And Yet She Smiled…

October 30, 2021
2015_Dr Onyango with Dr Musoke and Dr. Nolan
By. Dr. Joel Maena

Carol Onyango – or as we all simply called her, Dr. Carol – is dearly departed. Spirited away by the utterly relentless, unstoppable, march of time that guides us all to the inevitable. It speaks volumes, doesn’t it? That one would be so ubiquitous, so part of the process, that they would be identified by their first name without the necessity for qualification. But that was our Dr. Carol. Our dear Dr. Carol.

Back in 2013, in my fourth year, a classmate and I, reeling from the hunger pangs and near-destitution of those unforgettable medical school years, wrote this proposal to some organization, I forget its name, to provide funding to some not-for-profit we hastily set up, primarily, to create awareness on the cancers that seem to have taken the proverbial wheel. To be candid, in my then infantile mind, the only thought was: what a way to make a shilling. I mean, pardon us, we were hungry.

Then, Dr. Carol – we had never met but we had got her contact by sheer happenstance – materialized. Ever the class act, she graciously accepted to be the keynote speaker at a breast and prostate cancer conference we organized in Makerere University. She walked in, smiled, and went on the share her story, in what became, at once, the most beautiful, harrowing, inspiring, and remarkable speech the walls of that conference room will ever witness. The pain she had had to endure was apparent, and yet she smiled. There was nary a dry eye in the audience, and yet she continued to smile, to share.

I cannot begin to imagine the strength it took to share her story, but in that moment, I felt that, by doing that, she was reclaiming authority over her life from the monster that was eating at her from within and through her, we too, reclaimed our own. After all, shouldn’t we have a say in our destiny? She showed us that, in a way only Dr. Carol could. And yes, in case you were wondering, we were embarrassed because she reminded us of what was important that day – service above self.                                   

I met her again, in October 2015, in the most dreadful of circumstances. She was part of an interview panel of four. It was obvious she did not remember me from the conference. Well, neither did I. It was only much later, in one of those famously spontaneous non-work-related conversations about life, that she loved to hold with many of us (and didn’t we all love her for that?)  that we put two and two together and realized we had met before. But I digress.

Now, there seems to be something of an unspoken law that members of an interview panel must be surly and intimidating. They habitually stare you down, faces contorted into a scowl. But no, not Dr. Carol. Dr. Carol smiled as she asked the most difficult – and admittedly necessary – questions. She smiled as I messed up at every turn – and boy did I mess up! She smiled and encouraged me as she put 2.5/5 on an interview item for which I deserved 1. She smiled as he prompted me, urging me on. She smiled as she practically spelt the answer out for me. I am not embellishing when I say she was the angel God provided just to watch over me as I entered MUJHU 3 Room 1, stumbling and stuttering. When I ambled out that morning, crestfallen, acutely aware of my limitations, I guess she saw something in me that even I couldn’t see. She took a chance on me when I would never have, in a million years, bet on myself. But then again, that was our Dr. Carol – the eternal optimist.

I did talk about the impromptu conversations in the corridor or her office. I am sure everyone can fondly remember a day when, on entering her office hoping to get her signature on a document, she would turn to you on her swivel chair and look at you. She had this intense look, as though she was boring into your soul, yet it felt safe to look back. And she would go…

“Hello Joel,” she would say as she crossed her feet, “How are you?” And you knew she truly wanted to know if you were alright. She was never one for half-measures. She would proceed to ask direct questions, earnestly seeking to know about you and how you are doing. It never felt forced. Before you knew it, you would be trading stories on anything and everything. Even when the conversation was not light-hearted. Perhaps because the data cleaning was not going well or because she had something she needed to get off her chest regarding some work-related issues, she smiled as she admonished you. She gave you the truth without being callous about it. You always walked away feeling like the world was not so bad. That, in a world so cynical and unforgiving, there are people who truly care.

Of course, more often than not, you would then run back to her office because you had forgotten to do what took you there in the first place. That was our Dr. Carol.

Throughout the years that I knew her, as she silently met with her challenges, I never interacted with a more positive, cheerful, and energetic person. She had a zeal for life that could not be dimmed by the worst circumstances. I remember back in December 2018, at the end-of-year staff party, a sharp scream rent the air right in the middle of one of those speeches recapping the year, capturing the attention of the whole party. On turning our collective gaze to the left, it was our dear Dr. Carol screaming her lungs out with no care in the world, as she zip-lined over this huge pond. I am guessing, like many of us, she thought: What are we doing here? Let’s have fun. It is what we came to do. And off she went. Indeed, the party wasn’t the same after that. In those few seconds, she reminded us of what was important – to live life to the fullest.

What is it with rain and death? Just like many of our loved ones that we have lost in MU-JHU, the day that we heard the news of our dearly departed started with a downpour in the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps it is God’s way of showing us that death, like rain, is a chance for renewal. A chance to start again. A chance to reflect. And a painful one too. Thus, we must agonizingly reflect, consider and understand that Dr. Carol is alright now. We have to believe because we know she is, as distressing as it may feel right now to have lost her. She is alright because God is taking care of her. But who is going to take care of you, of me? Only we can. She doesn’t need us anymore but she has left us behind with a duty to remember that at this moment and in this life, we need each other. It is in the small things. The simple hug. A “how are you”. A deep and genuine conversation. It is through these that we become each other’s keeper. It’s times like these that should remind us to truly love again. It’s times like these that should remind us to truly live again. It’s times like these that should remind us to give and give again. Dr. Carol gave of herself in every way that she possibly could. How else would she want us to remember her?

Dr. Carol, we could never even begin to conceptualize your struggles, joys, tribulations, or aspirations. We humans, guilty of being inward-looking, invariably focused on ourselves and our supposed struggles, never took a minute to just stop and notice or have those genuine conversations you loved so much! For the aspirations (like that Ph.D. you were so intent on doing), the love, and joys, we thank you and thank God that you shared them with us. For the challenges and struggles, that you so resolutely faced, I hope you find peace in the abode of the saints because that is what you were – a saint. I hope you keep looking down on us, and especially your family. May they never feel alone even in those worst moments when they question the point of it all. In those dire moments, in the gloom of their thoughts, may they remember that for the fleeting moment of your corporeal existence, you loved and gave, loved and gave oh so much! And as we pray for you and ask God to receive you with open arms, we ask that you pray for us as we, with aching hearts, trudge on in this transitory concept that is life.

There are people who, like a blazing fire, flash through this world, and in a blink of an eye, they are gone, snuffed out by the darkness of mortality. In their wake, however, instead of fiery destruction, they leave a beautiful vista of memories, lives changed, and a world that is better off because they lived. That was our Dr. Carol.

And so today, let us smile because that is how she would have wanted it. Why? Because the world conjured up the most unkind ways to break her spirit, and yet she smiled.

RIP Dr. Carol.

Romana Nabbosa