By Valerie Waweru

About a month ago, I went to visit my grandmother (I really should do it more), the skies decided to open up while we were there, and with it floodgates of memories as the room went quiet. The first born girl in the family Grace (Big) chuckled, as she enquired if we all remembered the last time it rained so much while we were all there – October 30th 2011 she said. The day the short journey that would see us bid the family patriarch farewell. Three years on the memories are still as fresh as though it was yesterday in all our minds, a lot has changed though. Let me share a bit of the journey with you.

[On phone with Big]
{BIG}: “Where are you Val?”
{VAL}: “I am in town, why?”
{BIG}: “Are you seated?”
{VAL}: “What is it Big?”
{VAL}: “He passed on Val”

I need to sit down, I need to sit down, No I need a glass of water. I need to wake up, it must be a dream, I need to wake up. Wake up, wake up, wake up Val, wake up. Why is this woman asking me if I need any help? I need to wake up.

{BIG}: “Val are you okay, Val? Val?”
{VAL}: “I will call you back”

Wake up Valerie, you really need to wake up. Can this woman stop asking me if I need any help! I just want to sit here for a while. Everyone needs to keep quiet. What are you all doing in my dreams. What is that noise, it’s loud, it’s ringing, why can I not just wake up?

{BIG}: “Val, are you okay? You need to call Smol and Auntie, I think you should be the one to tell them. Val, Val”
{VAL}: “I’ll call them. Will call you back”
This woman is relentless
{VAL}: “I need a pair of your darkest sunglasses”
{VAL}: “You asked if I need any help, this is Optica I need a pair of your darkest sunglasses”
{SHOP ATTENDANT}: “I will give you a minute”
Now she leaves me alone. I need to make some calls.
{VAL}: “Hi mum, how soon can you get a flight out?”
{MUM}: “No mum, what are you telling me? Is he gone? Why could he not wait for me? Mum is he gone?”
{VAL}: “Yes mama, we lost him about an hour ago”
{MUM}: “Will be on the next flight out.”
{VAL}: “Okay mum, I will call you back.”
I need to move, it’s hot inside here. Why won’t I wake up? I need to wake up.
{VAL}: “Hi big brother, how is work today? How is Smol?”
{BOCANDE}: “Hallo Sister, we are okay. We are actually in a meeting with her.”
{VAL}: “Can you talk for a minute?”
{BOCANDE}: “Are you okay Sister? What is wrong?”
{VAL}: “I will be there in a while but I need you to let her know he is gone.”
{BOCANDE}: “No,No,No,No Sister. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Val are you listening to me? Val?”
{VAL}: “See you soon.”

You know how people tell you, time heals all wounds. Well this is what time has taught me: unless you lose your memories altogether, time does not heal all wounds. In fact sometimes, time makes the wounds worse, because it refines the memory of the wounds, of the loss. We box them in a corner in our hearts and we have these triggers that open up the floodgates. When this happens you get thrown into this space where you can remember every tiny little detail. Often, you are between wakefulness and dreamland, one merging into the next. Every tiny little detail is magnified, and in the state of dream/sleep/wake, everything – including the pain of the memories – is magnified.
If you ask any member of my very close knit extended family, we will tell you the journey that led to the loss of our family patriarch was hard and short. It should not have been. He had stopped talking months before; the reason known to us was because he had suffered a stroke, which had affected his speech. What I missed most about hearing his voice was having him call me ‘mungiki’ because of my dreadlocks and the roar of laughter that often followed after. He had never been the same man after losing his voice but what he lost in speech he compensated for in his resilience, especially in his final days.

The greatest lesson for me through this has been that more often than not tragedy will attempt to harden us, but we should not let it.
Granddad’s death does not make me sad anymore for many reasons, but the most important one being though he left us with an ache that shall never go away, he rested. His pain is gone. Let me give you a brief outlook on his ‘long-short’ illness. Long-short because the doctors should have picked up on it much earlier than they did.

{OCTOBER 30th 2011}
{DOCTOR}: “It is not a wheez, it is a stridor.”
{10 VOICES}: “What?” {Ten Voices because the night we took my granddad to hospital, we were 90% of the family- remember I said we are a very close knit family}
{Doctor}: “Who is the next of kin?” {Oh, I have learnt to hate that question because almost nothing good follows after}
{Empty stares}
{Doctor}: “One of you needs to go and fill out the paper work”
{Empty Stares, No one moves an inch}
{Doctor}: “okay, you cannot all be in this room at the same time and for us to be able to run tests paperwork needs to be filled out.”
{ONE OF US}: “What is a stridor?”
{DOCTOR}: “It means that something is obstructing his airway”
{ONE OF US}: “We have just been here for a minute, how can you tell, don’t you need to run some tests?”
{DOCTOR}: “I am positive it is a stridor”

What happened for the next one month was a lot of tests, a diagnosis of cancer (no the stroke did not take away his speech), a stay in the ICU, radiotherapy sessions, discharge (some hope at the end of the tunnel, but he is so frail), home based care, more radiotherapy sessions, his organs shutting down, his final breath.
I remember a conversation I had with my cousin, Big, a few days before he passed on.

{BIG}: “I went to see guka today.”
{VAL}: “How is he? {Not that I did not already know}”
{BIG}: “His organs are shutting down Val, you know you and I will have to be strong. I think we should let him go.”

I went silent because I understood I was the only person in the family that Big could have this conversation with. See I apparently have a heart of gold, but it is a dark one. Dark because when the tough decisions or tough conversations need to be had and heard, the family turns to me. I am thorough in all ways, I love fiercely and it allows you to let go. It helps you understand it is not about you anymore. The other reason why I understood why she was having this conversation with me was because we often think alike. For about one year we had watched my grandpa deteriorate due to ‘his stroke’. Why it’s in quotes, for that one year we had believed that everything that was happening to my grandpa was because of his stroke. His loss of speech, his partial paralysis………….the list is endless. We blindly trusted his doctor, why wouldn’t we? He was/is one of the country’s top doctors in one of the leading private hospitals in the country. {In Kenya expensive ≠ quality}. On the night of his admission is when we learnt that his voice has disappeared because of this lump that had grown depressing his voice box.
When I say my granpa was the family patriarch I mean exactly that. We all made our major decisions after his input. We had to call him each night when we each got home. We had to visit him at least once a month, but we visited more often. Christmas was always with our side of the family, married or not, no compromise. He hated the men we dated and if he had his way we would all remain single. I vividly remember him stoning our boyfriends when we were growing up {Perhaps one would have been his grandson in law LOL}. He dropped us off to catch our school bus and each evening we found him waiting at the bus stop. Holidays had the boys interning at his store {He was a tailor}, the girls interned at my mum’s chemist or cafe {probably where we all got our entrepreneurial blood}. So it was hard, hard to see this man who had been such a pillar in the family waste away but it must have been harder for him. The strong man we knew looked like a baby in his bed, was on adult diapers, could not eat because it hurt. So with his final act of courage he said goodbye to his wife of 60 years and he rested. My granddad final act of courage was straightening my grandmum’s headscarf {Sometimes I think he had OCD} and giving her a thumbs up.
Four years ago on his anniversary on 13th December my big sister{Smol} walked down the isle and almost to the hour she took her vows and as the pastor read some words the family had written down in his honor, Big and I in our big dark sunglasses nodded, we understood, this day will always remain in our hearts.