Wednesday, November 26, 2003

When I started this column, the idea was to share my more positive thoughts with the world. I intended on contributing what I´d learnt so that others might learn with me, or at least feel like someone reciprocated something that they too once felt or went through. This column isn´t a sunny one... but I want to share it with you because I believe that even the dark moments are something worth sharing, and anyone who´s ever lost someone can feel with me...

My Grandfather´s death

I arrived Saturday afternoon at my grandparent´s house with the funny feeling that it wasn´t going to be a pleasant visit. Although the sun was high, the air was cold and I felt the chill right down to my toes. My uncle was there fixing a chair that was broken. His face that was normally without expression, was paler than usual. From the few words that we exchanged, I realised he needed something to fix, something to keep his hands busy and his mind off the pain his father was going through.
It was a shock to see my grandfather lying on a bed, weaker than i´ve ever seen him.
The whole room reeked of death as he gasped for air and screamed “mother” over and over again. From the sound of his plea and the look on his face, I didn´t think he was going to make it through the night.
My uncle barely handled the sight of his father in that state, my cousin who once wanted to be a nurse barely touched him and everyone around me fell into deep despair.
When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised to see my eyes dry. My face lost all of it´s human semblance and I was left with the reflection of someone who had a job to do.
I spent the night at my grandparents house.
There was little sleep and lots of anguish as my grandmother and I tried out best to get him to drink some soup and take his medicine.
The sounds of his cries still ring in my ears.
When he wasn´t looking at me, he was staring at the blank wall behind me and cried for his mother to take him away. “Mother” “Mother”... he repeated it louder and louder each time and no matter what we said to comfort him, he wouldn´t quiet down.
So I sang.
I sat by his side and I sang the songs that used to put my brother to sleep. Holding his frozen hands in an attempt to keep, I used my other hand to brush the worry and strain from his eyebrows. Hours passed and other than his constricted breathing, the night´s silence outside was defeaning. My grandmother dozed off a few times in the room beside us and my only company was the tic toc of the clocks in the house. How had they become so loud? Back when I still lived with my grandparents, I could barely hear them but that night, the rang in my ears like church bells.
I tried curling up on his favorite couch to get a few minutes rest but the loud ticking kept me awake and minutes after I´d laid down my head, I would find myself by his side again.
So I rubbed his back, ran my fingers through what little bit of hair he had... whatever I could to relieve his suffering! As long as I was there, there was life that he could hang onto. The darkness could not take him.
It wasn´t the frustration of seeing him gasping for air that peturbed me the most, or the fact that he cried with pain whenever I had to sit him up to take his medicine. It wasn´t when he spat out the pills and the food that we tried giving him that broke my spirit. Nor was it his crying out for his “mother” that tore at my soul that left me with remorse... It was the horror on his face when I changed his nappy. Unable to pick him up and change him by herself, I had to help my grandmother with the arduous job of changing a grown man´s nappy. It wasn´t much different from changing a baby´s nappy, at that point I remembered an old proverb from school that went something like “What creature first walks on all fours then on two legs and then on three?”... the answer was a human being... We crawl when we´re babies, then we walk and when we´re old we need a “third leg” or a walking stick to get around. After a certain age, the growing process is reversed and we all end up like the babies we once were.
The shame on my grandfather´s face will haunt the rest of my days and i´ll never know where I found the strength to do all that without so much as a twitching. I did what had to be done, I wanted him to survive. But at one stage when his cries got too loud and the despair got too much, I closed my eyes and thought “Dear God, please, either take away this pain and make him better, or take him away from this suffering”
When morning came his breathing hadn´t gotten much better and I got into the clothes I´d worn the day before to accompany him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Once we were in the ambulance, the paramedics gave him oxygen. His breathing stabilized and he stopped calling out for his mother. I was instructed to sit on a chair behind him and I put my hand on his head in hopes that my touch would comfort him.
Once we got to the hospital, I was still numb. The look on my uncle´s face when we arrived wasn´t very reassuring and the hot chocolate I drank in the waiting room didn´t warm me up much. Returning to my grandparent´s house, the room my grandfather had occupied hadn´t seemed the same. My grandmother had cleaned out the room, changing the sheets and opening the windows, letting the sun shine through what she had described the night before as a “boiling coffin”.
So not to leave her alone, we prepared lunch together and sat talking about all the trivial things we could think of. We didn´t talk about my grandfather or the fact that he was dying from lung cancer. We didn´t talk about the night before or the night´s after. We spoke about food and work and told jokes, making each other smile. After a certain hour, I knew that soon other people would arrive and so I took it as my chance to go home. I still had my shirts to iron for work and I intended on getting on an early night to recover the sleep i´d lost the night before.
The clocks at home also ticked unmercifully and the hot, steaming shower that normally took all my aches and pains away did nothing to relieve the tension in my neck and back. Getting ready to grab the iron, my spine froze when my phone started ringing and I saw “Betty Aunt” on the display.
