Alone in the wide waiting area of the General Hospital, I was finally able to take notice of my surroundings. There was the cordoned off cubicle behind which the nurse was back to watching television. I could tell it was the popular television series, ‘Super Story’. It had close to a cult following that I just could not understand; even my mum was a victim. The walls were blindingly white. There were four rows of hard benches towards the left from the entrance, directly opposite the TV watching nurse. I chose the extreme end of the back bench to sit. It rested against one of the white walls so I could lean into the wall and take stock of those around me.
I noticed a small boy, he could not have been more than five or six years old and he was in a wheelchair. Both legs were amputated at the knees. Both knees were bandaged. I stared harder and noticed that the boy was playing with a red fire engine truck. He was using his knees as pathways for his truck. I felt so sad. How could a child of that age be an amputee? What could have caused that? How would he face the rest of his life? I asked myself all these questions in consternation. But I guess these were not great issues in the mind of the boy because I looked up at his face and soon as he caught my gaze he flashed me a brilliant smile. I came out of myself long enough to return his smile; satisfied, he went back to his truck.
Beside the boy a young woman was sitting down. She had a far, distant look on her beautiful face. She stared off into space and just sat there. Nestled in her laps was the head of a very old woman. The woman looked like something had ravaged her body; it was thin and shriveled up with more than age. Her chest rose and fell with the effort of her breathing. I prayed she would be attended to before it was too late.
The air was filled with the sound of crying babies. The hospital was swarming; it must be a busy day. I thought to myself. There were even people lying on the bare floor with just a locally woven mat beneath them for comfort. All around me there were signs of illness and disease. The smell of disinfectant was becoming overwhelming. It was then that I remembered that I really did not like hospitals. In fact, that was an understatement. I hated them! For places that were supposed to nurture life, they struck me too much like death camps. In my mind, death smelled like disinfectant. I have no idea how I came upon that notion, but if I was asked what death smelled like, I’d reply without hesitation ‘disinfectant.’
I sighed and retreated into myself. Or at least, I tried to retreat; I had not gotten very far when a huge woman sat down next to me. I shifted at bit to make room for her, even though it was quite a long bench and there was no one else on it. I wondered why she chose to sit so close to me but did not bother to ask. I shifted closer to the wall once again hoping she would take the hint and just leave me alone. No such luck.
“That was your pikin no?”
Sweerot. I sighed silently to myself. Her speech, a curious mixture of the English Language and Pidgin, betrayed her. She was a refugee from one of the neighboring countries torn by civil war; though in Africa, that could be any country. But Amina Tonye instilled politeness into her daughter and since she was asking about my baby, so I nodded.
“What was wrong with she?” She demanded. She had a nice voice, gruff and a bit rough like crushed millet, but it had a musical quality to it.
This time I turned to look at her. She was a huge woman alright. Almost thrice my size and I was no Barbie, believe me. Her skin was black and shiny. She was so well oiled that I could almost see my reflection on her forehead. She had a full head of dreadlocks, neatly held back with a red and white bandanna. I looked into the blackest eyes I’d ever seen and felt the tension within me drain. They were eyes you could trust your life to. I sighed again and heard myself speaking.
“I found her not too far from my house, in the trash pit.”
“No!” She exclaimed.
“I know!” And I related the brief but monumental event which led to my presence on that bench in the hospital.
“You poor gal!” She exclaimed in sympathy. “And your mama, she coming back soon I think?”
“Yes” I replied
“What you want do with the baby?” She cut right to the heart of the matter.
“I’m keeping her!” I said defiantly. She only nodded.
We were both silent for a while. Each lost in her own thoughts.
“You decide on name?” She asked
I opened my eyes wide and whispered “Halima.”
She nodded again. “What is meaning?” She asked
“Precious.” I replied. “She is precious to me mama,” I had relaxed enough to call her the general name reserved for older women we were fond of. Anyone old enough to have a daughter my age was ‘mama’ to me. It was our way and no amount of education was going to change that.
She stared at me quietly for a moment then she smiled. Funny, I don’t think her lips moved at all, but the smile was there in her eyes for me to see. She really was the most beautiful big woman I had ever set my eyes on. “You have plenty pain my friend. Plenty plenty nonsense happen to you and sadness dey inside you. But no worry dear, things will be changing.” She said patting my shoulder. “Things will be changing.” She repeated absently again.
I was looking at her with startled eyes, but not really surprised. My misfortune was there, blazoned across my face for anyone with eyes to see. So why wouldn’t an old, wise woman see them.
