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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dead Value.

Kim couldn’t walk and therefore sat on a wheelchair—a stark reminder (and one painful too) that he had been a long distance truck driver-often sitting for long hours on his long-haul missions, be it in Southern Sudan or the Congo. He knew the art of endurance as the last twenty years of active service had taught him, often sitting patiently as he drove the titanic monster. Even now, that his monster had transformed ironically into a wheelchair, he still felt the desire to spin his present misery in reverse to the point before the rains had started pounding him. But could he?

The chronic back pain, which was also written on his face, would have broken the backs of two horses, but he didn’t complain. He had seen it all. He had endured it for the last two months. Endured it since the first time when he couldn’t afford to be admitted in the hospital because of financial constraints—thanks to his condition which had made him redundant. His relatives who were supposed to be nearer to him than the jugular vein were nowhere to be seen in this hour of need.

The only person who still cared for him was his wife and that was because she had decided that enough was enough and delivered him to this government hospital-albeit almost bedridden-and after enduring all those long days and nights listening patiently to his sighs and groans beyond conception. She had sold their only cow and two goats to get the money for both the admission and the CT scan the hospital required so that her husband could be diagnosed of this strange ailment. And that had taken long, too —from her desperation, every buyer wanted to buy her cow at a throw away price!

‘Male, early forty, brought in by his wife, been ill for a while, something made him paralyzed to the point of being bedridden, had been a long distance truck driver but had stopped working because he had fallen ill, lost a lot of weight too, and has this chronic back pain.’ The medical record sadly pronounced to the doctor on call. Her first impression was a case of HIV with possible spine TB. This was going to be a sob story, she thought, and even started to feel sorry for his wife as that made her an accessory.

But the tests became negative. She sent them for a CT scan. The results would take several hours; the queue was longer than an express train but not moving as fast. Further, they realized that the money was barely enough to cater for both the admission to the ward and the CT scan. The wife had to juggle once again with the hospital administration to allow her husband’s admission even for a week as she went back to look for additional funds with her peeping eyes of poverty. Luckily, they allowed him—but just for a week, until the scan results came and unless the balance was paid.

They sent Kim into a ward with all beds full with suffering comrades, who had had to undergo an adverse fate here and an unfortunate destiny there. Their tears at the harsh unfairness dry when they begin to recognize the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. It was their tears and rage, their trying of their patience and the acceptance of their helplessness, which were perhaps the true source of the misery of what had become of their lives.

Here were men living in another realm altogether—a sphere of rough reality like those that have been unfortunate enough to be prison and tasted a version of life previously unknown to them. Where the value of life was questioned and God’s omniscience was either doubted or fantasized. And you’d say there was plenty of time for the discourse as they found out—to their cost—especially painfully in the hospital staring at the white ward’s ceiling, which yawned back at them with impatience. Here were men who no longer believed in God except when they were ill, frightened or in an NDE.

That’s why his ashen eyes hover humidly in deep dark porches, half-veiled by weighty upper lids and beetled above by disheveled pallid brow marred sore by distress. Yawning wrinkles fan out from the soggy curve, slant by past the muzzle, and score the pale cheeks and smidgen his jaws. Kim’s gaze is straight out of the window, but at what? Perhaps at nothing. Some imperceptible target. Some irreversible point of departure. Some this or some that. His ears catch the sad heaves of the ailing man next to his bed rumbling like a volcano that was about to become full of life. Apparently, his pains come back alive all over again. It seems that the effects of the painkillers have gone, or the groans of the sick man next to him vibrating his pain.

Sometimes, he thought, evil as a physical thing-with wavelengths, just as reverberation and radiance have. A malevolent place could transmit quivering of evil. He could sense the presence of death at every corner of the ward as if the latter was bidding his time. It was just a matter of time and everything will come to a stop. Yes, that old common arbitrator Time, would one day end this suffering, he told himself, and hated the thought—time will tell.

A squirrel squawked. A man keep a tight mouth about it, in spite of a man not having a squirrel’s benefit of naivety, of mortality. A man didn’t have that comforting unawareness that there was or wasn’t death. Being the only mortal that foresaw death, that recognized what it is, the others exited and made their ultimate departures, lacking that knowledge, having no idea if it, yet a squirrel squawked, but every time, man kept a mouth tight about it.

