The Boy

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They removed her uterus a day after her 43rd birthday. Her son drove her for the procedure. He was 19 years old but already looked  eerily like his father, already sounded like him, even behaving like him. [He always left the fridge door open] When the procedure was finished and she stirred awake, he was seated by her bed reading a book by the light from the window. It was bright in the room, suggesting it was high noon. He hadn’t noticed that she had come to, so she watched him read for a bit. He held the book delicately in his slim fingers. His nails were short and studiously cut, his knuckles perfectly smooth like river pebbles. With his head bowed, he looked like he was taking a nap. When he eventually realised she was awake he quickly shut the book and reached out for her hand. His hands were warm, as if they had been heated by the book. Her sweet little boy who wasn’t a boy anymore but a young man. He smiled and said, “I ate your food while you were asleep.” She tried to smile but her insides hurt. 

They almost died when he was born, the two of them. He had worked his neck around the umbilical cord , strangling him as he tried to come out. She couldn’t stop bleeding. For days she didn’t see him. She kept asking the doctors, “where is my son? I want to see my son,” but nobody brought him to her. They told her to focus on getting better. Nobody looked her in the eye – or so she thought. When she was finally strong enough and they brought him to her, she felt like they had handed her her heart; She felt like she was looking into her own heart. 

He was slow to develop. He was a poor eater. He didn’t walk until he was almost one and a half years old. He was mostly underweight; a scrawny baby who bruised easily but never cried much. He fell sick often and she saw the hospital at all times of day and night. Nurses knew her. Doctors smiled and tickled his cheeks and said, “one day you will be a big strong boy?” Her husband told her that he himself was a weak baby who almost never survived.  A miracle baby. “If I made it, so will he,” he said. He always drove her to the hospital at night while she cradled him, feeling his hot forehead.  Those numerous late night hospital runs were marked by great anxiety and urgency. She could find the paediatric wing from the car park blindfolded. 

He seemed to grow up haltingly, like he was afraid to grow older. “Let the child be, he will form into whoever he will form into,” her husband urged. He believed children just become whoever they are meant to be. It felt defeatist to her, to surrender their son’s development to the hands of fate. It felt irresponsible, even. He was right but he was also wrong. “You just don’t watch a child grow from the sidelines,” she said, “you participate. You get involved.” 

They tried for a second child soon after because that’s what you do in a young marriage, you fill the nascent space with babies. She got pregnant but it was a dreadful pregnancy that wrung the life off her. She was constantly unwell. Her body felt invaded and foreign. “It was like someone very irresponsible had borrowed my body and was wreaking havoc on it, and my body was fighting them back.” On week 29 she dreamt her period had come and she hadn’t worn a pad. When she woke up there was blood under her. Her husband woke up, leaned on his elbow and blinked at the bright red against the white sheets. He looked scared for once. He said, “shit.”

“Loss of a pregnancy is like mourning,” she said, “it’s literally like a funeral that goes on and on and on because the baby is buried in you.”

Her gynae had advised her not to try again. “It’s just too dangerous for you,” she told her, “you have a son to live for.” So she lived for the son she had and mourned the one she never held. 

Her husband seemed to move on like nothing happened. “That made me so mad, how he could just bounce back like we had only just lost a bet.” But he was mourning in his own way, her male friends told her. “Men mourn from the inside,” they said. When they mourn, their insides are all red, like they have measles inside their body. 

When he was five, he fell off a table and cracked his head. For five days she never left his hospital bed; she stayed awake for days staring at him, afraid that if she closed her eyes and opened them again he’d be dead. At 10 he suffered his first heartbreak; he lost a swimming competition that he was sure he’d win, that he should have won, only the other boy was a lot faster and worked harder. He wept inconsolably in the back seat of the car the whole way home. His father drove on, unperturbed by his tears. He filled the driver’s seat with his wide back and long legs, his two paws on the wheel, he could have been an Uber driver who had nothing to do with the boy crying at the back. She looked at him, imploringly, with pleading eyes. “Please, tell him something!” She mouthed. He grinned and told him nothing because he knew that he needed to wallow in this loss, to appreciate its pain, to find himself in the humility of it all. Later, while he sat on his bed, he addressed him like he wasn’t ten. “You are ten years old, you will win a lot but you will also lose a lot in life. If you cry every time you lose, you will run out of tears before you reach 15.”

