Each family has that one child that turned out different. The one apple that ended up falling so far from the tree it’s almost as if it did not belong to the tree in the first place. Sissy was one of those. She was different. The kind of different that gave her single mom endless headaches. She knew no bounds and was known to express herself in biting words. Combined with her restless pair of legs and wayward friends for company, Sissy embodied the worst combination her mom could ever imagine.
This is how events would unfold. Often Sissy would leave for school. She was in class seven at the time. Then she would not come back in the evening. When most primary school pupils were hunkering down with their homework, no one knew where Sissy was. For days usually less than a week at a time, her widowed mom would look for her in all conceivable places. Sissy tended to show up when she felt like it. At school, a public facility where the overworked teachers were too exhausted to stress about one student who performed poorly anyway, no one worried too much. So Sissy would be away for days and when she returned, she would pick up right where she’d left off. Her class teacher had long lost count and interest. Bitter arguments always ensued on her unannounced returns between her and her mother with most arguments ending with Sissy slamming the door on her way out and rushing to one of the numerous friends she had.
Sheer luck saw her sit her KCPE exams. She performed reasonably well considering her misgivings; enough to find her a spot in a respectable high school. Her mother, weary of all the fights and reluctant to pay for a child whose whereabouts were ever mysterious, reasoned that if Sissy was not going to settle down and at least make attempts at reading her books then there was no point in letting her proceed. The ball was left in her court. She disappeared just when they should have been gathering the various requirements for entry into form one; this time for more than two weeks. That was that. Her procession to high school was laid to rest and never spoken of again. In hindsight, if her mother had had a way of foreseeing the future, then maybe she would have put her foot down more firmly and insisted on some accountability from her daughter. She did not and Sissy was let free. It was a freedom that would later doom her and many others.
The long free days that stretched before Sissy now that school was no longer an issue saw her tighten her friendship cliques; mostly girls who did all that conventional society frowns upon. Unofficially she had moved out of her mother’s house; her clothes were there and she was known to make quick stops to collect a few items here and there. Officially, she was a member of the house with her sleeping spot intact and never occupied. There were other siblings, two sisters and two brothers, who tried to make interventions but their pleas always fell on deaf ears and were quite often met with scathing insults. It was a discouragingly hopeless situation with life’s numerous hardships to keep them occupied. After a while, they decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Sissy always got in touch when she needed something anyway.
This unencumbered life that Sissy was relishing was filled with men. So many men. Which was hardly a surprise because Sissy was not at all hard on the eyes. These were men that were ridiculously accessible and quite generous with the contents of their wallets. Needless to say, sex was the unspoken exchange for all those monetary favours. Her siblings prayed hard for some kind of miracle that would somehow shift Sissy’s approach to life. The miracle fell on their laps and one bright Sunday morning Sissy paid her eldest sister a visit with a man in tow. They were seeking to formalize their union; a sign that Sissy had finally decided to settle down. It was a relief that unfortunately did not last long. Introductions and other formalities were made and the two promptly declared husband and wife. Months into their union, domestic wrangles began. They had loud arguments that woke neighbours up and vicious fights that turned ugly fast and often ended with the involvement of police officers. The union ended quietly and her family stumbled upon the separation months later.
The second official partner seemed far less promising. He was some kind of technical assistant in one of the airstrips in Kenya. Most worrying though was the fact that he was a shrill person, both physically and verbally. His was a personality that trembled in the face of Sissy’s raging one. And he was a heavy drinker. This time, the siblings took the introductions with a pinch of salt, and half-heartedly welcomed him into their family but in the kind of way you welcome a guest whom you know is bound to leave soon. Their scepticism was laid to rest when Sissy became pregnant. It was such a surprise and they watched with abated breathe as she carried the pregnancy to term and brought forth a beautiful baby boy. The child however did little to slow Sissy down. Whereas the first husband had been keen on her whereabouts, the second one simply drank his enquiries to oblivion. He was known to spend consecutive nights in the many musky illicit brews joints and would descend on their marital bed at ungodly hours and often failed to notice Sissy’s absence. Sissy lived on unconcerned. The child was brought up with overwhelming assistance from friends and neighbours.
Then Sissy started getting sick.
