“Baaaaarrrrruuuuu,” she called out when she saw me at the gate.
She said it with so much drag like she always did, saying every syllable like her life depended on it.
At this point, I was already used to it. I kinda like it, actually. Somewhat unique. Unlike what people say when they read out my name. Low-key that always gets on my last nerve. If you have a name like mine, whose pronunciation differs from how it is written, you know what I’m talking about.
That feeling inside you when those middle-aged female receptionists in public hospitals, who always look like they are about to give you an attitude, asks for your name. You gladly say it out loud, twice. She doesn’t get it. So she stares at you as you say it the third time. Still nothing. She has no clue which letter comes first, and so she gives you a squinting face and goes, eh? This time around, you mumble stuff under your breath and then spell the whole thing out. But you can’t blame her. It’s her first time coming across the name. She has no idea what it means, you have no idea what it means, and the last time you asked your mother what it meant, she probably said something like, ask your grandma next time you see her, just like mine did.
She looked happy. A big smile on her face. I found her seated on a wooden chair right outside the main house. She had a small bowl of maize grains in her hands. And was occasionally throwing a handful on the ground and watching the chicken battle, each trying to feed.
It’s a fun game.
You always get to see the greedy bastards who will focus on chasing others away, the nonchaotic bunch, and the weaklings who only feed on grains scattered far away. You always feel for the weak ones. They probably think the world is a cruel place. But such is life.
“I thought you forgot about me,” she said smiling.
I leaned forward to hug her. She was still seated. Cheek-to-cheek greetings followed this. That was inevitable. It’s a family thing.
And it’s always One, two. That’s it. If you take it further, another round – let’s say three and four – you’re gonna get looks with ‘we don’t do that over here’ written all over them. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but you get the point. That’s just extending your stay in one’s personal space. It’s like those small small rules that need not be addressed. Kila mtu anajua.
“I always think about you,” I said without hesitation. She gave me a doubting look making me feel like I was lying.
“See, I even came to check on my wife.”
She laughed. It was a peal of genuine laughter but not the kind that I had been used to over the years. She seemed happy and exhausted simultaneously, and from her laughter alone, I could tell things were changing. She was a happy woman, and she had always been. And even after going through several illnesses, she was still strong and full of life.
“What are you planning to do with your hair?”
“huh?” I asked as I walked into the house.
I came out a few seconds later carrying a wooden chair that was similar to hers. Trying to avoid facing the sun, I placed it facing hers, removed my jacket and sat. She watched me in silence.
“Your hair. Are there no barbers at the university?” She asked and laughed again.
She always teased me about my hair. Every time I came to see her with my hair long and unkempt, which by the way, was all the time, she would joke about how much it made me look like my mom or one of my aunts. We would then laugh it off and talk about other stuff. Like my experience in Uni, whether I liked it there, why I missed the last family get-together, and how I rarely visit her as often as she’d have opted. At this point, I’d feel guilty. So much guilt that I’d lie and promise her I’d be coming to say hi regularly. I call it a lie because I’d only show up again during the holidays. I hated myself for this.
There is something about being young, eighteen or nineteen, probably even twenty-something, that convinces you that all you want is to be away from your family. You know, go live life throwing YOLO signs everywhere like you’re in a gang. Move away from everything and everyone in your life. Make new friends, create new memories, have new experiences, meet new people, take risks, get drunk, medicate, get arrested…Technically, I never got to the ‘getting arrested’ phase, but comrades know what I am talking about.
Some people live it for a day and snap out of it, others weeks, months, years, while some live it till their last breath. This is the stage teens are dubbed as unruly, rebellious, wild, crazy. Mine didn’t even last long. It’s like it wasn’t even there. And now that I think about it, I know she wished I didn’t grow up, at least not that fast. I would have remained a kid. All the little guy wanted was to spend time with his grandma, which meant visiting her every day.
I consider myself lucky. Lucky enough to have been granted two maternal grandmothers. Two strong women who I have grown to love dearly. I was named after their husband, Baaru. An honourable man from what I have gathered from both grandmas, my aunts, uncles from both sides and my mum. She always has a lot to say about him.
Whenever she tells stories about her childhood, something she is very fond of, her eyes always light up upon mentioning his name. I always wonder what he was like. What it would have been like to have him around as we grew up.
You see, death is such a cruel thing. A dark cloud of sorrow that strikes with neither mercy nor warning. A hard time for the family and friends – and a chance to finally find peace and eternal rest for the deceased. Two things that are almost impossible to find in this roller-coaster of emotions we call life. A dark mist that roams the streets day and night with no rest. Silence is its speciality. Showing up outside our doors uninvited. Choosing who to take away from us and leading them into a dark abyss where they will never be heard from again. Leaving us empty.