At 13, his father took him away to Mombasa for a boy’s trip. When they came back he announced, “your son is now a man. He is circumcised.” She was furious. Didn’t he think she needed to know!? He said no, it was entirely a man’s affair. “He is my son!” she cried. “Yes, but your son also has to become a man.” He wore shukas and an impish smile around the house and avoided milk. At night her husband would go to his bedroom before bedtime and stay there for an hour. He could hear his voice through the walls; a droning baritone, like a big car idling on the tarmac. It felt like a cult ritual was transpiring in that room. It sounded like chanting. “What do you tell him?” She’d ask him when he came to bed. “How to separate yourself from your mother,” he’d joke and turn to sleep. 

He became a very quiet teenager. Suddenly, it felt like he had run out of words. He seemed to sneak around in the house, like a passing shadow with footsteps as light as a ghost’s, keen to reduce his carbon footprint in the house. He disappeared behind a wall of headphones and locked doors and silence. “One day I was working on my laptop in the living room and when I looked up I let out a small scream because he was standing before me and he suddenly looked so tall, I thought a stranger had broken into our house.” He was a stranger, technically. Suddenly there were two deep voices in the house. It felt like there were men in the house. When he and his father conversed in their deep voices, the vases seemed to shudder. The house was filled with thunder. “I felt small amongst them, like something that needed to be cared for.” At 16 his father would teach him how to drive on Sundays using her car because it was smaller and who cares if her small car crashed? When they came back at dusk they would not be speaking to each other. He’d hide behind a book, in front of the TV on mute, and then he’d disappear behind the closed door of his room. “Did you shout at him again?” She’d ask him and he’d mumble, “how hard is it to reverse park a small car?” 

“Nobody is born reverse parking, Patrick.” 

“Yes, but nobody should be taught how to reverse park twenty times.”

“You are too hard on him!”

“You treat him like an egg. He is a man!”

“He is a boy!”

She insisted everybody sit down together for meals even if they weren’t hungry. At dinner they’d avoid each other’s eyes; son and father, similar in temperament, trying to find their own space in the relationship. “It was amusing to watch them sulking, their egos coming out of their ears.” But there were many happy moments when from the kitchen, she’d watch them sitting under the avocado tree, their mouths moving, their body language leaning into each other and when they laughed she felt like an outsider. She felt she was a woman and they were men, not her husband and her son. She felt like she needed to find a new language to speak to him in. 

There was a girl he liked in the estate. Joy, from the next court, house 397. Older. Because he was very tall with his father’s shoulders, most girls would mistake him to be older. He saw how they looked at him at the mall or in the supermarket. Their eyes lingered on him a little longer than necessary. One time she saw them standing by a streetlight as she drove in from work. The distance between them was not enough to pass air through. Another time she knocked on their doorbell, she was wearing something that showed a lot of her midsection. She was busty, like her. She opened the door and they stood eye to eye, or bust to bust. She was polite but she didn’t like her. She looked like she would pollute her son with the mischief that she could see dancing in her eyes. She knew they had broken up when his moods plummeted suddenly and he stopped going for his evening walks. “You know a man’s heart is really broken when they start eating less chapatis.” She chuckled. She felt sorry for him. She wanted to comfort him, to tell him that the woman he would  genuinely love was perhaps only 5 years old then, but she understood heartbreaks, knew not to say a word. These incidents that brought him pain seemed to make his father prouder. He seemed to derive satisfaction in his pain. “It builds character and grit.” He said. “The world owes him nothing. It’s better to taste the world’s cruelty now than later.” And maybe he was right. 

“You should talk to him about girls!” She’d tell him and he’d dismiss her with a wave of the hand. “Nobody is taught about girls. Girls teach you about girls.” 

Half way into his 17th birthday he spent days seated across his father’s hospital bed. He was diminishing from a rare autoimmune disease that was eating at him rapidly. And just before his 18 birthday he wore his first black suit and a white shirt and he held his mum in his arms as his father’s body was lowered into the ground in a golden coffin that he chose himself. “It felt unfair that he was losing his father at a time when he was becoming a man. I mourned my husband deeply but I also suspect that I mourned for my son. For the kind of man he would turn into; a man who already lost half of his manhood by burying someone he looked up to.” It felt like they were burying his manhood itself in that golden coffin. She thought his father’s death would be his death knell, but it wasn’t. He filled the space left by his father. He seemed to own his absence. 

He surprised her. He quickly grew into the man he would later become. He no longer was the broody type that kept away and used mono syllables or only came out when everybody was asleep, opening fridges and beating eggs. He was more deliberate and compassionate. He sought her out first thing whenever he walked into the house. When she couldn’t muster the strength to leave her bed, to eat, to do anything, he’d stick his head around her bedroom door and say, “mom, let’s go for a walk.” Or bring her sandwich cut in half; his and hers. He’d do what his dad did; bring flowers, only his were the tired roses you found in traffic in the evening. The ones whose beauty nobody saw. It’s almost like he knew she felt like those roses, those whose scent was long gone.  He’d try very hard to make her laugh. He’d play her his guitar on Sundays. “He was not awfully good at it but the thought counted.” 

