There is a bottle of Monkey Shoulder on the table when I walk into her hotel room. She made me come all the way to Sagana for this interview. Her glass has a finger of whisky in it. No ice. This wouldn’t be a detail worth reporting but it is high noon on a Tuesday. Day drinking is drinking before 5pm and after 3pm on a Thursday. This is something else. She doesn’t ask me if I want a drink, she asks “Ice or no Ice?” It’s awkward, the position she’s put me in. I just recently quit drinking. It is 2020. It is a resolute resolution. I do not want to disappoint her by answering but I can’t also pretend she didn’t ask me the question. I stare blankly and say, “Eh?” You know, the way Kenyans say it when they have heard you and they do not want to answer, so they feign temporary deafness? Like that. She says, “Pardon me, of course you will want Ice!” She uses a silver spoon to scoop huge chunks of ice into a fancy frosted base glass with a tilted bottom. When she’s settled down she sits across from me, stretching her long legs on the lazy boy recliner.
She says, “Ok, look, I know it is Tuesday and I shouldn’t be drinking at noon, but Christmas and the holidays are hard. The hard stuff helps me cope.” She pauses and stares blankly at the muted TV. It’s a Beyonce performance at the superbowl. Even without sound, it is still spectacular to watch. “Tell me about her, tell me about your cousin.” I nudge.I still need to get back to Nairobi and my ancient manual subaru has a habit of coughing coughing once it starts to get dark.
“It has been so long and yet I cannot believe she is gone…’ Her voice trails off. For the next 3 hours my recorder picks up this story. My heart is broken and despite every part of my body wanting that drink she poured me, it remains untouched on the stool before me. Nobody was ready. No one saw it coming. It never occurred to them that she would die. 8 years later, it seems unreal. She cries freely. It is hard to see someone cry. I wasn’t ready for the wave of emotion that suddenly attacked me. It was overwhelming.
Sandy had passion. She loved deeply and disliked deeply. She had a range of emotion that was eerily intense. If Sandy loved you it was unconditional and warm and everlasting, if she disliked you, she wore it on her face. She didn’t have a single pretend bone in her body. All of her emotion was worn on her sleeve. She was the 1st born in a family of 3 and the only girl. They all went to boarding school pretty early and being the eldest she took care of them, her 2 brothers. She was like their mom, but as they grew older, she was a princess and they protected her as fiercely as they could. They, Sandy and her brothers, are my first cousins on my Dad’s side. We were neighbors and attended the same primary school. We saw each other every day, Played together and hang out. It is super cool when your neighbors are your cousins. They weren’t like next door neighbors, but it was pretty much the same town and so it was like we were neighbors. Sandy was the cool and popular one. She had her hair permed and was the envy of her entire class. As we grew we drifted a bit but everyone was doing school, growing, doing life. Every time we met, we would make promises to hang out more, to go partying or on road trips. Regretfully, these were promises that were never kept.
Sandy’s younger brother JM is closer to my age so we are best friends. We would hang a lot more. And so I was able to keep in touch with Sandy through JM. I didn’t love her any less, we were kids, we didn’t know the value of connection and keeping in touch and investing time in the people you love. Being older now I am more deliberate about my relationships. I know tomorrow is never guaranteed. No one is immortal and therefore, I always ensure I see the people I love and tell them I love them. You know, it is sad to wait and be taught this by the cruel hand of death.
Sandy had been having headaches for quite a long time, intense headaches. Often when her head would hurt, she would have to lay down and rest. We all always assumed that the headaches were eye-related. She was short-sighted. The headaches were infrequent and thus despite them being debilitating, were not a cause for concern. This is Africa after all, people do not rush to the hospital for headaches. You sleep, you wake up, you are fine. This was the case. She would lay down a while and then she would be fine.
Late August 2011 she noticed that sides of her face would get tremors, a slight twitch and the headaches had intensified and frequency increased. The twitch got so bad that it would paralyze her and hinder her from speaking. At this point, it was decided that she should probably go to the hospital.
We came by this information quite by accident. We had gone to look for a laptop with my dad and we stopped by my aunties shop who then mentioned that Sandy and the mom had gone to the hospital because she was having headaches and a twitch. It wasn’t dire at this point so it was not information worth announcing. In fact at this point it was pretty much a routine conversation about a routine checkup.
She and her mom booked an appointment at the Aga Khan University Hospital. They went in and an MRI was ordered. By African standards, she was fine, but medically her life was in danger. The doctor at Aga Khan announced that she had a tumor in her brain. The tumor was the reason she had been having headaches and the tremors on one side of her face.
