“Gordon, your mother is waiting for you by the library,” the dorm captain told him, standing at the door of the cubicle that he shared with five other boys. The dorm captain was a big and cruel hairy ape of a man. They nicknamed him Hitler. Under his chest, in the place where you and I have hearts he had a stuffed old newspaper. Gordon looked up from the porridge that he had been blowing and cautiously sipping at. “My mom?” Gordon asked, surprised because they lived 340 kms away and it was a little after 7am, a few minutes to the morning assembly. He wasn’t expecting his mom. It wasn’t visiting day. Was she passing by on her way somewhere?
He placed the mug of porridge on top of his locker and fetched his black shoes from under the bed. His roommates were either dressing up or putting their clothes away their metallic boxes or having breakfast. One of them, Malcolm, was his neighbour back at home. He said excitedly, “Perfect, today we eat fries!” Because moms brought money and money in the boarding school could get you fries from across the fence at games time when the prefects were not watching.
Without a word to each other, Gordon and Malcolm walked through the dormitory blocks, past the botanical garden, past the massive tree on which bees had one time tried to make a home, behind the big store that all the pangas and jembes and all manner of farm tools were kept, and at the intersection turned left and went further down, turned a left and 100 meters away, they saw Gordon’s mom, seated on a bench by the library. It was early morning, a misty morning. A Mourning Dove cooed occasionally. The grass was wet from a slight drizzle the previous night. He smiled at his mom as he neared. She was wearing her african fabric dress. The one she liked. The one she preferred to attend weddings in. And funerals. And church. It was blue and yellow and green and purple. She was holding her brown purse on her lap. The one with a magnetic buckle that was once gold in colour but was now faded. Her shoes were the proper shoes that you wear when you are driving 340 kms away to see your son in school. Driving shoes. The old comfortable type that women like to drive in. The type with a small hole where the little toe is. The type that used to be blue but are now grey because mom is clean and mom gets the help to wash them every week even when she doesn’t need to clean them every week.
Mom sat upright, like she normally sits in church.
As he got closer to her with his wide smile, his father’s smile, she placed her purse beside her and slowly stood up. It’s the way she stood up that he knew something was wrong; she held her knee with one hand and pushed her body up. She was only 43-years, in as a good shape as a mother of 43-years can be, but she stood up as a 72-year old would, like the very act of standing up bothered her back. All of a sudden she was the spitting image of his grandmother. The likeness was uncanny.
They drowned into each other with a hug. It wasn’t a normal greeting hug, it was a hug of solace. He felt it in her body before he heard it from her lips. He was only 16-years old, but he could somehow feel the tragedy in her body. How she let her whole body and weight dissolve into him. “She wasn’t hugging me…she was…I can’t explain it.” Gordon says. But I get it. I get what he was struggling to articulate; she was introducing him to her weakness. She, through the weight and resignation of her hug, was saying ‘Help me handle this weakness, my son. You are the only one who can understand this pain because you are my only child.”
They stood there for what seemed like two campaign periods. Clinging onto each other. It’s the longest they had ever hugged. He heard the sound of the truck that brought food for the pigs in the farm reverse somewhere, three administration blocks away. With his head buried in his mom’s neck, he smelled her. She smelled of his mom. He can’t explain that smell. You are the only one who knows how your mother smells and it’s not a smell that you can describe. It’s not like you can liken it to a mango. Or a liniment. He didn’t have to describe it to me. I can look at an old picture of my mother and remember her smell by just looking at the dress she was wearing in that photo. Your mother smells like your mother.
When they broke that hug and he held her shoulders, he tried to look into her eyes, but her head was bent and she was avoiding his eyes and he touched her chin and raised it up a bit, and he noticed that she was crying. “What is it, Mom?” he asked in panic. But she couldn’t stop crying. She lowered herself back on the bench. He sat next to her, one hand around her shoulder. “What is it?” he asked again, not wanting to know the answer but knowing that things would never be the same again for him or her.
“It’s Daddy,” she said.
He called his father “Daddy.” She called her husband “Daddy.” Even in the house, she always addressed him as “Daddy”. Daddy, do you want tea? Daddy, your food will get cold. Daddy, can you please put down the newspaper when we are having a meal?
