Sunday, April 3, 2016

Emily Naluyimba

My girlfriends remember little boys they were 'shy for' in P.4 or shared packed snacks with in P.3. I remember her: Emily Naluyimba. I wasn’t shy for her. I just liked sitting with her, back when watching laundry dry, was an entirely legitimate use of one’s time. What else did one do with a Saturday morning in primary boarding school? Perched on the sills of shutterless school windows, Emily and I, watched other kids gleefully pair up to wring bedsheets; holding the rolled cloth as if it were rope in tug of war. I remember her going on about things I considered nonsense: how SST was going to be much harder in P.5, Jackie’s mother who lived in America, Faisal who gave girls bad touches because he was always in heat. It was nonsense but she was welcome to go on about it for entire mornings. The memory of her voice still makes me think of sunny mornings. 

Hailey and her 'Emily Naluyimba'
I loved Emily. That would be why I sent negative energy, before that was even a term, to the people in her life who were not perfect. I sent hate towards her stepmother who mistreated her (as all stepmothers seemed to do in those days). I sent a lesser dislike towards her little brother for existing and therefore making her responsible for him. When he lost his books, she was responsible for finding them, or crying about it when they could not be found. 

It’s my first of those ‘cry about it’ memories that I hold dearest. Initially, I didn’t even know she had a brother. Then one day, I run into her shaking up a little boy who looked both scared and defiant. She was tired of looking for his books, she said. She was just going to let the teacher beat him up for it this time. He had no defence of himself to offer. They stared at each other for a few seconds.  Then she burst out crying. I was completely stunned. Up until that point, I had not realized that you could deal with your problems by crying over them. Really. The option just had never occurred to me. 

How would I have come to such a revelation anyway? Peer culture was that when teachers or parents beat you, the right way to react was, not to. You held your muscles tight, braved the beating and walked away stoic. It’s what we did. It was pretty clear that those who cried did so only to manipulate the adults into administering a lesser beating. Worth a try, I suppose, but I never saw it work. 

In the house where I grew up, nobody cried. Maybe they didn’t have reason to. I don’t know. I just never saw anybody cry. 

Once, at a funeral in the neighbourhood, I saw a mother cry over her lost baby. But that is a different kind of crying. All I remember taking away from it was the ritualistic dimension. After the funeral, I went home, took my dolls to the back of the house and lined them up for burial. I duly dramatically wept over each before burying it. I was throwing myself about, slapping my thighs, heaving loudly in preparation for the last doll burial, when I heard my mother’s footsteps approach. My instinct was to immediately cut the act and break into song.

So, no. Crying hadn’t occurred to me as a real thing until I saw Emily cry. It was a real gift. After seeing her cry, I started to genuinely cry over my problems too. It is a gift that I have drawn on, countless times since. Through those incomprehensible years of childhood depression, as regularly as I needed to, I found a quiet corner of the school and wept my heart out. Every month when PMS storms in, I take care of it by allowing myself a healthy bawling in the bathroom. On that night when I couldn’t be in the audience to watch my child perform at the National Theatre, I waited for my roommate to fall asleep, buried my face in the pillow and let it go for a good hour. It is how I deal with life’s impossibilities. I cry like Emily would.

Emily was also the first to teach me about heartbreak. It’s funny that they call it heartbreak. The term promises you a particular dramatic moment of righteous pain. Heartbreak is in fact a passive being left behind. It is learning that you are no longer on the same page with someone because your paths quietly diverged at an irretrievable point in the past. It is being made aware of that divergence in a manner too passive for you to push back or reform for. It is hoping, hiding from the truth for so long, that when you eventually accept it, crying about it isn’t appropriate. Heartbreak is an unmarked grave. 

I didn’t think she was gone when she didn’t report to boarding school one term. I thought her parents were just being late. That they would bring her in, the weekend after. They didn’t. Still, I didn’t grasp that this meant I would never see her again. P.6 started and ended. Still, I hoped. P.7 started and ended. It was some time in secondary school that I finally realized that I would never see Emily Naluyimba again. That I needed to find another best friend. It would be university before I would find another truly best friend. 

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