Between one beat and the next

Photo by Patricia Tser on Unsplash

My friend Bridie and I used to ride our bikes to school together. Every morning I rode the half mile or so to the corner near her house, and then we rode the remaining two or three miles side by side, giggling, ignoring her bossy older sister Jan who pedaled and puffed behind us. One morning Bridie wasn’t there so I rode to her house, leaned my bike against the wall, started to walk through the back door.

Someone – her mother? – grabbed my arms and stopped me. Told me Bridie wouldn’t be coming to school that day because her father had died. He and her mom had gone to bed the night before, but only her mom had woken up. His heart just stopped beating.

Some time later I stormed into her house, raging over the latest fight I’d had with my father. “You should be grateful you still have him,” Jan told me – so pompous! I snarled at her, “You have no idea how lucky you are!” and her face went white as her heart missed a beat. After that we didn’t speak for a long time.

By the time my father had his first heart attack, I think in 1997, which was the year before I married the Hubbit and moved to the US, he and I had achieved a truce of sorts. I was on my way to an interview when someone – my mother? – called me on my cell phone and I changed direction and sped to the hospital. The Egg and her husband were already there, huddled together on one of the long benches in the large, empty waiting area. They directed me to another waiting area next door, where I found Marmeee standing beside him, clutching his hand and looking scared. He was on one of those narrow, wheeled metal hospital beds, gasping for breath, his face the dull yellow of old fat that’s been exposed to air.

Not far from them was a counter, and behind it an empty reception area, and beyond that a room full of nurses engaged in loud conversation while they drank their tea. There was a bell, which I rang furiously with one hand while slapping the wood of the counter with my other hand. A nurse emerged and looked me up and down. “Yes?” she asked.

“My father needs attention!” I demanded.

She glanced dismissively at him. “We are waiting for his file,” she said.

“Where is his file?”

She flipped a languid finger back toward the room where the Egg and her husband were waiting. “The messenger will get it. But now he is on his break,” she said. I stormed through the door, rang a different bell, slapped a different counter. Demanded the file, which I carried back and slammed down in front of the nurse. She rolled her eyes, flicked the file open, froze. Called more nurses. Moments later they wheeled him away, Marmeee scurrying alongside as he clung to her hand.

There was nothing left for me to do, except … I could call for favors. I called Cass, a cardiologist I’d interviewed a few weeks previously. He was a hot shot, associated with a private hospital. My father, who didn’t have medical insurance, was in a state hospital. Cass had liked the story I wrote about him, and had asked me to write another story about organ transplants and the need for donors. I’d told him I would, but that it would be a better story if I could actually witness and write about a heart transplant. So at that point – the point I was at, sitting in the waiting room while my father clung to my mother’s hand in a different room full of machines beeping and nurses scurrying and doctors barking instructions – at that point, we were waiting for one of Cass’s patients to be matched with a donor heart.

Well, if your father has a heart attack and you happen to know the top cardiologist in town, maybe happen to have impressed him enough that he wants a favor, obviously you call him. And even if he can’t personally get involved in the case, he makes a few calls, lets it be known that he has an interest, and the awed cardiac team responsible for your father’s care snaps to attention and gets the job done. The Olde Buzzard had surgery and it went well and he got medical insurance and started seeing Cass regularly, and his heart kept up a steady thump for nearly twenty more years, until Marmeee’s stopped and his no longer had a reason to keep on beating.

It was late Friday afternoon, a hot day at the end of a too-long week. The voice on the phone was warm. Sexy. “Hey there – would you like to spend the night with me?”

My pulse quickened … but … I was in Johannesburg, and the only man at that time likely to make me such an offer was on the other side of the planet. “Who is this?” I squeaked.

He chuckled. “It’s Cass,” he said. We had a heart!

I met him at the hospital a couple hours later, and he took me to meet the patient’s wife. I had forgotten the wife until I read my notes today. At the time she was merely background, barely relevant to the story. It’s interesting how life has a way of teaching one empathy.

I had my laptop with me, and I made my notes in the form of a letter to the Hubbit. He wasn’t my Hubbit yet, of course; we were still at the internet romance stage of our relationship, he in the US and I in South Africa. We didn’t yet expect to meet, but we’d got into the habit of sharing the events of our lives.

Hiya, honeybun!

I’m sitting on the floor of a large passage in the hospital. Nothing much is happening … I need to write down what I’m experiencing, and – hope you don’t mind – it’ll be a lot easier just to tell it all to you. I guess it’s one way to spend the night with you … <smial>

Oh yeah – we got pretty steamy back then. Even with the full bulk of the planet between us he could make my heart flutter!

