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.
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
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,
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
I hope to have glowed, however briefly,
to have warmed those close to me –
My daughter, my son, grandsons, granddaughter,
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,
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,
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,
i have swum twice in the Sea Point pool.
[¡] from ‘Spanner in the what?’ – Works by Wopko Jensma
[¡¡} Government Employees Medical Scheme
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.
Ron and Phyllis are a struggling couple in their late 70s. Until recently they lived directly opposite me in our quiet, friendly suburban street. Well, mostly quiet and friendly during the twenty years that I’ve lived here, the only exceptions being, two cases of arson, one accidental kitchen fire started by the computer geek in the cottage adjoining mine, and two murders. But those are stories for another time. Here I aim to recount what I’ve seen of Ron’s story, one about the private hells churning beneath the tranquil surface of daily pleasantries about the lovely sunny weather and the need for some rain to favour our summer-stressed gardens.
A short while before they left, on a Saturday morning, I was up to my elbows in soap suds at the kitchen sink, trying to reverse the entropy generated by the previous evening’s meal, when I heard a thump from the direction of the front door – an errant bird hitting the front window maybe? Hands dripping, I went through to investigate and found Ron standing uncertainly on the front stoep, looking like he was on the verge of leaving before he’d arrived. He was in slippers, wearing his usual baggy brown sweater, and his gaunt face was unshaven. The morning back-lighting accentuated a drip suspended from his lean nose, and his eyes were red.
“Ron,” I said, “what’s the matter?”
“Phyllis is dead,” he squeezed out between a couple of stifled sobs. “The hospital called to tell me this morning.”
I knew she had been hospitalized few days earlier and had been admitted to ICU to deal with an acute case of septic gall stones. I also knew that his sister-in-law, Phyllis’ sister, was seeing to his needs.
“Have you let Phyllis’ sister know?,” I asked after some awkward attempts at sympathetic consolation.
“No, I don’t know how to use the cell phone she’s left me.”
“Let me try,” I suggested, taking the phone and going to the contact list to look for ‘Ingrid’. She answered almost immediately, and was flabbergasted at the news, but also level-headed enough to say she’d call back after she’d spoken to the hospital. Minutes later the phone rang and the sister could report the good news that Phyllis was in good spirits and recovering well.
When I moved into my house two decades ago, Ron had an old brown Ford Escort with a seriously noisy silencer parked in their driveway. He only drove it occasionally, and after a while not at all. He seemed to be retired, while she went off to work every day at an insurance company, and played golf with a work colleague at the week-ends. The going started getting tough for them when she was retrenched. The car lapsed into total disuse, and the weeds grew up around it. One day, several years after its last outing, it was towed away by a rough and ready backyard mechanic for spare parts. So the sliding steel gate became a pedestrian portal to the property, and the electric motor was only called upon to make a 2-foot wide gap for Phyllis to take her daily walk up to the village to visit the library, buy supplies and probably meet a friend for coffee. Once a week it needed to be opened a little extra to accommodate the passage of her bag of golf clubs out and into the BMW boot of her ex-work colleague. In time this pattern also fell by the wayside, possibly because the green fees had become a drain on their now meagre resources. The next thing to go was the gate motor. For a while Ron took to unlocking the mechanism so that he could slide it by hand to let Phyllis out on her daily excursions. I never saw her operate the gate manually herself, and don’t know if it was beyond her physical strength, or whether Ron regarded it as his male role to be the gate-keeper. He would let her out, go back inside to do whatever he spent his time doing, then returning to gate duty to watch out for her to let her in again, sometimes posting himself there for up to an hour, peering up the road waiting for her to come around the corner.
I more or less got to know Ron through the bars of his gate during this period. Sometimes I would take advantage of his ritual guard duty to go across the road and put in an appearance to do a non-invasive neighbourly check on their well-being over a short chat.
If I waved and shouted “Hi Ron,” he would chirpily respond with one of two standard greetings – either: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” or otherwise a wave and: “Good morrow kind sir.” If I were to ask him about his state of well-being, he would usually dig for a Scottish accent and respond with: “Nae sa wirse.” The first quote I Googled as being from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, but the last has evaded me.
