The loss of a child is the ultimate tragedy. It is a pain and suffering that is probably impossible to grasp without experiencing it first-hand. Gail Talma-Jumeau tells Cosmocreole her story of loss, the death of her beloved son Keith Jumeau.
By Jini gilbert-finnigan
Gail Talma-Jumeau, a journalist and newscaster, is a familiar face on television in Seychelles. I met Gail whilst working at Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) as a journalist and news presenter, and I got to hear all the stories about her children and met them on a few occasions. I loved listening to the stories about Keith’s mischief Gail often shared in the newsroom. In 2004, life for Gail and her family changed when they lost their beloved Keith (Kiku to his family) in the most unimaginable way.
This is her story.
As a child, Keith was a happy little boy. He had an older sister Christine who watched over him like a mother because Keith was born with a disability, and his big sister wanted to make sure that he was protected. For a while, it was just Christine and Keith until their younger sister Jasmine was born, and Keith became the protective big brother. Gail recalls how besotted he was with her baby sister.
“He was very protective of Jasmine. When I was pregnant and found out I was having a girl, he was a bit disappointed. However, he quickly got over it and asked me if he could choose her name. At that time, Aladdin was popular, and he chose the name Jasmine. I remember the day of the Tsunami, 26th December 2004, Keith had an argument with one of Jasmine’s friends because she told Jasmine that Father Christmas didn’t exist. At 10 years old, Jasmine still believed in Father Christmas, and Keith wasn’t going to let the friend ruin things for her. That day was the last time Keith would look out for his little sister; two days later, he was gone.”
The Birth of a Special boy
Gail had a pregnancy without much drama, but it had been agreed that delivering her baby by C-section would be the best option. However, when Gail went into labour, the gynaecologist on duty decided otherwise. After an 18-hour labour, it was decided that she needed to have the c-section. And Keith was born on the 4th of October, 1984.
“My mum told me that on a couple of occasions, on the way from the operating theatre to the maternity ward, Keith turned a grey colour and that after alerting the midwife, she turned him upside down and removed mucus so he could breathe. Keith was a happy baby, and I didn’t notice anything wrong with him. When he started crawling, it was sometime later that his paternal grandfather asked me if I had noticed that Keith didn’t open his left hand when he was crawling. We took him to the doctor for examination, and he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.”
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. CP is the most common motor disability of childhood, and most CP is related to brain damage that happened before or during birth, and it is called congenital CP. The risk of congenital CP is high if: a baby is born too small or too early; they’re a twin, triplet or from another multiple births; their mother has an infection during pregnancy; the baby has kernicterus (a type of brain damage that can happen when severe new-born jaundice goes untreated); and other complications during birth.
As Keith had a traumatic birth, it was a plausible explanation for the cause of his CP. Gail, however, was not fazed by this diagnosis. “To be honest, this never bothered me because he was growing up normally. But, yes, he took some time to walk and to talk. He started physiotherapy, and because his left arm was a bit stiff, he kept his arm up, so my mum told him to put his hand in his pocket. It became a habit and his coping mechanism – to control his arm, he would put his hand in his pocket. And many people didn’t know about his disability, so when they saw him with his hand in his pocket, they were impressed and would playfully tease him.”
Life for Keith was Normal
Keith had to take medication for a few years, but he grew up happy and attended normal school. Although the School of Exceptional Child was for children with disabilities, Gail knew that Keith could cope with regular school.
“We didn’t have anything against the School for the Exceptional Child, but because we knew he could cope at a regular school, that was the best choice for him. He did struggle a little bit as he had to play catch up and was not so keen on creole, but he loved English, and when he reached Primary 5, he blossomed. After completing secondary school, he went to the Seychelles Institute of Technology, where he took up electronics.”
Keith’s Struggles and Determination
Keith was no different to any teenage boy, and he had his fair share of disagreements with his parents and siblings. “They all had chores to do, and because he had limited use of his left arm, his chores didn’t entail using both hands. So, it was picking up the crockery after washing up, feeding the pets and sweeping outside. He did try to shirk his chores. I remember the days when instead of taking the bus straight to Beau Vallon, where we lived, he would take the bus going through Anse Etoile with his friend Marlon who lived at Machabée, and he would do the whole north, hoping that when he got home, his younger sister would have fed the pets!”
Keith had a friendly personality, and he cared a lot about people, especially people with disabilities. He valued his family and close friends, but sometimes he would get frustrated because he wanted to be like everybody. However, this frustration never lasted because he realised that he had a lot going for him despite his limitations.
“Sometimes, he was quite volatile. I put it down to the fact that he had his disability and limitation. After finishing his studies at SIT, he told me that he would look for a job without involving his dad or myself. However, no matter how hard he tried, he was not successful. After some time, he threw the towel in, and I helped him with his job hunting. Finally, he went to work at the then Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB) in the IT department, which he loved.”
