My name is Patricia and I am going to die.
Not quite what you expected, I’m sure, but most times with death, you don’t expect it. Interesting though, how it’s the one inevitable thing.
I think about death quite a lot, in my day-to-day life. More often than I imagine is normal. This came to light on a road trip I took about a month ago with some friends to Meru. The trip is a long one by road; it took us five hours, which in retrospect, is not as long as a road trip to Mombasa, but if you had only mentally prepared for what you imagined would be a 2 hour drive, then it’s long. Eventually the music will get boring, all the hot stories and gossip will be exhausted, a couple of people will zone out and fall asleep or get lost in their books, iPods, daydreams or the internet, and what will be left is most probably tales that reflect our innermost manifestations based on how we tell them. I was the (self) designated driver, because I’m a bit of a control freak, so I had to stay alert. My only listener was in the back seat. About four hours in, he pointed out that of the different stories I had shared with him, all of them involved death in some way. I laughed nervously, thinking, “Wait, what?”
At our destination that evening, hanging out in the lounge, a couple of us reading our books, it dawned on me that the book I was reading at that moment, The Lovely Bones, was centered around death. I read to my friend, my avid road trip listener, the first line of the book.
“ My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
His jaw dropped.
The book I’m reading now, The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time, is about an autistic boy investigating the murder of his neighbour’s dog. It’s not a human death, but a death nonetheless. If you’ve ever lost a beloved pet, you may understand the comparison. I’d like to point out that I don’t usually seek out the books I read. I often feel like they find me, when they are supposed to.
My thoughts of death are not the grim kind. I don’t think about how death comes about, what kills people, what they endure or suffer to finally end up dead. I don’t think about the dying; the disease, the evil, or the accidents that result in death. My thoughts are mostly about the state of being dead. The opposite of being alive, of being here, on Earth, of being present. The fact that we shall all end up dead, without rhyme or reason. How no one is ever taught how to die, and it’s the one thing that we don’t go to school for, or sign up for a course, or workshop, or get better at with practice. Babies die, teenagers die, old folks die, and it can never be said that some people are better at dying than others. There’s no prize, and no declaration that a person scored a certain number of points or grades for dying. But then there aren’t any for living either.
I wonder what is it like being gone, what happens after someone has died, where they go (and by they I mean their souls/spirits or whatever essence it is that drives our bodies).
And then how do people move on, the people left behind? What are their lives like when afflicted by loss? Can you tell if someone has lost a loved one? Do they have a perpetual sliver of a shadow across their faces, or a slight lilt in their voices, even in the midst of laughter and celebration, that signals loss? And does that shadow grow bigger and bigger with every person they lose?
As a child, it was a given, in my head, that only the eldest in society died. Only cucus and gukas passed away because nobody lives forever. But when I was nine, my neighbour, Ivy, who was the same age as I was, died in a car accident. Now, Ivy, at the time, was a real life manifestation of all the traits that I had sadly, at my young age, already been taught by media and society, were most desirable. She was tall, and thin, light skinned, with long, chemically treated, light, straight hair and was deemed the most beautiful girl in the neighbourhood. She really did look like a Barbie doll. I was secretly in awe of her. But then she died, and it made no sense, because if anything she of all people must have been put on this earth to live a beautiful, charmed life. That was a confusing time and I was riddled with questions. Are children supposed to die? Did that mean I could die too? Did she go to heaven or to hell? We had done some bad things together so could it have been that she was burning in a lake of fire somewhere far beneath my feet while I got to continue playing shake and riding my bike? What if I died? Where would I go? Would my parents cry for the rest of their lives? That thought alone, that my folks would be left perpetually sad had me crying myself to sleep for the next few months, of course after saying a bedtime prayer and asking God for forgiveness for all of my transgressions of the day.
As I grew older, and I started watching, not just cartoons, but grown up movies and the news as well, and reading the papers, I became increasingly aware of more ways we could die. Plane crashes, starvation, stray bullets from cops or robbers, being a criminal and dying in prison from a lethal injection or electrocution, not living in a country with a super hero like Superman or Batman, having a very jealous lover who would stab you while you slept, or having lots of money and enemies who wanted it for themselves: I probably watched too much TV. But death was always over there. Far. Not too close. Not in my family.
