Two weeks ago, I saw my grandmother cry her eyes out as we buried the youngest of her three daughters. As they lowered the coffin into the grave, she almost passed out and had to be led away before the long service was completed. She had begged to be driven straight back to her home. My mother, her two brothers, and sisters had stayed on to finish the burial and share a hot meal with all the mourners.
My Aunt had battled cancer of the breast for over eight years and had proved to all of us that she was a fierce fighter. Had she been one of the Xhosa people of South Africa; she would have been presented with the finest feathers of the Blue Crane as a great warrior. She and the family had been prepared for the final outcome, but when it came, it left all of them, including myself, aggrieved.
In these few days, my grandmother seems to have given up on life. She has lost so much weight that her face has grown long and haggard. Her eyes are weary with shock and grief. Looking into her eyes is like peering at a marble facade, opaque and not forthcoming. She and I have been the best of friends since my parents left me in her care four years ago; to complete my secondary education while they relocated to Namibia, Southern Africa. I came to know her as an extremely energetic woman, passionate about what she chose to do, and life itself. She always took great trouble to prepare me to be able to live anywhere in the world.
For instance, the only reason for sleeping in was if one was unwell. Otherwise, the slovenly and tardy were awakened at dawn by a knock at the door, and Grandma’s shrill and incessant name calling. If there was no response, a soliloquy would ensue cautioning all within earshot about the ill effects of drink and drugs as exhibited by her bedridden grandson. Invariably, concerned neighbours would gather at her side as she lamented. At which point, I would emerge from my room to allay their fears and reassure Grandma that I didn’t have a habit, only fatigue that would be remedied by sleep. Needless to say, I became an early riser to avoid such scenes.
She is seventy-five, but I have never seen any strand of grey in her long hair. A young woman who lives in the neighbourhood comes regularly to wash and dye her hair and to paint her nails the colour of her choice. Grandma has her make-up kit in one of the small cupboards in her bathroom. It contains everything she needs for her beauty care: a nail cutter, nail file, fine brushes, eye pencil, shades of mascara, some face powder, several shades of red lipstick and moisturizer. She has revealed to me many times that she has always loved a good, comfortable pair of leather shoes, real leather handbags, and some colourful silk scarfs. Sundays and the days she visits her doctor or her bank in town have been dressing up days. This is one habit she has been practicing long before I was born.
In the last two weeks, she has neither applied lipstick on her thin lips nor nail varnish. She has been covering her hair with a head scarf, something as alien to her as posing for a picture without a smile.
She is dressed in a drab floor length diira. Watching her helplessly become a shadow of her former self, I feel awful.
“Will she ever laugh again?’’ I wonder aloud. Then a terrible thought occurs to me: what if it had been any of her other children that had passed, would she have fallen apart as she is now?
I try to stifle the thought but I still wonder what it would take for grandma to go back to her real life – back to her storytelling, back to taking pride in her appearance, back to singing while she prepared delicious meals, and back to her infectious optimism.
At that moment in time, I realize how important it is to me to bring back some laughter in her life even for a day. It would be the beginning of her return.
There is a lot of unfinished business to resolve like completing the survey of my late aunt’s farm in the village, the vaccination of Grandma’s cows, and the completion of her farmhouse. My mother has had to take them on, and this has left me with the duty of caring for grandma. Thankfully, I do not start my third year at university for another month. I feel grandma needs me more during this painful period more than ever before; she has even invited me to stay with her for as long as I like. My parents had offered to take her to our home for some weeks but she would not hear of it.
“This is my home. My friends will be looking out to comfort me. It won’t be at all fair to them if I just disappeared. I need to be among the old and familiar to find my way back.” The earnestness of her plea is evident in her voice as she speaks to my mother over the phone.
On two occasions, when she did not think I was close by, she had sobbed painfully. She had struggled to keep the sobs silent, but I had heard her. I had moved next to her and held her hand. “Grandma, I am so sorry.’’
She looked me in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry that you have to see me in this state of agony, despair, and uncertainty. I must admit that it is the most painful thing I have had to go through. I promise that I’ll do my best to learn to live comfortably with the loss. I have to do it for myself and all of you, otherwise, I’ll die with her.’’
