Mixed feelings whirl around within me as I step into my sister’s living room. I am swamped by nostalgia so potent I can almost hear the laughter.
My sister is nestled in the red leather loveseat to my right, humming to a fat baby in her arms. The receding rays of the sun from the French window behind her form a soft halo round her. It is a scene of perfection, mother looking down at her spitting image, just like me and my Zawadi. I clutch the lapels of my jacket tightly to my chest. I feel my heart beating frantically and I take a few deep breaths. It will not do to cry before I even say a word.
“Naluyange,” I say.
She looks up at me. The humming stops. Her face is expressionless, her eyes vacant. For a moment, I imagine she doesn’t recognize me. I nibble on my lower lip.
“Hello,” I say. What a flat word to say to my own sister, whom I have not seen for the better part of two years. My mind casts around for the words I came prepared to say. Nothing. I search Naluyange’s face, but apart from the set of her lips, she lets nothing on.
She leans forward and, with shaking hands, places the baby in a bassinet at the foot of her chair. He promptly sticks his little fist into his mouth and sucks ardently. When she looks back up at me, my sister’s face is a collage of emotions.
“So you finally show up,” she says. I can tell she is trying hard not to shout.
She watches as I walk towards her and settle next to her. She smells of breast milk and Johnson’s baby powder, with her trademark Victoria’s Secret perfume pushing through. I want to hug her and take everything back to the way it used to be, but I am afraid. I consider reaching for her hand. The look on her face stops me short. I crack my knuckles.
“I’m really sorry, Naluyange,” I say, looking into her eyes.
“Sorry for what? Be specific, because there’s quite a bit you need to apologize for.”
I turn away. I deserve that. Her voice is heavy with the challenge to voice my misdeeds. To try and explain why I have estranged myself from my baby sister; my best friend and only remaining family, for so long. I have almost convinced myself it was with good reason. But at the back of my mind, Maama’s voice won’t let me rest. I could have come sooner.
I clear my throat.
“It hasn’t been easy, Naluyange.”
“That’s no excuse! It hasn’t been easy for any of us!”
“I know, but…”
“No, you don’t. You know nothing, Nakyeyune! Maama asked for you. Every day, till the end,” Naluyange shakes her head with emphasis on each word. “Do you know what that felt like, Nakyeyune? Telling her you would come yet I couldn’t reach you?”
I try to imagine it. Our mother, calling for me from her deathbed. I cannot.
“Well I know what it felt like to be on the receiving end of her spite all my life. I was never good enough for her, you know that,” I say.
“For Christ’s sake, she was dying! You owed her an audience, at the very least,” she says, flailing her arms about and almost hitting my face.
“You would never understand. You always were the good one.” The sharp tone in my voice catches me by surprise. I look down at my hands and will them to unclench from the fists they have formed.
In the silence that follows my sister folds the sides of her green kitenge onto her lap, revealing a gap of red leather between us.
This is not how I envisioned this discussion.
“You could have at least come for her burial,” she finally says.
“Look Naluyange. Maama hated my guts. I’ve made my peace with that, and I’m not here to have that argument with you.”
“So why are you here, anyway? You wouldn’t bury Maama, not even visit to meet your nephew, so what is it?” She turns to face me. Our knees almost touch.
I fight the tightness in my throat, the doubts, the shame, the guilt. Her raised eyebrows don’t do much to boost my confidence.
“I’m here because I need your help. I…”
Naluyange frowns as she cuts me off with a raised hand in my face.
“You need help? You know, Nakyeyune, you can’t just waltz in here after marooning yourself Lord knows where, and expect me to fall over myself for you! I barely know you now!”
“I barely know myself either,” I murmur.
I turn my eyes to the painting on the opposite wall, of women with babies on their backs and baskets on their heads. They stand so straight, like they cannot feel the weight.
It hits me again how selfish it is for me to be here, seeking solace from the very person I have been actively pushing away. Yet I remain with no options. I think of the endless nights I have spent crying, dreading the nightmares; mangled bodies, pointing fingers, keening cries.
The words fall like an anvil, the deafening clang reverberating in my mind. I hear Naluyange’s sharp intake of breath. I keep my eyes on the women in the painting. I watch them blur, their toothy smiles warping through my tears.
My sister lifts my clasped hands from my lap and cradles them in hers. I want to tell her I am fine, that I have had a while to mourn, that she should save the tears I can hear in her voice. But the lump in my throat will not allow me to.
“W-Why didn’t you say something? You just… Oh my God, Sis! Did you bury him alone?”
It is the way she says ‘Sis’. Tears begin to flow down my cheeks.
“I slept as my baby died,” I whisper. I look through my tears at the blurry shape that is my sister. “I killed my Zawadi!”
Naluyange leans forward and hugs me. It has been so long, but my body remembers this embrace. I hold on tight as the tears fight to drain from my eyes. I sob until I am afraid my throat might tear, spilling gravel all over her chest.
“Tell me what happened.”
I take a deep breath and recount the details of the day my life was turned on its head. I stare at my nephew, now asleep, a little smile touching his rosy lips.
He looks so much like my Zawadi, when I found him in his cot. Peaceful. But on that dawn my baby’s eyelids did not flutter. His chest did not rise and fall. I couldn’t wake him. I screamed his name, and screamed and screamed, but he did not wake up.
“Good Mothers… don’t let their babies die,” I sob. I ache inside because I know I will never be better than Maama always said. “I should have checked on him earlier… should have known he needed me. I should have done something!”
“Shhh, shhh, no,” Naluyange says. “It’s alright. You will be fine.”
“Will I? I don’t know if I can go through this.”
Naluyange continually pats my braided hair until her kitenge is soaked and the tears have ebbed to sniffles.
“I’m here for you. I’ve always been. We will do it together.”