I cannot remember a time in my life when I thought of ‘weak in the knees’ as more than just an expression as I did yesterday. I’d set my alarm for 6 a.m and was awake before it rang. I failed to get out of bed and when I finally managed to sit, I couldn’t stand. My knees would not let me. Later that morning, I would be setting off to pay my last respects to Nnalongo, as she was fondly called. My legs wouldn’t let me stay up. My heart wept.
I had looked forward to Saturday, 9th April for the longest time. In fact, it is safe to say, it was the highlight of the first quarter of 2016. Putting up a library without fundraising for countless months is in itself a milestone for me. The fact that hundreds of children in the community will benefit from it makes it all the more worthwhile.
That morning I received a call from *Julie. She used her mother’s number, a contact I had saved possibly a decade ago.
Julie: Morning, how are you feeling now?
Me: I am not so bad. I should be asking how mum is.
Her: I didn’t want to worry you but she was diagnosed with cancer last week.
Me: Oh no…!
Her: She had her first chemo on Thursday. When she was discharged we could tell she was still weak but we took her home. This morning when I checked on her, she was barely responsive so I ran to a nearby clinic and…*muffled words and sobs*
I stayed on the phone for a bit and then I hang up. I could not hear what followed and I refused to believe the worst. I got dressed, took a boda boda to the meeting point and started welcoming the different people who were slowly trickling in for the trip to Luweero.
I do not know how I convinced my brain to block an entire compartment. My mind kept drifting back to the conversation but I had to be a robot, a feeling-less machine. I could not believe myself. Once a good number of 40-40 supporters was gathered. I called Kim, a mutual friend, to check on Julie and find out what the mood in the background was. In a couple of minutes, she confirmed my worst fears.
That evening, we walked into church just in time to catch Julie speak. How in the world is someone expected to summarise the life of a superwoman, who was a mother and father to many, an angel who gave everything she had for her children, her family and everyone who crossed her path- How is one supposed to collect all of that into a few minutes of a eulogy? That is what death does, it steals and forces you to do things you did not even think possible.
I have heard people say “Aww, she was really strong.” I suppose I have used the expression too. If we are to go by what it represents on the surface then yes, Julie was strong as she stood in front of the church and spoke on behalf of her siblings. Hundreds of people had gathered on short notice, on a Saturday evening. Nnalongo was no ordinary woman and if each one had been asked to share their experience with her, the world who have seen countless broken hearts.
About a year ago, I thought I had ‘killed’ my friend’s dad. She had told me he was ill for months and every check came out negative. I asked if they had tested for cancer. A couple of days later, she called to tell me they tested and it came out positive. I visited that weekend. He left this cruel world a week later.
Two years ago 40-40 worked with a home for children with cancer. The proprietor, on our first visit told us the country had one radiotherapy machine purchased decades ago, which was old and constantly out of service, putting patient’s lives at risk. Even as he spoke, we were checking the cost on Google. The amount in dollars was blinding, but if you have met my team, you know that we often believe in the impossible. We went on to speak to different people who encouraged us to only take on such a grand in partnership with a bigger organisation. It was then that we started to consult individuals who were already vocal in the fight against cancer.
Along the way, we were derailed and sunk back into our chairs, taking on ‘easier’ challenges that we had more control over. The moment I read about the situation in Mulago and watched as their PR people scampered to ‘suddenly’ organise a guided tour for journalists, the pain I had in my heart was quickly laced with nausea. Being online and reading about the developments had my stomach in knots. I can only imagine what families of patients struggling with cancer are going through.
Nnalongo’s cancer was discovered at Stage 4, as are most cases in Uganda. While ‘the system’ seems to have forgotten the people, I know that those who are suffering don’t have the ‘luxury’ to complain. They are too busy concentrating on staying alive, and their families are doing everything they can to look after them.
Let us find out which places have free screening and carry everyone we know to get checked. For those that are lucky enough to have health insurance, nudge your providers about the packages available and utilise them. This scourge is appalling and also very real. While we demand that the health system in Uganda improves, let us make small steps in creating awareness and testing our loved ones.
For my Julie and your siblings, your mommy was the epitome of resilience. She knew and loved the Lord, and has brought you up to be amazing individuals that will stay with you. This period is unimaginable and even I struggle to find the words to say to you. You have so many unanswered questions but we have to take comfort in the knowledge that God will take care of you. He has taken away one of his favourites, our favourites but she is in a better place.