He let go of her shoulder and leaned back against the cold brick wall of the library. He felt deflated. He looked at their family car; an old shape Prado that had been owned by four other people, the last owner a Borana man who had a big black golden ring of a puma on his little finger. He saw Malcolm, his roomate, walk towards them, and as he neared them, see his mother crying, and then stop, unsure whether to come say hello or bust, then unsurely, turn back and walk towards the main gate but then realise that he’s going towards the wrong direction, turn back and walk towards the admin block, raising his hand in a wave or a salute at Gordon because maybe he felt like he had to do something. He heard the assembly bell go off and the rising sound of teenagers and their broken voices move towards the assembly point, beyond the red roofs, like a herd of migrating beasts. In the still quietness of the school in parade that he heard his own heart break. Then he cried. Because there was nobody else to see him as everybody was in the morning assembly, he put his head on his mother’s laps, and he cried there, and he wanted to sleep there and never wake up again, never attend another assembly, never again read pythagoras theorem or light up another bunsen burner.
They buried Daddy the following week.
I make him describe the feeling after the grave had been covered but only to see if I can relate with the day we buried my mother. It’s not the same. How can it be the same? Grief is like fingerprints. It’s not the same also because he’s Kikuyu and they bury and make a move. Nobody lingers after the burial. At least not physically. “My father’s parents have never really accepted my mother,” he said. “So shags has never been a place that I go to feel the love. So we buried at midday and we set out, back to Nairobi at 2pm. My aunt, my mom’s only sister, drove. I sat on the passenger seat. My mom lay on the backseat, her feet up on the seat in her funeral shoes. She cried all the way to Nairobi. I cried too.”
Ten years later, I received an email from Gordon’s mother. I don’t know it’s his mother, of course. It’s one of the readers. She started by saying that she started reading me when I lost my mother. That my articles “finally mirrored what she felt about her own loss and grief.” She then said something about my forehead. Because everybody who writes me an email feels compelled to mention it because they think it’s hilarious when it’s not. It’s like an email signature. I wonder if hunchbacks get their hunchbacks mentioned in their emails. I bet not. So why us? Why do people feel the need to mention our foreheads?
Anyway, she said that she has a son called Gordon who has been reading me for a while and is going through something challenging currently and his birthday is coming up soon and she wonders if I would be kind enough as to surprise him because he thinks the world of me? Of course, because I’m a scatterbrain, I read this email in the middle of something else and forgot to mark it as unread so that I could respond later. So I forgot to respond. She probably waited and thought, “What a jackass! He can’t even accord me the courtesy of a reply to say no?” But since she’s a church lady, she didn’t use the word “jackass” she probably just said, “What a nincompoop” because “nincompoop” sounds like a word God would allow the truly faithful to use to express anger or disappointment.
Five or six months passed. Then I received another email from her. A very kind email. She asked politely if by any chance I might have seen her earlier email. That she was still keen to have me meet her son now more than ever. She gave me the reason which I won’t tell you at this point because it will ruin the flow of this story. I replied and said, “Sure, of course. I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your earlier email, I meant to, but then I forgot, I hope he had a good birthday blah blah blah.” Basically things only a nincompoop would write.
Here is how some cookies crumble. When you get to your house after a Friday night out, six beers in you, you strip and get in the small shower of the house your share with your housemate. When you hold your folded leg on your other knee to scrub it with the pumice stone, you feel some sharp pain in the side of your stomach. It’s a pain you have felt before but ignored. Now it’s sharp, urgent, begging for attention. You don’t give it attention. You have a life. You give your life attention. One day, you press “G” on the elevator at 7pm coming from work. That’s the last thing you recall. Because you wake up in the hospital at 9pm. Your mother is seated on the small chair next to you. You turn and ask her where your phone is. Because you are 25-years old and God forbid that you should miss a tweet. Or a picture on the gram. Your mother tells you that someone from your office block rushed you there, called her using the emergency number on your phone, and that doctors are monitoring you. She looks worried. The bright overhead light shines on her hair that looks disheveled. She holds your hand and smiles. You smell antiseptic. Doctors and nurses in scrubs walk about. A doctor with a beard, an Indian doctor, comes and as he writes on his pad, you look at the beaded necklaces on his neck.
