To get to your mother’s house, you’ll be torn between taking a matatu and taking a taxi. She lives in a high rise housing complex in the old part of the city. With the refugees who speak little Swahili, and sell jeans that have been flat ironed, and the godforsaken Kenyans who appear on NGO websites holding packets of flour and cooking oil. A matatu will probably take too long, the conductor begging men and manhandling women into the already full van at every stop. A taxi will be faster, it will have AC and the driver will play the radio station that you like, but it will also be pricier, and you would rather save that money for bread, fruit and milk. It’s rude to visit people, let alone your own mother, empty handed. She made sure you learnt that, with live examples, bible verses and occasionally, a leather belt down your backside.
Beres Hammon and Buju Banton scored a hit on the ‘Tonight Riddim’, and when you’ll alight the loud matatu, it will remain an unwanted souvenir from the trip, Jamaican patois stuck in your head. The walk to her gate will include a dismal scorecard for the sitting MP; open sewer lines, potholes the size of small craters and the chaos that comes from confused leadership. Mother will open the door on the second knock, her hands soaked from doing dishes. She’ll smile and serve you cocoa, boiled sweet potatoes and eggs. Tasty eggs if you think about it, only that she won’t have made them with Royco flavouring like you do at your house. She always refused to use flavouring when you were little and you had to eat whatever was cooked. As a culinary traumatic response, you dislike aubergines, and boiled food. It’s good therefore, that later she’ll offer you slices of cake so thick you’d think she was serving you ugali. Then as mother dries her hands, and sits on the maroon settee, you’ll talk about Aunt Anastacia and her house that’s almost done, and you’ll feel like you need to tell her that you got into a sacco too and that your piece of land will be ready in July. But you’ll bite your tongue and eat more sweet potatoes and sugarless tea.
It’s a weird time being at your mother’s. You grew up here, the smell of freshly squeezed beetroot in the bin, and the pineapple peels boiling in the kitchen an olfactory reminder of the two decades you spent here. Two decades worth of memories. Sharing dinner with the neighbours children, that you only see on Facebook now. Older, more stressed versions of their childhood faces, sharing photos of their fat children and infographics from conspiracy theorists about vaccination. Two decades growing. Doing your homework to the grinding sounds of the welding machine disk eating into the metallic window frames, letting off sparks that were a firework display at night. Two decades building habits. Hiding porn magazines from her and showing her your excellent report cards. Learning to pick and choose what to share, and what to keep to yourself. Creating memories that will live with you until the end of time.
She’ll have worn her red, flowery dress. The one you bought when they gave you a permanent position at work. You’ll notice that she’s gotten puffier, and it’ll be a little too tight for a fifty year old, and it’ll remind you of how efficient the aging process is. It doesn’t discriminate against anyone, and watching her amble around as she puts the bread, milk and bananas away is a stark reminder, if you needed any that we’ll all eventually lose the battle to keep our skin supple, our organs full, perky and upright, and our body’s system’s working. Then she’ll pull out the family photo album, the one that has pictures of father before he left and never returned, and baby pictures of you in the old re-usable diapers that mother had to wash. Then she’ll sit down with a white, ironed handkerchief in her hand. Then she’ll ask you to open the album, and you’ll realise that her voice is croaky, breaking at the edges, like a dam struggling to bear the weight of flood waters.
The next few minutes will be a blur. Your heart beating in your eardrums.
Boop! Boop! Boop!
Her lips will move and you’ll hear nothing but the kids playing make-believe outside. Happy, oblivious to the ongoings inside house 67B. Where a fifty year old woman will be downplaying the effects of a stage three cervical cancer diagnosis to her son, whose pale face will be the colour of freshly squeezed milk. She’ll pull out reports, that show other people have been healed, by his stripes. He won’t mention that he doesn’t believe in an old, Jewish story about a Caucasian saviour. He learnt to pick and choose what to keep and what to share. Then she’ll ask him to say something and nothing will escape his dry, quivering lips. A lone tear will slide down his face, like a drunk, heartbroken man walking a deserted street, unconcerned about curfew or policemen or robbers. And she’ll look away as he composes himself. She taught him well. To pick and choose what to share and what to expose.
Then you’ll snap back to first person. Back to the couch. Back to the unfinished cake. Back to the smell of beetroot in the bin Back to the numb sensation in your body, the visceral ache in your heart the only thing that you will be alive to. That and the hot streaks where the tears were running on your face. Then you’ll wipe them off and nod in agreement. That you will fight this together. No matter how hopeless things look. No matter how tired people are of giving to fundraisers. No matter how full the radiotherapy lists are. That you will do all you can to get her body back to what it looks like in the pictures on the table. When she had a full afro, and the vibrance of her lipstick matched her zeal for life. Before the man whose name is on your birth certificate, and a wretched employment system broke her down to a shell of what she was. To an angry, bitter woman who lost herself in church to heal the many parts of her that were in pain.
You’ll tactfully refuse the package that she made for you; beans, sugar, flour and cooking oil. Soon, she will need them more than you will. The guests will need to eat. The treatment will require that she eats well. You’ll say goodbye as she goes to wear her overcoat, but you’ll shush her protests to take you to the gate. You’ll hug her and wear your shoes outside so she doesn’t see the tears on your face. Your journey home will be quiet, you won’t even ask the taxi driver to select a station. He’ll be a smart man that will not as questions and you will ride in abundant silence. Through your foggy eyesight, the landscape will look eerily familiar but in the sense that you saw it in a movie that you watched a thousand times, and not in the sense that you walk and breathe in these streets everyday. A piano solo will play on YouTube when you collapse on your bed, a mournful, endless loop of raw emotion. Every key a throbbing reminder of the task at hand. Healing a woman that you feel you need to heal with, and from. In her hurting, she hurt you too, consciously and unwittingly.
Now you’re in a race against time. The diagnosis a realization that the grim reaper, scythe in hand, is walking towards 67B. A race to get things in order before the door swings open and she breathes her last, and her stiff, cold, lifeless form can’t answer you back. Can’t use the wrong emojis on WhatsApp anymore. Can’t pack for you beans any more. Can’t clean your scraped knee like when you fell down when were six. Can’t help you fill in crosswords. Can’t give you a number to call when you are stuck at work.
Your room will be dark. Only the lit end, and distinct smell of a stick of marijuana, a red, glow-in-the-dark reminder that you are not asleep. Your body simultaneously numb, and in searing pain. The memories a vivid, slow reminder of the brutal brevity of life. The fears a crushing, incapacitating force of pain and regret. Sleep might, or might not come but the woman in 67B will be like a brain tattoo for that night and those that follow.