The Phone Call
On the 29th of December—a very gloomy day with torrential rain—the world was still coming to terms with the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean three days earlier. At that time, Gail and her family lived at her parents’ house at Pascal Village while their family home was under construction at Nouvelle Vallee, not far from her parents’ place.
“Keith used to go and sleepover at the house we were building as it had been burgled nine months earlier. He would go there at about 7 pm and come back early the next morning to get ready for work. That day, it was a bit strange that he hadn’t come back to the house, and even if I called him, he did not answer his phone. However, I remember telling my mum that he had overslept as it was quite dark and cold. I got ready to go to work and got my usual lift into work with a work colleague. My eldest daughter, Christine, was working at the airport at that time and had to go in for a training session, and Jasmine was on school holiday.
“This was only three days after the tsunami, and because the bridge before Eden Island had been damaged, we had to go to the office the long way through Plaisance, Brilliant, and then go back towards town. The roads everywhere were flooded, and traffic was a nightmare. I finally made it to the office, and as soon as I got there, my phone rang; it was my mum.”
That phone call would change Gail’s life forever: “My mum told me that she had gone to the house with the lady who was working with us at that time. She said that Keith was not well and that she was now back at her house. I asked her why she would leave him alone if he was not well? She didn’t answer the question and asked me to come home and to call an ambulance.”
Desperation and the Journey Back Home
Gail was not sure what to make of the strange phone call from her mother. She was desperate to get to Keith, but she knew that because of the flooding of the roads, the journey back was going to be a long winding one. So she called Keith’s father, Ronny Jumeau, hoping that he could get to him.
“He couldn’t go. His parents’ house was flooded, and his driver had gone there, and he had no car. So I also called a couple of family friends with whom Keith got on very well and explained the dilemma I was in. I also explained the situation to my boss at that time, the CEO of Airtel, Neeran Chibber, and he told me to go back home.”
A work colleague offered to take Gail home, and, once again, they had to go a long way. It was a slow and difficult journey as the flooded roads were difficult to navigate through. However, her daughter Christine was on the Air Seychelles staff bus, so she got off at a bus stop convenient for Gail to pick her up.
“We made the journey back home. Deep inside, I was preparing myself for the worst. I had an air of unease in my stomach. I kept thinking, why would mum leave Keith alone if he was not well? Why not stay with him? The journey through town was rough; there was water everywhere, and going up St Louis road was worse. Water gushing down the road had created huge potholes. It felt like we had been driving forever. Before I got to Keith, my phone rang: it was the family friend. I heard the words I was dreading the most – ‘I am so sorry, my dear….’ At that point, I was willing the car to move faster, but it was impossible.”
Our Keith was Gone
“When we reached Pascal Village, I practically ran out of the car, removed my shoes and just ran down to our house. I didn’t wait for anyone, not even my daughter. When I got to the kitchen door, I saw his shoes. I went into the dining room and saw my son, my Kiku, sprawled on the floor. Numbed with shock, I couldn’t even cry. The image of him lying there across the floor by the staircase and not moving was traumatic. I dropped to my knees and started cradling him in my arms. He had gashes on his body. He had died by electrocution.”
Soon after, the circumstances of Keith’s death became clear. He had taken his shoes off and had gone to the sitting room to switch on an electrical extension. But instead of using his hand, Keith had used his foot, which was wet, and that’s how it happened. Keith was 20 years old. He had spent his young life facing many challenges due to his disability, and for his life to end like this was unimaginable.
Loss and Chaos
The death and loss of a child is the ultimate tragedy. It is a pain and suffering that is probably impossible to grasp without experiencing it first-hand. On that fateful day, 29th December 2004, Gail found herself in this heart-breaking situation, faced with the death of her beloved son.
“I cannot really put into words the feelings, the scene and the chaos of that day. His father arrived soon after the police arrived. My work colleague had called the office, and soon some male work colleagues arrived in the company’s pickup truck. We wrapped Kiku up in some bedsheets and made the most difficult journey of my life to Victoria Hospital through Curio Road, which was much more accessible. By the time we got to Casualty (Accident and Emergency), Medics were waiting, and he was taken inside and examined and certified dead. Then we made the painful journey to the mortuary. It broke my heart to see my son being loaded in this cold metal box: morgue freezer.”
The Last Memory of Him
On the evening of the 28th December, before he left the house, Keith had a liver mousse on bread, some Pringles and half of a small Christmas pudding and cream—all his favourites.
“These were goodies I had returned home with from the UK just a few days before Christmas. He rubbed his tummy, told me he was full, and he was leaving. I remember telling him that it was raining and he should stay home, but he insisted that he would be fine. He enjoyed being at the house alone. He used to sleep in a hammock upstairs. He told me that he could look at the sky, see the stars, and talk to God.
