Isn’t it funny how you can never remember falling asleep? Ama it is just me? You can remember being sleepy, but that transition into slumber is always wiped from our hard drives as soon as it happens. I can remember what I was doing before sleep took me away on light wings, but that is just it. Even dreams, rare as they usually are, I cannot remember them. It is all a blur. I have never been much of a dreamer, by the way. Usually, when I drift off, it is all a black blanket of nothingness until I open my eyes. At least that is how it always has been, until a few months ago. Then they started coming every day. And not the, well, dreamy kind. The terrifying ones that startle me awake, breathing heavily in short puffs and my chest going up and down, eyes wide open. Then relief follows.
There is this nyalang’o that has been asking me for a big t-shirt, and unfortunately, she has had to deal with these new horrors in my head. The other day I turned around in my sleep and whispered to her, “What channel is it?” At least that is what she says. I must have been watching YouTube in my dreams when that happened. And by any standard, that is hilarious. Usually, the pictures in my head do not come with a sense of humour.
About a month ago, someone sent me bottles of Portuguese wine. Social media influencing comes with the perks of constant free shit. Achamin, however, does not have the taste for dry wine, so I added Sprite to her glass to sweeten it. For some reason, she liked it. And we stayed up late drinking until I started seeing two two.
Then it happened again.
It was the kind of scream you cannot forget. The type that comes from the ground floor of the gut. The cry of a wounded animal. I could not tell where it was coming from until I started shaking and as I opened my eyes, I found Achamin trying to wake me up. I had blacked out from the alcohol. But the funny thing is that that screaming from my dream was still ringing in my head. I remember wondering whether I was bewitched or there is something they put in Portuguese wine.
“Magunga…wake up…. can you hear that?” Kumbe it was not just me. It must definitely be the wine. Perhaps the jojuok of Portugal were unhappy with us for adding Sprite in their expensive wine. “Magunga. Get up! Something is happening.”
From my bedroom window, you can see a fair stretch of my neighbourhood. We stood up and peeped through the curtains. It was still quiet. Though a few light bulbs had started going on in the flats opposite ours. So, not the wine, and (thankfully) not another bad dream. We listened carefully now. It was a woman yelling her throat dry. Wailing to someone, anyone, for help. But the funny thing is that, even though this had been going on for like ten minutes now, the whole neighbourhood was still silent.
“Call polis.” I said to Achamin, dressing up.
“And where are you going?”
“Well, that woman has been begging for help for sijui how long and nobody seems to be helping her. So I am going.”
“I am coming with you.”
“No, you are not.”
In my head, I was thinking this could either be domestic violence or a robbery.
“That sounds like it is coming from where my colleague lives. Remember I told you about her? The one whose baby shower I had attended just juzi tu.”
She did not call the police. Instead, she followed me down to the gate and found our watchie standing by our gate, trying to see what was happening. He is an old man, our watchie. I think our ploti is protected more by the blood of Jesus than by this jaduong’, because if robbers ever came for us, he would not even be able to run for his own life. He walks in little bemused steps, always sitting on one of those plastic seats used in harambees, listening to a radio. And he talks too much. I have always thought he is in the wrong job. He should be one of the presenters in that radio he likes to listen to, sending greetings during Patanisho.
This night though, both he and his radio were silent.
“Nini inafanyika?” I asked him.
“Huyo mama ni kama amevamiwa na wezi.”
“Si tuende bas?” I said to him as I opened the gate. It was not an invitation. It was a suggestion. I did not even know he was following us until we got to the flat where the screams were coming from. When I think back now, I have no idea what I was even going to do. Hell, I was half drunk. What were you going to do, George? Decimate her attackers with your fatal Portuguese wine breath?
We walked into that ploti and found a frenzy. All the neighbours were out wondering what was happening. The screaming woman came down the stairs, calling out some boy’s name, asking him to wake up. In her hands was this boy hanging loosely. I have never described someone as hanging loose until today. He was in her arms, but he did not respond to his mother the way children do when being carried by their mothers. His head was thrown back and his arms swung limp. The woman was rubbing his chest yelling “Aki Stephan amka jameni mtoto wangu. Mnisaidie jameni mtoto wangu.”
And it is at this point all the alcohol cleared from my head. I had come here ready to fight, only to find a battle I have never been prepared myself for.
“I know that kid,” Achamin said. “He was there with his mom during the baby shower.”
The woman was now flinging her son around, helpless, so Achamin took the boy from her. I was still stunned by what was going on. Another lady came out wearing nothing but a white towel around her chest. Turns out, she was the sister to this screaming woman, and also the colleague Achamin has been talking about.
“NANI AKO NA GARI?” I do not know where that came from. I just blurted it out. “Nani ako na gari tumpeleke huyu mtoto hosi?”
“Hosi gani?” Another voice responded. I did not know which hospital. I just knew we needed to get out of here, fast.
“Nairobi Hospital.” I think it is the woman in a white towel who responded, because the mother of the child was now on the floor, writhing, yelling for help.
We stepped out into the parking lot. Another lady offered her car. Achamin got in first, with little Stephan. Then her mother entered. Then I did. Someone else got into the front seat. So now there were six of us in the car: Myself, the mom, a lady in the front seat, the lady driving, Achamin and Stephan in her arms. The car reversed out the parking spot, but as soon as we got to the gate, it was closed goddamit!!!
“NANI AKO NA KIFUNGUU YA GATE!!!” I shouted as I got out of the car.
