The boy’s hand didn’t respond to his mother’s touch. She stared at his resting body, trying to imprint the contour of his face, his hands, his chest into her mind.
Dr. Mbugua’s verdict had stayed with her since the previous Friday. Four days of rehashing the cruel words in her head, writing them down again and again on the notebook she kept in her handbag.
It would take miracle.
She remembered the uninspiring painting on the wall behind him, a picture of a mud house in the middle of a field. She had fixed her gaze there to avoid looking at the pity that showed on the doctor’s face. She didn’t believe in miracles and she felt that she might lose it if she saw this expression again that day.
All the eight doctors they had seen had looked up from their files with a variation of that despondent look. Bilal was five years old and without a doubt he was dying.
She couldn’t resign herself to it. Though her father was a practicing Muslim, she leaned more towards her mother’s secular views and had never been a particularly religious person. But she was badly in need of comfort and hope so over the weekend she had reached out to the imam at Adams Arcade Mosque.
A sheikh had come to recite verses of the Qur’an for her son’s remission. Her husband disapproved; he called it superstitious nonsense, but she couldn’t just sit in Bilal’s hospital room day after day gripping the armrest just to have something to hold on to.
She left Bilal to go grab a sandwich and a coffee at the cafeteria, though she already knew she wouldn’t enjoy either. But she had to stay warm, so hospital food had to do.
Waiting in line for her order, she stood staring at the back of the room where two lone posters advertised free breast cancer checkups. One more ailment that could assail the unsuspecting body. She pried her eyes away, eager for any kind of relief from the rising anxiety, when she spotted a man sitting alone, a thick book open in front of him.
He seemed absorbed in his reading, enjoying a moment of peace in this hectic place. She wanted to rest her eyes him, on his face, on the hand that lightly flipped the pages, going back and forth to read a passage again. He looked up and she felt her face flush but she couldn’t look away.
He nodded and smiled. It’s alright, his eyes seemed to say. Eventually it was her turn to be served and she ended up ordering just a black coffee. She went over to the man’s table to apologise.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare at you like that. It’s just…I have a lot on my mind.” He smiled again and invited her to sit across from him. She hesitated a little, then she put down the paper cup that was starting to burn her fingers.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
Until this point, she hadn’t realised how much the accumulated pain of the past year weighed on her. She had been working on autopilot, taking trips to the hospital to visit Bilal, going home to get a change of clothes and cook food none of them would eat. Abdi was at work most of the time and he was never one to talk things out anyway.
So she held her coffee with both hands without drinking it and she told this stranger about Bilal’s curtailed childhood, his leukemia, the child’s suffering, and the doctor’s prognosis that left them with no hope of seeing him grow into an adult.
He put the book away and looked at her intensely, as if her words were all that mattered in that moment. From time to time he would nod. Then he asked, “Are you a Christian?”
The question unsettled her. Was he one of those preachers who preyed on desperation to rein you in?
She said a tentative no, bracing herself for the coming tide of reassurance that God was watching out for her and Jesus loved her. She wished this elusive God were here right now to make her disappear from this awkward conversation she had inadvertently walked into.
“Whatever you believe in, you can still pray. It helps me find peace in this place, you know.”
She finally took a sip of her coffee. It had gone cold and it left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“Thanks for the advice. I have to go now.”
“My name is Henry.” He extended his hand to offer a handshake. “I’ll see you around.”
She shook his hand and left, envying his faith in God’s grace.
Abdi was home when she got back from the hospital. He had left oily wrappers lying on the kitchen counter, probably remnants of a chicken and chips take-away. She threw her handbag on the coffee table and sat on the sofa. She didn’t bother turning on the light.
She could hear Abdi preparing for the night. The sound of the hangers sliding in the wardrobe, then a pause. He was placing his shirt or trousers on the chair, ready for the next day of work. The scraping of the wardrobe drawer: he was selecting his underwear. Back in Stockholm where they both grew up, he already had this routine going.
She was so exhausted. She dreaded the prospect of talking to him about her day. What would she have to say? Our son is still dying, thanks for asking. His hand was limp when I touched him. I met a man called Henry in the cafeteria. That was my day.
