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It is in these shoes that I nipped into Nairobi Hospital’s main entrance block at about 5 pm on a rather serene Tuesday. It seems inconsequential, but it sits entrenched in the hollows of my mind. This was the third time I was visiting a hospital to see a loved one; the first, circa 2007 and the second twelve years later – 2019, both – close kin.

My dad and I went past security and body temperature checks and into the precincts of the building. I trotted behind him trying to keep up with his pace through the labyrinthine hallways. We strutted up a spiral ramp and into the virgin white soaked vestibule of the ICU wing.

We obtruded into an eerily loud silence, almost ominous. A stout middle-aged white woman was perched by the seat closest to the door, painstakingly peering at her phone. A security woman had her head cocked down noting something behind her immense desk. A couple stood by the desk; a presumable 60-year-old burly silver-maned geezer and his missus. They were there to see a son, transferred from the COVID-19 unit, I overheard from the sonorous voice stemming from the man’s gut. His wife was rather silent.

It was nippy in there, the archetypal hospital environment; quietude, mutters and a wintry ambience. Exacerbating my qualms I clenched my baseball jacket, nestling it closely and insecurely. A woman walked from the door beside the desk and made a beeline for the white woman; a friend I supposed, they had a pithy confer and briskly stepped out.

We were one hour past the allotted visiting time, my dad cooed to the security woman, placating her to let us in for ten minutes tops. She was unimpressionable, a time stickler with a foot on the ground and was deservedly but almost adamant to relent. Only my dad is an inherent marketer, with finessed persuasive chops. She plucked some civility and yielded, with a subtle caveat. I appended my name and signature and pronto she led us in.

My stomach churned in apprehensiveness as we walked through the door and a second door that opened up into a pristine blindingly clean long lobby with conspicuously clear ICU rooms abutting each other on both sides. Inside, a festering visceral fear threatened my precarious stoicism.

At one point, as I walked last in line, a male doctor walked against us. I wanted to turn back and follow him outside. I was dubious I had the fortitude to stomach an ICU ward. When the word ICU is mentioned it innately embodies a macabre disposition, it is perceived as a waiting room where folk straddle life and death. It has this looming connotation of bleakness. That might be true, partly.

The rooms were all partitioned rooms of clear glass, I maintained a tunnel vision to avert cocking my head to the sides. I gazed down and followed my old man and the security guard, not cognizant of how hard I was now holding onto my jacket. We passed two nonchalant female nurses seated before computers at a miniscule work station, their faces stoic, chiseled by making their bones amongst the sick. We forged forward. The femme guard suddenly stood before a rather small open entrance sans a door and motioned us in, promptly walking away. The ship had now sailed, this was it.

The closest I’ve been to the inside of an ICU unit has been limited to films; a cluster of kith and kin with glum and grim faces, huddled before a bed, overlooking a patient heaving with assisted breathing. A poignant cloud hanging over their heads like a malevolent hallow. Vacuously, that’s how I perceived this interaction was going to be. It wasn’t, this was.

My dad went through the door, I followed meekly. First, my hands went frosty from anxiety, then my throat perched – my lips soon followed, not long after, I could feel the reverberations of my heart palpably throbbing underneath my chest. That usually happens when I’m fretty, on that day – there – in that room, I was absolutely petrified. Nothing preludes you to seeing a loved one in the hospital, patently not movies. It’s a disarrayed indescribable ambivalence of emotion.

Give or take a few, thirteen years ago as a kid, i stood by my grandfather’s hospital bed, not quite apprehending why babu couldn’t get up and come back with us home. All i remember was him giving me milk because he didn’t have the palates for it. That was the last time i saw him alive. Fast-forward to 2021, more than a decade later – I’m standing by his missus, Grandy.
My eyes subconsciously examine her; pacifically napping to her right side. Draped to her abdomen in a soft white blanket. Her wonted small frame tracing under it. Swathes of bandage wound mid-forehead and above the top of her head. Whatchamacallits running from her fingers, weaving their way under her white blanket, beside the bed and making their way into that monitor that tracks the pulse and whatnot, interspersing the air with an electronic beeping sound. I stifled a sigh when I unraveled she wasn’t hooked to a ventilator. We stood in quietude, taking it all in – in what seemed like eons was only but a few seconds in real time.

“Mama,” my dad crooned in a falling cadence.

There was something in the way he called her that was a tad jarring. There was something in his tone that conveyed nakedness, vulnerability, hollowness and even contrition. It is disconcerting seeing your dad in that state, emotive. Not as a man, not as a breadwinner, not as anything else. That man standing right there was not my dad, that man was a mother’s son yearning to see his mom get better. Seeing someone that has for most of my life been a ball of machoism personified was confounding but also awakening.

