It is February. Again. With it comes the fury of memories that descend upon my head like arrows of rain. A box is opened in my head. One that usually finds itself tucked away for safe keeping. It opens up every year in February and starts to play in my head over and over again. The pictures rewind all the way back to a few days after the second week of March years ago. It starts with a boy with only 14 years of experience in breathing in and out. He is standing in front of a mirror. A boy in a blue and white striped shirt, blue jeans, and blue and white sandals stares back at him. Behind him, an old, tired man is lying on his bed. Next to it is a stand holding a bag of clear water. It is a bag attached to a clear pipe carrying water, and then it disappears in between the sheets.
“Just a second. I will be done here soon,” the old man says. The boy is not in a hurry. “Then we will go out for a Valentines date.”
The next set of pictures show the boy sitting inside a café with the old man. There is a box of pizza before him and a tall glass of Vanilla milkshake.
Normally this kid would be having chips and soda but on this day the old man had said to him, “Come on, live a little. You cannot be eating the same things all the time. Here,” he took the menu and looked inside then passed it back. They share the menu like two kids in primary school sharing a textbook, “Pick something you have never eaten before. Today is a special day.”
The box of pizza is too much for the boy to finish. They pack some and go back home. The old man calls the boy to the bedroom and gives him a wad of crisp notes and says, “This is your money for school. Count it.” They are twenty six brownies. “Give them to your mother and tell her to take you to school.”
The next set of pictures show an olwenda taxi’s taillights blinking, in it is the old man. The pictures do not say anything about a goodbye. What they show next is the boy now wearing black and white, standing next to a brown box. Inside this box is someone who is supposed to be his father, but not quite. The old man lies still, unmoving and his face is white as if he just bathed with Panga soap and then forgot to put Vaseline. His face is swollen and he has cotton stuffed inside his nose. His mouth is also a little open like he wants to say something he has forgotten.
Next slide. A hazy set of pictures inside Kibuye Catholic Church. He has never liked going to Kibuye. When the old man was around, they would go to St. Joseph’s in Milimani. But the mother got into a chama with Kibuye and so that became the official family church, just like that. But Kibuye is dark and smoky and people are talking and he is sleepy and then they are outside.
Then they are in dala. Standing next to a hole whose insides are painted white. The pastor who was officiating the ceremony left as soon as the insults began. The insults began because the hole is too small for the brown box. The mzee who dug the hole will be lucky if he is even allowed to get out of that hole once he is done extending it.
The box is put outside, waiting. Then another old man, older than the boy’s old man comes and open the box. He whispers to the old man, but the boy can hear. He is telling the man, “Dhi, Meja. Seche gi oserumo. Let these people grieve you in peace. Go to your rest.” Then the Whisperer removes the tie that the old man is wearing and says that Meja should not be buried when wearing a tie.
Next to the boy is the boy’s mother. She is being held by her friend. She is crying. He takes her hand and waits for the extension to be finished. On the other side of the hole is Deo holding a photo of the old man. His face is wet with lines, but the kid is more interested in the photo. In the photo the old man is wearing a brown suit and his hair has started turning white.
The boy’s mother holds his head and squeezes it next to her side. They are now dropping the box into the hole and his mother is crying, louder now. She is crying while asking questions. “What have I done?” “What will I do with these children?” Then she is apologizing to nobody in particular. She is saying, “Please forgive me, I failed. I am sorry, my people that I am bringing him back like this. I tried. I tried like a woman. But I failed. Please forgive me.”
The next picture is full of dust. It rises up over the hole. Because one of the ropes cut and the box has fallen.
“Meja podi otamore dhi,” the Whisperer is saying.
It is now March 12th and the pictures have stopped rolling.
Long before we knew what showers were made for, we used to think they were for bathing. Until we grew up and realised just how many memories needed to be soaked and washed away.
I sit in my living room, soaked in the misery that these pictures bring. I am alone in the house because Jaber had a meeting sijui where. I am alone and scared and images of my father, white in colour, sting my eyes. I try to stop them but sadness is a stubborn thing. It hurts like soap in my eyes but then it falls down my face and into my mouth. It tastes like salt and lemons.
I do not know who to call, or what to do, so I call the only person who I can call when I do not know who to call or what to do. She answers immediately.
“Hallo George. Msawa?”
And as soon as she says that, I wish that she had not even answered. Her voice reminds me of apologies she made to everyone and nobody in particular thirteen years ago. I try to gather myself to respond, but then all that comes out is tears, mucus, sobs and an embarrassing, “Hee..l…Hell…Hello..”
“Hello George? What is it?”
“Mummy…” and then there is nothing more I can say. Mercifully, my airtime runs out. She calls back immediately.
“George, what is it?”
“I am sorry, mummy.”
“Why? What is it? What has happened?”
“So why are you crying?”
“Because it is February 25th.”
She stays silent for a second then says, “I’m sorry.” I do not know why she keeps apologizing.
That night I cannot be around Jaber. Not in that state. I tell her that I need to be away from her. Good thing James and his friends have organized a sleep over in Kitengela. We meet in tao to buy botis of vodkas and gin and as we walk into Nakumatt Moi Avenue, he tells me, “You know Njeri dies tomorrow bana.”
I do not understand people who call their parents by their real names. It should be Daddy or Mummy. But the way James calls his mother Njeri makes it sound so disrespectful. You can never call Karua by her name, nobody dares do that. She will slap the taste of her name out of your mouth.
“Yeah? Well, William died today.”
We make a pact to drown our hurt in Gilbeys and Kenya Cane Coconut. Even though we both know at the back of our minds that it is impossible. I cannot forget William, neither can I forget Njeri. Not after the way we met- when she was already in the box. That was the day I saw James cry for the first time.