Visiting time comes and relatives arrive in droves into the ward with more drama to him than consolation. First, the mother of the sick man next to him brings delicious food—chicken meatballs and Biriani rice. The sick man digs deeply—in spite of his sickness—and munches away like the last dinner of the condemned; where lamb chops, steak in wine, whatever the damned man desires, is served in his cell as a insultingly brutal memento of what the vast petite—fleeting world had to offer.

He asks for a cigarette the fifth time but the mother reminds him that the hospital was a no-smoking zone. Besides, tobacco was responsible for his cancer, which reminds her about why her son is in the hospital. She makes it worse when she starts crying-afraid that he was going to die. ‘You’re going to kill yourself, son. I’m afraid to lose you, too soon!’ she pleads.

‘D is nothing.’ The sick man brags, but is careful not to mention the name, like mentioning ‘rope’ in a house of a man whose father had been been hanged. ‘I’ve seen him, even wrestled with him. There’s nothing I don’t know about D. He’s nothing but penalty ball, which is the easiest thing any striker can score.’
‘Why do you like talking about death?’ the mother brightens up.
‘And what’s wrong with talking about D?’ He goes on with his braggadocio. ‘That’s part of life. To live is to D. D is the end of life. All of us will D. You will D. I will D. God knows, we shall all D.’ He lets out a sneeze.
‘But you don’t have to talk about it. I don’t like such talk.’ She just manages to laugh with a hint of self-derision, but the sound contained the image of a curtain being pulled across a private self.

‘We walk with D in our pockets and anytime, anywhere, we are all going to die.’ He went on sneezing and blowing his nose incessantly.
‘I know that, but why don’t you just shut up! D is not soup you can lick in a hurry.’ The mother pleads; collecting the plates and assisting him settle comfortably back in the bed.
‘Because I’m not afraid of him anymore. We respect each other. I’ve wrestled with D. Listen... haven’t I told you how he marched straight at me one day like soldiers on procession… the forces of D marching straight at me… then placed his cold hand on my shoulder. I caught a type of cold I’ll never forget, and he stood by just watching and grinning at me to join his army.’ He sneezed again.
‘Why don’t you hush this instant?’


They do all manner of tests on Kim, nothing turns out positive, though it started to have the features of cancer. Day after day, he got worse, not even the daily visits his wife paid could cheer him up. In fact, it was the worried look of depression to watch her husband die and do nothing about it, which was killing the couple in their own ways. It looked dismal and sometimes the doctor would catch her with a look on her eyes suggesting that she was ready to meet her husband’s death with the same matter of factness, as, let’s say, that a publisher of a newspaper awaited the demise of a sick king.

Finally, she raised a little more money and eventually they did the scan and it showed what the doctor had suspected—metastatic cancer whose origin was unknown but already spread from somewhere. They have to track the origin, which meant advanced investigation. The medication is even more expensive and this the hospital couldn’t offer until the money was paid in full. Things became apathetic for Kim because it was taking a bit too long for his wife to get more cash.

Yet the mother visited her son everyday as if to remind Kim of his cruel fate. He cursed at the fact that none of his relatives came to visit him. He would find himself shedding tears, those idle tears, that he didn’t know what they meant. Mournful tears from the depth of some divine despair, rose in the heart, and gathered to the eyes. Did he even look at the ‘happy autumn-fields’, and thought of those days that were no more? Did he wish to turn back the clock? There were many things he could have liked done but couldn’t. Bitter memory choked his throat like vomit.

Where was the beauty of yesterday, the happiness and collective responsibility of his people? Instead, money and self were the new tradition. If individualism was allowed to take root in his society then all that would be left was cultural dust and ashes! What more could they get from this physical material life? Where were all his friends and relatives to stand up and be counted in his time of utter need? Nothing could strangle his gullet the most!

In Juba, he had seen crippled beggars out in the street, and people just walked around on them. For a foreigner, that seemed cruel, but to the native traditional animists, properly complicated with reincarnation and such beliefs, would probably look at that same beggar and see a re-embodiment of a gluttonous man that lived in their midst, a thousand years ago, ate meat and drank too much blood, and died of gout. Damn! He didn’t need anything else in this present life and that’s why they were not bothered about how he looked.

‘He won’t last another month in his condition.’ The sympathetic doctor breaks the news to Kim when days flew fast and yet they hadn’t found the money. He looked indifferent. But the wife’s reaction was melodramatic.
‘Something has to be done. We are losing him.’ She paused to let that sink; the wife showed no emotion.