The ailing was at first mistaken for a hangover that wouldn’t be slept off. It was a small migraine today, then a general exhaustion the next together with severe lack of appetite. She bought over-the-counter painkillers and absently wondered what was happening to her. Some of her friends speculated she was pregnant but a test quickly put that to rest. Conscious worrying started when a wound formed, unprovoked, on the side of her neck. It was painful and ugly and oozed smelly pus at random hours. She covered it as much as she could and took to wearing hoodies and pull-neck cardigans or collared shirts. She hid and stayed away from her family. Many of her friends disappeared without prompting. At long last, when the pain became unbearable, she walked into a health facility and was declared a carrier of the Tuberculosis bacteria. (a different strain different from the one that causes coughing). She was given massive pills that gave her diarrhoea and that were truly difficult to swallow. It was recommended that she shows up for dressing on a weekly basis. Sissy at the moment was just realising how elusive her health had become and the weekly visits directive was met with noncommittal nods. The doctor appointments were observed but not faithfully.
She was sickly and abhorred the idea that she could not move around as she previously had. Her husband at some point moved house and took the child with him. After months of spending days lying on one of her friends’ couches and stretching their hospitality to their limits, Sissy was finally forced to inform her family. She visited her sister one morning, shivering and fevered with pain. The family was quickly assembled and brought up to speed on the new development. It was agreed that Sissy should go stay upcountry with their mother. The eldest sister was about to move up there herself anyway. Moving upcountry was an idea Sissy did not want to consider, she that had lived in the city her whole life. It was degrading and belittling to her way of thinking. She agreed to travel on the tacit agreement that as soon as she got better she would find her way back and resume with her life.
In the shrubby and overgrown bushes upcountry, Sissy became bitter and stood for everything negative. On her first routine visit to a health facility where she was seeking to replenish her TB medication, the facility insisted on performing their own tests as was routine. Due to the prevalence of the HIV virus and the ignorance that surrounded the illness, the hospital routinely tested all their patients for the virus and only informed them when the tests came back positive. Sissy’s tests came back positive and immediately cast a different light on everything. She viciously termed those tests inaccurate and told the nurse on duty to go back and perform more tests. The nurse left and came back with a doctor who was supposed to speak sense into the hysterical and fragile Sissy who was arguing with science. It was stated in no uncertain terms that she had probably suffered the illness for a while and that it was best to get on ARV medication. Denial and misery saw Sissy refuse to take her pills. The neck wound was finally healing but bigger worries now plagued her. She fought with her mother, who lost a few years trying to come to terms with her baby who was grappling with this taboo of a disease that was met with so much stigma especially upcountry. Meanwhile Sissy wasted away in her mother’s house. The health facility determined that not much could be done unless Sissy started taking her pills.
Now, I could write an entire book detailing what happened between the time Sissy was diagnosed and the time resigned acceptance set in and she started taking her pills. I will tell you though about the time she went into shock and people thought she had finally joined the next life (everyone silently acknowledged it was only a matter of time). It was one of those days when Sissy had lost so much weight that she would be rolled up in the mattress she slept on, taken outside to bask in the sun and carried back into the house in the evening or when it started raining. On a day when she was lying in her sister’s living room on the sofa, she lost consciousness. Her sister tried to wake her to no avail and an elderly neighbour who had wandered into the compound following the commotion declared Sissy dead upon looking at her. The neighbour was one of the eldest women in the village whose wisdom preceded her hence it was difficult to argue with. A doctor later said it was shock and that Sissy really needed to get serious with her medicine.
There was another time, when Sissy decided to travel back to Nairobi after promises from her friends that they would take care of her. To be fair, those friends did not know what they were dealing with or how dire Sissy’s sickness was. She managed to travel overnight to Nairobi and crawl her way to the friend’s house in Lakisama. Her girlfriend, the one that had sent her bus fare, actually cried out in shock when she saw Sissy. The hunched, frail, emaciated frame that walked into her house was nothing like the voracious girl she had known for years. Sissy, exhausted beyond belief and with her health worsened by the travelling, collapsed on her sofa and had to be carried unconscious to a hospital. The friend, shocked beyond belief got in touch with Sissy’s other sister who was in Nairobi and requested that they come get Sissy. Phone calls from friends slowly stopped after that incident.
There are so many tales; macabre, disheartening and downright scary. So many sicknesses that had a field day with Sissy’s weak immune system. And so much stigma from friends, family and strangers who believed the illness could be spread through breathing air in the same room. But the migraines; those she will never forget. The headaches gonged through her sensibilities and messed up her balance system. It was later established that the headaches were as a result of Meningitis, a sickness that came so close to claiming her life. Sissy’s acceptance and acknowledgement that she was indeed a carrier of the feared virus happened later when she realised her son needed a mother. The fact that death stubbornly left her untouched even during the worst of times made her start taking the hated pills. Her health gradually improved but it has never been a clean bill. The headaches are still there, she is still underweight and she still suffers poor balance (due to the meningitis) but most importantly though, she still has her life. More grounded and with a lot of medication, she opens her eyes every morning and looks forward to yet another day.