The next stage of the compounding gate crisis was when the override mechanism also failed. The procedure that Ron applied to get the gate open was one often used by strong-arm burglars wanting access to a property. Lifting one end of the tonne of steel off its tracks will disengage the driving gear from the toothed rack on the gate, making it possible to edge the gate sideways until there is enough room to provide passage for burglars and their swag, or in this case the gangly septuagenarian body of Phyllis.
Because of the demanding nature of the new opening technique, Ron would take considerably longer to open and close the gate. It was quite a noisy process as well, involving a metre and a half of heavy duty chain wrapped around gate and gate post several times, a sturdy padlock, and an enormous bunch of keys that, somewhere in its midst, was the one that fitted the lock. So from inside my house I would know by the clinks, rattles, clanks and creaks when an exit was being prepared for Phyllis … and then the reverse process to maintain security while she was out, and the whole procedure repeated in reverse when she returned.
This operational system was maintained for at least a year. I sometimes tried to help him lift the gate, but he would become irritated by my interference, while Phyllis stood by waiting to get in or out with a beatific smile.
That was until the gate jammed. One day I was aware of the opening ritual being in progress, but at a certain point I realized that the usual sequence of auditory markers didn’t reach the end of its cycle. It was replaced by random, indeterminate klinks and klanks, but no sound of a rolling steel wheel. I ventured out onto my front porch, and saw Ron doing battle to shift his cold steel nemesis. I sensed an element of panic rising out of their potential incarceration.
I crossed the road and waved a hullo to Phyllis, who stood on the steps of the house, her shopping bag over her arm, while Ron, straining, with his back to me, was putting in weight-lifting efforts trying to budge the jammed portal. Without being invited, I added my own energy, but to no avail. Sensing an opportunity, I went back home and rounded up a likely arsenal of heavy tools: crow-bar, pick-axe, sledge-hammer, hack-saw, monkey-wrench, and a few others. I first set to work with my long steel crow-bar to force a skinny-person sized gap so that I could be in direct contact with the offending mechanism. It was time for liberation! Ron hardly protested as I set about removing the rusty and seized electric motor, smashing the concrete pedestal to which it was bolted, and levering it out like a rotten wisdom tooth. It took me the best part of a sweaty hour to remove the machinery, but after that, with a dollop of grease on each of the little wheels, the gate could move relatively easily along its track. It was during that hour that I got some insight into Ron’s condition which I hadn’t picked up in my previous short interactions and pleasantries with him. The motorsectomy was an energetic one person job, necessitating him to stand back as a spectator, out of range of flying crow-bars and picks. While I was toiling away he said to no-one in particular: “At this point in the movie, someone will say ‘Son of a gun! This is one helluva stubborn customer’.” I responded with a between-swings chuckle of agreement. But for the remainder of the operation he repeated that piece of dialogue, word for word, about five times before I had finished the task and was ready to enter into conversation with him. I’m sure that each time he presented the line it was, in his mind, equally fresh, innovative and witty.
Phyllis was highly appreciative of the physical and psychological release, and the next day they came together across the road and gave me a punnet of cloyingly sweet home-made fudge prepared from contents in her meagre social security grant kitchen.
Unfortunately, as life proceeds, small victories start to lose their promise as building blocks for a brighter future, and take on the role of softening the blows of mortality. Phyllis’ daily solo outings over the railway bridge and up into the village became weekly trips to the nearer convenience store, now with a walking stick and Ron for support and company.
Shortly after the taming of the gate, the two of them went out to do some shopping one day, but on the way they lost the keys to the front door. I happened to coincide with them on the street, and they explained the problem. There was a spare key, Phyllis said, in the bread bin standing on a table close to the back door, but how could we reach it? Luckily an adjacent window was not securely fastened and, with the help of sticks and wire found in the chaos of the back yard, we managed to pull the bread bin close enough to lift the prize between the burglar bars. I hoped that this would not prompt another batch of thank-you fudge. What fascinated me, though, was the fibre-glass body of a Dart sports car, which, like the Escort in the driveway, was in the process of being overtaken by the feral grass. The GSM Dart was a South African made sports car produced in small numbers in the late 50s/early 60s. It was surely a very valuable item, even in its current state of neglect. I asked Ron about it.
