Michael sits on the edge of the hospital bed and sighs. He feels like crying, but is struggling not to. He takes his mother’s hand and strokes it gently. He now understands why some men disappear without a trace. His life has become one continuous prison; a prison that he walked into willingly, but from which he seemingly cannot escape. His mother has been admitted at Gatundu Level Five hospital for a month now, and this is not the first time she has been admitted in hospital this year. She is suffering from stage one breast cancer. She is in incredible pain, but doctors say that she can recover if she is treated before it spreads. But due to financial challenges, it seems as if she will slip away from him and into the afterlife.
Based on his income alone, Michael can easily afford the treatment. As a senior government official, he takes home a basic salary of three hundred thousand. If you add his allowances, his gross is close to seven hundred thousand; his net income per month, after taxes and other deductions have been made, is over half a million shillings. Getting three million shillings for his mother’s treatment would therefore not be a big deal, had he been the prudent boy that his mother raised. Michael has been informed that he needs about three million shillings for the mastectomy, the chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The problem is not his income. Michael can afford to take his mother Tabitha to the Nairobi Hospital or the Aga Khan. He can afford to fly her to India. The problem is that he doesn’t control his salary. His wife Mercy does. Michael is a born again Christian. His own mother, the one lying on this bed, instilled the fear the Lord in him. He and his sister Veronica went to Sunday School every single Sunday, and then became active youth members of their local Presbyterian Church in Gatundu. Veronica still serves there, and she has even joined the Woman’s Guild just like their mother. Her husband is a member of PCMF-Presbyterian Church Men’s Fellowship.
When he went to the University, Michael joined the Christian Union. After leaving, he did not join any of the Presbyterian Churches in the city, but instead joined Victory at Calvary Chapel, a Pentecostal church along Ngong Road. This is where he met Mercy over twenty years ago. She was this sultry lass with an angelic voice who used to lead worship at the church. Off the pulpit, she was jovial and pleasant, and as they got to know each other, Michael fell in love.
He asked her to be his girlfriend and they dated for a few months before getting married one sunny Saturday morning twenty years ago. When they got married, Michael was a junior economist at the Ministry of Trade. His salary wasn’t mind-boggling, but it was enough to afford him a decent middle-class existence in a decent middle-class neighborhood within the city. Before he got married, he was already sending some cash to his mother for her upkeep. He had great plans. He planned to buy a piece of land in Gatundu and build her a decent house, where she would spend her sunset years.
But before he got married, he and Mercy went through pre-marital counselling. It is one of the requirements in their church. There were beautiful things that were taught in that class, all aimed at making their marriage stronger. He has applied all those lessons that Bishop Lawrence and his wife Fridah taught them, and that is probably why he is still married twenty years later.
But now, as he sits on the edge of his mother’s hospital bed, he realises some of those lessons are the reason he and his sister Veronica no longer see eye to eye. They are also the reason his mother is dying while he watches helplessly. The concepts are not bad by themselves, but Michael wonders whether the approach he used is correct. There is no doubt that over the last twenty years Mercy has used them to her advantage. And he has been too weak in all these years to fight for his space in his marriage.
The first concept was leaving and cleaving. They were told that when they got married, they would now to set themselves apart from their parents and become one unit. A Bible verse was read to them. Genesis 2:24 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. It was not a strange verse to him. He grew up in church and he knew these things. He had heard it preached in almost every wedding he attended. It did not bother him because he did not see how leaving and cleaving would prevent him from talking to his mother or fulfilling his promises to her. But that was then.
The second concept he was taught was financial accountability. He was taught that since he and his wife were now one unit, they should be accountable to each other over their finances. Of course he was the only one with money because Mercy was unemployed, but he was taught that in marriage there is no one’s money. Mercy is trained as an accountant but she decided shortly after they got married that her calling was motherhood. She said she wanted to be a housewife and full-time mum. According to their pastor, spouses should put their resources on the table and it becomes family income. In his case, he would put his money on the table and it would become family income. To ensure accountability, they were told, the best way would be to open a joint account so that they can handle finances together.
