The living, in their constant curiosity, often wonder what death feels like. Well, the deep sleep of general anaesthesia is what death must feel like. It’s bottomless. It’s nothingness. You are in there but you aren’t. You don’t know if you are human or you are a duck. You could even be a boat. You don’t know. You don’t feel. You don’t have. You don’t count. You are matter without a core, or crux. You don’t have any surface area to speak of. You are floating but you could also be sinking. You are legless. You don’t dream. You don’t have breath. Time is atmospheric. Your compass is broken. You could be folded in a box and transported to Siberia and you wouldn’t know it. You could have all your organs harvested – your heart in an ice cooler, your liver tossed in the bin because it’s no good after all the tequila you drank – and you wouldn’t know. You could be buried and a dirge sung in your honour after your phony friends have come to say the things, they should have told you while you breathed. You could be hanged from a tree, like a fish on a line. You are the white sheet on blank paper. You are air. You are soil.
General anaesthesia is darkness without the dark.
Little wonder then that Ann doesn’t remember the surgery. But she remembers that before the general anaesthesia she had felt pain as the surgeon made the first incision on her stomach and she had winced and said out loud that she could feel the pain. The surgeon – scalpel in one gloved hand – had asked her to try and lift one leg, which she did, and she could see that ‘oh shit’ look in the eyes of the whole medical team gathered around her. Clearly the epidural hadn’t worked on her. So general anaesthesia it was.
She woke up slowly, in small disoriented stages, in and out of consciousness. There was a bare ceiling, a big light overhead. Her head was foggy like someone had stuffed cotton wool in there. She had lost all sense of time. She was 39 years old, but she wasn’t aware of it. Or that it had been her birthday the day before; May 13, a Friday. It was sabbath, the day God rested, depending on how you interpret the Bible and your faith. She didn’t know all these yet; that she was a mother of two grown boys and a wife to a loving husband. She hadn’t fully come to herself and her realities; was her father alive? What room was this? What was her shoe size? Was this a dream? She heard a drone of voices, a distant hubbub of humans. But they were far away in another century, another time when men rode off the back of donkeys and mules and took a dump in bushes. Voices. The room was strange, nebulous. It had no windows or curtains. She was anxious and scared.
“In this state of fogginess,” she recalls, “I can hear someone say, from very very far, ‘She’s waking up….who will tell her?’” The voices, she finally realises, are coming from the adjacent room with even brighter light. She now recalls fragments of information; that she is in theater, that before surgery her engagement ring had refused to come off because of her weight gain. She remembers the doctor asking her to lift her leg.
Suddenly the surgeon was standing over her bed. He still had his green scrubs on. He was dark and average height with perfect eyebrows that he didn’t deserve and most likely didn’t appreciate enough; women deserve such eyebrows, not men. A kind man. He held her right hand in both his hands; gently, comfortingly, warm hands that cut and healed human bodies with skill and medicine.
“We tried everything,” he said gravely, “But your baby didn’t make it. I’m sorry. She was exhausted upon delivery and had difficulty breathing. We tried everything. I’m sorry.”
He kept repeating these words in a very kind soothing voice. “At first I didn’t know what he was saying, or I didn’t want to know what he was saying. I felt like he wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to someone else. But he kept telling me this gently while looking into my eyes, holding my right hand. He was the gentlest doctor I have encountered; I will admit; very kind, very warm and sensitive. When I finally understood what this man was telling me, that my newborn daughter was dead, I opened my mouth to let out a scream but nothing came out of my very mouth. My mouth was parched. I couldn’t scream, it was soundless. I tried to scream…my baby was dead…I couldn’t scream..”
She starts crying. I can hear her weep over the phone – and for most of the interview, she would weep softly.
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m seated in my big sister’s backyard under an avocado tree she is proud of because now it’s finally bearing fruit. My sister meanwhile is having a dry cider inside the house, her feet up on her coffee table. Spilling out of the back door is the sound of her TV playing Roga Roga with the blackest man in Africa. I’m barefoot. A glass of whisky sits at my feet. I’m now thinking, I should have done this interview earlier in the week.
“I’m sorry to drag you back,” I say, “We can take a break and talk later?”
“No, it’s fine,” she sniffs.
She recalls the surgeon saying, “We tried everything we could, we really did. But God made his decision…I’m sorry.” She was struggling to breath now. Her baby couldn’t be dead. No way. “I want to see her,” she urged the doctor. “Give me my baby,” she said. So they brought her and placed her against the crook of her right hand because her left hand had a drip and things in it.
Her baby was naked, she recalls. “She was the biggest baby I ever had. She had the most amazing skin. I’m light chocolate with milk, my husband is very dark. Her skin was amazing. I looked at her face; she had a nice round face like mine. She felt very delicate in my arm. Very sweet baby. I long for her even today. I’m 47 years old but I also tell God, if you could give me another baby, just one more baby like her I’d be very happy.”
