"It is time."
My friend Aime flew back to town on Thursday. His father is very sick, and was at the King Faycal Hospital, the private hospital in town. I had become very close with his father, and wanted to visit him. Visiting hours are 3-5 daily, and since I had work and professional obligations, I couldn’t get there until Saturday.
According to Aime, he was not doing very well. I didn’t know what to bring to the hospital that would be culturally appropriate. Were flowers just for funerals? Could I bring food?
The hospital wouldn’t allow food to be brought in. In fact, it is one of two hospitals in the country to feed its patients. In most hospitals, families must bring food for the sick.
I couldn’t go emptyhanded, so on Saturday morning, I made brownies. I figured that someone would eat them eventually.
Aime came to take me to the hospital. He has always been the responsible son, taking care of everyone in his family, but I could tell that he just wasn’t as composed as he usually was. We drove to the hospital and made our way to the third floor. I had no idea what to expect.
The hospital is set up somewhat like a motel, with external staircases that access balconies. All of the visiting rooms are accessible from the outside. Outside the room where Aime’s father lay sick were about 25 people, all relatives and friends.
I solemnly greeted everyone individually in Kinyarwanda. It was not polite to simply walk in the room. And when we finally did, I immediately crumbled.
The long room had 10 beds, each with its own locker for personal effects and a side table for medicine and water. Each had a green privacy curtain. In the back, there were three patients; two who were little more than skeletons, and one who never moved. And in the front of the room was Aime’s father, Leonard Musonerwa, his arm connected to a slow drip of fluid, with a feeding tube through his nose.
He was in obvious pain, with eyes that strained to focus. He was so different from the last time I saw him.
* * *
This past March, I had been in Rwanda again. I was scheduled to return to the States on Easter, in the afternoon. Aime wasn’t here, but his brother Faustin was, and Faustin invited me to spend Easter morning with the family.
While I had feared that I was imposing, I realized when I arrived that I was just another member of the family. Three of Aime’s sisters and brothers were there, and I greeted them all in Kinyarwanda. Mrs. Musonerwa welcomed me in with a bear hug (she is a very tall woman), and Mr. Musonerwa (Leonard) slowly got up from his chair to clasp both of my hands and welcome me warmly. I had brought Snickers and Oreos with me—I explained to them that eating sweets on Easter was an American tradition—and Leonard insisted we share some over a bottle of Mutzig beer.
“But it’s the morning! And it’s Easter!” I said in French, laughing.
“God’s in a forgiving mood today. He won’t mind,” Leonard replied, with a broad smile and a hearty laugh.
Leonard loved his beer. Every time I came over, he insisted on sharing a Mutzig, which was his favorite (and mine, too). No one else in the family would drink (or, at least, around him), and so it was always just us sharing a large bottle or two.
The conversations were always fascinating. It was like an informal lecture. He would tell me about the history of the Banyarwanda in Congo, about what his family did there, and about the gorillas that came down the mountain onto their land to graze from time to time. He was a very well-educated man, the principal of a secondary school, and was therefore deeply respected.
This time, while we were talking, Mrs. Musonerwa brought out a plate of red beans topped with fried eggs, with a side of pili-pili. Usually, when they bring out a plate of food, they bring out several forks, and everyone takes from the same plate. This one, though, was just for me—they remembered how much I loved red beans and pili-pili.
Leonard was trying to eat an Oreo with his beer, so I told him how Americans like to dip their Oreos in milk. He looked surprised, then called something out to the back. Out of nowhere came several cups of ikivuguto, or drinkable yogurt. Not exactly the same, but...sort of close enough. Everyone, even Mrs. Musonerwa, took an Oreo and dipped it in the yogurt before taking a bite. It looked like a commercial, really—they were all looked at each other, pleasantly surprised by how it tasted. In doing so, it was clear that they thought that it was a bizarre American practice. I guess you never realize these things until you try to explain them to someone else.
Leonard was always animated, and always had an opinion. And he would often ask me, “Tu vas revenir quand?” When are you returning? And I would always reply that I wasn’t sure, but that I would definitely be back.
* * *
And I was back, as promised. This time, Leonard was not as I remembered him. He was in extreme pain, suffering from a multitude of ailments that all culminated at once. He had liver failure and kidney failure. There were more problems that the doctors could not identify. He was still recovering from a stroke he suffered in 1996. Only about a week ago, these ailments overcame him.
