I’m at Two-Rivers mall. This place is big and impressive: The sidewalks, the buildings, the escalators on every floor. They make one clear statement, the stakeholders have money and they’re not afraid to spend it. It’s drizzling in lazy sheets. It’s the kind of weather that dampens everything around it. The kind that makes you want to hold something hot in between your hands. I’m seated on one of the benches at the food court in Burger King. The view from here is spectacular, it swallows you like a dream and for a moment you get lost in it. From where I’m sited I can see the river snaking its way past the mall and the rain only makes it more enchanting. The drops hit the water and the ripples spread out almost giving it a life like effect. I stare for a minute and I understand why kids love playing in the rain.
I’m waiting for Violet, she’s a cancer survivor and she was brave enough to agree to share her story with me. I had thought to put questions together but decided against it because I wanted it to feel like a conversation not an interrogation and its now hitting me that I might not know how to handle such a subject. I shift my weight and lean on the glass while I mull over my lack of preparedness. On the other side of the glass is a woman and a small girl. The small girl is in a bubble dress that makes her look like little Cinderella. I take it to be a mother, daughter lunch date because the woman keeps pointing at little Cinderella to remove her feet from the chair but she keeps putting them back. She gestures for her to finish her fries but she instead comes to the glass and starts making faces at me, as if taunting my lack of preparedness. I think how serene it is to be a kid and wonder, for a second why we were in such a hurry to grow up.
Violet texts me and tells me she’s twenty minutes away, I tell her where she can find me then put my phone down and keep my lack of preparedness company. Little Cinderella has now put her feet down, straightened her dress and she is eating her fries like a cultured little lady. I wonder what the mother said to her to make her behave. Did she threaten to take away Oreos for an entire month? Or her favorite shows, mayhap, Dora the Explorer or Sponge Bob? After the days of Power-Puff Girls and Courage the Cowardly Dog came and went, toons are lost on me. Mothers, though can be cold and sometimes they know exactly what to say to make their munchkins behave. Mayhap it was something cruel, like taking away Christmas if she keeps up the act. Yes, mommy can turn Christmas on and off like water from a tap. Whatever she said Little Cinderella is now behaved. She feels my stare burning her and she turns her head. I try to make faces but nothing, not if it’s at the cost of Christmas.
I spot violet from the escalator. She is in a black cap. White t-shirt, black pants and black boots. The first thing I ask after we hug and say hi is if she is feeling cold? I offer my jacket but she says she’s okay and in any case she has something warm in her backpack if she gets cold. I ask if she prefers having a chat outside or inside. She points towards the door. I usher her in, pull up a chair and ask her if she’s good with having meat and fries and all those unhealthy foods we indulge in. She says she’s almost fully recovered now and she can have anything, except for soda, she opts for a water instead. I get to the counter to make my order. I already like Burger King, its spacious, not crowded with a clean and rustic ambience about it. I can see myself coming here again.
At the counter there is this chap who looks familiar. “Did we go to the same High School?” I find myself asking and the chap hesitates, probably thinking it’s a pick up line, and thinking how I’m so not his type. His eyes meet mine and he asks which high school I went to? I say Dagoretti High and he says no and proceeds to ask which campus I went to? I tell him and he says, “Not really.” (I don’t know, what ‘not really’ means, maybe he passes by when going to the gym) I say he looks hella familiar, like I have seen him in a TV commercial and my mind thinks I know him. I can see the fear in his eyes as I say that, as if he thinks I might ask him out on a date, next. My receipt comes and we’re forced to part ways. Saved by the bell, eh?
I take my sit and have a proper look at Violet. The first thing that strikes me is that she has no eyebrows nor eyelashes. I look at her and ask her what the feeling was when the pin dropped and it was confirmed that it was really cancer? “I had just come from the bathroom,” she says. “My towel was tied around my chest and I remembered thinking that maybe I had tied the towel too tight and then I felt my breast and there it was, a lump. An ultrasound and two biopsy’s later and it was confirmed that I had breast cancer. I cried, especially when the doctor explained to me that I would lose my breast and I would have to go through chemo. Chemo is strong and extremely damaging to the body, with lifelong effects like heart problems, there was also a possibility that I would lose my fertility. I remember my doctor asking me if I wanted to freeze one of my eggs for future use and I did not know how to take it. I’m twenty seven, young with dreams of building a family and here comes a doctor saying that might not be possible. I remember thinking how fleeting life is and how you can’t predict tomorrow so I didn’t see the sense of freezing an egg.”
