When life comes undone

Sandra* had finally mustered the courage to go to CHUK (University Central Hospital of Kigali). This was simply a formality, she convinced herself; the trained physician would only be confirming what her layman’s intuition had known all along. Her persistent heart palpitations signaled a more serious condition.

At first, she had thought nothing of them, hoping they would go away on their own. But her health had been deteriorating at a rapid pace; she laid awake on most nights, drenched in sweat, heart pounding, gasping for air.

“What if these were the telltale signs of a looming heart attack?” she had wondered, terror suddenly gripping her. She feared not for herself however, but the children she would be leaving behind should anything happen to her.

Despite her aged appearance, Sandra was only thirty-three. The doctor thought her too young to have a heart attack and told her so to ease her worries. But she insisted her symptoms could only be the beginning of her end.

“My heart beats too hard and too fast. So hard I feel it both in my chest and in my throat. I even hear its loud throbs with my bare ears.”

“How long have you had had these palpitations?” the doctor asked.

“Months, several months” she hastily responded.

He proceeded to inquire about the day-to-day of his seemingly overwhelmed patient to gauge the origin of her illness. Often times, the doctor explained, stress and anxiety induced the symptoms she had so vividly described.

Sandra was an exhausted mother who was raising four young kids, close in age, on her own. Her young family was barely scraping by. Understandably, she had put her own health on the back burner because her main concern was to ensure her kids were fed and bills paid on time.

Dr Samuel* was taken by the young mother’s plight and probed a little further, curious about the children’s father.

“My husband passed,” she replied, choking up.

“I am so sorry to hear, Sandra.”  

The young mother sensed sincere compassion in the voice of the middle-aged stranger sitting across from her. And her buried secrets, scars of her souls, poured. Raw. Unbridled. Unrestrained.

Eric had been an abusive husband, who beat his wife on days when he was inebriated, and often when he was not. He treated her contemptuously, never missing a chance to belittle her.

He questioned her judgement and criticised her every decision. He snapped at the littlest of incidents, keeping her constantly on her toes. Try as she might have, she never found favor in her husband’s eyes.

It is worth mentioning that a November 2017 report from UNICEF determined that 18% of Rwandan boys and men, aged 15-49, considered a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one of the following reasons: arguing with him, burning the food, going out without telling him, neglecting the children.

Sadly, a higher proportion of their female counterparts believed physical violence against them, for the aforementioned reasons, was warranted. Theirs stood at an alarmingly high 41%.

On the rare occasions when Sandra had seriously considered the possibility of divorce, she was faced with an impossible quandary. Who would have believed her?

It was nearly impossible to reconcile Eric’s public, gregarious nature with the private, laconic monster that roamed the house looking for faults and offenses at every turn.

Her claims of domestic abuse would have seemed like calumnious lies meant to injure her husband’s good reputation.

Only Sandra’s mother knew her a battered woman. Poor Sandra had once fled to her mom’s house after Eric had violently choked her in front of the kids. It was this incident, in particular, that kept the young widow up at night. Though she knew her husband was permanently gone, she still lived in fear of him.

“Why are the worst memories the most insistent Doctor?” she asked, between sobs.

Himself visibly upset, Dr Samuel offered comforting words, reminding his patient of her strength in the face of relentless and seemingly unsurmountable tragedy. He prescribed her non-addictive sleeping pills and referred her to a psychiatrist of repute whose name he wrote down on a piece of paper.

“If the pills cured my insomnia,” Sandra said, “…another medical visit wouldn’t be necessary.”

But she kept the referral note nonetheless. Perhaps, Gwiza, her daughter, could benefit from the psychiatrist’s help.

The ten-year-old had been her father’s favourite child, daddy’s little girl.

In the months following his death, Gwiza had grown quiet, ate very little and frequently retreated. She was also having recurring dreams of her father and refused to go to bed.

“Let me wait for him,” she often pleaded, tearfully, with her mother.

Gwiza believed if she could stay up all night and wait for her father, she’d convince him to stay.

To be continued…

The views expressed in this article are of the author.