‘The most he can last is a month,’ the doctor went on explaining, ‘if we don’t get the money for more tests.’ She looked down and heard sniffing. When she looked up, the wife had suddenly broken down and cried. She didn’t know what to do as they never taught her this in med school. She let her cry, and let her go absorb the bitter reality like a great block of ice settled in her belly and kept melting slowly all day long.

Back in the ward, the son went on bragging to his mother who had made yet another visit. ‘Then I asked, what the hell do you want with me Mr. Cold Bones? Do you want me? Have you brought your army to get me?’ he paused to swallow the steak. ‘I looked him dead in the eye ‘cause I was daring to wrestle him down.’ He sneezed loudly. ‘I was not afraid what D could do to me, because I was walking towards my eternity!’
The mother cajoles him, ‘Your stories are getting scarier.

But he went on with the gory details—and digging deeply too, at his delicious food. ‘So, there I was, not afraid of the devil and his army and D standing grinning at me…with his sickle in his hand. Then Mr. D grumbled, ‘I can give you another year?’ See, just like that… ‘I can give you another year?’ I told him. ‘Go to hell! Let’s settle this now!’ But D chickened out when I said that, and the cold left me for a while. I wasn’t a runaway soldier… I karate chopped him, grabbed that sickle, and hurled it away, then we started wrestling and for the next three days and nights we went on and on. I wasn’t giving up!’

Kim was uneasy at the talk of D. The knowledge that the place vibrated of death made it even gloomy. He turned back to the window to see if his wife would come, but she never turned up this time. There was no way to while away his painful time or forget his miserable fate. He looked up in the white ceiling and cursed inwardly, ‘all that indifference and hatred up there, all that misery and suffering. It was a wonder it didn’t blow the ward apart!’

But that wasn’t a very good consolation, therefore he covered himself in the tiny hospital blanket. Behind it, he withdrew into the inner screened-off area of his mind where he squandered most of his time—a kind of mental gurgle in which he set up himself when he could not bear to be part of what was going on around him. From it, he could perceive out and arbitrate and at the same time, he was secure from every kind of penetration from without. It was the only place he felt free from the general absurdity of his ‘comrades-in-suffering!

But who could stop the ears from chewing his food? He still managed to overhear the blubbering of his ‘comrade-in-suffering.’ ‘Every time you narrate that story you have different ways to tell it and add salt and pepper to colour it.’ The mother plods on.
‘This is not a decoration. These are the plain facts. I wrestled D for three days and three nights, don’t you believe me?’

He took another deep bite and sipped at the mango juice, swallowed painfully and went on, ‘anyways, after those three days and nights, D and I were getting weaker and could not even move our. So, he removed his black tomblike robe with his hood off, and crawled to pick up his sickle. And said shamefacedly, ‘I’ll be back!’ But I told him, ‘Yeah, but you have to find me. I wasn’t planning to go looking for him.’ He went on sneezing wildly.

‘And I know he’s going to get me. Someday he’ll get me to join his militia, but if I watch as the Good Book says, and see him coming… as long as I keep my strength, he’ll still have to wrestle ‘cause I’m not soup to be licked in a hurry, either.’ He was red in the eyes from his sneezing spells deafening enough to blow his mother off the bed.

The following morning, however when the nurses were doing the rounds attending to them, it seemed the Old Man made out of bones had finally caught up with the braggadocio and laid his cold and heavy hand on his shoulder. He was gone. The nurse attending to him didn’t even hide the sad announcement behind polite formulas when she was calling the morgue attendants to take his body to the mortuary. ‘He’s dead.’ The nurse stated.
‘How do you know?’ the other asked.
‘He let go,’ said the first, ‘he was holding my hand. He grabbed it, held it tight, and then let go.’
‘Feel his heart?’
‘He’s dead. His hand is empty.’
The other looked unbelieving. ‘He didn’t cry or something?’
‘May be it wasn’t worth it.’ She mocked and rolled up her eyes and pronounced casually, ‘He wasn’t worth it.’

An empty bed met the mother when she came for her usual visit. Her eyes popped up more than the Richman’s when he saw Lazarus on the other side. Then her eyes began to flash like an ambulance at the realization that her son had gone—to the other side. She wept herself blind emitting the wails from her heart that seemed to echo all the wails down the centuries. She pleaded to heaven to bring back her son, her tears rinsing her holy begging in her eyes as if to make petitions more clear.

