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An Intrusion on New Year’s Eve

Updated: Apr 27, 2023




It was the night of the 30th of December 2017. Mrs. M. was asleep in the TV room on her favorite armchair, her head leaning to one side, eyes closed. Donald Trump was on the screen. She slept soundly, sure that she had locked all the doors. Unknown to her however, an intruder had managed to gain entry into the house. The intrusion was silent. Her son, who was sound asleep in his bedroom, a spitting distance away, didn’t hear it. To date, he doesn’t know how long the intrusion was there and at what time it attacked. But as silently as it came in, it left, and life as he knew it, was never the same again.

On the 31st at five am, he woke up. Not for any reason. He said “something” startled him. This thing led him to open his bedroom door and peek outside. The living room lights were still on. 'Strange,' he thought. He heard the sound of the television in the other room and figured his mum must have fallen asleep on the couch — again.

“Mom,” he said as he walked to switch off the TV. No response. He turned to face her and raised his voice. “Mum.” She didn’t budge. He went to her and shook her by the shoulders but her body just slumped heavily over the cushions, her lips parted, her eyes closed. Instinctively, he knew something was wrong. He dialed his older brother — a doctor.

Muriuki, took a while to answer his phone. When he did, it took equally long to get his attention.

“Muriuki.”

“Mmm.”

“Muriuki,” he said impatiently. “You need to come home.”

“Mmmmh, why?”

“Muriuki. Please wake up.”

“Dude. Why are you calling me at…5 am?”

“I think something has happened to mum. She is unconscious.”

Muriuki hung up and sprang out of bed. He grabbed his keys and ran out in his shorts, a t-shirt and bathroom slippers. He didn’t call back or call anyone else. He wanted to focus on what to do when he got there — all the while thinking his brother was mistaken. As far as he knew, his mum was not ill. Nor did she suffer from any known chronic illness. Why would she suddenly be unconscious?

He got there in a matter of minutes and bounded up the stairs two at a time. He found his brother waiting by the door.


"Where?"


"TV room."


He walked past him into the TV room and pulled away the blanket that still covered her. “Mummy,” he shook her. On realizing she was unresponsive, he began to follow the critical steps to assess for her level of consciousness. He first checked her radial pulse on her wrist and as he did he could hear his own pulse bounding in his ears. The room was deathly quiet. He pressed softly at first, then hard in case it was in there somewhere — nothing. He then checked the brachial pulse at the elbow — nothing. And finally the carotid pulse at the neck. That was usually the clincher. He bore down his index and middle finger into her neck as if he wanted to hold her artery in his hands. “Was she in a coma? He wondered in confusion. He asked his brother, who was standing by him the whole time, to get him a torch and used it to check her eyes. It felt like looking into an endless dark hole. Her eyelids felt sluggish and her pupils were not reacting to light.

"Bring me some cotton wool," he bellowed to his brother still hoping that his mom would open her eyes and scold him for waking her up. Left in the room alone, his mind thought through various possibilities, swerving around the worst case scenario as if it was roadkill. His brother got back his hands stuffed with cotton wool.


Muriuki tore off a pea sized piece of cotton, wetted it with cold water and used it to touch the inside of her eye. This was the last examination — the corneal reflex or the blink reflex. If this was absent, it would indicate brain death. He held his breath, willing her to blink. Her eyes remained motionless. He tried the other eye. Still as a painting.

In that moment, he wanted to vaporize and float away. In usual practice this is the point you walk to the family and tell them ‘we did all we could.’ But this wasn’t usual practice. It wasn’t a drill. This wasn’t his patient. It was his mother. He became riveted to the ground unable to turn to face his brother. His feet were lead. His neck stiff. His brother broke through his reverie, “Is Mom ok?”


There was a moment of noxious silence.

He took in a long, slow breath hoping to exhale his dread with the air from his lungs. “She is dead.” He said more to himself. His words felt thin and empty and he couldn't help but feel like he was throwing them away even as he said them. There must have been a better way to say it. Surely all those classes on breaking bad news had to count for something. But he was paralyzed and no matter how hard he tried, he had nothing more to say. So he just stood there like a marble slab.

He went back to their last conversation the previous day when she had called him. “Muriuki, my right arm has a tingling sensation.”

