My grandma doesn’t wait for Kenya to turn 47. She doesn’t say goodbye either. She just checks out. She dies. Her heart halts shortly after 3pm on the eve of Madaraka day. Cardiac arrest, that’s what the doctor said. Which is funny because five days ago her heart was fine. Five days ago she was at my digs visiting, sipping juice and cracking wise. But she got hospitalized a day before she died complaining of pain. Doctors said her left lung was shot. And she had high blood pressure, and arthritis…and old age. But she was fine, which goes to say how fickle life is. It speaks to the brittleness of life. The uncertainty of it all. We are all walking dead.
8.30pm. I’m standing at the hospital’s elevator door. It takes a while before it comes down, but it does eventually like everything that goes up. The doors open and I step in. It’s an Otis elevator. Do you know their slogan? “Don’t accept a lift from a stranger” that’s their slogan. I think it’s smart. The doors close slowly. I’m riding this one alone. I punch second floor, it doesn’t illuminate as it should, but it starts a slow laborious ascent. The floor of the elevator is old, but then again Otis is an old elevator company. Leaning on the wall of the elevator I can’t
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help but to think that in this elevator countless of people have ridden in it look into the eyes of their dying loved ones. In this elevator countless of tormented souls have ridden to confront a reality that is bigger than them. People who have lost their loved ones…people with a diminished hope of life. The elevator of death. And it takes me to second floor where it sighs open and I step into the floor containing wards. It’s a clean ward, white as cotton. A hospital attendant passes by the elevator pushing a trolley containing food. The lights burn stoically. It’s silent; patients are just about to turn in for a night of long knives. As I walk down a corridor I peek into the wards, of course I see nothing through the drawn partitioning because even the sick deserve a private dignity.
There is something telling about this floor. Something unspoken, something that cuts through the bullshit of life. This floor has people whose bodies have failed them. On this floor lives souls who contemplate death frequently because on this floor death is not a distant notion, it’s a close reality. But on this floor walks the gods in white lab coats, stethoscopes hanging from their necks like metallic wreaths. Doctors. They walk the hallways with a knowing gait, knowing because they come very close to god by the virtue of their healing wisdom. But even though this floor lives death and small gods, you can’t help recognize the unrelenting hope that soars within these walls. You can’t help feel the power of man’s zeal to live, to challenge their own mortality.
Somewhere on this floor my grandma lies dead.
I walk up to the main desk where a middle aged nurse is just settling in for the night shift. She has a hard face. But her eyes are kind, sympathetic, consoling. Her career exposes her daily to death; her skin is thickened. Her career opens her to untold pain and loss. Before the night wears she will have experienced death. She would have lost a patient. That’s how she lives her life, by flirting with death. She sees death, she smells death, she knows death. But that doesn’t make her less human, that doesn’t make her dead inside on the contrary I think it makes her more alive. It makes her appreciate life a little more. It makes her more human.
I’m here to see my grandmother, I announce. I say it as if she is still alive. I say it like she is one of the rooms having a fruit salad. I say it out of respect; I say it because I’m in denial, sort of. She smiles and asks which room she is in and I tell her she died at 3pm. Her reaction doesn’t waiver; she is a professional after all. This is what she does for a living; deal with people who have lost someone. And she has seen people who have suffered worse loss; she has seen people who have lost lovers, people who have lost their mothers, people who have even lost their children, and I can imagine that there is no greater loss than the loss of a child.
“What’s her name?” she asks politely. I tell her. She looks at this file with names on it, doomed names, and I wonder how many people die in a day there. She runs down this list, the list of the departed, and says she is in some holding room. “May I see her?” I ask. She seems to hesitate but eventually say that she has sort of been “preserved” for transportation. A hearse is waiting downstairs to take her away. “Please, let me if you don’t mind.” I insist. Death and loss hasn’t eroded her inherent goodness. Death hasn’t turned her into a mean person who doesn’t allow a grandson to see his grandmother. She is still a good person and so she asks me to follow her.
We walk down an ominous corridor. Her shoes make squeaky sounds on the linoleum. The whole area smells of disinfection, like someone was trying to flash out the smell of sickness and gloom. When we pass some sort of a waiting room, I peer inside and see some of my uncles and aunts. They sit in stony silence, numbed by loss. Their eyes are red. One aunt is crying uncontrollably on her husband’s shoulder. A muted television is on Citizen overhead. I don’t wave at them. Nobody waves at me. They all look at me with deadened eyes, as if they don’t belong to their bodies. Mannequins of despair.
