She said, “I want to tell you my story, but I would like you to write it in the form of a letter to my ex-husband.”
On my 45th birthday I woke up and made tea and carried it up the wooden winding staircase to the bedroom. Now my bedroom, it used to be our bedroom: some of your shirts still hang on your side of the closet, your old tennis shoes….the bedroom has become the museum of our marriage. It seems bigger now without you in it. The windows seem to bring in more light. On that birthday morning the house was still as a lamb. Your daughter had gone to a party the previous night and would come back just before noon. Your son had long moved out of the servants quarters, and into his own house, trying to be his own man. I increasingly find myself alone in the house many times.
I drew the curtains, letting in copious amounts of light. I propped up in bed and sipped my tea and inhaled the 45-years I had been alive and almost half of which I was your wife. It’s ironic, that word wife, a word I’m unable to define now because it meant many conflicting things at different times of my life.
You might remember the first time we met. Actually you might not, you were seated at the arm of a chair holding a beer and laughing. I remember how your left leg dangled from the ground and how you kept swinging it in small arcs as you sipped your beer. You had on a red polo shirt with one missing button. You spoke little – like all intelligent men. My best friend – your sister – had mentioned that you were an engineer and of course I was intrigued because, well, that seemed awfully important especially for a 19-year old like me. Would you even notice me? I wondered. Even like me? But in hindsight, it’s telling that the first time I set my eyes on you you were holding a beer. Perhaps that should have been a sign.
I would be lying if I said it was love at first sight. I was a small town girl who was new to the big city to change her fortune. You, on the other hand, was already a man who knew his way around, a polite, extremely intelligent engineer who had a bright future before him. I especially liked how you took care of your siblings; living with them, paying their education…you were responsible. You reminded me of my parents. Growing up I remember a revolving door of needy relatives passing through our house. And so I loved your giving heart that beat underneath your polo shirts with the topsy turvy collars.
My father never touched alcohol his whole life and so I never knew what was too much or too little alcohol when you started drinking a lot. My socialisation with alcohol was not calibrated and even though I found it strange, this debauchery, I thought it was a normal male thing; man drinking, man coming home drunk, man sleeping in. I know some friends whose fathers drunk, I knew of friends whose husbands drunk. It seemed like a lifestyle. I couldn’t complain.
But maybe I should have because you drank our whole marriage in gulps, gradually at the beginning and then heavily and steadily which essentially robbed me of my youth. At 20 you made me into a mother, a woman and for the next 20 years you put me through the ringer of motherhood and wifehood and I spent those years trying to save you from the bottle and save our marriage and later save myself. I barely paused to ask myself what I wanted, who I was, what all these meant. I was either dealing with a child or a marriage that was constantly on the ropes.
I was a clerk and a young mother of a son in primary school, sitting behind a small desk the whole day filing, printing, photocopying and sometimes serving tea when the big bosses came in from the head office. You on the other hand was the sort-after engineer that corporates were beating down his door, flashing offers in his face. I shrunk in the big shadow, your intellect cast over me and became the wife I thought you deserved.
I remember when we moved into our first home, that you had just bought and how instead of joy I felt the emptiness in the furnished house. How every room echoed with hopelessness because by this time I had emptied my soul in the marriage and it was shredded like tiny papers containing secrets. You drunk heavily, coming in late at night at the beginning and then not coming at all, or just coming to change and leave for work. I would say, “D, you will lose your job if you keep up with this,” and since I was only a clerk, since I didn’t have a degree in engineering, or a degree in anything, you would ask me what I knew about the high corporate life. “They can never fire me. They need me.” You said. So I prayed for you because that’s what wives do. That’s what wives did. Even after it was evident that the marriage had become toxic for me, I couldn’t dare leave because how would I survive on this clerical salary? Besides, women then never left. You stayed. You honoured your marriage, you strove to become like your mother.
I can’t be faulted for not having worked at this marriage. When you couldn’t wake up to go to work on time, did I not call your boss and lie that you were sick? When the shylocks came knocking because of money you borrowed that I never saw, did I not pay them off with the money from my small job? When the credit card debt was breaking your back, did you not call me to the table as an equal this time and pleaded with me to borrow money from my sacco to save your job? Did I not bail you like a Greek bank when your bank loan repayments defaulted and your debts piled like a mound of dirty laundry?
You will never know that I was a romantic. That I craved affection. That I wanted you talk to me and make me feel worthy. You will never know that I wanted to have someone hold my hand in the theater as I gave birth. I never experienced that and I will never experience that. I was alone three times in the bright theater, as you were were making your way from the bar. I was a single mother from the word go and looking back I had it worse than single mothers because whereas single mothers know everything falls on them squarely I had expectations of support from the umbrella of my marriage, yet none came. It was like waiting for a bus that never came. So I suffered disappointment after disappointment, that beat me like a relentless wave and you kept wounding my heart.