My aunt carefully asked me if I had gotten home okay and asked me if I was alone. With no need for preliminary talk I told her that she was calling me because my grandfather wasn´t coming home and when she confirmed my statement, I fell back into automatic pilot, got dressed and made my way to my grandmothers house.
The phone suddenly wouldn´t stop ringing, everyone that was anyone in our family called to check if I knew the news. I was surprised to find that once again, no tears fell down my face and with a deathly calm I informed my uncle in South Africa and my cousin in Brasil that my grandfather wouldn´t be turning 81 next week.
The world fell apart at my grandparent´s house as the faces around me cried and grieved over our loss. I couldn´t understand why I couldn´t cry with them, I simply felt nothing.
My grandmother wept like a child with remorse that she hadn´t said goodbye when they´d taken him into the ambulance. I myself remembered that I hadn´t said goodbye to him either at the hospital. Once they´d taken him into the emergency room, I was told that I could see him the next day and I didn´t think to ask the nurses to allow me to give him one last kiss.
Everyone grabbed onto me, asking me every detail of his last hours. Being the last person to have been with him alive, they clung onto me for comfort that I could not give.In the hopes to console their grievances, I told them about the good things that had happened that night, about the kisses given in their names and the songs that had lulled him to sleep. But they wept even more and an uncle of mine, a grown man threw himself in my arms weeping like a child. Strength remained in my soul whilst lulling him in his despair.
Tranquilizers started being distributed between family members, looking at a tiny pink pill I wondered if I really needed it. I don´t believed in tranquilizers, they simply delay the inevitable rush of pain so why take them?
Instead, I made my way to my grandfather´s wine cellar and with my uncle´s I tried my grandfather´s alternative medicine! Wine was never something I liked to drink and not a liqued my taste buds enjoyed but that night, it tasted sweeter than honey and before I knew it... I couldn´t stand on my own two legs.
Getting myself drunk didn´t do much to let out my pain and Monday morning I got dressed for work as in any other normal day. I don´t recall much of the work I did, or the things I said (not that I´d said much to anybody) but I do recall very coldly telling my boss that I would not be there the next two days. Worry was set in the faces around me because of the fact that I hadn´t dealt with it yet, but the grief would come.
I was hoping that at the funeral, all of that would change and that I could release my anguish. After getting dressed I sat in the bathroom, on top of the toilet seat and thought “Okay Sunshine, here we go... just let it out”. But it didn´t come out.
The faces of the loved ones there did nothing to trigger my agony. It was at the sight of my grandfather lying in his coffin that froze the rest of my body. His body was cold. His expression was of somebody sleeping. My little brother looked at me and said that the only difference was that his stomach wasn´t going up and down like it used to. I tried to hold his hand but his fingers wouldn´t curl around mine like they had before. I placed the palm of my hand on his cheek but it was cold and there were no tears to wipe as there had once been. When I did feel wetness upon my hand, it had been my own tears that had fallen. The tears fell, but it wasn´t crying... it was just an involuntary reflex.
I stood against a wall in case my knees betrayed me. I got kissed a million anonymous faces, shook innumerous hands and heard condolescences every other minute. Although we were a room full of family and friends, I think we all felt like strangers.
Next to me stood my uncle that had been fixing the chair that Saturday. His face remained expressionless even though the grief was evident in his aura. Touching my shoulder, he thanked me for what I´d done for my grandfather and asked me how he´d spent that night. Not feeling restricted like I had the day before, and I shared with him his father´s last hours.
I watched my mother from the corner of my eye. We stayed away from each other, considering that I was furious with her for not being there when my grandparents needed her the most. I really felt sorry for her and her grief but I couldn´t give her the hug and kiss that wouldn´t come out my heart.
When I saw her on her knees in front my grandfather´s coffin, my heart went out to her but not my arms. So I hugged her in my own special way. I recalled when I was younger, that there was a song that she´d always asked me to sing to my brother. She said that she loved it so much that one day at her funeral, she´d climb out her coffin if I didn´t sing it for her. As she wept in front of me, I stood forward and prayed that God would give me the strength... so I sang...
I sang “Amazing Grace” to a church full of people that don´t speak english. At first the words wouldn´t come out but then it filled the whole church and the people outside could hear me. Even though many didn´t understand the words, the melody reached everyone´s hearts. I know I reached my mother´s heart, I know my grandfather must´ve heard it too. Where I found the courage, i´ll never know but without planning, the song came straight from the heart.
Before closing the coffin, the family got to say their last goodbye´s. I heard a woman chuckle behind me when my brother replied to my mother that there was no way he was going to kiss a dead guy! Even when they closed the lid, I still didn´t feel a thing. It felt like a movie, a nightmare that I was going to wake up later from. Lowering the coffin into the ground didn´t trigger me off either. The tears where there and so was the runny nose but the crying didn´t come. Then it was over, he was buried. I closed my eyes when I was pulled into someone´s arms. I knew to whom the strong arms belonged to but at that moment I didn´t feel attracted to him like I had once before. Not even his blue eyes or his sweet voice penetrated through my soul, I was just grateful for the warm embrace I found myself in.

