I called my mother from Los Angeles Airport while waiting to board my plane. It was around 7.00pm on the Pacific coast, about 4.00am in Johannesburg, and the WhatsApp message the Kat had sent while I was en route from Seattle to LA said she was awake, and alert for the first time in several days.
She was in the cancer ward at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital. My sisters, the Kat and the Egg, were with her. She had been there for a couple weeks already, but a bureaucratic hairball had blocked me from returning to South Africa. At last that morning someone in the Department of Home Affairs coughed up permission for me to go, and I hurled clothes into a couple of suitcases and the Hubbit drove me across the state to Seattle. We arrived just in time for me to miss my plane to Heathrow, but I found another flight that went Sea-Tac – LAX – Heathrow – JNB and took only 12 additional hours to get there.
Laughter. An insatiable appetite for ice cream. A bawdy sense of humor. Delight in the little things. That’s my Marmeee.
The plan for the Marmeee that day was a procedure to draw fluid from from her overburdened lungs. The revised plan for me was to arrive at Johannesburg International Airport on Sunday morning, where the Girl Child would meet me and take me straight to the hospital. After that, my sisters and I would plan where she should go to recuperate – to Hospice or to somebody’s home – until she was ready to return to the retirement complex where she lived with my father.
Plans are so easy to make. You just say them out loud, or write them down, and … voila! Life goes right on happening.
My personal short-term plan was to chivvy her off that ridiculous hospital bed and whisk her away to eat ice cream. Oh, how she loved ice cream! No matter how satisfying the feast, there was always room for ice cream because “it trickles into the interstices between the intersections of your intestines.” Her mother used to say that, and now I guess it’s my turn.
Meanwhile, at LAX, I had a pocket of time, a seat in an uncrowded corner near the boarding gate, and a WhatsApp connection. I called on the Kat’s phone. “Hello!” the Kat said. “She’s awake. Hang on, and I’ll hold the phone up to her ear.”
There was a pause, then I heard a strange hissing noise, like a tap running, or loud interference. I thought the call had dropped, and was about to dial again when I heard the Kat’s voice at a distance. “Hey, Mom, it’s Belladonna on the phone. She’s in LA, and she wants to talk to you. You ready?” I understood then that the sound I could hear was the hissing of her oxygen mask.
“Hey Ma?” I said. I paused, waiting for a response, but heard nothing but the pulsating mechanical hiss. I remembered that they’d told me she couldn’t speak. It was still my turn. “Hey there!” I said. “I’m so glad you’re awake! I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon, but I wanted to say hi, and to tell you I love you. In case you’ve forgotten.” She made a sound – something between a gasp and a groan. My chatter slammed to a stop as I strained to understand. She made the sound again. She was speaking, saying “hello”, or maybe it was “I love you”. I didn’t have to hear it; I already knew. “Hush, little Marmeee,” I said, speaking more slowly and gently now. “Don’t tire yourself. We can talk properly when I’m there. I just want you to know I’m on my way – I’ll be boarding soon – and I want to tell you why it’s taken me so long to come. I really couldn’t help the delay.”
It was important to explain because I’d promised, back in February when she was sad that it was time for me to leave, that I’d return when she needed me. And although she hadn’t asked me to come, she’d asked the Girl Child why I wasn’t there. She knew that I knew she wanted me, and while she would not have doubted my love the delay must have puzzled her. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the closed door at Passport Control, because I didn’t want her to worry that it might not open in time.
There was no longer any reason to worry, so I launched into a chaotic account of Belladonna’s Battle with Bureaucracy – starting with me being declared “undesirable” when I left South Africa in February because I’d stayed 22 hours past the 90 day limit on my American passport, through to the breakthrough that very morning when my heart daughter Ngalitjeng realized she knew someone who knew an influential someone who worked for the director general of Home Affairs. Sitting in the LAX departure lounge I told it as a funny story, and she smiled and smiled, her eyes sparkling above the oxygen mask. (I know this because the Kat told me so later. She and the Egg had wanted to hear what I was saying too, so they could share her amusement, but when the Kat tried to take the phone to activate the speaker Marmeee shrugged her off, clutched the phone greedily to her ear, and wouldn’t let go.)
