Last year on a day like this – 28th June 2015 – a three year old boy who had been out of school with the sniffles asked his dad if he would resume school the next day. It was a Sunday night. The family had just had dinner. The dad lowered his Sunday paper slightly and said, “Yes, now go see if your school bag is ready.” Off he scooted.
The next day the school bus that had just dropped this boy home reversed over him and crushed him to death.
That boy was called Bradley.
I heard the news on social media while in the office. It was late afternoon. My son was only a year old at the time. I was horrified! Thinking about a school van running over my little boy made the tips of my fingers so cold. For the longest time after that I thought about Bradley’s dad on and off. What space was he in as a father? How much damage had that done to him as a man? Did he see his son in his sleep? What do you do with your dead son’s baby shoes? Ben 10 boxers. Do you pack away his toys in small sad boxes? Does the echo of his laughter ever leave the walls of your house?
Two months ago I tracked him down. I called a pal, Kevin, who lives in Nyayo estate where little Bradley lived and asked if he could trace his father and get his number for me. He didn’t, but he got me the number of a lady called Risper who had organised a vigil for the family. I asked Risper to ask Bradley’s father, on my behalf, if he was in a space to talk to me about that loss. He said it was cool.
I meet Robert Paul Onyango in their red bricked offices at Capitol Hill Towers on a glum Friday evening. Robert is a lawyer with Rachuonyo and Rachuonyo Advocates. He’s tall and dark, clean shaven and wears thin-rimmed spectacles. We meet in a small boardroom, just big enough to swing a cat in. Outside, rain pours in thin, furious sheets. Floods sweep twigs and debris down the street. Cars sit in a long, winding jam on Cathedral road below, their wipers waving incessant goodbyes.
Robert slumps in his chair. He has a watch on each wrist. After niceties I say, “Tell me what happened that day.” He sighs, pauses for a second, and says, “Do you mind if we close the door?”
So he closes the door to the boardroom and opens another very dark door packed with grotesque and horror, white in the belly like a fallen reptile.
He remembers that there was a fire in Gikomba market on that day. His wife was in her last trimester of pregnancy with their fourth son. He had on a black suit and a blue tie. He can’t remember the socks. Just another day in the office. At 1pm his wife – Irene – rang his mobile. She was screaming hysterically: “Call home, call Bradley, call Jackie!” He hung up and, standing at the window, confused, he called their nanny, Jackie. Jackie was screaming incoherently as well. He could hear screams in the background. Chilling screams. Rising hysteria.
That’s the thing. You can be sitting at your desk in the office pushing paper while, unbeknownst to you, death is dragging away your child. And you remain completely oblivious how your life is about to change forever.
The screams froze him, made him weak. He asked one of his colleagues, Sharon, to drive him because he was confused and his heart was hammering away under his chest. They drove right into Mombasa Road traffic, all the while his hands were shaking and he was praying loudly in the car. “I had never prayed loudly in my life but I begged God,” he says, “I told him repeatedly; God please let me find my boy okay. Please, God, let my son be okay.”
Sharon assured him. She kept saying he will be fine.
They finally got to the AAR center in Nyayo estate to find a big crowd gathered outside. “I got out of the car and walked inside, and the first thing I saw was my pregnant wife, holding my son, holding Bradley, screaming and telling me, ‘Imagine this boy is dead! Imagine this boy is dead!’ I stood there, numb, looking at my son with confusion. He looked broken, his teeth were disfigured, one of his eyes was looking away in an inhuman position. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t understand. Comprehension was not possible. ‘Bradley can not be dead. I saw him THIS morning! He had his school uniform on. I saw him…‘
He stops talking. Silence descends in the room like black fog. His eyes avoids mine, finds a spot on the table and settles there. He slowly runs his tongue on his lower lips, a sign I would later recognise as him fighting back emotions. I sit back and stare out the window; trees sway and lash in the storm. While Nairobi is flooding outside raw emotions are filling the boardroom, climbing up our knees.
“Did you hold him?” I finally ask.
He went to where the police were standing and spoke to them. He can’t recall the conversation but he can recall the curious crowd pressing in. His son had become a public spectacle. A freak show. These people would go back and sit around dinner in their homes, with their children and shake their heads somberly at his tragedy and then retire to bed. But him? That was his whole life lying right there, with crushed bones and punctured lungs.
