ba? You are called Ba?!”
“Ati Ba!” I laugh. “My goodness. Who is called Ba!” We laugh at that. But to be fair, it’s worse than being called “Baba Tim.” There are certain titles that just age you as a man. Like those women who refer to their men as “mzee.” And you wonder why some men just age quickly, one day you struggle getting out of your chair because your knees suddenly behave like they are 75-years. It’s because you are being called “mzee.”: Utaongea na mzee akirudi. Kwani hukufua ile shati ya mzee ya blue anapendanga kuvaa Friday?
They grieved over Sandra for a while. They became very close as a couple because they shared a unique narrative. They had gone through the unimaginable, so while some people drift apart to seek for answers following a loss, they drifted closer. But they grieved as separate people. He went to work in Dadaab and that distance, he says, also helped them each deal with their unique sense of loss. “She was a zombie man, that thing just messed her up. But she sought help, women seek help, us we just tough it out. We deal with it.”
And because the spirit of man to rise up against adversity is unsuppressable they took a stab at it again and got a son five years ago. They named him – wait for it – Sidi Jelani. Steve says he looks like Kyle. Reminds him of Kyle. And because they had faith in the goodness of the Lord they tried again and three years ago they got another boy and called him – wait for it again – Armani Tafari. I asked Ba if its Amani of peace or if it’s Armani, Giorgio, the designer and I think I might have insulted him because he said, “Armani the designer!” Of course, of course. I apologise. Armani Tafari sounds like the kind of teenager who will wear a beanie and write writhing poetry and make girls want to run away from home. These two boys have brought so much joy in that couple’s life. Untold joy. These boys have repaired them.
I saw the boys while Steve drove me to the airport in December to catch my flight back. They were in their mother’s car, the back windows rolled all the way down, happy and excited to see their father’s car and calling out to their father as we overtook them. I remember that they were very good looking boys. Steve smiled piously and said, “Yes, those are my boys. Very hectic young men.” By the way, Steve now runs a tour and travel company called Crane Tours and Travel. If you are in Kisumu for work and you need cars – from saloons to 4X4s for the Nyanza region call this guy up on 0716 000 346. He’s good peoples, known him for dogs’ years.
Jelani and Tafari have filled the hurt and pain of losing Kyle and Sandra. They haven’t replaced them because children aren’t pieces of art you can replace from the shelves, but they filled the spaces of hurt and loss. I asked Triza how losing two babies informed the kind of mother she is now and she said she is constantly learning how to walk the line between loving and being over-protective. “Of course I never want to make similar mistakes I think I might have made before. I choose the house helps with more caution…but now raising my sons is more than just love, it’s appreciation that they are here.”
“Do Kyle and Sandra come to you in dreams?” I ask Steve.
“Kyle doesn’t come to me in dreams because I think there was closure. Kyle was buried in Gem, where his people are, next to his grandfather, he is amongst his people. He belongs. You know what I mean? As in I can go to shags now and stand at his grave and say here lies my son.”
“Where is Sandra buried kwani?”
His voice grows small. “At the cemetery in Kisumu.”
“Why?” I ask.
“We didn’t want to go through the whole process again. We had been through so much and my girl died so suddenly and so young, man. So we opted to bury her at the cemetery which is a horrible place to bury someone. But we did it at that time because….[pause] it was just too much, things were happening fast and it was exhausting, plus we felt at that time like, I don’t know, that she was young…” He trails off. “If I went to look for my daughter’s grave tomorrow, I’d not be able to find it. That cemetery in Mamboleo is a chaotic place. [Pause] I wouldn’t be able to find the grave. I went some time back…and it was gone.”
I find this so sad and helpless. I find it sad and helpless because that’s the mood I feel on the phone from him.
“Do you have regrets,“ I ask him, “I mean, would you bury her in shags or at the cemetery if you were to do this all over again?”
“Shags. No doubt, man,” he says without hesitation. “I wouldn’t even think about it! I think the reason why she comes to my dreams quite a bit is because I have not had closure. I never did.” He pauses and then says, “I feel bad of course…I feel bad that I made that decision at that time…. and it’s not easy knowing that my little girl is out there in a mass cemetery, in a grave lying next to strangers, people I don’t know….a grave I can’t even stand at. I feel like we abandoned her.”
I stop the interview there. We say goodnight. I lie in bed and I think of his beautiful boys and then I think of Sandra, not Kyle who lies amongst his people. I think of little Sandra alone in a cemetery and of her father’s haunted words: “I feel like we abandoned her.” And I hope he finds peace. I hope little Sandra rests well knowing that her father will never forget her even though he can’t find her grave because her real grave will always be in his heart.