I couldn’t help but stare at him.
My phone was in my right hand, the screen displaying my chat list on Whatsapp. I mindlessly scrolled up and down, trying to look occupied. It was a lousy attempt at being covert about my staring- tact has never been my most admirable quality- and it wouldn’t take long for anybody who might have been watching me to notice that I was either squint-eyed or more interested in the man sitting to my left than in my phone.
I first noticed the brown jacket. Mostly because of the trending topic on social media about the Kalenjin and their penchant for the brown leather jacket. But this man wasn’t a Kale, as I later found out.
The harsh fluorescent lighting on the hospital ceiling bounced off his brown, bald head. His eyelids drooped, giving him the look of a man whose body was working against him. His expression was empty: he did not grimace, he did not wince. Not once. But when a doctor opened a door opposite where we sat and called his name, he sighed before he stood up, and it took two tries before he was on his feet. The first time, he just couldn’t.
He shuffled towards the doctor and I watched him. He was a big man: tall and wide. His arms hung limp at his sides, his fingers curled passively. He was dressed like a great many men his age. The urban stylish would say his dark brown trousers were a size too big, and his belt did not match his shoes. His shoes, black and worn seemed to serve a purpose more functional than fashionable. They looked tough though; the kind bought because they would last years and wouldn’t fall apart during the rainy season. And then of course the jacket, also a size or two too big. But then again, most people his age preferred their clothes to fit a bit looser than us younger types wore ours. I remembered my father’s suits and how I constantly compared them to my brother’s. The latter’s were forming-fitting and cut a clean silhouette. The former often remarked that men these days wanted to show off their figures like girls. The generational gap revealed itself in the extra inches- both call their suits well fitting.
The man spoke quietly with the doctor before being ushered into the room. The doctor’s expression yielded nothing. His eyes were unperturbed and his movements not urgent, like the man was just another patient, another mortal, and he had seen far worse to be shaken by just one man. I couldn’t say the same for myself. He turned and followed his patient in, and gently shut the door behind him. I stared at it and began to feel a familiar sting just below my eyes and flash of heat charging through my gut.
Someone plopped himself next to me on the seat. I turned to face him.
“Does it ever strike you just how unfair mortality is?” I asked, trying to blink away the sting of emotion in my eyes.
“What?” He was confused. “What’s wrong?”
I drew in a breath, suddenly feeling a bit too warm. Pressure was climbing up my chest, like my heart was trying desperately to communicate with my brain that all was not well. “I mean, we are here right now, alive, with a supposed life stretched before us…but maybe it isn’t stretched out before us… Maybe the road goes on and ends abruptly on the edge of a cliff and that’s it…”
He was concerned now, and touched his right hand gently to my cheek. “What has happened in the twenty minutes I’ve been gone?” His brow was creased and his whole body had turned towards me. If he hugged me the tears would win.
“We could be here, dreaming about our futures, when in reality, there is no future…meaning that the dreaming is a waste of time. And the worst part is that they never tell you ati you know what, yours is a short trip so don’t think of the future so much…” I paused to swallow a tense thickness in my throat. “That man is here by himself…he is sick and he is alone. Where are his children? His wife? I mean, no one?”
“The one who was sitting next to me.”
“The big one?”
“Yeah. Do you think he saw in his future a time when he would be sick and alone?”
“I don’t know.”
We let silence sit between us, with an arm around each of our shoulders, comforting and uncertain. My phone rested on my open palms, as though I were offering it to someone. I stared at its blank screen, thinking about the man. He seemed like a man whose needs were all met. He even seemed kind of wealthy. Maybe he had some land somewhere in Ruiru, on which he grew tomatoes and beans and sukuma, maybe even passion fruit and watermelon. Which he sells, of course, and it brings in a tidy sum. He probably owns lorries too, and transports stuff in them for other people. And he drives a pick-up. He looked like a man who had worked with his hands for a while, growing businesses, determined not to live in the poverty he was brought up in. Why was he alone?
The doctor’s door opened, and out shuffled the man. He did not take his previous position next to me, but instead set himself down on a bench just next to the doctor’s door. His legs spread out before him and his pot-belly rested on top of the rest of him, like a separate entity altogether. His lower lip sagged, leaving his mouth open, and his eyelids hang low still, fluttering every now and then, but otherwise remaining completely still. He did not grimace, he did not wince. He barely moved. I wondered whether it was because his illness, whatever it was, had left him with nothing, or because he was a man, and deeply resented being sick, being in hospital, and by God would show no sign that he was suffering.
Joseph left again, quickly muttering to me that he would be back in a few. And for a while I zoned out, wondering about life and whether there were other intelligent creatures somewhere out there that had been created without man’s fragile physical self that was almost welcoming to death.
The click of stiletto heels on the tiled floor drew me out of my reverie and I lifted my head to watch a lady, possibly in her early thirties, walk up to the man and sit next to him. He straightened himself and began speaking to her in Kikuyu. The conversation carried on and as I couldn’t understand a word of it, I focused my attention on the lady. She was a working lady, if her attire was anything to go by. Black dress pants, a black and well fitting turtle neck overlaid with a soft coral waterfall vest. Her manicure was immaculately done and her braids could not have been more than two weeks old. Her jewellery was noticeable in a laid-back kind of way- like she did not wear it to make a statement, but simply because she had been taught that ladies wear jewellery. She was comfortable in her nude heels and I figured that she probably wore heels everyday to work. Her face and demeanor were youthful but mature. She was the man’s daughter, I decided, and was probably the one who had brought him here.
I smiled, face down, so I didn’t look insane suddenly smiling by myself. The man was not alone and that somehow made it okay that he was sick. The lady stood up and left, talking on her phone, but was back a few minutes later, three men in tow. The men appeared to be the man’s agemates- late sixties. He did not smile when he saw them- I suppose he couldn’t-but they stood around him a while, and he conversed with them in paced Kikuyu.
Joseph appeared in front of me, holding out his hand. “Let’s go wait on the other side. My doctor’s office is that way.”
I picked my bag and took his hand. “Maybe humans are fragile because that’s the only way we can experience love.”
“What?” He was amused, and evidently relieved that I was no longer on the verge of tears.
“If we were all strong and indestructible on this earth do you think love would stand a chance? There would be no need for healing and compassion, no space to show another person that you are there for them…we wouldn’t need to love…or to be loved. Maybe we need to be this fragile to experience that.” I had let go of his hand and was gesticulating enthusiastically.
He smiled. “Maybe.”
We sat down near the reception, watched the ailing come and go, and surrounded by both despair and hope.