I sat across the room from her when she asked me if I am angry at my father for dying, and until then I had not thought about it that way. It would explain why every time that season between Valentine’s Day and my birthday comes around, I become a rumbling volcano. Bubbling with fire underneath, waiting for just a little flick, the slightest provocation to erupt. To punch someone in the face, drive a car into a wall, smash a computer on the floor. To set things on fire and watch the world burn so that it has an idea of how it feels. The answer is still no; I’m not angry at him. But I doubt I have ever truly forgiven everyone else.
Let me explain.
He came back from home and kept quiet about it. For two weeks, he knew my father had died, but he did not think I could take it. Instead, he started berating me on how I used sugar. “Stop wasting it,” he said when I put the fourth tablespoon into the mug of white uji they served us for breakfast at Maranda High School. As if it was the first time he was seeing me do it. And who the hell cared, you know? Visiting Day was barely a week away. Mom was definitely coming, and there was no way Dad was going to miss it because he knew it what day it was, and he had not seen me in my high school uniform. Everyone else was running low on sugar, but not us. Those are not problems we had.
Which is what made it weird that he had been sent home for school fees. Someone must’ve stolen the money William had sent Karua via Akamba, again! It was common; they’d feel up envelopes to check there was money inside and then make deliveries disappear. That is why William cut for them cleverness and started stapling notes on one of them KRA newsletters when sending money. Nobody in the history of theft in this country has ever stolen a book, he figured. But perhaps those Akamba people had finally caught up with this new operation and stolen money meant for Deo’s school fees. That was the only explanation.
Lakini after coming back to school, Deo started behaving funny. Wouldn’t speak, and when he did, he could not meet my eyes. Not even when scolding me about sugar. Now as an adult, I can understand that he was only, what, 16? He didn’t know any better himself, but that doesn’t make resentment I had for him any less legitimate. He lied. Let me go on for half a month looking forward to seeing a father he knew I had already lost. Tell me a bigger betrayal than this.
It is a seed of resentment I planted at 14, let it take root and silently and unknowingly watered for all these years. Because how the fuck dare he?
In the middle of exam week, he shows up to my school. It was on a Wednesday, after the History paper. He had the teacher on duty fill out my Leave Out chit, because he did not want me to see the real reason I was being pulled out of school in the middle of exams.
“Did mummy agree to this?” I asked.
“Does she know that I will miss exams? Juu me sitaki kuchapwa ati nimefail.”
“She will understand, trust me.” Nimrod said. “Dad amesema he wants all of us at Onyi’s graduation ceremony.”
I did. I trusted him. Even though I couldn’t believe ati Karua of all people would let me miss exams just because of a graduation. If there is one thing this woman believed in more than God, it was in passing exams. All her children have scars to show for it. She prayed to the holy trinity of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Report Card.
Deo walked ahead of us from the school gate to the bus station at Nyaiedho. I told Nimrod that he had been acting funny, and he said, “Si wewe you just know Alphonce?” Then when we got to Nyapiedho, while Deo stood at a distance, he sat me down and started with this long-winded story about how William and Karua love me, and how William had been sick and had to be taken to Mater Hospital, and …
“Daddy amekufa, sindio?”
He could only manage a nod.
I had always preferred to have my band-aid ripped out at once. One good yank, and be done with it. Even if it has me in tears on a matatu from Bondo to Kisumu. Even if it has the driver, conductor and plump market woman asking “en ang’o mutimo ne nyathini” and neither Nimrod nor Deo have an answer. Or the strength to.
This one gave me a deadline to grieve. By now you can see how being a lastborn makes everyone else think they know what’s best for you, because you are the bone of the family. You are the one to be cushioned. Deo wouldn’t tell me William had died because he didn’t want me to worry while at school. Nimrod thought it was better to lie to me before telling me the truth barely twenty minutes later. And Regina believed that it was best to drain our tears once and for all and be done with it.
It was the next day on Thursday evening. The sun had only set twice since I arrived from school. We’d come back from the tailor who was making our funeral outfits, then a memorial service at Kibuye Catholic Church. My father was now lying in a box in our compound, looking nothing like the man I had last seen on Valentine’s Day less than a month before. The next day, on Friday, we were going to shagz, then on Saturday, we would be burying him. Can you imagine just how fast things were moving? The house was overrun by family members and friends who I’d never seen before (or since). There was no time – or space – to come up for air.
Regina found me and Deo sitting in a shack for a mama chipo. It was night, so of course the kibanda was closed for the day, but the scent of salad and fried potatoes still clung on the makuti roof. She said, “Guys, I know it is difficult, but can you imagine what mummy is going through? Let’s not disturb her. If you want to cry, cry now. Malizana nayo saa hii, and then by the graveside on Sato, but after that tusimsumbue.”