Michael opened the account even before the wedding, and closed the one he previously had. He gave instructions to his employer to channel his salary to his new account. The signing instruction for the account is ‘both to sign’. What that means is that he cannot withdraw money from his account without the consent of his wife.
At 46 years of age, Michael has no tangible assets, other than the house in Karen, and that house is itself on a mortgage. It is a thirty year mortgage and he has been paying for ten years. He doesn’t have any investments other than three million shares in a Sacco. For the twenty one years that he has been a civil servant, he has been living from pay cheque to pay cheque. Mercy loves the finer things in life, and he has always wanted to give her the best. From vacations in foreign destinations, to international schools for kids to wigs that cost as much as a quarter acre of land here in Gatundu, Michael’s salary disappears by mid-month, just as it did when he was an entry level employee. He looks rich, but he is always broke.
Whenever he suggests that they give something to his mother, Mercy always points out that they have no money. Then she reminds him that she has a mother too, and that her mother doesn’t pressure them for cash because she understands that they have their own needs. Michael wanted to point out that her mother is a pharmacist, and her father is a doctor, and they therefore don’t really need their help, but he kept his peace. He doesn’t like fighting with Mercy, because he is a Christian man who should keep his wife happy.
Tabitha has never complained. She says that her happiness is seeing her children happy. She worked so hard to put them through school, not so that she can benefit, but so that they can lead a better life than she did.
She remained in poverty even as her son rose through the ranks as a government official. She continued living in the rented double room in Gatundu where she brought up her two children, until her daughter Veronica and her husband bought an acre of land in Gatundu. As they built their house, they also built a two bedroom wooden house for her. She continues to sell porridge at Gatundu town to earn her keep. Sometimes Veronica purchases food stuff for her, and sometimes her husband gives her cash. Veronica was first employed by Gatundu Municipal Council as a secretary, and was later absorbed by the Kiambu County Government, but still works in the Gatundu sub-county offices. Her husband Peter is a primary school teacher.
Disease struck Tabitha earlier this year, and since February she has been in and out of hospital. She really didn’t want to beg, because she truly doesn’t like bothering her children, but she couldn’t afford the payments and her NHIF was not covering everything. Michael said he doesn’t have money, so it is Peter and Veronica who have been carrying the burden. Peter’s parents, who are retired teachers and members of the same Presbyterian Church have been coming to see her almost every day.
Michael has come twice, both times on Fridays, and always at night. She knows that he comes at night to avoid meeting his sister. Tabitha holds no grudge against her son, but Veronica is another question altogether. She is bitter against her brother, and the last time they met the confrontation was brutal. Veronica was especially annoyed by the fact that while she and her husband were trying to raise funds for Tabitha, Mercy had flown off to Hong Kong and splashed photos on Facebook and Instagram, while her husband claimed they couldn’t help because they had no money.
Veronica and Michael were close when they were growing up; now they don’t see eye to eye.
Michael’s phone rings. It is his wife calling. He checks the time before picking the call. It is nine pm.
“Are you coming or should I go to sleep?” Mercy asks in a confrontational tone. As a girlfriend she was sweet and pleasant; as a wife, she oscillates between being the sweet girl he married and an angry combatant that he doesn’t recognize.
“You go ahead and sleep. I will be late.”
“And you have no shame saying that? You promised to take me out tonight.”
“I didn’t promise anything Mercy. You said you want to go out tonight and I said okay. I didn’t say I will go with you.”
“Are you taking me for a child? If you do not come home in the next twenty minutes don’t bother coming. Just stay where you are.”
“There is no way I can be in Karen in twenty minutes. I am in Gatundu with my mother.”
“So your mother now comes before me?”
“She is sick, Mercy. My mother is sick and hospitalized. Is that too hard to understand?”
“You have twenty minutes to get here, Michael. I don’t care whether or what you do. If you can’t make it in twenty minutes, just tell them to get you a bed in your mother’s ward.”
She hangs up before he can reply.
Image by Owachigiu David from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-depression-unhappy-sadness-7295518/
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