I've learnt to look at things and really see them. To never let the sight of something pass you by. To remember every letter in a sentence, the curves on a face, the harshness in every light, because you don't really know if you'll get to see it again. The eve of my departure from my mother's house, we were both quieter than usual.
Our usual mother-daughter chatter had died away, and the spaces between our sentences got bigger and bigger, till they filled the room. A few minutes to midday, she sighed and looked at me, her face fell. "Annoy me", she asked. "I'm going to miss you when you leave, so I'd rather be angry at you", she added. I laughed. It was a sad laugh, the type that your brain fumbles with when it knows you want to cry as if it doesn't know which end of the polar opposite it should pick. "Maybe I should break this", I added, reaching for her favourite flask - a two-litre beast that we filled with boiling water every morning. On my first day at home, I thought it was a hideous piece, but over the past months, I'd grown fond of its flowered case and the faded blue plastic of its cover and base. I loved the flask for serving my mother well. Still, here I was offering to hold it high up in the air and let it fall from my hands. "It won't work", she sighed. Our sadness leaked into the empty spaces in the room as if threatening to drown us both.
I hated that my bus was scheduled to leave Nebbi early, but she insisted on it because she wanted me to reach Kampala at a time when thieves hadn't started lurking around the city yet. We walked slowly to the bus station, chatting idly about nothing in particular. 6 months was the longest we'd spent with each other since I was 2, and here I was having to leave again and start school. When we got to the bus, she acted tough like all mothers would. A quick hug and one confused conductor later, I found my own in a traditionally uncomfortable leather seat and rushed to the window. It's a family tradition of ours to wait until the bus takes off, all the while standing guard next to it, as if to make sure it doesn't hurt you somehow. As the bus drives off, you must wave frantically and warn the traveler not to cry. When I glanced out the window, all I caught was a flash of the cotton white dress with giant black flowers she'd worn that day, as she turned to cross the road. She always looked beautiful in the dress, young, clean and happy. Every time she did, I prayed to God that I'd grow to be a beautiful woman like she was. She never stood there long enough to wave goodbye.
The next time I saw my mother, she wore a blue dress. There should've been silence, save for the crooning old women that filled the room. I remember that being the first thing that made me terribly angry. I didn't know any of them, and here they were standing guard over my mother. I remember wondering who picked out the dress for her, and why I wasn't asked for an opinion on what she should wear. My thoughts were interrupted by one of the old women. Her face was wet with tears, or was it shiny from old age? Either way, her skin shone in the light of the kerosene lamps they'd placed around the sitting room of your family home. She was asking me to cry properly. Not to hold anything in. She told me I must scream and shout and not cry in silence. I looked away. It didn't know how to explain to her that I couldn't find my voice, I hadn't been able to speak for days since that phone call.
In the height of my obsession with conspiracy theories, I read somewhere that in brain re-programming, the CIA will put you through the most inhumane torture. Peeling your nails off your body, sleep deprivation, a constant flashing light that won't go off for days. They'll play with your mind so terribly that the mind will compartmentalize. It'll throw all this trauma on one side and leave the other empty. And it is that empty side that they'll fill with whatever instructions they need you to do. I'd also like to add that when you're short-sighted, it's very hard to remember things that happened when you didn't have your glasses on. I'll read up on memory and sight and maybe let you know. Anyway, point in all this? I do not remember much about that week. I remember being in a C programming lesson. I remember wondering why my step sister was calling. I remember sitting on my own at the flyover outside Mbarara University gate, hoping no one would find me sitting there unable to breathe, but also hoping that someone would come and sit with me for a second. I remember receiving lots of money and phone calls in the next hour. Transport and condolences. I remember wanting to send it all back and asking them to give me back my mother instead. I remember walking with the 3 friends (❤️) that followed me to my hostel and buying yogurt that I didn't eat. I remember trying to act okay, to laugh and joke on the journey home because my little sister sat next to me and didn't know what had happened yet. I remember more friends (❤️) coming home and spending the night. After that, I remember feeling doomed, because I had to go and see for myself that my mother wasn't here anymore. I remember my baby sister's white dress with its yellow flowers, and my brother's t-shirt and shorts. I remember rushing out of the car and grabbing a hold of them. I remember holding them as if to be sure that they were still with me, and also hoping that they'd understand that I was still with them. That they weren't alone. After that, I remember nothing.