He was out cycling with friends in Karura Forest enjoying the wind whistling in his ear as he rode between the trees. When she called and mentioned her arm he asked her, "Where is the numbness coming from? Which arm? Left or right? Any chest pains?"


"None of that. Just a tingling sensation. Like pins and needles."


He asked to pick her up and take her to the ER for a check up but she declined. She wanted a prescription. A quick remedy. He was reluctant and they had a brief back and forth about it. But when your mother says no — its a no; so he obliged and sent her a prescription for some meds on condition that they would go the following day. Little did he know, that the intruder was hanging loosely by and she would be gone by then.

He was whisked back to the present, by his brother who was bent over, emitting long, scalding sobs. The kind that come again and again reinforcing each other and threatening not to end. At the sight of him, he too broke down unable to comprehend what had just happened. Did he just declare his mom dead? Is that what all his medical training culminated to?

The following activities were a blur. The hours seemed to move with deliberate lethargy. Inform the police, write a statement, call the coroner, carry her lifeless body from the house to the hearse as the neighbors watched in silent horror. All the while in between sobs and stretches of silence. Muriuki knew he needed to inform their other siblings but he did not have the gall for it yet. Not after he had seen what this had done to his younger brother. They would want to know what happened and he didn’t even know what to say.

How does a perfectly healthy 67 year old just keel over and die? Yet she embodied the picture of good health. And what a time to exit; on New Years Eve or was it New Years day? They would never know. He wondered whether he would ever celebrate a New Year again — plagued by the memory of their mum.

A mother is your pillar. A locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow. Without her your world explodes into pieces that you feel you can never put back together. Their mother was the only parent they had left — after their dad had succumbed five years earlier. To think that they wouldn’t talk to her, hear her high pitched voice or taste her cooking again broke them. Muriuki couldn’t sleep for weeks after that night. Sometimes he would wake up in a sweat wondering whether he had made a mistake by declaring her dead — yet maybe she was alive. He would dream of himself check her over and over hoping for a different result; but the ending was always the same. He became haunted by that night. By the intruder that came and left unnoticed.

Days later, they were at the funeral home waiting for the autopsy report. The government pathologist walked out, several sheets of paper in hand. They all held their breath as he once again asked them to identify themselves. “Only immediate family,” he insisted. He was direct and without missing a beat he said, “It was discovered that she died of a pulmonary embolism. A clot that was in her left leg, broke into several small clots that migrated and blocked all the blood vessels in her lungs. And no one could have known," He said.

They were not relieved. The reality was simply too big to absorb.

Because of the circumstances surrounding her death, the suddenness of it and their reaction to it, a friend referred them for grief counselling. So together they had a six hour session with a grief counsellor who took them through the cycle of bereavement and loss, the factors that complicate grief and how to navigate loss. It served as a salve. Gave them the tools they needed but ultimately one must go through the cycle which can last anywhere from six months to three years. In the end grief is not a hurdle one needs to get over and say, 'It is done.' It is a journey that one needs to learn to live with. And each of them had to deal with it in their own way and in their own time.


There is a pain that hurts and there is a pain that alters. This loss altered them. It created a fault line that fractured their lives into a before and after. Some seasons feel like one is falling into a bottomless black hole. Other times like you are seaweed being dragged along the ocean floor. On some days you wake up with a face that resembles a wet weekend, other days you feel everything is wrong in the world; you are a competitor in the misery Olympics.

But then just like seasons change, you start to heal. And they did.


It has gotten better.



As narrated to Medroomeyes by Dr Muriuki.




 

Grief counseling is a form of therapy that aims to help people cope with the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and cognitive responses to loss.

These experiences are commonly thought to be brought on by a loved person’s death or any other form of devastating loss e.g. loss of a marriage, loss of a job or a dream etc.

Everyone experiences and expresses grief in personally unique ways that are shaped by family background, culture, life experiences, personal values, and intrinsic beliefs.

It is not uncommon for a person to withdraw from their friends and family and feel helpless; some might be angry, some may laugh while others experience strong feelings of regret or guilt. Tears or the lack of crying can both be seen as appropriate expressions of grief.

Grief can also be a catalyst for depressive illness which manifests as lack of sleep, loss of interest in things one previously liked, loss of appetite etc.

Counseling provides an avenue for healthy resolution for grief.

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