Tag Archives: different perspective

A man and a dog, on the road home

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I picked up a hitchhiker on my way home from the writer’s conference a week ago.

The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”

Bubba on the onramp

A dog, a backpack, and a highway.

I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.

“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.

When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.

“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.

That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.

His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.

He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.

He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.

His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.

But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”

He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.

“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.

“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.

“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.

Dream home

When Cajun is surfing the net, imagining his dream home, this is the kind of picture he’s likely to save.

Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.

“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.

“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.

“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.

“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.

Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”

His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.

“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.

So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.

Cajun's feet

Cajun prefers his tent to a bedroom indoors.

Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.

It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”

“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.

I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.

I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?

 

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What’s in a name?

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Over the past year, reading the news carried me all the way from disbelief to despair before I ran out of angst. I keep abreast of major news events (the ones the online mainstream media, as funneled through my personal algorithm, tells me about, anyway. I’ve canceled my subscriptions to alternative sources like The Intercept).

Often I listen to National Public Radio when I drive, and if I’m not interested in what they’re offering I switch to the conservative talk show hosts on the AM channels – Savage, Limbaugh, Hannity. Sometimes they repeat themselves on an endless loop as they troll for callers, but the people who call in can be interesting. These are the folk who, for now, are driving our national bus. I’d rather know what they think than not.

Superman stopping a bus

Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t ever stop a bus from plunging to its doom while someone was around with a camera, so here’s Superman instead. She’d have done the same, except with one hand. And without a cloak to obscure the view. And afterwards she’d have parked the bus alongside the curb. (Source)

I have friends, mainly on Facebook, who share articles and rants. Sometimes I join the conversation, but more and more I just hit like/love/ha-ha/sad face/angry face and move on. More and more, I’m an observer rather than a participant. I feel as though I’ve been thrown from the bus and am lying, stunned but (as far as I know) intact, watching it spin toward the cliff edge. And while I’d like to care – or, better, release my Inner Wonder Woman to stop the bus from going over – what I really feel most of the time is curiosity. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what you think about it, and why your thoughts are not the same as mine.

We’ve ditched the Paris Agreement? Oh well, at least now corporations and communities are taking direct responsibility for limiting climate change, and maybe we’ll all be okay, and even if we aren’t I can’t change anything, although I’m thinking of setting up a beehive, so that’s something. We need bees.

Jeff Sessions is all set to enforce heavier penalties for drug use and cancel states’ rights to legalize marijuana, provided he doesn’t resign or get fired first, and also he thinks America is light on crime and he wants to change that? Wow … I wonder how it’s possible for someone to look so cute and be so horrible. Maybe he was teased and bullied in the schoolyard for looking like an elf, and now he’s compensating by behaving like a gremlin. Bullying has consequences.

A whole bunch of people are suing Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution? And James Comey’s testimony to Congress destroyed / vindicated Trump? And Trump may (or may not) fire Robert Mueller, as he may (or may not) have the power to do? And if he does he will definitely (not?) be impeached? Huh. Well, at least between all that and Twitter he’s being kept busy. Maybe this is good. If Mike Pence moves into the White House, everything will calm down and shit will get done.

To stay grounded I watch a lot of late night talk shows on YouTube. Trevor Noah is my favorite (just to give a fellow South African a shout-out), but I enjoy Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers too. Between them they almost make the news palatable.

Lately I’ve been watching Bill Maher. He’s arrogant, but I like the way his bullshit meter swings left as well as right. Like me, he believes in free speech for everyone, not just the people who think as he does; and he’s impatient with snowflakes and political correctness, as am I. So it’s been interesting to watch him navigate the turbulence following his use of a “racial slur” during an interview on his show.

He’s invited quite a few people, mainly black celebrities, to come onto his show and berate him. And while he squirms and occasionally protests, he takes what they dish up and he eats it.

This has been unexpected. I’ve been waiting for him to say, “Oh come on – it’s a word, that’s all. I haven’t enslaved anyone. Get over it!” I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have said. I’d have apologized, and then if they continued to fuss at me I’d have rolled my eyes and left them to flap their mouths at my departing back.

It’s not that I don’t know words, the names we call people, can hurt. I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner living in Smalltown America, I’m fat; I know how it feels to be smacked with a slur. But I believe – that is, I have believed – that someone who uses racist, sexist or otherwise denigrating language is really saying more about themselves than about the subject of their attack. So what’s the big deal? Let’s move on – right?

And mealy-mouthed euphemisms – ugh, I hate them! You don’t “drop the F-bomb” – you say fuck. You don’t call someone the B-word – you call her a bitch, and then – depending on whether she’s a ball-breaking bitch or a frigid bitch – she either rips your head off or says, “Really? You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”

So this word that Maher used … ehh. It’s icky, but it’s just a word. It’s just a noun people used to use. At least he was honest – he didn’t say it by using a euphemism to pretend he wasn’t saying it. And slavery was terrible, no joking matter, so that was a mistake – but it’s over, right? Both slavery and Maher’s joke – they’re over. Past and done.

