Death at a distance and that dreaded phone call
My stomach knots with anxiety when I receive a phone call from home, Kenya. Don’t get me wrong, I get many happy calls from family and friends, but the possibility of receiving that one damned call, about the death or sickness of a loved one, doesn’t elude my days. I have dreaded that phone call for so long.
On Wednesday that dread phone call finally came. I had just left work and was on the bus heading for language school when my phone rang.
It was my mother calling. It was a beautiful day, my second day at a new job in a Danish college, as a teacher. I was excited to share the details of the day with my mother. However, something in her voice sent dark trepidation crossing through my mind. With trembling hands, I hang up the phone. I would call her back in a minute. I was shaking with dread. Not ready to hear the news. I was not psychologically prepared to receive any bad news. But I had to call her back.
“I have bad news for you, Judy. Your dear cousin Ngima (Susan) is dead. She died today morning in a grisly road accident…”
The rest of her words were a blur. My mind spaced out.
“Hello, are you there?” I was there, but I couldn’t speak.
The shock gripped my core. My mother disconnected the call. I tried to control the flood of emotions. I was on a public bus, surrounded by strangers. We don’t break down in public here. It is an unusual sight to see a person bawl out in an open space. I wanted to tame the tears. Hold them back until I was in a more private place. But they burned my eyes. I remembered speaking to my cousin the night before. She was missing my son and me and wanted to know when we would be coming to visit our family in Kenya again. I told her soon, as soon as in 3 weeks. She was excited, so was I. Having spent the better part of childhood, youth and adulthood together. We were not just 1st cousins; but also blood sisters.
I spent the next hours in a daze, surfing the internet for news about the accident. I found information posted in real-time; there was a video of the car crash. Mangled up. I pictured my cousin, she was heading to Kerugoya for business and was looking forward to picking her children from school in two days. They were coming home for their Christmas holidays. The abruptness of her death caused more pain than we could fathom. Some Kenyan newspapers got their information wrong. While some reported that she was one of the female passengers that had been rushed to hospital with serious injuries, but died while receiving treatment, others wrote it was a male passenger. The anonymity of her death angered me even more.
Crying etiquette in Denmark
My heart broke. There was no holding back the tears. I let it all out in a public space, choked by the emotions of standing alone in a crowd. Death at a distance had found me and struck me. The art of crying in Denmark is very different from that which I am used to in Kenya. I live in a society that is accustomed to demure crying whereas some may perceive this as the coldness of Danes, to them (Danes) crying is at their core of privacy, a primary value in Danish etiquette. Danes have a way of taming their emotions in public spaces. Showing such an outburst of emotions in public is a rarity. My crying was neither silent, from the corner of my eyes (angelic) nor dignified. It was disarming, raw, and loud.
Here I was, hyperventilating and choking from my grief, bearing all my vulnerability in a public bus. Not sure where to go or how to stop the tears. Half grateful that the news hit me when I was already out of the staffroom. I knew that blubbering my emotions at work, in my first week, in front of predominately Danish colleagues, would not only have been outright awkward. There was no moment to summon my inner strength and suppress the burning emotions. There was no in-between. The hurtful lump in my throat burst out and forth came a flood of gushing hot tears. I later walked down the streets, confused, in a hysterical crying fit, until my husband came to my rescue. I collapsed into his arms, the sheer weight of my grief too strong to tame. He felt helpless.
The biggest sacrifice
Dealing with the death of a loved one while living abroad carries a whirlwind of emotions. I have spent the last two weeks scavenging the internet for information and calling relatives to piece together information about her final moments. It has been my way of dealing with the pain, shock and anger.
Being an immigrant calls for lots of sacrifices, many of which mean being absent during crucial family events, such as births, your parents growing old, weddings, circumcisions, death and funerals. I know one too many people who have lost parents and siblings but have not had a chance to travel back to Kenya for the funeral. In some instances, they have had to be ‘present’ for the burial through Skype. I never thought this would happen to me, but it has. The first reaction that came to my mind when I received news of my cousin’s death was to drop everything and run home to my family.
However, the reality of my life in Denmark forces me to be practical and think soberly through my grief. I have to be honest and accept that I cannot buy that ticket home in the blink of an eye. I have a toddler, a new job, and a plane ticket purchased for travelling to Kenya at a later date. Being with my family in Kenya would be ideal at the moment, but it is not practical. I would love to be there, to accept the reality of my cousin’s death, but I have to make a sacrifice.
Being absent from my Kenyan family is probably a sacrifice that I will have to make many more times during my life abroad. Such is not only my reality but that of almost every other immigrant. Every moment that I am away from my family or friends in Kenya, that dreaded phone call may come. In the meanwhile, I have been bargaining with mortality in the face of my cousin’s sudden death, yet I have to find healthy means of coping with grief and finding closure when death catches up me at a distance.
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