Just like that, I was given two days to grieve for my father. Grief was to be handled like a weekend assignment. Class monitor to collect Monday morning first thing. Beyond those two days, I’d essentially be becoming difficult. Two days. Can you imagine? Even Jesus needed more than that to defeat death. And people still mourn His death two thousand years later. Yet I had two days to get over my father.
Unfortunately, tears are not dogs you can whistle at and they come. I couldn’t summon them that night or the day after. On Friday when my mother beat her breasts and apologized to the people of Karuoth for not being able to save their son, I didn’t want to be difficult. When dust rose and mourners banged the side of our hearse and my sisters were in tears, I didn’t know where to put my eyes. On Saturday afternoon when the soil landed on William’s casket, I may have cried – can’t remember. What I remember is the coffin wouldn’t fit in the grave. I remember someone swearing to kill the gravedigger. I remember the thunder when the rope snapped and the casket dropped into the hole.
I remember looking around the mayhem thinking; this was supposed to be my vizoh. This was supposed to be my birthday.
But as I had been told, I didn’t cry after that. Didn’t want to be the one who piled on Karua. I left my tears by the grave – my deadline was up. I did not cry the next month, or the next year or the years after that for seven years until 2013, in university, when I first wrote about this and water flowed on my face as I typed because everything came rolling in. Then again in 2014, and then in 2015. After that, while there was so much more left to say, I did not want to be seen like I perform my father’s death every year for readership. So I stopped being difficult, for good.
She should have chosen another date. It didn’t have to be March 12th. Any other day could have been as good as any.
So yeah, I become capricious between February 14th and March 12th. It is not something I can control because if I could I would simply switch it off. Like you do television. I have grown in the anger and become a part of it, yet I have never really been able to confront any of these people. It feels unfair. They had no experience in losing fathers and husbands. So I stew in it and lay it out on anyone else who dips their fingers in the soup. Friendships have ended because of it, but it is what it is.
“Have you thought about therapy?” she asked. It did not occur to me that this was a client I had gone to see to have my contract discussed and renewed for the year. She sat next to the window in her Westlands office, doused in the afternoon light. It would be nice to own an office like this someday, I thought to myself.
“What were we talking about again?” I couldn’t recall how our conversation had deviated from content creation to this.
“I was asking what you wanted to do on your birthday.”
“Aaaaah. Yes. Sorry.”
I didn’t answer her about therapy. The reason I’m still sore with my family is coz they thought they knew what was best for me. It had always been like that ever since I was a kid. The elder siblings would make the decisions and my job was to simply show up. I didn’t get the clothes I liked for Christmas; but what they thought would look good on me. I didn’t pick the movies we watched, the haircut I got on holidays, or even the bag I carried to school. I did not have to think about these things because they were already decided for me by people who knew better. They did the heavy lifting for their bone.
And this worked just fine, until it didn’t.
After 2005, I did not want to be told what to do. Or what not to do. Especially what I couldn’t do. So, I dropped Physics in Form 2 to prove a point, ended up in law school in rebellion, and then when everyone else wanted me to become an advocate, I quit to become a writer. When I started photography and I tweeted saying I didn’t know how to use VSCO, and a friend said (in jest) it’s because I was incapable, I downloaded that app and became a pro. I refused to give up, became assertive, and repelled any kind of failure like a pest. I didn’t just want to be good, I wanted to be perfect, exceptional. If it is not amazing, I quit. So, I quit writing altogether for months. So, I found myself on a plane from Goma with tears in my eyes because I didn’t feel like I’d done a good job on that campaign – and the client and agency girls, confused, could only watch in silence.
There is no bigger humiliation than a failed rebellion. Stinks like defeat.
Now you tell me what a therapist is going to help me with? I have dealt with that grief and pulled all the strings that it stitched on my wound. I know how it has shaped me; the person it has made me into, the parts I love and the parts I wish I didn’t love about me. And if I have grown up begrudging my own flesh and blood for deciding what is best for me, what the fuck makes anyone think I want a stranger doing it? And worse, paying them to?
What do I want to do for my birthday? I still hadn’t answered this question by the time I left her office. Last year, I went to Nanyuki for a weekend with Lakwan. I didn’t celebrate it because it was my birthday, but because I was turning 30. In my head there is a difference. I was commemorating a milestone. But I am tired of being angry this season. It’s been too long, and I have grown weary of the load. If I could just put it down, you know? For good. Then I would be like other normal people; who know what it feels like to look forward to a birthday, have birthday weeks, surprise parties, gifts, get soaked in water or alcohol or both, have cake smeared on my face, get drunk, have a big laugh, and later that night fuck till the earth shakes.
It has been 16 years of guilt, rage, and a hurt that could poison a serpent. I am exhausted.
What I want for my birthday is to free it from all of that. But to free my birthday, I have to free Valentine’s Day. Put on a suit, buy my girl a rose, and take her out for steak in an expensive restaurant. The works, you know Otherwise, if I keep carrying this burden, it will break my back.
If it hasn’t already.