That show of love—not the actual death—touched Kim. He shed a tear too, to see her cry so much. He could no longer persevere the suffering that humanity had to go through. Wasn’t he made of flesh and blood too? His stoicism at sufferance came to a halt that instance for he was not going to be the first philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.

The mother made distraught calls on her mobile phone and even refused to leave the ward. Kim was lucky that day because his wife paid him a visit. He cheered a little and rose up, struggled to sit up in bed, and remained seated for a long time. Then he sighed painfully. ‘You know,’ he mumbled, then, ‘while I was listening to that woman there moan, it struck me all of a sudden how much pain she must have had to go through—to weep like that. It’s disgusting to think you have to suffer that much.’

The wife’s consoling look assured him of her empathy, but thought too about her share of suffering, ‘But can we avoid suffering?’ she mused.
‘We can’t,’ he said and smiled weakly, ‘we keep trying not to,’ he looked at her ‘don’t we?’
She became aware, with this sardonic stare that between them, for all eternity, she couldn’t provide the answers the husband was seeking. He was past the point surrender—no arrier pensee. There was nothing else to fear when death stood mocking and knocking at his door—and poverty, another brother of suffering peeped through the window. She turned back to the window and stared out of the ward where she could see crowds of people who must have heard that the mother had lost her son.

‘Yes, we can’t avoid suffering. Yet we try many means not to drown in it’s sea, to keep our heads up and behave all seems well, like you…’ he swallowed hard, ‘like you’ve committed some offense, all right, and now you have to recompense suffering for it. You know?’ The wife said nothing.
‘Well you know,’ he said impatiently, ‘why do people suffer? Perhaps because we’d rather do anything to rationalize it and give it a reason or explanation, any justification.’
‘But we just agreed,’ she said, ‘that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to –take it?’
‘Who in this world just takes it,’ he cried. ‘That’s what I’m saying! No one takes it lying. Everybody tries not to!’ he went on unheedingly.

By this time, a dozen more relatives had come into the ward—into the empty bed where the mother had decided to sit. It made the wife jealous to see all those people come to comfort one another and within a very short time. They came to console the bereaved mother and started even to organize for the funeral by donating money.

Kim’s pain came back again and he lied down in bed again. ‘Is that true?’ she asked, ‘because it can’t be. I don’t care how other people suffer or try not to. I just care how you suffer,’ she stared back at the smiling husband, ‘you have to understand that.’ Her gaze met his sunken eyes. ‘I think you shouldn’t die—trying not to suffer.’
‘I won’t,’ he said, flatly, ‘die trying not to suffer, that is, at least, not any faster than anybody else.’

‘Don’t give in.’ she said, trying to smile at her horrid solace, ‘It’s better for the cancer to finish you off than die worrying about it.’
She wished to say more, but couldn’t. She wanted to talk about positive attitude and how life could still be—well, beautiful. She wanted to say that it was all within, but was it? Or rather, wasn’t it that exactly the trouble? The other relations had all forsaken them in this hour of need. All she wanted to promise was she would be there for him henceforth. But it would all have sounded simulated–empty rhetoric and oratory.

The doctor joined them but had bad news. That after doing every imaginable test within their budget to look for the origin of the cancer, there was still nothing. In the end, the hospital administration was going to discharge him because they couldn't afford to have him in the hospital. That if they wanted an extension and to get the drugs, then they would have to clear the outstanding bill and cough more money. Besides, the treatment would have to stop.

The mother across the bed had in her hands enough new bank notes collected for her son’s funeral. A relation was cheering her up as they counted the lump sum. The doctor’s gaze prodded the wife to think along those lines—and seemed to suggest to her to be creative and inventive—wasn’t necessity the mother of invention? Didn’t desperation necessitate need? And the need desire? An indecent proposal formed in her frantic mind and took shape while the mother counted her notes filling even the bed she was still sitting on.

This desperation, in which manner she was bold to think of it as a final consolation her husband would finally receive his remedy, was like a discovering of land from sea after a long and tempestuous voyage. Her inspired mind went to cloud nine of hideous ideas. Fate was not heaping on her head, a pack of sorrows, which would wear her husband and herself out, without impediment, to their timeless grave.

She took the doctor aside and they swapped the ‘best-laid-plans’ in details. The plot to keep at bay the death of her husband, which made Kim wonder why his wife was talking animatedly with the doctor, and in hushed tones. His pleas for an explanation went unheeded and they bid him goodbye with an assurance that they were doing what had to be done—that it was for the best! A woman had to do what a woman had to do.

