On Death and Mortality: Life is an incomplete story

I attended a funeral when I was about six years old. The younger sister of my classmate, Martin, fell in a well and drowned. On the day of the funeral, dozens of young boys and girls trooped to the nearby Catholic Church. We were dressed in our signature khaki shorts and shirts, and blue sweaters. The girls wore blue dresses and pink blouses.

After mass we headed to the grave. We never understood exactly what death was then and I doubt that even now, after encountering so much death in my young life, I will ever understand it.

The next funerals were those of my grandfather’s siblings, his elder brother and two of his sisters. He had himself died two months after I was born. I was named after him, and I was born of his first born son. Sometimes I think he was waiting to see himself-any African reading this will undoubtedly understand. He and I shared a name by accident, actually. He had passed a law among his children, our parents, that everyone named after him should be given a Christian name instead of his first name because he had been named after a carjacker.

No one told my mother, clearly, and she went right ahead and followed the common system, giving me names that matched the man I am named after. She told me that no one, even my old man, ever told of this law when I met her again at 15. I had last seen her when I was 2, maybe 2 and a half, and then about thirteen years later in high school.

It was fascinating really, having two mothers. When my biological mother wrote to me in high school, I had that foreboding that tells you something is about to change your life. I had always known about her, everything I could, including my other siblings through her.

There were four interesting years those, the years I knew her. She was in her mid-forties, fresh from rehab when she first visited me in Form Two. Over the next four years we worked a wonderful system, an interesting mother-son deliberate system built out of dates and random meetings to chat and connect with people. She was brilliant, interesting, almost too cool to call mommy. It took me two years at least to bring myself to call her that yet I didnt detest her; for most of those years, I felt almost nothing for her, not disdain, not love. Except a weird connection, like a chip that was out of place had finally fallen in place.

I cleared high school, worked for a year in my sisters company, and then joined college. This was the fourth year and I had finally called her mom, even told her I loved her. It was via text, but I said it anyway. She wanted to be more involved, she would often tell me. She was enthusiastic about my joining campus that September and would go on and on about how she would decorate my room and visit me often. She would chase away my bad girlfriends, she once joked. I don’t think she was joking.

I had finally let her in. The future was, well, whatever it would be.

Then she died. One cold July morning, alone and in pain in her house. She just woke up in pain and died a few hours later. Pulmonary embolism, the post mortem said, a blood clot stole your mother.

I was angry at first, at myself, for letting her in in the first place. What was I thinking? That turned into pain, which turned into confusion. I went through the stages of mourning haphazardly, unsure of what was proper and what wasn’t.

We haven’t buried anyone in this family so there are no rules, my uncle, my mothers younger brother said throughout the wake, You do what you must.

Years later and the Grim Reaper was quiet, almost too quiet. Then people started dying. Young people. One was a recent graduate of the AP school who got clobbered by thugs with a piece of metal. He and I were in high school together. Almost at the same time, the elder brother of a good friend and business partner of mine was murdered by sadistic thugs who hacked him with an axe and a blunt weapon, probably a stick, while he went home.

The first funeral drained me so I bailed out on the second one. I wasn’t six anymore, I now knew that I didn’t understand death anymore and it bothered me. Here I was, after going through years of forensic training that had taken me to several morgues and to examine dozens of corpses. Yet it was the same, the same loss, the same questions. What is the purpose of this life? Is this it? Is YOLO actually just that, YOLO? Where is the higher purpose? I am a skeptic so I do not give myself the comfort of a deity or a Valhalla. There is nothing but darkness on the other side, I figure, unless they bury you alive of course.

My moms younger brother died a few weeks ago in his sleep. The same uncle who had told us to do what we had to to mourn her. He was the smarty-pants of the family, our catalog of useless information. I arrived late for his funeral, partially deliberately. He was the freethinker and rebel of the family, and turning up late was one of the ways I celebrated him. We buried him right next to my mother, his elder sister with whom he had endless fights with while they lived.

I owed him a beer. I had kept that beer date pending for six months while I pretended to be busy. Every time I got published in the dailies he would promptly call and call me out on facts and style. Is this a school report? That isn’t true Put some more human character in your story next time. He told me that last one after a piece I did on the history of Kenya Airways but I had a defense; it was my editor who had lost the human voice, not my fault. He called BS, then laughed heartily and demanded I pay the beer debt already.

I never did. I never got to.

I am oddly comfortable about my own death. I figure the curious scientist in me will be fascinated by it and my mind will be racing: Is this it? What is that feeling? Am I dying now? What is that groan? Who is that guy in a dark garb? Is that the white light, oh wait, it’s just a bulb.

It is losing people I have a problem with, losing them while our story is incomplete. Our world, our connected world is undone. I know you can never be ready for that, but the panic never leaves.

Owaahh, 2014.

One story is good,

till another is told.

  • Brian Mugo

    As a skeptic bozo, I have the same awkwardness and certainty on death. What is life? What is its purpose? Nevertheless, I can’t wait enough for breakthroughs in aging science. I need to live to a ripe old age of 200 years.

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