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The Racket branded Joe..

Updated: 3 days ago



The first time Maureen was left alone in her house at night, she lay still in her bed unable to sleep. She took in long, slow breaths hoping to exhale her pain along with the air in her lungs. Suddenly, she was startled by the sound of a car outside. She didn’t need to look out the window to know it was her husband. He used to drive into the compound as if he was in a car chase, rev the engine and then lift the handbrake so hard, the sound would reach her ears. On this particular night, it was no different. Was it really him though? Had he come home? The answer came to her in a whisper. ‘Of course it’s not him. He left you 3 weeks ago, never to return.’


*****


Maureen met her first and only love when she was an undergrad student. She heard of him before she saw him because he was so loud. His voice would travel and arrive in a room long before he did. They would have several chance meetings until the day he rescued her after she had been pickpocketed. “He found me wandering around the university hostels looking confused with no phone and no keys.” She tells me. That day, he took care of her and they instantly clicked. By the following morning, they had labelled their relationship.


After that, they were tied at the hip. The only time they spent apart was when they had to attend classes; he was a medical student and she, a dental student. Something about first love defies duplication. Before it, your heart is blank. Unwritten. “We were so taken by each other that it didn’t seem odd when he asked me to accompany him to his sister’s visiting day in school.” That was the first time she met his mom and his siblings. She sat there listening to them talk. “His mom kept referring to a certain person called Joel. Joel this, Joel that.”


Maureen cleared her throat and inserted herself in the conversation, “Sorry. Who is Joel?” His mum looked at both of them in shock. How was her son introducing them to a girl who did not even know his first name?


With her foot in her mouth Maureen turned to him and said, “Nice to meet you Joel Mbute.”


They continued dating and towards the end of her final year she got pregnant. “My first thought was, he would deny the pregnancy because we were so young and had nothing to our names. But he was unfazed. He would say, ‘It’s just a baby. Kwani what’s the big deal?’” Because that is who he was. His cup was always half full. “We will just go and see your parents,” he told her and that is exactly what they did. With their blessing, they moved in together.


The next year was not easy on either of them. They were both interns, living in different towns. He was posted to Kitale while she remained in Nairobi. Despite his crazy schedule, he would commute to Nairobi from Kitale every chance he got, to be with her. Because she was so busy, the pregnancy took a back seat. Sometimes she would even forget she was pregnant. The baby eventually came looking as healthy as a horse and after she completed internship, she was posted to Nakuru making the commute easier for both of them.


“I loved the weekends that I would travel to Kitale to see him.” She would recall them as some of the best years of her life. “It became my weekend getaway. He had a big house with a compound where friends would come over for brunch and we would play outdoor games or go to nearby resorts to have fun.” After a while, he was transferred to Nakuru.


“I was happy we were together but I missed the trips to Kitale and once asked him in jest why he was following me around?” It didn’t take a year and she got a job in Eldoret and they were back to criss crossing counties to see each other. As fate would have it, he followed her to Eldoret for his Masters in Orthopedic surgery. That would end up being the longest time they were physically together in one place — 3 years. And the kids loved it. By now they had two girls who Mbute dotted on.


Mbute finally finished his Masters degree and started to look for opportunities for work. At that time, he felt that Eldoret was saturated so he ventured out to the town where he had first started his medical career — Kitale. There, he flourished. He opened a private practise and had a medical equipment business he ran on the side. The only downside was the commute to and from Eldoret. Being older now, with two kids, he and Maureen did not want to be apart any longer. The daily drive to work was exhausting and when he got late, he would be forced to spend a night away from his family.


He began to get really busy until it wasn’t unusual for him to be away for a day or two in a row. He would rarely work on weekends but sometimes an emergency would come up and he would be forced to drive the 73km to attend to his patients. After about a year of the commute, they agreed it was time to move. “Because my work was more flexible and not as demanding, we agreed to move to Kitale. Together we looked for some land, engaged professionals and started the process of setting up our own home.” The chips were beginning to fall into place.


In June 2016, the Kenya Orthopedic Association organised a conference that was scheduled to be held in Eldoret. Mbute wanted to attend. So he planned his surgeries in a way that allowed him to be away for the entire period of the conference. That meant he needed to stay in Kitale for two consecutive days.


On the eve of the conference at 10pm, he called Maureen, “Sweetie, guess what? I am done with my surgeries so I am coming home.”


“Now? Isn’t it late? Why not spend the night and come in the morning?”


“I want to be there when the conference starts tomorrow.”


“Ok then. See you soon.” She put the kids to bed and slept.


The weather was in a bad mood that night but Mbute was determined to get home. He drove until he got to Soy which is 22km from Eldoret -then Maureen’s bladder woke her up. It was 2am. She noticed that he had not arrived. In her grogginess she figured he probably decided to stay over or maybe he had been called back to the OR. Whichever it was, it was not unusual so she peed and went back to sleep. The following morning, she got up, dropped off the kids at school and went back home hoping to catch him before he went for the conference. But he hadn’t arrived. She tried to reach him on his cell but it was off. “I assumed he was on his way and his phone had probably died.”