Our food gets to the table: Two burgers, two plates of fries, a coke and a water. I pick one of the buns on my burger and put a bit of sauce and mayo and then sink my teeth in it. It has a roasted after taste to it and I’m not sure if I like it or if it’s one of those tastes that grows on you. I ask Violet how she likes the burger. She tells me it’s okay. I tell her I have had better. She says the burger is great, it’s the fries that are a bit average for her. While we’re enjoying our meal, this attendant: tall skinny and animated comes to our table. Franco he says with a lot of energy. He hands us a coupon, says we’re entitled to a discount to any meal on the coupon and if anybody asks we say it’s Franco who sorted us. He is proud. The whole time he is talking to us he is doing a jig as if he is ready to take on Floyd Mayweather. You can tell he enjoys his job by the light coming from his eyes as he takes us through the coupon. He’s probably one of those people who makes everyone gloomy after the weekend because he’s forever looking forward to Mondays. He leaves. “I wonder how hyped he would have been if I told him you said his fries were average.” I say and we both have a laugh.
There is a bandage on her left hand. “Drip?” I ask naively. She takes a bite of her burger, the dimple on her chin becoming more pronounced and tells me, there might have been possible negligence on the side of the nurses that saw chemo leak in her hand. “Chemo makes you lose your hair, Imagine it in your skin tissue? It burns.” She has pictures and asks me if I have the stomach for them? I tell her to try me. At first the area on her hand looked like a boil the size of a grown mans fist and then it burst and resembled something that had been scorched by acid. “There was a point I couldn’t move that hand,” she says. “So the drip goes on your right hand?” I ask. “No, the lymph nodes were removed because of the cancer in my right breast. I have to be very careful with my right hand because of that, even something as commonplace as a mosquito bite can be fatal.” She points at her chest. “This is where the drip goes, they had to do a bit of surgery for this but it works.” “So that’s the gate pass to your heart then eh?” She smiles, “I guess you can say that but other than the chemo leaking my stay in India was comfortable, the people there were ever friendly and there were very many Kenyans.”
She shows me pictures before the chemo: She was slender, in a yellow dress and black coat, her eyebrows and eyelashes intact. I ask her if she misses that person. “I remember when I was coming back from India and my hair had started falling. I tried not to touch it too much because I didn’t want my brother to see me without hair. The worry was not for me but for those I care for.”
“Losing your breast, how did that feel?” “I had a good doctor,” she says. “He calmed me down and told me that the treatment was so much advanced now and the illness was manageable. Breast reconstruction is something we talked about and its something I have put a pin on, because, can you tell I don’t have a breast?” I shake my head. “I just put a piece of cloth in my bra and I’m good to go. When I knew I had cancer I went on my phone and read up on it. To me it has been more about overcoming it than drowning in self-pity.”
“Before this, are there things you took for granted?” “Absolutely, you take so many things for granted. I could not have a meal like this for example because everything in my body was hurting. You don’t even know how important eyebrows are until the sun is in your face and it’s burning your eyeballs. There is just a truckload of adjusting and readjusting.”
“I know this might be going beyond the line but what about love and dating, how do you find it after your treatment?” “It’s hard, she says. Relationships in Nairobi are about sex, sex, sex and more sex. It takes a lot of communication and understanding from your partner for him to understand that you just can’t have sex whenever you feel like because your body is sometimes hurting or tired. For me it was especially hard because I had just gotten into a new relationship and I had to sit and think, will this change things. Is he staying because of my condition, or out of his own free will? Partly why I decided to be vocal about it. People out there are always talking and asking questions and sometimes that gets to your partner.” “What do you think someone with a partner like you can do to make things easier?” “Better educate themselves. Know about chemo and its side effects. It helps when they look up the subject and I don’t have to explain it to them like everyone else.”
“But you’re doing fine, I mean, you’ve gained some weight.” “I have added some weight, it is the steroids they put me on. They reduce the effect of the chemo on my body. I’m also lighter. If you saw me after the chemo you couldn’t have recognized me. My palms were charcoal black. Chemo, it really takes from you. But you know what, I want to lose all this weight because when women add weight our estrogen levels increase and mine is especially dicey because its breast cancer and it thrives in the hormone and that makes me prone to another attack. But what I can say is that you can have cancer and make it to the other side. It is not a death sentence.”
She stares at my burger. “You’re not eating?” “You also haven’t finished yours,” I say defensively, only to turn the paper on her side and there is nothing left. I pick up my half eaten burger, its cold and I feel like calling Franco, he could probably heat it up with all the energy he has going. I stare at the walls, they have pictures of what looks like Burger King Ads. They are all in black and white. I ask Violet what she thinks the creative team was smoking to have such depressing ads on newspapers. She says it was a long time ago so they were probably justified. I look at them again and bad as they look they beat some ads that I see nowadays. She says this helps. I ask her what? Sitting like this and talking about it, she says it helps a lot and she thanks me and as we walk out I realize I have learnt a lot but one phrase sticks with me. “You can have cancer and make it to the other side. It is not a death sentence.”
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