Since February 2016, my life has been scheduled around my mother’s.
Waiting in hospitals. Waiting for test results. Waiting as she got chemo. Waiting in the interval between chemo sessions. Waiting during radiotherapy sessions. Waiting to see if this or that drug will cause an allergic reaction. Waiting to see if the needle has been inserted into the chemo port correctly. Waiting for her hemoglobin numbers to improve. Waiting for her platelet numbers to improve. Waiting for improvement.
Waiting does not feel empty. Waiting fills emptiness. As with cancer regimens, all I can do is attempt different formulations. Perhaps this will work. Perhaps that will work. But that is wrong. Everything works. It’s a question of the kind of work, whether it heals or harms. Cancer treatment does both. We dare not imagine cure.
My mother’s birthday was on September 24. She turned 74. She died on September 29. In the birthday pictures, she looks gaunt, already elsewhere, never quite looking at those looking at her. The pictures tell what I’d refused to admit. It’s not that I didn’t know she was dying. I had read the death literature and I was looking for signs I could recognize. They—who?—say there’s no such thing as a textbook death, but I am a muthomi, a person of the book, descended from athomi.
My rhythms feel off. I haven’t slept in five days. I’ve lost my appetite for the first time in my life. I’m not worried about the appetite—it will return. I do not think I’m scared of my dreams, but I might be afraid to wake up from sleeping. If I can defer sleeping and waking up, perhaps I can remain in waiting time, familiar time. I know she’s dead. I will not use euphemisms. I am sad. My rhythms feel off. I’m no longer boiling oxtail so she can drink soup, measuring out Ensure so she can have some nutrition, making endless cups of tea for visitors, monitoring her oxygen levels, half-sleeping so I can hear if she needs me in the middle of the night, trying to tempt her with fruit.
My rhythms were already syncopated to match hers, and now I’m more than several beats off.
There was care and there was work, and the enmeshment of the two. I was—I am—exhausted.
In the presence of those who loved her, I grieve. Grief transfers and I will not stop my tears. In the presence of those who love me, I grieve. The first few times I had to say she was dead, I could not say it without breaking down. A catch in my voice. A stray tear. I’m grateful, now, for funeral announcements, for those who spread the word so that I don’t have to.
I had forgotten the sensation of fresh grief. How it cuts, how it pauses the breath. How it arrives in unexpected moments. The first time I returned to her room after leaving the body at the hospital morgue, I broke down. Some breakdowns are public, unavoidable. Others demand privacy, a room to sit, a wall to lean against, a bed to lie on. Nairobi does not have enough water for me to attempt crying in the shower.
For once, I am grateful to bureaucracy. After the doctor had pronounced death, I had to pay the hospital a consultation fee. And then I had to pay to have her admitted into the hospital system, so the body could be discharged from the morgue. Collecting this letter here and that form there. There is something soothing about the distraction of bureaucracy, though, it, too, is deferral.
Perhaps fresh grief is this: moving across she/her and the body. Her body. The body. Not knowing which is more appropriate with which audiences. Who needs to hear her? Who needs to hear the body? Who needs to hear her body? In what sense can this body be hers? Devoid of anything we recognize as life, it is now ours. Or it belongs to itself. And to the earth that will receive it.
I elected not to write an obituary or eulogy. To find safety in the banal sentences that others will write, formulaic, saying all the right things, the necessary things. Should time be kind, I will find the words to write her, to write us, in the years to come. To find the forms I need to inhabit grief and its afterlives.