Except … I remember the pure searing rage I felt, years ago when I was sick with longing for home, when the Hubbit and I were guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation shifted to reparation and how idiotic it was all these years after slavery was over, and somebody commented, “Weelll they oughta be grateful we enslaved ’em – otherwise they’d still be stuck in Aaaafricaaa.” These people, these buffoons who knew nothing about my beautiful home, so much richer and deeper and more alive than this flimsy America with all its flags and silly nationalistic rituals – how dared they say her name with such contempt?

And I remember the anger I still feel when I’m editing a report for a South African client, and I have to refer to black people as “Africans” as though I, being white, am not African, even though my ancestors have lived there since 1665. As though my grandparents and great-grandparents, and now I and my daughter, were ghosts, our lives without substance or meaning. As though we are illegitimate and homeless.

Thinking about it, I begin to understand that anger and hurt aren’t always subject to common logic, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

This morning I was lying in bed, yawning and flicking through the news on my phone, when I noticed my feed contained something new from Bill Maher – an interview with Ice Cube.

Full disclosure: I cannot stand rap, and I think Ice Cube is a stupid name for an adult; I don’t care how cool he thinks he is. Also, I was about bored with watching rich, successful “African” Americans (light brown people who have never lived in Africa) huff and puff over a two-word slip of the tongue. But I didn’t feel like getting up and I’d already watched the other late night shows I follow, so I clicked on it. You should too.

Seriously … If you let your eyes flick over the video without stopping to watch it, go back. (If you can’t see it, just check YouTube for “Bill Maher and Ice Cube”.) It’s part of this post and I need you to hear it, otherwise what I’m trying to communicate here will fall like a pebble down a well.

You done? Good. Thank you.

Okay … so, I still don’t understand why, if I don’t agree with the politically correct (as defined by black people) narrative, I’m accused of white privilege as though it’s something I’ve done. I don’t understand why blacks cling so tightly to past injustice instead of putting it behind them, living in the present and focusing on the future.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be dark-skinned in America today. It seems to me that when you read the news or watch late night talk show hosts, you don’t get the same message I do, and I don’t understand why. I can’t grasp how it feels to know your grandmother used to be someone’s property. I cannot comprehend your anger, your fear, your hurt.

But I understand this: I don’t have to use euphemisms if I don’t want to. If I want to speak about something, I can call it by its full name. But there is one word – the one that stabs like a knife – that I have never needed, and to which I relinquish all claim.

I understand now. That word is not mine to use.

 

Talk to me. I’d like to know what you think.

 

Alternative retirement planning

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Once upon a time I wrote a personal finance column for a South African daily newspaper. The column was called “Smart Money”, and every week I used it to yatter on humorously about stocks, bonds, money markets and such esoteric entities. It was fun. I got invited to insurance company shindigs and had lunch with movers and shakers like the head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and they would ask my opinion about the economy, and listen with interest as I repeated whatever I could remember from the last shindig or lunch I’d attended.

Fun, but also scary. I was constantly aware that, at any moment, I could lose my conversational balance and plummet like a sheep out of a tree.

My friends and family thought this was the funniest thing of all the absurd things I’d ever done. In fact, the only time I ever generated more whoops of appalled laughter was a few years later, after I’d moved to the US, when I got a job driving a school bus. According to the people who claim to love me, the only thing I do worse than manage money is drive.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and pondering how much easier it is to give great advice than to follow it. Take my “Smart Money” column, for example. I knew I was entirely unqualified to advise people where to invest, or to forecast economic trends. But I figured out pretty damn quick that many of my readers were people who had accumulated money by being good at whatever they did, but were as clueless as I about how to make their money grow. They were widget-makers and dream-sellers, not investors. So instead of competing with those much cleverer columnists who pontificated knowledgeably about this or that investment opportunity, I kept just one step ahead of my readers by hearing terminology I didn’t understand, getting boffins to explain it to me, and passing along what I’d learned at a rate of about 750 words a week.

Unfortunately none of this knowledge actually stuck, in the sense of me personally doing anything with it. As a result I’m now hurtling inexorably toward 60 – 70 – 80 sans safety net or parachute. The Hubbit is a fair bit older than I am, so when he retired we chose the larger-pension-for-the-rest-of-his-life option, rather than the very much smaller-pension-until-whichever-of-us-lives-longer-snuffs-it option. Not to be ghoulish about it, I’m expecting a decade or so of widowhood (preferably later rather than sooner). I’ve always assumed I’d be the merry sort of widow – like this one:

Seniorin mit Hund am Laptop, auf Wiese liegend

Okay, so she’s not merry, exactly. Poking around Adobe’s stock photos I found lots of beaming bints with gray hair, kicking up their heels or frolicking on the beach. But this is my kind of happy. Dog, laptop, solitude, trees. That’s plenty merry enough for me.

