385 Days (Or a Story About 40 Mirrors)

“As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves… In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath… Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart… The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too.”

- reddit/Assistance

This is why I never wrote about you: because my writing, try as it may otherwise, is fixated on the real things and more than anything, I never wanted to make your loss real. This is why it took me 385 days to begin to find the words. A year and some change. A few months in between here and there.

J and I talked about you the other day. I mentioned a moment that had made me think of you as clear as day. We shared how it hurts a little less to think of you now, yet how much of a presence you are in our living. A visionary gone wandering in search of herself and the world, who had left us with so much to ruminate on. I realize that yours is one of many more close deaths to come, should I live long enough. Watching the carnage of grief around me over the last few years, I have often wondered whether there is an appropriate age to begin losing the people you love dearly? I know 31 isn’t it. Perhaps 40 isn’t either. Maybe by 60 you have prepared yourself sufficiently to meet grief, or maybe you are never ready. A deer caught in the headlights of the only inevitability of human existence: we were born and we shall die. Whatever takes place in between those two momentous events is a matter for the gods, impetus, and history.

I don’t know if you knew this Faith, but before there had been your loss and inconsolability had made itself a home in me, I had spent minutes finding solace for the sorrow of others. The work of being a writer means being called upon wherever words—in their neatness and finiteness—are needed to fill infinite spaces and describe the indescribable. This includes funerals. And so, I had penned eulogies to be read by friends, daughters, in-laws, and cousins as they mourned fathers and sons (always fathers and sons) at somber funerals. Sometimes I got to hear my words spoken as I sat amidst anguished pews in churches. More often than not, I did not. I read a lot about grief in those nascent days, trying to understand its temperaments and the things that soothed it in the faces of others. But nothing could have prepared me for the heartache of your loss.

Whatever takes place in between those two momentous events is a matter for the gods, impetus, and history.

15 Months

I remember you calling me from Phyungsan, China, one in a series of infrequent calls as we both settled into new lives. You told me you had collapsed while crossing the street. I sat in Nairobi struggling against a weak internet connection as you told me of waking up to a collection of strange Chinese faces asking questions you did not understand. The weakness in your body that you had been avoiding for months flooring you with its insistence that things were not right. To this day, I can still imagine you sitting in that unfamiliar Chinese hospital room as your diagnosis was translated to you: Stage Four Ovarian Cancer. A 40% chance of survival. I looked it up after I got off the phone with you, because asking you would have been callous.

None of us knew then that we only had 15 months left with you.

You were gracious in those few months, calling me from airports, hospitals, and homes. Letting me know what your body was doing. How it felt. We laughed at the annoying people who populate cancer support groups and you complained about your nurses while I told you about Nairobi’s madness. Through it all you were so, so brave. Seemingly the bravest among us. Our time was coming to an end when you called me on that last day of February. A rainy Wednesday evening in Nairobi. Date night. Coat in hand, heading out the door when you rang. There had been weeks since we last spoke and as your face filled the screen on my phone, the tears springing from my eyes were near instant. I sat down. Stood up. Walked into the next room and shut the door behind me. I wanted to hold you one last time as I looked into your face and saw that death was not only inevitable, but near. I watched you speak and and felt stupendously small for the inanity of my going-about while you were fighting for the remnants of your life. Engaged in the superhuman act of trying to keep a body alive that cancer had claimed as its own.

You had been under hospice care for almost two months by then. The cancer spreading viciously, pushing against your lungs and filling your chest, made it hard to breathe most days. One lung had already collapsed, the other was following suit. A body packing up, closing shop. The greatest frustration, you told me, was that the cancer turned everything into pain in its incessant need to find cavities and muscles to nest. At least they were finally giving you all the pain medication you wanted, you conceded. Your words rambled, slurred from the morphine cocktail that had become a part of your daily regimen. You tried to make me laugh, like you always had —as I sat in that room with that door closed thinking of how I could get to you one last time. All I wanted to do was cry. But how selfish those tears would have been. A futile display of empty emotionalism that would not add to the minutes, seconds, and memories you so desperately needed to tack on. You asked about my life, casually. I wanted to give you life. Minnesota was too far.