I stood at the foot of his bed for literally hours. People came in and out, all touching his arm. For a while, he slept. His mouth was open, and he had bitten his tongue so hard that it was partially black and ragged. Every now and then, his arm shook weakly. When he awoke, he would move his head back and forth, in obvious pain, and would speak in muffled, forced Kinyarwanda because he could not move his mouth other than to yawn. Relatives would move forward to listen to him, catching a couple of words, and would adjust his feet. Several times, he called, “Ma cherie,” my dear, asking for his wife, who was never more than a couple of feet away. She had stayed with him in the hospital since Monday, feeding him drops of water from the cap of the water bottle. He hadn’t eaten since Monday; they had tried to feed him soup on Friday through his feeding tube, but he couldn't keep it down.
Sometimes, he could focus his eyes, recognizing who was standing next to him. He would call for this brother, or that sister, or for one of his nine children. They cycled through, all sitting in the corridor. It was like everyone was waiting, but they weren’t. They were just there to be supportive. They went there to sit and mourn for hours. No one ate, and no one drank. They just sat.
It was in the middle of this that I felt sick. The brownies I had brought were so completely and utterly inadequate, inappropriate, insignificant. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. There was nothing I could have brought but myself, I suppose. No one brought flowers. They just brought themselves, and gave the gifts of time and love.
I went to Leonard a couple of times, holding his arm. He turned his head to see, and his eyes sparkled—just a touch. He said something I couldn’t make out, and then laughed a guttural laugh. I whispered in his ear that under normal circumstances, I would share a Mutzig with him, and smiled. I had to leave the room to cry. I was an inconsolable wreck. It was hard to see him like that, without the same life and vigor that I remembered. My heart was in my stomach. Esperance, one of Leonard’s daughters, came over to me. “You know,” she said in French, “It is time. It is time. When you accept life, you must accept all that comes with it.”
Later in the day, when the sun went down, he made a request to his brother, which I could barely make out, but that I still understood. His brother responded, “Fanta ikonje?” (“Cold Fanta?”), but I knew what Leonard wanted.
I said, “I think he wants a Mutzig.”
“No,” he responded. “He asked for a Fanta.”
Leonard repeated himself, calling out something. He was clearly asking for a Mutzig.
Aime was visibly upset. “He’s so sick that he can’t even have a drink.” He had been spending hours talking to the hospital administration because he wanted his father to be transferred to the Centre Hospitalier de Kigali (CHK), the public hospital. Apparently, there was no doctor at King Faycal. “I think he’s on vacation,” Aime said.
But the CHK was full. We had been informed that there was one bed free, but it was in the wrong ward, so Leonard couldn’t be transferred. And when a bed was finally found, the administration had gone home, so it was too late to transfer him. And frankly, in his state, he simply was too fragile to be transferred. But the CHK said they could take him the next morning.
Night fell, and the mosquitoes came out swarming. I took a break, and walked up and down the exterior corridor. As I was walking, I heard a hint of a whisper: “Muzungu.” I turned to find a little girl in a green cloth gown, her head stitched and a plastic tube inserted into her windpipe. She was so beautiful. Her skin was clear and smooth, she had a wide smile, and her eyes shone.
“Witwa nde?” I asked her, and she told me her name, but I could barely hear it. “Nitwa Morgani,” I replied, smiling. I asked her how she was. “Ni meza,” she said, the standard answer. I’m good. Perhaps she really was good—perhaps she was recovering. I wanted to hug her, but she was so fragile. “Komera,” I said, lightly rubbing her shoulder. Be strong.
I heard some stirring from inside the room, and saw that I was outside the pediatric ward. I waved to the children and said hello, and then walked back to Leonard’s room. Mrs. Musonerwa was singing softly to him, rearranging his pillows, comforting him.
She accompanied us out as we left, at about 8:30 p.m., perhaps later. She was to stay behind, as usual. She held my shoulder and said with a weak smile, “Il est fatigué.” He is tired.
I do not know if he will survive the night, but I plan to go to the hospital again tomorrow morning. I have never seen anyone on their deathbed. I am an emotional wreck.