I wrote this story back in 2017, retelling the events of the day my grandpa died.
Ūhora Gūka? means "How are you grandpa?" in Kikuyu.
I go upstairs to where Mum is wiping down the shelves in her bedroom. She starts on the bedside then goes to the end of the room by the retired and obsolete fireplace, lifting up trinkets and objects to wipe underneath them. "Mum, it's saying Dad's ID number is invalid. Do you want me to call them?" I’m trying to register both she and Dad for the government health program online.
"It's O.K." she says, "I'll just go to their offices -" she picks up a frame with my brother's photo in it and wipes underneath it "- and do it manually. Get ready.” Mum often talks like this – in fragments – where you think she’s done, but isn’t really.
"Mum, I'm not going anywhere today," I answer back like I’m still 15 years old. Mum has a habit of trying to get me out of the house as much as possible. And she likes to do this by suddenly announcing it to me when she has a chance. I wouldn’t call myself a hermit as such, but ever since being jobless after graduating college almost a year ago now, staying closed off in my room is far more appealing than the idea of being outside.
"You're not going to drive me to the hospital?" she asks. She doesn’t look at me during this whole conversation as she proceeds to clean the vanity, shifting jewelry boxes aside.
"Hospital?" I ask back in confusion.
"Your aunty has called to say Gūka's there." I remain quiet, standing still, trying to figure out what all this means. Gūka was in hospital in January, but he had been at his home now for two months with an in-house nurse. Gūka was diagnosed with cancer some years back, but within the last year he suffered the most, moving in and out of hospital.
“I told you he didn't look well on Sunday," she adds after a while.
"What else did Aunty say?" I ask, searching for the bits she’s left out. She says something that doesn’t really answer me, then moves to a small-framed Virgin Mary and dusts behind it, accidentally dropping it to the floor.
I go downstairs and check Whatsapp on my phone to find a message from Uncle, reading: Dad has rested. My eyes well a little as I read the replies from relatives on the family group: May the good Lord grant his soul eternal peace, May he rest in peace, and the like. I go back upstairs to find Mum starting on the bathroom now. I’m not sure what to say, so again I ask her,
"Mum, what else did Aunty say?" Still not looking at me, she surrenders with a sigh:
"I know what's happened." She continues mopping the ceramic tiles slowly.
Mum is talking to some relatives near the door of the hospital mortuary. I wait for her as she goes into the room with them. They come back out, solemn looking. Then she asks me if I want to go in and see him. There’s an engineer in there who asks if we are okay to see Gūka unsupervised, since the coroner has stepped out with the other relatives. Mum says it’s okay and without hesitation lifts the layers of sheets until my grandpa's face appears. He is dressed like a burn patient; every bit of his body covered in white sheets. I can’t help but think of the irony - he got burnt out in the end - fought hard, but lost. His face is so familiar, yet not at the same time. His skin tags, gaunt cheeks, motionless mouth all a familiar part of him – at least the cancer part that I’ve come to know in the past few months. His eyelids are closed; though if I look close enough I can see his grey right eyeball peeping through. It’s like every muscle on his face is at its most relaxed. Skin: flat, tinted yellow - jaundice? Maybe. No tense facial lines, no frown, just a blank face.
In all the old pictures I’ve seen of my grandfather, he does not smile. He does not frown either, but he stares –directly into the lens as if to challenge it to look away first. On he and Cūcū’s wedding day, he stared. Even on Mum’s wedding day, he stared. When he and Cūcū went to visit Dad’s village, he stared. When his sister got married in the 60s, and all the village neighbors squeezed into the photo, he stared. When he took his passport photos for a trip to England, he stared. Mum talks about Gūka being a strict disciplinarian when she was growing up. She says how he used to be so firm that it shocked her when she had kids and he would give them his love so freely, always with a joyful heart.
Mesmerized, I want to keep looking at him, convinced it will allow me to know this man better somehow – that he will stare back at me - right here, right now.
Mum touches his face as if she’s checking for a fever, and then says as though asking me,
"He looks peaceful?" She still is not looking at me.
My pastor says that whenever he goes to view a body he can always tell the ones that were ready to go and the ones that weren’t, all by looking at their faces. Some have a faint smile of serenity, while others grimace as if they’re trying to hold on. But Gūka shows neither. Truth is, I can’t really tell if he looks peaceful or not.