“Grandma, it’s all right to cry. It’ll get better with time.”
With tears in her eyes, she had nodded at my urging before adding, “It’s not so easy. The family will pull together to help each other up. It’s hard but not impossible.’’ She had then changed the subject suddenly to ask, “Did you call your sister in Windhoek?’’
Life can be unfair, did this old woman have to nurse and bury her daughter?
I still feel a sense of responsibility to do something to make her smile, and yet, I have no idea what that could be.
Today, to my surprise, her gold wristwatch is missing. Could she be freeing herself from time constraints as she mourns? Why doesn’t she want reminders of time’s linear relentlessness? Does she want to stand still despite time moving on? As I ponder this, and Grandma sits in her chair, going through an album of her late daughter’s pictures, our conspiratorial silence is suddenly interrupted.
Two elderly men are ushered into the sitting room, which in itself is not unusual in this period of mourning.
I stand up to offer them seats even though they are strangers to me.
Grandma turns her gaze on them with narrowed eyes. One of them is lean, and he has a broad smile. He is dressed in a denim jacket over a faded black T-shirt and black slacks. He has on a beige Stetson hat, which he takes off, and tan Safari boots. He reminds me of my mother’s favourite actor, Clint Eastwood. Yet he defers to his companion in a green African print shirt over khaki trousers with white Asics trainers, who begins. “ Mrs. Bigomba, we’re terribly sorry about the loss of your youngest child. ’’
“It was indeed very sad but at the same time, I think she’s better off at rest.”
“What really happened?’’
Grandma goes on to tell them how her daughter had suffered.
“When we thought that she had conquered the monster, she lost the use of both legs, and from then, one complication developed after another until she died.
It broke my heart seeing her die one day at a time. She never lost the hope of beating it. As she spoke she wiped tears from her eyes.
She composed herself and exchanged glances with me.
I stand up and leave the room to return moments later with a tray loaded with glasses, bottled water, a packet of juice and some Digestive biscuits.
“Feel free to indulge in my grandson’s hospitality. I’m fortunate to have him here while everyone is running up and down to wrap up things.”
The tall stranger takes a bottle of drinking water while the other one takes a glass of the hibiscus juice.
I sit at the dining table, reading the day’s paper while in-between listening and watching over grandma.
She keeps looking at them as if trying to remember something and the tall stranger notices.
“Mrs. Bigomba, I don’t think you remember us. I’m Silver Kirya lead guitarist and singer of Quick Silverbacks band, and this is Bala Kintu the bass player.” He pauses to let my grandmother understand what he has just said.
Her eyes widened, and to my shock, she laughed aloud. “Silver! Bala! How on earth did you know that I lived here? I’ve not seen the two of you for over forty years!”
Silver goes on to retrace his journey. “Well, it’s a small world; my neighbour in Najjera knew your late husband. When he heard the death announcement on the radio, he felt so terrible about the loss of his friend’s daughter. As a devoted friend, I had no choice but to attend the funeral with him. I was as shocked as you are now when I saw that you were the mother of the deceased! I promised myself to look you up for old time’s sake.”
Grandma kept shaking her head in disbelief.
“I must say that it was a poignant but beautiful service. It was a true celebration of her life.” Silver opined.
“The singing and praise at the St Kizito church soothed and calmed me to some degree,” Grandma revealed.
“I went through a similar experience four years ago when my son passed away.” Bala confided. “Yes, the singing helps until the gathering of friends and neighbours leave.’’
“I was surprised the church was filled to overflowing, and that the young and old were all there. Your daughter must have been a people’s person,’’ Silver interjected with further recollections.
“Wherever she went, she made people feel and know that she cared. I did not know she had this gift until later in her life,” Grandma said with a sigh.
Silver finds it appropriate to change the subject. “I’ve been looking for you all these years. I came across a few photographs of our band, and I’ve kept them with me. Would you like to see them?’’
“Yes, please!’’ Grandma said. She looks around for her reading glasses and wears them.
Silver moves nearer and shows her three photographs in black and white. She takes her time studying them.
