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Departures 1

The rain is still pitter-patting around my silent house, large drops, after the enormous thunderstorm. We drove through it all the way from Birdhaven, it became hectic on Linksfield road where hail began. The hail, which had the little Mathilde and Apolline hysterical with joy as we approached the Airport, was growing bigger with each kilometer. You just don't get that kind of storm in lowlands of the Pas de Calais. The chatter from the back seat matched the cracking sound of the rather large stones hitting the windscreen and the car body.
 
I felt strangely alien in the swirling crowds of the departure desks, the coffee shops and the stringent controls, the girls were giggling through. They made it with their precarious passports and unabridged birth certificates and a little too much peri-peri sauce from Nando's in the hand luggage. They will have to make their own in St. Omer. Then they were gone, flying to the north.
 

The pillar of strength, Gaelle who was there through the weeks of the trauma of Aline's pain and death, drove back with me, in near silence punctuated by her knowledgeable navigation commands. Then Gaelle was gone and the house was bereft of chatting people and permanently active, bright little girls and very caring larger ones. 
 
Just a little blue box on the window sill. It seems only a bit lighter than the live person I picked-up in my arms only ten days ago and carried to her bed.
 
I lit every possible light inside and outside of the house, tidied up a little but not too much, it's better to go slowly. Every candle is burning.
Now is the time to start again.
 
The beginning of the last lap. Without those familiar sounds and pictures of forty-five years. 

UNTITLED by Annemarie Hendrikz

the oldness of old
when it comes
is so immense

so threadbare

will someone darn me
wrap me
around their shoulders

when they feel lonely
about being young
and so strong

SNAPSHOTS FROM SURGICAL ONE by Rose Jackson

High above the freeway,
and the harbour,
I see small tugs nudge giant tankers out into the bay.
All night twin lights flash at the entrance to the docks.
Early morning traffic inches along below,
catching flashes of early sunlight.
Sunrise over the Hottentot’s Holland.
Fullmoonrise.
One night: a helicopter, silently suspended just outside the window,
its underside lights blazing into the ward.

Beside my bed yellow roses light up the ward.
The kindnesses of staff nurse Thandeka and Mr Xholisa warm me.
Here, close to the sky, looking out over the city,
I am suspended, in time, an endless trance.

A week ago,
in the shadowy subterranean world
of ICU.
Ghostly figures – was it day? Night? –
appeared beside my bed to take blood,
to feed me bowls of ‘clear fluids’
and numbing opioids,
to bathe me.
And to fade away again.
Every hour a ghostly robotic rubber band tightened around my upper arm.
Machines humming, bleeping,
somewhere someone snoring through the night.

Now, here, in Surgical One, thoughts come unbidden.
Will I float again on the waves of the ocean?
Swim lengths in the Sea Point Pool?
I will – probably – never swim naked in a mountain pool again.
I am not immortal,
Indestructible,
The last verse of a Wopko Jensma poem [¡] comes to mind:
i hope to live to the age of… sixty (ninety?)
i hope to leave some evidence
that I inhabited this world
that I sensed my situation
that I created something
out of my situation
out of my life
that i lived
as human
alive
i
I hope to have glowed, however briefly,
to have warmed those close to me –
My daughter, my son, grandsons, granddaughter,
My students.

Home again,
independent,
there are endless SMSes from GEMS [¡¡] “A claim from Dr Patrick Morton for 431 rands and 99 cents received”
“ A claim from Dr Leon Varkel…”,
hospital authorisation numbers.
I owe the stoma clinic R3 000.
They supply the urostomy pouch,
the bag for nights.

My ten-year-old grandson,
keen marine biologist,
says my stoma “is like a sea anemone,
a closed- up one”.

Now memories of feelings felt two months ago arrive.
The post-surgery pain memory dissolves into the misty, floating, opioid Oxynorm distance.
Clearer is the memory of the kindnesses of the nurses, doctors, dietician, physio.

My daughter, in that long-ago time before the surgery,
distant, impatient,
now full of concern,
sweetly solicitous, bringing food, perfume, an orange squeezer.
My son calls every day.
There are affectionate, concerned phone calls, from my ex-husband,
messages, calls from friends.
I describe the surgery to them as “Life changing”.
Tessa replies, “Ah, but you have your life!”

I feel gently held by unfamiliar woven threads of care, of love.
My mind is drained,
emptied,
weighing less than a gossamer of dandelion seeds.
For a month I have not looked at FaceBook or emails.
I feel cleansed
of the endless low-grade bladder infection,
most of all washed clean of anxieties, long incubated resentments.
The nightly urostomy bag ritual,
the twice weekly
plastic bladder renewal,
the cleaning of the sea anemone…
A small price to pay.

i am wide awake again,
alive again,
i have swum twice in the Sea Point pool.

