To her, he is just a dream. A vivid imagination that fades away faster than you can say, Indiana Jones. She cannot get into the intricacies of what he looked like, let alone how he talked, walked, or dressed. She doesn’t know whether he was funny or not, what turned him sour, what made him laugh, what he cared for, or what he wanted in life. Was he delighted when she was born? He must have been. Was he present then? Did he think about her from time to time, like how dads are supposed to think about their children? What’s worse is she still doesn’t know whether he loved her in the first place.
At least she remembers his name, Muriuki. But her memory fails her when she tries to put a face to it. And when she does, everything is fuzzy. It is not her first time either; she has tried this before. She always closes her eyes, trying to relive the last day she saw him like how married people relive their wedding day—in their heads. But she is envious of the married folks. For them, it is a bit different and less demanding. They have the details, non-fading details.
When they close their eyes, they can see their significant other groomed to perfection and feel the love and elation crawling on everybody’s skin. The smell of the wedding flowers is still fresh in their memory. They can recite their vows word for word and feel the passion of their first kiss. Hell, they can even see their invited and non invited exes. They relive their wedding day at will. But for her, all she can see when she closes her eyes is a little girl walking, holding hands with her father’s silhouette.
The last day she saw him was also her first. The sole reason she feels disheartened every time she thinks about him. She was a little girl in primary school. It wasn’t eventful either—nothing like a wedding where you sit in anticipation for months, weeks, and days prior. Although the day’s events are hazy, she recalls accompanying her mother to town, as was routine. Provided she got her usual incentives, mainly ice cream, not a word of complaint would come out of her even if they walked for miles. However, on that particular day, things would be different. She remembers a reasonably tall strange man, who seemed curious about her existence, joining them.
“…and by the way, this is your dad.” *Kate vaguely recalls her mom announcing indelicately. There was no delight in her voice.
At such a young age, such a statement is too confusing. It sticks with you. Kate already knew she didn’t have a father. Whenever her classmates bragged about what their dads’ bought them or brought home, she got this uneasy feeling since she had no story of her own. Kate could only listen and imagine what it was like to have a dad, hoping that her dad would show up one day. However, her imagination was nowhere close to reality.
Her mom had to run errands that day, so she left her with the strange man who took her out for lunch, bought her ice cream, and gave her some money when they were parting ways upon her mother’s return.
“I never saw him again,” she muttered, sitting across the table, “the next time I heard about him was a few months later. My mom came home one day and mentioned she had attended a funeral service.”
The strange man’s funeral service. Her father. And even then, she remembers indistinctly that her mother was not in the spirit of touching on the topic.
“Back then, I felt nothing; the news carried no weight since I barely knew him. To me, he was just another stranger. Harking back, with all that I have learned about my family, I feel like he knew his time was up. Maybe I tend to overthink sometimes or create a narrative to justify my thoughts and fear of abandonment, but something tells me he knew. I think he wanted to be in my life, or rather make amends during his last moments. That’s something I want to believe.”
Her mother was not easy to deal with either. She was a difficult woman, and often Kate thinks that she might have been the reason he was not in the picture. It is not a pleasant thought but knowing her mom, that was a possibility.
“The same thing played out with my brother’s dad. She once told me he had proposed to her, but it didn’t work in the end. This was years before I came into the picture, so obviously, I didn’t know him either. ”
“Do you hold it against her?” I asked as she gently laid her coffee mug on the table.
“Oh, not at all.” She wore a faint smile on her lips, which then slowly faded away. “ I think she was just unlucky with men. Plus, marriage can be challenging. Nonetheless, she never gave up on my brother and me.”
Despite her intentions being a bit questionable sometimes, she was more than Kate and her older brother *Bryson could ever wish for. She worked her fingers to the bone for them to have a comfortable life. Bringing up two kids as a single mom isn’t child’s play, but she managed. Although Bryson grew up at their grandma’s for the most part, he was still part of the family. They would visit him during holidays and weekends sometimes. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement for Kate, considering how fond of her brother she was. However, this was her mom’s decision, meaning she had to get accustomed to the arrangement one way or another.
