In my parents’ house, we lived with silence. I suppose it moved in soon after the first one of us was born. It was a stray mutt that came in to shelter from the frost, and after, it gorged itself on scraps and grew too large to fit through the exit door. The silence stayed with us, neither stray nor mutt any longer, but something we knew as well as we knew the shapes of our own fingers. It was something that we petted sweetly in the early years, and later, as it grew large and monstrous, something we shook in our boots at the sight of.
“Children are to be seen and not heard”, the saying went. This, paired with, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, made for a home where every squeak in a chair, and every creak in an elbow, and every hum in a throat, had to be accounted for. We, the children, sat with red-hot coals smouldering on our tongues, unable to swallow them or spit them out. Speaking was the domain of adults, and only they had the absolute and irrefutable privilege to revel in it. They said things to each other and laughed with such reckless abandon, and we stared at them in great wonder, eager to get our childhoods over with just so we could indulge in the same.
We hardly spoke, not to each other, and especially not to our parents. In return, we were hardly spoken to. At least not in ways beyond the perfunctory (How much homework did your class-teacher give today?), or beyond the despotic (Child, one more word from you and I will break your knuckles with the shoe brush).
To be silent meant swallowing one’s pride, stifling one’s defiance, tempering one’s lofty expectations
Our parents meant well. They were good people—kind to friend and foe alike, warm and compassionate, and harbouring that blind, wide-eyed optimism that pious people often do, about all turmoil being pre-ordained, about things always working out in the end. Faith, they called it. And why should anyone begrudge them this? It was this sheer unbridled faith, this steely resolve to put one foot in front of the other no matter what, that saw us survive—bruised but mostly unscathed—all the perils of the 1990s and 2000s. Dictatorship, job retrenchments, economic recession, war on terror, post-election violence, political instability.
Our parents loved us the best way they knew how. They deprived themselves of much comfort in order to attend to our needs. My father had holes in the soles of his shoes, so that we would not have any ourselves. My mother often subsisted on just one meal a day, so that we had something to eat. Ours was no easy life, and they did their best to shield us from its vicious warps and wefts.
The silence that they enforced at home was an act of love too, a way to impart to us the tools they felt were crucial in navigating the complexities of our world. To them, silence was virtue. To be silent meant swallowing one’s pride, stifling one’s defiance, tempering one’s lofty expectations. It meant humility even in the face of humiliation. It meant dignity. The silence was going to protect us in a cruel and callous world.
“God loved your sister so much that he chose to call her home”
When I was seventeen, my littlest sister suddenly fell ill, and then she slipped away, quick as a gasp, leaving our heads reeling. I remember trying to fathom that her slobbery, gummy smile was gone, and her gargling laughter too, and her dark, inky eyes. I remember the empty blanket that my mother brought back from the hospital, and the rosary beads that we fondled between our fingers, and later, the small wooden box whose handle broke in the back of my father’s pickup truck.
I remember a slender woman in a gauzy scarf patting my shoulder, saying, “God loved your sister so much that he chose to call her home.” I remember being repulsed by these words. Being repulsed by all the adults around us for spewing inane platitudes. I thought, “We are children, goddammit, not nincompoops." Why didn’t they see us, even when they looked right at us? Why didn’t they speak to us, even when they said things to us?
I remember the silence of the strangers sitting in our living room, hands between knees, staring glumly at the floor. The silence of the cockerels scratching in the dirt outside, and of the barbets hopping on the windowsill, and of the wind treading carefully, mutedly, in the tree branches. The silence of our entire tenement—no knocks on the door to beg for salt, to offer ripened mangoes, to ask if the KPLC man had cut off our electricity too. The silence of the neighbour-children watching us, mouths agape, frightened by the ruddy-toned shroud of grief that clung onto our hunched shoulders. The silence of our parents, themselves shell-shocked and weary, their faces crinkled with agony and bewilderment.
After a while, we, the children, thought that we had imagined her existence
The silence of grief, unlike any other type of silence that I knew, was not domineering. Instead, it was soft as lace, and utterly, terrifyingly, tender. Before it, we saw our father shudder, and our mother whimper. We did not know what to do with this stark, bare-bottomed intensity of feeling. We did not know what to say to comfort them. So we clamped our teeth and watched them, and later at night, when no one was looking, we, the children, sobbed into our pillows.
She was “only” a baby. Meaning, perhaps, that her life had not truly unfolded, and that her death, while regrettable, was not devastating. Or, on the other hand, meaning that there was no suitable language to express the utter dreadfulness of what had happened. Or, also, that we were ourselves only babies too, and that we could not fully understand, and that our grief was not real grief, only make-believe, only whimsy.
In any case, this was one more thing that we did not talk about in my family. Our baby had died, and then we all “dis-remembered” her. No one carried the weight of her name in their mouths. No one glanced at the cupboard where her things were stored. No one invoked her memory with a treacly smile on their face, saying, “Remember that time when...?”
And after a while, we, the children, thought that we had imagined her existence. We thought that perhaps we had been delirious, that in the harsh yellow quiet of afternoon, we had wandered too far inside the alleyways of our frenzied minds and summoned a little girl to play with. We thought that we had cooed at her and dragged her about in her Moses basket until she squealed with wild laughter. We thought that ultimately, someone had snapped their fingers, and that we had awoken to find ourselves sitting straight-backed in kitchen chairs, thin-lipped, with no baby bouncing between our laps.