It’s Thursday. As soon as I arrive at the hospital, I know my 13-year-old friend; Paul Macharia (suffering from leg cancer) did not make it – his bed, located at the far left corner, is empty. For a second, my world abruptly stops and then my head starts to slowly spin.
Just a few hours ago, I was in town, running around like a headless chicken, trying to make sure I bought Paul everything he’d asked me to bring him. He wanted snacks, fruits, chips, Mbuzi Choma, toys and clothes “to wear when leaving the hospital” – he’d specifically requested.
Just a few weeks before, I’d met Paul (March 18th) during a visit to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) Children’s Cancer Ward while filing a story on children abandoned with cancer. We became friends by default. I was only drawn to him because he was too weak to get out of bed. And as the rest of the children took a drawing and colouring class in the playroom facilitated by my hosts, the Sarakasi Trust Hospital Project (STHP), he couldn’t join in, making me move closer to him.
After spending about an hour or two with Paul and Brenda, his art teacher from STHP, we all clicked as they painted some fancy birds. As the blinding afternoon light and Nairobi’s heat engulfed the ward, I suddenly felt like it carried with it a silent promise to the children of a brighter future. Paul was hoping to get out of hospital and go back to school … The boy was very inquisitive and bright. He wanted to know the origin of all the pictures in my camera, and take pictures with me. He caught me off guard when he asked, “So when are you going to come back and see me?” I promised, “Soon, I will communicate with your teacher.”
When I left KNH, I felt grateful, for my good health and family. I had found out that Paul had been abandoned by his parents. He told me they had never visited him since his admission to hospital. It’s a very tough conversation to have with a child. Later, Paul would have Brenda call me every day during art class sessions, asking when I would go see him and always reminding me to bring him the stuff he’d asked for. We passed each other messages and talked on phone once. But on the weekend that I was scheduled to go see him, I fell terribly ill with pneumonia. The following week, on Tuesday afternoon, when my Blackberry’s battery did the best it could to die, the boy had been trying to call me urgently. When I arrived home to charge my phone at about 5:00 p.m., I received seven notifications that he’d tried calling me using Brenda’s phone. On calling back, Brenda said, “It’s too late. Paul really wanted to talk to you urgently today.” I told her I’d be visiting him during oncoming weekend but she warned, “It might be too late, he seemed too weak today.”
I decided that I would go see Paul on Thursday.
Unbeknownst to me, the boy had died on that same Tuesday.
Back to present day: as Brenda and I stand next to each other at the ward’s entrance, silent, knowing too well why Paul’s bed is empty; one of the nurses summons Brenda after which she move towards me asking me to sit down. I know what she is about to say. I just feel like I should have made it on time. I start to wonder what I will do with the shopping and clothes I got him. One of the nurses calls me into the main office and tries to give me that mumbo jumbo counselling talk. But all I want is for them to take Paul’s clothes and make sure they get to his mother, who hasn’t yet come to the hospital since her son died. The nurses won’t take the clothes, because, they aren’t sure when and if the mother will come – they say. They give me her number to call and make arrangements but her phone is off.
Disappointed, I am standing at Kenyatta hospital, carrying a shit-load of stuff I don’t want to go back home with yet I don’t want to leave them with anyone if not Paul. The nurses won’t stop cajoling me to leave the stuff with the other children, “many are abandoned and orphans,” they bribe me. I don’t flinch. Just as I am leaving the nurses’ office, one of them suggests, “You can go see Paul at the morgue if you want.” After sitting with Brenda on the ward’s only bench for a few minutes, we decide to make for the morgue. A lot of people travel with corpses on Fridays to arrive to the burial sites by Saturday. Explains why, on this Thursday, we were met by a monstrous queue.
One queue is for paying about KES 300 to view the body, and the other is to get a number, to issue the morgue assistant to help identify the body. Brenda and I decide to take turns. I take queue number one (to pay). While she takes the last one, I sit on the wooden bench underneath the blaring sun. For the first time since coming to hospital, I shed a tear. I realize that I am glimpsing at life’s nothingness. I am looking at countless gloomy people, here to take their loved ones, one final time. Some women come out of the viewing room screaming and crying frantically. I start to freak out and text my sister Jackie, explaining my circumstance. She texts back, “Are you really sure you want to view a dead body? It will traumatize you.” Brenda is just about to get to the teller but I call her. She asks the guy in front of her in line to reserve the space. I ask her if she thinks we should back out … “No let’s just do it!”
