Kenya: In His Daughters' Eyes, a Hero Gone Too Soon

18 September 2020

She crawled after him crying. She was not happy he had left her. She finally made her way to him, tugged at his khaki pants and pulled herself up. The two had been seated on the carpet having a late lunch. Daddy had to go to work first and join the party later. For little Abbie, the party only began after he walked through the door.

I met Abbie through a photo sent on my phone. She weighed a mere 900g, with half her face covered with cotton wool to protect her delicate eyes. Her leg was the size of my little finger and her skin so thin it was almost translucent. She had scooted into this world in a big hurry, right behind her twin sister Aggie, seven weeks early.

Their early entrance earned them a place in the incubator for weeks. Aggie was off to a quick exit from the beeping artificial womb, gaining weight wonderfully and moving onto mummy's bossom. Abbie, not so fast. She would give us hope for two days then slip back, losing 80g.

Happy dance

I was rewarded with a video of little Abbie having her first real bath. I did a little happy dance, squealing along her angry cries. She had gained enough fat under her skin to tolerate an actual dip in bath water.

The day I first met Aggie and Abbie, I was blown away. They were rolled up under layers of clothing and swaddles. I could only see their faces. Abbie was tightly tucked into daddy's chest, fast asleep. Aggie was more alert, cosy in mummy's warmth.

The little girls required round the clock care. They were fed every three hours and they spent 20 out of the 24 hours in a day nesting skin to skin with dad and mum on home-based kangaroo care. Dad was in charge. He washed their bottles and sterilised them. He fed them every three hours without fail, measuring their feeds meticulously and patiently administering the milk through a syringe. He kept a sliding chart on the fridge to indicate the feeding times.

It takes a village to raise a baby, they say. They forget to tell you that in the wee hours of the morning, the village is asleep and you are all alone with the bottles and the formula, the colic and the crying. James and Carol handled these nights with grace and gratitude to God for their double blessings.

Lull shattered

Infancy does not last forever and as the first birthday rolled in, the girls reassured us all that they were on a normal trajectory of growth.

James and Carol could breathe easy and their life was a lot more predictable. They were back to work. Abbie and Aggie were exploring the world and loving it, they were out of baby walkers and onto their own feet.

The lull was shattered in June 2019 when James first made reference to a swelling in his abdomen. What started as a routine ultrasound to find out what was going on quickly cascaded to a bunch of tests that led to the dreaded diagnosis of gastric cancer. We were already looking at stage four with widespread metastasis.

I was mortified. My reaction was cowardly. This was too close to home. He was an amazing husband. He was a great dad, who taught his first daughter Grace the magic of books. He was the gentle solid rock for Aggie and Abbie.

What would you do if you knew your were about to die? What would be in your bucket list? Trying out the new drug under research? Travelling the world? Instead of science, hospital beds, beeping machines, chemotherapy and the attendant horrible side effects, James chose his girls.

Remained stoic

He never struggled to prolong his days; he struggled to make sure that each day he had left counted.

Even as his body took a beating from this monster, meting away in pain, weight loss, inability to eat, constipation and bleeding, he never cowed. He remained committed to fatherhood. He would still choose his wife's hairdo and take pleasure in her glow.

In his daughters' presence, he remained stoic. He faced the relentless destruction caused by the cancer in the silence of the night when he communed with God; his wife stoically by his side.

We do not choose how we exit this world, but we are in full control of the legacy we leave behind.

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