I had just turned four years when life took an unexpected turn. We were a happy family of five ; my parents, my elder sister, my twin brother and I. My mother was a housewife while my father had a tourist company that was doing well.
I remember him bringing white tourists to our home and we would pester them with the little English we had learned from school. Then they would leave us souvenirs in form of one dollar bills or key holders or toys. Mother would prepare them African cuisines and animatedly explain to them how nutritious the food was.
She was the rock of the family, the one that held us together. When dad was angry about a lost business deal, she calmed him down. When my elder sister started her periods, she guided her through womanhood. When my pet, a cat died, she helped me bury and mourn it and when my brother jumped from a tree and broke his leg, she nursed him and he healed almost miraculously. Mum was a pillar.
Then one day everything changed for my father, siblings and I. We had closed school for the holidays. It was just my mother, brother and I at home. Father had gone to work while my sister, Diana had visited a friend. My brother and I were outside playing on see-saws and swings. Mother was in the house in one of her innumerable chores. We could hear humming on her favourite gospel songs. But the humming stopped but we thought not much about it.
Several minutes later we had a conflict and only mother would solve it. We sprinted to the house competitively because the one who got to mum first would be heard first. Then we found her lying on the ground.
But mother was immortal, the naive four year old twins thought, so we ran to her and started to wake her. We laughed at how still she was trying to be. We shook her, tried to open her eyes , pinched her cheeks but she remained still. We slept on her bosom and told her in her sleep to wake us up when she did too. But we were not as sleepy as she was so we stayed beside her and waited for her to wake.
I remember saying to my brother, “Maybe mother has died!” And Ethan confidently replied, “Mum cannot die. Only bad people die!” So we waited for mum to wake up, ocassionally nudging her.
Then Diana, my elder sister came in. She stared at the three of us, then frantically ran to mother and touched her neck then let out a blood curdling scream as she darted outside. We followed her in a fluster and saw her calling the neighbours in a distraught state.
Soon whatever followed was a mayhem of activity. Father came later, all panic struck. Diana, Ethan and I ran to him and embraced him and for the first time in our lives, we saw him break into tears. We clung onto him strongly, frightened and confused.
The following days were total confusion for Ethan and I. We knew now that mother was dead but we still asked for her. We wailed, demanding that we see her but all our aunties did was to hug and cry with us. The burial day was worse.
The day was filled with an aura of fraught. Father was shattered, my sister was hysterical and my twin brother and I were beside ourselves with uncertainty.
That evening, every one left and it was just the four of us. The scent of mother was still strong. Father tucked the three of us in bed and dragged his feet to his bedroom. We all felt as if a part of us had being snatched away. That night, all we could hear were whimpers from each other’s beds. Reality was hard to accept.
Every day we cried in our beds but every day we cried less. Then we ceased crying to sleep. We started to live normally but not for too long. Just a year on and a new announcement from father took us back to the overwrought place again. He was bringing in a new mum.
My sister was irate with anger. She lamented complaints only comprehensible to father. For Ethan and I, we just did not want another mother. It was either our real mother or none. But he said his decision was final, and we would understand when we grew up.
Diana made us understand her worries. It really scared us when she told tales of step mothers and their cruelties. We vowed not to let her in the house, but she did. She smiled at us, but we knew it was just a facade to blind us.
The three of us united to make life in the house unbearable for her. After all, father had been categorical that we as his children came first in his life. If she dared mistreat us, she would see the door.
Karen could not cook as well as mother did, sometimes putting too much salt to food or serving ugali half uncooked. We grumbled profusely at any tiny imperfection of hers but father did not get rid of her.
Over the years we realised that our step mother was not the typical step mother. We experienced a weird feeling of love and respect for her. She installed in us skills that mattered. She was strict where need be, like when she saw my letter to a boyfriend, she ensured that the relationship was put to an end. She scolded Diana for not taking her studies seriously and followed up like an athlete coach on her progress until she got on truck. Our step mum was even stricter on Ethan with a reasoning that the boy child was being neglected by the society causing him to make bad decisions.
Then another blow hit our family. I was twenty one years then. I received a call when I was in the hostel lazing around. Our house had caught fire. Father had died and our step mum’s face was critically burned. My mind flash backed to the pain I felt seventeen years ago. By divine grace I got to hospital and met my siblings in a grievous state. It was like we were four all over again with Ethan and our older siter towering above us.
“Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt.” A voice said behind our backs. “My name is Dr Nadia Shah, in charge of your mum. She suffered a major corneal scarring in her eyes that has affected her vision. Now, I do not mean to be disrespectful or insensitive but I neeed to ask for a favour from you although your step mother has tried to stop me from asking you.”
The three of us exchanged looks. We wondered what the doctor would need from us. We urged her to go on and she took a deep breath.
“I am extremely sorry about the loss of your father but I need his eyes before 24 hours are over in order to save your mother from total blindness.” She finally let it out and waited anxiously ready to defend her case. You could hear a pin drop in the seconds that followed.
“What are you waiting for?” Diana said.
“What, wait, is that a Yes?” The doctor asked in disbelief.
“Please hurry before our mum loses an opportunity to see again.” Ethan said and I nodded vigorously urging her to be quick. The doctor in great exhilaration, ran and ordered the nurse to present us with consent forms to fill.
Even as we mourned the loss of our father, we still waited in athirst anticipation for the corneal transplant to go through. We were allowed to see our step mom hours later after a successful surgery.
She could not see us yet but she felt our presence. We held her hands and stayed there, the four of us in silence unaware of the doctor’s presence in the room. She cleared her throat and spoke in an emotional voice.
“Karen, I have never seen children who love their step mother so much like these three do. You must have been an exceptional step-mother.” Dr Shah said.
She smiled and held the grips of her children tighter.
“Doctor, ” It was Diana, ” She is. Exceptional is even an understatement. She brought us up like our real mother would have done, even though at first we gave her a very hard time. She is not a step mother, she is our mother.”
“That is why without second thought, we consented to her having father’s eyes. So that she, as our mother can see us through father’s eyes.” I said and the doctor wiped a tear discreetly.
“Dr Nadia,” Karen, our step mom spoke weakly, “My motto in life is simple, do good unto others and goodness and kindness shall follow you the rest of your life…If I was cruel to these children, would they allow me to see again?” She asked.
I knew that, that was yet another lesson I was learning from Mom. That good deeds do not go unrewarded. If only barbaric step mothers could learn from Mom Karen.