“Dea is dis schupid Maasai gateman, who is never heee.” A Nigerian man said. He also lives here, it seems, and the disgust in his mouth clearly tasted like it had had to deal with this gateman.
“Niko hapa. Nifungue gate?” Said another man, peeling himself from the darkness. I would have planted a crater in his face with my fist had it not been for the fact that we needed him to open the goddamn blahdy gate. But how can you be such a blunt instrument? You see people trying to rescue the life of a dying child and you are asking us if you should open the gate for us to go to the hospital?
“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Hio kichwa yako ni ya kubembeleza maskio zisianguke tu?”
I do not think the lady driver removed her foot from the pedal after we were out of that compound. The hazard lights were blinking as we went, the sound of her horn tearing into the night. Inside the car, Stephan’s mother was raging. Even if we were inside a Lewis Hamilton race car, it still would not have been fast enough for her. It is like she wanted to get out and run by herself, you know? These are those moments when the only things you can trust are the two good legs God gave you. She cried and cried, and I tried to hold her to calm her down a bit, but even as I tried, I knew I was only kidding myself.
As we turned from Ngong Road, into Valley Road, I remember Mama Steph telling Achamin, “Huyo mtoto wangu anaenda. Wacha tu nimbebe please.”
But even though she said that, she did not take the boy from Achamin. I think somewhere in her was a breadcrumb of hope, a flicker of faith, a fighting chance that Steph was not yet gone.
I know you are reading this fast, trying to get to the end to find out whether or not Steph lived. Well, he did. He lived long enough to fight as only a 4-year-old kid can. It was my first time in an ER. They would not let the rest of us in, and it is not as if I wanted to be in there anyway. The doors were not closed though. Where they had Steph, was only separated by a sheet of curtain, and while the army of doctors and nurses surrounding him did what armies of doctors and nurses do to 4-year-olds with heart problems in the ER, the curtain would occasionally be left open. And given my medical background from watching Scrubs, House, and Greys Anatomy I could tell he was still alive because the monitor above him was beeping steadily and the line on the screen was zigzag. At some point, I got to see Steph through the whole mess. They had put tubes up his nose, and another one into his arms. Tubes and wires that disappeared into machines behind him.
Mama Steph and Achamin were allowed inside though, and during one of those times when the curtain was left open, I saw them holding onto each other. Or rather, Achamin was standing there – hands crossed over her chest like they usually are when she is worried. Mama Steph was holding on to Achamin with her left hand and her right hand lifted up towards the roof. She was praying, you see. She was calling onto God to give strength to her son, even as the doctor pumped his chest.
It is one of the rarest moments of truth that you will ever witness. Because when it comes to matters of life and death, religion/spirituality and science have never been known to agree. Yet here was Mama Steph calling out to God to work a miracle, and there they were -men and women of science – doing their thing. And at that moment, it did not matter who would save Steph. God or Science, the only important thing was for Steph to live. On that, they seemed to agree.
And he lived.
For another half an hour and some change, after he was brought in, he lived and he fought and yes, he lost. Though only because death was too much of a coward to pick on someone his own size. They record your battles in the ER, did you know? For Steph, a nurse chronicled the whole thing on a whiteboard. Everything they did to him, every moment when Stephan held on to dear life, they wrote it all down. If that was my child, I would have taken a picture of that board as a reminder of the astonishing fighting spirit that my baby had.
1.06am CPR called off. That was the final entry in that journal.
Of course, I wasn’t in there when this entry was made. These are just things I saw after they switched off the machines. While the battle of life and death raged inside, the rest of us were outside remember? I remember when Steph breathed his last though. I heard a continuous beeping sound, turned around and through the curtain, I saw a straight and decisive green light slicing the monitor in half. I remember my hands finding the back of my head. I remember the lady who was on the front seat of the car coming to ask me what was going on. I remember lying that I do not know – because my House degree in medicine does not qualify me to declare people dead in real life.
I remember wondering who failed – God or Science?
I remember Mama Steph dropping to the floor, writhing in agony. I remember Achamin trying to pick her up to console her. I remember a nurse telling Achamin to leave her be. Probably because that is a kind of grief that cannot be contained – it is a pain that simply goes on and on. I remember Mama Steph asking people what she should say to Steph’s friends at school. I remember not having answers. I remember not knowing what to do or what to say. I remember wondering what the hell even brought me to this hospital, because so far, I had not done anything other than being useless.
I remember a doctor removing the tubes from his arms, and the drop of blood that came out of the little wound. It was not red anymore. It was black-ish and it was thick and flowed with difficulty until it could not move no further. I remember touching Stephan’s toe. It was not as cold as people usually describe dead things. I remember Achamin saying that he had very beautiful feet. I remember not knowing exactly how beautiful feet are supposed to look like.
When she had come to grips, I remember Mama Steph finding Achamin and I standing on the hallway. I remember her telling Achamin, “When we were in the car, I told you that my boy was leaving, and you refused to believe me. Do you believe me now?” Achamin could not find the tongue to respond. I remember thinking how unfair that question was – but then again, what part of losing a 4-year-old son is fair? Life always seems unfair to those who are yet to meet death.
It is a merciless thing, death, but only to those left living. The memories of the time Stephan spent with his mother may eventually fade, but only with difficulty. I have never lost a son, but I have lost people I love. That is how I know. But until then, she is in for a bad sleep she may never be able to wake up from.
It has been a few weeks since this night, but every time I think about her, I feel a weird blend of both guilt and relief. At least I get to wake up from my nightmares.