That evening when she went back home, she reported the demise of her husband—bravely borne—and untimely too, after a long struggle with cancer. The ‘sad’ news spread like fire on savannah fanned by the mouths of the always-powerful harmattan windy mouths. And blowing it too, out of proportion. The whole village went into plastic mourning and shedding crocodile tears in the bid to show grief at the departure of a loved village son. The formalities kicked to life immediately with a formation of a funeral committee to take care of the burial of this departed villager.

This was not a surprise in a society where they valued the dead more than the living. No one asked how many of the dead would have survived, if before organizing these festive funeral ceremonies, the relative or friend had bought the life-saving prescription or paid for hospitalization? Instead what did they do? Donated chickens and maize meals for food the first day, slaughtered sheep and goats the second day, and sacrificed cows and bulls the third day. Two funeral committees had been collecting funds consecutively and it’s more than enough—on the third day—and counting.

But, where is this departed son? Someone asks. How could they have forgotten about the hospital? Why was it the last place to go?

A six-car convoy drove into the hospital the third day since the wife went home. The Mercedes Coaster hired from a funeral home at the cost of the sky boasted of a diamond-laced mahogany coffin and sad looking relatives chanted heartrending ‘Fare-thee-well’ hymns. The doctor knew a scene was being enacted when she saw the drama from her window and knew too, she had to take a French leave or otherwise, these dead cherishing relatives were capable of doing anything to her.

They asked questions when the supposed dead man was woken by loud cries. Poor innocent Kim, raised his eyebrows, in high spirits—happy that finally the relatives had come to visit him. But was shocked at the cold stares he was receiving. He was perturbed by the tears and the red roses—a symbol that he had died. Their disconcerted looks did not help him either for they made him feel like Lazarus after those four days down in Hades. ‘But, he’s still alive.’ One prompted and nudged the other. ‘He has to be dead!’ another announces sadly, unbelievingly.

An anticlimax follows for the relatives who had come to collect his body. For Kim, it was like reading his own obituary. He checked his pulse and found he was still alive and well. They apologized for thinking that he was dead. The wife had to give lengthy explanations to the ‘disappointed’ mourners and this was no easy task. Nevertheless, she managed it somehow, cheered up by the amount of money that would enable the husband stay longer in hospital and have the best medical attention. She could only volley ‘questions and answers’ back and forth with the ease of professional tennis player.

She also learnt one thing about her relatives. They weren’t human. They looked like humans when they walked on their hind legs like human, and they talked and she could understand them or thought she understood them, at least now and then. But when it came to the normal human feelings, and sentiments of human beings, they could just as well be a damn herd of wild buffaloes!

End.

8 comments:

  1. Hi sweetie, Interesting, funny and full of thought. Wow all in one., human, human beings, and human kind? true can be buffaloes. just to show, we have one life, what would we like to be remembered for. The wife? the husband? she has not what i call human. The husband lol, wishies he never woke up. love it , thanks darling xox you spend your time well, keep up the great writing.

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  2. Yessss..interesting and as good as reality. Have seen this wordhip of the dead where the life meant nothing. Almost like bribing yersel away from a coffin.

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  3. ciao giddie,
    awesome your blog!

    bravo!

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  4. @Darling..we(humans) are as guilty as charged when we neglect our needy.
    @Billy..embellishing the tombstones of dead prophets while killing living ones.
    @Angie..ciao ciao skylark.

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  5. didn't realized how good you are in writing. you remember me Adichie's style.
    looking forward reading more novels, waiting for the long one...
    take care

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  6. Salut! finallment Marie est la! Cool blog!at least now i'll just be following this link 2 get 2 ur wrk thts soo cool...ur such a diverseve writer with ur own unique style shown in all ur pieces...success mingi ur making us proud! na kazi iendelee

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  7. # Angie..adichie & the west african rivalry..don't even mention that..we have our own east african style..more or less distinct & unique as Marie says..i'm building to that style..
    thanks for the realization..if only the publishers would realize it too..

    #Marie..bissoux ma cher. c'est ca. & pourqoui j'ecris.pour toute les gens/choses/monde..

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  8. the wife is a smart woman,love the way she punked the relatives...i enjoyed myself, braggadocio made me laugh,the nurses made me angry, kim pulled at my heartsrings,...a goodstory should awaken emotions.this is a good one!!

    linda

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