People who have not been close to death should not speak about it. Death is an academic Degree; you are only an expert when you have survived it and won the hat. Personally, I know death. I have seen death. I have dressed the scent of death on my body and ground my teeth in its darkness. I have been dead, buried in the unequivocal desert of its nothingness, yet, I am still here, or am I not?
It began on a Sunday – I am a church person. Meaning I go to church because I was born and brought up in church. If you ask me about my beliefs, I might stammer a little as I concoct an appropriate response but what you should know is that I go to church. I play the Piano and I have pretty decent vocals. My church congregation loves when I lead the praise and sink into a trance when I lead the worship. I am pretty good, but death does not care.
That Sunday, which is like three Sundays ago, I left church midway. I had earlier alerted my piano player intern that I would leave in the middle of the service for an expedition in another county. I was to leave in the company of two others and my girlfriend who was not really my girlfriend because the church does not allow the idea of boyfriend-girlfriend association. It is a law I have plenty of reservation on because I am also a believer in love. You do not stand in front of love and ask it to stay on pause because your church does not allow it. It does not work like that. When it rains it pours, and there is nothing you or your preacher can do about it.
Do you know that in the ICU patients are kept naked? Naked like we will all be living in heaven. Your visitors dress down to bare feet and light clothes to come see you because they do little heavier steps than necessary, you are dead. They clap or pray a little loud, you are dead. They smile in a way the thin rope holding you on to dear life does not like again, you are dead. You are just dead and even the doctors know it. They come to check on you, not to improve the medication or to check the machines, no! They come to record your time of death.
If you are not dead in a few hours then you are stubborn. You are overworking our doctors because the purpose of that room is to die. It is unwritten and even hushed among doctors that the moment they recommend the ICU to you then say goodbye and prepare for a feast with the ancestors.
My church is in Langa Langa in Nakuru. We left there at around midday in a hired car. As I walked out in the middle of the preaching I could feel my pastor’s glare at my insubordination. It was an understood law that the moment preaching begun, everyone would remain still, still as Nairobi traffic in the evening, until the preaching was over. That day, I did not pay enough attention to what I should or should not do.
We left in a rental car. The idea was to attend a Youth Church Seminar in Nyeri, sing and play the piano before heading over to Nanyuki for a brilliant relaxed evening and then drive back the next day before the time for work. It was a simple plan really. One that would be accompanied by a lot of ‘selfies’ and fun moments we would retell to our friends over and over.
If you have been on the Nyahururu – Nyeri highway then you know how smooth that road is. You just step on the acceleration peddle and suddenly you realize your speed timer is at 160 headed to 170 and you release it almost immediately such that the car slows down back to 80 or 100 before you are at it again, placing the entire weight of your foot against it. On that highway, what you do is train yourself how not to speed. The tarmac is so smooth, you could mistake it for the highway to heaven- as if I know how smooth it is. Does it even exist? It is a dreamy road. I feel like I need to thank His Excellency Mwai Kibaki for that but then that will raise a lot of political issues.
Often there is a Miraa (Khat) truck from Meru speeding on the other lane trying to chase the time before the perishable product loses its value and turns to a loss. But, pay no attention to that, that is what ascertains that you are within a stone throw distance from Mt. Kirinyaga.
I remember my girl asking me why a place could be called Wiumiririe which means Jikaze in Swahili and Harden yourself in English – for lack of better phrasing. I remember explaining that the person who came up with the name was encouraging any travellers from Nakuru headed to Nyeri that, the distance was still long ahead, but be strong and courageous and you will get there. That was the last thing I said before the car I was driving flew into the air and rolled over and over like a soccer ball in the hands of a random Ronaldo. Then, soil in my mouth, then a missing shoe, then darkness.
I do not know which is worse, believing that there is a God and then you die and discover that you played an enormous joke on yourself or not believing that there is a God and dying only to walk to the shores of the afterlife for an ass whooping, more painful than death.
All factors constant, in the ICU, it is just you and your God. Whatever you conceive him to be. If you close your eyes and see him as this enormous huge man in a golden crown seated high and mighty looking down on you, that is what your company will be in the ICU. It will be an awkward discovery moment for the both of you on the dimensions of each other. If you see him as this supernatural guy living on top of Mt. Kirinyaga in a nice glamorous snow palace on peak Batian, then you will be freezing in the cold because you will be naked in his presence, looking at him right in the eye and it will be the moment of truth. Worse if you do not believe in any sort of God. Then you better hope that you have faith in something or someone because that will be the only thing that will keep your heart beating.
At this moment, the living could dance and move their hips all the way to Timbuktu on top of your ancestors’ graves, burn your favourite cow as a sacrifice but you are not coming back, at least not the way you left if at all you resurrect.
It is called the ICU. More like, I will not see you again.
I sat for several long days with my God. Five human days as I was told later. I was on my knees begging to come back. My excuse was that I was not done the living and how unpoetic it was to die when trying to save a Miraa truck. I would have preferred to die gloriously with a whole lot of achievements on my name or fighting for something like Claude McKay had once advised. That…
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honour us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men, we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)
I pleaded God but he stared back not even moving a muscle. He was too supreme to be bothered by human movements so he looked at me like he could see through me; beyond the alcohol, the sex, the money and the pride. He tore into my soul so bare that it hurt.
Sometimes, it was like being stuck out into space. Floating alone in the vastness. The only feeling was a gripping and choking cold, burning and painful, that was slowly rising to my upper body.
I woke up on the fifth day to a memory of an incident where soil had entered my mouth and I had lost my shoe and then everything had turned black. I began recounting the happenings that had led to that moment. The first thing I noticed after my eyes had adjusted to the light even before I noticed the huge pipes in my mouth was a small congregation from my church praying silently beside me, my pastor included. Immediately I saw them the coldness I had lived in for all those long days vanished and I felt safe.
My pastor noticed immediately that I was awake and he called the nurse who even with all the deaths that happened in that place was shocked that I had awoken. Her skin grew pale at once and her mouth drew a controlled O. I was back! I was back and God had brought me back.
Disconnecting the pipes took a while. I noticed I was naked but it did not matter. I felt sleepy and weary. The pipe through my mouth had made my throat swollen and strained. I actually thought I would never speak again but as the minutes passed I could say my name and I could remember driving through a place called Wiumiririe.
They told me about the accident, they told me the rest three had fully recovered and discharged from Outspan Hospital days earlier. They told me it was a miracle I was back and they commended me for my resilience against death. They prayed and they sang loudly now, this was a ward and not the ICU. In a ward, I had the same chance as everyone else. They prayed again and again and I listened. They thanked God over and over.
The doctor wanted them to leave but they insisted on thirty minutes more because this was extraordinary. God was here. He had come to us in our time of need. I tried stretching my muscles and pain kicked in harder than a wrecking ball and I stopped trying. I was back! I was back!
I wondered if God was really there, the same God who had been staring at me for five days. I resolved to think they were wrong. God cannot leave the comforts of his throne to visit a poor man in a poor hospital ward room. I did not say it loud though, what I said was completely unrelated; I told them I wanted them to organize a wedding. I would marry my girlfriend. The Pastor frowned. I do not think he saw it coming. I do not think he thought I would marry his daughter.
I did not care. Death could not put me down, not even his rejection could match death.
Anyway, that is my testimony and God is good…
And all the time…
Feature Image by Mukiri Gitiri.
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