[¡] from ‘Spanner in the what?’ – Works by Wopko Jensma
[¡¡} Government Employees Medical Scheme

GRACE

When Grace came for her interview, she struck terror in the residents of our Group Home. She entered in the doorway which, in terms of width, she filled. In height she was but a gnome, barely reaching my shoulder. The group were genuinely afraid of her. She had deformities of her face and body but what unnerved them the most was the glare from her very large, green, ex-ophthalmic eyes. Everything about her stance and her expression proclaimed a fierce self-will.

From the background given by her family, the social worker and from her records we learned that Grace had been born with scoliosis, brain damage, a weak heart and generalised disabilities. The doctors predicted she would only live until she was about 16. Her parents therefore decided to give this child the best 16 years they could. They chose to do this by never saying “no” to her. By letting her do and have whatever she desired. While she was still very young, she spent many months in hospital undergoing surgeries to help straighten her spine. This only compounded the sympathy her parents felt for her and they simply gave in more and more to her every whim

So, this young girl grew up feeling thoroughly entitled. She was demanding and discourteous, especially to those closest to her. By the time she was twelve she had no idea of boundaries and it was not unheard of for her to walk into the family kitchen before a meal and eat an entire roasted chicken on her own. Nothing was ever done to correct this.

By sixteen she was still very much alive.

Then her father died and she stayed with her devoted mother until she was thirty-five. Then the mother passed on and her older brother and sister-in-law had to take her in. But they soon found they were out of their depth with her and they came to us desperate, explaining that she disrupted their household, was rude, spoilt and did not cooperate with them or their two growing children.

According to her medical records, Grace had Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and the beginnings of heart failure. She was on medication for the blood pressure and the diabetes but her obesity and eating habits were never addressed

During the interview I was sitting on the same side of the long dining room table as Grace. So, I did not look directly at her but was strongly aware of her presence beside me. This turned out to be very fortunate because I did not expect what then emanated as a very clear feeling from this obviously difficult woman. I sensed in her something subtly different from the personality and form she was presenting. What came through to me was soft, kind and actually quite beautiful. This was the deciding factor for me in the meeting with Grace.

Over the years, anyone coming to be interviewed for our Group Home for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities would need to spend some time alone with our other residents. Afterwards we could ask them if they felt the person would fit in. Their opinion was always taken very seriously.

So, after Grace left, we waited for their reactions.

The response was unanimous – “NO!”

“Nee – she’s scary!” said Anna.

“Ouma, did you see her teeth? Her eyes?” said Edgar.

“She is so bossy and cheeky. No!” said Clive

“Sy lyk soos die tokolos Ouma**” whimpered Marie.
[**Ouma was my nickname, given to me by the residents. I was in my thirties.]

We had never admitted anyone that the group did not feel happy about. But this time I said,
“I really believe we must give her a chance”. After some discussion I could more or less reassure them that this was the right thing to do and we agreed to admit her for the usual 3-month trial period.

She arrived on a Sunday. Her brother took her many suitcases of clothes and boxes of personal items to her room. Then he fetched in about six fully laden shopping bags of cookies, chocolates, candies and potato chips which I thought must be a gift for our whole group.

“Should these go to the kitchen?” I asked.

“No, no these are for Grace.” he said, heading to her room.

“May she eat all those things? They are regular sweets, not diabetic ones.” I mentioned, astonished.

“Well…. she loves them…and…. you know how it is?” he said shrugging. He dropped off the bags and quickly ushered his wife out to their car.

Before speeding off, he handed me several containers of artificial sweetener through his open window, as if he had just remembered them. “She must use this in tea and coffee,” he said.

I just shook my head as they pulled away.

That Monday first thing I took Grace to the local doctor who found her blood pressure reasonably controlled but her blood glucose level was up in the high twenties. This was serious and could not go on he told her looking earnestly at her. I nodded. Grace scowled as if she knew she was about to be told “No” for the first time in her life.

“No more sweets Grace, no cakes, no puddings, no jam, no nothing unless Ouma puts it in front of you – alright?” he said to her firmly.

Green fire flashed at us, her jaw tightened and she clenched her little fists as we left the doctor’s office. She was still complaining loudly to me when we arrived home. She could not believe it when I removed all the snacks from her room.

“You heard Dr Simons.” I said.

So ensued a standoff of mutually dug in heels for some time. But there was no relenting on my part and no matter how many grumbles or tantrums, I made sure she remained scrupulously on the correct diet. Of course, I felt for her because it could not have been easy to suddenly have to watch others eating a malva pudding with custard dessert while she had to be satisfied with a piece of fruit and some unflavoured yogurt. But she was given so much consistent praise and endless encouragement for sticking to this regime that as the weeks went by, she began to adapt to the change with fewer grunts and glowers.

