Everything was heightened.
Everything needed to stop.
The phone rang rigorously. The ticking analogue clock. The endless bickering.
“Shut up!” I screamed. The shout sent a spasm of pain through my throat. “Can everyone just shut up?” I remembered to say it at a lower volume this time.
Everyone in the room had turned to look at me, noticing me for the first time.
“And answer your phone.” I hissed at Aunt Jane.
She clutched it tightly against her chest and threw me a look of reprimand before whipping around and promenading out the room.
I was still clothed in black, still mourning. Three hundred and eighty-four hours since she left me. That’s sixteen days since the doctor walked down the dimly lit corridors of the Roman Catholic Hospital. “Your daughter was very brave,” he said when he reached us, “but her respiratory infection was acute. I’m sorry, we couldn’t save her. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
It has been nine days since we buried Okeri.
An hour of sitting and listening to the voices in this room as they constantly debated about what to do with me.
Alongside them, my husband.
How dare he betray me by calling them. Bringing them into our home so they could judge me, judge us.
“Uazuvara, you haven’t left Okeri’s room in nine days. Your husband is worried about you.”
John’s mother was the first to speak. Every word came at me like a jab to the chest. She didn’t have the right to speak. She never had to bury her three-year-old baby. She never had to deal with the loss of a child.
I could hear their voices at night, telling me that I was sick, that I couldn’t produce an heir for John, that his family line would end with him.
I wrapped my arms around my body. I would cry, but I was fresh out of tears. “What’s happening here?” Mum walked into the meeting she hadn’t been invited to. Her eyes glanced at me and then at the audience of three. “Everybody out,” she ordered coolly.
John’s mother filed out of the room. My mum turned to look at John. “You too.”
His intense gaze fell on me, eyes begging me to object. I focused on the pink carpet, curling my toes in the soft fur.
“Hey, baby.” Mum sat next to me on the couch. “How are you?” She cupped my cheek with a cool hand.
“They think I’m crazy. They don’t understand, Mum. This room, these walls: I feel Okeri’s presence. I hear her laughter. Does John really believe a timer can be placed on the pain I feel?” I breathed hard, resting my head on her shoulder and fighting back tears.
“My baby, remember what I told you?” her fingers combed my hair. “You are stronger than anything that comes your way. John needs you just as much as you need him. He lost his daughter too. I could spend every afternoon with you, trying to comfort you, but in truth, he understands what you are going through. Because he’s going through the same thing.”
“I want to. I want to be strong. To not feel my heartbreak every time I see her pictures. But how can I? And how can he? How can he go back to his everyday routine and pretend like nothing happened?”
She sighed. “Grief is different for everyone. When I lost your father, I buried myself in work. That was not fair on you or your brother.” She pulled me off her shoulder so she could look me in the eyes. “I know you don’t want to hear this.”
I shook my head knowing what she was going to say. I hated those words. No one could guarantee them. My vision bounced to the light grey wall behind her and then up to the white ceiling above us.
“Okeri would have wanted you to be happy.”
What does that even mean? Why can’t this be my definition of happiness? Why do we speak for the dead? They aren’t here to confirm or deny the claims made in their name.
Okeri would have wanted me to mourn her. It would have pained her to see me move on. Okeri was my child. If anyone knew what she wanted and needed, it would be me.
Okeri was always happy. Mum was right.
She stood up. “You will get through this. You’re not alone.”
She turned and walked out the room, elegantly sweeping past toys scattered on the floor. “I’ll let everyone out.”
In Okeri’s room, I caught myself staring at her kindergarten picture on the wall. Three hours had fizzled out like an effervescent tablet in water. My mum’s head peeped in. “Coast is clear. Also, I told John that you would join him for dinner tonight. He went out to get something, but while he’s gone, I was thinking I could bathe you. We could tie your hair up. Get you dressed?”
I wished her words meant nothing to me, that I could lie in my daughter’s tiny bed in guiltless grief. In the three hours I had to myself, I thought of how Okeri was a daddy’s girl, always at her father’s heel. From helping John in the kitchen to going to the hardware shop. As my mother ran water down my back, a memory came to me: the night Okeri left us. How life had been vacuumed out of me. John, overcome with numbness, robotically handled all the hospital paperwork and, later, drove us home. He did not like to face his emotions, always diving into a to-do list. He needed to feel in control. At home, he refused to let me call anyone.
“We are in this together,” he said. “We’ll phone everyone tomorrow. Let’s just be together tonight.”
His words had sent me falling to the wooden floor. He held me as we cried. He deserved better.
“You look beautiful.”
Mum admired her work. She had put me in a dress. I hid my distaste for how loosely it sat on me. She tied my braids in a bun. Then she whispered into my ear and stepped out of the room.
I practised smiling in front of the mirror. Outlandish. I counted until ten, fifteen, then to twenty. I took a deep breath and walked out of the room and into the corridor. John stood at the end of the passage holding white flowers. He was handsomely dressed in my favourite pair of his khaki trousers and a navy blue t-shirt. A shy hand brushed over his short hair.
I blushed and walked towards him, avoiding his eyes.
In the dining room he pulled a chair out for me. I sat down. The shock of his cold lips on my bare shoulder.
“You look lovely.”
“Thank you.” I smiled. He sat down.
“I made the hake.” An awkward conversation starter. His hands fiddled with the table cloth, an action he did every time he was uncomfortable.
I stared at the plate. “It’s delicious.” I pressed a smile onto my face.
“How would you know if you haven’t tried it?”
I froze. Hake, my favourite dish. In the past, my plate would be wiped clean in no time.
“Try it.” He fed me a piece. It was warm and buttery, an explosion of lemon and herbs when it flaked on my tongue. He had always been the better cook between us.
“How is work?” I asked after my face showed clear acknowledgement of how great the fish was.
“I got a promotion.”
My eyes bulged. How had I not known this? “When?”
“The night Okeri got sick. I wanted to tell you when I got home. Then you called me, and we had to rush to the hospital.”
I focused on my plate, pushing the green peas around when he mentioned her name. “What’s your new title?”
“Chief of Corporate Affairs.”
“Look at you. Promotion. Cooking me dinner.”
“I miss her too.” I could tell by the way his tone dropped that it pained him to talk about her. “I’ve been trying to distract myself with work for the past two weeks, but I don’t want to hide behind work. I want to talk about her. I want us to talk about her.”
I was taken aback by his forwardness. “I want us to talk about her too.” I managed to say.
“Remember when she hid in the closet at dinner time?”
I smiled back. “You mean hiding in the closet because she didn’t want to eat my cooking.”
I liked seeing him laugh. His eyes would close and he’d try and cover his mouth to hide his teeth. It reminded me of our first date. It made me feel warm and happy.
We ate on. He talked. I listened.
“Would you like to dance?”
I looked up at him, his soft eyes urging me.
Lionel Richie. “Stuck On You.” Jason would always play this after Sunday dinner. He had to include me and Okeri in a three-person slow dance.
He held out his hand.
I accepted it. I closed my eyes.
He drew me closer.
I felt his heartbeat.
It has been two years since Okeri’s death.
I have gone back to work. John and I moved into a new apartment three months ago. Mum’s whisper rings in my head: “Now may be a time of grief, but you’ll soon see happiness.”
I am still waiting.
Delila Katanga is a Namibian author. Two of her self-published books, Uncalled and Unbridled, were released in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The third in the trilogy is forthcoming. Delila holds a Bachelor of Communications Degree from the Namibia University of Science and Technology.