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By Tony Mochama

Today is Mother’s Day.

Incidentally, it is also this writer’s birthday – the 15th I’ll be celebrating without her in the picture. Which then makes me think of the very meaning of the word – ‘birthday’. Why is it conjoined, when really it ought to be ‘birth day’?

Your birth-day, the day a person is born, is the second most important date in their life, and only because the Bible tells us so. In Ecclesiastes, I read: "And the day of death is better than the day of birth."

Unto ashes we may return but it is from our mothers’ wombs that we all come into this world.

For me, as it is for us all, one cannot recall their birth day, or even their next first few birthdays (only photos of babies staring uncomprehendingly into camera lenses). But mothers never forget the day their child comes into the world.

Mugging for the camera

My little brother was born exactly ten days short of my fourth birthday, and sepia-toned pictures of a grinning four-year-old me, mugging for the camera even then, and the dazed snaps of Ben at ten, ten days old that is, tell the story of how his baby shower and my fourth birthday were jointly celebrated in that time that seems so long ago.

The following May 9, as I turned five, my mom gave me a set of storybooks for my birthday, half a dozen, of the ‘colour picture’ type on one side, and text on the other side.

To this day, I can still recall them with picture-perfect clarity – The Magic Porridge Pot, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Rip van Winkle’ and The Brave Tailor of Bremen.

Sixteen days later on the night of May 27, mother got the first of her two ‘cerebral incidents’ (fancy doctor synonym for a stroke). The second one, 14 years later, would take her from this world forever. But first there was those six months of May-November, as her life hangs in the balance, to survive.

His new mom

Little Ben, at just one, had no idea what was going on naturally, and quite naturally adopted a domestic help called Peninah as his new mom. Why Peninah stayed on those six months, without being paid a penny, I’ll never know.

I was five, and so alive to the fact that something had just gone very wrong, very topsy-turvy, in our lives — but I didn’t know quite how tough; didn’t know that as Penny walked me to-and-fro All Saints’ kindergarten to Nairobi West every day, just up yonder that hill and past Community, a life-and-death struggle was going on in a hospital room.

I do know that I dove very hard into my six fairy tale books – that I could smell the porridge in that magic pot, see wicked Rumple smash his foot into the palace floor, see Cinderella’s turnips turn to marvellous carriages, ready to ferry her off to the palace party, hear the wicked Queen scream at her magic mirror, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?", see grass grow around poor Winkle as he slept and feel the pride of the tailor as he roared "seven in one blow".

Meanwhile, up at the hospital, it was a different kind of story that was keeping mom alive, the sort that has kept women and mothers going through hellfire and back — "Whatever will my poor little children do if something happens to me?"

So mother literally willed herself back to life through that darker ‘what if I die?’ narrative, and by the end of that year, had fulfilled the promise she had made to herself as she lay in the ‘shadow of the valley of Death’ (which is quite different from ‘the valley of Death’). That promise was that she would be with us children to celebrate the Christmas of that darkest of years.

So although that story is not quite a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ending — my mom’s cerebral incident left her half paralysed — the ending could have been really grim, if she had died, with dire consequences for us, her sons.

Promises mother made and kept

And that was the first of many promises mother made and kept to us. She promised she would get back to work, and a year after her stroke (and to the amazement of all) she was back in the bank she worked for — where she eventually rose to become a corporate affairs’ manager.

"Disability is not inability," she would say before adding, with dark humour, "unless it is in the brain!"

By the time of her second fatal ‘brainstorm’, mom had kept every promise she had made to God in that hospital if she was given more years – not just to educate her children, but also to be an ardent follower of the Lord, and God knows what other promises I’ll never know.

She went to church before work or in the evening after work, every single day of her life — and I went with her willingly, happy to cross myself with the cool water of the basilica, and sit in silence, enjoying mom’s devoted, prayerful silence.

When adolescent checked in and I was too embarrassed to go to church with mom (besides, I had begun to question religion in my mind), my little brother happily took over this role.

And, ah yes, the stories — those first six books my mother gave me I have read all my life. So I guess this is my birthday story — and the greatest gift my mother gave to me.