“I guess you’re the tall young man with an Afro, smiling while strumming the guitar. But who is that young woman in a red off-the-shoulder dress and tall shoes?”
Silver laughed out loud. “That’s you as one of the singers. Looking back then and now, you were always beautifully dressed. Sometimes you wore your mother’s perfume. The young man standing next to me is Paulo the drummer. That’s another person I’ve kept in touch with up to today.”
Grandma moves closer to the window to have a closer look at the photographs. She calls me over to where she is standing, “I just can’t believe that the young girl in this picture is me,” she said as she passed over the photograph to me. She keeps smiling and shaking her head.
To my immense amazement, the photographs looked as well kept as their owner!
I nodded. “Grandma, it’s you. I can tell by those wide dancing eyes. You even had long hair by then and wore those tall shoes called stilettos! I just can’t believe it, too.’’
“I used to wear stilettos”, I finished the sentence for her.
She laughs herself to tears. “Arthritis has deformed my hands. It’s like those photographs you see about old age-before and after!”
“You had long shapely legs, and you used to dance rather well,’’ Silver reminisced.
She looks at him and smiles a sweet, tender, smile. “Do you remember how I came to be a member of the band?”
“We both used to sing in the village church choir, so when Paulo and I came up with the idea of forming a band, I dragged you along. The idea came to me after I had come across a set of drums and an old guitar stored away in a garage at my cousin’s home in Old Kampala. Believe it or not, you had a beautiful, young, and fresh voice. Today such a voice would earn you millions.’’
Silver’s remembrances are echoed by Bala. “Whenever you sang, you’d take up the song and make it your own. It was a joy to behold.”
“I’d say you were a natural–born singer and entertainer.” Silver continued on the trip through Memory Lane. “You even came up with your own composition entitled: In the Clouds. It was a deep expression of how you felt whenever you sang on the stage. ’’
She gasped aloud. “How could my parents have allowed me to be in a band? It sounds odd.”
“We both got around them by telling them that we were practicing for the church choir. Once they saw and heard us singing during the Sunday morning service, they had no reason to doubt us.” Silver chuckles as he recounts these machinations.
“I remember that and worked hard never to miss the Sunday mid-morning service,” Grandma remembered.
“Several times during the holidays, we played some popular songs of the time, during the dance on Saturdays at the Agakhan Sports Club. One song you loved to sing was Beautiful to Be Young. We always arranged to play your songs first to give you time to go back home before 6 pm.” Silver said, jogging Grandma’s memory.
“I would then change into an ordinary simple dress before rushing off to home. The good thing by then only soda was served at the venue and smoking was not allowed.”
“But then one time without any warning, you disappeared. It was as if you had fallen off the radar screen! We attended different schools so I had no one to ask where you had disappeared to. All these years, I have been wondering what happened to you.” Silver‘s bafflement was evident in his voice.
“Yes, my father was transferred to Jinja in Eastern, Uganda and worked there for almost fifteen years. To save myself the pain of having to give it up, I buried the memory of my budding music career never to retrieve it. After my Advanced Level, I went to the Teachers College in Iganga. I met my late husband while at the College. I worked for three years after graduation then settled comfortably at home to take care of my set of twins. Before I knew it, I was taking care of six children, and loving it. I went back to teaching ten years later.”
Silver shook his head and smiled mischievously. “In my late twenties, I kept looking for you; had I found you, I would have asked you to marry me.”
Grandma was silent for a while then she laughed gently. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
Seeing grandma alive and excited is uplifting so I order lunch for four from the nearest Take-Away.
I want the laughter and the banter to last for as long as it is possible.
“So what have the two of you been up to since then?” Grandma asks as lunch is served.
Silver laughs suddenly and puts his fork down. “I found my way into Makerere College School then took a diploma course in Marketing at Nakawa. When Paulo opened a nightclub, he looked me up. I have been running it for almost thirty years. I bought some shares in it. I have four children but I never married. I guess I found it hard to commit to any woman.”