You stopped paying school fees for your children. You stopped going for their school functions. You stopped being a father and that was harder to deal with than when you stopped being a husband. I tried to cover your nakedness; daddy is caught up at work, daddy was to come but he’s unwell, daddy is proud of you,… I was your spokeswoman to your own children. But at some point the children see the charade of your fatherhood, their lenses of innocence, of undying love clear and they see you for who you are; irresponsible, a drunk. You might not know this, but they were embarrassed of you because you constantly embarrassed them in front of their friends. They never invited their friends home, because there was no telling what state you would be in. One day I found your children sitting in the living room, playing with some toys and I asked them why they weren’t playing outside with other kids and they said they didn’t want to because other kids made fun of them. I asked them how but they wouldn’t tell me. So I demanded to know and they said because other children would make fun of them that their father was a mlevi. They said it remorsefully, as if they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Your drunkenness had become my responsibility.
I hated when you came home drunk in the wee hours of the morning, how verbally abusive you were. How when I started rising in my career, after I started going to school, with the seed of ambition growing, you hated it and punished me for it. You hated me for wanting to be better because you liked me as a clerk, a mother, to sit at home and raise your children and twiddle my thumbs as you drunk all night with your friends. I hated how you would wake me up and tell me all the things that I was not. How the next morning I would be so tired from lack of sleep and even worse from dwindling self esteem because when someone tells you how foolish you are every night, no matter how strong you are, no matter how fortified you are, it plants a seed in you which grows and soon you start becoming what they say you are.
You remember that night I opened the door at 3am and there you were being propped up by two cops. You looked like a marionette in a circus, your legs rubbery. I can’t forget those cops, how they smelled of the dark of the night. You were so drunk you could barely speak. When they asked me if I knew “this man,” I remember saying yes, “he’s my husband,” like someone would claim lost baggage. By me saying, “Yes, he’s my husband,” you transferred your weakness, you made me wear the boots of your failure. You infected me with your fate.
The kind policemen said you couldn’t drive. That you would kill someone if you continued drinking and driving. I remember how understanding they were, the pity in their eyes…the police, these strangers with guns hanging from their side, got into our home with their heavy overcoats and shoes that had stepped into places where blood flowed and men died, places of ugliness and they had poured you on the sofa.
Of course you can’t remember how many nights I was woken up by a phone call from the police or a good Samaritan and I had to leave our children in the house at 2am and drive to the scene or how I had to call my brother, who like everybody else in the family, I had been protecting from your weakness, to drive to the scene of the accident in a part of Eastlands I was too afraid to drive to at that hour of the night. And there he said he found you sitting on the roundabout, which you had tried negotiating anti-clockwise and rammed into an on-coming vehicle. How many of my cars did you have an accidents with during our marriage? Your life, as was our marriage, was one crash after another, a mashup of all hope.
I stopped sleeping when you were out drinking. I would stay awake at night waiting for that bad phone-call that would summon me to see your body in a morgue. I developed panic attacks which have only now gotten better. I stopped going for neighbourhood estate meetings because I had lost face and confidence because other women in the estate would ask me how I deal with you, how I manage to look strong. I avoided meeting them. I avoided their eyes. You made us the laughing stock of the estate. Our children would hide when they saw you driving in to avoid you coming to say hello to them when they are playing because you would be drunk. When you would come home early, drunk off course, and wonder why the children had slept early, I wouldn’t tell you the truth; that they had all run upstairs to pretend to sleep, because they didn’t like to sit with their father. Whenever you were in the house, the house suddenly shrunk, the rooms became smaller, the air heavy, the mood tense. You brought unhappiness in your own home. But I never stopped praying for you because that’s what wives did.
I tried leaving you four times, I hope you counted because I did. I clearly remember the days that I left with the children. I remember the dingy hotel where we lived the first time because the window overlooked an alley men stopped to pee in. I remember my brother leaving his house for us, and how empty his fridge was save for bottles of tonic water. I remember your relatives begging me to go back whenever I left, your father coming to Nairobi to tell me that if I left you’d die. Your mother’s rheumy and pleading eyes, an old woman who had no right to see you perish. They made me believe that I was the glue that held your life together. They put the responsibility of your demons on me. My mom asked me if you beat me and when I said you didn’t she said, “then you have to go back to your home, that’s your home.” But it wasn’t, it was my grave. You might not have been beating me physically but you were beating me emotionally. We sat in many counselling sessions. I paid for your way to numerous rehabs, drove you to AA meetings and waited for hours outside the car. We sought alternative therapy, hypnosis and whatnot.
Then I gave up. I will tell you when I gave up. Remember that night you came home drunk and defeated, your shirt untucked, your life unspooling, and placed the letter on the table and I knew it before you said what it contained. And I walked to the bedroom to cry because you lost your job and I had seen it coming and I had warned you about it. You said you were “marketable” that very few people had your brains and skills (true), but what you didn’t know was that you were as useful as a wheelless car with an efficient engine. Of course by this time you had pretty much stopped paying your bills and you were up to your bellybutton in debts. You had stopped taking care of us. And when you sold our house without telling me, I knew I would no longer fight for you.