As she looked at her dead baby in her arms, the surgeon and the rest of the medical team stood away respectfully, pretending not to watch her. The room was still, filled with the indescribable pain of a baby that just died at birth. She wept bitterly. The surgeon and the team then slipped out, to give her a moment. She cradled her and wept until no tears were left in her, just anguish.
“I felt like I had sinned, that’s why I was being punished. That perhaps I shouldn’t have tried getting a baby nine years after my last born, that I didn’t know what I was doing and I paid for it by losing her,” she tells me. “Mostly I felt like I had failed my baby. I blamed myself for choosing to give birth in Kenyatta National Hospital.” At the start of the pregnancy she was seeing a private gynae and she was to deliver in a private hospital but a friend had told her not to waste money with private hospitals that KNH had competent doctors so she opted for KNH. “I thought that had I continued with my gynae and gone to deliver in a private hospital my baby would be alive.”
She doesn’t know how long she held her dead baby but at some point, a nurse started demanding to have the baby back. “She was very insensitive. She kept saying, ‘mama nipe mtoto.’ I was furious, I asked her what she was going to do with my dead baby? What was so urgent? She said she needed to record certain things, paperwork. I asked her, ‘Huyu mtoto ni kalamu? Ni karatasi? Ni meza? She was allowed time.”
She wondered how she would go back home without a baby? Who went back home empty handed without a baby after nine months? “What would I tell my mom, who was alive then, had happened to the baby? What would I tell people when I ran into them and they asked, ‘how’s the baby?” What would I tell my husband?”
Earlier, as she was wheeled into the theatre, the baby in distress, her husband had been sent home just before the surgery. She borrowed a phone from a nurse and called him. When he picked she said, “Sweetheart, it’s me Ann. I borrowed a phone.” He sounded upbeat, excited to hear from her, glad she was out of theatre. She didn’t know how to break the news so she just said, ‘baby didn’t make it.’”
“What did he say?” I gulp.
“Nothing,” she says, “I heard the phone drop to the floor. I hung up.”
One time, before they had told their sons she was pregnant her youngest son had come out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist and told her, “Mom, something strange happened while I was showering. A thought came to me that you are pregnant with a baby girl, my sister. If we had a sister, what would we name her?” They all couldn’t agree on the names. Her husband was going for Abigael. Her first born wanted her to be called Lyena. Her and her second born wanted Zanita as a name.
Now it didn’t matter. Now she was dead. She would never come home. They would never be a family of five. The boys would never have a sister. They would never have a daughter.
Moments later, she heard her husband cry before she saw him. He was crying uncontrollably in the next room where the body of their daughter lay. Crying like she never heard him cry before. When he eventually came to the recovery room where she lay, he looked like he had walked through a storm, he looked damaged. She could tell he was trying to be strong for her, for them, but the moment he hugged her in bed, he broke down and wept in her arms. She rubbed his back as they wept. She told him she was sorry she let their baby down, he said she didn’t, that it was God’s will. He later said that he was convinced that somehow their daughter had served her purpose, that whatever God wanted her to do on earth has been done. He told her that the little grace He gave us was that their daughter didn’t die on her birthday. “My husband is the most amazing man,” she tells me, “he is a deep believer, deeply entrenched in faith. Wait, let me say hello to someone…”
She’s at a funeral in her shags. I hear her speak to someone, her uncle. I take a large sip of my drink, my heart is suddenly heavy asf. Then she’s back on the phone again.
She had to stay in the hospital for another day or two. It was a general ward with nine other beds of women who had given birth. “I was the only one who had given birth but didn’t have her baby.” She doesn’t remember not crying. She had a C- section so her pain was excruciating. The kind of sadness she felt in that bed is indescribable – the strange sadness of someone who had just given birth but had no baby to show for it, knowing the baby was lying dead in a cold drawer. “In the next bed was a young girl whose baby was constantly crying so loudly and this girl would just ignore the baby, and at some point she started screaming at her baby to shut up and I just wanted to have a baby who could cry all the time, I wouldn’t mind. I’d rather a baby who cried all the time than a dead baby. I wished I was her.”
One night when she couldn’t sleep and was lying staring at the ceiling, throbbing in physical and psychological pain, one of the new mothers in the maternity room came to her bedside. She was a Muslim girl, a Cushite, very light. “She told me, ‘I don’t understand your pain but I know it because I was here last year when I lost my son at birth. I have only girls and, in my community, having boys is a big thing and you can imagine going back home after losing my son. You can understand how painful that was for me but one year later here I am with another baby, another girl. It’s Allah who gives and takes. He knows why, so give Him a chance.’” She recalls. “Those words later comforted me. This kind young girl would insist on taking me to walk to the loo. She sat with me. I found some strength from her.”