“What is your name mama?” I asked
“You, my friend will call me Rosa. I’m having no need for daughter.” She stated “But plenty need for friend.”
I understood. “What brings you to the hospital?” I finally asked
Those wonderful black eyes clouded over. “Is my Johnson, he got the cancer.”
I gasped my shock. There was no need to ask who Johnson was, from the expression on her face and the slight inflection in her voice when she said his name; I knew it was her love. Even though I had never met her Johnson, I felt such an affinity for this kind woman that it shocked me anything so terrible could happen to her. Which was naïve of me, I know. Still… “Any hope?” I asked in a half whisper.
She just smiled. “There always hope gal. ‘slong as him alive, hope is alive.”
I sat up straight and curved my right hand across my stomach while I cradled my chin in my left palm and just stared at her. That unwavering optimism reminded me of my mum but it also gave me hope. For Halima and for Rosa’s Johnson. They were both alive and that was good. It was enough for me at that moment, to know that somewhere inside that white-walled hospital, which reeked of disinfectant, my baby was alive and would be well. I did not know how, but that was hope I guess. Blind faith that all would be well when all was going wrong.
I sighed again and slumped against the wall with my head bowed. I felt the troubled waters inside me still. I raised my head up and looked at Rosa; our eyes met and in that instant I knew that a light had been turned on inside of me and it was not just Halima. I had regained my hope.
Sometime later I noticed a nurse headed for me. I stood up in trepidation and waited for her to come towards me. She stopped a few meters from where I was standing and stared at me with a dour expression.
“That’s me.” I moved closer to where she was.
“Come with me.” She ordered and began to march back.
I turned to look at Rosa “Go on gal!” she encouraged and gave me a warm smile. I instantly felt better and went after the nurse who was waiting impatiently for me beside a door at the right side of the hospital. The same door the doctor had disappeared through in what now seemed like ages ago.
I quickly caught up with the nurse. “Nurse, is the baby alright?” I enquired fearfully.
“Ask the doctor.” She replied grumpily
“But I am asking you!” I snapped “In your opinion as a professional and a woman, do you think my baby is alright!” I had raised my voice.
She came to a halt and I stopped beside her. I was taller than she was, so it was easy to stare her down. “We cannot be sure right now,” she replied in a softer voice, “But yes, I do think with constant care and fervent prayers, your baby will be alright.”
I nodded and we resumed the march through long white corridors in silence. Finally we came to the end of one of the corridors; there was a door that had Special Care Baby Unit written on it. We passed through the door. It was a medium sized room, not as long as the normal ward in the hospital but it looked big enough. Tiny baby sized cots lined both sides of the room. I walked after the nurse to the end of the room and there, on a cot on the right side, was my Halima. Even though I’d only held her for a few minutes, I knew her immediately.
She was asleep. I looked at the drips in her minuscule body and felt sick. I gently sat on the chair beside the cot.
“The doctor will be with you in a minute madam.” The nurse said and I was left with Halima.
I stared at her, she had hair. I had not noticed that before; little, curly wisps of black hair. Her little fingers were curved as though she were trying to make a fist. That made me smile a bit; this little girl was a fighter.
I stayed that way, silently observing her until I heard footsteps coming my way. I lifted my eyes and met the doctors’. He had a white clipboard in his hands.
“Ms Tanko,” he greeted with a smile, “it was good of you to stay.”
The smile I’d been forming for him died a natural death. What did he mean it was good of me to stay? Did he not realize that baby was mine? I saw the brief confusion in his eyes and knew I was being unreasonable. Of course he did not know. It was not his heart the little sleeping angel had crawled into. So I summoned up the smile again and greeted him.
He relaxed and then his voice turned serious. “We have the next 48 hours to go through,” he said “if no infection sets in then she has a very good chance of getting through this.
I digested the information. “What are the odds, Doctor?”
He was silent for a while then “If you are a praying woman Ms Tanko, I suggest you start praying.”
The waters inside me began to get restless as I felt the tension creep back into me. But all I said was “I will pray.”
He patted my shoulders. “Right now, we are feeding her intravenously as well as giving her antibiotics.” He informed “We will know for certain how to proceed in the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, we have informed the Social Welfare Department and one of the social workers will be here later today.”
Social Welfare, I thought anxious, they will take her away from me. Then I straightened my spine, they would have to walk over my dead body first!
I looked him straight in the eye, “please let me know when the social worker gets here.”
“Will do. He checked his clipboard, “I need to make the ward rounds but I’ll check back.”
I watched him walk away and sighed. I wondered how Rosa was faring out there and how her Johnson was. I felt it was time to start praying. Dear Lord…