The beginning of the past

I never really got to know my mother. She died when I was four, in 1992. Over the years, by patching up disparate stories from my father and other relatives together with my own hazy recollections of the event, I have come to reconstruct how it happened, and to appreciate why it shattered my father the way it did.

She was expecting twins, my mother. When she went into labour, just three days after my fourth birthday, and more than a month before she was due, my father hurried her to Russia, the biggest hospital in Kisumu. It had another name, but everyone called it Russia because the Russians had built it to humour Jaramogi Odinga, who would die two years later.

I was in the living room with mum when it all started. I had just come home from the nursery school run by nuns inside the church compound. Dependably, I had lost both my little bag and new book in the playground again. She was reminding me to deposit my lunchbox in the kitchen when she stopped suddenly, shrieked, reached for her lower abdomen, and fell to the floor.

A neighbour sent for my father, who was then at work. As he carried her to the back of the car, an old Volkswagen Beetle, I held onto the hem of her oversized dress and refused to let go, and so got dragged in behind her. Dad was too panicked to bother. To this day, I am still impressed that he was able to drive the forty kilometres to Kisumu in that state.

I remember the last time I saw my mother alive. They were wheeling her into the soulless bowels of the hospital. Her dress was all bloody from the waist down. She was biting hard on her lower lip and panting ferociously. Beads of sweat sparkled on her forehead under the white fluorescent lights. Her hands gripped the wrists of the two nurses on either side of the trolley like vices.

At one point, as they went through a set of double doors, she lifted her head and locked eyes with me. Everything slowed down, like a scene from an epic film. I stopped struggling to break away from dad. For that one moment, we looked into each other’s souls, silently acknowledged the paralysing terror we both felt. Then the doors swung closed, and shut her away. Forever, as it turned out.

My father carried me and sat on a hard wooden bench next to a wall. He didn’t move or say a word for hours. Later that night, around half past ten, as I have been told, a doctor walked out of the double-doors, walked over and touched him on the shoulder. My head was in the middle of a sleepy nod, which the arrival of the doctor interrupted. He mumbled something to dad. I only heard his last word. “Sorry.”

My father didn’t say a word back to the doctor. He only nodded weakly. The doctor patted me on the head and shambled off. I looked up at my father’s face, saw his jaws clench and unclench, his eyes glaze momentarily. He was making a mighty effort to stay calm. I couldn’t tell what it all meant. All I remember is that the terror that had made its presence felt when my mother was wheeled away came back and washed over me in a dread wave.

It turns out my mother had just died. But the twins were still alive. Presently, a nurse walked out the double-doors and beckoned at us. My father stood and followed her, holding my hand. The nurse led us down some corridors to door with a glass portal on it. She told my father the twins were on the other side.

The glass portal was too high for me to see through. But I could hear a regular beeping sound coming from inside the room. However, as we stood there, it suddenly became erratic and then turned into a long beep. My father reached down and lifted me to his shoulder, so that I could look inside. I saw the machines and tubes and bright lights. And I saw the twins.

They were an incomprehensible jumble of little limbs sticking out from one body. They were conjoined. Apart from their common heart, they shared a lung and the brain. That had been the cause of the complication. And we had gotten there just in time to see them die, as if in a hurry to join mother, their small brain blissfully ignorant of the pain they were leaving behind.

Miraculously, my father’s face remained straight as that long beep died off. He walked quietly out of the hospital, me in tow. It was at the parking lot that his pent up agony burst forth like water from a breeched dam. He went berserk. He ripped up a young tree and used it to whip a nearby dustbin, crushing both supple wood and plastic to smithereens, all the time screaming his lungs out, yelling crudely at the quiet night sky. Until some doctors and nurses restrained him and dragged him back inside.

I remember some details of the funeral one week later in the village. My father didn’t do much that day. Most of the time, he sat whimpering in the reed chair beside the door, looking down at his tears splattering on the floor. During the funeral mass, he sat at the front of the tent, with me next to him. He didn’t say a word.

They buried the twins first, just after midday. Mother’s casket was lowered into the black earth one hour later. We stood with relatives and other villagers around the open grave as the priest said the response. Dad broke down again as the casket descended, and slouched away like a sick dog, when clods of soil started raining back in, pounding the casket like a drum.

I found him sitting on a yellow jerrican under the kitchen window, staring at the lonely euphorbia tree at the corner of the fence, his hands in his pockets. His tears had dried, and his eyes had a dreamy faraway look in them. I went and wrapped my hands around his thigh, and leaned my cheek against it. It was felt like a big warm pipe.

He reached out and rubbed the back of my head. I looked up into his eyes and said, “I’m sorry dad.” To this day, those are the only words I remember saying that day.

He hoisted me onto his lap. I sat still, afraid that any movement would make him cry again. He sniffed, and then straightened his face. He looked into my eyes. His pupils seemed blacker, and I am sure I saw them trembling.

“It seems we are the only ones left, huh?” he said after a while, rubbing my back.

I nodded mutely, unsure what he meant by that.

“Come,” he then said, setting me on the ground and rising. “We need to be by the graveside.” He took my hand and led me back to the right side of the house, where they were still shovelling earth back into mother’s grave.

We arrived just in time to see the last corner of the casket disappearing under the dirt. At that instant, when the last evidence of her life slipped under, my dad squeezed my tiny hand. I strongly squeezed back, and he looked down and smiled.

The memories of that day will never leave me. They come to me as static, mute images. I saw, rather than heard, the village women wailing hysterically. The men praising mother as they started their traditional gweyo at the gate. The bulls, horns decorated with fresh green leaves, stomping frenziedly in the backyard, raising a plume of dust where before there had been soft green grass. I didn’t hear them, nor their bells. I just saw them.

That day a chapter was closed in our lives. In its place a new one opened itself. In one clean stroke, nature robbed us of all family but ourselves. I guess that’s what my dad meant when he said we were the only ones left. I remember the feeling of loneliness that descended on me as the day wore on. It was an intense sensation, as if my heart was being torn out of my chest, a longing that I knew would never be fulfilled.

But something told me, even back then, that I had to be strong. Strong for my dad and for myself. It is only with the passage of time that I learnt what this meant. I had taken the place of his wife, and he the place of my mother. Life had to go on, and we had to piece ours back together somehow.

But the tragedy of mum’s death would leave us under a shadow for the rest of our lives. And my dad would never recover fully. In the end, I kept both of us sane for only so long. But I think that was enough.

This is the first chapter of a new novel I am writing. Read the other chapters here.

Feature image: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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  1. Waiting for the next chapter. This chapter uses simple English, which is short but very expressive.

  2. The story moved so fast, but very good, it has rekindled my memories travelling across Kenya and someday, I might have a tale. Sorry to be vague but I will get in touch soon

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