Not like this one…

Homeless elderly woman sleeping rough in a park

If I’m ever homeless, I hope I at least have a dog.

Only … a question that lately has been coming to mind with disconcerting frequency is, “How?”

I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with all the old farts you went to school or varsity with, way back in the Pleistocene … and they all seem so darn stable. Settled. Secure. A nice house in the suburbs, a holiday cottage here, an overseas trip there. How did they do it?

I seem to have lived my life just outside the masquerade ball. I can hear music and tantalizing scraps of conversations, I can smell food and perfume, I watch the dancers flirt from behind their masks and fans. I think I was invited but … ehhh … my mask makes my nose sweat. If I tried to dance I’d be like a sheep in a tree – baa-aa-aah, two, three, plummet.

Abandoning that strangely mixed metaphor and getting back to my point (I think I have one; I must just keep circling until I close in on it) … it’s clearly too late for me to spend my adult life preparing for old age.

For a while, until a couple months ago, I thought I’d get a job. After all, I’ve spent a lot of years doing a bunch of interesting things – not just journalism and tech writing; I’ve also started and run several businesses, a mission school and a dog rescue, some of which turned out well and taught me all sorts of useful skills. So now that I’m willing to let some plutocrat chain me to a desk for 40 hours a week in return for health insurance and enough money to pay down our mortgage, wouldn’t you think prospective employers would stare in awe at my résumé and exclaim, “Wow – you’re clearly a flexible, innovative problem-solver! We need you on our team right now!

We-e-ell, no. As it happened, their response tended to be more along the lines of “Seriously? WTF is this?” And, even more worrisome, every time someone turned me down I felt quite dizzy with relief that I’d evaded having to sit down at the same desk at the same time surrounded by the same people every day, regardless of whether or not I wanted to.

I’ve pondered getting back into freelance technical writing, but the problem with that is, you have to market yourself. Back in South Africa when I partnered with my bestie, Twiglet, she slapped on face paint, donned a pantsuit with a nice brooch and high heels, and topped it off with an elegant hairstyle, and clients had no difficulty at all taking her seriously. I, on the other hand, with my swirling caftans and my hair falling out of a bun? Not so easy to sell to go-getting executive types. Plus I hate it.

So the fruit of my recent ponderings is as follows.

First, the masquerade ball is almost over. The dancers are getting tired; some have already left. I didn’t want to go when it was in full swing; why would I go now at the draggy tail-end of the party? Baa-aa-aah-plummet – and then what?

Second, I kinda like what the Hubbit and I have managed to pull together in our small corner of the planet. It’s shabby and untidy and a tad heavy on the dog hair, but I’d rather spruce it up (or not) than replace it.

ants and grasshopper

Third, in nearly sixty years of rarely worrying about tomorrow, this grasshopper has never gone hungry. I guess God likes the sound of my fiddling; at any rate, He’s provided for me this far, and I continue to do my grasshopper best to please Him. (I understand the moral of the fable; I’ve just never liked it. Those ants are a miserable, self-righteous, mean-spirited bunch – why would anyone want to be like them?)

So I have decided: enough with the worrying and pondering. Definitely don’t start with the wishing and regretting. I’m grabbing whatever time I have left and doing what I love.

In other words, work on my book continues, y’all! It’s called “A is for Affenpinscher”, and it’s the first in a series of 26, which is enough to keep me busy for a while. This first one is going slower than I like because I’m having to take time to walk in circles and get acquainted with the various characters, and then make notes so I don’t get them mixed up. But it’s moving along quite nicely; I’m having fun with it and look forward to putting it out there.

Speaking of which, two months from today is the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The cost of attending is wince-worthy, but it provides an opportunity to meet with 22 – yes, twenty-two, that’s two hands plus two thumbs up – editors and agents, all a-tremble with their eagerness to sign up fresh talent.

In two months I can finish writing the first book in the series, map out the second, and maybe overhaul a completely different manuscript (a YA fantasy) that I set aside years ago when I realized it needed … oh well, I’ll spare you the details, but I have to do a shitload of research in the form of gaming, which scares me a bit because what if I get addicted?

So, anyway, that’s my retirement plan. If you think it’s a little nuts, you’re probably right. On the other hand, look what I found in my fortune cookie tonight!

Fortune cookie

It’s a sign, right?

If you’re a gamer, which game would you recommend for fantasy, quests and magic? And, regardless of whether or not you’re a gamer, how do you plan to spend your declining years?