He went back to where Bradley had now been covered in a white sheet. His poor boy covered in a white sheet! Like luggage! They wanted to take him to a car to transport him to the morgue and he said firmly, “Don’t touch him, I will carry him.”
So he carried his boy for the first time since he had stopped breathing. He held him in his arms. He held Bradley who wasn’t Bradley anymore but a bundle in white sheet. Bradley still in his school uniform, the uniform of death. He carried him outside to the waiting car. Bradley was going to leave Nyayo estate a bundle of white sheet.
“How did you feel carrying your dead son?” I ask.
He looks at me and says, “Have you ever carried a dead body? Your own blood and flesh, your dead son? Death comes with a lot of weight. I had carried this boy countless times; to take him to bed, or when we were playing around, but I remember how heavy he was, abnormally so. I also remember how broken he felt. Like his bones had been disarranged and moved about in his body. I could feel how my boy had been crushed by that school van. I remember wondering how much pain he had felt. It made me sick and sad. It truly made me so sick to imagine that son had suffered dying.”
Bradley was taken to the morgue. Robert went back to the AAR center and asked those doctors if his son had felt pain. If he had died quickly or had he suffered under that school van. He wanted to know. He needed to know.
Robert and his wife have two other sons; Jason, 5, and Martin, 9. When he went back home he was faced with telling his sons that their brother was dead. But word had already gotten to them. Jason said, “I was told Bradley is dead and was taken to the hospital. When will he come back?” He was at loss. How do you explain to your sons that their little brother is dead and will not be coming back again? How do you explain to them the concept of death when you haven’t quite grasped it or comprehended it yourself?”
The boys cried. Their mother cried. There was a lot of crying in the house. The house became hollow like a dead tree trunk. You opened a door or a closet and grief spilled out and submerged everything. Every fabric stained with sorrow. Joy fled Robert’s household.
“I called my dad, who was over 400kms away in shags,” Robert says. “By 9pm he was at my door. Having my father around during a time like that was very reassuring because you don’t know what a man is supposed to do in situations like those. Nobody prepares you on how to handle the death of your son. My step sister never left my side, and I have never found a way of thanking her. My step mom came around, we are tight. We are all tight. Having family around was greatly comforting. I never had to do anything. My friends, my boys, took care of everything, all the arrangements. Great guys. They knew I couldn’t function. I was numb and confused, like I had just entered someone’s nightmare. I watched things happen like a dream. I was worried for my wife. I thought I couldn’t afford to bury one son and then lose another if my wife miscarried.”
Back in the boardroom his phone suddenly rings. He holds it up and says, “Sorry, maybe I need to put this on silent.” I say it’s fine, pick it. While he speaks into the phone the rain abates outside. The sky turns a spooky black-grey, with sombre clouds that look like what the devil uses to wipe his brow. Street lights come on outside but the light doesn’t chase the darkness in the boardroom.
“How was that first night?” I ask after he hangs up.
The first night – and many days until the funeral – the boys all decided to sleep with their mom in their bedroom. They piled in with her in their bed and she held them desperately, clinging to them, her remaining boys, the ones death hadn’t perched on. He spent the night in the boys’ bedroom. Robert is a tall guy, about 6’3’’. He crept into Bradley’s bed and curled up there like a fetus. The death of his son had shrunk him into a boy. In his dead son’s bed he lay still, staring at nothing without seeing anything.
“I was so scared.” he mumbles, biting his lips. Pause. “I was so scared,” he repeats, this time to himself.
Those words reverberate in the room like a ricocheting bullet, looking for some form of sanity to embed itself in. That admission, the first sign of emotion, strips him of everything he has been since I first met him. He stops being a lawyer, a father, a husband or even a man. He simply becomes Bradley’s dad.
For a week he couldn’t sleep with the lights off. Darkness terrified him.
He barely slept. He stayed up, lights on, thinking about his dead son.
“What exactly were you thinking about those nights?” I ask.
“I constantly heard the sound of a school van’s engine and the sound of breaking bones as the van reversed over my son. I heard it over and over in my mind. It was like rewinding a movie scene.” he says.
The funny thing about the sun is that it always rises even after the darkest days. And the sun kept rising on the darkness that embraced Robert’s family, day after day. On Wednesday, after persistence, Robert’s wife, Irene, said she wanted to go to the morgue to see her son. So they went.