At 20, he left for university abroad. His father had worked for an American company that had pledged to educate him through university. They sent him abroad.  What good luck; burgers and Trump. He was just growing his dreadlocks, which made him look like a young thug, but a polite one. Mama’s thug. His flight was a late night one, the type where everybody looks like they’re sleepwalking. It was a cold and very dark night. [Horrors start like this]. She and her brother saw him off. He was wearing a mitumba winter jacket, jeans and brown boots. He was very lanky but with such bright grey eyes that drew you to them. He seemed fearless, almost foolishly trusting in the white world to receive him with love.  It scared her to death. America scared her. “I was afraid for him, that the world would not see him like I saw him.” 

They stood outside the departure terminal trying to slow the inevitable. The vestibule of time and fate waited patiently. When the time came to leave, he held her in his chest like she was a baby. She smelled soap and his father’s cologne on him. “I broke into tears and I sobbed in his chest.” He hugged his uncle and they patted each other on the back like men do when they don’t want to show vulnerability and off he went, disappearing through the doors, getting swallowed by another life. She saw him place his jacket on the security tray and empty his pockets. The world had claimed him. “That night I slept in his bed. I felt like I had lost him. That I’d never see him again. That if I saw him he would no longer be my son, he would be someone else.” 

At 22 he came back home for holiday. Two years since she had last seen him, and he had grown a big Adam’s apple on his throat. His hands were bigger. When he moved he seemed to displace more air around him. He was very confident, assured. He was his father again. She couldn’t get over how big his shoes were. “I’d see his shoes at the doorway and it’d take me a moment to realise that they belonged to my son, who was now a big man.” He insisted on visiting his father’s village. “He said he wanted to know his people. To connect with them. That was strange, seeing as he had never had any interest to connect with his father’s people. My husband was himself not deeply rooted to his own people.” He asked her more about him; how did they meet? What did she love about him? How were they alike? 

She admired him. This man he was trying to be. He was charming and attentive and he still left the fridge door open. She took him everywhere and she enjoyed the look her friends and colleagues and acquaintances wore when she introduced him. Some thought he was her lover, which was very flattering for her but also very weird. “I was so proud of him, then I was so afraid that I couldn’t be everything he wanted. That he needed other people to complete him.”

At 23 he graduated. She flew out to the small midwestern American town he lived in. It was spring. The air smelled of flowers and fruits. It was her first time in the US and it felt perfect, this life her son lived. Things worked. Clocks worked. People got their mail delivered. Even the dogs looked like they had their own dogs to walk. He introduced her to his girlfriend whom she had heard of; a blue-eyed brunette. Of course, busty. They had dinner at a small cosy restaurant next to a narrow channel. The water looked cold and unfriendly but it sparkled seductively in the light. She caught the whiff of fresh flowers. After dinner they walked over a stone bridge and she threw a pebble in the water. On her last day, he told her they were planning to get married and start a family. She wept and said she wished him well and then added, “who am I left with at home?” an unfair question and selfish to ask your son who was charting his own life. 

He got married and had a baby. He’s 27 years old now. He’s never coming back. 

She has the whole house to herself. She lives with the memories of him, his dead father and her dead son. She lives with the house help who lives out back in the quarters. She hardly sees her. Suddenly the house seems excessive, like a colossal mistake made from mortar. She spends most of her time in this tomb. She has fewer friends now, having freed herself from most dead weight. She hardly goes out. She aches for love, something genuine, but dating in Nairobi is so hazardous, something you need to approach with caution, preferably while wearing a hazmat suit. She tried finding a new hobby; hiking, but hated it. She tried visiting an art gallery but art bored her. She reads books and she disappears but when she comes out of the fantasy and magic of books she finds her life staring at her. Meeting people is harder when you are older. She stopped drinking. [Maybe an odd glass or two of wine]. Her career is working, has worked for many years now, and it feels like she doesn’t need to feed it any more fodder. She was reading up on purpose and it occurred to her that her purpose was raising her son and now that he’s gone she wonders if there is any other purpose left in her. 

“There is a certain loneliness that comes with where I am in life. I can’t even describe it.” she said. “It’s not necessarily the bad kind. It’s a selfish loneliness. You have everything you need but you are guilty of wanting something else. At the same time you are also too comfortable or safe to try anything new that would reveal something new about you, something you don’t want to deal with.”