Your name is Gordon. You buried your father nine years ago; he died in road accident. As the only child, you became the man of the house and your mother’s rock. You finished university, got a job and moved out because you couldn’t bring girls home. You collapse in an elevator when leaving jobo. When the elevator doors open on ground floor, a gentleman who had forgotten his lunchbox in their office kitchen upstairs finds you sprawled out on the floor of the elevator, your right hand clutching tightly onto your laptop. He has seen you around.
You are admitted. Tests are done. You go home. A few days later, maybe even a week, a round-faced doctor with a sharp moustache tells you and your mom that you have cancer. Stage one. Your mom almost dies from worry and sadness. She moves you back home. You refuse treatment. You tell your mother that there is no point of treatment. That you would rather die than lose your hair and feel your skin burn and feel the sores in your mouth. You have read all these things on the internet and that’s not “how you want to go.” Your aunt talks to you. Your priest talks to you. You are adamant. No treatment. You quit your job. You don’t leave the house. Your mom emails me. Because she heard you laugh at something you were reading on the phone one day and when she asked what that was; it was an Instagram post I did about the lawyer who carries a girly purse. She emails me again.
And here I am, standing at the door of one of those old government houses. The one that smell of old furniture and the ghosts of the ‘82 coup attempt. Gordon is not expecting me. I told the mother that I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to ambush him, maybe you should give him a heads up. She had said he would be thrilled. She opens the door and leads me in. She says I don’t look like the way I write. She expected an old person. I tell her I’m an old person. She laughs. The interior of the house doesn’t look like a government house. It’s well-maintained. Homely. It has a clean fireplace that hasn’t seen fire in decades. Over the fireplace is a plethora of framed photos. Old photos. Most of them are of Gordon when he was a child. Gordon on a bike. Gordon on a tree branch. Gordon on Daddy’s lap. Gordon on mommy’s arms. I pick one of Daddy. It was taken at a seminar or something. He has a plastic name tag. Big shoulders. Big man. His face shines. I turn and ask her, “Where did you guys meet?” That question throws her off even as it surprises me. She’s seated on the arm of a sofa. “Wow,” she laughs. “Uhm, we met at KMTC, back in the day.” I put back the photo and sit. We chat. She asks about Tamms. Everybody asks about Tamms. Nobody asks about Kim. Poor Kim. If they knew he has gorgeous eyes, they would ask about him.
She tells me Gordon is napping. He never goes anywhere. He stays in his room. She thinks he’s depressed. She has tried everything to get him to seek treatment. To get him to talk to a therapist. Nothing. It has been four months now. “Maybe if you talk to him, maybe if he sees you, he might listen to you. He admires you.” I feel odd. I feel self-conscious. I feel pressured. She makes me herbal tea. She tells me that her honey comes from the government honey plant, that the rest are fake. Just small talk, as we wait for Gordon to wake up. The house is cool inside. There is no TV in the room. There is a big dining area with a big round dining table. I wonder why they need such a big table if it’s just the two of them.
As we are talking about my book, I detect movement behind me because my back is to the corridors leading into the rooms inside the house. She looks behind me expectantly. I turn around and walking towards me is Gordon. He’s sort of frail looking but not the frail of sickness, the frail of lack of food and worry. He doesn’t look sick. But he looks haunted. His hair is uncombed. He’s barefoot. He has on black track bottoms and a rumpled grey t-shirt. Something Kanye would have sold as fashion. He looks at me without interest. I stand up and say hello. His hands are cold. I hang onto his hand as his mother tells him, “This guy is here to see you.”
“Oh, okay,” he says, looking at his mother and looking back at me. I let go of his hand before it starts getting awkward. Before I start sounding like those uncles from shags who meet you at funerals and hang onto your hands saying, “My goodness, how big have you become? Do you know me? You people from the city don’t know your uncles.” Then he walks you down the family tree as both of your hands sweat in that heat of shags.
“I’m Biko.” I tell him. He says, “Biko?” I say, “Yes. I’m a writer.” He makes a sound that is a hybrid of a grunt and a chuckle. “No way.” he says laughing, “you are Bikozulu?” I say I am. He says, “No way,” and looks at his mom laughing. I say, “I can show you my ID if you want. I have a terrible picture, though. But then everybody has a terrible picture on their ID. I can bet yours is worse.” He moves a step back laughing, “Oh, jeez, is it you? How did you get here?” I say, “Your mom called me.” He turns and asks his mother incredulously, “You have his number?” I cut in and say, “No, I have hers.” I’ve turned the charm all the way up to 8 because I’m trying to move as far away from being a nincompoop as possible.
