This is my mom, Jane. This picture was taken at Studio One on Moi Avenue. If you were born after 1990 you probably don’t know how sanctified Studio One is, a time when you didn’t call yourself a photographer because you have an Instagram account. This picture was taken when my big sis was off to the UK, and because it was 1989 it just seemed right that we all took a family portrait, something to remember her by in case she met an odiero and decided to settle as a housewife in Yorkshire, engaging in high tea after a hard day tending to her bougainvillea garden.
You can see from this picture that mom struggled with that smile. She always did. And Tamms- named after her- is like that; always struggles to smile to the camera, and when she does it’s often a deceiving smile, offered only as a conciliatory gesture. There is a little of her in Tamms. There is a lot of Tamms in me. And even more of me in her. Which means there is a lot of Jane in me.
This is the only picture I have of her from back in the day, before Coronary Tuberculosis entered her heart and broke ours as a result. The rest of her happy pictures – taken in her healthy days– are back in shags, a place I have successfully avoided since her demise because it’s just not the same. It’s haunted. It’s like someone else’s home. Plus dad got himself a new wife (my nigga!) and as much as we are happy for him, as much as he doesn’t deserve to sit in that big empty house listening to the echo of my mom’s ghost in his dreams, it’s just hard to reconcile myself to this fact. During my pragmatic and rational days I try to see it for what it is; that he is only replacing his wife, not his mother.
Jane was the one with the sense of humour. She was the queen of hyperbole and ridiculous imagery. Even my officious dad, with his forest of humourless books about great men of African renaissance and African literature, would often laugh at her quips and heavily garnished yarns.
There was this time she was in HDU at Mater, one foot literally in the grave. Machines beeped and whirred all around her. Doctors came with their clipboards and grave expressions. When she (half) stared at me, I saw fear and a hint of tears in her eyes. And when she gestured to my sister and whispered her ATM pin number in her ears, I joked, “Oooh, OK, it’s like that now, it’s you guys against me now?” She mumbled with a creased smile, “It’s four digits, she can memorise it better.” (I was never good at math in school).
At that point I knew she wasn’t going to make it through the night; this was not in doubt when we left the hospital at 1am. Sure enough when my sister and I walked back into the HDU unit the next morning her bed was empty. My sister wobbled and held onto the bedpost to steady herself. (Girls!). I felt my hands immediately go cold, like I had accidentally touched my area MP.
Then this nurse walks over with a smile and says, “Madhe improved in the night and was transferred to the General Ward.” Here is the thing – do you know how sometimes you go back to where you thought you had parked your car but you don’t find it and get all panicky, very sure that kina Chege have finally come for it, only to realise that you had parked it elsewhere and when you finally see it, you want to hug it and tell it, “don’t you ever do that to me again Linda?” This was the feeling I had; I actually hugged that poor nurse.
Precisely today two years ago, at the time of posting this, she was in the hospital bed, hiccupping. It was a Sunday. Her blood pressure was dropping faster than that cartoon figure in the opening scene of Mad Men. My grandmother, sitting near her deathbed, held her hand, but knew that this was it. She had buried many sons and daughters and grandchildren and friends, death was beyond sneaking up on her. She says mum gasped at the end. My other aunt who was there says she turned her head away, as if embarrassed at having to go. Another relative said she just stopped breathing. I wonder what really happened: What was the last thing she thought about when she felt death drawing the curtains on her heart? Was she fearful? Did she silently recite a verse? Did she wonder where the hell we were? Did she feel lonely? I wonder. I always wonder.
After two years the grass is slowly growing in the footprints that her departure left behind. Exactly a few days from now, two years ago, I was standing at Aga Khan Hospital Kisumu, staring at Jane lying on the cold slab of the morgue drawers, a vein running down the left side of her face and my big sister touching her cold forehead and literally breaking down like a sand statue hit by a wave.
If your mother is alive you don’t know just how lucky you are. Go see her on Mother’s Day and tell her you appreciate her. Yes, even if you’re gangsta. Especially if you are gangsta. You have the time now, but you don’t have it forever. So go ahead and tell her. It will burn her heart with love.
So what if you mom lives far away – in Kisumu, Mombasa or Nairobi – hop into a JamboJet with the rest of yuppies taking pictures of the plane’s wings with their tabs (by the way, JamboJet have a new Mother’s Day promotion: Sh1, 850 one-way!) and go see mom. You can carry the world to her, but the only luggage that will make the biggest impression is your hug.
Go because you just won’t believe how little time you have with your mother. In fact, it will shock you just how little
time we all have together.
Happy Second Anniversary, Jane. The candle still burns.