At 11am she went to the store to get some things and by now she was dialling him every 15 minutes. She sat at a restaurant to have lunch and started to wonder where he was. ‘Maybe he decided to drive straight to the conference,’ she figured. He was a stickler for time. “But then again I told myself, if he had gone straight to the conference he would have borrowed a friend’s phone and called me. I had a sinking feeling at the bottom of my gut that something was off. It would grow, trying to make me anxious but I would swipe it away.” Even then a thought swept across her mind, ‘What if something has happened to him?’


And she would rebuke herself for having such negative thoughts.


By 4:30 pm, she was on edge. She got up and went to the conference to look for him. “Have you seen Mbute?” She asked the first person she saw.


“No.” Was the repeated response from everyone she asked. The bad feeling came back and this time she let it settle. Something was definitely wrong. “I thought he had either been involved in an accident or been robbed. He had a habit of traveling with wads of cash sometimes so robbery was definitely a possibility.” But still somebody must know where he is, she thought. So she scrolled her phonebook and called his workmates who said, “He left the hospital yesterday for home.” More disturbing news.


A friend of hers advised that they should go to the nearest cops station to file a missing persons report. There, the cops were a whole different ball game.


“Are you sure he is not with another woman?” One asked her.


“That one must have another wife in Kitale.” Another said.


They stuck to this narrative saying this was a common occurrence with other men. They would disappear for a day or two only to be found frolicking with other women.


The process of reporting was more frustrating than Mbute’s disappearance. It got to a point she told them, “I don’t really care if he is with another woman. I just want to know where he is!”


During this back and forth she didn’t realise her friend had been called aside by one of the cops. She finished giving her statement and went to wait outside on a bench. She was bone tired; they had been there 3 hours. It was now almost 9pm.


While she sat there, she saw one of his best friends walking in to the station accompanied by his wife. The feeling in the pit of her stomach was now the size of a hot air balloon stretched to the max. She shot up, “What are you guys doing here?”


“Maureen, we are so sorry.”


“For?”


“Yesterday, when Mbute was driving home, he was involved in an accident.”


“Ok. And…where is he?”


“He died.”


The balloon burst and her stomach hit the floor!


“Those words — he died — seemed to linger above us and then dropped on my head like an anvil.” She said to me. “I can’t remember much after that. I just know I became numb. It’s as if someone locked me in a block of ice. I was in pain. I was aware of the pain. But at the same time, I was numb.”


They went back to his friends house where people started pouring in five by five. Soon the place was stifling, crowded with bodies and questions. “I felt like an actor in a movie playing the lead role — only I didn’t know my lines. I didn’t have the script.” People were talking to her, hugging her, asking what happened and she felt like asking them, “Where is the script?”


At some point she got so overwhelmed she decided to go home. “I remembered the kids birthday had just been a week prior and Mbute being Mbute had invited everyone.” They had thrown a huge party and invited people from as far as Nairobi. On the day of the party he was at work but he was able to get off and came home with two big bikes that filled his back seat. Who knew that was the last present he was to give to his girls?


When she went home, she lay on her bed thinking how easily sleep came to her the night before and how after 24 hours the idea of sleep was now a foreign concept. “I thought about my daughters, 9 and 5 years old and wondered what I was going to tell them.”


The following day at 7 am she got up and went to the morgue angry and confused. From the reports, he had been found belted, in the drivers seat of his car, in a river around Soy, at 1am. And was brought to the morgue of the hospital where she worked! Surely somebody must have recognised him! Why had it taken so long for anyone to call her? Or were they mistaken? Maybe it wasn’t him. She had to see for herself.


When she got there, she was directed to the cold room. “As soon as I got in, my hope were dashed.” The sight of him seared her heart on a pan. He just lay there — silent. She walked to him and tried to rouse him. He looked as if he was taking a nap. She looked at his body from top to bottom and everything was intact except for a bruise on his forehead. What kind of accident was this? “Why now Mbute, why? When we have put in so much work to finally be together. Why?” She shook him.


On the way home from the morgue, she was plagued by thoughts of what to tell the kids. Good thing, the people around her had taken to thinking for her — because she was still frozen in time. A friend got a counselor who accompanied them and helped break the news to the children. “I remember my first born who was 9 at the time cried for what seemed like eternity. She had been very close to her dad.” Imagine how heartbreaking the news was to Maureen — an adult. She couldn’t imagine what it was doing to a child.


The next two weeks of mourning were a blur. Being a peoples person meant the house was always full. Maureen just existed. Her only work was to ensure her chest kept rising and falling. Anything else was too much. Thank God for her friends, relatives and colleagues who came through for her. She would stumble upon committee meetings and wonder who they were talking about? She was physically present but mentally stuck. Frozen.


“Luhya funerals are a spectacle. One, that Mbute hated.” The topic of death was one they had glossed over before. Whenever he brought it up she would brush it away and he would say, “But you know we are no more special than the next guy who has died. I am not afraid of death. The only thing I do not want is to be paraded around the way our people like to do. In fact cremate me if I die before you.”


“Why are you talking like this?” She would say. “Let’s talk about something else.”