You do not understand. When you see James with his big built body that looks like he makes a living from constructing Egyptian pyramids, you would not imagine that he can cry. I had seen James injured. Beaten. Heartbroken. Angry. Happy. But none of these things have ever made him cry in my presence, until the day he introduced me to his mother. He pointed to the box in the middle of a room and said, “She is there. You can go view, I’ll be outside.” I did not know what to say to James on this day. I let him moan. Others told him many things, especially how he needs to seek consolation from God. I wish they knew. On times like these, it is very difficult to trust something that you cannot look in the eye.
By the time we arrive at the sleep over, people have already started playing games. I walk into the house, say my hellos to the four chicks and two dudes and then take my seat. We are fed and then drinks are fixed and then there is music. A song I like comes on and as I turn to go turn up the volume, I notice it.
The trigger comes in the form a grey Sony 3 CD Changer. It has two slots for radio cassettes and huge knob on the side for volume. Bars of squares rise and fall when music plays and it has lights flashing. Two twin speakers sit on each side. This radio, by its very existence, undoes all the work that the alcohol was supposed to do.
We had a similar one. Exact replica. William brought it on the day he came to open a hospital in our house. The day before it arrived, he had called before, like he used to, to notify us that he was coming. When he spoke on phone he did not even mention anything about buying a 3 CD Changer. He only said, “I am coming to open a hospital in Kisumu.”
“In the house,” he said.
I could not understand what he was talking about. Nobody in our house was a doctor. William himself was a taxman, not a doctor or nurse. Karua was an administrator at Maseno University. The rest of us were still in school. And what did he mean when he said he was coming to open a hospital in the house?
We went to receive him at the Akamba Bus Station the next day at 1pm. By the time we got there, the bus had already arrived and he was sitting on a plastic chair as he watched a bunch of guys offload boxes from the bus. Karua stood next to him, overlooking the offloading job like a Deputy. Next to her, a big box with a huge radio drawn on the cover.
“Is that ours?”
“Yes, it is. You like it?” Of course I did. It looked just like ya akina Nicholas. If not better.
That night, Don Moen’s voice occupied a little too much real estate in the house. It was the only VCD that had been brought with the stereo. We connected it to the TV and took turns arguing about what button on the remote (too big for our hands) did what.
The idea of a hospital in the house did not sink income through until I followed the scent of medicine to the bedroom. I opened the door and there was my mother scrubbing her hands as if she was preparing for a heart surgery. William lay on the bed, on the floor next to him is a transparent bag full of urine, both of them connected by a tube sticking out of his belly.
I did not ask what a plastic tube was doing sticking out of my father’s stomach. I did not need to. He saw the questions in my eyes and told me that his kidneys no longer worked the way they were supposed to. He could not pee well, so the tube helped him.
So every day from then to the day he left me holding school fees in my hands, he peed through a plastic tube. I do not know how he felt pressed, or whether he ever felt pressed at all. But it was an event to watch the changing of his bags: set the bag on a matted floor, leave him to drain, watch Karua scrub her hands with disinfectant, rinse it with pre-boiled water, put on gloves, detach the full bag, measure the urine on a calibrated jug, change gloves, connect the old man to another full bag, keep him company as clear water drained into his body, and then when it was empty, he would roll it, put it in his pocket and go for a walk.
Every day, four or five times a day, he would have the bag put down and relive the betrayal of his kidneys. Until he did not live at all.
What I had always wanted to ask Karua is why. Why did his kidneys throw that tantrum? What happened? When I finally did, I was sitting with her in the dark kitchen, no lights, just big shadows dancing on walls behind us and stew boiling between us. William’s death had changed a lot. We had had to move to an unfinished house on the outskirts of Kisumu because rent was a problem and the landlord was a bitch. That night, she told me a story from the late 1980s – when she and William got together, their union setting an unprecedented course of events that led us to where we are now. It is a story I cannot tell because it is not mine to tell. All I can say is that Old Bill panicked. And how can I hold that against him?
By this time, the Sony 3CD Changer stereo was long gone. Stolen – a long standing tradition of welcome into the neighbourhood in Kanyakwar. So when I saw another one it again at a house party in Kitengela, I was too scared to touch it. It sat there, reminding me of how our house once smelled of medicine. I excused myself into the kitchen for a refill and it was there that I found James, pouring his grief into Naomi. Tears had him on checkmate.
On the day his mother dies we leave Kitengela and head for Pysys Bar in Nairobi West. The plan is to continue bandaging our bleeding hearts with more alcohol, even though it is a plan proven to fail. But we will go on with it until that lone moon descends into the palms of the Lord.
Death might be cruel. But it is also stupid. It thinks that all it ever does is kill people.
It is March. Again. The boy in blue and white is grown. Or so he kids himself. He had intended to celebrate his birthday in dala, next to the old man, perhaps catch up on what’s what. Perhaps also say hello to his other mother lying next to William, and his little sister who would have been 19 by now. But that trip did not happen. Jaber is away on a work trip to South Africa, and she has refused to let him drive down. She is not sure she wants to let him drive that long a distance in the state that he is in. We are not sure how easy it was for her to say No.
What we are sure about is that somewhere in Westlands, a dude lies on a thin bed. There is a doctor who wears his trousers had the thighs, leaning over him. The daktari stabs him with a needle on his chest. It is not ati painful painful. It just feels as if a thousand mosquitoes are having a feast on his left breast next to his heart.
Wuod Meja it will read when it is done, the numbers 25022005 inscribed beneath it.
We all know the old man would never approve.
Alysia Harris and Ben Howard are singing. They remind me to that even if I cannot be with William in Alego on this day we share, it is important to think about the depth when I remember the distance. How 1000km is not longer than moments spent between us.