What you need to know:
- One of the many things I have decided to do in my retirement is to read all the many books I had no time to read before. I was too engrossed in the art of wielding the scalpel and the pen to indulge in the art of reading.
- For many years, I was on call for emergencies every Tuesday at the hospital where I did my private work. So when my phone rang one Tuesday evening in 1990, I thought it was the usual “call of distress” from the doctor in Accident & Emergency. There was a stranger on the line.
“Are you enjoying your retirement from surgery?” asked a young lady while we recently holidayed at our favourite resort on the North Coast of Mombasa for our joint family Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“Getting used to it,” I replied. Obviously, it takes time to learn how to enjoy leisure. Adjusting to the idea of not having to meet targets when one is used to beating them takes time. For me, known as the most punctual surgeon south of the Sahara, a slave to the clock for most of my working life, it is a seismic change not to be constantly looking at it.
“Mind you,” I added in mitigation, “It is a relief not to have to wade through the traffic to the hospital every morning and back home every evening.”
“I am glad to learn from the Sunday Nation that you are not retiring from writing because I am a great fan of the Surgeon’s Diary. I am wondering though, how is it that when you decided to divorce one of your four wives, you picked on surgery?” the lady inquired further.
“Surgery is a very demanding profession and had occupied most of my time, causing disaffection amongst the other three wives,” I replied. “It has often disrupted my nights, family weekends and holidays. So if I wanted to redeem myself and compensate the other three, especially Marie, Jenny and Jan for the neglect they have suffered, the only way out was to close my surgical practice.”
“I must admit, however,” I added with a trace of nostalgia, “that I do suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Like an alcoholic missing his tipple or a chain smoker craving for a cigarette, after 55 years of surgery, I miss my scalpel!”
Seeing that the young lady was interested, I went on. “But a time comes in a surgeon’s life when he must cease wielding the knife. Surgery is both a mental and manual science and even though the mind may remain alert, manual dexterity is affected by age, and a slip of the knife can prove fatal.
“The slip of the pen on the other hand can be corrected before going to the press,” I went on.
“Judging by the number of people who have come up to me and said what you just said, it is obvious that my pen has touched more people than my scalpel. So I am glad that I made the right decision, in that sense.”
One of the many things I have decided to do in my retirement is to read all the many books I had no time to read before. I was too engrossed in the art of wielding the scalpel and the pen to indulge in the art of reading. Which reminds me of the time when I was ushered into the study of a Cambridge don. Looking at the shelves loaded with books, I said to him. “Don’t tell me that you have read all these books.”
“I didn’t,” he replied. “I wrote them all!”
Many of the books in my study at home have been presented to me and in the past, and after briefly scanning them, relegated them to the ornate shelf in my library. It is now time to do justice to the authors who, I know through personal experience have put their souls and minds into creating fine pieces of creative literature.
So on the first day of my retirement, instead of driving to the hospital, I walked into my study. Nelson Mandela had just passed away and it was natural for me to pick his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. What better way to start the twilight of my life than read the life story of this legendary figure.
Naturally, I glanced at the first few pages and came across important hand written inscriptions. On the third page there is one in the great man’s own hand. It reads: “To Dr. Yusuf Kodwavwala. Compliments and Best Wishes (Signed) N. Mandela 9-12-95.”
STRANGER ON THE LINE
On the second page was another message that read: “Dear Dr. Kodwavwala, Happy Reading. God Bless. (Signed) Winnie.”
And thereby hangs a tale to explain how the book came into my possession.
For many years, I was on call for emergencies every Tuesday at the hospital where I did my private work. So when my phone rang one Tuesday evening in 1990, I thought it was the usual “call of distress” from the doctor in Accident & Emergency. There was a stranger on the line.
“My name is Winnie, and I am ringing you from Johannesburg.” The voice said. “I am sorry to disturb you at home. You don’t know me but I got your contact from an official at the Kenyan embassy here.
He is an avid reader of your Surgeon’s Diary and judging by the fact that you are a surgeon and write a newspaper column describing your experiences with human interest, he thinks that you are the right person for me to get in touch with.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I hope I haven’t caught you at the wrong time because mine is a long story,” she replied.
“That is no problem at all,” I assured her.
“Well, many years ago, my sister came to Nairobi for her university education. After graduation, she came home and has been working as a history teacher at one of the secondary schools. Recently she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and decided to disclose to her family a secret she has been hiding since her return from Nairobi.”
Winnie took a long pause and then continued. “While she was at the university, she fell pregnant and was too scared to tell us because in those days a single woman getting pregnant was synonymous with dishonouring one’s family. With some local help, she arranged for delivery in a hospital in Nairobi and adoption of her baby boy.” As I was recovering from the shattering disclosures, Winnie went on.
“Now that she is literally dying, she decided to tell us about it and also wants us to help her to trace her long lost son.”
“To what end?” I asked.
“All my sister wants to know, is that her son is happy and that his adoptive parents have treated him well, so that she can die peacefully.” Winnie replied.
“At this stage, she does not wish for a grand reunion or to claim the child back.”
“Do you know the hospital where your sister delivered her baby and the date?” I asked, trying to get some practical details, presuming the reason Winnie had rung me was to help her trace the boy and his adoptive parents.
“Luckily I have those details,” Winnie replied and furnished me with the information.
Armed with the crucial details, I went to work on the matter straight away. With some influence as a surgeon, I persuaded the maternity ward sister in that particular hospital to let me look at the birth register.
Luckily I hit at the entry I was looking for. As happens in cases like this, the mother’s name was there but the father’s name was missing. Instead the name of the obstetrician had been entered, which was fortuitous, because I knew him.
He had recently retired and had returned to his own country, England, but while he was here we used to refer patients to each other. I rang him, fully aware that professional confidentiality would constrain him from providing me with all the facts.
“The adoptive parents were Australians. The father, the CEO of an insurance company in Nairobi went back home at the end of his contract,” he said in reply to my inquiry.
“Are you in touch with them?”
“Yes, but as you know I can’t give their names, or their contact details.”
“Of course not, but you could find out if they would agree to the boy’s biological mother contacting them,” I suggested.
“I doubt it,” he replied. “This happened while they were in Kenya and they did not see the need to inform anybody back home about the adoption. To my knowledge, even the boy does not know that he is adopted.”
“That of course throws a different light on the matter,” I concluded.
Soon after, I rang Winnie to inform her of this new hurdle. “She is in Beirut,” replied her brother who answered the phone.
“Why Beirut?” I asked.
“We are originally from Lebanon.” The brother explained. “We emigrated here because of the constant fighting in our country.”
The Lebanese appearance of Winnie’s sister with the likelihood of the biological father of the adopted boy being white, explained how the adoptive parents got away with not disclosing the matter of adoption to the boy and others in Australia.
SOLVED THE PROBLEM
I left a message for Winnie to ring me back when she returned from Beirut, which she promptly did. When I gave her the information, I was shell-shocked by what she said. “It is too late now anyway,” Winnie replied. “My sister has solved the problem she created. She died a week ago and the family has decided that it is futile to pursue the matter.”
After getting over the shock, I asked. “If you don’t mind my asking, what did you go to Beirut for?”
“To dispose of my sister’s ashes,” replied Winnie. “In her will, she said that she would like to be cremated and her ashes thrown on the mountains and in the sea near Beirut where she played as a little girl.”
A few days later the autobiography of Mandela arrived by courier service, presumably for the help I had rendered.