“On the evening of the 29th, I went back to the house, alone, at around 6 pm; the rain had finally stopped, but it was very cloudy, and the house was dark. However, the first thing that struck me was how peaceful the place was. I just sat on the stairs alone and cried my heart out, and it was my first cry.”
His Hopes and Dreams
Keith had plans and dreams. He was interested in politics, and there were many places he wanted to visit. One of his dreams was to see his father become an ambassador.
“A couple of years before his death, he had gone to London to visit his godfather, Bertrand Rassool, who was the Seychelles High Commissioner to Great Britain at the time. He told his godfather and his wife that he would love to see his dad become an ambassador one day, and he specifically wanted him to be ambassador to the US.
“The day his dad was named ambassador to the UN and US, I got a call from his godfather’s wife, who shared Keith’s wish with me. I’ve had no idea about it. It was a surreal moment for all of us. Keith’s wish had come true. I am sure that if he was still alive, he would have made it to Cuba, one of the places he wanted to visit, and he was also a great fan of Manchester United and visiting Old Trafford was another of his dream; I believe that he would have done it. He had a lot of Manchester United memorabilia which I put in his coffin. Amongst the things that were in his bag the day he died was a book on Plato, his notebook with a budget that he was working on for 2005.”
After a family discussion, it was agreed that the funeral should be before the year changed. Keith’s family wanted to send him off the year he died- burying him after the new year did not feel right.
“The whole country was in chaos; the aftermath of the tsunami, heavy rainfall and flooding were making simple tasks hard. We decided to have the funeral on the 31st December. I just wanted to handle everything alone. I had help with sorting out the grave—the original place we chose kept filling up with water, so an alternative spot was chosen. I organised the religious part of of his send-off and sorted out the flowers.
“The night before his funeral, I roamed around the house finding things to do. I prepared his clothes. I wrote him a note, telling him how much I loved him, that he was my little Kiku and he would always have a special place in my heart forever. I asked him to forgive me for a misunderstanding we had a few days earlier. I put the letter in his jacket pocket, his favourite Jacket which I chose for him to wear.”
Holding it Together
For Keith, Gail found strength she didn’t know she had. She was heartbroken, but she was determined to give Keith the send-off he deserved: “It was the last time I would see him on earth! At the funeral, I was dry-eyed. Nobody wanted to read the eulogy I had prepared, so who else had to do it? His mama. Many people asked me how I did it, I don’t know, but I did it. Somehow he had given me the strength to go up there and talk about him.
“He had a beautiful sendoff. When my father died, Keith always said that he was now the ‘man of the house’, but we started 2005 as a women-only household. His death impacted our lives in every way, but I still had my two girls, and I knew that I had to be strong for them.”
“How did I cope? (Pause)… My mum cried all the time and refused to go down to the house; she was the first person to find Keith, so it was hard. A few months after his death, I dreamt of Keith; it was on Good Friday. On that day, I had gone to put flowers on his grave, and that evening, I dreamt of him smiling, and he told me that he was fine. My mum, on the other hand, kept dreaming of him crying. In the end, I had to resort to ‘tough love’ and told her, however painful it was, she had to accept that he was gone and that we should cherish his memory. Finally, after a lot of persuading, she agreed to go to the house and his grave. Two days later, she told me she dreamt of Kiku as a little boy, and he was smiling at her. Keith was at peace.
“For some reason, I kept my sadness to myself; my mum and daughters never saw me cry. One day my mum and I had an argument about something, and I got a bit upset, and she told me it was strange that I got upset for such a simple thing and yet I didn’t even cry for my son. I went ballistic and let her know that I did cry, only I didn’t do it in front of her as I didn’t want her to be sad. That was a turning point; the subject was never brought up again. The girls went through the grief their own way; Christine never talked about Keith’s death, Jasmine asked questions. Their brother’s death was a traumatic experience, and in a lot of ways, they helped me cope because I had to focus on them and their wellbeing.
“And most importantly, Keith knew how much I loved him. That fateful night before he left, I did hug him and told him I loved him, and he died knowing he was loved by many. Keith died before celebrating his 21st birthday. He died on the night of the 28th of December, Holy Innocents Day. For me, he was still an innocent child whom God had other plans for him before his 21st birthday. And this mindset also helped me cope with this tragedy and move on with life, cherishing all the memories of him.”
I have never lost a child, so my experience is not firsthand. Although not necessarily true, we always say that parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Sometimes we do, though, and when it happens, we have to cope and move on. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting—we will grieve for the hopes and dreams we had for our children, the potential that will never be realised, and the experiences we will never share. That is what I took from Gail’s tragic loss and that the pain of these losses will always be a part of us. But with time, we will find a way forward and begin to experience happiness and meaning in life again.
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