 

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67 Comments
  1. Life! It can be such a roller-coaster ride. My heart goes out to her. I hope she can be able to find another purpose. I like what you say about dating in Nairobi; it’s point on.

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    1. I guess not all stories have morals to teach, especially life stories; it’s just life happening with or without your contribution.

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    2. hey …not all stories are supposed to educate us, some are meant to be expressive, others funny…from this one i gathered about raising kids prepare them to live beyond your existence…i think the man in the story did that …

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  2. ” “You are ten years old, you will win a lot but you will also lose a lot in life. If you cry every time you lose, you will run out of tears before you reach 15.” This was a GREAT Dad, who prepared his son well for his own ‘early departure’ (though he had no idea it was coming, he knew it in his bones). As one who lost a Mom, the main provider, at 19, I’m glad she played the role of early Life Lesson giver ( thinking of Major, 65, in that Gloriah story, who still hasn’t shown up once at his supermarket since he lost, for those who identified him, lo, a month on – and is at home still weeping over the loss).
    Lighter note – when I had my first estate heartbreak, my Mom as I ‘ate less chapos’ simply said: “You have a great brain. All that girl really has are very nice eyes …” ( and ass, but mothers never add stuff like that, abt ‘busts’ or ‘booty …’)

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  3. Okay, a peaceful story this is. The boy turned out well. At some point I was worried that the dad was too harsh; turns out I was wrong. What a great dad he must have been to bring up such a gentle man, may his soul rest in peace .

    Hugs mama, your son will fly down someday with his family to see you, he will. And I’m sure he thinks about you too .

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  4. A very good read. It’s only sad that the father did not live long enough to see his son become who he’s become. I know most of us toil dusk to dawn so that we can watch our kids comfortably go through life; perhaps watch them watch their kids go through it as well.

    To the Queen Mother, you are a great lady. Find a way to enjoy the boredom/ loneliness, it’s better than inviting chaos and anarchy to your quiet well-earned life.

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  5. “She was reading up on purpose and it occurred to her that her purpose was raising her son and now that he’s gone she wonders if there is any other purpose left in her. ” Yes there is mama, don’t give up.

  6. An empty nest feels so terrifying but that’s the place most of us are headed to.
    It starts with them spending less and less time at home, their evenings occupied with school work, their weekends with either little jobs at supermarkets, fastfood restaurants or meet ups with their friends.
    I dread that time, but when it comes, I think I’ll want to escape the silence by being swallowed up in the sights, sounds and bustle of Asian cities and their spicy foods. No way will I be found living a glacial muted life.

    You need to re-create yourself ma’am.

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  7. Incredibly well written piece.

    If this is a true story, tell her to move into a smaller house. An empty nest is more bearable when it’s smaller and cozier. Also, it will take time to deal with the empty nest syndrome, a couple of years at least, but she’ll eventually adjust, and hopefully learn to love her life. Cooping herself up in the coop will simply not do. It takes courage to travel alone, and eat alone in public spaces but she’ll be the better off for it in the end. She must embrace her new reality and take this leap of faith.

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  8. As an empty nester I completely relate with this post. Particularly this “Her career is working, has worked for many years now, and it feels like she doesn’t need to feed it any more fodder”.

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  9. I was scared to come to the end of the article which felt like it would have a bad ending for the tall son! But hugs to our protagonist, la vie c’est ca.

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  10. I feel for this mom. The boy should take the mommy and live with them . This kind of loneliness kills. It will be sad for him to buy another piece of Back suit to come bury the mom.

  11. Biko!!!

    This is a beautiful read. The young man was brought up well. Let his mom get ready for
    her grandkids visits…. In the meantime, let mom take up a new hobby … Cooking, swimming, movie theater visits during the day…. Taking long drives… Art classes too are awesome…. Best yet..go to a restaurant and watch people . Or even write memoirs.. Let her do a new thing…God has planned a very long life for her so she’d better make the best of it.

    All the best and cheers ma’am!!!

    I am rooting for ya!

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  12. When your child(ren) are the centre of your universe, you get lost in there world. I had an eye opening moment a few years back and started living my life outside of my kids. Investing in hobbies, social work, getting more involved with activities that will make me meet new people without me being so uncomfortable, for the intovert that i am. Loneliness is real, empty nest syndrome is real. Prep for the inevitable from early on, say in your thirties.

    I pray she finds a good man. Dating in Nairobi when you are older is one of the many ways to die for sure. Love and Light to her..