Integrating our residents into the community of our small rural town was a cornerstone of our program. So, getting Grace to stick to her new eating plan outside of the house also had to be faced. Our residents went visiting in town regularly and attended many functions where they were warmly welcomed and offered generous refreshments. We had to drill Grace to say “No thanks I am not allowed to, I am diabetic” and this was a lot harder than controlling her diet at home. Often, when I could not be at these outings, I would appoint one of the other residents to try to keep watch on what she ate. And as to be expected this often ended badly. Fights and arguments ensued and these discords needed resolving when they returned home. But in time, I was able to convince the very generous hostesses of the community to please offer Grace something not loaded with starch and sugar. And they did and this problem was then handled.

But during the first few weeks and months with Grace we not only worked to alter her appetites but we also had to challenge her behaviour especially towards her fellow residents. She had good “company manners” and was always charming and agreeable to the public. But she was so used to manipulative relationships with “family” that initially, at home with us, she was a tyrant, still expecting to always have her way and be put first. It was a surprise for her to find that although we wanted to love her and that we deeply cared about her, we refused to pander to rudeness.

Right from the start I had mainly been the one to correct Grace when she was bossing another resident around, giving orders or pushing someone out of her way. She refused to be contradicted ever and would answer back with venom. She did this once with me. But only once. And she was genuinely shocked at my immediate censure.

The difficulty was that she held the residents in a spell of almost superstitious fear. She only had to glare at someone to get her way or have her demands obeyed. This of course had to stop.

“Why do you allow her to yell at you, to boss you around, to grab things from you or make you do her chores?” I would ask them as one by one they came to me to complain about her bullying.
.
“But Ouma she gives us that look!” They would say, noticeably distressed. “She must go. Tell her brother to take her away.” I was often quite torn by their discomfort but kept remembering what I had felt about Grace during the interview.

“I can’t tell her to go just yet.” I said to them “But anyway she is half your height, most of you. She can do nothing to you.” I would say to both the men and the women who equally backed down for her. “She is not magic, no matter how she looks. Just say “no” to her and see what happens.”
I repeated this for weeks on end.

Eventually the group somehow gained resolve and began to react to her in a more realistic way. Together we could now go on grinding away at Grace’s stony surface and after a few months of this unified stance, Grace began to change. More and more often she would respond pleasantly. She would react in a fair and reasonable way towards the others. Until she seemed to realise how much better things turned out if she cooperated, was polite and got along with everyone. At last she must have experienced how it felt to be included and liked rather than just always obeyed.

Grace’s eventual transformation was astounding. All in all, it took place over about 1 year. By then she had also dropped about 4 dress sizes and in the process, had turned into a disarming elf. The bullfrog cheeks hollowed down. The strange undershot jaw and protruding lower teeth were no longer so disturbing in what emerged as the delicate face of a sprite. Those enormous green eyes still protruded but the brittle glare had completely dissolved. So that, now, diminutive in stature and open-hearted in demeanour, with an ethereal dignity, the Grace I had sensed that first day finally stepped free.

As with many transformations there is no one point where you can say ”Aha, that was what did it – that was the day it happened.” We simply realised, as time passed, that Grace had been so helpful, so sweet for so long; she had caused no fights, been loving and agreeable for so many months that no one could even remember what she had been like before. She was now a real treasure to have in our family.

Then one day she began to fade.

She returned from a short vacation on her uncle’s isolated farm in the cold shadow of the mountains, looking tired and drawn. She was very pale; her belly was badly distended and after the mildest activity she would be exhausted and breathless. Previously she could stride briskly along with the others but now she found that even the two blocks to church was too much for her.

Our local doctor examined her thoroughly and grimly told me he was sending her to the hospital in the city for tests. This process was to turn out lengthy but they eventually confirmed the diagnosis we had all dreaded. Her kidneys were failing. Years of uncontrolled diabetes had left her body ravaged and she had aplastic anaemia. There was nothing that would reverse this; we could only manage it for as long as possible. Bravely, without really understanding the full implications of her illness she began to submit gently to her growing discomfort and progressive loss of vitality.

She received regular blood transfusions which meant time in hospital. We preferred it when she could go to our small town’s cottage hospital so we could be with her. But most often she had to go to the city two hours away because other treatments were also needed. Despite having her brother there, she received virtually no visits. We would call the hospital every day and she could sometimes talk to us on the duty room phone. We always heard from the staff how she lit up the ward she shared with the poorest of the poor; of her friendliness and the beautiful prayers she said for them. Everyone, doctors, nurses and patients loved this elfin woman who smiled and chatted and never complained.

When she came home, she was more and more confined to bed. As she weakened, she could do little for herself. We bathed her, changed the diapers she eventually required and assisted with whatever she needed day and night. At this stage she was being showered with attention and pampering when she actually did not want it anymore. By now she had become so sensitive that she apologised continuously for needing so much care and expressed endless thanks. Neither were needed as it was a true pleasure to assist her.