He laughs and sits down shaking his head. His mother smiles broadly. I smile broadly. Hell, even the pictures of Daddy seem to be smiling broadly. The room is filling with smiles. A smile aquarium. He shakes his head looking at me. The mother, hands on laps, asks, “Can I leave you two? Let me go run some errands at Junction. Biko, will I find you here when I return?” Then she’s gone and I’m left with Gordon who doesn’t believe that my name is Biko.
He tells me about his father and how he died and how that made him feel. He tells me about how his death, although a long time ago, continued to be a source of grief for him. He asks me if it’s true that my dad remarried and how my dad feels about me writing about him on my blog. I tell him I’m safe because my dad is the only person I know who has zero footprints on the internet. “He still uses SMSes,” I tell him. “That’s like using TDK compact cassette.” Then I laugh because in my head it’s funny. He asks what that is with a polite grin. Oh crap. These kids don’t know what a compact is. I Google it and show him and he says, “Oooh. I saw this in a museum once.” Ha-ha.
“Do you like your stepmother?” he asks me.
“I don’t know her enough to dislike or like her. But my dad likes her, so I might like her,” I say. “What would you do if your mom introduced you to a man who she wants to marry?”
“Actually when I walked in I thought for a second that you were that man,” he says. We really laugh at that.
We josh around, talking about serious stuff but then going back to the jocular mode. We tiptoe around the elephant in the room, then finally I ask him, “How do you feel? What does it feel like?” He’s sitting with both of his legs pulled up on the sofa. He’s silent for a bit, his chin on his knees. He’s good looking. I think I’m allowed to say that because I have 39 words left of my gay quota this year. He’s one of those people who don’t look like their father or mother.
“Are you going to write about this?” he asks. I say only if he’s funny and witty and interesting, and so far he’s not any of that. He laughs and says “If you write about this, please don’t write about my name or my mom’s name or where I work or what I do or anything that will make someone know it’s me unless they are very close to me and they know about me and my mom.”
“Cool,” I say. We sit in a brief punctuated silence. I wait.
“I don’t feel sick. Not physically. I feel sick emotionally. I want this disease to kill my spirit before it kills my body. That way I can die faster,” he says. I’m not paraphrasing this statement. It’s verbatim. I’m not paraphrasing it because it was so brutal, so disturbing to hear it from him without any preamble to it’s depth that I didn’t know what else to ask. That while his mother was out running a small errand at Junction, this boy, this man, was talking about death in this casual but profound manner.
“I don’t want to be a burden to her,” he continues. “I don’t want to be a burden to myself. I don’t want living to ever be a burden. I don’t want to lie in bed and for people to come and see me and think I’m not going to make it to Easter or Jamhuri day or Christmas. I….” he pauses. “I just want to go in peace.”
“What about your mom?” I ask. “Why don’t you give her a chance to try and save you? Why don’t you give her that peace?”
Still looking at a wooden sculpture in the corner of the room, hugging his legs against his chest, he doesn’t say anything. I wait for an answer but it never comes.
“Every time I feel nausea or pain on any part I wonder if it has started,” he continues and these feelings, these words start pouring out of him, unprompted and not in any chronology. “I feel like my life has shrunk to my sickness, to this house, to my little room. I read about Jadudi and I thought I’d never want to do anything like that. I’d not want anyone to save me. I’d not bother anyone with trying to save me.” He pauses. “ I’d feel like if they saved me, I owed them my life. I don’t want to ever feel like I owe anyone my life. “ Another pause. He adjusts his legs. “And why bother if you are going to die, anyway?”
“Because nobody wants to die,” I say.
“ How is he doing?” he asks.
“Jadudi,” he says, still not looking at me.
“He’s alive,” I mumble. “I ran into him in Kisumu last year. He had a walking cane. He had a slight speech impairment. But he was alive. He’s still fighting.”
We fall into silence.