“I’ve got two engines for it in the garage. It’s a project I must get back to now that I’ve got rid of the bee colony.” Indeed, for a couple of years or more, the back corner of his garage had been taken over by a swarm of bees. They had built a large irregular hive easily the size of my writing desk, which took a bee expert nearly a week to remove.
Ron’s obsession with security went deeper than chains and locks, keys and gates. We were talking about security one day through the gate when he told me that if I ever had trouble with intruders, I should call him. He would come over, he said, and sort things out with his Smith and Wesson 38. I baulked at the thought of Ron’s infirm hand waving around a snub-nosed revolver and firing it into the darkness from between the bars of his securely locked gate at my assailant. “I don’t believe in guns,” was the limp response I could give in my state of shock.
One day I arrived home to find an ambulance outside their house. Phyllis had been loaded into it by the friendly pair of paramedics, while Ron came and went between the ambulance and the house looking for her ID book, in a bit of a spin. There was some support from Phyllis’s sister, who would keep an eye on things, but essentially Ron was going to be on his own while the hospital was sorting out Phyllis’ painful gall stone problem. I took the precaution of taking the sister’s phone number.
A morning, two or three days after her admission to hospital, I came out of my house to take my dog for a walk and to pick up the newspaper, and found Ron peering up and down the road in agitation.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“It’s Phyllis. She’s just disappeared. She went out and hasn’t come back. This is absolutely atypical behaviour. She always tells me where she’s going, and when she’ll be back.”
“Isn’t she still in hospital?” I suggested.
“I’m very worried,” he said, ignoring my suggestion. “This is not like her.”
I emptily consoled him and assured him that she would probably be back very soon. He was still there at his post when I returned from the corner store with the newspaper. I called his sister-in-law, and she said she would be fetching him within half an hour to go and see Phyllis. I reported that to him, but his eyes reflected fear and confusion and remained fixed on the horizon.
Ron’s dementia didn’t allow him much rest while Phyllis was absent, even with the support and care of Precious, a care-giver arranged by his sister-in-law. Precious was a cheerful young woman with a broad smile, and someone familiar with geriatric problems and the quirks of mentally disturbed souls.
A couple of mornings later, at the crack of dawn, Ron wandered out again before Precious arrived, and knocked on another door in the immediate neighbourhood, that of Hermione, a retired magistrate. There was something to discuss that was criminal. I paraphrase the conversation told me by Hermione:
Ron: “Phyllis is dead.”
Hermione: “Oh no! I’m so sorry.”
Ron: “My gun has been stolen. It was in a plastic bag hanging on the back of a dining room chair, but now it’s gone and I believe has been used to kill Phyllis.”
Hermione: “Who stole the gun?”
Ron: “Precious. She’s a thief and steals everything, and also hides my keys. I don’t trust her an inch. The gun is probably in some Eastern Cape village by now, in the hands of criminals or anarchists.”
Hermione: “Is Phyllis’s body still in the house?”
Ron: “I can’t find it … But there’s a well in the back yard …”
At this point Hermione was sure that this was paranoid dementia speaking.
Hermione: “Ron, you have to report this to the police, both the stolen gun and the suspected murder. Do you have a valid firearm licence?”
Ron: “No, I don’t need a licence. It was issued to me as part of a Special Forces operation to assassinate Robert Mugabe.”