My grandfather is dead and buried.

I´m grateful that his suffering ended. Nobody should have to live in the shame and helplessness that were his last days. I haven´t managed to switch off automatic pilot yet but i´ve been told that when I least expect it, the sorrow will come. My heart has said my goodbyes to my grandfather and i´m comforted by the knowledge that somewhere, somehow he´s up there with front row seats, watching over me.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Bus Stop Blues.

Whilst waiting at the bus stop, I stood thinking of all the morals and principles that I wanted to enforce in this column. I wanted to warn the young nation against the dangers of letting your fantasies destroy your dreams. I searched my mind for all the strong words I could think of to indignantly protest my viewpoints. I wanted all my readers to feel as angry and as strongly as I do... I want people to protect their dreams!
Sadly, I didn´t come up with many of those words, so instead, I share with you my grief.

The wonderful age that sits between childhood and adulthood is that in which I sit in. I´m no longer bound by my parent´s rules and laws, nor am I bound by their responsibilities... these years, are the blank page years. It is in these years that we all write the storyline of our future and we can be as creative as we want! These are the years that we can all shape and mould our present as we like. We have free reign over our destinies, it is here that we chose which roads to follow. Some of your will fight for your chosen careers, others will travel and see the world... all of us will try and make the most of our secret dreams.

My father once said that time would catch up to me. “One day, you too will hear the ticking of the clock...”. His words are so fresh in my memory that I find it hard to believe that he said them on my eighteenth birthday, five years ago! Has five years gone by already? I take a look in the mirror and hardly believe the changes since then. So much has happened, changed and grown... five years have already gone by!
At that time, my response had been “Eighteen ´til I die!” I believed that the spirit was as old as you wanted it to be, my father didn´t disagree with me but he warned me that the world would not stop and that when I least expected it, times would change and I would either have to change with it or live in the past. More than ever, I remember my father´s words.

I have a friend who looks like a walking, talking, Ripcurl advert. Besides her cool shades, bellyring, eyebrow piercing and tank tops, she also wears shoes that gives her at least another 15cm on her height. She is never found alone and you most probably will find her socialising with some new friend that she´s just made or planning another group event. This friend of mine dreams of being a professional skateboarder and wants sing in front of audiences. She plans to travel the world to meet new people and spread the word of God that she so lovingly cherishes. This friend of mine is twenty two years old and pregnant.

