The Unbearably Slippery Nature of Reality

Guest Writer
21 July ,2015

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Aleya Kassam

A heart attack is supposed to loudly announce its arrival. Bark orders with a gruff voice. Stomp into the room and raise hell.

You are supposed to be alarmed to it, by the clutching of the chest, sweat dripping down the face, a wheezing for breath. Dramatic. It is not called an attack for nothing.

The last thing you expect is for it to sneak up like a cowardly thief, slyly stealing a piece of the heart and leaving only a whisper of a footprint in its wake.

Mama had a heart attack, but we don’t know when. They found the remainders of its shadow in one of the multitude of tests they did.

It could have happened whilst I was cutting her nails, that day when she winced in pain.

It could have happened when we were giggling at the dinner table, my affectionate Grandpa having just laid a fat kiss on her cheek, and she rolling her eyes at his sentimentality.

It could have happened when she was asleep in her chair, feet encased in her fluffy slippers, her favourite Maasai blanket wrapped around her frail shoulders, eyes closed, the only sign that she was still alive, the gentle rising and falling of her chest.

She is back in hospital. Her heart is damaged and her lungs are gasping at the effort of taking on the load of an exhausted heart.

She coughs constantly, a grating sound, like her lungs are scraping onto her insides for dear life.

Her dementia has gotten much worse. Her brain, starved of oxygen, has retreated to places she knows well. Memories that are vivid. It stays there for hours.

The first sign of her brain’s betrayal came several years ago. As a family, we sit together each evening for our daily prayers, and mid-recitation Mama started making mistakes. Our eyes sprung open, and we would look at each other and giggle. Having been scolded as children whenever we made a mistake, we took great delight in adult imperfection.

It should have struck us as unusual. To falter with words that you have memorised and recited every day since you were a child. But we were far too distracted by our glee.

Then she started forgetting our names, saying every other family member’s name before she happened on the right one. Still, we found this amusing. We teased her about it. Mama is renowned for her wicked wit, and we assumed she would find it as funny as we did.

I wonder if we would have noticed the look in her eyes, perturbed, confused.

The dementia was a shape shifter.

It started taking on the visage of habitual forgetfulness.

What day is it today?

What did we eat for lunch?

Where is your father?

The questions became so predictable, we had a notebook with the answers already scribbled down (she is very hard of hearing), and would flip the pages, pointing to the relevant answer.

We did not stop to think that if we found this frustrating, what it must have felt like for her, to forget even the mundane.

Beyond the forgetting, we started noticing something more sinister. She would get stuck in the maze of her history.

We must get home now, before the school closes. We should not be here so late at night, it isn’t safe for two young girls to walk home when it is dark.


Thank God you are home, beta go and tell your brother Nashir (my dad), that there is food on the stove. I am so tired. I am going to rest my eyes. Tell Nashir I will wake him up for school tomorrow.


Don’t touch any boys Aleya. Don’t you know you can get pregnant if you touch boys? Remember Khatun, remember how her mum beat her outside mosque, calling her kutari (bitch). It is because she touched a boy. Don’t even touch Khatun, it might spread to you, and you might also get pregnant.

It would happen before she fell ill. Before a cold. Before an infection. Before the flu. A wave would come over her, washing over the present, coating it with thick impenetrable layers from the past. It became our measure for if Mama was falling ill. We would notice a cough, or a sneeze, and we would start scratching at that layer, testing her.

What is my name?

What is my relationship with this person? (pointing at my mother)

Where are we now?

It became a more reliable test than taking her temperature.

We didn’t stop to think how any of us would have felt if we had six people huddled around us, peering down, firing out questions, waiting to pounce on the slightest mistake.

We cracked jokes. It became our coping mechanism. If we didn’t laugh, we would cry.

So when Mama always brought up her brother in law’s name during these spells, my sister and I would giggle, tut tutting with conspiracy, we theorised that perhaps Mama had a lifelong crush on her brother in law. What if one day, a forbidden secret slipped out of her mouth? A secret love tryst? What a scandal!

Or when she was stuck in her childhood years, her whole demeanour would take on the unselfconscious freedom of a kid, and swinging her legs, she would widen her eyes and tell us to beware of the Mzungu’s Hallelujah flowers that they used when burying their dead, as that is where the ghosts of the spirits reside. She would stick her tongue out at us, and pluck the inside of the top row of her teeth with the nail of her thumb, making a splatting sound, the childhood symbol to say ‘I am your friend.’

It is incredibly precious. To get a glimpse of what she must have been like as a little girl. It feels like discovering treasure.

Then it stopped being the extraordinary, and became the ordinary.  Somehow, this uninvited guest that had lurked in the corners, took centre stage, began to control her life more. It was bossy. It was loud. It was unreasonable. It was the seventh member in the Kassam household, and by far the most demanding.

Its constant presence changed our lives. It hovered over every minute of our lives.

Finally we stopped to think. We reminded ourselves that Mama was not her dementia. That it was like a veil that we had to see through, to find the granny we loved so much.

The granny that used to read the newspaper cover to cover every day, stopping to ask us about words she didn’t understand, predictably picking the awkward.

Woman chops off Man’s Genitals.

Aleya, what are genitals?

Or the granny that would put on her white tackies, hair perfectly coiffed and hair-sprayed, to walk around the neighbourhood every evening in her bright print dresses.

Or the granny that would tell us maru loi na pee (stop drinking my blood), as we ran around the house as kids, throwing powder on the floor so we could slip and skate about.

Or the granny whose smile was literally like a big bear hug around your heart.

In all of this, we learned not to reason. We learned that the rules of logic did not apply. We learned patience. We learned to stay with her, in the memory, in the wave, in the emotion she was going through. We learned not to judge. To just be.

But sometimes we forget.

Yesterday at the hospital, she was stuck in a horrific place. She lay in the hospital bed at Accident and Emergency, insisting on the curtain remaining open, eyes transfixed at the scene in the room. The shop was getting robbed, and she was in the middle of it. Experiencing it for hours. Screaming at me, to get us out. Get us out. Get us out. She grabbed the metal bars on either side of the bed, trying to move them.

She looked at me with accusing eyes. What was wrong with me, why was I not getting us out of there?

She threatened me, pleaded with me, cajoled me, tried to persuade me, and when all else failed, started to heckle.

A woman with 86 years’ worth of heckling experience is not to be messed with.

I relented. I thought maybe if I played along, it would give her some comfort. I pretended to use all my strength to move those bars aside. I grunted and wiped my brow. I squeezed my eyes and sighed heavily in frustration. She bought it. Almost.

Have some courage Aleya. What is wrong with you? If you can’t even muster this much courage at such a young age, how do you expect to pass your exams? 

My granny has a warped sense of how old we all are. She is still completely impressed that I can drive.

After several hours of this, I thought perhaps if I stop responding, she may calm down. So, I am ashamed to say, I ignored her.

She looked at me, eyes brimming with betrayal.

You are just going to leave me here like this?

This went on for another couple of hours.

I cracked. My eyes filled with tears. Part despair at my inability to help her. Part loathsome self-pity.

She scoffed at me.

Huh. You are the one crying, and I am the one trapped here in this nightmare! 

Reality is such a slippery thing. The things we know to be truth. Absolute. How dare they turn around and slide through our fingers? It is frightening. The mind can be a terrible, terrible thing.

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Aleya Kassam writes and performs stories, and works as a copywriter. She blogs her indulgences here. Follow her on Twitter @aleyakassam

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