Her room-mates Dana and Maxie were inspired. I have never seen such joyful, selfless care. Often, they would call me at 2 or 3 in the morning so we could change the bedding and lift Grace into a warm and cleansing bath. They helped me care for her like two professional nurses with tireless patience and thoroughness. Every so often Grace would whisper to me, out of their hearing, to buy them some gifts from her pocket money to show her appreciation. She would look utterly delighted when they showed her the new crayons or the chocolates she had given them.

As her physical state deteriorated so her radiant spirit came more into view, a significant light in our home as her condition worsened. And so, we could share in her brave and gracious preparation to release a body that had troubled her all her life.

On Easter Saturday the housefather had an idea to set up his video camera in the dining-room in front of our Easter display. Each of us in turn was to speak for a few moments, with only the eyes and ears of the camera present, alone in the room filled with green and gilded palm branches, painted eggs, black, red and green drapes and dozens of candles which we lit at all meals during that week. At the end of the day we gathered together to view our conversations.

Each one was perfect: innocent, uncontrived and unique, addressing their own perception of Deity or their departed loved ones. Some expressed many thoughts and feelings, others only spoke for a few seconds; some were funny, some shy and some messages were just silence or sighing or a smile.

We carried Grace from her bed in her yellow fluffy pyjamas and she had a turn speaking in a soft unhesitant voice. Like a prayer she said how much she loved and appreciated Jesus. She told him how she missed her mother and she shed a few tears. Then she thanked him for everything he did for her and for her wonderful friends.

As we watched Grace on the tape, all around her the screen began to glow, with a luminous golden yellow that had not appeared with any of the others’. Even long afterwards when we played that tape no-one could decide if it was just the candle flames reflected off her yellow pyjamas or did Grace, that last Easter, already begin to move off into the light.

Her birthday came that spring. It was a quiet and happy day. None of her relatives visited, but they called and sent gifts. She was forty-three.

A week later she had to return to the local hospital very ill and we were told to notify her family urgently that weekend.

They never arrived saying they were busy, or their car was broken.

We stayed with her. She was barely conscious and, on the Sunday, her little limbs could not find rest but thrashed around as if wanting to begin on a journey. She smiled a lot.
Early Monday morning she stepped across into the golden yellow light.

Now the family found the time and attended her funeral and I watched their tears and again could only shake my head.

We would visit her grave often and leave flowers but there was no money for a headstone. The following Easter Saturday, we packed the minibus with plants and a pile of clean, white river stones. We decorated her grave with pagan flourish in a riotous planting of flowers and set a large cross of the white stones into the silver-grey Karoo earth. We said prayers, one by one, as the autumn clouds lowered over us and we all felt Grace’s deep, glowing peace.

To my knowledge none of her family has ever visited her grave.

WHEN BY SOME ACCOUNTS

When by some accounts
a vast and thrilling sound
shall resonate through the cosmos
and the dead shall arise in-
corruptible from various tombs,
heaps of ash now scattered
and recycled, and obscure
ditches and other places of dis-
solution, what would I
be wearing, if anything, beyond
my own reconstituted
skin, and what state of skin,
mind and experience would best
suit eternity? Fantasies
of youthful perfection
flicker like lightning
seen far off, with promise
of soothing rain, but my footing
is here, and there is no other
than joy in the vicissitudes
of my unalterable years.

THE AWKWARD BAG TO CARRY

14 OCTOBER 2018

Lying empty on the floor at my feet, the worn leather holdall is a thing of beauty, harking back to a time of artisanal labours of love, quality and long life.  It conjures the image of a dog lying close by, one of protective companionship.

Beautiful as it is, it’s not an easy carry. When full, the narrow strap doesn’t feel robust enough to hold its weight and the handles although strong, require the arm to be held at an unnatural angle if one is to avoid bruising one’s calves, and I bruise easily. It is not suited to airline travel, and a seasoned bushwhacker might argue that it wouldn’t be useful on safari either, as dust and unwanted curious creatures may enter the gaps between the zip and beautiful side folds. Even when packing,  ideally someone needs to hold it open whilst you load it up. So why the sentimentality?  Why the unnecessary friction to reclaim it during the breakup of my marriage? I had in fact gifted to my husband, then insisted that because it had belonged to Spike, it was mine.

19 MARCH 2000

I’m woken by a loud knock at the door, it’s pre-dawn on a Sunday morning. I sit bolt upright  and scream a single scream. I’ve no idea why. My husband gets up and goes to the door. I hear voices,  him asking what’s going on and their insistence that they need to talk to me.  I venture down the open wooden staircase that separates the lounge and dining room of our Victorian home.  James turns, concerned at once for me, the situation and the sheerness of a simple but pretty cotton nightie and my naked body beneath.  The nightie had belonged to my late mother. She’d passed on 14 months earlier and I’d kept it when Spike and I had packed up her home in Durban.  James and I  had married, two months ahead of our planned wedding so she could be part of our celebration and union. After beginning married life as a grieving wife, it had felt good to say to the bereavement counsellor two weeks earlier, that I could feel spring in the air, I could notice the world around me again.