Of course in this day and age, this situation is one that only happens by will or irresponsibility and my gullible friend pleads the second. Being the first person to be told of the third party due in nine months, my reaction was one of shock. My friend who had fought with me because she was too embarrased to book an appointment to see a gynaecologist was suddenly going to be forced to see one every month for the next nine months! I didn´t know wether to yell at her or cry with her!

It´s been a few days after the inicial shock and acceptance is all that is left to do after having a bomb like that fall on your head. I don´t think that my friend knows that i´m sitting at my computer at 3:00am in the morning because my heart keeps bleeding for her. Besides the fact that the circuimstances are bad and that she´s totally unprepared, it´s the loss of her freedom that is killing me the most. As her best friend, I have dreamt with her every dream she´s ever had and I know how much she will be sacrificing. I´d feel happier if I knew that my friend was relishing in the fact that now she´s going to build the family she´s always dreamed of... but I can´t see her shine, my friend is not smiling and my heart cries with her.

Last night I watched a wedding tape of a couple that got married. I tried not to remember that the divorce rate is up to 58% worldwide and as I watched two people that I care so much about pledge their lives to each other, I prayed fiercely in my heart that they would be part of the 42% of the world that works out. I also got to see a part where I was dancing in the arms of someone who I once thought was capable of making me happy. Anyone who didn´t know better and had watched us would´ve written a fairytale future like the wedding we had attended and I chided myself at allowing myself to once fool myself into fantasizing that very fairytale. Luckily, fairydust eventually wears off... but the damage that it can cause in that time frame is incalculable.

Whilst I checked my watch again for the bus that never came, I argued that even whilst under the fairydust, I had enough good sense to keep myself out of trouble... but one good look at the car parked in front of me felt like a crack of the whip of honesty penetrating into my soul. The silver Renault Megane chilled my body from head to toe, it was a living reminder of my own insanity whilst under the influence of the moonlight. I realised that living our fantasies can be like playing Russian roullette with our hearts.

One by one, the people around you fall out this freedom phase. You begin to attend more weddings and baptisms and you begin to lose touch with the conversation that once focused around the latest shoe sales and now focuses around the latest household detergents sale. I´m not one to feel pressured by this, nor do run from. I guess that i´m just wary of the things people get themselves into because they feel alone or they feel that it´s the next step in their lives. I often encourage people to follow their hearts and take risks. It isn´t today that I´ve changed my mind and hopefully never will, but I do warn people about chasing their fantasies... once the fairy dust wears off, all that is left is reality and your dreams will have passed you by.

Perhaps not all is lost for my pregnant friend, it is an unwritten chapter that nobody can predict and I pray that her dreams will nonetheless still be fulfilled. Hope and faith can be frail but they can´t be killed! Worrying would get me nowhere and faith is what would take me all the way. I left the weight of my worries behind as I got on the bus and said goodnight to the Renault Megane.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Independence Days

We learn to crawl before we learn to walk.
To learn to make the colour lime, you first have to learn that yellow and blue make green, only then will you learn to add more yellow and white to the equation.
Our learning process works pretty much the same. We learn in phases. We crawl through being babies to toddlers, then skip on to being children, stumble through the teenage years, race onto to adulthood and before you know it we´re grumpy senior citizins!
Should you make it this far, what you learn on the way is what we call survival techniques. When you´re a baby, your mommy does everything from feeding your face to wiping your bottom. Toddlers begin to feel how much it hurts to fall, but always have a teacher or parent close by to pick them up... as children we learn to avoid bullies along with the falls, and by the time we grow into teenagers we begin dodging the first of many killer heartbreaks, the kind that cause major damages with every nose-dive!
Most of you still have your mom and dad to soften your falls. No matter how old you are, some of you still have mom or dad´s phone number on speeddial. Even though you learn to use that button less and less with age and experience, it´s still a comfort to know it´s there and you can dial it whenever the gravity betrays you.
Some of us don´t have that luxury.
Some of us learn from early on to be independent. We learn that only person we can count on is the person who stares back in the mirror. The one reflection that stays with us when the rest of the world turns it´s back on us. As dramatic as that may seem, the fact is, that survival depends on one´s ability to depend on him/herself.
Independence is the art of surviving on your own.
When I get kicked down, all I pray for is to hit the floor quickly so that I can´t go down any further. When you hit the bottom of your pit, the only way to go is up. Sooner or later, we all fall. We fall once, twice and many times in our lifetime. When we´re younger we might find the hand belonging to one of our parents or friends to help pick us up. But as we grow older, we learn that there isn´t always a hand available to collect us from the ground.
So we do it ourselves.
We cry. We sream. We hurt.
Then we pick ourselves from the cold floor and wipe ourselves off. We shake the mud and dirt from our faces and we learn to stare proud back into the eyes that looked down on us... this is survival of the fittest.
This is independence in the real world.
Sometimes we get hit so hard that it takes a litte longer to arise.
Sometimes there will be many willing hands around us but none have the strength to pull us up.
But we always get up, because the only choice you´re left with is to either get up or die.