Her brother was one of those stubborn, cheeky fellows who never take life seriously. Most of the time, he was either teaching her something like riding a bike, a sport she abandoned after falling way too many times and getting laughed at, or playing one of his filthy tricks on her, which involved him adding excess pepper to her food. Despite all his mischievous deeds, they got along pretty well.
Things took a turn in 2012. At the time, she had just joined high school while her brother worked menial jobs, having finished high school with no prospect of going to college. Her mother got ill. She paid dozens of visits to the hospital that year and was always on medication. Towards the end of 2012, Kate and her mom moved to Nyeri County, closer to the family. She would get admitted to Karatina General Hospital in January of 2013 and later in mid-March. She got discharged in April, and even then, she was bedridden.
“It takes a toll on you seeing your only parent become ill to the extent where they can neither work nor provide for the family. She was in constant pain, and her body was gradually giving up the fight. At 15 years old, you start imagining a life without your mom, and you are just heartbroken. There is nothing you can do but pray and hope she recovers,” She paused, leaned forward, and took a sip of the coffee before carefully resting it back on the table. I watched in silence. She stared at the coffee, and for a second, I thought she saw something in it. Averting her empty gaze towards me, she sighed and added, “Eventually, her body gave up the fight.”
Silence took over. My eyes were glued at her, doubting my intent to say something. I murmured a soft I’m sorry and then held back. At that moment, I realized a little silence was comforting. Undeniably, it offered better consolation than anything I was going to say.
18th of April, 2013. That’s the date that her mom passed away. Although she was devastated, a tiny part of her was relieved that her mom was out of pain and misery. However, the loss was incomprehensible. She recalls shutting down for weeks after the burial. She could not eat, drink, or talk to any of her family members who were hellbent on checking on her every goddamn minute. She couldn’t put into words how she felt, and she didn’t know how to explain that to anybody. She didn’t want to be around people, her family inclusive. She preferred silence. It was the only thing that could soothe her thoughts, which at the time were unpredictable and a little hard to tame.
Many a time, she thought she wouldn’t make it without her mom. She was her rock and always offered a shoulder to cry on when things got tough. Even though she had a brother who shared her pain, she felt alone and addled. She wished her mother was there to tell her that everything would be okay like she used to. To give her those little hugs that always gave her a sense of safety and belonging—to laugh at her silly jokes—to yell at her whenever her teenage hormones drove her to defiance— to tell her that everything in the world is there for the taking. That all she had to do was put her mind to it and pray. And so this is what she turned to, prayers. Like her mother taught her.
“I didn’t want to forget about her; I just wanted it to hurt less, ” she said, “I couldn’t study or concentrate in class. Gradually, I grew distant from my family, friends, and teachers. I felt lost and detached from reality. The only thing that could save me was prayers. So, I’d constantly ask God to help me make it through that year. Clearly, He had other plans.”
It was after six months and nineteen days that life put her through the mill. Again. She had been pulled from class by a teacher who claimed she had a visitor. It turned out to be her aunt, who had taken her in after her mother’s demise. Without much of an explanation, she had offered to take her home. Having called home a week prior, citing the need for a medical check-up due to severe migraines, Kate thought her aunt was there to take her to the hospital.
Their ride home was bland, except for her aunt’s unusual behavior. She was talking continually, jumping from one story to the next and feeling the need to avoid silence. When she wasn’t talking, she sat with an ominous stillness. She told Kate something about her mom’s friend who was looking forward to meeting her in December, sprang to how Meningitis can kill within the first 72 hours, and then segued to a story about a cousin who had succumbed to the disease a few years back.
Meningitis? Why on earth would I want to talk about that? Doesn’t she want to know how I’m holding up? Kate thought. Her oddity was giving the game away, and Kate was starting to suspect maybe something was up. However, rather than pry on the strangeness of everything that was unfolding, she decided to focus on how she would spend her two days’ leave. Little did she know the Meningitis story was just a preamble to what came after.
Only after getting home did she fully realize that something eerie had happened. A few of her relatives were home, but none had said a word to her. Yet, she could see it in their eyes; fear and pity. It’s the same eyes that had met her six months ago. She didn’t need to nudge anyone into telling her anything because she knew just the right person who would spill the beans without hesitation.
“Where is Bryson?” She asked as her aunt appeared from the kitchen, a cup of tea in hand.