Ron was correct in saying that the gun had been removed from behind the dining-room chair. But it wasn’t the much maligned Precious who did it. This was the work of Phyllis’s sister and her husband, Billybob. They had spirited it away and taken it to the local Police Station where it was checked in with an appropriate affidavit to the Officer responsible for gun and liquor licences. On interrogation of the firearms register, he determined that, yes, the gun was registered to Ronald S of said address, but no valid licence had been issued. This is a serious offence that can carry a prison sentence. The records also revealed that there were three other unlicensed firearms registered to Ron. The Officer said that they would need to conduct a search of the house in an attempt to recover them. He made a concession that they could arrange to take Ron out, and that they would conduct the search in his absence. This was done, and indeed these items, plus ammunition, were found and confiscated.
Not long after this that Phyllis was discharged from hospital. I saw Ron the day she arrived back. If before this he had been drifting, panic-stricken through deep oceanic water with no land in sight and unseen predators circling beneath his feet hanging into the dark water, he now at least had been provided with a friendly bobbing life-boat. The storm clouds moved off. Light and hope were restored, and the panic paranoia of torture and torment were discernible only as miniscule dots on the horizon, easy enough to ignore in favour of unfettered fantasy.
Plans were already afoot to relocate the couple to a home where Phyllis would have a private room on the first floor, and Ron would be cared for in the ground-floor dementia ward. Probably uninformed about some of the details, Ron seemed happy with the arrangement and said that he would finish rebuilding the Dart so that he could get out and about, and would be able to drive around on occasions to say hello to his former neighbours on the street. This was a different story to the one I heard from Billybob later that same day. He confided that he had managed to find a buyer for the pieces of the little Dart sports car, and got a good price that would cover at least three months of their accommodation in the old age home.
What will Ron remember about the gate, the guns and the Dart? What dim and fragmented memories will give him joy, and what dark voids will remain to haunt him?
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit…bird thou never wert
*Photo credit: Pixabay
I am telling this story for the partners, the children and the parents of those whom the bureaucracy fails, on both sides of the counter.
I am trying to replace a disability disc: the blue and white square with a colour photo of my husband at the back − spectacles off, left eye off track − and a blocky wheelchair emblem embellishing the front, reminiscent of the Greek flag. The disc is covered with crackled clear film, and you hang its curved handle from the car mirror when you use it. Sometimes you toss it on the dashboard as you get into the car, but you always remove it from the car at night. These discs, as you’ll find out, are worth much more than you could ever believe. They allow you to park in the one or two places that are closest to your destination, and that’s worth something to everyone, but particularly helpful if your balance has gone for good.
I have been to rehab with my husband in the Bo-kaap, and we’ve stopped in Woodstock for lunch. He takes the precious disc with him, and slides it into the front of his jacket, so he can take it when we meet up with Chris, the carer. We’ve eaten, with strong coffee for me and hot chocolate for him; and Chris has arrived, allowing me to go back to work for the afternoon, allowing them to head home because it’s tiring, all this rehab. But as we trek up the ramp towards the car, the Woodstock wind swirling leaves around our ankles, my husband reaches for the disc, to find it’s gone. I retrace our steps while they wait in the wind: I make enquiries, I leave our phone number, but it’s not found. It’s gone.
A week later, I embark on obtaining its replacement at the municipal offices. My sister thoughtfully collects the application form – she works nearby. I note that it must be signed by a doctor at R90 for the pleasure, who will confirm that my husband is indeed disabled and worthy of a disc. We are new to the area, and he has only needed a local doctor once, but since that doctor has at least met him, I make the half hour journey. I drop off the form with the receptionist, explain what is needed, and head home, informed that the doctor is busy today. A day later, when work allows, I pick up the signed form from the doctor, pay for her signature and head for the municipal offices. The queue winds along the counter, curves back, and some of us wait outside the door, watching the slow shift of citizens who edge forward, one problem at a time. It has slowed down even more before I reach the counter, as one person is off duty for lunch; we wait. When I finally hand it over, the woman behind the glass scrutinises it slowly, glances up and says, “You’ve spelt his name wrong, and the ID number’s wrong too”. Astute she is – but I have not spelt his name wrongly, it is the R90 doctor who must have been too busy to focus while she filled in the form. I am provided with another form, and I return home to phone the doctor, and to arrange to bring the second form to sign. This time I fill in the details, leaving space for her to tick the requisite boxes, and to sign and stamp the form. The next day I drive back, en route to work, and ask for the form to be ready for my dash past the next day. I wait three days, because I cannot get there at the right time. I plan to go to the municipal offices again on the day when I work from home. And if you interrupt your “work from home” day, it doesn’t mean you do less work, you just work after hours − right? − until the job is done. But the luxury of working from home at least allows you to do something domestic in your home area without taking leave. So I am grateful enough.
