I’m nursing another sore throat. As far as I can recall, I used to get two or three of these every year and now they are like phone calls from your Grandma about when next you’ll visit or whether you now have a boyfriend.
The main reason why I don’t like being sick, over and above the discomfort of a fever or stubborn pain, is the helplessness that comes with it. I have never suffered from a condition so debilitating that I had to be cared for too long – except that one bout of pneumonia almost 10 years ago, and it was nice to have my mother bring me soup and feel my forehead and kiss my cheek, but I have helped to take care of very sick people. And one of those memories came flooding back to me while I stood by my window at about 2 a.m. last night, wondering what it really felt like to be utterly helpless while also grateful that mine was just some discomfort that I felt sure would disappear with a lot more hot water sipped and gurgled at intervals.
When Jane first collapsed from some chest pain on a weekday, she was carried off to the sick bay and cared for there until she was well enough to sit up on her own and eat or get fed. In my high school in my time, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about students suffering severe asthma attacks or fainting from chest pain. Limuru bore the sort of cold you read about in books. Cutting or biting would best describe how it felt on your skin. On foggy days, visibility could blur from as little as four or five feet away, so that shadowy figures emerged when you walked across the school field on a particularly chilly morning. Just thinking about it makes me sad. I have never really liked cold weather. It is one of the reasons why I am glad that we don’t have winter in Kenya. The cold and rainy June to July stretches do it for me.
Days after her first incident, Jane got weaker and her fainting spells increased in number. As the head of a religious society she was a member of, I checked in on her when I could. The whistling sounds from her mouth or nose – I could not tell which at the time – left me feeling wary. I did not understand what it was like to struggle to breathe, such a seemingly natural and effortless action, but I felt sorry for her. Very sorry. The exact scene that played in my mind was the day we, the older members of aforementioned society, had to help Jane take a bath because we felt it would do her some good. I spoke with her, assuring her loudly for the benefit of those in the shower with us, that this was not a big deal and that we had helped care for older folk the same way when we closed for the holidays. It was a lie. I kept my eyes averted from hers, so I start with her feet. Out of nowhere, Jane reach for my hands and grabbed hold of them and started to whimper. I have never forgotten the look of absolute defeat on her face when I asked everyone to leave us while her hands remained clasped around my wrists.
I’m in a strange mood today. Somewhere between an eternal gratitude for good health and well-being and little white lies we can tell to make a bad situation a little better; somewhere between this dense degree of gratitude and this sad little place where I know I cannot explain away human suffering. Because even with the assurance of a better day to come, a Heaven for the righteous and long-suffering, it still hurts to hurt.
Jane did start to improve that weekend. And something between us shifted, drawing us closer and strengthening us both for the days ahead – for when I would help a younger little girl take her last bath before she died hours after I had told her that she would be okay. In my mind, I knew that she did not have much longer left. So we sat in the sun and talked a little and said nothing for a while and I left for my place while she died in a cold and empty ward all alone.
This is largely why I gave up any plans to practice clinical nutrition. Because like every person I know who can be described as strong, I have a soft and heaviness within me. It isn’t all bad, though, this little crevice of my existence from whence so many of my personal issues stem. Why not? It’s the same place where I draw all my empathy and atypical and selective capacity for patience and warmth.