Every now and then, in chasing life’s summits, I come upon some loose rocks and find myself on unsure footing. During such times, it’s comforting to turn back to the warmth of my mother’s food and be a child again for a bit. In my mother’s house, it’s okay to make mistakes and not know how to fix them. Everything can be mended with a fresh kettle of tea and a healthy dose of real talk. As a bonus, there’s nothing like sibling drama to remind you that your life is not as bad as you think it is.
Today is one such day. In the morning, the first officer assigned to my flight caught me absent-minded. I was pacing on the airside, checking my phone one last time before I had to put it on airplane mode. He’s one of those preppy kids who didn’t have to wait until they were 23 to see the inside of a cockpit, because their daddy is a senior captain. The kind that have been told they are smart all their life. The kind that have been encouraged to question the Captain’s decisions if they don’t agree with them. The entitled, annoying kind, in short. It was an exhausting flight back from Maputo. I checked my phone as soon as I landed and Mel still hadn’t called. I figured she would have mellowed out after the fight we’d had, as is her way. I guess not.
I was feeling too restless to go home, so I drove to my mother’s place instead. As we caught up over Masala tea, I sat there feeling staggered at how easy our interactions have grown. Like most other children, my parents were my heroes when I was little. I remember what it was like having that idea shattered, like a rag being flung from under my feet. I felt so let down when I had to confront the new reality of their failings, accept that they are regularly prone to mistakes, that they don’t in fact know everything, and that in the grand scheme of things, they could have been doing better but were not.
My solution was to smoke a cigarette I stole from Mugo’s stash behind the chicken barn. I sat cross-legged on a pile of old timber and thought; this is what adulthood is all about. It was a flimsy attempt to take control of my life and I remember feeling like a bona fide James Bond. Ha-ha! The naivety. (I dropped the James Bond act, but kept the cigar habit.)
Now that I’m older and have had a glimpse of what our parents had to deal with, (pre-internet, parenting books and fatherhood blogs), I have a greater appreciation for what they accomplished. Of course, I’m not candid enough with my mother to talk to her about Mel. But when she asks to spend the weekend at my house, that, I cannot refuse her. It is not entirely unselfish. I feel unanchored when things with the most significant women in my life are turbulent, and I need at least one relationship that is still intact.
Later, on the way home, Mother asked to stop at the market. I told her there was no need to buy anything since I was overdue to go to Marikiti, but she insisted that she must not come empty-handed. As she haggled with the vendor, I thought I heard my phone buzzing in my pocket. There was a leaping in my chest as I took it out hoping to see Mel’s name on the screen, but it was a phantom vibration. I resigned myself to staring out into the jungle of fruit stands sullenly, wondering whether Njambi was home from work yet.
The piles of tomatoes and avocadoes reminded me of our lives in our 20s. I would spend all day poring over training manuals and in the evening, when Njambi was still at work, I’d swing by the veggie stand outside our house. It was the tomatoes and avocadoes I always had trouble picking out. She liked them ripe, but not too ripe. Her face would light up when she’d come home to my cooking. It was so easy to make her happy back then. It brought me such contentment when she would say, “You always know what to say.” I knew what to do and it made me so proud of myself.
Then I remember when I brought her home from the hospital without the baby – horrible car ride. She sat with open palms on her lap and a broken look, like the lights were off and nobody was home. It made me miserable to see her face like that. I didn’t know what to do about the milk coming in, or the baby weight she couldn’t stand to look at in the mirror, or how to keep the baby’s smell in the little blanket he was wrapped in. I started fixing things around the house: the creaky door to the pantry, the leaky tap in the laundry room, that bedroom window that wouldn’t close all the way. Everything she always wanted fixed that I always said I would and never did. Everything but her. Her, I didn’t know how to fix.
I told Mwai this over a bottle of whiskey on a slow Tuesday afternoon. He patted me on the shoulder with a ‘pole bana’, fraught with awkward uncertainty over what else to say. People at her work and mine rallied. They settled all our medical bills. Her mother stayed with us a few days and took care of her, but eventually, she left. Everyone went back to their lives. The silence settled between us. Nothing I did lit her up.
When I moaned about not knowing how to fix her, it was Mel who told me, “She doesn’t need to be fixed. She can fix herself. She needs some space, but she also needs to know you are there. She needs to know that she’s not alone.”
Out of frustration, I complained to her about everything that I had tried to cheer Njambi up – ranted about it. Then I told her my action plan and concluded with, “There’s only so much I can do.”
She shook her head in that way that you-are-hopeless way that women do. So, I allowed the vulnerability to inundate me and said, “I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
She told me to post a sticker on the bottom half of the mirror to remind Njambi that she is beautiful. “And resist the urge to unveil it to her like a museum artefact. Men do that sometimes and they’re so proud of themselves. Just leave it there for her to find.”
I bought a bunch of wall stickers that said ‘beautiful’, ‘flawless’, ‘loved’ and stuck them on the bathroom and closet mirrors. When Njambi found them, she cried. A lot. I panicked. I started to think that maybe Mel was not my go-to gal for advice. In fact, I started to think that she had fed me a bad idea on purpose because women can be devious, conniving and plain old crazy. Then Njambi wiped her cheeks and thanked me for being so thoughtful.
A few days afterwards, she said she wanted to start swimming again. I offered to drive her to the usual place but she seemed hesitant. I was confused. Mel told me, “Take her to one of those club pools. You know the ones without all the squealing children?”
She made it sound so simple. I felt bad for ever doubting her. Every few weeks she would sit by my side, small feet tucked under her thighs, and listen to me venting without tiring. I marveled at this innate ability she had to nurture and be intuitive. I came to depend on her. Being with her was like coming up for air and my, was she a lovely breath of fresh air. I’ll admit that when my eyes blurred, the lines blurred too. It was never a pressing issue for me to deal with though, so I didn’t have it at the fore of my mind when I teased her about moving to Bahrain with me. You just had to go and say something thoughtless and mess with her feelings. Tsk. Now she won’t return your calls. She might never return your calls.5