The door opens hesitantly, screeching on its hinges. As if it is unwilling to open. Its only task in this universe being to keep any semblance of joy from Ward 34 of the Kenyatta National Hospital, the pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The humans here are tiny, some the size of an elbow. God is absent here. You can feel it, the way happiness disappears as soon as you walk in. Halima moves through the aisle slowly. Despair visible in every step. The way any movement feels like a war between her and the gloom that weighs heavily on the soul. Even the nurses find every excuse not to come in. They know, they know.
Halima finds her 3 month old baby. The little man looks like he is sleeping. His face however, tells a different story. There is none of the peace that toddlers have when sleeping. Have you ever looked at a baby sleeping? The way they smile, as if they are talking to someone in the other universe. The way their mouths bubble spouting tiny bits of saliva. And they almost always shit when sleeping. A thick yellow goo that smells like Kenyan corruption. This baby’s face is contorted. It looks similar to a balding adult’s face in a public restroom, when the smell hits them. Halima sits beside him. She sees nothing of this. To her, he is the most handsome of men. She already knows the schools she will take him to. His primary school will be the Nairobi International School. Just so he can hang out with the children of Kenya’s elite. His secondary schooling will be at Dagoretti High School, to teach him how to be a gentleman. It is ironic of her to dream of this, when her she has never even held the baby in her arms.
She stares at the baby, miles of tubes and wires surrounding him. Each trying to keep him in this world, a little bit longer. Her son, the little man sleeping now in a hospital cot. When she gave birth to him, he was sick. The doctors had told her he would not live to his first birthday. but what do doctors know about babies? She had sworn then, as they cut the umbilical cord and rushed him out to the ICU, that she would do everything to save him. Her parents are standing just outside the room. Their eyes piercing inside, she insisted they stay outside. This is something she has to do alone.
She is tired, her senses however are particularly acute. She can smell it in the air. The hospital disinfectant, it is especially strong today. It awakens her very being, and takes her 12 months back. When she walked into a hospital just like this one. Smaller yes, in a less savory part of the city but a hospital nonetheless. Brian had said this was for the best. She remembers how she had sat there. Her friend Sally had come here with her. Sally had gone through it a few years earlier. So she was adept at helping her maneuver through this. Brian had conveniently had an emergency that meant he could not show up. She had wondered, as she sat there, what could have been more important than attending the birth and funeral of their child.
She remembers that night, the way they had made him.
Brian, her child’s father, had always had a way with girls. She met him at the University of Nairobi. She had figured she was immune from his charms. She had hated the way he was a bit too full of himself. Believing the world was his, and it begged him to take it. She was immune until he chose her. That is what she thought, that he chose her. She was just a seemingly impenetrable fortress for him. A conquest, a challenge demanding a solution. He was it. The first time he kissed her. It was raining. He said he had just been walking past the girl’s hostel when it started to rain. He did not have a sweater. He had come to her room. He only wanted to keep warm until the rain passed. She never thought to ask what he was doing there when there was nothing other than the girls’ hostel around. When his lips touched her’s, her whole world came on fire. And not the smooth type, this was the type that threatened to destroy everything in its path. Every sense on her body was awakened. He was a skillful lover, capable of making a kneecap as sensitive as her breasts. Her whole body raised goosebumps in anticipation. Is it a wonder then that her panties came down almost of their own volition? The way a warm knife slices through butter. They had done it, on the mesh bed, and on the metal chair. Then he left. And he did not come back. Not when she asked him to do it to her again….and again. Or when she insisted the child was his. It was as if he was a shadow, he had been hers, only when the lights were on.
He had asked her to end it, the pregnancy. In that drooling voice of his, he had promised to come back to her if she did. She would have murdered an entire nation to be with him. He sent her the money, she found a doctor who would do it.
In that rickety hospital, in the unsavory part of town she had thought of him. As she sat on the waiting chair at the reception that smelt like disinfectant, she had thought of him. When the nurse called her in, and walked her into the operating room, she had thought of him. The doctor had insisted that her friend remain behind. This would be a journey for two, and the good doctor was the captain. He had been nice, that doctor. As if he understood the turmoil in her mind. He smelt of aftershave that reminded her of cedar and pinewood with a tinge of nicotine. When she lay on the table, he talked to her constantly. His voice the only static connection to a universe she would have left to be with him. But it all changed when he asked her to pull her legs apart. As she lay there, her legs apart, shaking slightly, the room smelling of disinfectant and latex… gloves, she had thought only of him. How he would love her after this. But when the metallic forceps touched her skin, she thought of her child. In that single moment, everything changed. She would not abort this child.
The door opens again, it jolts Halima back to the present. A doctor comes through it, this one is female, with the kindest eyes you ever saw. She says it is time to shut down the machines keeping the baby alive. Halima looks at her, imploring, hoping, wondering if something else can be done. The kind eyes tell her no, medical intervention is at an end. The doctor explains the procedure slowly. She will turn off the machine breathing for the baby. She will then pull out the chest tube that is pushing air into its tiny lungs. She will inject the baby with morphine. He will feel no pain. Halima listens intently, she wonders if other parents who bury their children feel like this. The way every piece of her wants to tear itself in two. The doctor asks if she understands. She nods. The doctor insists that she need to verbalize it. Halima says yes. It sounds like a cry for help.
The doctor begins, she turns off the machine and the whirring sound stops. The silence is a lot more pronounced. Then she pulls out the chest tube. It comes out with some difficulty, its tip has some blood on it. She injects him with the drugs and lifts the baby up. She then hands Halima the baby. It is the first time she will hold him, and the last. His eyes are closed. But the contorted face is slowly melting. The doctor steps back to give her some space. Halima begins to sing, the song that her mother had sang to her when she cried as a baby.
Lala, mtoto lala. (Sleep, baby sleep)
Mama, anakuja na maziwa (Mother is coming with milk)
Lala, mtoto lala, (Sleep, baby sleep)
Mama, anakuja na maziwa (Mother is coming with milk)
She sings and the tears begin to flow. She sees it, her child’s face finally looking as it should. A part of her wonders if maybe she is getting better. Her mind knows, that death is fast approaching. She sings, desperately. The female doctor looks on and says nothing. There are no words sufficient for this. Halima suddenly stops when she notices his breathing getting more pronounced. He heaves slowly, and she hugs him ever closer. She whispers in his ear. The doctor strains to hear it but hears nothing. She tells him she forgives him for choosing to die and leaving her. Halima notices that the breathing has stopped and the baby is heavier. He heard her. He chooses death.
It is as if this child is a lesson for her. Teaching her how to love and how to let go. A lesson paid for in blood.
The doctor steps forward to help her. She refuses to let her touch him. He is hers now, as he never was in life. The doctor then asks Halima to name him. So that he will not be buried nameless as an unwanted child. Halima looks at the boy lying peacefully in her arms. He reminds her of someone. His skin turning slowly into ice. His face though content, perhaps a sign to his mother that he is in a better place. He is at peace.
She looks up, smile, and faces the doctor.
“His name is Brian.”
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