“The morgue attendants advised us that it wasn’t a good idea to see the boy because they hadn’t patched him up since it was a police case. But my wife was adamant, she said, ‘This is my son, dead or alive, I will see him in any form.’ So we went in the morgue and he was brought out, broken and bloodied, and Irene held his small hand in both her hands and she cried and cried. She spoke to him and apologised for not being there to save him, for not being there when he needed her the most. I couldn’t bare watch her in that kind of pain.”
“When did you cry through this whole ordeal?” I ask.
“I really wish I had. If I was to turn back the clock, I would cry. I would cry before anyone and everyone, and not care what people thought. I didn’t cry because I thought that because I had sons, and because my wife was expectant, I needed to show strength at that time, to show hope. By refusing to cry, by not showing too much emotion, I later came to realise that it hurt me seriously. It damaged me.”
“I realised that I was angry at everybody who was trying to reach out to me. I didn’t know that I was getting into depression. I was in pain, but sometimes you can be in pain yet you don’t even know it. A friend told me to seek help and I laughed, because come on, isn’t counseling a mzungu thing? But then I saw one eventually, and it helped me deal with some bits of the loss.”
“When did it really sink in that your son was dead?”
“When we were driving from shags after the burial and I looked in the rearview mirror and one seat was empty at the back. Bradley’s seat. We were a family of five, now we were a family of four. One of us was missing and was always going to miss. That got me very emotional.”
“Life has changed so much since I lost my son,” he says. “I have changed personally. I can never sleep before midnight. I stay up late in the sitting room. My wife thinks I stay up watching football, but I stay up to talk to his picture on the wall. Sometimes I bring the framed picture and put it on the table and I talk to him,” he looks at me and chuckles, “it sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t think so…” I mumble.
“Sometimes I pray, and I pray through him because I believe all children go straight to God when they die…”
“So when you sit in the living room alone talking to him, what do you tell him?” I ask.
“I tell him that we will never forget him. That we still think about him every day. Sometimes before I travel I look at his photo and ask him not to allow anything to happen to me on the road.”
We don’t say anything for a while. The sky outside is lit, the skyline of the city center glows under a warm amber of light. Fireflies.The footfalls outside the door have become less. Corporate Nairobi is shutting down. It’s closing time.
“God never prepares men to lose their children,” he says. “Women are expected to wail and cry and lose themselves in grief, but not us. I wonder how other men behave when they lose their kids. Do they go through the same things I’m going through? I ask myself these questions often. You know, I wish I could meet men who have gone through the same…yeah, I’d like that.”
“Did you ever meet the driver of that school van that killed Bradley?” I ask.
He shifts in his seat. “I saw him at the clinic the day it happened. Rather, I saw the back of his head. He was seated talking to the police, holding his head. I have never seen his face.”
“What’s your feeling towards him?”
“It was an accident, yes, but I’m angry – ”
The boardroom landline rings and he walks around the small room and answers it. “They are closing up the office, maybe we can wind up?” he tells me after he hangs up.
“Yeah, sure, of course. When you think of Bradley, do you wish there are certain things you had done for or with him? Do you have regrets?”
“He kept asking for a bike and I thought aah what will a small boy his age do with a bike anyway? So you know how it is, I kept stalling him, telling him that I will buy him one soon and I was going to when he’s slightly older. Sometimes I wish I had bought him that bike. I think about that sometimes…yes.”
“Have you ever seen that school van again?”
“Oh yes. KBY 281H, I will never forget that van. It paralyses me whenever I see it. It’s hard enough seeing any school van in traffic, messes me up. I look in buses and see other children and I think of him. It’s tough. Some mornings when I’m seated with my sons in the car while we wait for their school van to pick them up, I see the van approach and I steal a glance at my boys to see if they recognise the bus and I know they do because they always silently follow it with their eyes. I always wonder what they are thinking but I can’t bear ask… it needs strength to ask certain questions…I don’t have that strength.”
“It must be tough to experience that…”
“Yeah, sometimes I look at it driving around and I say, “How can they allow that van to come back here, to continue carrying other children like nothing happened, like it didn’t crush my small boy to death?”
Happy first anniversary, Bradley.