“Mirembe uru,” she acknowledged, drifting out of sleep and exuding a yawn.

It’s a Luo greeting, what she said. An archaic nicety whose semantics i have never really apprehended. It is akin to saying ‘Hail fellow’ when you could say ‘hello’. Suffice to say, i stayed mum in obscurity.

“Mirembe Mama,” my dad rejoined.

She shifted her eyes to me, smiling, “Nyathi ubiro”. “Eh, wabiro,” i replied, my throat recovering from the degeneration it had morphed into.

She rarely calls me by my name, she calls me ‘nyathi’ which translates to child/kid notwithstanding the fact that i’m now slightly taller than my father. But you wouldn’t mind being called a child by a doting grandmother, occasionally stern but nonetheless perpetually loving grandma.

We perched on two opposite leather chairs at opposite corners of the room and set on a discourse. Which was more like my dad was talking to her mom and i was eaves dropping, obtruding like an obstinate pimple. She told him she was doing fine, no pain whatsoever. She looked fine to me, a little weary but rather better than i had presumed. Her face was clearer than the last time i had seen her, which was early last year. The food was good, she said. Her doctor was a jango too, which augmented their conversation, see my grandma doesn’t speak much Kiswahili, neither does she speak much English and i would rather not broach that, i’d digress too much.

The whole conversation was in Luo, which i wouldn’t bother translating as it is arduous and the essence will be lost. Some words are hallowed, translating them would be pissing on their dignity. I wouldn’t write in verbatim either, as i don’t know the precise spellings of most Luo words. Have you ever tried reading from a vernacular bible? Imagine re-writing that whole bible in English – sounds like a pain. My grandma is a staunch catholic, she reads from a Luo bible, i can’t.

I turn to my back and i catch a gander of some guy (not so sure) lying in the room opposite my grandma’s. He’s stasis, his face plugged to an oxygen mask, unmoving. That’s how i imagined all people in ICUs are, it’s unnerving seeing someone in that state. It reminds just how you’re insulated from such realities when you’re healthy. That when you’re remonstrating on Twitter over Nairobi gridlock, someone is fighting for their life. I look forward intuitively, such images have a proclivity to linger in my mind, i don’t want it to etch in, too late as i’m writing this i can see him.

The conversation between my dad and his mom lumbers on, dotted with small pockets of silence for her to take a breather. I’m completely taken by the sheer intricacies of the room. How studious and elaborately things have been put together. My eyes catch a glimpse at a catheter peeking underneath her bed and emptying into a thingamajig bag, i dart away like a prim who’s just seen their friends knickers.

“Udhi skul?” she quizzes, turning her head towards me.

“Skul adhi ka iga ni…ka dwe ni rumo,” i revert, cobbling up some Luo from my repertoire, cocking up the communication along the way.

She wears an expectant face, she hasn’t quite grasped my rickety answer. I’m currently on internship, so i’m not going to school at the moment and i don’t know how to impart that in a way she would perceive. My dad chimes in, explaining what i’m doing. My grandmother scoffs, she laments over the lousy job situation in the country. It’s that conspicuous the mess our government has made with prospective employment that it even gives my grandmother qualms.

Outside, a nurse in blue scrubs wheels away someone in an ICU bed. The aforementioned female guard walks past, we had outrun our time here, she went past, just slightly turning her head to glance at us.

It is time to leave, we have overstayed and we need to let grandy get a breather. My uncles were there earlier in the day. My dad promises to visit her the next day early, she dismisses him. We bid her bye and step out, shuffling along the hallway and out of the ICU and into the florid hallways again.

Later that night as i lay in bed staring at the ceiling, i thought about grandy. How she is spending the night alone with no kin nearby as we all lay healthy in bed. I recollected how early she usually wakes up in shags, how hard she prays before stepping out of her bedroom. I shut my eyes and muttered a prayer for her, since her prayers play a part in keeping us sane and safe wherever we are. Likewise, I asked God to heal my grandmother, to let her go back home to the low throb of the Southern Nyanza countryside.

Last Sunday; as the world heaved on with activity, my grandmother was going under the knife to extract a diabolic tumor that had furtively sneaked into her head. A cowardice tumor that couldn’t pick on someone its own size and opted to set prowl and prey on an aging woman seeing out her twilight years. As i joshed around and killed time waiting for a football match in oblivion, grandy was unconscious in the operating room.

She is better now, the surgery was successful. I hope she gets stronger soon.


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