I take myself immediately to the couch, perhaps for the modesty sitting might provide whilst also intuiting I’d not be stable on my feet. The two young policemen remain in the doorway, not wanting to intrude and to ensure a hasty getaway. They reconfirm who I am and ask me what car my brother drove. They say there’s been an accident. I hear myself: ‘Is he ok?”

Images of hospitals and injuries flash through my mind. More bedside care; the world I’ve been all too familiar with in the final months in the lives of both my parents.

“I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”

James, who is standing midway between the police at the door and me on the couch, rushes over exclaiming loudly “She’s lost all her family”, as he wraps his arms around me.

I feel numb, the words seemingly hanging midway in the air. If I could only keep them suspended there, then I’d not have to feel the full blow of their impact. Instead I imagine these two young policemen on duty at the station, almost at the end of their Saturday all night shift, receiving the call from their colleagues in the Franschhoek station, possibly even drawing straws as to who would go. Is this their first time? Did I make a lousy job, a little easier? I marvel at how quickly I’ve been informed. Learning only later that the car windscreen had blown out, flinging the bag on the passenger seat out of the vehicle as it flipped on it’s head and caught alight. Spike, with a little Moleskin book that must have been fairly new, had listed me as his next-of-kin, address and all. If only he’d have been as thorough as to complete that will template I’d given him some months earlier and would find lying in its cellophane wrapper in his desk drawer in his office at the wine cellar.

TODAY

I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing a spontaneous meal with my new, big love, sharing the spaces of uncertainty and anticipation ahead of this Life Righting Course I’m going on in the morning and these objects I need to take along…and I begin the story of the policemen at the door and my voice cracks all over again, tears prick my eyes and we are both taken by surprise. Some hours later, after a beautiful evening I walk him to his car, a Land Rover,  and am reminded for the first time in decades of the awful fights with the man in KZN over the Land Rover Spike had bought, had customized and not yet taken delivery of at the time of his death. Me, screeching in desperation at the hole ripped right through me by the thought of journeying through life without my younger brother, accompanied instead by this worn, leather holdall…an awkward bag, so difficult to carry.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW PARIS

I want to be in Paris in my 50th year with a man I love.

When I turned 45, unhappy and separating from a relationship, I had written this into my journal in longhand, the black ink from my favourite fountain pen sprawling the letters across one page. It was a vow, a prayer, that I would have found the love I had been looking for in a series of relationships with unsuitable men.

Five years later I was walking along a Paris boulevard in a stupor, in love with every street cafe, every sultry Parisian waiter, in love with the man by my side whom I had not yet married but whose ring was already on my left hand. We had flown to France after visiting his family in Canada: my introduction to his mom and sisters and brother. He’d been the only one who had decided to not emigrate around 25 years previously. Lucky me,that he’d decided to stay. The Paris part of the trip was my fiftieth birthday gift to myself.

Just before we’d left, I had lunch with my dad. We sat on the stoep talking. He reminded me how helpless he’d felt over the years,  watching me fall in love with men who squandered me.

“But this new man looks solid,” he said, “and he seems kind.” The highest compliment my dad could give another man.

We spoke about how I wanted my dad to walk me down the aisle. At my first wedding, 30 years previously, I was pregnant, and his arm shook as he walked me down that first aisle, deeply worried about my future. That husband was the father of my second child too, but the marriage did not last. I was the first in my family to get divorced, which was hard for father even as he was relieved that I had the courage to step out of a marriage where I did not get sufficient support and care.

As I drove away that Sunday, my dad had walked out into the street to wave goodbye as usual. I thrust my arm up tall out of the car window until I came to the end of the street and turned left and out of sight. Our family farewell ritual.

For the first ten days of the Canadian leg of the trip, I sent an occasional SMS, a voice note and a video of the Niagara Falls, wanting to share some of my Canada experience with my father. He’d never travelled outside South Africa.  When we boarded our flight to Paris. I was relieved to have my fiancee all to myself.

On the train from the airport, rumbling through grey and rather uninspiring suburbia, a little rumpled and tired from the long flight, I first saw the Eiffel Tower appearing in miniature in the distance. I had been looking out for it, almost disappointed that it wasn’t immediately visible as we stepped onto French soil. My fiancé didn’t say anything when he saw the single tear rolling down my cheek. Instead he leaned over and wiped the tear away with his thumb, smiling at this soft hearted, soft waisted, romantic, middle aged woman.

