Scents are funny; not that they make you laugh. No. But because you can taste them. Sometimes they taste sweet like the warm kiss of the morning sun. They bring memories even when you don’t want them. They are not polite; they do not ask if you want to remember. They do not ask for permission to enter your nostrils. They just barge in and most times they are welcome. Other times like when you pass next a burst sewer you twist your nose into many knots. And scrunch up your face so that you have many wrinkles. Then you will crave for clean air and take it in gulps when you get some.
I have never liked how hospitals smell, they are too clean. Air tastes better with a little bit of dirt. That ripe smell of dust, that pinch of faint perfume from an overdressed lady. Something. But hospital is too clean, the air in a hospital has been stripped naked and scrubbed like it was exposed to some radiation on planet 365 in the Nerean galaxy. So I hate hospital.
But that is only part of the story. I hate hospital because more times than often it will force me to see someone at their worst.
At your best, when everything is working for you, when lady luck is smiling at you maybe even hugging you, I don’t know how to celebrate with you. You might think jealousy is eating me but it is not, I just don’t know. I will smile awkwardly and say thanks. I will realize I should not say thanks but congratulations and I will say sorry. Then congratulations. Then I will kiss my bottle to keep my mouth shut. Now imagine me at your worst. It is not pretty, my eyes cannot lie they will show the pity. My smile will lie but you will see it. Even my voice betrays me and that silence can be worse than the sickness because it will eat me and you. You will feel worse and maybe wish I never came. So I avoid hospital.
You’re probably wondering where I am going with this, if there is a point to the many words I have used. Her name is Damaris. My cousin. And ever since she left us I have never said her name. Not alone not in public. Even now that dry lump has formed and my throat is scratching. Thank God for the dim interior and loud music. They cannot see me and they cannot hear my thoughts. But I have to hurry or I will change my mind. I do that a lot.
Let me start by saying she was pretty. No. Beautiful. Everything about her; her smile, her heart even her laugh. So when one day the doctor said her heart was sick I could not understand why a heart that beautiful could be sick. It was a joke to me but it was real. It was there with her, me, the family and us. And for me, I knew it wasn’t there to stay. It couldn’t stay. Who welcomed it? It had to go. Today, tomorrow in ten years it would go and it would leave her beautiful heart alone. So when she went to hospital sometimes we went together. And we always came back on the same day. So the day she went and they did not let her come back I told her they would. But that took weeks. Many weeks. Out of those many weeks I visited once. Because I had refused to think or believe she would not come back. That one time I went to the hospital air tasted like salt. I don’t know why. And I did not go alone I went with a friend. Someoene I knew would make it easy for me not to be awkward. Or maybe I was scared. At the hospital even though she did not look like her former self, sickness eats you, her heart was the same. She kept telling me to check on her neighbor.
“You know she doesn’t have anyone coming to see her? Go say hi ask if she’s eaten.”
And I would go and find she had not eaten. Not one bite. Her food looked more sick than everyone there. So I told my cousin she has not eaten and as she struggled to sit up told me to give her tea.
“Last night she drank tea. Just give her some. Take from that thermos.”
Someone came finally, and put the tea for her. I did not have to, I don’t think I could’ve. I don’t have her heart. Mine is harder, cold and ugly. You do not want to look at it. So we talked and laughed; I told her stories from home and she told me stories from the ward. She told me which nurses were rude and mean and which ones were nice. I asked her which ones were rude to her, just to know. Which ones gave her a hard time. But she smiled and said they were all nice to her. Of course what was I thinking. They’d all be nice to her. She had a way that forced you to be nice to her. And it was genuine, she knew how to manufacture smiles and she gave them for free. We had a good time and we left. That was the last time I went to see her there, I knew she’d be back.
Weeks later I am coming from home. I am tired, the sun and dust of Nairobi had beaten me. The traffic had worn down whatever resilience I had left and I just wanted to sleep. I get home and before walking into the room I pop into the kitchen to say a weary hi. Complain about the day and disappear into the confines of the room. I open the door and find her their, Damaris. She’s laughing like she had just cracked a joke before I entered. Just like that, all that weariness disappeared. If I had a bag it would’ve dropped. I don’t think I have ever been that happy to see someone. Or hear their voice. And while I was hugging her in disbelief I knew it was alright. The doctors had done their work and she was back. It wasn’t going to be exactly normal but sometimes you take what you are given.
Sickness sometimes lies, to the patient and to the ones wanting them to get better. To the patient it tells them to lose hope. To us it tells us that it is about to leave. And me, I believed it. It is not like I had a choice. On Friday’s I would be home before 7. Because that was story day. I would have movies and a six pack of pilsner. The pilsner was for me and she’d laugh when she saw me drinking.
“That thing tastes bad. Why do you like it?”
“I just like it, it also doesn’t taste that bad.”
“I’ve tried it before, that and Guinness. Yuck.
We’d laugh at my horrible taste in drinks and we’d talk for hours till someone came looking for her to go sleep. On some days she would share her fears. Those are days I hate remembering. Because on those days I made promises I could not keep. Those were the days I told her by next year we would laugh at the doubts she has. That she would be calling me to remind me and we would laugh like it was all a joke. But like I said sickness lies. And one day it took her. Far away from where any one of us could reach her. It left me with a broken promise, a broken heart and a wet pillow. And death also lies to you, tells you there’s more you could’ve done. The pain lies too and echoes death. Then your mind lies and tells you not to believe. That you will wake up in the morning and laugh at the bad joke then slap the teller for saying such a bad joke. But you know it is not a joke.
If you ask me if I am okay, I say yes. If you ask me if I am not okay, I say I am okay. If you don’t ask me, I will still act okay. So when she left, when I was not supposed to be okay, I was okay. I was not okay that I was okay. I pursed my lips and blinked my eyes and held my tears back. I tightened my jaw till my head ached. I mumbled through hymns because my voice would betray me. And when my head was too much, when I had to take a pain killer, I felt like I had cheated. Like I did not let myself feel enough pain.
They say healing is a process. I’m yet to find out.