Broken Hourglass

“What makes you think this will kill me?”

Her question halted the doctor mid-speech. He stared at her, trying to get back to his train of thought. It was obvious to her that this was a speech he had delivered plenty of times before. Her question, it seemed, was the first he had ever received.

She stared back, pulling her shoulders up and shifting forward in the hard leather seat reserved for his patients.

He swallowed hard, visibly.


She cocked an eyebrow.

He began to stutter. He looked away and started shuffling the papers on his desk.

She cleared her throat and quietly asked him to speak up.

“Ni vile nimesema…” — Like I’ve said…

The switch to Swahili was to, perhaps, endear himself to her. It got her blood boiling, instead.

She listened as he repeated himself. It was Stage 4. Inoperable. It had already metastasized to other organs. She had 6 months or less to live.

Standing next to her, her niece clasped her hands together and started mouthing a prayer. Funny, she did not recall this particular niece holding much of a religious bent before. She looked back at the doctor. His mouth was moving, and where his hair used to be was pooled in sweat. She could see the beads rolling down his head, selecting in that microsecond which path to follow. One sweat bead decided to roll down over his eye, bumping gently over his furry eyebrow and running into his right eye. He blinked four times rapidly and his eyebrow moved dramatically in unison. She wondered if the hair on the head disappeared and decided to, instead, congregate around the eyebrow area.

6 months.

He repeated those words. And then he broke from the script. He unclasped his hands, pushed the pitying look from his eyes and lowered his voice conspiratorily.


She raised her other eyebrow. She had no hair to throw over her shoulder as she had removed the wig loaned to her by her slay queen niece when she had first gone in to see why the headaches were not subsiding, even as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. The wig had made her head feel hot and sweaty, and once she realized that bald was in, she had liberated herself and tossed it to be used as a playtoy by the neighborhood dogs. She hoped her niece would not notice the mangled wig in the corner of the compound when they went back home.

“…make arrangements…say goodbye” the doctor finished up. He smiled sadly. And shook his head just a tiny bit. He could not believe this was the prognosis for this vibrant looking 35-year old woman seated in front of him, splashed in colors of the rainbow. She seemed to dare life to take a swipe. He did not know her well but Dr Karanja had asked for his opinion on this case, and he could not turn her down. He had never had a patient so young before. And so when she stared him down when he had started on his death-passage speech – he had delivered this speech multiple times since he started this terrible job, and he gave this speech at least twice a week these days – he was unable to look her in the eye. Her eyes gave him pause. Deep pools of dark burnt coffee set in a facial garden of cocoa velvet. They seemed to look through him, daring him to take a swipe.

She had stared at him and he broke. He told her the plain truth. She had 6 months, likely less, to live. Her niece thanked him, reached over and shook his hand, swaying her long chocolate brown weave over her shoulder and almost fluttering her eyelashes at him. He was too taken with the defiant stare from his, Dr Karanja’s patient…to take her bait. They normally came with instructions, such young ladies. They fluttered false eyelashes, flipped fake hair back and over shoulders, pressed warm soft hands tipped with nail extensions into his meaty hands, muttered moist thank you’s at him, and then when the patient was not looking or paying attention after the death-passage speech, they asked him to call her to ‘talk more about this on a personal level’ or some version of it. This niece reached into her purse and pulled out a sparkly business card.

They got up and left. He sat there for thirty minutes, thinking about the life in her gaze. And what he had seen in the results.

Their ride home took thirty minutes, mostly because her niece kept talking about the most mundane of things. She stared out of the window, at the trees passing by, the pikipiki bodas revving past, hauling their passengers. She looked at the other side of the traffic lanes, at all the cars leaving the city center, pressed up sensually against those in front of them. Their car flew down the open highway, towards the city center, taking a hard left at the edge of town, and heading to her little house. She could smell her house. A mix of rosewater, lemon, sage and tea tree oil. But she could also smell the doctor’s office. A mix of death, poison and antiseptic. Before she could stop herself, she began to retch.

Her niece began to shout in astonishment and pulled over quickly, a few meters from the house gate.

“Auntie! Are you okay! Ngai!”

She retched but nothing came up. Nothing but the voice of that doctor telling her in that robotic tone of his that she had until February to live. This would be her final Christmas, her last ever New Year’s Eve, perhaps not even Valentine’s Day. Her tears came in hot and blinding. The retching brought up some bile and in the midst of this all, she recalled that she had not eaten since the night before. Her niece had come to drive her to her appointment, more excited at the thought of driving her aunt’s Audi than ensuring some food had found it’s way into her aunt’s belly.

Her niece’s cold hand on the back of her neck jostled her back to reality. And she took a deep calming breath, gesturing for her to keep on driving the few meters to the house gate.

As they pulled into the compound, she looked at her niece, her sister’s baby. She knew then she would never have one of her own. She knew that she would never feel the joy at being called ‘Mummy’ and her stomach clenched in reaction. Her dark eyes brimmed over again with tears, and the doctor’s words resounded in her ears like a very bad playback.

“Can you get me some smoke?”

She asked her niece. Her niece’s eyes widened and her mouth began to form denial.

“Aki don’t play with me…I know you smoke…I have known since you were in Form 2”

Her mouth closed in a small ‘o’ and she glanced sideways before nodding.



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