I know a true story of a determined Soul that fights with fire and Ice against the world´s storms. A real courageous Soul, it knows it will fall, but it won´t let that fall kill so much as an ounce of it´s spirit. This independent Soul learnt from early on to get up without any helping hand. Being thrown against the hardest walls, the coldest floors and being shut in the deepest of pits, this Soul always found a way back into the light.
Having a mind of it´s own, it often chased dreams into the worst of circuimstances.
We all get overconfident when we repeatedly survive many storms. We stop fearing the decline and begin to think that no matter how hard we fall, we´ll always be able to get up. This is what the Soul imagined before walking into another storm. It walked into the biggest hurricane it had ever seen, with the confidence that this one would be no more difficult to survive than any of the others.
But this hurricane was different from all the others.
The wind blew with all it´s might, the thunder rolled gloriously and the lightening blinded the way. The Soul lost it´s way in a storm that was bigger than it could handle. And just when our Soul thought it could take no more, the hurricane passed, and our Soul was dropped in the deepest, darkest hole it had ever found itself in...
The darkness was thick and suffocating and when the Soul could fall no more, it landed with a huge crash... and then the rain began pouring on it´s head.
After many days and many nights, the clouds varied in shades of black and blue. Raindrops fell hard along with anger, guilt and shame... The sky looked empty, the air was cold, and the Soul longed for sunshine that had been stolen from the sky.
After some time, our soul became too numb to feel the rain and it wisefully sat waiting for the rain to pass...
Then and only then, would our Soul manage the strength to get up ... so it patiently sat and waited...
But the rain did not stop, and the sun did not come.
The Soul heard the many voices around the pit, but was too afraid to make a noise. It knew that some people, rather than help, would throw him back harder into the pit, so it prefered not to take that risk.
No one knew that it was down there, no one could see the darkness it was trapped in. The Soul could only depend on itself.
So it waited...
It knew that it couldn´t keep on raining, and that the sun would eventually come out. Sometimes when the rain became a drizzle, the soul would look up at the clouds and imagine the face and hand that once pulled it out of trouble when it was younger. The memories would comfort it against the cold of the rain, but they could not pull it out the pit...
...but it can´t always rain. The Soul knew that... so it sat and waited.
Just when the Soul was about to give up. Just when it was determined on leaving some of itself behind and salvage what it could, a face under an umbrella appeared. The eyes belonging to the face had soon before seen the soul falling into the pit and had been waiting for the Soul to ask for help.
But the Soul did not ask for help and the face did not reach out a hand.
Instead, it threw the Soul a rope and waited for Soul as it pulled itself out the hole.

These are our friends.

They are not there to rescue us out of our troubles. They can walk with us through our journey and offer a shoulder to lean on, but their hands might not always be strong enough to pull us up.. Instead... they throw us the tools we need to dig our way our our holes.. God sent these angels in the form of family and friends. They are not to interfere with our mission, but they can watch our backs. It´s a jungle out there and although we need to be independent to survive, we are not alone. We all need someone sometimes, just like someone one day will need us.

I dedicate this column to all the people who threw me a rope when I found myself in the quicksand. May I always be able to return the favour.