A photograph taken in Les Deux Magots shows me sitting at a table, a glass of wine half in the frame, my fountain pen poised mid-air as I glance down at my journal. I felt completely at home, a deep connection with other writers and most famously, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway. His “Moveable Feast” had made such an impression on me, and now I was here, in the same place, 90 years later. We got lost the next day looking for another famous Parisian landmark, Shakespeare and Co, and then stumbled upon it. On one of the overflowing shelves I found “The Old Man and the Sea”. I was thrilled to find this special edition, a hardback copy in a limited print run, which I knew my dad would love.  He was an English teacher at the high school I used to go to, and he had given me the school edition, a set work book for the matrics he taught when I was around 13 years old. On the way to the check-out counter, I had a chilling moment of doubt that my father’s hands would ever touch it, a presentiment: like that “long shadow on the lawn” which Emily Dickenson so starkly describes.

I shrugged it off. I was too happy, the kind which expands and oozes into every experience. I felt like a child, seeing with a kind of innocence each cobblestone, each art nouveau Metro sign, every macaron in the confectionary shops, all the crusty, pointy baguettes sticking out from shopping baskets as French housewives hurried by. And that other ubiquitous steel construction, the Eiffel Tower, always just in or out of sight, reassuringly thrusting upwards in a proudly French way. We had a small loft room in a friend’s home in a little village just outside Paris from where we could see over rooftops and unfamiliar trees. I have a photograph taken from the bed. Long white muslin curtains billow slightly, French window with glass panes wavy with age open to a little Juliet balcony, the soft morning light on tumbled white bedlinen. A romantic dream come true.

I was scooping out warm bone-marrow from a boat of a bone of beef cut lengthways, to spoon onto a round of toasted baguette, the signature dish of a trendy bistro, when I got the SMS. It was my brother. Dad in ICU. He is unconscious and intubated. Thought you needed to know. Everything around me slowed, my ears filled with warm wet cotton wool, the food on the plate suddenly obscene to my eyes. The friends we were with quietened down and offered a subdued, “We’re sorry”. I tried phoning, but only got hold of him the next morning. My dad had been in hospital since the week before. He had sworn everyone to silence so as not to upset and interrupt my long-awaited Paris trip, but when he lost consciousness my brother decided to call me. He had fallen ill on a hunting trip. Now he was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to life support.

The next day was the second last day of our trip. I thought of trying to get an immediate flight back but half in denial, half in acceptance of whatever may be, I did not. Each of my steps felt dull and heavy those last two days. I could hardly smile for a photograph on the bridge with all the love-locks. There were three places left on our list of To-See-and-Do, but the excitement and curiosity which had been trilling through my veins had disappeared. A phone call to my dad’s fiancee helped: she seemed less perturbed than my brother, saying that the doctors were taking good care of my dad and that she thought he’d be fine.

I clung to that possibility all the many sleepless hours in the plane back to Johannesburg, checking for calls and messages as soon as I could turn on my phone after landing. We dropped our bags at home and drove straight to the hospital. He was deeply sedated and intubated, drips and beeping machines at his bedside. I sat whispering almost feverishly, his hot forehead against mine as I urgently told him about the trip and my love for him and how I hoped that he was not suffering. He was unresponsive, still. I stayed until the late afternoon, exhausted. “Go home”, the nursing sister said, “we will call you if anything changes”.

They called the next morning. “You need to come now”, the sister said. Ten minutes later my brother phoned to tell me that my dad had died.

The last time I saw him he was cold, covered by a white hospital sheet, all the tubes and drips and machines removed. I sat by myself for a long time with his body, the curtain drawn around the bed after everyone else had said their goodbyes.

At his funeral I told the story of the Hemingway book in my eulogy. I did not relate what he’d said to me years before, half tipsy on brandy and coke: “I’ll die happy when I know that you’ve found someone who can love you the way you long to be loved.”

WE WAITED

He must be late.

It’s Monday.

Give him a call

Rather unusual he’s not here at all

He’s always the first one in

There must be something wrong, they said

This simply isn’t him.

Ring his landline

Send someone along

He’s never late

There’s something going on.

But nothing’s going on at home

Everything is off

Then it’s all so clear

He is not here

Not with us anymore.

The door knocked in

After four bell rings

The floor holding his body

Pale blue and straight

We’re twelve hours too late, they say

No, twelve years, I realise

Now wise.

We’re way too late

We always wait

Too long

To invade

A Life

With warmth and care

Then dare

To say in one foul breath

It was a painless death.

LAMENT FOR CATHERINE

Slowly they drive away; the mother’s heart goes with them

The pallbearers, father, husband, brother, uncle

Pain cutting into their faces as they take up their positions

The mother reaches out to stop them

The pallbearers, father, husband, brother, uncle

A firm hand moves to restrain her

The mother reaches out to stop them

A woman crosses over to hem her in

A firm hand moves to restrain her

Murmured words of sympathy

A woman crosses over to hem her in

She hears the sound of closing doors

Murmured words of sympathy

She recognises fear in other mothers’ eyes

She hears the sound of closing doors

With no experience of death, some smile shyly

She recognises fear in other mothers’ eyes

Pain cutting into their faces as they take up their positions

With no experience of death, some smile shyly

Slowly they drive away; the mother’s heart leaves with them.