After the queue has shuffled forward, and I have reached the counter, the counterhand says quietly, “No – you cannot fill in the form yourself – the doctor must do so.”
I am angry – I say strongly (for me), “Last time the doctor made mistakes, you’ll remember! I filled it out so that all she had to do was sign.”
But she is, “… afraid that it cannot be accepted … we have auditors and they check these things,” she says.
I turn away, a new form in my hand, adrenalin rising, face flushing, glaring at the innocent queue of citizens who wait their turn for the cold hand of bureaucracy to adjudicate how well they have filled their forms. Before driving home, I drive back to the doctor’s rooms, and I do not hand over the third form, but I ask for my R90 back. There must be some small justice in this story. I shoot the messenger, relating the story haltingly and angrily enough for the doctor’s receptionist to feel responsible, while she grudgingly hands back R90. I am convinced I can pull this thing off by Friday if I take my husband down the road to the doctor at the foot of the hill where we live, and pay him R90, risk his form-filling skills, and head back the next day to the municipal offices on my way to work. Thus far I have spent over four hours shepherding this application, and there are more to come. And If there is one thing I need and want, it is time. Time not working. Just being. Being with him. Being me. Just being. The aftermath of a stroke takes it out of you. You need time, just to be.
So I phone Dr X and the receptionist listens kindly, and we go down to the rooms by car later, and, holding on to each other, we make our way up the ramp, form in hand, for the disability inspection. The receptionist will call Dr X, my husband will perform disability, and later, given time and R90, the doctor will fill in the form solo. It’s a kindness, because we are not his patients, but he will do it, because I have enumerated the troubles we have had so far, and he has heard.
Two days later I phone, and the receptionist suggests one more day. On Monday, she phones and I drop by to pick it up on my way to the municipal offices. There I take up position in the queue of citizens, noting that there is a second line coming down the passage from the drivers’ license counter today. It is busy, close to midday, and because of the youthful age of the prospective drivers, it is buzzing. I reach my destination − the window glinting coldly at me, the diligent bureaucrat contained as she reaches for the form. She reads it through and says … “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and …‘no’. No triumph in her voice, just resignation. “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and … ’no’”.
But you can! The questions asks: ‘Can the person alight independently from the car?’ and he can, so the answer is, ‘yes’. But the next part asks, ‘Can the person walk independently to the destination’, to which the answer is, ‘no’.
“Are you saying you won’t accept the form?” I ask.
She replies, “The form must be filled in correctly.”
I say, “It is correct – he cannot reach his destination alone.”
She repeats, “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’… ‘no’.”
And I say … in a low voice, “Please, call your manager. This is the third time I have been here with this form. I am a working person, I will NOT go through this again. Your form is the problem. Please call your manager”.
Her face is scowling, her voice is muttering, as much perhaps as mine. She goes into the next room, and a younger woman comes out into the foyer, alongside the line of future drivers, to meet me. I say to her, softly, as adrenalin ricochets through my 61 year-old body, “You had better take me into a private room to solve this right away, otherwise I am going to take off all my clothes – here – now − in the Civic Centre. I will not have this form filled again. I will not!”
The mousy-looking woman with a ponytail surveys the queue of youngsters, looks at the tear-faced woman who is shaking with rage, and who is ready to follow through on her threat at the slightest hint of resistance … who has had enough, enough, enough of this farcical operation to please the auditors.