Her aunt had offered to make her tea as soon as they got home. Usually, it was the other way round—Kate in the kitchen.
“Uhmm…Bryson…,” she paused. Unsure of what to say, she placed the tea on the table and sat next to her. A few relatives were already seated in the living room, talking. “I don’t know how to say this, but Bryson was at the hospital. He was sick. Meningitis. It happened so fast…”
“Nobody told me he was sick,” Kate cut in, “I want to see him before going back to school.”
She gave her a look that made her heartbeat quicken.
“That’s the thing,” her eyes damp, she went on, sotto voce, “He passed away last night.”
“No,” Kate whispered, trying to find her voice.
Her aunt just nodded, her eyes filled with tears. She stretched a trembling hand in an attempt to hold Kate’s but ended up resting it on her lap.
“No,” Kate whispered again as her aunt finally burst into tears.
The news came as a shock to her. For a moment, she didn’t know what was happening. She just sat there soaking it all in, her body still, hands between her legs, and her fists clenched. Embracing her, her aunt said something to her, but she was dazed and could hear none of it. She couldn’t make sense of anything at that moment. Free from the embrace, at last, all she could offer to her aunt in return was a blank stare as her tears build up.
She could feel her heartbeat quicken, her chest tighten, shortness of breath, and for a moment, she thought and wished she was dying too. Her legs were weak, and her attempt to leave the room met an unresponsive body. She swayed back, compelling her aunt to reach over and help her up.
“Don’t touch me!” she yelled, shoving her aunt away as she took off to her bedroom and locked herself in.
She was blubbering, yelling, cursing, calling people names, banging the door, and blaming everyone for her brother’s death. She didn’t fancy being touched or spoken to at the time. Pleas to unlock her bedroom door sparked more yelling and banging. They thought she was going to harm herself, and frankly, so did she.
Her question was simple, why her? Why would God put her through such pain again if at all He cared? She had barely moved on from her mother’s death, and now, here she was, a wreck anew. Why snatch away the only thing she had left? To her, Bryson was the only thing that reminded her of her family. She would spend her days after quiet, trying to piece together what had happened. The reality was that she was alone. No dad, no mom, no sibling, and no prospect of that changing ever.
This time around, she had someone who helped her through grief. Her mom’s friend flew back into the country a month later. She was the first person who sat her down and told her this wasn’t the end, that she had to fight, no matter what. And she swore to be there for Kate as any mother would to her child.
She took Kate in like her own daughter, helped her move on, paid her school fees, and got her to join college, where she is now pursuing a course in Nutrition and Dietetics.
“She has done so much for me; I literally owe her my life.”
There are days her mind drifts away, like on her birthday three months ago. She was turning 23, just like her brother had before he passed away. On such days she can’t help but feel like the world is closing in on her, a feeling she resents. It used to trigger her meltdowns, but she has learned to live with it. It’s the same feeling that drives her into her memory haven. Her special place. And unlike the memories of her dad, these won’t fade away. They are as fresh as a daisy. When she closes her eyes, she can see a little girl and her mom walking hand in hand as they made their usual trips to The Village Market on Fridays, or her brother’s face light up after a successful pepper prank. On other days when her memory acts up, she has a box of old photos that she visits. A safe she treasures with all her heart. The only existing proof that she once had a happy family.
“What would you like to say to someone out there like you?” I asked.
“That pain and loss are part of life, and we have no way to avoid them. The best way to make it through is by adopting healthy ways to deal with pain and grief. No matter the misfortunes, something good comes out of life eventually if you keep pushing.”
“What about those on the other side of the spectrum?” I enquired.
She went silent for a while and then made a face like she remembered something.
“I may sound impolite, but most people don’t know the value of something until they lose it.”
I scribbled something on my notebook.
“Don’t quote me on that,” She said, laughing, “It sounds insensitive, especially when the subject is death and parents.”
“I won’t.” I lied.
She went on, “If your parents are alive, treasure them. Call them, talk to them, take them out for lunch, do something nice for them, or hang out with them. Make memories. There will come a time when memories of you and them in the same room will put a smile on your face. And you will hang on to that memory for the rest of your life.”
As narrated to Mwangi P. Baaru by Kate
*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
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