This news knocked the wind out of everyone’s lungs. “What do you mean a tumor?” It was devastating for me to hear and even more so for their family. I immediately went into a panic. Brain tumor cannot be good. I kept thinking, what the hell are we going to do? But it never once occurred to me that it was about to get worse. The Neurosurgeon said that she shouldn’t even be walking around in her condition and ordered bed rest. He also said that surgery needed to be done immediately if she was going to be saved. A lot of this information was reaching us as 3rd hand information. The doctor would tell my Aunt and Uncle, they would tell my parents who would tell us. My sister and I would spend hours and hours talking about how absurd all of it was. We spent even more time praying for a miracle and lecturing God on his choices to allow a tumor grow in Sandy’s head. We were so naive as to think our scolding God would have any effect on the outcome of this disease. We were hopeful. Sandy had so much to live for. She had just graduated from Catholic University and was ready to start her career. She was in a stable relationship leading to marriage! Her life was just beginning. She was obviously going to be okay. The thoughts and justifications came rushing. Sandy was the only topic of discussion in our household.
I need to mention that the family couldn’t agree on a course of treatment. Some people thought she should get the surgery done here at home, and others thought it was best to go to India. Funds were not a limiting factor. Time was running out however, there was no time to bicker. Her parents decided to have the surgery done locally to avoid delaying treatment any further. Thursday morning 8th September Sandy was checked into Aga Khan Hospital for her emergency Brain surgery. She cried so much going into the theater. In hindsight it was like she knew stuff was about to go wrong. It was so emotional; There was not a single dry eye in the room. Every heart was broken, and every mind going on overdrive with worry. The entire family was at the hospital. She was wheeled into the theater and that began the most treacherous journey for her, and us. No one should have to go through what Sandy went through. No one.
The surgery was long and we all sat in the hospital waiting for it to end. All anyone could do was pray. It started at around 8am and ended at 6pm. It was a 9 hour surgery. The Surgeon informed us it was successful and she had been moved into the ICU for recovery. Oh what a relief! We were all so elated the worst part was over. She was going to be ok. The tumor had been removed and she was going to be okay. We all went home because we couldn’t see her that day and we planned to come back the next day.
Friday morning 9th September her family gets to the hospital and they are told that she was rushed into surgery again because apparently there was bleeding into the brain and they needed to insert a shunt to drain the blood. (A small hole to drain fluid). I heard this information and I was very confused. I am no surgeon, but shouldn’t that be standard procedure for the first surgery? Isn’t the brain too delicate to withstand repeated surgery inflicted trauma? This second surgery went from 7am to around 1pm. We just sat around the hospital and tried to swap stories. My Aunt was so crushed by all of it. Her and my uncle looked so worn down. This was their only daughter. There is nothing they could do to help their little girl. I cannot imagine how it feels to be able to do nothing for your child.
She was wheeled out of surgery at 1pm. We saw her as she was wheeled past us. Her head was heavily bandaged. Her face seemed a bit swollen. But the procedure was successful they said. She was going to be okay. Sandy was going to be fine. She needed to rest though and we needed to wait for her to wake up.
At around 2pm, there was a flurry of activity in the ICU, the nurses were running. They grabbed her bed and wheeled it back into theatre. The Doctor informed us that her brain was swollen. They now needed to perform a craniotomy This is a procedure where part of the cranium called the Bone flap is removed to expose the brain. Apparently her brain was swelling and this was the only way to reduce that. The bone flap would be returned after the swelling went down. This surgery took the rest of the day. She had 3 major surgeries on her brain within 48 hours.
I have an insatiable craving for information. I was tired of receiving information in piecemeal and I decided to research this whole thing on the internet. I spent the whole evening and part of Saturday morning reading about Brain tumors and the prognosis. I read about Brain swelling as a result of surgery and injury. What I saw online gutted me. For the first time it occurred to me, albeit remotely, that Sandy was not okay, and there was little hope. I was on autopilot mode though. In hindsight I think I was grasping the information, but it wasn’t sinking. I knew what I had to do though, I had to prepare her brother JM for this outcome. We are best friends, have been since we were kids. I had to tell him. But first I had to go to the hospital and see if there had been any improvements in her condition.
I got to the hospital at 9am. I just hate hospitals. The smell of drugs and antiseptic is nauseating. It is overwhelming to see other sick people and other waiting families. You have no empathy left for others, it has all been used up for your person. All your sadness is reserved for your person. So seeing these other people is different. It is like they are not there. It is just you and your people here for your person. Everything else is whitenoise.