“Come with me,” she says, and leads me outside, where the light blinds me, and I see no one and nothing as we cross the parking lot to the Traffic Department, where the big decision-maker is housed. She walks in ahead, and no doubt mentions my threat. The man in the uniform puts up his hands in a gesture of “whoa”, and smilingly offers me a chair, and I rant through my story of three forms, “and now your staff say you cannot answer the question as I have done, and I will not leave without the disc, and I will go to the newspapers, to Cape Talk, and (gasp) … and (sob) … and (gasp) …”
He repeats the reason, having scrutinised the form – that you cannot fill out a question with ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
I say, “Yes you can – see he can get out the car alone, he can hold on to the vehicle, but he has no balance, so he cannot walk to the destination alone … it’s your question that is at fault.”
He replies, in same patient, placating manner, “No, but we have had psychologists to select our questions. There is no problem with the question.”
Now I am searching out the cardiologist’s phone number on my phone, and I have it, and I am dialing, as I lean towards him, holding out the phone to him, saying, “Speak to him, just speak to him – let him tell you what he did, that my husband cannot walk or speak or swallow – talk to him – talk to him now!”
The man in the uniform is backing away; he sees the situation, and he says, quietly and firmly, “Come.”
So we cross the parking lot again. We push past the waiting learner’s license queue, and I am instructed to wait. He speaks to the counter clerk in an antechamber. I pay, I hand over the photos, the form is processed, and the disc is printed.
The electricity goes off before the lamination is complete. Laminated or not, I have the disc, and I make my way out into the glare, depleted from the draining adrenalin.
The disc now lodges in the top right hand drawer of the cabinet in my bedroom, never used. My husband died a week later, so we had no need for lamination.
You can’t reach my sister’s door without getting wet.
Scarlet plants along the path collect dew in droplets like blood –
It’s a way of thwarting guests.
Her son’s offer to prune is met with suspicion;
She knows how surgeons tend to overdo.
She limps quite badly, now.
I give her two white towels knit like gauze.
She hangs them next to the shower chair,
And uses them to blot her scars.
I should know by now that some of my dreams have been deeply significant in my life, but mostly I don’t even remember them, or forget to record even the really vivid ones. Listening to other people’s dreams can be extremely boring – yet for myself I cannot deny certain messages that have arrived from my subconscious. When a dream comes along which makes my hair stand on end, then I need to pay careful attention.
In 1975 my husband at the time was doing his national service in the navy. We lived in Glencairn and I had a five year old child and a four month pregnancy which was not going well – I had ongoing nausea and pain which were warning signals in themselves. Then I had a dream that I parked an old-fashioned baby buggy along the coastal road near Fish Hoek, and when I returned a pink parking ticket was flapping on the cover of the pram – it simply said ’meter expired’. That was enough.
The next day, a check up at the naval clinic in Simonstown revealed that the foetus had died inside me. It was supposed to come away within two weeks, but in the end I had surgery for a so-called ’missed abortion’. This took place at the Old Military hospital in Wynberg, which consisted of a jumbled series of prefabs On discharge, I couldn’t help reading my name on a pathology jar. The label said: ’products of conception – suspected molar pregnancy’. It looked more like a bunch of purple grapes than a human embryo. How could I be surprised when my subconscious had prepared me for this event?
A few other memorable dreams beckon like beacons in the dark. Whenever I have felt sad or sorry for myself, I could always go back in my heart to savour a halcyon moment from a dream that came unbidden one night: I was floating high in the air like a Chagall figure in the sky, and there were angel figures floating around me who held me aloft, gently supporting me, and the abiding feeling was of warmth and total love – more than that – I knew that these beings actually loved ME. This memory was a precious gift and it has carried me through some lonely places.
Two years ago I took myself off to the Franschhoek Literary Festival and was proud of not talking myself out of it yet again. I don’t like crowds of strangers, and I was nearly defeated by the complex on-line booking system which somehow cancelled my choices as fast as I made them. But I succeeded, and found a friend to share a slightly seedy backpacker room, and I loved every talk I had signed up for, and felt immensely fulfilled and stimulated. Coming home to a warm fire and a loving spouse who really missed me, was confirmation that all the plans I had resisted had worked out well.