“I for one joined Namilyango for both O-levels and A-levels and happily continued playing the guitar in the school band.” Bala chimed in. “I studied Economics at the university and joined Standard bank. I married my childhood sweet heart. We were blessed with two boys and two girls and have seven grandchildren. Sadly we lost one of the boys through a road traffic accident.”
“Sorry for your loss,” Grandma says.
“By the way, are you related to the Prime Minister? He was among the mourners,” said Bala.
“Yes, our mothers were cousins.’’
“What about the Mayor of the City? ” Silver inquired further.
“Oh, that was another good friend of my late husband,” Grandma revealed.
“Have any of your children taken up Music? These are times of immense opportunities; there’s a whole department of Music, Dance, and Drama at Makerere University,” Bala inquired, changing the subject.
“The youngest had a good voice but found it difficult combining fashion design and a singing career.
Looking back now, I can understand why I had tried hard to persuade my daughter to allow that grandson of mine to take up music, ’’ Grandma said, smiling cheerfully.
They turned to me. “Do you mean this one?”
“He can talk for himself.”
“I’ve always wanted to sing.” I begin. “Starting in the children’s choir for a production of David and Goliath, I set my heart on music, but both my parents were terribly against it. They pleaded with me to give it up and instead concentrate on my studies. Convinced that I could not to do both at the same time, and because of my age, I just pushed this dream to the back burner and finished school.
To my surprise, my parents brought up the subject of my musical career again after I had finished my Advanced Level. We agreed that I should finish the first degree, and then do whatever I wanted with myself. I’m doing all that I can to keep the pact.”
Silver reasons, “Go for it. I‘d say it’s in your blood. After all, it’s never too late to do what you love’’
“To my immense surprise, after passing the second year brilliantly, my father has come round and pays for my piano lessons twice a week.” I reveal.
“No wonder you look to be a happy young man.” Bala quips before Grandma adds, “by the way, I’ve a bottle of fine red Nederburg wine from South Africa. Anyone care for a glass?”
Silver glances at his watch, “No thank you, Mrs. Bigomba. I can trust myself to say that it gives us one good reason to visit again. ’’
Bala’s phone rings. He answers it, “Just in time. We won’t be long. ”
They drink their drinks and Silver begs to take leave. “It’s been great to see you after all these years. Sorry about the terrible loss of your daughter. I must say that you still look beautiful and poised as always.”
“For me it has been like opening a time capsule after fifty years! I am greatly touched by your kindness.
You know where I live so please come and visit more often,” Grandma offers.
“Thank you, you’ll see me often around here. My chicken farm is about twenty kilometers from here,’’ Silver noted.
“It was fun talking about those pleasant childhood memories. We‘ll look in on you to help you up.” Bala pledges.
Grandma thanks them as she stands up to walk them to their car.
“It was nice meeting you, young man. Music has power and you’re fortunate to have it in your blood. Don’t throw it away, but remember always first things first,” Bala advises me.
I shake hands with each one of them and leave the ‘Singer’ in the band to see them out.
I jump up and punch the air. Things are looking up; grandma has smiled again. I have even found another common thread in our lives: Music. No wonder we are stuck together. Thanks to those two old friends; the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of grandma’s life have snapped into place.
Whenever she is at her lowest, I just have to remind her that she used to wear stilettos, I think happily.
I’m so thrilled they have promised to come and visit again.
Her grief will not go away any time soon so she is likely to have some good and some bad days. Seeing her sweet, tender smile again today is a sure sign of her return to her new normal.
I cannot wait to tease her about wearing Stilettos.
Two Drops of In: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
I am a Ugandan medical doctor who has lived and worked in Botswana for twenty-one years. I recently retired to Uganda, my home country.
I have been a voracious reader since childhood. I am a published writer: The Last Lifeline (2012) And the Lights Came On (2016) both fiction novels and available on Amazon.
I also write short stories, and two of them were among the 52 from 14 countries published in the first Volume of The Anthology of The Africa Book Club titled: The Bundle Of Joy. I am finalizing my third fiction novel. Since October 2016, I have been running a blog to build up an audience for my creative work. Its link is: “A Page from Munaku’s Book.”
I am a mother of two amazing boys and one daughter.
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