We like to imagine that we will meet the love of our life, get married, raise our children, and grow old together until death intervenes. But what happens when death comes earlier than expected, takes your spouse away, leaving you with broken dreams and four young children to bring up?
Elias Munyi found himself in this position in 1996 when his wife, Jane Jerono, died.
“No one is ever prepared for death, its finality, even when your wife or husband has been ill for a long time,” Elias says.
The Munyis were a happy young couple with hopes and dreams of raising their children together and seeing them become successful people. They were both employed and lived a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Then ill health struck. For close to five years, Jane was in and out of hospital.
Shortly after she started falling ill, she lost her job. Before she could get another, her health deteriorated and eventually, she became bedridden.
Now, not only was there only one income, the added medical expenses meant that Elias had to make some difficult but necessary decisions to stretch his salary to cater for the family’s needs.
“The first decision I made was to move our younger children to a school close to our home to save on transport costs. We also did away with the hired domestic help,” he says.
Their two older daughters, Pamela and Betty, then teenagers, were in boarding school. With their mother now bedridden, the two younger children, Mercy, then nine, and Eva, seven, depended entirely on their father for everything.
“Before the onset of Jane’s illness, I would occasionally cook for my family, so I knew my way around the kitchen,” Elias says.
However, with his wife incapacitated and with the help gone, Elias soon realised that he had to take on all the other household chores, besides cooking. It was a big adjustment for him.
“Dad would make breakfast, prepare us for school, make lunch for Mum, and leave it at her bedside before he took us to school and then leave for work,” says Mercy.
Mercy, now 27 years old, is married and has two children. She now understands the responsibilities that come with parenting and is in awe of how her father coped.
“It was very difficult, but somehow, he managed,” she says.
Elias smiles at his daughter’s comment and points out that he taught his children to perform small chores, like washing their clothes, making his burden a little lighter. He adds that he also quickly learned to multi-task.
“I would prepare one big meal for supper so that there would be enough left over for my wife’s lunch. Before the children and I left in the morning, I would serve Jane her lunch and place it within reach. After work, I would return home, give her a bath, assist the children with their homework, cook, do laundry, then go to bed.”
Elias says this casually, as if this is what happens in every household where the woman is unable to contribute.
For months, he did this believing that his wife would eventually get well and be back on her feet. However, as the illness took its toll, it occurred to him that she may never be able to work again, that she may be bedridden for a long time. He did not imagine that death would take her away so soon.
Mercy recalls that sad day when she learned of her mother’s death.
“Mum had been admitted to hospital for some time, and we often went to visit her. That day, when Dad came home, he looked really sad and sadder still when I asked him when we could go visit Mum,” Mercy’s voice falters as she relives the pain.
“When he didn’t answer, Eva and I followed Dad to the bedroom. He sat each of us on his lap and broke the news. He then hugged us tightly. It was the first time I saw my dad cry.”
Eva, the youngest, did not understand the enormity of the announcement. She went out to play and in the coming days, kept wondering why suddenly, so many people were visiting them.
Now a young adult — she is 25 years old — she only has hazy memories of her mother. However, Mercy recalls each detail of that period as if it happened yesterday. She particularly points out that their father, even though in mourning, gave them unfaltering support.
Elias says that after his wife’s death, he got a lot of support from family and friends. Eventually, however, everyone had to go back to their lives, leaving him alone with his children and grief. When the demands of looking after his children and running the home threatened to overwhelm him, he hired a house help but dismissed her shortly afterwards when he realised that she was not really helpful.
He got a lot of unsolicited advice about what to do in his situation, a widower with young children, all daughters. Boarding school for all his children and remarriage were the two most flaunted “solutions”. He chose to look after them himself.
“My children had lost their mother. All l wanted was for them to grow up knowing that I loved them, come what may.”
It is this commitment to his children that has seen Elias take on the role of both father and mother for the past 18 years.
Asked how he coped, Elias says he had to make many adjustments. For instance, surviving on one income, whereas before there had been two, making the decisions that his wife used to make, and no longer having much of a social life.
We want to know whether it was a challenge raising girls and how he went about disciplining them.
“I never spanked my children, not once. Instead, I would ask them to take a seat and we would talk it out. When they made a mistake, I would point out the consequences in the hope that they would not repeat it.”
And how did he deal with the rebellion that comes with teenage?
“Betty, my second born, was more challenging at teenage, but she turned out well. I never tired of talking about the issues that bothered her — it helped that my sister-in-law, Damaris Munyi, was always willing to talk to the girls about intimate matters such as menstruation.”
He adds that he learnt that children at that age are very selective about what they tell their parents. Being girls, he knew too that there would be things they would be shy to share with him. Still, he encouraged them to talk to him and, therefore, it was not a problem for them to remind him about buying them sanitary pads.
“It also helped that I am a teacher. Therefore, interacting with children and knowing what they want or what bothers them was not a challenge for me — I would lay down the pros and cons of an issue, then let them make a choice.”
His daughters agree that their father understood them and more important, that he was always involved in every aspect of their lives.
“Even when he said ‘No’ to something we wanted, we knew that he had a good reason,” says Betty.
One thing is clear; these young women are very proud of their father. They all agree that however much they miss their mother, none of them has ever felt unloved. Pamela, the oldest and now a married mother of four children, emphasises that a father is important in a child’s life.
VALUE OF FATHERS
“For all fathers out there, I would ask you to be open and involved in your children’s lives. Listen to them, and be good to them.”
Betty agrees, adding that she has heard people say how devastating it can be to lose a mother. She says that even though her mother’s death left a gap in her life and that of her sisters, they were neither neglected nor miserable.
She points out that both parents should be close to their children because if one parent were to die and the children were only close to that parent, then the psychological damage would be too deep for the child to bear.
“Our dad was loving, caring, and open. We could talk to him about anything. I would advise fathers to be open and candid with their daughters. In fact, there are things that fathers understand better since they are men, like how to handle boys.”
The choices Elias made 18 years ago not only impacted his children but have also made a deep impression on his son-in-law, Patrick, Mercy’s husband.
“I come from a culture that highly discourages men from doing anything remotely domestic, like cooking. But my father-in-law does not hesitate to cook for us when we visit and has no qualms about changing his grandchildren’s diapers or doing laundry,” Patrick says.
He adds that he fell in love with Mercy, not just because of her beauty, but also her values. He credits his wife’s father with helping him discover the value of sacrificing for and loving one’s children.
“Thanks to him, I have no problem cooking for my family or bathing my children.”
Asked about marrying again now that his children are grown-up, Elias says that although he has not ruled it out, he is so used to his life as it is, he would be hesitant to get into a relationship that might weigh him down.
“Actually, I did try marrying again eight years after Jane’s death, but it was short-lived — it was too strenuous, especially for the children.”
Elias advises widowers to put their children’s interests before anything else. He confesses that it has not all been smooth sailing, that he does get lonely once in a while, but concludes that marrying again would not have been the best thing for his children.
His children would not mind their father getting a companion, though.
“I would encourage him to remarry — he must be lonely now that we no longer live with him,” says Pamela, who hastily adds that the prospective stepmother must be “a good woman”.
Now retired, Elias is eager to move into his own home in a few months. Were Jane alive, he believes they would have achieved so much together, including putting up their home much earlier.
But he does not regret any of the sacrifices he has had to make over the years. After all, his children think he is the best father in the world and his grandchildren adore him. What more could a parent ask for in his old age?