There's sadness. Sadness is strong, but it is light and airy in the face of its counterparts. And then there is sorrow. When the old lady asked me to cry loudly is when I understood what sorrow was. Sorrow is sadness in the flesh. It aches, it bleeds and it burns. But my favourite description of sorrow is an itch. You might have seen people at burials scratch their skin and throw off their clothes. That is a sorrow raging its way through your body. It seeps under your skin, so heavy and yet so fast. It dances on your skin, ticklish and nimble. It's as if it radiates from the reddest red in the core of your heart and flows with your blood. It laughs, it burns and it does not leave. And sorrow stayed with me. Every time someone gave me a hug, it's as if they pressed me a little too tight and some of my sorrow was forced out of the pores in my skin. Immediately, I wanted to cry. Every time someone smiled at me, it's as if sorrow got irritated that other emotions existed and kick-started the waterworks. For months, sorrow held my hand and latched onto my heart and stayed with me.
There is grief. Grief is the big guy holding up that barrier in my brain. The one that tells my brain what we will forget and what we will remember. Grief is me not thinking about my siblings that have been dealt a very bad hand and are thriving still. Grief does not like this because if I think about them then I'll think about how much my mother has missed out on in raising her very intelligent, funny and beautiful children, and yet he cannot afford to get any bigger. Grief has walked me kilometres around Mbarara town only to walk back into my room, exhausted and hoping I'll fall asleep, with a small packet of biscuits to show for my 2-hour walk. Grief led me to fellowships, to services, for mass, hoping that maybe God will explain what kind of twisted plan takes a young and beautiful mother away from the people that needed her to show them how to handle life. Grief has walked me in and out of places. Of dark rooms and tiny rooms and rooms filled with smoke and rooms filled with people; of lives -lives I shouldn't have messed with and people I had no business speaking to hoping to get a thrill out of the experience and maybe remember how to smile. Grief has been so heavy some days I couldn't get out of bed. Other days I couldn't hold my head high up enough to face anyone. But most times grief is randomly bursting into tears as I go about my day. It's as if the tears I should've cried that week are slowly finding their way to the surface. As if they were lost in the mess that is anger, sudden responsibility and separation. Sometimes I wonder, if grief is driving me, a legal adult, to near insanity, how much worse is it inside the little body of my baby sister? What does my brother do when his sorrow starts to burn?
Concluding is always the hardest part. I still have my mother's phone number saved, partly because you don't delete your mother's phone number, but also because I don't want her to feel as if I'm getting rid of her. My memories of us come in bits, but I've lost most of them now, and it's only been 3 years. My memory of her sight is like vision without glasses. I see shapes and colours, but I can't tell much past the shape of her. Sometimes though, a scent will help. It'll remind me of a time we lived oblivious to death, watching movies on TV at midnight, her skin smelling of petroleum jelly and mine of nothing really. Of some of the last moments before our lives were changed forever. The good news is I remember enough of her to share with the kids. I bought myself a watch last month, the kind she would've liked. And I intend to make sure my sister understands that that is what a watch is, not those tragic Chinese discs she likes to wear on her arm. We kept some of her belongings - my sister and I both have a lesu each. Mine smelt strongly of her, but now it mostly smells mouldy. I haven’t washed it because I don’t want to wash the scent of her off either. We lost everything else. Stolen, thrown away or taken by the villagers. I wonder where her flask went.
We were 19, 13, 6 and 5 when we lost our mother. First-year, senior one, primary 1 and top class. All reasonably grown humans, but if you look close enough, you'll see that we all needed our mother desperately. I needed someone to warn me about relentless, pretentious attention from 22-year-old boys and remind me to do my hair because it was starting to look unbecoming. My little sister needed someone to talk to when her best friend wouldn't speak to her. My baby brother… Boys need their mothers. That's all I can say. And my baby sister. The sweetest and most intelligent person I know. Well, she really still needed to be carried and hugged by her mummy. We are 23, 17, 11 and 9 this year. Sometimes I get very sad because all I ever wanted to do as a teenager was get my mum a lovely thick scarf or sweater. Now I have all the money to, and can't. Grief thought it was funny the other week when my code wouldn't compile. Grief threw my brain into shambles and there I was, starting to cry in the office instead of debugging my code. So grief and I sat together on a closed toilet seat and sobbed until my eyes were raw and my head hurt for 3 days (not very good signs on the corona times, mind you). Our senior one kid is in A-Level now, fussing about subsidiary Maths and Economics. The primary school kids are topping their classes and tearing their shorts from playing too much. If you know me well enough, you know about my aunts, who to me are the whole world. In them, we have found all the love that our mother left behind and through them, we are here.
I have realized that maybe grief will never leave. Sometimes a song will dig it up, other times it'll be something as hard as failing an exam or as simple as a null pointer exception. But I've learnt to think that grief in its own way is an honour to a life lived. How sad it would be if no one ever shed a tear for you. We're doing alright, ma. Rest easy.