They allowed us to go see her in the ICU we stood there looking at her. So many tubes. It seemed like she had a tube coming out of every orifice in her body. Her tongue was slightly sticking out of her mouth. Her left eye was very swollen. Her body was cold to the touch. The nurse assured as it was normal and she would eventually wake up. We spoke to her. Told her we loved her and made promises of the things we would do when she woke up. I had never really considered a life without her. All the information I had gathered from the internet came flooding back. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I just cried.
We left the hospital. I found JM seated alone outside in the yard. I invited him to lunch. At lunch we spoke about his sister and what he thought about the whole thing. Now if you know JM you know he has a way of making the most dire situation “not a big deal”/ He seemed completely oblivious to how serious this situation was. He was fairly confident that everything would work well. I asked him if he had considered that there was a chance she wouldn’t wake up. He said no. Then, in my usual shoot straight style, I told him what I saw online. How bad it was. We discussed at length what the possible quality of life for Sandy would be when she woke up, we discussed the statistics online. We never really admitted to ourselves that we understood that she wouldn’t wake up. We sidestepped that issue. Did a dance around it. Not wanting to speculate, not wanting to accept that this was the end. I had to the best of my ability given him the facts and managed his expectations. She wasn’t going to wake up, and even if she did, she was going to have some deficiencies. My personality has me being too objective even with emotional situations. Logic is easier for me to process. Be that as it may, I was still on autopilot mode. I had the facts. I knew the outcome. But the gravity of the situation had not sunk. Logic fails where you are supposed to feel your way through a situation.
I didn’t go on Sunday. She hadn’t woken up. I didn’t go on Monday. She hadn’t woken up. We had been told that visitors were limited to just her parents because her brain was getting tired from all the activity with visitors so we decided to wait for her to wake up.
On Tuesday 13th September, I had left school and was heading home. It was around 5pm. I received a call from my mom. I had been walking in Kiambu town. It was near the matatu terminus. “Ngegu, Kanunga! Mbao!” The tout closest to me was barking. “Madam unaenda?” I moved away, I picked the call. She said 3 words “Sandy has passed”. I said, “What?” She repeated it, “Sandy has passed”. I said “Ok” and then hung up.
My knees felt weak. I could no longer support myself. I sat on the side of the road. You see those small walls that are put where a “caravat” is, I sat there. I cried a river. I called some friends and they came to get me. I couldn’t speak. I just cried. The pain in my body was actual physical pain. It was like someone had vacuumed up my insides. I felt hollow. It hurt deeply and badly. I was not in shock. I already knew this information. It hurt more because I knew. I felt responsible like I could have done something. It hurt like a bitch.
The next few days were a blur. Visits to their home, and funeral arrangements. Funeral day came. 8 years later that remains the darkest day in everyone’s life. It was horrible. Everyone was inconsolable. Her mom passed out several times. Our grandmothers wailed for their grandchild. Our parents cried for their child. We cried for our sister and cousin. We cried for days after that. It was rough. I still recall how she looked that last day. She wore a white wedding gown with a tiara. They did her face, full facebeat and did her manicure. She looked beautiful, like a princess bride.
Years later JM and I had a conversation about his sister dying, and all the words that were left unsaid. He said I was the only one that told him the truth of what was happening but just like me, he understood the facts and the data, but didn’t on an emotional level grasp the gravity of it all. He acknowledged he was mad because she left him. There are tears every time he says that.
She looks at my drink, squints her eyes and crinkles her nose, “You haven’t touched your drink!” She exclaims in disbelief.
“I quit drinking,” I say matter of factly.
“Oh, My bad! I am sorry, we can call the front desk to bring you something,” she says as she walks to the phone. She stops briefly at my stool and in one fell swoop empties the contents of my glass into her mouth and then picks up the receiver.
“Hey… please send a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne and perhaps a platter of some bitings? For one….. Yes…. That is the room. Thank you.”
She sits again and continues the story. Most of the pain has numbed. Now it is just moments of sudden shock when its like the brain registers afresh that she is gone. Sandy’s passing was a life defining moment for all of us. You can be here one day and gone the next. It makes making plans all that harder. You could be fine by African standards and on the precipice of death by medical standards. I think it made me a hypochondriac. I get checked all the time and I sometimes panic that I am dying when I probably just have a hangover. Haha. This is the first time she has laughed during the entire interview.
My cousin still thinks Sandy left him. He remains mad at her for dying, mad at the universe for letting it happen, mad at the doctors. I think her time had come, it was time and nothing anyone could have done would have kept her here. I say that to him a lot and that breaks my heart because it is not fair that we get to do life without her. It is not fair that we didn’t get to say goodbye. We didn’t get to see her build a fruitful career, walk down the aisle, probably raise babies. We didn’t get to have us with us. But we have one thing, that is love always in our hearts. Love eternal for her, and that is what we carry with us. Everything else is white noise.