I wake up at 6:45am on Mashujaa Day and reach for my phone. There is a message in our family WhatsApp group. My younger brother Julius had sent a message shortly after midnight. I read it. Then I read it again. I want to quote it word for word in its entirety.
“Biko and June [my small sis] , remember my neighbour who was suffering from cancer, the one that you did some Christmas shopping for last year? She just passed on at 11pm. Her ravaged body lies on her bed now, mouth wide open. The duvets are all folded up. The wind is fluttering the curtains. It’s as if her spirit still lingers before it eventually leaves the window and heads up to the sky lit night. Beyond the moon and stars. To the world yonder. Her KQ bags hang above her bed, never to get to the airport again for work.
“Olly the little boy sleeps despite the wailing. He will wake up to a gone mother. Gone. With the night.”
He sent a picture taken in the dark of the night of the glowing windows of his neighbour’s house. (That’s the pic we have used up there). His caption for that picture read: ‘Death is here. The body lies beneath that window.’
Then he sent some pictures of the car that took the body away in the dead of the night. The body wrapped in sheets like a mummy. Tail lights glowing red in the night. Cancer in a body it can’t ravage anymore.
My big sis writes: “How old is the boy?”
Julius: “5 years old. She has three boys, one doing KCPE next week. She was the sole bread winner.”
My sister replies: “It pains me. Of late I think of death and what would become of my children. I hope the Lord adds me years to see them on their feet as adults.”
I bet she cried after that. My big sister, Melvine, is very compassionate and a bit of a crier. I bet she didn’t even have breakfast after hearing of that lady’s death. Long-faced, she probably sat in her living room, staring at the cartoons on TV with her last born son, Gavin, without actually seeing it. I bet she thought of Olly, 5 years old and now motherless, blowing her nose amidst silent tears. I bet she will think about that woman for days and send Mpesa towards funeral arrangements. A year from now she will still be asking Julius; “Do you see the woman’s kids? Do they go to school? How are they?” She reminds me so much of my mom. Actually, she is my mom now.
I called my bro and said, “Do you have your laptop?” He had left it at work, he said, but he had an old one in the house. “Fire it up,” I told him, “Write for me something about that lady. Can you do it?”
“I can give it a shot”, he said.
I said, “Don’t write it tomorrow, or this afternoon, write it now, right this moment when it’s raw, when you can still picture her lying there, still warm, when you can still see Olly sleeping, when you are feeling defeated with death. Kick the kids out of the bedroom, lock the door and write it. 1500 words.”
An hour later he emailed me something. I loved it. I asked him to spend the night with it, let it simmer and then look at it again the following day, because writing is in the rewrite.
Here it is. This is my last installment of the breast cancer awareness month. Thanks for reading.
By Julius Ougo
October, 19th, 2016. We have managed to get a holiday in the middle of the week. Friday came early, midweek, something we all look forward to in this town. I retire early as I am wont to do every single night. And then life unravels in a very short span. The time: 11 pm.
Somewhere deep in my sleep I see my wife (Anne) leave the room, and then in the same sleepy haze I see her come back and shake me awake. Perhaps my daughter is dreaming for I can hear some wailing. Awake, she informs me that death was around. Of late, it had started looking like he was bound to visit, making it look a matter of when and not if. He had finally made it. And what timing!
I walk to our front balcony. Faintly, I hear the water pump whirring. The first thing I do is look up at the sky. It is a clear October night, the moon is out and the stars are shining brightly. No trace of any clouds.
The front yard lights in the next compound are on. I can see them from my elevated position. I go downstairs to my front yard; I look at my neighbour’s bedroom window, the lights are on. We have been neighbours for 10 years. I have been fixated with this glowing window for the last one year. Normally, standing at my gate, my front balcony is to the left and the window to my right. That is Mama Olly’s home, her bedroom window. She has some nice yellow modern curtains that transfuse the light and cast a spell on the outside when the bedroom lights are on at night. And every single day I have returned from work, for the last one year, I have always stared at that bedroom with its curtains and lights as I open my gates or ring the bell. I have marveled at them, but been very conscious of the desolation behind that window. On some evenings, upon reaching the gate and ringing the gate bell, my daughters have exuberantly burst through the door to the balcony chanting, ‘Daddy!! Daddy!!’ with the small one jabbering incoherent stuff that only she understands. Yet it is joy. The sounds of joy. And my eyes have always darted from my noisy happy balcony to the quiet yellow light window. A window so encased with pain. Emanating a light that seems so bright and yet depicts so much dimness. A window with a story. The story of man. The contrast of the joy on the left and the pain on the right, all in one small space, has always gnawed at my very depths. How joy walks hand in hand with sorrow. How sorrow talks to joy. And most importantly, the brazen truism, that one day roles might shift, in another realm, and the yellow window light might be me and the childish jabbering might be someone else. And so the train of life chugs along. Dropping some at the stations and moving on with others to destinations beyond.
There are evenings I have arrived at my gate, and found that light off and the window dark. In one such instance I worked myself into such a frenzy, I almost flew into a fit. I ran upstairs and looked for Anne, to ask why the lights are off, only to be told, “Kina Olly have gone shags.” Relief can never be described fully, so I will make no attempts at trying to illustrate the feeling that swept through me. In yet another instance, the pit of my stomach tightened when I found the same lights off, only to be informed that she had gone for chemotherapy and was not yet back. Even on the few Saturday evenings when I have come from having a drink, tipsy, I have not in one instance forgotten to pay homage to that window.
