The first scream was loud and piercing. It caught my attention. My fingers paused typing and remained suspended above my laptop’s keyboard. The second scream was even louder. I shot to my feet, yanked open the door and raced down the stairs. Then I saw my neighbor and good friend Pendo pacing her doorway, screaming. Before I could walk up to her and console her, I saw my other neighbor Javan walking out of Ann’s (Hanna Nyakinyua) door, speaking on his phone. I knew instantly that something must be wrong with Ann. So I dashed through her kitchen, turned left into her living room and left into her bedroom. What I saw and heard left me in shock.
About five days earlier, Ann had glanced at her phone and seen that it was her good friend, Mama Thiong’o, calling. The two had become good friends almost ten years earlier when Ann moved into her current house in Tena. That ground-floor house was one of seven units that were all owned by Mama Thiong’o.
After Mama Thiong’o vacated the main house in the compound, Ann became the unofficial caretaker. She always made sure that water was pumped at the right time and that the electricity units for the water pump meter were bought in good time. Every month, she would collect money from the compound’s six other tenants and buy the units. Every weekend, she would switch on the water pump and ensure that every tenant received water. She wasn’t being paid to do all this. She just did it because that’s the kind of person she was.
Five days after her phone conversation with Mama Thiong’o, on Saturday 3rd April at about 9.45 AM, Ann was lying in her bed. I watched her in shock. She was groaning and breathing in a rasping manner. Three hours later, a kind nurse at Metropolitan Hospital explained to me that this type of breathing is known as agonal breathing. Agonal breathing or agonal gasps have been described as the last reflexes of the dying brain. They are generally viewed as a sign of death.
I didn’t know any of this when I heard Ann breathing that way. All I knew was that we were going to do the best we could to get her to hospital as soon as possible. I raced outside her house and up the stairs to my house, for my car keys. When I returned back to Ann’s room moments later, I called out to Javan and Pendo to come and help me carry her out of the room. Her palms were cold. But her face was still the kind, gentle, light-complexioned face that I had known for the nearly ten years that we have been neighbors. Her eyes were open. She seemed to be staring into a far-off place.
Four days earlier in the evening as Ann was driving towards her gate, she beckoned to Isaac, the tall security guard. She greeted him warmly and asked him how his day was. She then requested him to wash her car, which he happily did. She seemed and sounded fine. She was her usual kind, cheerful self. That’s why he loved washing her car, because she treated him with dignity and kindness.
Anne loved that car. I remember the day she introduced it to me.
That morning, she called me to come and see something.
“What is it?” I had asked her, curious.
“It’s a surprise,” she said, “Just come.”
So I descended the stairs, wondering whether she wanted to give me a live chicken. A few years earlier on when she discovered that I loved chicken, she would occasionally bring me some chicken. Delicious, sumptuous kienyeji chicken. That’s the kind of person she was. Just spreading joy whenever and wherever she could do so. Although she was nearly twenty years older than me, we had become great friends. Family. She had almost become like a big sister.
I found the main gate open. I stepped through it. Lo and behold, there was Ann, smiling from ear to ear. She was leaning on a green car. I knew instantly that she had bought it.
“Wow!” I shouted, “umenunua gari!”
Indeed, she had bought a new car. A greenish Toyota Ractis. She loved that car and used to call it ‘mrembo wangu.’
Fast forward to 2021, April 3rd, 10.15 AM. Javan, Pendo and myself attempted to lift Ann from the bed. But we were unable to do so since she was too heavy. After realizing that we couldn’t carry her alone, I raced out of the house to Bariki’s grocery shop and requested all the four men who were there to follow me. There is an emergency. I told them. Among them was Bariki himself and Nesh, my longtime friend. Together, about five of us were able to lift Ann from Bed, through her bedroom door, then living room door and finally, through the narrow kitchen door. I fleetingly caught sight of Kian, Pendo’s five-year old son. He adored Ann and could never go for a day without visiting her. Every day whenever she returned home from work, little Kian would dash to her house, a big smile spread across his young face.
We then carried Ann through the gate and into my car. A Subaru Forrester. I had collapsed the back seats to create more room. Wanja, who is Ann’s assistant at her workplace, jumped in besides Ann as Javan jumped into the co-driver’s seat.
Two days earlier, on Thursday 1st April, Ann had stopped by Mburu’s shop, which is about fifty meters from her house. She smiled at him, as she always did, then ordered for the usual – two packets of KCC Gold Crown milk. On that particular day, she didn’t buy brown Broadways bread, her favorite. She just bought the milk, chatted briefly with Mburu’s wife who was also at the shop, then walked away.
Two days later, she was lying in the back of my car, unconscious and struggling to breath.
“Mpelekeni Metropolitan!” Julius another neighbor and longtime friend shouted as I reversed. He is a very resourceful guy. One of those people who always seems to have a practical solution to everything.
I am generally not a fast driver despite owning a fast car. But on that Saturday morning, 3rd April, I stepped on that accelerator as if life depended on it. I realized that every second mattered. Literally every second. At Hamza along Jogoo Road, I didn’t even drive up to the legal lane for making a U-turn but drove over the pavement, over the rough patch of land separating the two roads and into the road coming back from town. I then sped for twenty seconds and turned left into Rabai road then sped on towards Metropolitan Hospital. After entering the gate, we reversed towards the emergency area as I shouted to a security guard that we had an emergency.
Within moments, two nurses pushed out a wheeled stretcher and we transferred Ann onto it. They wheeled her into the emergency room and immediately put her on oxygen as they applied first aid.