I never made much sense of our conversation, but three days later as I glanced down at my ringing phone, I tried to remember the many ways you had prepared me for this moment. How you had scolded me for mourning you while you were still alive.

“Girl, I’m not dead yet,” you laughed once when I told you how much I would miss you.

“I have no regrets Kari,” you had told me. Purposefully, confidently, when it was clear that things would not be okay, that we had exhausted all the options available to you. We talked about death, openly. You had lived a good life, you reassured me. Brimming with adventure, freedom and Black Girl Magic that had spread itself from Madrid to Seoul. From Cape Town to Guatemala and all the people you had met in between. As it would turn out, the morning after we spoke you had been rushed to the hospital for the last time. The doctors spent the day “making you comfortable” as they say. A few people came by to hold your hands before you passed away on the morning of March 3rd. I was one of the last people you had called. Only then, did I realize what you had done for me Faith. Clutching for straws amidst the darkness that was swallowing you, in your last act of friendship you had wanted to prepare me. To soften the blow of losing you. Knowing that my grief would be planted too far to find camaraderie, you were letting me know that it was time to say goodbye.

I held a brunch for you a few Sundays after and invited my friends. They never got to meet you, but I told them all about you. I made a spread you would have been proud of and toasted you goodbye. An ode to two of our favorite activities: brunch + good food.

But the truth is that, unlike you Faith, I have many regrets.

Like Waves

I’m struck often by how foolish we were. How much we failed to do because we took as predestined our shared living. That you, in whatever foreign country your wandering had found you, would always come back to find me in whatever place I seemed immovable from. I continue to try and find solace in your words and life, but the truth is that, unlike you Faith, I have many regrets. I regret the certainty with which I assumed you would always be here, the lifetime of memories that will never see your laugh, or endure your scorn. I regret that I will never have your Twitter commentary back to show me the futility of my righteousness. I have exes for whom you will never get to tell me, “I told you, these niggas ain’t shit.” See, there are un-drank boxes of red wine and reruns of Trash TV waiting for you on couches you and I will never get to sit on. Messages I will never send to you, and that you will never read as we untangle the hilarities of being African, with too much American in us.

You probably don’t know this, but I wrote a eulogy for your funeral. The only part of me that could make it there. J read it out in that church in Minneapolis filled with (some of) the people who loved you. I don’t know if the pews cried or if my words found ways to soothe the grief on their bereaved faces, but I know it was beautiful, and honest, and true. I know that I’ve kept reading about grief since you passed. Attempting to find a restive place for it within me. Grief comes like waves, I remind myself, each time I’m swept off my feet in the remembering.

There is a Sufi Islam concept that says it will take 40 mirrors (40 people) to come to know oneself through their reflections of you. The mirror being the heart. These 40 people are special because they reveal things to you about yourself and the world, bringing you closer to the best version of you. Faith, you were one of those mirrors for me. Someone who reflected the light I needed to awaken the parts of me that shunned risk and limited my ability to see myself— wholly— anywhere in this world. You loved me as I was and didn’t ask for me to love you in return, only that I permitted you to be yourself; funny, loud, honest, perpetually hungry, and untamed. As I think back on the last 385 days, I know with certainty that the changes I have made in becoming closer to myself are because when the time comes, I want to know, much like you did, that I have no regrets.

That I lived the best life I possibly could.

Faith, my sister, and I at the KFAI Studio in Minneapolis, where we recorded a radio show in honor of International Women’s Day

Faith, my sister, and I at the KFAI Studio in Minneapolis, where we recorded a radio show in honor of International Women’s Day

On March 3rd, 2018 the world lost a multitude of existence when Faith Moraa Nyakondo left this earth. I met Faith in college, when the foolhardiness of youth was still shiny on our faces. Over the next decade, she became one of my closest friends and a constant source of not only humor, but limitless shade, unrelenting honesty, and adventure. Her cancer diagnosis and subsequent loss is one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced, but knowing that loss is not unique to me, I have struggled with how much weight to carry it with.

I love you and I miss you homie. You were one of a kind.