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There's a strange moment after something terrible happens, when time itself seems to stand still.
This was the moment I experienced on the night of August 18, exactly 24 years ago.
I was at a friend’s house during the August school holidays, pretending I was visiting my pal.
Kumbe it was the kid sis that I had an eye on. Because I was that kind of nerdy neighbour in high school, who parents like because they know you are harmless (too useless to get a peck, let alone a pregnancy, in with their daughter), I had been asked by their mother to stay over for dinner.
I still recall that KTN News had just started on TV, so, shortly after 9pm, when there was the loud buzz of the doorbell. My friend Rick was standing there at the door, with tears rolling down his face.
"What is it, Rick?" I shouted, almost shaking him in my panic, because Rick was one of those ‘cool as a cucumber’ kinda guys, who seem most unencumbered by life.
‘Your mum …’ he said, then his voice choked up, and I heard myself begin to moan: ‘No, no, no, no …’
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I thought of mum then. She would already be in bed because she was one of those ‘early to bed, and early to rise’ people, the latter bit something I myself inherited from her.… Her hair would be all stuffed up in her sleeping cap, her small face, sweet and quiet on the pillow.
Rick had regained himself.
In measured tones, how much effort it took that 19-year-old boy to control his tone so, I’ll never know, he said: ‘Tony, your mum just collapsed. But she has been taken to hospital. She will be okay.’
Very quietly, I replied: ‘You lie! My mother has died.’
Then Rick’s face was trembling, his lips shaking, and he reached out to hold me.
I slipped under his arms, and ran out of the compound, and ran onto the road and into the night, like a small, wild, wounded animal trying to outrun the pain of an arrow already inside it, streaming grief behind me like a river, not knowing yet that the heart would forever afterwards be a building standing on the riparian land of sorrow; but that tomorrow would be the first day of a very different life.
A life that had no mother in it.
I remember running to a playing field we used to call ‘Bombay Park’ because it was set in a small West crescent with lots of Kenyasian families occupying flats around it.
Then I lay on my back on the grass, staring at a moon that seemed to occupy way too much space in the night sky, a large, white merciless orb shining its pitiless light down on a lad who had just ‘lost’ his mother; and I cried and cried and cried until I felt my head go light, even as an awful pain tore at my heart, so that I held my chest and tried to remember that I was way too young for cardiac episodes.
I think I stayed hiding in the grass of ‘Bombay Park’ for a good, really very bad, two or three hours.
Of all things, that is what I remember most from that night, it is how very quiet that tiny park was, and how full and white and bright that moon was in the night sky, shining with a light that did not seem quite right.
And I had the same strange idea that maybe if I just lay on my back in the park, without moving forever and ever, I could keep our family the way it was. I wouldn’t wake up from this nightmare to find out it was real life, and that the only mum we had ever had – my brother, my sister and I – was now forever gone.
If only I could freeze time for just one more minute, and one more after that, that if I stayed in ‘Bombay Park’ till the sun came up, then maybe I would walk home at dawn, and mum would open the door the way she had last December – after I sneaked out to go to Carnivore with Mocks and Ndinda– and say in her soft way: ‘Wherever did you go to, Tony? I was worried sick about you.’
I thought: I am the first born. Now I am going to have to go home, and comfort Carol, and lie to Benjy that everything is going to be alright.
And I left Bombay Park, and with legs of lead, trudged my way home, now a crib without a mum.