On a sunny Saturday afternoon, he sat outside his verandah.
Clad in an expensive checkered maroon shirt. I can tell it is expensive because it sits right on his torso, the sleeves were made for his biceps and the buttons almost perfectly match his eyes; dark brown. Khaki pants, exceedingly happy socks (they had elves and Christmas stockings on them. It was a March day) and blue moccasins that cement his status as a cool kid.
We are going to call the good sir Joe because that is his actual name.
When he had called me the previous week, he sounded very somber. Like a wounded puppy, needy yet steady. This would be peculiar except; how else do you expect a man whose mother is at the hospital on life support to sound?
Joe is an only child to a single mother who has no relationship with her family. It is a long and personal story that he has never really shared. That and his father’s existence are the two things he says I can never ask about, so I don’t know. In his universe, it is the two of them and has been since he was 3-years old. His mother has been his first lesson of loving a woman, having a relationship with one and doing life with one. He lives a dangerous life entirely pegged on the singularity of his experiences with his mother.
But there is something about him that is redeeming. He has the charm of a truthful lover, the vulnerability of an honest man and the charisma of a boy prince. We both had busy schedules then, so we planned to see each other on Saturday.
I am wearing my favorite blue jeans, a simple white button-down shirt, a colorful jacket and doll shoes on my feet. I am meeting a man who is potentially mourning, my outfit was a struggle to find the balance between cheering him up while remaining conscious of his pain.
My Uber drives away as I approach him. A temporary breeze whiffs through, a perfect camouflage for me to sigh the weight my heart carries for his situation. He gets up to say hello, barely looking at me. I hold him close and linger for a moment if only to relieve the weight of his emotions. There are no pleasantries, he gets straight to the point and I was not prepared.
“Today I have to go to the hospital one last time,” he says looking a bit imbalanced in his seat; a Marlboro mint cigarette burning on the one hand and the burden of responsibility pulling down the other.
“Last time?” I ask almost choking on those words. His mother had been at the hospital after a chopper they were traveling in to the Serengeti crashed and left her in pieces. Eleven months later and the doctor said the pieces could not be glued back together. It is on Joe to plug out the only thing helping his only woman stay alive.
“I want you to come with me. Help me say goodbye to my queen”.
We all stand in silence playing audience to death. The doctor, an empathetic nurse, Joe, myself and the voluptuous permanence of death. It has no smell, it certainly has no taste, but it has a sound. A beat. Joe’s heartbeat.
He always called her queen. There is no answer to this. He looked away and stared at the air. The air was still, a loud comma to a conversation I was dreading. I kept staring at the side of his face. I took his hand into mine and we both found the answer in the warmth of that touch.
Nothing much was said on the way to The Aga Khan Hospital. Once, he slid his window down and bought a lollipop from a hawker. He said thank you. That is all he said for about 30 minutes. We got to the hospital and I was determined to carefully follow his lead. On the second floor, we were received with condolence written all over the faces of every attendant coming from the ICU. Not once did he let go of my hand. Long faces that mean well but do little to help a man carrying the responsibility of choosing life and death for a woman he has loved all his life.
Joe stops like a matatu breaks during an emergency at the sight of his mother. So abrupt I almost jerk off from his hold. Suddenly everything is dark. He squeezes my hand hard. I struggle not to flinch. Then he steps forward and approaches the bed. The doctor and nurse give him the room. I start to go he says to all stay, I stay put by the entrance, watching her lying on her back, tubes clamoring for space on her body. Machines surrounding her and beeping away.
Joe unwraps the lollipop and places it in her hand. He whispers in her ear, kisses her on the forehead then nodes to the doctors.
The machines are switched off.
He steps back to where I am standing. Nobody looks up or sideways. We all stand in silence playing audience to death. The doctor, an empathetic nurse, Joe, myself and the voluptuous permanence of death. It has no smell, it certainly has no taste, but it has a sound. A beat. Joe’s heartbeat.