Two days earlier, on Thursday April 1st at about 11AM, Livingstone the well-known newspaper vendor in Tena, delivered the Nairobian newspaper to Ann at her business premises along Outering Road. Livingstone has known Ann for fifteen years. When he delivered the newspaper that Thursday, he found her eating ugali and kienyeji. She adjusted her spectacles then glanced at the newspaper’s headline. As was her nature, she talked cordially with him. They conversed about the fire that had, a few days earlier, razed down a business premise and some residential houses just a short distance away.
That fire had spared Ann’s property. But now, the fire of death was threatening to take down her amazing life.
“She will be well,” I told Javan.
He nodded and said calmly, “she is a fighter.”
We were standing outside the emergency room.
Wanja, Ann’s assistant, explained to us how earlier that morning, her many calls to Ann went unanswered. Ann’s sister, Mama Ciku had then called and asked her to go and check on Ann in the house. A few minutes later, my neighbour Pendo joined us as did Anne's sister Mama Ciku together with her husband and their daughter Ciku. Pendo was such a close friend to Ann and had played a critical role in those early minutes before we were able to carry Ann from the house.
One day earlier, in the morning hours of Friday 2nd April, Ann drove herself to Jon-Lee Hospital in Tena estate. It’s a two-minute drive from her house. While there, the doctor informed her that the symptoms she was suffering from were all pointing towards Covid-19. They put her on a drip as they started giving her treatment. Later in the afternoon, her niece Ciku joined her at the hospital. Although the doctor advised that she should stay overnight, Ann was insistent on going home, so she was released and they drove with Ciku to her house.
She was still feeling and looking ill but wasn’t in a critically helpless condition. When Mama Ciku, her younger sister talked to her, urging her to spend the night with her daughter Ciku, Anne was adamant that she would be fine. That’s why at about 8PM, after spending some time with her, Ciku bade her farewell and left for her home. Little did she know that she was bidding her the final farewell. A short while later, Ann talked to her neighbor, the one whose house is right above hers, and requested her to take out the garbage for her. The garbage was usually collected every Saturday morning.
At about 8.30PM, Lucy, a former neighbor and good friend of Anne called her. She was sounding weak so Lucy asked her if she was unwell. She confirmed that yes, she wasn’t feeling well and was sick with homa. When Lucy asked her if by homa she meant Covid-19, Anne replied in the affirmative, ‘Yes.’ Lucy thought that she was probably joking, but told her to call her anytime that night if she needed any help.
That night, Anne definitely needed help. But it appears that she was too weak to call for that help. When we found her that morning, she was in a propped up position, as if she was trying to get out of bed. Tragically, she was never able to get out of that bed on her own, that’s why we had to carry her and rush her to hospital.
Approximately 11.30AM, Saturday, 3rd April, I stood about two meters away from the enclosure in which Ann’s bed in the emergency room was positioned. Next to me was Javan. Despite the enclosure of long curtains, we could clearly see through a wide crack in one of the enclosure’s corners. We could see Ann’s face, the doctors, the nurses and what I assumed was an electrocardiogram machine. It was beeping away. I had seen that machine many times in movies. Even during those times, despite knowing that it was just a movie, I would always sit on the edge of my seat, hoping and praying that the machine won’t beep in that dreaded monotone that shows a patient has died.
I could see on a screen as Anne’s oxygen levels dove deep down, to 45 percent. The normal oxygen level is 95 percent or higher. But still, Javan and I hoped for the best. She is a fighter, Javan had said. I concurred. She is indeed a fighter. She is a fighter, I told myself as I watched her oxygen level fall to 40 percent. She will come out of this. I thought. She will live to fight another day. She will live to drive her beloved mrembo wangu (Toyota Ractis) again. She will live to walk again into Mburu’s shop and buy more KCC Gold Crown milk. She will live to run her cherished metal furniture business again. She will live to laugh again, with her son, sisters, brothers, nieces, relatives and friends. These thoughts raced through my mind even as I continued watching the tiny screen. Then I saw it showing ‘0.’ Yes, ‘0.’ I blinked once, twice and opened my eyes wider. Was I seeing correctly? Yes, I was seeing correctly. ‘0.’ My worst fears were confirmed when I saw the nurses removing the oxygen mask and unplugging equipment.
I saw a bespectacled, young kindly nurse walking from the enclosure.
“Is she gone?” I asked her, dreading the answer.
“Yes,” she said with pain in her eyes, “She didn’t make it.”
Even as she explained about the agonal breathing, and other medical issues, I was only half-listening. A part of me was seeing the Ann that I had known for roughly ten years. The smiling Ann. The kind Ann. The Anne whose metal furniture business had provided employment for Kenyans from all tribes. The Ann that little Kian and all children who met her adored.
“Am so sorry. Poleni sana.” The kindly, young nurse said, then walked away.
I gazed one final time through the wide crack of the enclosure and saw Ann’s face. It’s as if she was sleeping.
As I walked away from the emergency room, I came face to face with Ann’s younger sister, Mama Ciku. I closed my eyes briefly and said a short prayer for her and other members of Anne’s family.
I walked away from the emergency room into the warm Saturday sunshine. It occurred to me then, that this sunshine provides the kind of warmth that Ann had provided during her life. She had brought so much joy and warmth to the people that she encountered whether they were her employees, security guards, newspaper vendors, grocers, children, friends, neighbors or family members.
“Thank you Ann,” I whispered and sighed deeply.
The best honor we can give her is to follow in her footsteps and treat all of God’s children with dignity, kindness and empathy.