Photo Credit: courtesy Unsplash Sandy Millar

THE BEAST

Two years ago, I went into Musica at Canal Walk, and staring at me was Gary Moore from a Vinyl Cover, what we used to call an LP. I rushed for the earphones and asked the shop assistant to play the LP. I listened, feeling my brother’s presence; the music transported me back thirty years, and we are dancing to Still got the blues and Empty rooms  by Gary Moore, and Fantasy by Kool and the Gang in the small room in our council house.

My brother, my Boeta – tall, dark handsome, caring and sensitive – never had a girlfriend, never knew the vices of life, because he was ripped from us on 2 July 1986. Maybe God needed him more.

My brother was the creative one in the family. With no money, all we knew was to go to school, finish matric, work hard so you can get a bursary and then go to university. Art School was not even part of my parents’ vocabulary. Who knows, he could have been our Picasso.

‘Kom gou!  Kyk wat ek het gedraw!’ My brother, my little Boeta called Balie, had a light beaming from his eyes. He pointed to a painting of Elvis Presley on the outside wall of our house.  It was the exact image of Elvis. He was only 9 years old.

Our three-roomed council house was home to six children and two adults, with an outside toilet.  Warm water was a luxury and once a week we placed a big pot of water on a coal stove for our proper bath. Life was not easy, but we persevered. As long as we had food to eat, things were fine. Forget clothes – we all waited for hand-me-downs from my mother’s employer. Holidays did not exist, something I still struggle with today. My dear father worked two jobs to keep us afloat and to avoid having to take us out of school to work in a factory. That was and still is the norm on the Cape Flats.

My mother was very strict and disciplined. She made us believe that it is only through education that we could get ahead in life – it was ’our ticket out of poverty’.

Her famous words: ‘Paradise for some and hell for others’, so is this life.  She meant paradise for white people and hell for black people, who we now refer to as people of colour.

*

Sometimes, when my brother and I would sing and dance to Gary Moore, Cool and the Gang and Elvis Presley, my father would enter the bedroom, and we would stand still in our tracks, feeling shy. We would wait for my father to leave the room and continue our beat.

My dad knew this and teased us. We would be happy.

While we were growing up, my brother slept in my parents’ room. Late at night, in the dark, I would creep into their room and feel the small bed next to my parent’s bed, checking to see whether my brother was there.

We used to play marbles, we kicked the ball and played kennetjie together. When we were small we even slept together on a mattress of ghoema hare. Sometimes our bronze coins would fall into the hole and we spent hours looking for the few cents because it is money for sweets! Only never to find the money. Oh! the disappointment.

Every Thursday, we would go to my father’s work to collect his weekly salary. Our first stop on the way home was a small café, where I would buy a big chocolate for us, then Pick ‘n Pay in Woodstock where we would buy the weekly groceries. Later my father would meet us at Pick ‘n Pay, and we would catch the bus home with my father, carrying bags of groceries.

My dad built a pond for the ducks in the back yard. He made a hole in the ground and cemented it with bricks. My papa loved animals, soft and kind-hearted he was, yet strong. My brother and I loved watching the ducks swimming in the pond and the hens hatching their eggs. We loved them so much that we could not eat their eggs and we could not bear the thought of killing them for food. Underneath the coal stove there was a storage place for the wood. In the evening we would convert it into a sleeping place for the chickens and ducks.

’Boeta, ons moet koolblare vir die eende en die hoenders gaan soek’. Every Sunday we woke early to scratch through the bins of the hawkers for green cabbage leaves for our ducks and chickens.

Every alternate week we would go to the hardware shop to buy mealies and grain feed.  We pushed our handmade wagon over two fields, avoiding the gangsters. One day a rough girl was picking a fight with me. She wanted to box me with her bare hands; being tough and rough are values that are admired in the community.

The children were beginning to form a circle around us, I was petrified because I had a skirt with a washing peg on instead of a button and was afraid the skirt was going to fall off and I would stand only in my panties! These thoughts were racing through my mind, I cannot let it happen. The other children were eager for the big fight. The rough girl hit me hard in the face, but I held up my skirt with one hand and fought her off with the other. My young brother tried to help me, but he was too small. I had to think on my feet and, for my own dignity and self-respect, I gave up the fight and ended up with a blue eye.

Boeta, I have been feeling your presence around me and I know you are with me, especially now that we have lost both our parents. Remember the time we walked all along the railway line to Simba Chips in Parow? It was the June school holiday and I told you we can go to Simba Chips and peel potatoes to earn money. ’No,’ the white man said, ‘you are too young.’  We were both in primary school. We were so brave.

