5 Feb 2021
An Interest in Memory
In Kenya, the first COVID cases were confirmed in March 2020. When this happened, the government imposed a 7 pm curfew, restricted movement to affected zones, closed schools and placed a ban on public gatherings. And while I do understand the necessity of this, the extra time that I now had to myself acted as an impetus for my preoccupation with nostalgia.
It was around this time that my grandma’s house started to morph itself into a constant illusory figure in my life. The dreams began suddenly, then frequently until the lines dimmed, and I couldn’t tell if what I was seeing was imagined or true, or both.
Where I had previously struggled to remember the smell of her, a dream sequence would carry me to the house, place me beside her “sick-bed”, and for the rest of the day, all I could smell was the talcum powder she wore when trying to mask the dank of the rotting wound on her chest.
While I have been lucky enough not to contract the virus, I do in some ways feel changed by it. As the dreams grew in frequency, so did my general sense of anxiety, and existential angst. One feeling I was not expecting was grief.
I inhabit my childhood memories until I grow weary of them. I hope for better, newer ways of seeing that forgotten time.
In waking life, the sensations of my childhood home are lost on me, but in my dreams, it comes alive. Consequently, my sleep is seldom dreamless, and this is how It comes to me.
One dream sequence finds me at the beginning of the lane. It is nighttime and I am terrified. I know that nothing can harm me on the way to where I am going, but the terror persists. There’s an urgency I feel, I know that I am expected, and I too am eager to see it, time has kept me away too long.
The terror stunts me; my unshod feet forget motion. I am still afraid of the dark, so I must be ten now. If I can remember courage then I know that I can walk down the slightly winding lane, make it past the bend, and on to the lone amber streetlight that brings the House into focus.
When I arrive, It makes no move to acknowledge me. It knows that I am here, that is all that matters, for the time being. Suddenly, I am cold, why am I always so cold here? From where I stand, I can tell that she is awake, and in better spirits too. Maybe It’ll let me see her today.
Other times, It comes to me in fragments, coyly, like a child with a secret unsure it should tell. I am never inside it, the House. I see myself around it, touching it, moving towards it, but never inside. On nights like this, I see no points of light, a deliberate shutting out. Her pain must be excruciating today.
There are moments in my life, certain slits in time where I can reach out and point to the inimitable forming of my loneliness; the day my granny passed away ranks chief among them.
My grandmother succumbed to breast cancer in 2009, I was 16. She had been ill for a while, so I had come to expect it; so much so that when death finally came to meet her, it found me numb. I don’t remember crying when I heard the news, or at the funeral, or even in the days and years that followed. What I did feel, though, was loneliness.
We were close. However, in the days leading up to her death, our relationship had cooled, somewhat. The chemo had changed her. It greyed her nails, made her hair fall out in clumps, paled her skin, but more than anything, she had become so small that she seemed more skin than person. I also remember that she felt cold, always so cold. And so in my own way, I began to say goodbye.
I knew then that I was being incredibly selfish. I hated myself for it, but still, I couldn’t find it in me to be by her side.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what those last days must have been like for her. I know that she was scared, though she never let me see that. I know that she was in immense pain. I know that she was disappointed in my abandoning her. I know she loved me, still. Perhaps I didn’t mourn her in any obvious way, because I felt that I had no right to.
I still do not know what the dreams themselves mean, if anything, they only leave me in a state of need, but maybe this how I finally mourn her.
Written By: Vera Njambi is a trained journalist and freelance writer from Nairobi. You can follow her on Twitter to find more of her writing.
Header Image: Guardian Angel by JANOP