He wouldn’t even ask about her day. He would just look at her and talk about things that didn’t matter just to avoid thinking about Bilal lying in the hospital because it hurt too much. When Abdi came back from “there”–the words hospital and leukemia rarely passed his lips–he lay in bed pretending to read.
Finally, she found the energy to join him in the bedroom. He gave her a faint smile and then looked away when she started undressing. She brushed her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, tied it back in a bun.
The light was too bright, too clinical. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, thinking about Henry’s advice. Try prayer. But it couldn’t work if she didn’t believe that anyone was there on the other end to receive it.
When she went back to the room, Abdi had turned off the light but she knew he wasn’t sleeping. They both lay awake in bed letting time slowly rub its rugged hands against their thoughts, hoping the grimness would erode.
Outside, the gate screeched and the deep bass of a powerful engine filled the bedroom. She remembered when Bilal would play at guessing who had come home by listening to the sound of the cars.
Sometimes he would let his imagination run wild, thinking it was the President or Grandma Gunilla who still lived in Stockholm. He would squeal in anticipation, lifting the curtain of the kitchen window to see who it was.
There was a time when Bilal’s cries would wake them up at night. He had terrifying nightmares sometimes. Nowadays, they mostly lay awake haunted by the dread of a phone call from the hospital.
Friends still offered to visit them but solicitude had fizzled out over time. They had their own lives to take care of. Now, they texted from time to time to ask how she was holding up and if there was any progress with Bilal’s health. Some didn’t dare mention the illness in their messages, leaving the beast undisturbed in case she wanted to talk about something else. As if there was anything else.
In the morning, she went back to the hospital. She had gotten distracted and forgotten her scarf at home so now the July wind was extending its icy fingers around her neck. For once, stepping through the door of the Aga Khan University Hospital was a relief, though the familiar smell of detergent assaulted her nostrils right away.
Sarah passed by the empty bed where a sick child used to be and didn’t need a word from the team to know what had happened. She rushed to her son’s room, nervously fidgeting with the buckle of her handbag.
Bilal was awake, playing with a fluffy teddybear Grandma Gunilla got him for his fifth birthday.
“Good morning Mum!” he said with a brave smile.
“Morning baby! How is Andrea?”
The boy examined the teddy bear, pulling one of its arms up and pressing the wrist with a concerned look on his face, then touching various parts of its body, before pronouncing his opinion:
“Andrea is fine today. Don’t worry Mum,” he finally replied.
She sat on the chair she knew too well, under the large window that let in the timid morning light. She had brought “Big Bad Bun” to read him, a story she knew he enjoyed hearing time and time again.
So she read to him, showing him the pictures on each page. He loved making witty comments about the characters, especially Big Bad Bun who was so facetious and got away with it. They laughed together, and held their breath in unison when he was in trouble with his parents.
It felt like normal life again, were it not for the mask on her face and the sound of steps and wheels moving up and down the corridor. Bilal picked up the book from her lap and started turning the pages, looking at each of them attentively. His lips were moving to the words of the story.
“Mum, you know I can read!” he exclaimed.
“Ok, read something to me then.”
“Big Bad Bun had a good friend called Mister…Bro…Brodway.” He knew the book almost off head and sped through the first three pages.
Sarah saw Nurse Anyango’s face appear through the stained glass rectangle on the door. She was doing her morning rounds.
“How’s my champion today?” she said, and then to Sarah, “I’ll just be a minute.”
Over time, Sarah had come to know most of the nurses in the paediatric ward. Some were impersonal in their dealings with patients and relatives but Anyango tried to be reassuring. She always said a little something to make Bilal feel more comfortable.
She looked young, maybe she hadn’t had time to become jaded by the daily routine of suffering and death that was the lot of nurses treating cancer patients. Nurse Anyango wrote some notes in a scratchpad.
“Everything looks good. See you later, Bilal.”
After the nurse left, they sat in silence until Sarah’s phone rang from the depths of her handbag; an unwieldy thing with a patchwork design. She fumbled for a few seconds before locating it underneath all the junk that always seemed so important when she left in the morning and that just burdened her the whole day.
It was work.
“I have to pick this up, baby. I’ll be right back. I love you!” She sent him an air kiss.
