She read the letter once and to be sure of what she had seen, reread it once more. Things were about to get sticky. It had been a rough year for the family and it seemed like it was about to get stickier. She had just enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science at a local university but all indications pointed to a harsh realization that she was about to take a long break from that.
“You are hereby given a notice for layoff because Barclays bank is closing up its operations in Kenya and also in a variety of African countries as we embark on a restructuring plan that will help the organization meet its financial obligations to clients and shareholders. Some of your colleagues will be deployed to other units but because of your age and diminished performance over the years, we are sorry…” read part of the letter.
It was one that was addressed to her dad.
He had worked for the enormous organization for more than 20 years and as a result of his failing health, his performance and productivity had reduced tremendously over the past three years. This came immediately he was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer.
Chemotherapy had dwindled the family fortunes and because they had lost their mum 7 years earlier, the dad had been the sole breadwinner and the bedrock that supported their family of three boys and Anne. This didn’t come as a shock to her because she had seen the plummeting of her dad’s productivity, evident from the excessive hours of time off given by his understanding boss of more than 10 years but things had gotten so bad that he continuously missed work and appointments and after the three show cause letters she had secretly read, she knew everything had been coming down to this.
He didn’t know she had any clue about what was happening at work.
She then placed the letter neatly back inside the Barclays branded envelope and slouched on the reading chair she was sitting on. It was a reality she had all along known was coming but her mind kept telling her it had come too soon. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t prepared to lay off her dreams of pursuing actuarial science, a fact that was inescapable from the state of affairs. The future looked bleak. What made the disillusionment worse was the unsurity of what was to happen to her brother’s education once her dad wasn’t able to pay for all their fees.
The burden fell on her shoulders.
Being the firstborn meant that the world would soon demand her to step up. Was she ready for the enormous responsibility? No. She was too young, a girl barely out of her teens. Anyone who stepped closer could smell teenage off her innocent looks, her round face and the three specks of barely scrapped off acne spots on her left cheek, just above the formation of her dimple.
Her dad was 45 years old, a man too young to retire. She knew no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get another job, primarily because of his medical situation, a factor complicated by his age. Who would hire a dying 45-year-old man? The question kept ringing inside her and the answer that kept on ringing back was no one. The past year had been difficult and he had shed most of his weight. With every passing day, his skin grew paler, bones protruded more from every feature on his body, a constant reminder of the horrendous ordeal that was continuously taking part inside his body.
She knew he was in constant pain. He could see the struggle in his walking as he tried to get into his car every morning. The past few weeks had been the most painful for her to watch him. After the last chemotherapy session, he couldn’t keep anything inside. He was constantly throwing up and this broke her heart every single day because she knew the end was inevitable.
“Is Dad going to die?”
Maish, her youngest brother had once asked her, as she walked him outside the gate to wait for a bus to school one morning. He had seen the deathly stare in his dad’s eyes as he helped with his homework the previous night. The dad was continuously distracted and he wasn’t as interested in his Math problems as he always had been. Maish, even in his age knew something deadly was coming for his father. He might not have understood how dire its consequences would be but he knew that the time they spent together constantly punctuated by groans of pain, frequent throwing up breaks and continued distractions were becoming strenuous by the day.
She didn’t want to lie to him. She had squatted in front of him, looked deep into his innocent eyes, and pretending to straighten his collar, she had told him that dad would continue fighting for them. The answer had been evasive but deep down she knew he would. He wouldn’t dare to leave us alone. She kept telling herself but of late that voice had been replaced by other voices. Voices that were not as assuring as that one had been.
The boys started staying in more on weekends by their father’s side instead of going out to play as they had always done before signs of the illness became too pronounced. Most days he asked Maish to read him a story, they had been taught in school, something pretty to help his mind escape, in the pretense of gauging his reading skills but there were times he screamed in pain and there was no doubting the agony he was going through.
Sometimes this would happen in the dead of the night when everyone was asleep and Karen had to wake up to look for painkillers to ease up the pain. During these incidences of extreme suffering, she would ask him to describe the pain to her and all he would manage to do was just hold his stomach tight and rock from side to side on the bed. The groaning didn’t stop, sometimes for hours and she had to sit beside his bed all through, being there for him through times she could do nothing to ease up his suffering.
These incidences always brought tears to her eyes. She let them fall as she saw the same fall from her father’s eyes. She had never seen him cry but these momentary incidences of suffering had brought out the vulnerability of a man she had known as the strongest among earthly creatures. In as much as she couldn’t conceptualize his pain, she felt it in his tears as she wiped them, in most cases, with the back of her hand. She wished his dad would be well again. If not for her but for her three brothers. They needed him more than she thought she did.
Few days after receiving the letter, she had woken up in the middle of the night to a completely quiet house. As was the norm, she had walked to her father’s bedroom and found the lights on but she could tell he wasn’t there because of the empty bed. The washroom lights weren’t on so she had walked downstairs to the living room and found him sitting on his favorite chair with a photo of her mum at hand. She knew the picture because of some inscription it had at the back (M&M, 2003, first letters of her mum’s and dad’s names, Mitchelle and Mike and their 10th year anniversary. They had gotten married on July 10th, 1993).
In the picture, his dad was holding a bouquet of flowers on one hand and a soft board placard on the other with the words “I still do, 10 years on” on it. Her mum had her hands on her face, in an obvious blushing posture but the smile on her face signified a woman who was happy, content and cheerful. Lamu had remained to be the family’s local holiday destination of choice because that’s where the marriage had been officiated, on a sunset cruise when the two lovebirds were barely out of their teens as Karen currently was.
She had gone and sat by him but he hadn’t acknowledged her presence, instead focusing his eyes on the picture in his hands. Without looking at her he had proceeded to tell her that he felt his time to be with them had come to an end. He had professed his love for them all and apologized for having to leave them when she was too young to take care of her brothers. He knew it would be a momentous task but deep inside him, he had a conviction that she had been raised well, and that she would manage.
“I know you are worried about your education and that of your brothers. You don’t need to. I have lived my life well and ensured that in the event something like this happened, you all would be taken care of. I am glad that this happened when you are of age to claim everything I am leaving behind. With your mother’s pension and my own, your needs will be catered for, at least until Maish completes his university education. I know you will be a good sister to your siblings, and again, I am sorry for making you a mother at such a young age. You deserve time to enjoy your youth and there are no words I can proclaim to make up for that. I hope you can forgive me someday.”
The statement had made her realize that indeed, his time was quickly coming to an end. She had gone upstairs, woken up her brothers and led them to his bedroom where she had guided him to a few moments earlier. They had found him lying on the bed, his eyes fixed on the roof, after which they had turned upon noticing their entry. Without speaking a word, he had made space on the 6*6 bed for the three boys to sleep on and closed his eyes.
Though unspoken, they too, in their young age understood these would be the last moments they were to spend with him. They just lay there, the three of them, on his arms, in his last moments, eyes open as waiting for the angel of death to come in and take away his pain. Maish slept after a few minutes but Mbugua and Ian just wept silently. Their cries, soft, and emotional were like stabs in Karen’s heart.
“Karen, you were always so beautiful, you remind me of your mother…”