They told her she would forget. She didn’t believe them but when something is said to you on a loop it slowly tattoos itself in your mind and becomes your truth. So she did what they asked her to do to erase her memory. It didn’t work because it takes so much mental effort to remember to forget.
When Essie was 16 years old, a chance meeting led her to where she is today. She and her brother were visiting their aunt for the holidays. Days before Christmas, her aunt said to one of her cousins, “*Njeri, go to *Alices’s house and get me a mwiko.” With nothing much to do, Essie accompanied Njeri to their neighbours home 500 metres away.
While Essie sat alone in the living room waiting for Njeri, she heard a ruffling sound. She pulled her legs from the floor thinking, ‘Please don’t be a rat.’ On looking around, the ‘rat’ turned out to be a guy crouched at the corner behind a Christmas tree. “Hi,” the rat spoke.
“Hi,” she pulled her red skirt to cover her knees.
“My name is Zack,” he peered at her as he decorated the tree.
Essie was at the age where most kids were trying to figure out who they are. She was a ‘middle child’ deficient of attention that had been lavished on her older brother and younger sister. Her older brother, because he had a knack of throwing himself into a room with his mouth open. And her younger sister because she never opened her eyes at birth. A trauma that broke her mom. “She is no longer the person I knew,” Essie’s dad would say in response to her mom’s grief. And she wouldn’t get it.
So Essie dove into her own world. Of solitude and books. It was not uncommon to find her perched in her room, a book in hand. This translated to excellence in school and a girl of few words. You can therefore understand why, when Zack introduced himself to her, her only response was, “Ok.”
A few days later, they met again. Zack’s mom was hosting a party and they were invited. He kept busy circling the room serving guests, yet never being too far from her. Every time she looked up, her eyes met his radioactive glare. When the sun dimmed through the trees and the ice between strangers had melted, he came to her, “Essie, would you please come with me? I would like to show you something.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I have my ways. C’mon,” he held out his hand. Essie didn’t take it but stood to follow him. He led her to their expansive garden pointing out different flowers and fruit trees.
“Kwani you brought me here for an agriculture lesson?” Her tongue had been loosened by the sips of wine she had taken. Her first introduction to alcohol.
“I just want to get to know you. Ever since I saw you in that red skirt in our living room…” And he made to kiss her.
“Whoa what are you trying to do?” She held him back even if her instinct was to pull him in. It felt like trying to close a door yet leaving it a toe’s width open.
By the time they got back from the green excursion, Zack had left an impression and his imprint remained for the next several years.
He would call her mum’s phone and talk to her for hours during the time when Safaricom used to charge ksh 2.50/minute for a call. They had benign conversations that any 16 and 23 year old would have.
“How is school?” He would ask.
“Fine, I guess.” Because what was there to say about Precious Blood school other than your life was linear every day of the week.
“You, how is Campus?”
And he would break into the sine wave curve of his university experience as an Engineering student. And so it was year in, year out.
The next time they met was at his farewell party just before he left for his Masters in the UK. By this time Essie was a second year student in Medical School. This time she did not evade his kisses; besides he was going to be away for two years and who knew whether he would really be back. “I will call you,” he said to her amidst one of the many hugs he gave her. But Essie felt like he was just following the script everyone used when they were flying out.
Zack kept his word. And two years later, came back and asked her out.
They dated throughout her time as a medical student and two years after she graduated, their love culminated in a wedding.
Their honeymoon was near perfect; marred only when her menses surfaced. For as back as she could remember, Essie had menses that would appear and disappear with the unpredictability of the weather. This had not been an issue for her until when they started trying to conceive. They mentioned this phenomenon to their gynecologist who, after several tests told them, “Essie has polycystic ovaries. Use this drug to help you conceive.”
So during the honeymoon when she saw the familiar spots of blood, she assumed her period was at the door knocking. But the spots did not graduate to a menstrual flow so they did a pregnancy test and it was positive.
A few weeks later, the spotting started again and this time she went for an ultrasound scan. To their delight there were two sacs and two heartbeats! No wonder her appetite for food and sleep had increased.
The air in their home was full of spark and anticipation. Essie would say, “I love this feeling Zack. I want to live in it, sleep in it and wake up to it.”
And then she turned 17 weeks.
She had come home from work and was taking the stairs to the house. She heard it before she felt it. The sound of water slapping the floor. Then a sudden warm, swampy feeling between her legs. Essie’s eyes followed the fluid to the floor, “Please be urine, please please be urine,” she whispered to herself. Even if she knew it wasn’t. The clear fluid flowed out of her, trailing a path down the dusty staircase.