Out in the corridor, she faced the plain white wall to keep her mind focused.
“Hi Catherine. How are you?”
“Good, thanks. Listen, there’s an urgent project I need to send you. Are you available this afternoon? It’s for the Turkish Airlines account.”
“Alright, I’ll take it on. Can you email me the details? I’ll get to it as soon as I’m home from the hospital.”
When the call was over, she stood there scratching a tiny spot on the wall where the paint was cracked. She didn’t have the strength to care but she needed the money. She was so exhausted all the time.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a man approaching. She turned around to face him and saw it was Henry, the man who had been kind enough to listen to her story at the hospital cafeteria the previous day.
They shook hands but skipped the pleasantries, the way people joined in pain tend to do. She felt strangely close to him.
“Do you want to meet my son?” she asked, “He’s in this room.” They went in together. Bilal was still reading Big Bad Bun and he waved hello, barely registering Henry’s presence.
“Hi Bilal. I’m Henry.”
“Nice to meet you, Henry. I’m reading.”
“Oh, I’ll leave you to it then,” he said with an amused smile.
The room had only one chair which she insisted Henry sit in while she perched on the edge of the bed reading over Bilal’s shoulder.
“I’ve brought you a gift,” Henry said. “It’s a collection of gospel songs that I personally find uplifting.” She thanked him but her tone betrayed reluctance.
“Listen, I know you’re not a person of faith. I just thought you would enjoy this music.”
He came over to her side of the bed and handed her a flash disk. She noticed that his nails were neatly manicured, with a fresh coat of transparent polish.
When he left, she stared at the flash disk, wondering what this chance encounter was turning into.
On her way home, she listened to the playlist on the car stereo. The high-pitched voice of the singer and the energizing rhythm pried a smile out of her and she started humming along to “Nibebee“.
Maybe Bilal would like this music after all. If it could melt down his sorrow like it did hers for the few minutes the compilation was playing, it was worth a try.
She was about to put her handbag away in the closet when she stopped in her tracks. Suddenly, she couldn’t stand the idea of carrying this load around every day.
She went back to the living room, lay a kanga over the coffee table and swiftly emptied the contents of her bag, down to the last folded parking ticket. She made a little pile of items to throw away: a movie ticket, an empty tube of face cream, a Lunch Bar wrapper. Her wallet, keys, Kindle, phone, earphones and notebook would stay. The remaining items were wrapped in the kanga and placed in the wardrobe drawer.
Bilal was reeling from his latest chemotherapy cycle.
He looked so pale and fragile, a painful reminder of how tenuous his life was. She didn’t have the energy to disguise her despair. In any case, the boy was probably too weak to notice that behind the surgical mask, her expression was downcast.
“It’s Saturday, Baba is coming today, sweety.” She attempted a note of hope, though it fell flat. “I have a little something for you, since you’ve been so brave.”
He said a faint “OK, Mum” but when he saw the earphones, his eyes sparkled with excitement. She plugged the earphones to the phone, connected them to his ears and pressed play.
They laughed because the earphones kept falling off and Bilal had to hold them to listen to the music. But when he finally found a suitable position, he started bobbing his head to the beat and mouthing mangled lyrics, taking the song into his stride with delightful abandon.
She felt Abdi’s warm hand on hers. She had been too absorbed in their son’s delight to notice his arrival. He stood behind her at the foot of the bed in his usual beige cardigan that made him look like a dashing yuppie on vacation.
“Hi there!” he said, “I’ve brought some drawings from your classmates. Your teacher wrote a letter too.”
He smiled as he took a bulging manila envelope out of his attaché case and placed them on Bilal’s lap. She couldn’t tell if he was really in a good mood or if he was faking cheerfulness.
Bilal beamed, forgetting the song he has been enjoying so deeply just a few seconds ago. He released the earphones to open the envelope. Suddenly, the bed was a riot of colours, Bilal’s friends get-well-soon notes scattered across the cover. Sarah kissed his soft cheek.
“I love you baby. I have to go do some work now.”
“Mum, I want more Yesu songs,” Bilal said as she was about to leave.
Abdi’s face scrunched up and he gave Sarah a meaningful look but he didn’t say anything until they were alone in the corridor, out of Bilal’s earshot.