The holding room is at the end of the room. It’s where the dead are held before they are shipped out. I follow the kindly nurse in. It’s a small room with only a bed. Everything there is white. The walls are white, the sheets are white, the bed is white, so are the curtains. A florescent bulb burns overhead. In the middle of the room is a mummy-like figure lying on the bed. She has been bound up in white, really bound up. My grandma. She really is dead. I stand away from the bed, distancing myself from death. I don’t know where to put my hands, I can’t pocket, not in the presence of my grandma. I can’t stand akimbo. I can’t hold them behind my back that seems too dramatic. My hands suddenly become my greatest liability. So I fold them across my chest.
The nurse stares at me as if waiting for the signal from me to have her untie the cloth covering her face. I can’t say I’m scared to see grandma, I’m just anxious, nervous maybe. I have a picture of my grandma drinking juice in my house and laughing, I don’t want that picture disrupted. It’s a nice picture. I nod at lady nurse and she pulls away the masking tape used to seal the cloth together. She takes her time, undoing them delicately as if she might hurt my grandma in the process and I remember feeling quite grateful to her, grateful to this lady who treats my grandma – a stranger – with respect even in her death. I remember feeling very tender towards her.
The cloth finally comes off. It’s grandma all right. She really is dead. I step closer and stand over her. The nurse discreetly moves away and stands by the window. They have plugged her ears and nose with cotton wool. They have sealed her mouth with clear tape and that really breaks my heart. It does. I don’t know why, but it does. It feels me with such grief. They have sealed her mouth with tape! It makes her look like a victim. It makes her looks incapable, and incapable she is. Standing so close to her is standing so close death and in essence to my own mortality. It feels me with dread because by looking at her I’m looking at my destiny, our destiny. I wonder if her soul is still in the room or she already left the planet. I wonder of her final moments when her heart was kicking and failing, I wonder if she knew this was it. I obsess with her final moments, it’s pointless but what is there to think about when you are standing over your grandma’s body?
In death she remains peaceful. She is a light lady, and her skin color remains thus. Her eyes are shut tight. He skin looks clean. I want to know if she is still warm, I really do, so place my finger tips on her forehead and I immediately wish I hadn’t because she is cold. So inhumanly cold. I’m stunned. I step back. That marks the difference between life and death. We are warm, the dead are cold. Death is cold. I look at her one last time before I nod at the nurse to cover her up. When I step out of the room I feel fearful and insecure. I feel exposed to evil that is death. My stomach feels weak and my finger tips- the ones I used to touch her- feels so cold, an exaggerated cold, like ice blocks.
They wheel her down this winding ramp. It’s a cold night, and the only sound is the squeaking form the wheels as the stretcher rattles down this ramp. Two nurses – one in front, the other behind – operate this stretcher. They make sure that my grandma doesn’t fall off. I follow this stretcher with one of my uncle, Dan, who will break your heart in a moment like he did mine. The hearse is waiting downstairs. A whole motley of relatives stand away from it, teary, chocking on emotion as they watch grandma eased into a silver coffin of sort and pushed into the back of the hearse. The doors close with sickening finality. The engine kicks alive and before long the taillights recede into the darkness. Grandma will be spending the night alone in some cold funeral home.
Here is how the reality really sunk in for me. How my uncle Dan took it all home for me. Dan is a 39yr old father of two. A real cool cat. Jolly. Vibrant. A soccer lover. He was real close to the mom. After the hearse had left people had mumbled their goodbyes and hugged. I watched him walk to his car in the darkened parking lot. He was lugging his mom’s belongings, the once she had checked in the hospital with. Her lesso was slung over his shoulders. He was carrying her purse like a woman would, looped on his shoulder. He had a carryon with her clothes. His wife was walking beside him. I wanted to catch up and say bye but when I neared I realized he was crying. Not weeping, but crying. A ghastly wounded cry. A cry filled with so much pain I could almost feel it in my bones. A cry of helplessness. Now this was the first time I was seeing him cry, and you can imagine how taken aback I was. You can imagine how that cry filled me with dread. He walked like he was staggering, his shoulders convulsed as the tears jerked through him. He cried without reservation, like you would cry in private. And when he reached his car, he slumped on the trunk with his elbows and with his head in his hands he just cried harder. His wife rubbed his back soothingly. At that point I almost came close to understanding the pain of losing a mother. Almost.
Uncle Dan cried for a good two minutes or so. I leaned on his car and pretended I wasn’t watching, but how could I not; the sickening beauty of disaster is engagingly alluring. When he was done, he straightened up and upon seeing me offered a totally fractured smile – a phony smile, a smile of someone who had forgotten what a smile meant – and put his mom’s purse and stuff in the back seat. “This is the worst part,” he told me shakily as he wiped tears off with the back of his sleeves, “This is the worst part, handling mom’s things like this.”
We hugged silently.