There’s a line in the book, “The fault in our stars,” that I find myself recalling during this trying time. It reads, ‘Then I realized that there was no one else to call, which was the saddest thing. The only person I really wanted to talk to about Augustus Waters’s death was Augustus Waters.’
Round about now, I can resonate with what the protagonist in this story felt and what she was trying to say. The one person I really want to talk to about mum’s funeral is mum.
Me and mum eons ago.
It is day 3 after mum has departed, and she lies cold at Chiromo mortuary. It all is surreal. We’re slowly coming to terms with the fact that having those warm comforting conversations is now a thing of the past. I refuse to say remains or body. As far as I’m concerned, mum is at Chiromo, her spirit and soul have raced ahead, answered to the call of God home. The separation is strongly felt down here, and we remember things she said or did, as if trying to grasp onto fleeting memories.
Mum at bible school, 2016.
As far as funeral arrangements go, things look bleak. Our underbelly is exposed. We seem to be scampering about in confusion, like headless chicken. As a family, we know squat about preparing for someone’s send-off.
Mum was a perfectionist, a force, the go-to person, this was her area of expertise and whatever she did was of quality par-excellence. She seemed to know what exactly was needed and where to get it and how to plan everything when close relatives departed.
We just turned up for one ‘fabulous’ funeral after the other, our only duty being to pay our respects. First it was my maternal gramps who left us, then it was my aunt, then it was my paternal grandpa, then it was my dad, then maternal grandma, then my bro. She organized everything and sent them off like they were rock stars.
Mum posing with her brood years ago in South B
I remember when my brother left us, and we looked down at him in his casket. I noted how impeccable he looked, suited up, eyes tight shut, unmovable like he was just taking a long nap. His casket and the gazebo he was placed under were of finest quality. When it came to time to eat; plates of chapo, pilau and stew were brought to us, which we washed down with cold sodas.
My late brother Calvin’s burial
Now as friends and family advise us of our need for a budget, we sit down, pen and paper in hand, scribbling numbers and items as a clear picture emerges, and we are shocked at how much Luo funerals actually cost. The next day someone chimes in the need for a committee. Yet on the other day, my auntie starts talking about food at home, and the need for the upcountry home to have a fresh coat of paint. My cousin chips in with a sinister warning, “People will be watching and expecting something better from you guys of Nairobi. You know how our people from the village are. We don’t want them to talk too much.”
My head is too full to think about how much we should ‘floss’ or impress village folks. My mum is gone and I don’t give a hoot about much else. I want her back. If not, then we want to give her a befitting burial; one that matches her calibre and status. Anything else is secondary at this point.
Mum with her son and his daughter. She loved her grandkids
The days are whizzing by but we seem to be crawling at a snail’s pace.
We thought the burial would be on the weekend of the 3rd of Feb, which would give me time to fly back to the Netherlands on the 8th, but it’s way too close, so we suggest for it to be on the weekend of the 10th Feb.
Little Miss Ashley asked me to be back before her birthday on 11th February, but this is one eventuality that I didn’t anticipate. I would have to plan a nice birthday for Miss Ashley later on.
That panicky feeling is back. I’m anxious about how it will all pan out. The church where mum was an elder reassures us that they will walk with us all the way. She served well as a minister of God would. She took the initiative, even starting the school project, designing uniforms and spearheading the welfare committee in the church.
Mum with a friend in her secondary school, Butere Girls.
The numbing panicky feeling begun on 10th January when I was whatsapped. Mum had a stroke. I called home and asked to talk to her, but she would hardly speak. Her voice sounded garbled. It was then I begun to miss her. Two days before, we had a lengthy conversation which unbeknownst to me, was our last full conversation. I laughed at things she said, she was encouraged by quotable sound bites.
I told her, “Mum, God is not in a hurry to send us to heaven, His divine design is for us to bring heaven down to earth.”
I kept on rebuking the mass that was invading her lungs, as we had belatedly discovered by a biopsy done on the 19th December.
The Kenyan medical system leaves alot to be desired. Early last year, it was said she had pneumonia, and she was put on antibiotics. She recovered for a while then the coughing got worse. By July, the X-rays showed she had tuberculosis, and the treatment begun. A couple of weeks later, the coughing seemed to be worsening, and I frankly thought that the issue was with the meds, they must be fake, I concluded.
When with her on phone, I would observe that her breathing was labored.
Sometime in September, I begun to seriously examine the possibility of bringing her over to the Netherlands.
“Mum, you need to renew your passport, I’d like to purchase medical insurance and lodge in an application for you to come over for medical treatment.”
She insisted that she would want to complete the TB treatment before she would come over.
By November, she was rounding up the final TB treatment, and had considerably weakened and was still coughing. I asked her about the passport.