There is wailing today, muted but loud enough to pierce the still night. I walk out of my gate with Anne and head to Olly’s gate. The courtyard parking is empty. Everyone is probably out partying, getting the best out of this mini Friday. Emmanuel, the young man, opens the gate. We dart inside the house and make our way hurriedly upstairs to the bedroom.
Mama Olly’s ravaged body lies on her bed. Her mouth wide open in the last motions of gasping for that elusive final breath. The duvets are folded neatly in a corner of the bed. The husband is standing next to the bed, with two older men. They are trying to reach the local Officer Commanding Station (OCS) to report her demise. The ever diligent house-help is slumped on a seat next to the bathroom door. Inconsolable. The deceased sister’s chest is heaving, heavy sobs wracking it. Anne is standing totally still right beside me, she seems to be staring straight through the window into the darkness. For a moment I thought she had gone back downstairs.
I notice the wind from the window flutter the nice yellow curtains (I hear they are called sheers) like her spirit is still lingering, still hovering in the next bedroom, in that final act to kiss her beloved son’s head. Olly, five years old and daughter’s friend, sleeps through the din, ruckus, and wails. Oblivious that death is right here with us, in this room, running away with his mum. The wind flutters the curtain again and in my head, I see Mama Olly’s spirit filter through the window and head up towards the sky lit night. Up and up she goes, beyond the moon and stars, to the world yonder. Looks like she is waving, bidding us bye, wondering why we are so sad and yet God has stepped in. Is it that she is happy? Olly remains deeply asleep. He will wake up to a gone mother. Gone with the night.
As the husband and the gentlemen leave to go to the police station to report the death, seems they have not been able to reach the OCS on phone, we also prepare to leave. I throw one last glance at the room. I notice her cute KQ bags which will never again make that trip to work at the airport, for death has visited and lowered the final curtain.
And so we trudge back to our compound, to try and continue sleeping. Sleep eludes me. I walk back to the balcony and stare again at the stars in the sky. Walk back downstairs unconsciously to the front yard. I throw my eyes up to my neighbour’s window, the light filtering out through the yellow curtains, in a final gesture. I take a photo of this moment, which in a short while will be gone forever, and freeze it in time. I know I will now be met by a dark window whenever I come back from work. I stare hard at that window. Mama Olly’s body is behind that window.
These last three weeks have been intense. She has been missing from the backyard where often we used to meet her basking in the sun, in her wheel chair, very jolly and chatty and confident. Lately her distinct voice on phone at her backyard has also been replaced by the sight of laundry hang there to dry. Her calls to my wife dwindled and eventually reduced to nothing. Her mother, Olly’s grandma, has become a constant here now, always shuttling between Western province and Nairobi. We used to bump into her occasionally at the 7 am Sunday mass, a woman so resolute and steadfast amidst the storm raging in her life. And she would always say hello. The husband, and I took notes about him, has shown no signs of betraying the very tumultuous time he is going through, nursing a sick wife, staying in India with her for several months, coming back and seeing the wife improve, only for the situation to turn around and hurtle downhill. He has maintained the smile on his face, always calling me ‘jirani’ every time we met. What strength in the face of such intense adversity.
But death seemed to have run out of patience. And today he came. It’s almost 1.00 am. I switch off my water pump, as if to seek some final moment of peace for my neighbour in her transition. I wonder whether she heard the distant humming of the water pump as she drifted off to Elysium.
Cancer stalks the land, claiming lives, silently and stealthily. It has just paid us another visit. In its wake it has left pain and despondency, brutally flung three young boys to a motherless life. Of the two, of Olly brothers in boarding school, one is due to sit his KCPE exams in a week’s time. Recalibrated a man’s life to not only be a father, but to become a caring mother as well. It has reached for their hearts, wrung them dry and fled. Mama Olly has fought for these boys. Fought to stay with them, tooth and nail for the last one year. I remember her leaving for India in December 2015 for treatment. The journey of hope. So that the boys should never have another Christmas without her again. Instead she came back after several months in a wheelchair, not able to walk. She underwent chemotherapy, and she fought. But the last month has seen the disease rise above her effort, infiltrate her fighting spirit, subdue her and drag her slowly but surely to the abyss.
A lot of vehicles have now arrived, and a few older and wiser women are here too. They transfer her lifeless body into a vehicle and leave. Probably to the morgue. It’s around 1:30 am. I watch quietly from the window of my house, in disbelief. It’s the second hour of Mashujaa day. And I pay homage to the true shujaa, the unspoken shujaa, decorated by her family, a neighbour who has fought the good fight and fallen in the arena. I look again at the skies, and strangely enough, there are clouds that are covering the stars while the moon peeps at me behind one, perhaps acting as sentry to the big gates of heaven. And I imagine that those big cloudy gates of heaven have now closed. After allowing Mama Olly safe passage to her final destination.
Love is stronger than death, even though it cannot stop death from happening. And no matter how hard death tries, it cannot and will never be able to separate people from love. It will not be able to take away Olly and his brothers’ memories either. In the end, love emerges stronger than death. And therefore death is conquered. Those we love don’t go away, they walk besides us every single day, unseen, unheard, but always near.
Dedicated to all those walking the cancer walk and fighting the cancer scourge.