My mother is a pastor. But I’ve never seen her preach. Mostly because I live here, online. A while back though, she left one of her wisdoms on a blog post. I cannot tell you which one, but she has been at it, ever since she learnt how to use the internet.
People who have two mums often have one after the other, meaning one dies and your dad remarries. Or one simply leaves and the second one doesn’t like you. Mine was not that simple. I was the child of a second marriage, born out of a gap in the first marriage. A gap because my mum, the hearty woman who loved her pint a tad bit too much, left. Left with me. Then one day one of my sister’s prayed as they were having breakfast. At 2.00 pm that day, a white Datsun pickup was driven into our gateless compound. On the driver’s seat was my uncle, my mum’s eldest brother. A burly man with a big heart, that one. On the other seat, strapped, dirty and fascinated, was a two and a half-year-old me.
She really didn’t have to take me in. She had five children already, the youngest seven years old at the time. She could have said no, she could have turned him back and moved on with her life. I was the child of an illegitimacy. An innocent one, but a stark reminder of the three years when her marriage had gone to the dogs. But she didn’t. She took me in, cleaned me up, fussed over me, and anointed me her ‘begotten son.’
She wasn’t just good to me, she went the extra mile. A child with my health problems, especially the poor feeding, needs a constant balance between love and discipline, or disciplining with love. There was a time my stomach could hold nothing but boiled maize, so she promptly boiled maize and fed me on it. Then at night I shit it all as I dreamt of swings and plastic cars, and rolled in it the whole night. In the morning, she cleaned it, and me, and fed me, and kept at it. For years.
Once in a while she whipped my ass, almost delicately. She had given her own children, my five older and healthier sisters, beatings they talk about to date. She beat the oldest one when she was 22, one time, for disrespect. Imagine that, a 40-something year-old mother putting her 20-something year old child in her place, with a huge stick. With me she was more deliberate, almost hesitant. I was an easy child, she likes to say. Energyless and rather meek, more interested in reading copies of The Concubine and Pride and Prejudice than going out to play. I had only one friend, my cousin and neighbor Christine, she who christened me Owaahh, simply because she couldn’t pronounce my second name. She was my first crush, and my first kiss. I know, incest, but I plead innocence.
In one Christmas photo, I am standing next to her, staring at her as she shyly fixates on the floor. I am dressed in a light blue waistcoat and matching pants, and a white shirt with a black bowtie. With sportshoes. She is wearing a white dress, one of those miniature wedding ones for children. She is clutching a small bag, and wearing shining white shoes. One of my sisters had dared us to kiss on camera, two tiny children aged about six. It seems I was ready, but she wasn’t. Raring to go. Lips puckered.
Ass-whoopings were rare and far-between. When she decided she wanted to preach, she let her ten-year-old begotten son read the Bible with her. I mostly read Songs of Songs, to get lines for my first official girlfriend, also called Christine. I read through the macabre Torah books, thrilled at the stories of kings and prophets, and then got bored all the way to Revelation. Revelation was and probably still is my favorite book in the Bible. I am atheist now, probably always was, but I still read that book, once in a while. It is bizarre, a bizarre book of prophecies and weird things. But Songs of Solomon won me man points, made my love letters quite poetic. Except the parts about breasts being like trees, and hair like a flock of sheep. I was a blatant plagiarist.
Teenage is a swing nothing ever prepares you for. The zits appear on your face faster than you start to realise your female peers are getting boobs. The hormones strike while you sleep, and you just want to sleep and laze. But a Christian mother singing at the top of her voice right outside your bedroom window is not exactly a dream. She will get you out of bed, and berate you. In there she will throw a jab about women do not like men who sleep. Then she will promptly whistle the verse “early to rise, makes someone healthy, wealthy…’ and go one.
Mums are superhuman. She is heading to 60 now, just a year shy of the big one, and she still wakes up at 5. She can’t not do things, she often says, because she is not wired like that. I would go nuts, she says. Women, and their lack of a nothing box. We men can sit and stare into oblivion for ten years, and that is quality time. But mums. Mums and wives.
These days, when all she has to dot on are her ten grandchildren, she constantly looks for distractions. I went quiet for a while, sometimes for a year, as I tried to find myself. Whenever I was home, I was on the computer, typing away. I was online. She wanted in too. She had always been tech-savvy, and she did not feel good being left out.
Then her church office installed Zuku Fiber. The thing with getting good internet after you have used bad internet is that it encourages you to troll. You send an email in under a second, attach large documents in the blink of an eye. Then what? Then what do you do with the rest of the time? When you are 60 and one child is a digital native, you Google him, and find him.
You send him a friend request on Facebook, which he puts on hold for years, never confirming or rejecting. You send him a message on Facebook, another on his Facebook blog page. Then you send him a LinkedIn message, an email, and to cap it all up, leave a comment on one of his blogposts about unrequited love. All in the space of 48 hours. This is not at all creepy if it’s your mother doing it, apparently.