Then a cucu of mine died in a car accident. She was my father’s aunt. I was twelve. I was devastated. I cried a lot. But I didn’t really show it to any one because why do we cry when people die? Loss? Painful loss. Awareness. How people die, I think also has a lot to do with it, the pain they must have gone through, imagining what their last moments must have been like, whether physical or emotional pain, and the fact that it almost always feels as though their lives were unfairly cut short. Because unless a person dies of old age then is it really their time to die? I’m pretty sure two hundred years ago airplane and car crashes, or radiation poisoning were nothing to worry about.
The bomb blast of 1998 happened. I remember that August morning. There was no school that day, as we had just closed for the holidays. I was in bed when I felt the windows rattle, although I’m not sure if that really happened or if that’s a false memory that implanted itself in the days after, just to make my version of the story more gripping. I was still twelve. At first I thought it was just a gang of robbers who planted one of those plasticine type explosives on the bank’s vault door, (again, too many movies) to rob the bank. But when images of what had really happened began to flood all the TV stations, a new form of fear made it’s way into my heart, my gut and my mind, coiling it’s way around my subconscious, and silently taking root as I realized there was an evil greater than the monsters I thought lurked under my bed in the dark, or the angel of death that claimed our people from us because it was the order of life. There was a facet of humanity that brought death to us too. There were people out there whose mission it was to kill others. Because they believed it was their calling, their claim to justice and loyalty to their beliefs and ideologies to kill as many people as they could. Al Qaeda became the name on everyone’s lips. The real life death eaters of the muggle world.
Since then there have been a slew of terrorist attacks across the world. I have tried to find a timeline of attacks since then and my jaw dropped at the numbers. That is a post of it’s own. And I wasn’t even talking about attacks before ‘98.
Living with this reality, that terrorism is now a given, and that a “terrorist attack” is the first thing that flashes through our minds when an electricity transformer explodes or a car engine backfires or an epileptic man rams into cars at a mall parking lot cannot be what our forefathers imagined when they envisioned the future. Heck, this wasn’t the world our parents thought they were bringing us into. Not a world where passenger planes can be hijacked and flown into buildings, or kindergarteners can be shot and killed at school, or people can be executed at a mall or bus passengers shot and killed one by one, or a town invaded and people massacred or university students slaughtered at school. How is this our reality?
Add to that wars over oil, disappearing planes, ebola, suicidal pilots, xenophobia, the list goes on. But where does it end?
That being said, I do realize that I am speaking from a privileged, self centered perspective, seeing as how in the face of all that’s happening I’m here going on and on about MY feelings and MY thoughts. There are people for whom death around them is as frequent as the sunrise. People for whom it’s a miracle to have their kids live past the age of five because hygiene is a luxury. Parents who send their kids to school praying they aren’t killed in a drone strike, or a suicide bombing. People who pray for the relief they anticipate death will provide, because life on earth is and always has been riddled with pain.
I feel as though the awareness of the many ways death can find us, of mine and my loved ones mortality as well as my countrymen and really all of humanity’s mortality has heightened my fears. And those fears have grown so large that they have spilled over into otherwise normal, mundane things. That show “A Thousand Ways To Die”, has in no way lightened the conversation on my part.
I find I eat a lot slower so as not to choke on anything, even air, and I always shower with rubber slippers on so that I don’t slip and I’m careful not to trip on anything in the house and crack my skull and die. (This happened to a friend last year.) I don’t walk too fast and I never lock the bathroom door incase of a heart attack or something. I always keep my phone close enough to press speed dial if I have to. I loved taking walks but I now not so much because I keep looking over my shoulder in case a driver is barreling towards me because he lost control. (This happened two weeks ago in Westlands, and a couple of years ago right outside where I live a bus plunged into a bust stop.) I don’t enjoy road trips as much as I used to because, you know, accidents, and flying nowadays almost always has me on the verge of a panic attack. Boda boda rides used to be fun, I was so good at them, I could even read a book because it’s all in the strength of your thighs gripping the bike but now, I hold on so tight to the boda boda guy that I have to peel myself off him when I’m getting off because apparently Kenyatta hospital receives a lot of boda boda accident victims. Any sharp pain anywhere in my body almost always has me thinking it’s a tumor and my addiction to Grey’s Anatomy and House probably has a lot to do with that. I get the shivers when I’m at the supermarket and standing in line at the till makes me very nervous. Being stuck in traffic is a nightmare and all these forwarded messages flying around warning us about potential terrorist attacks everywhere have me avoiding Whatsapp like the plague.
