I remember the last time I was here. Eyes swollen with a hint of red, with an oily face just like the next person not accustomed to the Mombasa heat. I had just been seating on a chair for the past 15 hours and mahn was I tired. I wasn’t sweating so that was good but for the first time, I was not glad to be back home.
I remember walking into the room that morning with my mom beaten down on the doorstep, crying. That’s after passing an array of grieving women I did not look at. For the first time in my adult life I held my mom (this is not a thing in my family) and all it took me was to say, “Subra in shaa Allah, patience” to make her burst into more tears.
She then looked up at me and blurted, “Have you seen your grandmother?” Now obviously I had not, I had just arrived. She pointed me inside.
I had a hard time finding walking space in this packed room of relatives that I kind of knew. At the end of it was a white curtain contrast to the orange painted walls. Behind it I was greeted in tears by 3 of my grandmother’s daughters and my grandfather’s sister, old, so understandably she was calm at the face of loss.
And there she was, my grandmother. They lifted the veil off her face and god was she beautiful. Even with mucus escaping her nose to be wiped off by an aunt seated next to her, she was still her. Only now with an extra layer of coldness I noticed when my hands made way to her face. I stared at her for 2 straight minutes and if I’m honest, I felt nothing.
I looked into my grandmother’s face trying hard to feel something. This was why I came all the way from Eldoret after all when I received my mom’s phone call the previous day. But there I was, empty. A void where the feels should have been. I’d lost the bliss that was ignorance because I knew deep inside that she wasn’t there. That that was just a casing and not her. If my goal was to see her one last time, I was far too late.
I remember the last time I walked into this same room, crying. It was in 2007 and I was from a school trip, class 5 if I’m not wrong. Pouring into my grandmother’s house again was an even bigger multitude of people. This time I greeted around everyone as I walked inside, ugly crying. God! Was I raised right.
I remember stepping into the same room, only that this time there was no body to see. This was when I knew that in the face of grief, this room was set for the closest family who surprisingly were always not the loudest of criers. The contest happened outside of it.
So I walked around greeting all the women in the room hearing whispers of “who’s kid is that” and “he was there when it happened.” My grandmother growing impatient pulled me to her by both my tiny arms shaking the daylight out of me.
“Is Musa still alive?”
She said that in between shortness of breath, struggling to grasp for air, the tears and all that. I could feel the urgency surging through her, that of a restless mother having received news of having lost a son while having no information on her other two who went on the same trip.
“Yes,” I said in between sobs.
“Is Salim still alive”
I found it even harder to look at her with the depth of sadness her eyes reflected.
And she let go, merging herself with the wall, sobbing, like a mother drowning in concern for her remaining kids.
My uncle had died drowning trying to save some drowning kids, my school mates, on our end of the term trip. I was among the lucky few who was stopped before getting a chance to show off my swimming skills which he had taught me in our previous holiday. Sadly, the tide was not on our side.
At first everyone thought it a joke. When the others shouted for help saying the water was pulling them in. And before the rest of us could get in the water, we were instructed to get out. They were actually drowning.
We waited outside, anxious, as more and more students were being pulled out of the water. The next thing that happened I could’ve sworn was from a Bollywood scene if I wasn’t there to witness it. This girl, my classmate, Kulthum, among the last ones to be taken out, came running across the other side of the shore in slow motion, crying as she drew near to us. She let out a scream, words that shook us all, “Director ankuufaaaaa, The director is dead” as she fell at her sister’s feet, passing out. And then there was silence as we all wore the same expression, shocked.
I remember the first time I was around when death was lurking in these walls. It was 2001 and I was just from school, K.G 2 if I’m right. There was hardly anyone who didn’t live in that house present. I walked into my grandparent’s room and my grandfather was sleeping peacefully on his bed. I tried waking him up only to be stopped by my grandmother who told me to let him be, he’s tired.
I was ushered away and together with some of the other kids, taken to buy something from the shop, a distraction. Coming back, there was a swarm of people already there. Never in my life had I seen adults wailing that much. Crying is for kids, that’s what I might have thought.
“Aunty Ami, what is happening?” I asked the first adult-looking person that was close.
“Your grandfather just passed on.”
“You’re never going to see him again”
“Why is that?”
“Cause that’s what dying means.”
“He’s gone to heaven?”
“To be with God?”
And she burst out crying.
And though confused, I somehow understood.
Cousins my age from all over would come in later that day and I was so happy I had people to play with.
As far as social gatherings go, the weddings just bring people together, but it’s the deaths that pull us closer. They leave the biggest of impacts. Memories aren’t people, memories are places; both in our minds and some anchored outside. In rooms like this one.
Now that I’m back home, stepping into this room, I can’t seem to shake the thoughts I always think. Of the next time the multitudes will be here; probably to see me.