I accidentally accepted her elder sister’s friend request a while back. She had Zuku Fiber in her house, and was almost always online. A former bigshot lawyer, she now spends her time looking for distractions. Unlike her sister, my mother, who maladies can never seem to defeat, she is stricken by kidney failure and other things. So she surfs the web, Skypes her children, trolls Facebook. I share things, many things. I am atheist, liberal, curious, and weird. That should tell you about the things I share. Everytime I did, she called her sister. Your son is in devil worship, I think. Your son needs counselling, I think. Your son has problems. Mother never called to ask about it, although am sure she prayed, and curiously sent a friend request a few weeks later. Mothers know their children are weird, right?
I ran away from her for years. She patiently waited, knowing eventually that I would find my roots. When I seemed to take my time, she nudged. Good internet helped, and although I am a free spirit here, I am careful. Everyone is careful when his mother is watching, right?
Except Russell Peters. He says the crudest things when his mum is in the audience. Things your mother would slap your mouth for daring to say. But then again a sense of humor is not a random occurrence in the genetic pool, not always at least. She reads my things, sometimes. She sends me emails, demands I go visit. I go, because I am older now, and so much makes sense.
When you approach parenthood, you begin to panic. Suddenly you see the battle between being an individual and being a parent. Even if all your siblings have children, you panic still. Whether you will do it right, whether the mean free-spirited person you are will affect how you relate to your children. You see your parent’s struggle. You see your mother’s mistakes not as the failures of a superhero but the failures of a fellow human being. Mothers have time to bond with their children as they breastfeed them in those first years of dependence. But what about stepmothers, who have to build the bond with slightly older children. Children who have already formed, who represent a past they would rather forget. It takes more, it takes more. When you grow up, it begins to make sense.
Good stepmothers are hardly ever celebrated. It is just like running a government. If you are good, no one wants to report about you. If you suck though, and bleed the people, you will win front pages. Or running an internet provider, no one really talks about the good ones. Bad stepmothers have more stories in Nollywood than good ones. If you just watched movies and read books, you would think everyone in the asylum is there because their mean stepmother tormented their childhood. If being a mother is already a thankless job, being a good stepmother is way times worse.
The last time I saw Cathey, my biological mother, a few weeks before a blood clot robbed us of her on a cold July 10th morning, was at Nairobi Hospital. Or rather near the hospital, right behind Doctor’s Plaza. She had brought me her ID card for my HELB, and demanded I pose and take a photo right there, so she could show her friends her big man. Mothers, mothers and dotting.
I was there on crisis one, because Janet, my second mum, had cysts. Ovarian cysts are madness, I would later learn, and the moment the doctor saw them, he had to cut. Imagine you are a skinny college boy trying to hunt the many girls in your accounting class. Your sister calls you one afternoon. “Mum has been hospitalized and is going for surgery right now,” she says, as if you are supposed to know the first part of the story.
There’s something about hospital waiting rooms that makes hours feel like days. You sit there, years when Twitter is still considerably nascent in Kenya and you have a Samsung E350. You try to make conversation with family, but everyone is worried. The old man ran away, to take a walk, to distract himself. I can’t imagine how it feels to wait outside a theatre knowing your wife is on that thin line between life and nothingness. Hoping for all hope that the surgeon comes out with a glint in his eyes. He has done it thrice, this old man, but I doubt it ever gets easier.
The last time I saw Cathey, my biological mum, is also the closest they had been, physically, in more than a decade. It was also the closest they would ever be, except for the memorial service at NPC Karen. I was their bridge, in life and death. Their shared son. One thinks she saw the other at a wedding in Limuru in 1996, but that’s along time ago now. When I tell Cathey goodbye to go see my other mum, I am almost impatient, and a tad bit dismissive. The next time I see her, she is lying in a rectangular box, with glitter over her pretty face. She looks peaceful, almost as if her last thought was a joke. She was 43.
After you plant the flower on her freshly covered grave, you leave. Quietly. To look for comfort from your mother, your only one now. As she ages, you panic. You panic because if losing a mother hurts, losing two must be devastating. Every moment with her, even on the phone, or on her stalking footprints on your online profiles, becomes special. You start to call her for no reason at all, and sometimes drop in announced. You let her in a bit more into your life, and try to tell her you now understand her struggles. As you see Zuku Fiber lines snake their way towards the house you grew up in, you fuss with the idea of getting it installed for her to Skype with your sister, and her sister. Perhaps it will not be so bad, perhaps. Every moment counts.
You want to apologise for ever being a difficult child, you want to tell her you would do it better if you could all over again. But the way she looks at you. The way she still fusses over your weight. You know it never ends.
Not many people get to lose a mother and still have one. Happy Mothers Day, mom!