He has the same dream often, but in different variations. That someone comes to his room, sometimes two people, sometimes three people, sometimes many men, and they take away his stuff as he stands in the corner of the room. They cart his shit out into a waiting van and he begs them to stop while phoning his mother, but his mother doesn’t answer. “I cry when this happens,” he tells me. I don’t say anything. I wait. “What do you think it means?” He eventually asks me. He never looks at me even when he’s asking me a question, but from the corner of my eye I see him observing me when I’m not looking at him.
“I don’t know what it means,” I say. “What do you think it means?”
He doesn’t know what it means.
“Talking of mothers can I tell you something crazy?” I ask him. He looks at me fleetingly and says, yeah. I tell him that since my mother died, five years ago, I feel that death doesn’t hold much power over me like it did before. That I’m consoled that should I depart I will meet her on the other side. That there will be someone special waiting to receive me. “But sometimes I don’t want to die, even though I think she is waiting for me on the other side. I want to live to see my children as adults. I want to live to see what 70 feels like. It doesn’t matter if my mom is waiting. Life is for the living.” He stares at the carpet for a while, not saying anything. Then he looks up at me and looks at me for the longest time for the first time since we started talking. From behind his folded legs, chin on knees, he holds my stare until I look away. And I rarely ever look away. Maybe I have said something to offend him? Maybe I have crossed the line bringing up death when I don’t have cancer, when I don’t know what it means to contemplate it daily and live with its immediate possibility.
“What about your kids?” he eventually asks, filling this dead air between us with a voice.
“My kids can bury me. I shouldn’t be made to bury them,” I say. “Nobody should be made to bury their own children.”
He looks away, maybe not being able to confront the fact that he doesn’t want to live for his mother. He places one leg on the floor and leaves the other on the chair. “Well,” he says, rubbing his toes. Then he doesn’t say anything. Normally when people say “well,” they follow it with a thought. Not Gordon.
“What’s the plan here?” I ask, “What do you plan to do? And I ask this respectfully.”
He bites his lip. “I don’t know.” he sighs. The help walks into the room and asks if she should warm my now cold herbal tea. I say no, ni sawa, I will drink it cold. She leaves. “I find it useless to fight this. Nobody has won this fight.”
“That’s not true,” I say. I tell him that countless people have. “And you have a chance to. No?”
He shrugs. “I’m scared,” he whispers. “That’s the truth.”
“Are you scared to fight and lose?”
“I’m scared to die,” he says.
I sip my tea. It tastes terrible. Maybe I should have had it warmed it.
“You are barely 25,” I say. “ If you were my brother, I would ask you to fight. You have nothing to lose fighting. If you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for your mother.”
He is silent. He’s now lying back on the sofa. He’s blinking rapidly. I know the sign. It’s a sign of tears. I know he doesn’t want to cry before me. I don’t want him to cry before me so I ask him if he can show me his room. We go to his room and I stand at the stoop. It has a 5 by 6 bed, unmade. It has got a desk with a flat screen and a PS4 on it. Wires running around. A small, dirty carpet. Dirty clothes hang from the arms of the chair like a scarecrow. White walls. No painting. A phone charger sticking out of the power socket in the wall. A plate of what looks like leftover rice and a few green peas. The room has a musty smell.
“You live like a pig,” I tell him.
He laughs. “Thanks.”
I walk in and draw the curtains, part the sheers and open the window. Fresh air rushes in. His mom is not back yet, but I have to leave. He walks me out to the sitting room. I notice that he doesn’t want to step out of the door, so we stop and make some small talk there.
“I hope that when you remember this conversation,” I tell him, “I hope that you remember to remember that sometimes the big transformations start with simple things.”
“Like opening your window. You don’t know what else will come in. Let life in.”
“You are deep,” he says. “Thanks for doing this.”
“I didn’t do it for your ratchet selfish ass,” I joke, punching him painfully on his shoulder. “I did it for your mom.”
Then we hugged and I left and I hope that he will read this and choose life. That he has so much to live for. That he’s young and brilliant enough and funny (okay, not so much) and witty and that he will one day, when he’s 67-years old, think of this trying time and think what a fool for not choosing life because he would have moved up the corporate ladder, bought a house, met a girl at some event at Rotary Club that he didn’t even want to attend in the first place and they will have a wedding that three people bought them a microwaves for and that he will have two children, one who looks like his mother and another who doesn’t look like any of them. I hope that this October, cancer month, he chooses life.