But my dream that night brought such a wave of shock and sadness that I was wide awake for hours, wrestling with the appalling significance. The next morning I related it to Ugo as soon as he stirred, so that he knew what I might have to confront. In my dream I had received a message that it was my time to die – I had three days, I had to do the work myself, and I had to take a certain medication that would be prepared for me. I was shattered that I had no choice, and I would not see my grandchildren grow up. It affected me profoundly. I know these things are not literal – the language of dreams is deeply symbolic. I had to find the meaning, and whatever it was, it would not be pleasant.
The following night I hit my head really badly. I remember feeling slightly nauseous and getting up to go to the loo in the dark, and that was the last thing I was aware of.
Next moment I found my cheek was cold and clammy, and I couldn’t find my pillow. It was dark and somehow my face was squashed against the chilly, unforgiving, greeny-blue ceramic tile of the bathroom floor. I had no idea how I had got there, nor how long I had been lying there. I dragged myself upright and then I remembered I had gone to the bathroom to fetch a Rennie because of feeling a bit nauseous. A small bathroom is a dangerous place to come crashing down between treacherous porcelain impediments. Miraculously hadn’t hit my nose, eyes or teeth against any of these.
Only when I staggered back to bed and woke Ugo did we realise what had happened – that I had fainted, and a massive egg was puffing up on my forehead. I needed a bag of frozen peas to calm the throbbing pain – and Arnica, and Rescue Remedy. Then I yelled out for a bucket – quickly please!
All of that Monday we swapped bags of frozen vegetables on my forehead, and I resolutely refused to go to the doctor because my rational mind said I could think perfectly sequentially and knew I hadn’t fractured my skull, but I just wanted to stay in bed curled up to keep my heaving head still. My faraway sisters overruled me. A whatsapp photograph of my two enormous black eyes had been circulated to them, and the Australian sister threatened to jump on a plane to take me to the doctor herself if I still refused to have it checked out. So I set aside my bag of frozen sweetcorn (we were working our way steadily through the freezer supplies) and relented. There was no way I could go out with my hair looking like that, so I took a careful shower and yes, I even used a hairdryer on my aching head because I still had my vanity.
The doctor on duty was meticulous in recording all the details of the ‘vaso-vagal syncopy’ as he called it, and was concerned about what could have caused the fainting episode – I told him about my childhood history of petit-mal epilepsy and the two seizures I had as an adult when I got up too quickly in the night thirty years ago. On both those occasions I had remained conscious throughout the shaking and twitching, but this time I had no recollection of any convulsing. The brain scan showed no brain damage.
It was the doctor’s summing up words “you fell from standing”, that connected my dream’s shocking news that my life was about to be over to my loss of consciousness with no prior symptoms. The dream was simply warning me that I have work to do. All those things I constantly put off – all those unfinished intentions. I have a responsibility to live my life meaningfully and to do it now. I have memoirs to write, an Everest of books to read, lappies to quilt, travels to follow, fresh herbs to smell, wild places to relish, mountain views to savour, relationships to mend, and, most of all, people to love.
Life is short and can change in a flash. I could fall from standing – without any warning. It has never been any different.
Then a few months ago I had another epileptic episode but this time I was lying safely in my bed in a half waking state, with Ugo dreaming deeply alongside. He was unaware of an automatic egg beater suddenly whirring away under the duvet next to him. But I knew exactly what was going on – it seemed as if I had somehow touched an electric wire which was causing me to convulse. I cannot say how long it lasted but my brain registered: Oh no – not this again! Once more I lay awake till morning fretting about yet another doctor appointment, about wires and electrodes for an EEG this time, and a press-gang of really nasty drugs for the rest of my life. But through all the tests that followed, I have been treated so kindly, and luckily I can tolerate the new medication which keeps me safe.
So once again my bed has proved to be my haven, this convulsion was an alarm bell from some deep place. It never happened while I was in a public place or far, far worse, behind the wheel of my car. Now I know my angels are continually guarding me; they keep watch even in my dreams. And I must honour them and honour myself − to live a life that matters.