“My friend is helping with that,” she replied.
“Would you let me have her number, I would like to call your friend. Does she know the urgency of the situation?” I asked, feeling much like I was caged by distance. “Once you have the passport, I can come and pick you and take you to South East Asia for treatment if your visa to the Netherlands is denied.”
“Don’t worry, by 9th January I will have it in hand.” she replied.
“Mom, there are great hospitals in Singapore..we need to work on your passport so I can apply for you to have medical insurance.”
After the mild stroke, she was rushed to St Mary’s in Nairobi, where they broke the sad news. All our efforts seemed too late in the day. The hospital informed us that the cancer was stage 4; it had mestastized; spread to the vertebrae and a mass heavily leant against the right lung. She had shed off quite abit of weight.
A few days before she succumbed, I was concerned that she didn’t want to eat. We made mango smoothies but she could hardly swallow past two mouthfuls. We asked the doctor what could be done and he suggested a drip with a lot of nutrients and amino acids otherwise feeding through a tube.
Feeding through a tube would be a challenge at the moment as she had difficulties swallowing, they thought her throat was sore.
It’s hard to imagine how mum truly felt. Even in her dying days, she struggled to sit upright a few times in the day. She was a woman who always got up between 4-5am, had a cup of tea before walking around the house then working on whatever she planned for the day. She loved to work, so it must have been frustrating to be trapped in a body that no longer responded to her will. That she could no more just get up and go. Every movement was a strain, that drained her.
The final day before her departure, she seemed extremely restless. She would gaze into the distance and squint as if trying to read something afar off. She lifted her arm which had the drip and I clasped her hand into mine. She would turn, and sit up for moments at a time, seeming to try to find a proper comfortable position to rest her head. My biggest concern at the time was that she would yank the drip off by her constant movement, and I gently massaged her arms, while my brother massaged her legs as we asked her if she was comfortable enough, if she wanted to eat a banana or drink something. I was very hopeful for her to gain enough strength to begin chemotherapy. I didn’t think of her demise at all, I said in my heart, this isn’t over. We have a fight on our hands and we are ready.
Dad and mum sometime in the 70s
When the phone call came in the wee hours of the morning of 23rd of Jan, my heart sunk. What would the hospital want to tell us so early? I still hoped that she had been taken to ICU but was still alive. I didn’t eat my breakfast, and the rest of the day, we were tasked with signing burial permits and moving her to Chiromo.
We still prayed over her, she looked peaceful, had a smile on her face and we touched her. She was still warm.
During this time, when groups of people come to offer their condolences, you learn a couple of things.
The groups I’ve appreciated most are those who have gone through similar experiences. They don’t show fear about approaching the subject of her passing without offending us, or have that look of extreme sympathy as if expecting us to be completely drenched in sorrow.
They don’t abruptly make conversation with quips such as, “She is in a better place” or “We’ll be your mum now,” because what place could be more better than being down here with us on earth, (no shade thrown on heaven though..), or how can anyone hope to replace the sum of whom she was to me, to us?
I like that those who’ve gone through the same experiences walk through the process with us, they listen intently, they share their own experiences and coping mechanisms. That more than anything else gives us the fortitude knowing that if they came through the heart-shattering loss caused by the sudden absence of a parent, then so shall we.
You realize what your limits are when it comes to patience, when day after day, you have to host visitors, some whom you haven’t seen for years, others decades.
You bump into childhood friends, make new business contacts and realize as a family, some members are good at taking the lead and talking for hours on end, while those of strong personalities clash often over trivial issues; like two battering rams interlocking horns and refusing to give in or submitting to the others point of view.
Then there are the angels on earth; a few ladies here and there, hardly known to us, that waft in and out of the house; silently taking up duties or setting up camp to cook for people visiting and cleaning up after them.
Being the semi-introvert I am, I have to feign enjoying people’s company when what I really want is to escape upstairs and bury my head in a book as I come to terms with the loss of my best friend and confidant. I remember her voice and play it over and over in my head. I regret being so far away whilst she stoically battled illness in her body.
Such is life and it has dealt a big blow. My only comfort is that God is still on the throne and He will comfort and direct us as to how to live in this place with a void. The dread I feel is of the knowing that I won’t ever hear her voice again. Not in this world at least.
Mum effortlessly slaying at Leeds University, 1984.
It is a week and a half since she left us, and we are smack in the midst of preparations. We have visited lifeless mum at Chiromo, and she now looks like a deep brown clay mould of her former self. We will busy ourselves as much as possible, and after all is said and done, we will work hard to continue her rich legacy.
Farewell Mrs Emily Awino Otieno. We love you so much…till we meet again.