When she gets back in line, she hears the guy she spoke to a little while ago, about reserving her position on the queue, say to the cashier, “Yes – Paul Macharia, that’s the name.” Brenda goes, “Hi – you know Paul? My friend and I are here to see him too.”
Turns out the guy has come (from the organization that had given Paul up for adoption) to represent the family and help with clearance. As the stranger walks away, Brenda calls me, pointing at him, “He’s here for Paul. Get his number!” I am so confused and in the moment, I lose him in the crowd. We sit on the bench waiting for our turn to be called by the morgue assistant to get into the viewing room and the guy just reappears from nowhere. We approach him and introduce ourselves properly. He says, “Even Paul’s mother is here. Let me just call her.” As he reaches his phone to call her, a friendly but shy-looking woman wearing knitted sweater despite the heat approaches us— Paul’s foster mother.
I can’t comprehend how we all just met miraculously, in such a crowded space.
We introduce ourselves to Paul’s mother as Brenda recounts Paul’s last moments. “On that last day, alikua amechoka sana. Alikua ananiuliza nipigie tu Anyiko, alafu vile hakushika simu, akaanza kuniuliza kama naona aki-breath. Mimi nikamwambia yeye ndio anaweza niambia vizuri, lakini alikua anaongea tu vizuri … (He was very tired and kept on asking for Anyiko. Later, he kept saying he was experiencing difficulty with breathing).”
The boy died on Tuesday, at approximately 5:15 p.m. soon after Brenda left the hospital.
Paul’s mother looks at us with gratitude so colossal, words can’t express. She smiles and says, “Nilijua alikua na marafiki na ni vizuri nimejua ni nyinyi.” Without a second thought, I know it is the moment to do the necessary. I give her all the bulky shopping I have been carrying around the hospital. I am still clutching onto the neatly wrapped funky jungle green African shirt and matching shorts I had got Paul at an Indian Shop inside Hilton Arcade. It’s hard to explain to Paul’s mother about the clothes but I try. “Mami, Paul alisema nimletee hizi nguo, za kuvaa akitoka hospitali. Ni bahati mbaya sikumpata leo lakini tafadhali chukua labda utamvalisha …” She takes them with open arms and blesses us: “Mungu awabariki!” We exchange numbers as they tell us of their intention to leave Nairobi with Paul’s body, same day. Just as they are leaving, the morgue assistant emerges shouting, “Watu wamekuja kuona Paul!!” We all stand still and look at each other. “Twendeni” I say … But the family (Paul’s mum and her sister) is hesitant. Together with Brenda, we move stealthily towards the small lifeless cold viewing room. Paul is at the corner, wrapped up in some dirty hospital clothes. “Songeni karibu m-confirm kama huyu ni Paul!” The morgue assistant prompts us. As Brenda and I move closer, I realise that Paul looks like he died peacefully. He just seems like he’s sleeping. Not scary. I also realize that his family are no longer in the room.
Are they abandoning him even in death?
My heart is at ease as we leave the hospital soon after. A few days later, I receive a call from Mama Paul. She tells me that the funeral went well and that she dressed Paul in the clothes I bought him. She says, “Ata kama Paul hayuko, nataka ukuje Nyandarua unione.”
BONUS: The guy from the morgue told me that Paul was an orphan who had been given up for adoption. He said that most of his older siblings had gone on to become chokoras (street children). Quite often I think about Paul and why his mother didn’t show him much love at the end of his journey. I have visions of Paul’s brilliant mind and for some reason, I feel like he would have become a computer expert, had he lived on.
Writing this was a balance between thought and tears.
I keep wondering what Paul had wanted to say to me. Nevertheless, my heart has since found rest in my mother’s words of encouragement: “If you had gone to see Paul on Wednesday, you wouldn’t have met his mother. And maybe you wouldn’t have been able to leave his stuff anyway. If you had decided to go see him on Friday or Saturday, you’d have found his body taken. If you hadn’t decided to go to the morgue on Thursday, you wouldn’t have met his mum by chance. Lastly, if you had given in to giving out his stuff at the ward, you wouldn’t have given them to the mother later. Paul wanted his clothes and for you to meet his family, and it happened. You’ve done your work.”
Check out this story’s spin off via France 24’s The observers: Children with cancer abandoned at Kenya’s largest hospital