Yet here she was in the midst of it. And the one thing he did not want, is what happened. “I know he was loved by many. I can’t even count the number of patients who called me to talk about him.” So his casket was paraded from place to place. From the church, to their house, to the hospital where he worked and finally to Bungoma — his rural home where the display continued for two more days. At daybreak his coffin would be removed from the house where he would stay until the day turned grey then they would put him back in the house. By the end of the second day, he was crying. At least that’s what Maureen thought. Or maybe he was thawing.


Whatever it was, fluid was seeping from somewhere onto his face. He looked like he was sweating after a workout. “I tried to wipe his face but after a few minutes, beads of water would reappear. This really broke my heart.”


On Saturday morning — the day of his burial — the sky was scrubbed fresh and stark blue. Her body felt leaden from all the anguish.The home was packed to the brim. After lowering the casket, they covered the grave and started to cement it. She stood there with her daughters, their faces wet, their noses filled with snot and tears. Each time she heard the shovel pick some cement and throw it on the grave, a knife sliced through her heart and she bled.

After she left the graveside, all cried out she had a sense of relief that people did not have to stare at him anymore. He had rested in peace.


After a few days, they went back home. That was when the real work began. The block of ice that had numbed her for two weeks suddenly melted. The reality of Mbute’s absence smashed down on her with the force of a head on collision. “It felt like bees had wandered into my chest cavity and it stung. When I opened the door to our house I heard an ugly guttural noise like that of a wounded animal and realised that I was the one making the noise.”


She would look outside her window and see casual labourers pushing carts, people walking and driving along the street, kids going to school and she would get enraged. Didn’t people know she had lost a husband at just 33 years? Why was the world still in motion? Why was the sun still shining when she was engulfed in darkness?


Three weeks later she was now left alone — with her children. It was then that she thought she had heard his car drive in. But she knew it wasn’t him. She had last seen his car floating in the river thanks to social media. The picture had been forwarded so many times and despite not wanting to see it, it was everywhere.


One day while languishing in her room she spotted a tennis racket that she had never seen before and it was branded — Joe. “I stared at it wondering whether someone was playing tricks on me.” No one played tennis in their home. She didn’t beckon the tears but they came. They streamed down her face unregulated like tributaries.


Getting out of bed was hard. She would only do so, to drop her kids to school then go back home, lock herself in her room and never open the curtains. She wanted her external environment to match her internal feelings. Sometimes the kids would say, “we miss daddy,” and she had to muster the strength to be there for them and allow them to cry if they needed to.


“That’s how it was for me. I had a crash course in mourning and realised it is non linear. There are days I thought I was ok and then there were days I would cry over a tennis racket or a mechanical problem with the car.” She said. “I would ask myself what I did to deserve this? As if there were people who deserved to be widowed.” She mourned the loss of their dreams like the house they were to start building just a week before he died. His disappearance from her life had been so swift and its permanence so unimpeachable that she sometimes couldn’t access the pain.


When the memories threatened to suffocate and swallow her whole, she decided to move house. She felt the only way to accept that life as she knew it had changed was to move. “Packing his things was one of the hardest things to do. I wanted him alive so badly if only to pack his own clothes.” Funny, his relatives asked for those very clothes; saying it was customary to have them. So she kept a few things for herself and her daughters and gave them everything else.


After staying out of work for two months, Maureen went back. And it helped her. Having something to do, gave her respite from the sadness. It is now five years since that fateful day. Her sorrow is now irregular and when she stumbles into it, it’s not as acute as it was the day Mbute died. She feels she has reached acceptance but that doesn’t mean she is happy about it. “I still feel every molecule of my loss. His voice, as solidly built as his body, his smile, his optimism, and his perfect contagious energy. I especially feel for our daughters who have to grow up without a dad.”


Thank God for one lady — Njeri Kaberere — a stranger who looked for her, called her and spoke to her for over two hours. She too had lost her husband in a tragic way while still pregnant and her words breathed hope into Maureen’s heart. They have never spoken again but her words have lingered.


Now, whenever she hears of a young widow she tries to reach out to them because someone reached out to her and gave her hope.


“That is why I am sharing my story. To encourage someone not to lose hope; and to honour a great man.”


Narrated to me by Dr Maureen Ochieng



I loved you everyday; now I miss you everyday



 

Maureen is available to any young widow going through loss and needs to talk.

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Tamar..

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Rest in Peace Mbute. Hugs to Maureen and the girls

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brendaodhiambo
brendaodhiambo
Mar 17, 2021

Oh this is sad 😥

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dela crucifix
dela crucifix
Mar 17, 2021

Thanks for sharing hope. Didn't know where the story was heading coz somehow I was wishing for a miracle but hey.......hope is a miracle I'll take from this.

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patricia.oketch
patricia.oketch
Mar 17, 2021

Thank you Doc for writing the story so well. Thank you Maureen for sharing. May the Lord strengthen you as you walk with other hurting widows.

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Wambui Kyama
Wambui Kyama
Mar 17, 2021

Heartbreaking...

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MedRoom Eyes
MedRoom Eyes
Mar 17, 2021
Replying to

It is

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