*

Trains on the Cape Flats line were and still are a symbol of anguish, suffering and pain, a living hell, as people are rushing to make a living to feed their families. Always a worrying factor – will my loved ones return home safely?  .

One cold winter’s morning I rose early, and was rushing to get the 7am train to get to university. I stood in trepidation as I watched the beast entering the platform. The beast, adorned with human beings looking like ornaments: on the roof of the train, at the back of the train, in front of the train, in the windows of the train, between the carriages and the doors, wherever there is a hole it will be filled with people.

The managers and supervisors come from a different world – not knowing what their employees have to endure just to get to work, only to be ridiculed when arriving late.

Paradise for some and hell for others.

I can’t be late, I am writing an exam! I worried. I found a small space in the doorway where I could place my foot. As the train started to move, two hands lifted me up inside. I could have fallen into the tracks. The hands of God, I thought to myself. Usually it was a white conductor that blew the whistle for the train driver to leave the platform; ’Can’t he see? Why does he always blow the whistle so quickly?’ I mumbled to myself.

You have to be quick and swift or else you fall down off the platform. Who cares? Fifty years later nothing has changed, and today the situation is ten times worse. This line is now known as the notorious Central line.

The morning of the 2 July, I had just started working after graduating and took a day’s leave. Rain was falling hard on the asbestos roof.

My father, Babi, asked: ‘Gaan jy nie werk toe nie?’

‘Nie,’ sê ek, ‘ek is met verlof’.’

My brother replied, joking: ’Jy is lui!’ Those were his last words to me.

My brother was tossing and turning in bed, and my father warned him that he was going to miss his train. He liked to make himself two tin cups (bekers) of coffee. My eldest sister would often scold us when we were getting ready in the morning. As a comfort for my brother, I would prepare his two cups of coffee for him.

Maybe my brother wanted to speak to me that morning. Why was I so inattentive? If I wasn’t so half asleep, could I have prevented the tragedy?

That night I sneaked into his room and his bed felt cold. My brother never came home that day. My heart snaked.

Moni, my father’s eldest sister, said, ‘Balie het nie huistoe gekom nie.’

‘Ek moet hom gaan soek, Moni. Ek moet nou die hospitale bel, die polisie bel, miskien het iets met hom gebeur?’’ My father picked up the phone and started dialling.

I was twenty-one years old and did not know what to say … my poor dad.

‘Ä young man fell out of the train between Bontheuwel and Netreg station between 7 and 8am,’ the policeman told my father over the phone.

’They said he broke his neck and he died. We must now see if it is Balie’.

The rain was falling down hard and it was dark. I could not see in front of me as I drove behind my uncle to the mortuary in Salt River. I was still a learner driver.

My father came out with tears in his eyes. ’Dit is Balie…. ons moet hom huistoe vat.’ We put my brother in my uncle’s car, and drove in silence in the pouring rain to our house, tears streaming down my face.

It is tradition that the men prepare the body for the funeral, wrapping him in linen cloth. The sun had already set and it was too late to bury my brother that day, so we had to wait for the next day. My male cousins and uncles washed and embalmed his body for burying and laid his body on a cartel, or burial bed, in my parent’s room. Later, I took my mattress and I put it on the floor next to him and spent the night with him. It offered me a little comfort. My heart was outside of my body for a very long time.

Early the next morning when we woke, although no one had really slept, my mother went into a kind of silent coma. She never said a word, and carried him in her heart until it was her time to pass.

‘Balie, ek wil vir jou om vergifnis vra as ek nie ‘n goeie Pa vir jou gewees het nie.’ Tears welled and spilled down my father’s cheeks before he put the cottonwool over my brother’s face. ’Kom ons moet nou vir Balie groet … en ons moet sy gesig toemaak.’

I kissed my brother on the forehead, looked at him, and noticed that there was a smile on his face. ‘How can it be, he died so tragically, and he is smiling!’  My father closed my brother’s handsome face and wrapped a fez and linen around, and then the men took him away to be buried.

At the funeral people we didn’t know came to us and said that he always bought them food from the little money he received as pocket money.

One day I went to study at a friend’s house. As I arrived, her flat mate said; ‘Is your brother tall? Does he have a smile on his face?’ I replied yes, and she said: ‘He just walked in with you.’

Another time she told me she opened my bedroom door at 3am in the morning and she saw him sitting on my bed.

My brother, the gentle soul, turned twenty-one on 16 June 1986, and on 03 July 1986 he passed on. The meat that he bought for his twenty-first birthday was also used for food at his funeral.

Thirty-one years later my mom got ill and was hospitalized on the 28 June.  I thought that it is strange, so close to Balie’s passing.

My mom slipped into a coma, and she passed on the same day my brother passed. She waited for the same date. We buried her on the same day we buried my brother.

This is my story, but so many other tears have fallen: mothers and fathers burying their children, untimely deaths, gone too soon.

Main Photo credit link

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