And like it did years ago, the dark cloud was about to be back in our lives again.
We had a great conversation with grandma on that day. Occasional banters and laughter. Plenty of laughter. A few serious exchanges of what I was planning to do after school and how the world is different now compared to when she was growing up. But that’s a good thing. She said. With education, you can be a whole bunch of stuff. All this you see around wasn’t there when we were going up. You guys are lucky.
According to her, things were pretty different back then. Going to school was nothing like the priority it is now. Hell, even that KCPE thing we do wasn’t there. Strange times, I’d think every time she talked about how life was when she was growing up. And the part where the mzungu guy was still controlling us still doesn’t sit right with me.
But I suppose that’s what you did when you are 81 years old; Live in strange times. In a strange world, doing things that sound strange to us. And 81 years later, what I’m pursuing in college sounds so strange to her that she said it gave her a headache trying to pronounce the word that one time she asked what I do in Uni.
Statistics. I had said
What are those now?
It’s Maths. I do maths.
So you can work in a bank like Mama Chester?
I loved her. Growing up, I was always looking forward to visiting her. Both grandmas were close neighbours, and running to and from her place was my favourite sport back then. We would later move, and I’d be longing for the holidays so I can visit them.
But here is the thing with grandmas, they feed you like crazy. One can literally feed you to death. So having two it’s just a nightmare. You empty a plate full of mukimo from one house, and another one full of ngwaci is waiting for you in the next house. And you know very well that saying you’re full is not something they even listen to. So you have to empty both somehow. You get so full you can barely breathe. And now you’re out here walking around with a kitambi like today’s sponsors.
And some things never change because despite being ill, she seemed more concerned if I had had something to eat.
“I’m okay. Just had lunch at grandmas.”
“Soo… tea or fruits,”
“I think fruits will do.” I pretty much knew there was no getting off the hook on this one.
“Check the house, ” she said and called her caretaker to fetch them for me, but I stepped in and offered to do it.
“I can barely move around nowadays. I can’t even visit the market like I used to.” She said. I could sense the frustration in her voice.
I fetched the fruits, two huge mangoes, washed them, placed them on the tray – peeled and sliced – and headed outside. It was around 4 pm, and the sun was still out. We were seated outside, a tray of sliced mangoes placed on a wooden stool between us. She was facing the sun, and I could watch her face turn bright from the sunlight and then dark as the clouds passed by and back to bright again. It was silent apart from the occasion shouting from the passers-by on a nearby dirt road. We got carried away by the conversation, and an hour and a half later, I realized it was getting late, and I had to leave. I was getting back to Nairobi. Since my finals were in a couple of weeks, I had decided to get back early.
“And make sure you do something about the hair,” she said as she watched me put the jacket on, ready to leave.
I just laughed.
She mentioned something about the hair making me look thinner and that I looked like a cartoon head with legs. She was laughing as I waved her goodbye and closed the gate behind me.
I should have known that was the last time I was going to see her.
I would get a call a few weeks later from my mom. The second week of my final exams. It was a day after she had gone in for surgery. I could tell all was not well from her voice even before she could deliver the news. Grandma had passed away at the hospital. I felt sick to my stomach. Something about receiving such news that makes you want to sit for a moment and take it all in. And even when mom asked if I was going to be okay, I could barely speak. I mumbled something back to her, hung up, and just sat staring into the void, my vision slowly getting blurry and my eyes getting teary.
Why her? was the first thing that came to mind. I had seen her struggle with several illnesses, but she always came home at the end of the day. And days would go by, and we would visit her, and she would be the happiest she has ever been. No one in the family was prepared for this. Was all this God’s plan? Probably. But why bless us with such a soul, wait till our lives are tangled with hers and then snatch her away from us. Was she in a happy place now? Was she at peace? She got to be. I mean, that’s the whole point when you lived your life the way she did. Kind, loving and unproblematic. Always happy to see us, her grandchildren. Always feeding us. And always wishing us the best that life has to offer.
There are those things you go through and wish it was all a dream, and this was one of them. I hated how I felt, and within minutes of sitting down, I watched my walls collapse. Everything came crashing down, and there I was, exposed and in pain. The kind of pain whose intensity increases every second as the reality of the loss sets in. I wanted to be somewhere so bad, somewhere with no pain. And my mind took me back to the last time I saw her. She was laughing. She was happy.
And at that very moment, all I wanted was to go back in time.
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