It’s a somber and sober day. I found out this morning that Jeniffer Dawa Ochieng, wife of my Kenyan father, passed away. She had been in grave health for some time—suffering from complications of diabetes and hypertension--and when I went to Kenya this year to meet her and the rest of the family for the first time, she was bedridden and unable to speak. My sisters, Lucy Adhiambo and Judith Aluoch helped my father to see to her needs. I never got to meet her healthy and whole and I’m saddened by that.
|Jeniffer Dawa Ochieng
I know what my Kenyan family is feeling; for half my childhood I was raised by my great-uncle and great-aunt, John and Alma Simpkins; both died of cancer and were invalids before they passed, in 2000 and 2012, respectively. Before the decline, both had been vital, active and loving and when they died I was relieved that they were free from pain, but a part of me wished I could have them back, healthy and whole, and…so I could have a chance to be a better daughter. The selfishness impulse is never far from any of us.
My other parents, Philip Ochieng, Nova Dorn, and Johnny Dorn, are all in their 70s and relatively hale. Mom has battled the beast called cancer twice and is still with us and cancer-free, but being in America certainly tipped the scales in her favor.
This type of loss goes hardest on the grandchildren. As we get older, say, past 40, we more or less accept the fact that we will outlive our parents. It is, of course, the order of life. But to the grandchildren, it is an especially rough introduction to adulthood, especially if the grandparent is greatly beloved, as appears so with Miss Jeniffer (spelling correct). My niece, Jeniffer Atieno--the eldest of my nieces and nephews on both sides of the Atlantic--is taking this loss especially hard.
And then there’s my father, Philip. I still don’t know him well enough to gage how he handles grief. He has had a lot of it in recent years; he is the last of his siblings and he is not the youngest of them. But it isn’t difficult to guess what it’s like to lose a life-partner of half a century.
My brother, Charles Otieno, the only son of Philip and Jeniffer, is three years my junior. From reading his Facebook posting about his mother’s death, he is taking his responsibilities as the male heir seriously, but I pray that he doesn’t fail to sit down for a minute or two and simply mourn…and rejoice in God.
A cool thing about my tribe: due to the fact that it is traditionally polygamous, there are no separations between families. My American parents are considered the parents of my Kenyan siblings; my American siblings are also the siblings of the Kenyans, and so on. (This concept remains so, even though Philip has eschewed polygamy, preferring the Western tradition of one legal wife at a time.) I love it, and it is one of the many reasons that I rarely use the prefix ‘step,’ except for clarification purposes--when I don’t have time to explain my very complicated family situation.
So it is, under Luo tradition, that my mother has died. For obvious reasons, I don’t feel the pain of her absence, but I greatly empathize with my brother, my sisters, and all other family members who love Mother.
Godspeed, Mother Jeniffer! I look forward to the day that we sit and talk and laugh about the day we were so sad that you were gone, only to discover that you are living forever in Christ. That will be a Great Day, indeed.
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