"Yeah," I answer, looking at her, seeing a smile almost appear on her face. Not long after, people come in to cover him in a green body bag, transfer him onto a stretcher, and drive him away.
On the way to Uncle’s house, I stop at a mall to get a KFC chicken burger. Mum has driven with one of my aunties to the house. She calls to ask me where I am and tells me to get a pizza for my teenage cousin, P. My grandpa is dead and I'm ordering pineapple on pizza.
When I get to the house, I see some relatives sitting on plastic chairs outside. One of them is my aunt who has been crying. I hug her and go inside to get her some water. Inside are my older aunts and my mum. I go to the kitchen and my cousin, S, walks in and hugs me. We start eating the junk food I got. P finds us, as though summoned by the pizza’s fragrance and starts scrutinizing the best pieces to dig into.
"When are those guys getting out of the living room?” he whines with a mouthful of pizza. He’s talking about all the relatives who have suddenly ten folded in number. “I want to play PS!" I want to say something judgmental, but realize I don’t care enough to. All three of us catch up around the kitchen table eating. S reprimands P for being childish, yet I take comfort from him failing miserably at being sentimental. He shows us his Instagram page with over 19K followers - impressing himself with the images he’s taken from the huge-ass wide lens my uncle bought him.
Moments later, my aunt, N, storms into the kitchen, silencing us:
"This is fucking depressing!" She looks me in the eye like I should say something – like I am supposed to say something - but I don’t. No one does.
She walks out in defeat, like she didn’t find what she was looking for. As if to take her place, her sister walks in and narrates to us how she heard about Gūka. N had shown up to her workplace, tricking her that they were going to buy meds for him. As she recounts it, her eyes bruise with red veins, looking us straight on. She says,
"This is the worst feeling ever. I would never wish this upon anyone. Not even my enemy."
Aunties, uncles, cousins, relatives of relatives, friends, and neighbors are drinking soda and tea. The men are drinking their brandys and whiskeys, the women are speaking in low tones in corners, others talking of people they knew who died of cancer, others just enjoying the hospitality or staring at the news on the TV. I hear P upstairs cursing over a first person shooter game.
Talks are held and upcoming meetings during the week are arranged. First for family, which is everyone but a few people, then for internal family, which is half of those people, then VIP family, which is about four people. Next thing I know, my older cousin is writing Gūka’s death announcement on her laptop. The plan is to send it in to the local newspaper by the following morning. She calls on S and I to help her with the names of our other cousins and their kids. I mention one particular cousin who isn't blood related, but still, we used to play hide and seek together. Without even considering she says,
"We don't know him," and starts typing the names of the remaining family members. S and I just look at each other.
I daydream a lot about Gūka. I see faint images of him in my mind – mostly random memories. The Gūka I knew was sweet, kind, and ever smiling. I would run up to him and hug him, forgetting about my shyness whenever I saw him. He was tall, pot-bellied, healthy, warm. He was classy – whether in his Mercedes or his uniform: suit and tie. Sometimes I see people who look like him from behind, and I stare until they turn to show their faces.
Whenever Gūka came around, he would kiss me on the cheek, like a happy big dog slobbers on its owner. I would always think it was gross, but sweet since he was the only one I would ever allow to do that. He did that to all of us, but still. He always looked pleased to see me and would ask me the usual questions: “How’s school?” “How old are you know?” He would call me Njeri, the name of his first wife, my grandmother, and I would feel so special – as if it were a unique nickname that was only used for me - when really, there are at least five Njeris in our family. He would make speeches in English at family gatherings, which Mum found awkward, wincing whenever he spoke. (“It’s because he taught himself how to speak English.”)
One Christmas gathering at his house he said, “This is the best day of my life,” in reaction to being amongst most of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I remember him being the most respected man in the room. I remember him being the most proud – even in the hospital bed; he still held his gaze up, challenging his sickness.
By evening, a funeral date is decided. Already, different family members have responsibilities. It hasn't even been 24 hours, I keep thinking. But maybe this is how they deal. Maybe it was Uncle drinking before he left for the hospital at one in the morning. Or maybe it was Aunty being the first one to arrive at the hospital. Or maybe it was Mum thoroughly cleaning her room that morning. Or maybe they haven't mourned at all.
The night pulls laboriously into midnight. Mum and I drive in silence on the way home.