And soon after, because you stopped being a man, a father, I became the man and the father. I did everything you refused to do; fees, mortgage. I made decisions in the home. You came and went like the four seasons. You had your friends. If you ever read this I want you to know that the one thing that failed you terribly was your friendships. These drinking mates. These men you constantly chose over your family. Those friends who were fraudulent, who pretended to be on your side but who only saw you as the ticket to fun times. Where are they now? Mention one friend who is by your side now, just one. They all scattered like grain during planting season. Your friendships were based on quicksand. You couldn’t understand why I didn’t like them. Why I was cold to them when they came over. It’s because I knew they were not genuine.
I was very lonely in our marriage. Deeply. Lonely and empty. I avoided humans, because I thought they would see through my loneliness, smell it on my hair and that would embarrass me. So I stuck alone. Your remember the weeks we would go nil-by-mouth, not a word between us, worse than strangers. Those weeks I had checked out emotionally, only my shell was left behind to be the wife.
I knew about your three affairs, but only the first one hurt me because you would spend on her while your children lacked, while the mortgage was unpaid, while you never once took me for a cup of tea. But the next two affairs? I didn’t feel a tinge of hurt even though you intended to hurt me with them by not coming home for days, by drinking excessively. In fact, I pleaded with your parents to allow you to marry again then I’d be free from that bondage.
You made me the man I am today. I was the man for 15-years of that marriage. Your disinterest to provide opened me up like a bottle of good wine. I worked during the day and went to school in the evening. Through your hangovers and through your snide remarks about my intellect and academic capability, I got my degree, then my masters, then my PhD. The more I rose, the angrier you got with me. You will never know the struggle of paying for private university for two children while paying mortgage, food and clothes. You will never know what sacrifice is until you forgo buying a new shoe for yourself so that your child can to go for a school trip. I stopped respecting you. You stopped being the head because you were not bothered to be the head. You complained bitterly that I was not submissive. But to what? What did you want me to submit to? So when I stopped respecting you, I stopped having any feelings for your whatsoever. You became a stranger I fed. I checked in my emotions, they were going to meet me at the final destination.
I could regret marrying you were it not for our children. The silver lining is that they didn’t take after my brains, they took after yours. I’m a workhorse, I’m determined and focused and everything I have gotten has been from dogged determination. You on the other hand have a brilliant mind, sharp intellect and all your children took your brains. That I’m very grateful for, they have breezed through school. They have been good kids, disciplined, grateful and loving. They have had me as a father and mother. They have made my sacrifices worthwhile. They are now adults but you have scarred them. Your daughter never wants to talk about you, a mention of your name and she leaves the room. She’s very smart, introverted, deep seeking and determined. I hope she doesn’t view all men through these experiences. I hope she gives love a chance, marriage a chance. I pray for them constantly that they don’t inherit the gene of alcoholism. I pray that they find it in their hearts to forgive you, that they seek you out and build a relationship before it’s too late. Your sons are brilliant boys. The last one has stopped asking about you. The first one tried, but you were in a different headspace, so he has given up. I find no joy in this. No joy at all.
If I did things differently I would have left the marriage after our first son. In fact, I know the exact day I would have left. The morning after you came home at 11am drunk and I was reading a book in the verandah, when I asked you where you were and you told me to mind my own business. People show you who they are yet we refuse to believe them. I was too scared to start on my own, too weak in the mind. I hope my daughter makes bolder decisions when it comes to her life.I hope she puts herself first. I hope she always knows that whatever she decides, whatever brings her happiness, I hope she knows I will always accept it even if I don’t understand it. I hope girls like her make their own money because it’s easier to make decisions when you have the means. I hope they learn to have a plan B, plan C and plan D. And lastly I hope our daughter doesn’t listen to what “society wants.” Society made me throw away my youth. Don’t “stick it out.” Leave if you want to, society will decide whether it will follow you or not.
It was a very unhappy marriage. For two decades I slept in a cold bed worrying and praying for God to keep you safe as you partied all night. I prayed so much in church that I was convinced God would not answer my prayers and when no answer was forthcoming I started praying for myself.
We have been apart for five years now and I’m happier than I have ever been in the last 20 years. I’m peaceful. Sometimes I wonder why I had to suffer for 20 years but lately I have realised that it was God’s timing, I was being built. Without that I would not have had the strength to want more for myself, to go to school, to be courageous.
Most people remember their 30th birthday. I don’t. Actually, I don’t remember any birthday from my 20th to my 40th. You took all my birthdays. There was nothing to celebrate, nothing to cheer, nothing to mark. Half my life is gone, and now I’m beginning the second half, leaving the ruins of my youth and the heartbreaks of being your wife and following my own sunrise.
I wish you well. I hope you beat those demons of alcoholism. My God always watch over you.
At a Rotaract (Club of Karura) talk last week a member asked me if I had done a personality test and I had no clue what personality I was. I promised to find out and tell her. And so to Fancy Chebet, I’m an Adventurer, ISFP-A. (Sounds like something that’s written on a sunscreen tub)