On discharge, the hospital compassionately waived her bill of 50,000.
A few days later, one of her friends brought a lady to see her. She had also lost her baby three months earlier. “I told her that I wish I hadn’t gone to deliver at Kenyatta, but she said, ‘I lost my baby at Nairobi hospital, literally across the road from KNH. It’s not the place – babies can die anywhere – don’t blame the hospital. Question is what do you want to do now?’ I told her I just wanted to bury my daughter.”
The hospital had asked her what she wished to do with the body, if she wished for them to dispose of it. “I was so saddened and angry at that word; dispose. It’s my baby not trash.”
The lady then told her how after she had lost her own baby, she had agreed that the hospital would take care of her baby’s body. Three months later when she had gone back to the hospital and asked to see the grave, the hospital had asked, confused, ‘what grave?’ ‘The grave where my baby is buried!’ They said they don’t bury them, they incinerate them. “That broke my heart anew. It was my biggest regret,” the lady told her, “It opened a new wave of grief. So you are doing a good thing burying yours.”
Her little girl was buried in Langata on a sunny afternoon on the 29th May 2013. The world was oblivious; cars passed along Langata road as usual, planes – the seat belt signs on -descended at Wilson Airport. She has never known such sadness, such heartbreak; it gripped her chest with a large fist. The family wore black, white and red. Relatives came from shags. Friends gathered around the grave. Her sons read their tributes while crying. Her husband couldn’t read his; he had no strength. She gave a lengthy one with a voice that trembled and shimmered and halted. Her swollen breasts pained with milk her baby would never have. When she held a fistful of soil in her hands and let it drop on the coffin, her womb was torn by such excruciating pain she almost fainted. Someone brought a chair by the graveside and she slumbed on it, watching her daughter being covered in soil. A premature farewell.
It’s hard for her to describe going home from the hospital without a baby and a T-section wound. The rotating door of visitors who awkwardly grapple for words of comfort, staring at you like you are a bomb. The blank days upon black days upon black days. The pain, memories, regrets, self-blame, the unabating tears, the thousands of questions to God, your faith shaken off their hinges. The descending depression; whole days in bed, in darkness, curtains drawn. [“I’d use extra fabric to block out all light coming into the room”]. A husband, himself torn, shredded, who tries to set aside his grief to be there for her and not fully knowing how to because his own pain and grief has risen up to his chin and most days he’s drowning himself. Then the suicidal thoughts, lying in bed, thinking of ways to depart, romanticising it because what’s the point of living when your baby isn’t? But the husband, this man she describes over and over as amazing, not letting go of her hand, not letting go of her, of them and somehow, amidst this tragedy urging them to still believe in God, to lean on Him.
Then the fear of having to leave the house and deal with the innocent questions; how’s the baby doing? How old is the baby now? The baby must be sitting now. You have lost so much weight. Then months after she decided that she wouldn’t kill herself when she still had two children who were alive and a loving husband, driving to Langata Cemetry to sit by the graveside alone for hours because she didn’t want her baby to feel alone, abandoned. Because half her heart was also buried there. Because everything in her body drove her to the graveside. Because where else on earth would she rather be when her baby was under that soil, surrounded by strangers? She’d sit there, on the soil and cry, Maasai cows grazing yonder, often raising their heads to look at her at a respectful distance as if aware of her grief. She’d talk to her dead daughter. Tell her she missed her. That she should be having lots of fun in heaven. That she had amazing brothers. That her dad was so sad; oh daddy was so sad you are not here. That cucu missed her. She would not stop crying.
On her first anniversary, she went with her son who was 9 then. They took fresh flowers. He asked why she had to die and if she was in heaven and he cried and cried. For the longest time after she would go sit with her baby until her pastor told her, ‘Your baby’s body is there, but her spirit isn’t there.” Then she stopped. She understands that her baby is everywhere and around her, not at Langata.
You don’t heal from losing a baby. It’s not Malaria. That loss becomes a part of you. You still cry. Every year she wonders how old she would have been. If she would have been bubbly. What kind of friends she would have had. What colour of shoes she would have preferred. What hairstyle she would have had on her hair.
She isn’t the same. She thinks of her constantly. “I think of her more on my birthday and her birthday, a day part. I think of her when I encounter baby girls. I still can’t hold baby girls especially under one year. When I feel or see my CS scar I feel her. When my menses delay and then they appear, I feel her. Sometimes when I think of my mom who died in 2014, she loved me so much. I see her in mirrors. I dream of her. I love her.”
After the phone interview I drank more than I should. Her story bored holes in my heart. That poor poor woman – and women like her. May God rest in peace the little babies and children who went too soon and give strength to the mothers and fathers and families they left behind.
You can still get a copy of one of my books here.