My tale rambled as I worked at amusing her while ignoring the relentless hiss of her oxygen. At intervals incomprehensible announcements erupted from the public address system; there was no getting away from them, so I would just stop talking and let her listen to the airport noises and know that I was indeed on my way. Then the boarding calls for my flight began, and segment by segment my plane began to fill up. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the conversation, but I wasn’t ready to stop.
I told her again that I loved her, and that I would be there in time for breakfast on Sunday. I sang her the little prayer she used to sing to me each night when she put me to bed. I told her that really she didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to get me to visit. And then I said, “But just in case you’re not faking, just in case time really is short, I want you to know you don’t have to wait for me. I’d love to see you again, but if you need to go, it’s okay. I know where you’re going, and I’ll find you there one day.” For a moment I listened to her air hiss. I let her hear my boarding call, for rows 60 to 54. I said goodbye.
She released the phone to the Kat. She was still smiling. I know this, and all that followed, because people I love have painted that day for me in words and silences, in smiles and tears, so that it is etched in my memory as clearly as if I had been there.
Seated beside her bed, my sisters chatted softly, laughing at shared memories, as the dark inched toward morning. They held ice cubes for her to suck on, and at timed intervals they allowed a carefully measured teaspoonful of water to trickle down her throat. They rubbed cream into her hands. At one point she batted irritably at her mask and the Kat said, “Is it bothering you? Does your face need a rest?” She nodded, and the Kat lifted the oxygen mask and said, “Come on – exercise your face!” She grinned broadly, then pursed and pouted her lips, wrinkled her nose, blinked her bright eyes. Later that morning the Kat pulled the mask away again and had her perform her new face dance tricks for the rest of the family.
Every four hours nurses came to massage her and turn her so that she wouldn’t develop bed sores. They changed her diaper, put ointment in her dry mouth, checked her blood pressure. She smiled with relief and gratitude.
Twiglet, the sister of my heart, arrived. “Hey, special lady,” she greeted her, “What’s this nonsense now?” She kissed her, and Marmeee beamed at her with love.
The doctor came to check on her before the procedure to suction her lungs. His shoulders sagged and his face was sad as he told them she was too weak – they couldn’t do it after all. Gently he touched her swollen hands, and told them it was time to take out the drip. Her body could no longer process fluid – it was just making her uncomfortable.
Twiglet sent the Kat and the Egg home to rest. She picked up Marmeee’s Bible and read to her. She prayed for her, and sang Amazing Grace, and was quiet while she slept.
The Girl Child arrived with the Olde Buzzard later that morning. He took her hands, kissed her, said, “You’re so beautiful, my darling. I love you so much.” Then he sat as close to her as he could, refusing the comfortable chair because he couldn’t hold her hand unless he was in the hard upright chair.
Other family members came, and she captured each in turn with her bright, clear gaze, sending love like an arrow straight from her eyes to their hearts. Embraced by a room filled by her own most dear people, she basked in their conversation, laughter, teasing. She didn’t need to speak. She had forgiven all hurts, shared all she knew, told each one she loved them. She had left no business undone.
As the day drew to a close people began to leave. They kissed her goodbye, told her they loved her, promised to return. The Olde Buzzard was shuddering with cold and exhaustion after a too-long day. Gently the Girl Child coaxed him from his seat. “Come on, Granddad – Granny needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow.” The Kat took him home to her little Kat-House, and got him fed, washed and settled into bed. The only company left with Marmeee were my sister-in-law Sol and her children. They chatted quietly while Marmeee dozed, and sang Christmas carols to her when she woke, “Because,” said Sol, “she likes songs about Jesus, but I don’t really know any hymns.”
After a few hours, Sol had to leave. The Egg and the Kat were on their way back to take the late night watch, and she was alone for just a little while. When my sisters were just a short distance away, a nurse called to tell them to hurry. They said her blood pressure was falling fast. The Egg telephoned Twiglet, who said, “I think it’s time to call the family. Tell them to come quickly.” The Egg sent out a series of urgent messages on WhatsApp, while the Kat slapped her foot down onto her accelerator. They flew red lights and whipped around corners and slammed into a parking space, and they ran up to the ward.
There was really no time for anyone else to come. As they watched, she fell more and more deeply asleep. Her breathing, labored when they arrived, slowed to a whisper, to silence. The pulse in her neck flickered, stopped.
It had been a beautiful day, a beautiful life, but she was tired. She had said her goodbyes. It was time to go home.