Death, Mourning

The inevitable journey to death: A tribute to my brother.

I will sing, even in the darkest hour I will sing.

My brother Joseph and me in late 2018.

Science has proven that change, any change ranging from teenage body changes, weight gain, moving apartments, changing jobs, divorce, break-ups, separation, planned, or unplanned relocations are among the major stresses in life.  

The little steps taken by a little one-year-old boy scares him.  He trots by the edge of the table, falls, rises and continues to move, unoblivious that he has just begun a self-migration to his final destination.  

His tiny little steps, gripping the ground with all the balance available eventually become big strides.  He then jogs, runs, stampedes and then slows down and crawls through the finish line, leaving behind an overexerted motionless body to his final destination and to a place unknown.

Joseph was the eldest in a family of six.  His life served as a compass for his five siblings.  Every morning, the cows mowed as they waited for the energetic early riser to relieve them of their teats. 

 At 14, he left home for a boarding high school.

Joseph aged 13

Mummy took over.  She would wake up in the morning, take up my brother’s milking role as she juggled with lighting a fire in between three smoke-painted building blocks, my little brother slung to her withered breasts while the rest of the children waited patiently for her to make some porridge.

We checked the calendar in anticipation of my brother’s return from boarding school.   

He would save part of his pocket money to buy us candy and biscuits every time he came home for holidays.

Being the fourth-born, I depended on my brother Joseph for many things; homework, protection from harassment by the village boys and helping me chase after the chicken for slaughter. 

I saw him take the role of my parents many times.  He knew that he had to prepare the firewood, bury some coal in the ash ready to light the fire in the morning and prepare breakfast for all of us. 

I had not seen Joseph in close to two years.  Change; change in jobs had separated us. 

The last time I spent time with him, he looked hopeful. He was a teacher and had requested early retirement at age 58, so he could concentrate on farming.  I understood.  It was yet another change, another stride, one that was well aligned in the meandering journey of his changing life.

Two months before his death, I had traveled home for a short holiday.  I saw him every day. Although his home was two hills away, he committed to stopping by every evening.  Mum looked through the window whenever she heard the vroom of his motorbike.

The evening before my flight back to New York, we had dinner together and he promised to come by the following day during his lunch-hour break to say a final bye..and inded it was the final one.

We had lunch together.   He did not say much.  I sensed a heaviness—that subconscious feeling that leaves you with an incomprehensible fear.  Joseph stood up.  He needed to go back to school. His glazy eyes gazed into the horizon, and like speaking to someone across me, he smiled and said: “I have seen enough of you—now you can go.”

The three-meter distance between us looked like miles away.  I wanted to hug him. I saw him struggle to try move towards me, but something seemed to glue his feet to the ground.  I tried to move towards him, and I could not. 

He must have seen my eyes welling– he quickly jumped onto his motorbike and left.

In the busyness of life, I had not called my brother for a month. 

It was a warm Monday morning in New York… nothing peculiar about it…just another Monday in July, when like all others, I drug myself to wake up.

I had wanted to call my brother that weekend but postponed it to this Monday, this infamous Monday.

When you are away from home, you hate early morning calls. The time difference between Kenya and the US sometimes throws people off and they call odd hours. 

The phone vibration woke me up from the half-asleep Monday blue.  It was a distant voice from my auntie.  She must have tried to explain something but all I remember her saying was: “Joseph rested yesterday.”  “Rest” is the polite terminology we use for “dead”.

I put the phone on the speakerphone.  The blue screen stared at me in mockery.  My aunty’s voice echoed, sounding like some announcement from hades.  She was trying to be gentle. She was explaining something about my brother collapsing.

I was no longer listening I was re-living the last moments I had with Joseph.  I saw him standing on the green-grassed lawn outside my mother’s house.  His tall well-built physique… a smile on his face and his motorbike by his side.   I wanted to dash to him—tell him not to jump onto his motorbike, hug him so hard and not let him go. I wanted to stay with him right there, no movement, no words just be with him.

My brother had died on a Sunday afternoon.  He was feeding his cows and had planned to go for the men’s support group in the village that afternoon.

Joseph had suffered a sudden intestinal obstruction.  The pathologist described his condition as one similar to a cot-death.

I traveled home for the funeral.  We buried Joseph a few meters away from the cow pen.  Two days later, I visited his grave. The fresh roses were withered, the soil had started hardening from the rains and the biblical story of earth back to earth was painfully evident.

In their pen, the two cows mowed.  Like joining in my mourning, one drew to me while the other one chew the cud.  “Why? “I whispered in one of the cow’s ear: “Why did you not say anything? Why? Why did you not scream, mow, chew the cud … do something, anything, when your keeper collapsed. Why?”

With sunken faces, the cows moved away.  I stood there trying to comprehend the absurdity of this change, this last change which is the ultimate of all pain and loss.

I dragged my feet to my brother’s house where I found his three children. They sat solemnly.  My brother’s colorful portrait on the wall gazed at us. We gazed back and our tears rolled.

Yet I will sing, even in the darkest hour, through the sorrow and the pain, I will sing.

Don Moen/I will sing.

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