She took the remaining stairs holding her thighs together as if she could plug the leaking tap. How could this happen now when Zack was in another country.
“Zack,” she said to him on the phone a few minutes later, “something is wrong.”
“What is it Essie?”
“My water has broken.”
“What?! How?” The conversation was stunted. Filled with emotion and unsaid words. She wanted to stay with him on the phone. To let his voice reassure her but she knew she needed to go to hospital. “I will try to get the first flight back,” he said as they broke the call.
Essie walked into the hospital accompanied by her twins. The medic who examined her said, “Essie, you are draining amniotic fluid and your cervix is open. We need to get an ultrasound done.”
The scan showed the amniotic fluid was markedly reduced and there was only one heartbeat. “Essie, you need to call someone. We have lost one twin and I don’t think we can save the other.”
The tears pressing behind her eyes broke free. “What happened?” She asked no one in particular.
By now her cousin and mother in law had arrived; witnesses to her grief.
A decision was made and she was admitted for induction of labor. That was the beginning of an interminable night. The pessaries that were used for induction did not act immediately so they kept giving her more and more. What started as an uncomfortable feeling quickly graduated to toe curling pain. Yet each time a nurse would examine her they would say, “Bado. You are not fully dilated.”
Hours later, she was trembling like a reed in the wind and having loose motions — a side effect of the drugs. The abdominal pain would seize her in a vice like grip and then heat would rise from her toes burning her up to the strands of her hair. She screamt from the physical pain and the emotional agony. It was traumatic enough to go through that pain but when a nurse came to examine her and tried to pull one baby out by the legs, she felt like she had reached her end.
Towards morning, one midwife came to examine her exasperated by her lack of progress. She wondered why they seemed tired and impatient. She was the one in the ring; facing the fight. The midwife did a vaginal exam, felt the cord and tried to pull it out. It snapped, splattering blood around them. “Fuck,” she said and walked away.
Essie panicked! What was that about?
Immediately after the doctor walked in. It was now morning and the muscles in her body were taut as bow strings. He examined her and tried manual extraction.
“Stop! Please, enough.”
“Essie, we have to do this.”
“Noooo! You don’t.”
“If we don’t you will have to go to theatre.” He said
“Fine! Take me in. Just.stop.what.you are doing.” She had run out of breath.
So they took her in for a D and C. And put and end to her physical agony.
When she woke up, her world still cottony she asked them, “What did you find?”
“Two boys. We are sorry.”
And she finally understood what her mom had felt all those years ago.
Zack had been unable to get a flight so he jumped on the first bus from Tanzania and arrived just in time for the bad news.
Esther was discharged home, a shell. When they got to the house, she went straight to their bedroom and cried like an unfairly punished child. Zack not knowing what to do went to the kitchen and started to cook. He prepared so much food it’s as if they were expecting company.
“Essie, babe you need to eat something.”
“I don’t want food.”
“Try. Please.” He held his hand out to her and when she took it she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her eyelids were swollen only revealing slits of the white of her eyes.
“Come babe.” He led her to the table knowing she could barely see.
The food was neatly displayed and she tried to eat but the pain prevented the food from going down. She sat there, staring at the TV as if her gaze was the only thing keeping it attached to the wall.
The subsequent season of their lives was a period of darkness and despair. Essie refused to leave the house. Zack took leave to be with her but had to go back to Tanzania two weeks later. Fearing to leave her alone, her mother in law took her in.
While there, a group of well meaning friends did their best to encourage her, “Essie, it’s ok, It’s God’s will, you are young, you will forget when you get others.” She sat among them looking pulseless. They didn’t know that she now existed in a grief filled world that was off limits to the living.
But the narrative was sustained until Essie decided that she had to get pregnant to try to forget the twins.
She took extended leave from work, joined Zack in Tanzania and set her mind on conceiving. But there is nothing as run away as the intent to conceive. When you want to, it doesn’t happen. And there was a discordance between her and Zack. He seemed disinterested and lost in his own grief. Even if it drew them apart in the short term, they still found their way back to each other.
And eventually conceived. It was discovered during that pregnancy that she had a short cervix which likely led to the loss of her first pregnancy. A stitch was inserted and she was able to carry the pregnancy to term. Yet not without the memory of the terror she had gone through with her first pregnancy.
Essie and Zack are now parents of five children. Three living and her angels who left all those years ago.
One would think she would forget once her daughter and two sons were born but she didn’t. She never has. This way she won’t.
This is Dr Essie Kamau’s story — as long as there is love and memory, there is no true loss.