I was mesmerized by her eyes. They were deep brown windows into her soul. I lingered quietly behind my mother’s shadow, sneaking glimpses of her. She clenched her mother’s hand tightly as they stood in the center of our garage. Becky, her mother and her father.
They were a quintessential picture. It felt as though I witnessed the opening scene of a novel being played out in real time. Uncle Caleb wore a joyous grin across his face as he ushered his family through the entrance of our dingy garage. Aunty Gladys smiled solemnly as she reached for Becky’s hand. She pulled Becky’s scrawny arm close to her hip. Becky’s eyes danced around the garage quietly studying the peculiar objects surrounding her.
Her eager eyes took notes. First, she looked to the many pairs of shoes stacked on wooden planks. Then, she caught a glimpse of the mops and brooms in the corner near the dusty vacuum. She took in the dingy maroon oil-soaked carpet underneath her feet. The humming white Frigidaire freezer held her attention until her gaze finally met mine, and she smiled. Her skin was a deep brown as dark as her eyes. Becky was my cousin and this was my very first time meeting her.
Weeks before their arrival my mother introduced this arrangement to me. She explained why Becky and her mother were coming to live with us for an indefinite period of time. My mother told me about my five year old cousin Becky who had just been diagnosed with cancer.
“Was she born with it?” I asked.
“No Sia, it developed in her body over time much later after she was born.” my mother explained.
Becky’s cancer appeared out of thin air. She had always been a healthy child. There were no outstanding reasons for any alarm. One evening during a bath her mother discovered an unexplainable swelling on the lower part of her stomach. This led them to a series of visits to several specialists which would later result in even more unexplained conclusions. Months later they would arrive at the diagnosis. Becky had stage 3 Neuroblastoma Cancer.
“We have to all be strong for them,” she went on to tell me.
“you have to do for her here in America what her sister Anita will not be able to do back home in Nairobi.”
Her words presented me with a role to play in Becky’s story. I now had a responsibility to make Anita proud and take care of her sister until Becky returned home to her. Whether intentional or not, that conversation guided my thinking.
I was distantly familiar with what cancer was and what it did to the human body. I knew that it was a monstrous disease. I had watched cancer survivors on television before. They told their survival stories with such grace and strength. Cancer had taunted them with the threat of death, and in spite of its fatal intentions, they thrived. As a child, I genuinely considered Becky’s survival story to be no different. I was confident that she too would beat cancer and live on to tell her story. I imagined her sitting on Oprah’s yellow couch sharing her story with millions of viewers around the world. We would all be witnesses to her triumphant story. I wanted desperately for her to win.
I can still feel the warmth of the sun heating up our garage on that sunny September afternoon. I had just turned thirteen. I felt exceptionally awkward. I did not feel as though I fit the image of what a thirteen year old girl should be. In so many arbitrary ways I searched to find myself in other people’s stories. That proved to be difficult because all the kids I knew were so vastly different from me. All of my peers enjoyed the perks of childhood. Regrettably for me, puberty and my mother were two unstoppable forces pushing me to outgrow these simple liberties at a rather accelerated pace.
At first glance in that garage, Becky reminded me of my mother. Not the mother I knew today as Mom, but the little girl she had shown me in pictures. Becky’s hair was short and shaved close to her scalp. She donned the classic Kenyan girl cut. I was never fond of that haircut. I remember the day my mother showed me the withered black and white photographs of her and her sisters when they were little. As my mother presented the photograph, she smiled reminiscing about the day in the field when the picture was taken. The young girls looked about my age. They wore white knee high socks and plaid catholic school uniforms. Every girl in every picture had that exact haircut. My mother’s smile illuminated the picture. She stood in a semi-circle with four of her sisters around an old block speakers holding tall skinny glass bottles of Coca Cola and Fanta. I never understood how they could match that haircut with such generous smiles. What mean individual forced them to wear their hair so short? I remember thanking God I was born in America. I was an entire ocean away from this threat.
A procession of jolly faces waited to embrace Becky and her parents.
“Karibu, karibu! Welcome!” We all shouted
As they walked through the front door one by one, we each shared a loving embrace. They were received with a series of benevolent hugs and kisses. The guests of honor had finally arrived. I watched my mother and father spring into action with no hesitation. Within minutes pots and pans steaming with food decorated our island in the kitchen. Drinks were poured and the music amplified. Exuberant laughter and conversation filled the house.
I have a lot of memories about Becky. Her arrival is my favorite. What I remember most about her in those first few hours is how quietly curious she appeared. She was openly concealed in a foreign land. Everything within her arm’s reach was strangely familiar. As the evening progressed Becky remained within close proximity of her mother’s embrace. She smiled softly and listened as the adults around her dominate the conversation.
In the living room, my uncles reminisced with stories of home. They took turns accounting for old friends they hadn’t seen in years.
“Ay man, when is the last time you heard from Bwana Charles?” Uncle Stanley began.
“He is living in Sweden.” Cousin Oliver answered, “Yea man, he just moved out there with his family to begin a new job.”
Uncle Isaac interjected, “You will never guess who I ran into last month when I was at home!”
My Aunties gathered in the kitchen. They joined each other in bouts of vivacious laughter dishing out jokes in Kiswahili while they toggled through the assortment of food on their plates.
“Aunty, how long did you leave your dough to rise? Did you use wheat flour in your mendazzi?” Cousin Carole asked.
They all devoured every single morsel down to the last bite. My mother had surely outdone herself this time and their busy fingers were solid proof. I watched as my little cousins struggled to balance their plates on their knees with their left hand while simultaneously using their right hand to scoop the stew into their chapatti. The adults were masters of this craft. They tore their chapatti with ease, spooning up heavy amounts of stew.
Talk. Eat. Repeat.
A list of hosting responsibilities dominated my time. The performance seemed endless. I had a plethora of dishes to plate and countless feisty children to wrangle. Somewhere within the midst of that commotion, Becky’s laughter found its way to my ears. She was still sitting in the trenches with the adults. Unlike the other children, Becky appeared satisfied to be there. Amused even. Uncle Caleb sat next to her telling obscure stories using an absurd cartoon like voice. Becky laughed brilliantly. Her giggles boomed throughout the living room. Aunty Gladys’ smile now mirrored her daughter’s as she gazed at their infectious interaction. Uncle Caleb continued and his vocal in flexion bounced up and down relentlessly. She happily encouraged him with her powerful laugh. They were the perfect picture. An adoring father serving his daughter a dose of pure laughter.
We made the warmest memories around Becky’s laugh. On one cold winter evening we carried it with us through the neighborhood. My brothers and I used magic to transform her wheelchair into a rollercoaster. Most nights it rang through the walls when Aunty Gladys told her funny stories after she struggled to fall asleep. At family dinners it was the guiding soundtrack. Becky would create songs about her food to distract us from noticing that she hadn’t finished eating her vegetables.
Her laugh still rings through my ears. It finds me sometimes in my busiest moments much like that first day we met.
About a year later, it was the sound I missed most when my father told me she was no longer with us. There are some memories about Becky that I used to not want to remember. Her cancer story did not have the conclusion that I had previously authored. She was never going to sit on that yellow couch and share her story with the world. Her hair was never going to grow back. We would never sit back and reminisce. We would never grow to tell our children stories about that time she beat cancer.
When I’m fortunate enough a particular object, movie scene, or thought will grant me a glimpse of Becky. My mind will replay the events of our first encounter. Her laughter is what I cherish the most. It colored her entire face. Her beautiful face that wore that Kenyan girl cut. I love that haircut.