“What was this about?”
“It’s just a playlist a friend gave me. I thought the music would cheer him up,” she answered.
“Since when are you into gospel?” She rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“Come on! It’s just a bunch of songs. I haven’t found the Lord or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The call came at 9:00pm. Sarah’s forehead creased with worry. She glanced at the phone which was lying next to her plate and then across the table at Abdi. It was the hospital.
She gestured for him to pick up. She felt too brittle to talk to any medical staff right then. He understood and turned away from her so she wouldn’t read the emotions playing on his face. He said very few words, a couple of quick “hmm” and finally, “I understand, we’re on our way”.
She knew Bilal was dying or already gone but all she could think of was how he had wanted more “Yesu songs” and she had promised she would bring him some more and she hadn’t had time to download any.
They both trained their eyes on the road, driving fast through the drizzle that streaked the front lights halo. Abdi kept repeating “we’re going to be OK” like a mantra, speaking straight ahead into the night. They made the last turn into 3rd Avenue Parklands and passed the security gate at the paediatric ward.
The door to Bilal’s room was closed and a nurse Sarah didn’t know greeted them with careful words. Sarah tried to move past her to get to her son but Abdi restrained her by placing his arms around her as she started calling her son’s name again and again.
Finally, the nurse took her hand and said, “I’m so sorry”, her voice tender like a whisper of love.
“Where is he?” Sarah asked.
The nurse gestured towards the room where they had spent so many hours as a family, storing up memories that would never be enough. She held Abdi’s hand and they went in together in silent tears. The tension of the treatment and the endless doctor’s appointments had been released but in its place an inscrutable pit of darkness had opened up that threatened to swallow everything.
Bilal was pale, though it looked like he would rise up any minute and let out his cascading laughter, happy to have played a good prank on all the adults.
So she talked to him gently, begging for a last hug. Abdi was standing very straight, his eyes trained on their lifeless little boy. He squatted beside her, holding her at the waist and cradling his head in her neck.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. The sobs seemed to be wrought out of him. They came from a secret recess where all the pain had piled up like an old suitcase at the back of a closet, the one you might only ever open when you’re moving house. She caressed his knee, digging deep to pour out all the tenderness she had to give.
They stayed in this embrace until the nurse knocked on the door, signalling that it was only their world that had come crashing down.
After the funeral, the walls of the apartment seemed to be closing in. Sarah rarely picked up the phone. She wouldn’t have known what to say. Abdi had taken care of most of the arrangements, calling friends and family to announce the bad news, putting away Bilal’s clothes and toys until they were ready to sort them out, notifying the health insurance provider, obtaining a death certificate.
Even though he had taken a week off work, he didn’t sit down for a minute. She observed his frenzy with an unusual detachment. She was in daze, incapable of fully forming a thought. People they knew would come in and offer condolences, and she would say all the right words and they would respond with appropriate expressions of sadness and pity.
In truth, she barely registered their presence. Then they left and she would prepare her tenth coffee of the day. She would drink it while pretending to be reading an old UP Magazine, sometimes stopping to look at the reflection of her nose in the dark liquid, until the coffee got cold and she threw it away.
She thought about Henry a lot, wondering what he had been in the hospital for on those two days she had met him by chance. She regretted being too preoccupied with her own worries to ask him any questions. Maybe he could have been the kind of friend who would understand that everything was changed.
She imagined his life: a job at as a bank manager, gym twice a week, church on most Sundays. Maybe he was even in the choir. It made her smile to imagine him dressed in one of those corny choir uniforms, singing his heart out. Singing “Yesu songs”.
She connected her phone to the speakers to listen to Henry’s gospel playlist, sitting on the Turkish carpet with her eyes closed, her lips moving to the words of the chorus she had memorised. A rush of electric excitement went through her body and she increased the volume until she felt the vibrations in her chest. And she spun around, her arms outstretched to push back the walls that were still closing in.
This was her prayer.
Laila Le Guen is a writer, translator and serial language learner who enjoys challenging herself to move cities and continents every few years. Born in France, she has fallen under the charm of artsy, bustling Nairobi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brainstorm, Saraba Magazine and Afrolivresque.
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher