Mwende’s Story – Written by Cabral Opiyo

Caregiving is a sensitive subject; some people do it professionally while some have it thrust upon them. One moment you’re just living your life; struggling against whatever life throws at you and the next you have a sick relative and you have to step up in more ways than one to ensure their wellbeing. Mwende told us a story of how responsibility was thrust upon her and her siblings when her mum got sick and how they all had to adjust to fit into their new reality.

“They never really found out what was ailing my mother during the first few years of her illness. Coupled with hypertension which she had had all my life since I was a kid, she had septic wounds on her feet and she couldn’t walk from around 2009, that’s when my journey as a part-time caregiver begun.

I have four siblings; an elder brother who works out of the country and often chipped in financially, two sisters, one of whom has a young family and one who is a full-fledged, busy career woman and a younger brother who lived at home but needed just as much monitoring as my sickly mother. Logically, most of the burden to ensure her immediate welfare therefore fell upon me.

Luckily, my mother lived in Nairobi which was sort of an epicentre for all of us and as a result, it was much easier to ensure she was well. I would visit as often as I could, or as much as my job and family allowed me to, I have two daughters who also needed my attention.

My siblings and I did our best; we made sure mum’s rent, utilities and other nitty-gritty were paid. Her medicines and hospital visits were catered to on time and she had everything we deemed necessary. This sort of thing stretches you; financially, mentally and physically. No one is prepared for a sick parent, especially not in an economy like Kenya’s and the rat race that is Nairobi.”

Mwende pauses before she continues, I can tell by the apprehension in her voice that it is hard for her to verbalise what she’s about to tell me. She must have thought about it a lot but never verbalised it and acknowledged it.

“My mum wasn’t the easiest person to live with, don’t mistake me, I love her and I would take care of her all over again. At the time we were all chipping in in different ways, sacrificing in different ways to make sure she was well taken care of but there was a bit of resentment from her. She felt we could do more; provide more and better and there were a lot of failed expectations on her side and we felt as if she was taking advantage of our generosity.

In fact, for a time I had moved back in with her to better take care of her. That didn’t last because of the friction and other contributing factors, and I moved back out again in 2014 and decided to help from afar.

Of course, no one ever tells you about the pressures of being a caregiver. Alongside living my own life, I frequently worried about my mum’s safety, she was an old woman (73 years old at the time). We all decided to get her at least a daytime house help who would help with activities around the house and keep an eye on her, a suggestion she flatly refused. She complained quite a bit and was picky amongst other things.”

Mwende pauses again as if she can’t believe the words she has just uttered, a bit perplexed at venting out these feelings. It feels like a betrayal to say such things about family, except it is a very real representation of a lot of families. She continues in a lowered voice.

“In 2018, my mum was sick and getting on in age and I suggested that she move in with us. But before I fronted the idea with her, I raised it with my two daughters who vehemently refused the suggestion. This is even more profound considering the fact that she partially raised them as I had them while still living at home.

It wasn’t always like that though, I had a happy childhood and my mother was a happy go lucky woman. She was a well put together, vibrant, strong, career woman with a thriving social life at the church, known as the wife of the pastor.

Once, she asked my father to repair a light bulb problem and when he hadn’t done it after a day she got a stool and some tools and fixed it herself. She told me, ‘in this life, never wait for a man to fix issues for you.’ That’s the type of woman she was.

Then one day my father just upped and left. After 22 years of marriage, being identified as the pastor’s wife and being the centre of the Christian community to nothing, it’s as if her whole identity was taken away. She never recovered.

We were looking at an album of pictures with my sister and I realised that at some point she had just stopped smiling and she never regained that spark.”

It was important for Mwende to explain to me the background of the woman as if to reassure herself that the past wasn’t a lie and that she had indeed been that way.

“I was in Kampala for work in February of 2019 when she called me asking for some money which I promised to send. While I was there the thought of her frailty and possible passing on crossed my mind and I allowed myself to realise that it was a distinct possibility. I had tried to have that conversation with my mother but she studiously refused to indulge it. I didn’t know it then but that moment of reflection would be important in the grand scheme of things.

In April, my mum’s sister who was also ill passed on. We were so busy with funeral arrangements that I barely talked to mum at the burial which was on the 23rd.

Two days later, my mum who had refused a house help had a stroke. She spoke to my daughter in the morning and didn’t answer any calls for the rest of the day. We asked the watchman and neighbours to check on her but there was no answer, they all thought that she had just gone to church or something of the sort.

I had meant to visit her on Saturday and when I did, we found her fallen from her stroke which she had had the previous day. She never spoke or woke from her coma. I always visited her at lunchtime at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

She would be washed and dressed ready for visitors. I always wiped her face and applied petroleum jelly on her lips because she detested dry lips. I had always heard about people croaking just before they died but I never believed it, or I thought it was just a saying.

As I sat beside her on her hospital bed that Thursday afternoon, my only regret was that we hadn’t really spoken but the reflection I had in Kampala helped ease the pain. You know what I mean, really spoken. She croaked one last time and stopped breathing and even as I went to find the nurse, I knew that she was gone.”

One comment on “Mwende’s Story – Written by Cabral Opiyo

  1. Judz says:

    Very compelling yet common, but still a unique situation. The emotional drain is the heaviest to a caregiver, when one wonders -did I do enough?

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