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

HOYA (2).JPG

Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

valerie1

Things Marmeee loved: Me

Dislocation

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I got a WhatsApp message 18 days ago. This is what it said:

Hi. Day of tests (eg CAT scan) and stuff happening, have some rather rough news. Luckily Dad was here to hear it direct from the doctor. The fact is, subject to confirmation from Oncologists, I have cancer, and don’t have a whole lot of time. Could be as little as 6 weeks, could be 6 months, he couldn’t say without opinion of oncologist.

The message was from my mother.

So now I am sitting on my sister’s stoep in Johannesburg at 3.30AM, 10,164 miles (that’s 16,358 km) from home. At home right now the time is 5.30PM, which means it’s been dark for more than an hour. The temperature is 29 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -1.7 Celsius) and it’s raining, but at least it’s not windy. The Hubbit has had to put heaters in the water troughs to prevent them from icing over, and he’s hung an infrared light next to the water supply in the chicken house. I am wearing a short-sleeved nightshirt and a light shawl, and on my feet I have thick non-slip socks that Himself brought back from some or other hospital visit; my legs and arms are bare and I’m enjoying the cool pre-dawn air. It’s pitch dark and not windy here too.

I have been trying to write this post for more than two weeks and I still have no idea how to proceed. How does one describe such profound dislocation? Does the language to do so even exist?

Fifty-eight years ago I slept and danced in the center of her body, just below her heart. A few months later, I rested on her breast, soothed by her heartbeat. As the years passed I shifted my orbit further and further out. I acquired my own satellite, I allowed my heart to take me to another country, separated from her by the full thickness of this planet. But always, any time I thought of it, I could hear the beat of her heart, and it beat for me … for me … for me.

I am afraid. How will I find my way in the terrible silence when her heart stops beating? How will I hold my orbit when she is no longer at the center of it?

Those questions are way too big. I cannot comprehend their answers. Instead, I focus on to do lists. I created one before I left home and completed most of what was on it – hay bought and stacked, a foster dog rehomed, filing and budget up-to-date, house cleaned, appointments canceled, Plans A, B and C in place to ensure that my crazy puppy doesn’t send Himself clear over the edge. I did all that I could to ensure the Hubbit’s well-being, even as I prepared to leave him to cope with a supremely shitty challenge on his own. And now I’m working off a new to-do list, featuring items like “Call Hospice” and “Deal with medical aid re oxygen”, and also “Birthday party for Dad”.

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Focus on happy memories … The Fogies, with various dogs and Marmeee’s snow maiden – winter time at Siyabonga in 2007.

I focus on living in the now. Now she is here, and most days we work together on the final edit of her book. We have conversations about life and death and stuff that we remember and God and that peculiar woman who just walked past their unit at the retirement complex. We pray together. We go out for coffee. We are relearning how to chuckle at the small things.

I am also using this time out from the everyday to recalibrate my own life. I’m spending time with the Girl Child, reconnecting with my siblings and best friend and others that I love. I’m paying attention to my health – yesterday my sister and I started the ketogenic diet together, and I have aspirations of swimming daily in the pool at her complex just as soon as I kick the sinus infection that I managed to pick up on my way here.

Sometimes I am troubled by my calm. I feel guilty because it seems I’m not sad enough. I’m finding it too easy to make lists, to diet, to remember how to drive on the left side of the road. I get irritated by other drivers and angry with my Dad for not behaving the way I want, and I am pleased that the exchange rate is working out well for me, and I read and watch TV and go to restaurants and argue about politics.

It’s only now and then that grief overwhelms me, and I find myself sitting in parking lots or pulled over to the side of the road, with snot running down my face as I wail and bite my fist and pull my hair. A few days ago, after an agonizing conversation with my Dad, I came home to my sister’s condo and I couldn’t go inside because no one else was home. So I hammered on her next door neighbor’s door and, when he opened it, begged the poor startled man for a hug – which he gave along with tea and lemon cream biscuits and a quiet place to sit and pull myself together.

But one cannot live in that place, and I’m learning that that’s okay. I know a dark day is coming. I know that none of my puny lists and preparations will make the least difference in the horrible breathless silence of that day. But right now, as I sit here on my sister’s stoep and coming to the end of my first blog post in more than a month, I am embraced by the dawn. I hear songbirds and hadedas, and the traffic of people going about their lives in the city. In a few hours, my precious Marmeee and I will work together on her book, and the oxygen delivery guy is coming, and a friend of hers who is a nurse. Maybe I’ll take the Fogies out for coffee and cake after lunch. This evening I’m roasting a chicken and my friend is coming for dinner.

Today is a gift, and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Tomorrow’s sorrow can wait its turn.