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  13. It’s a beautiful father son story. I now understand why my husband gives our son tough love, never allowing him weakness. I have a hard time relating with the boy and sometimes he takes advantage of this, playing tricks on me, feigning sickness et al. Most times I have to call the father, whose work makes him be away most times and ask him if the boy’s behavior is a boy thing and what discipline should be meted. He says if he manipulates me now he will definitely manipulate me when older. I respect their relationship. If I heard of a seminar on raising boys I would attend for sure.

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  14. At some point reading this, I stopped and prayed earnestly that this lanky young man does not die on us. Thank God he didn’t!! I feel this woman deeply. I pray she find’s new meaning in new things. I am not qualified to say that she should release her son to chart his course – because I have not released my own and I don’t know that I ever will. I still wonder what I had smoked when I sent him to uni abroad…

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  15. I fear being lonely..I want my children around me….I know they will go as God desires..
    ….but I just can’t imagine.

  16. I pray she finds a new purpose and dedicates herself to it. She should try something new to venture into, whatever excited her before the son came into the picture…

  17. This was such a heartwarming read!! Love it!!!

    Halafu, about dating in Nairobi, girl!! Thank God that you had already found ‘the one ‘. Sisi wenye tuko soko ni mateseko tupu.

    Biko you should consider a ‘Dating in Nairobi’ series
    because…heh!! Ni hayo tu!

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  18. This has been a real roller-coaster of a story.
    I love how it how hers has been a whole 360 revolution. Of a young mother mother and wife learning to walk the tendrils of raising a sickly kid and balancing between a hubby and a career life. How she steers all that and dealing with two loses and almost a third one of having an almost ‘absent son’ who is present but living his own life, in his own terms and ways.
    The choices she probably made to leave her folks and get married…maybe at a tender age.
    I wish her well. That, she may discover the charm of living a fulfilling life once again.

    But, Biko, this line is the mother of all statements; “….She aches for love, something genuine, but dating in Nairobi is so hazardous, something you need to approach with caution, preferably while wearing a hazmat suit…..”

    I would one day wish to read his son’s take of this…

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  19. A great and refreshing read indeed. I couldn’t stop admiring the father figure in the story. That’s how boys should be raised into men. A happy marriage it was, but of course with its ups and downs. I hope the mother finds solace and fulfilment in her sunset years.

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  20. I encourage her to wear her hazmut suit and get out of her zone. Life is for the living get out there and live it.good read though.

  21. The empty nest from a widow’s window .I hope you get your circle , but relocating and being near your grand kids won’t be bad either .

  22. I’d get really upset when my dad would be hard on my brother. I realise now, in a household of 3 women and 2 men, he needed it because he automatically would get sheltering from the three women. Biko Zulu and Tuesday morning coffee are up there in my list of good happenings.

  23. Lots of lessons, here. And memorable quotes. Our egos do really come out of our ears most times..

    Girls teach you about girls.. Wish I knew this at 15.

  24. Thumbs up Biko!
    Morals….
    1. Morals makes a man
    2. What is your purpose in life
    3. True love is beautiful but very rare especially in Kanairo…
    4. No matter how rich you are you must be in the reach of people for a complete happiness…

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  25. A good summary of life happens.
    It just does.
    I like how you speed through their lives. How you dwell on nothing, not death; of a father or an ovary. Nothing. Emotionlessly narrating. Like life. It just goes on.

  26. “but dating in Nairobi is so hazardous, something you need to approach with caution, preferably while wearing a hazmat suit”

  27. The loneliness is soo familiar…Reading the story felt like hearing it from Biko.i can always hear the voice behind the writing

  28. “There is a certain loneliness that comes with where I am in life. I can’t even describe it.” she said. “It’s not necessarily the bad kind. It’s a selfish loneliness. You have everything you need but you are guilty of wanting something else. At the same time you are also too comfortable or safe to try anything new that would reveal something new about you, something you don’t want to deal with.”

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  29. Sons….Mine is about that age….soon he will be heading out to the wide world. I plan to travel anywhere and everywhere. It will be my time….

  30. I am confused did the boy die?coz in the last part he mentions the boy is 27yrs now then he says he lives with memories of him,his dead father and her dead son

  31. Great read Biko. I hope the mom is reading the comments. My advice:, find a new purpose, you raised a good man… Retire and plan to travel the world, find dates, invest in your grandchild, more importantly, don’t wallow, get out there and have fun. Experience those exotic foods- rare stakes haha.. treat yourself good and fill that passport with stamps.

    PS/ ( I take everything as a puzzle), was that mid-western us state be Wisconsin?