But most of all, I never, ever, ever journal or tweet or post on FB or anywhere about death or thoughts that could be linked to death and dying because I feel as though when people die, we look for any signs that they knew it was coming, and anything, even a mere “The air smells great today” post by someone who died could be taken as a “They must have known deep down it would be the day of their last breath” premonition. And I am not trying to bring anything onto myself so I always shut it down. But look at this post. Hmm.
With death comes the question.
And the phrases, depending on the circumstances;
Gone too soon.
It was their time.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
We loved them but God loved them more.
They got what they deserved.
They are in a better place.
May they rot in hell.
May they rest in peace.
Justice was served.
Such a senseless killing.
Their death was not in vain.
What do you say to people asking why? And what phrase do you use when someone passes? How do you pick a suitable one? Who or what decides that a death is senseless, or significant? Who picked the categories?
We all believe different things about death based on our different religious beliefs or lack thereof. How do we make sense of such events based on our varied beliefs? Some speak of spirits and visitations from those who have passed on with ease and normalcy while others believe those to be manifestations of evil, which we should guard ourselves against. A high school friend of mine lost her dad when we were in 2nd form. She kept saying how in the months after he would visit her in her dreams. Her Christian Union friends told her that that was a demon.
The Westgate attack was horrifying. Many have since spoken of how they would go there almost daily but on that day they were late meeting a friend who then died in the attack, or they couldn’t find parking and left or had planned to go but they just decided not to, or had been there earlier for some unsubstantial reason or other. There were those who died there. Men. Women. Children. The unborn. Are their souls still there, roaming the corridors? Are friends still friends, couples still couples, on that otherworldly plane, bonded in death? Or is there no such thing as life after death, just an eternal slumber?
The Garissa attack. The freshest atrocity on a list that should not even be in existence. The Garissa Attack has left us reeling. Another way no one ever imagined dying. Being massacred at school. At school. By strangers whose aim was to make a point based on religious ideology and patriotism. How do we make sense of that? How do you tell a father that the death of his only child, whose fees he had paid using a loan he took out, was the will of God? Was it? And if so then were the perpetrators playing a part in fulfilling God’s will? So many questions.
There were those who survived. Those who walked, ran or were carried out alive. Are they living fully, are they able to, or did a part of them die that day?
We, the living, who have never been dead, obviously, do not know whether the state of being dead will be different for everyone based on creed, colour, race, religion, orientation or origin. Do souls go to different places based on how they died, how old they were? How much they loved or were loved? Who they loved? We obviously believe different things that inform our living different ways.
We, the living; are we really living? Are we now carrying around with us, on our backs and in our hearts, a fear that taints everything we do? Are our daily lives less “lived” knowing that death could be in the next step? Is that normal? Reasonable? Is it okay that we are told that we just need to be more vigilant and not allow ourselves to be “killed like cockroaches’? What sort of vigilance by the slain students in Garissa would have saved them?
We, the living; are we carrying around with us guilt, for somehow still being here? For still being alive in the very same country that the Garissa University students also called home? For still being able to go about our lives with barely a bruise on our psyche? Social media is rife with disclaimer hashtags being added to selfies and posts and pictures of fun and life continuing as normal, saying #IfWeStopLivingTheyWin #KeepLiving.
Is there an appropriate amount of time that should lapse before it’s okay to go back to regular posts and jokes and memes? Are we being insensitive by not broadcasting our grief and rage? And how do we tell whose posts expressing shock and horror and dismay and sadness accompanied by the appropriate hashtags are genuine and not just for PR? Is angst on social media now required? Demanded? Is there a required number of posts that should be made after such events? What is the right thing to do? And does it only matter if our deeds come with a public declaration and a requisite photo op at Chiromo and the obligatory hashtag? Are we being judged for not “speaking out” on what has become the mandatory medium of expression? Lupita recently got lots of flack for “speaking out too late”. Is that really fair? Are our feelings and grief not valid unless we transcribe them onto the Internet for all and sundry? When did we make this about us?
What should we do?
And when did this ever become a regular topic?
Are we really living anymore, or just getting by until it’s our turn to go?
What do you feel? What do you believe? What do you hope for?