I told him about the family – Hindu, a large crowd, the women all dressed in saris. The mother, who sat lotus-legged and praying on a plastic chair, one eye covered by an eye patch held in place by masking tape – she’d had cataract surgery a few days previously. Three sons, the youngest 13. A brother who was a cardiologist, who later showed up in the operating theater.

The patient is only 47. He has had heart disease for about six years and they had been keeping it under control with medication, but early this year he went into heart arrest and Cass said it was time to plan for a transplant. He’s been incredibly lucky – he’s had to wait only five weeks. Some people wait years.

An orderly brought him his pre-med while I was there – a tiny plastic tot glass of water and a handful of pills. The orderly told him not to drink more of the water than he absolutely had to, but he must have been thirsty – he downed the whole lot almost compulsively. Then they had to give him an injection; wanted to give it into his shoulder, but he’s so thin there’s not enough flesh there. They had to inject him in the buttock.

Suddenly it was time to take him away. Orderlies pushed his hospital bed speedily toward the operating theater, and his family streamed behind, keeping pace with his bed until a nurse stopped them, gently told them to say goodbye, that they’d see him the next day. They stood in a small cluster, waving and smiling with determination, and kept waving even after he was out of sight, their fear surrounding them like a fog.

Then a nurse brought me a hideous green overall to wear. Needless to say the one-size-fits-all trousers didn’t, but she found me some bigger ones. I had the MOST frustrating time trying to persuade my hair to stay tucked inside a silly little cap. I’m wearing nothing but thin plastic overshoes on my feet, because I didn’t think to change into sneakers and the overshoes won’t work with the heels I was wearing. My feet are freezing! Now I’m sitting in a little room outside the theater, drinking tea and waiting for something to happen. In TV hospital programs hospital life looks like one adrenaline rush after another. Not so. This evening has been mainly waiting.

And now I’m in the theater! I rushed in and was promptly chased out – I’d forgotten my face mask! Put it on – how do doctors wear these things? After less than a minute I felt as though I was suffocating.

The operating theater was a small room crammed with equipment and crowded with people – several nurses, an anesthetist, two cardiologists, all chatting and joking as though they were at a party. The perfusionist – the person responsible for the heart-lung machine – sat next to the patient reading a Playboy magazine. The two cardiac surgeons had their own extra-high-sterility area, separated from everyone else by a low divider covered with hanging towels.

At the center of it all is the patient. He is very still, and is almost completely covered by green sheets; even his face is covered, except for a little slit where a tube goes in. On the cardiac monitor his heartbeat is erratic, frantic… They’ve started cutting and his heart is going crazy… They’ve sawed open his sternum. It looks like meat, but the smell is strange, nasty.

Okay … I went to stand above the patient’s head, and watched the surgeon cut open the pericardium. I saw inside his body. I saw his heart, laboring sluggishly to keep going. And now … we wait. The new heart is on its way. They are ready.

Time is of the essence in a heart transplant. The donor heart must be in and beating within four hours or tissues start to break down. In this case, the donor heart was flown up to Johannesburg from a town on the coast. To save time they opened up the patient and were ready to go, but they didn’t disconnect his old heart until the new one had actually arrived.

The heart is packed in ice, inside a plastic bag, the whole kaboodle inside the kind of polystyrene cooler box one uses for picnics. They’ve put it next to an identical box that’s full of ice and soft drinks. The packaged heart looks like someone’s groceries.

They have taken out the old heart. It fibrillated for about 15 minutes while they were connecting the heart-lung machine, before they removed it and the monitor finally fell silent. Now it’s lying off to one side in a kidney dish, still trying its best to beat. Cass says it wouldn’t have lasted longer than a few more weeks. It makes me sad to think of it being thrown away now, though, when it’s tried so hard.

The new heart looks more solid, meatier, than the old one. The surgeons agree that it’s a nice heart. It used to belong to a 43-year-old woman who lived in a small coastal town. Today she had a cerebral aneurysm – she had a massive bleed and died – just like that. Well, technically, she didn’t die until they took her heart out about two-and-a-half hours ago. I wonder what she’d planned to do today.

And right now, technically, this patient is also dead. A machine is doing his breathing and moving his blood, and his temperature’s right down at 28 Celsius. Every now and then a nurse takes some ice out of the picnic box and puts it into his heart cavity to keep it cold. I touched his head. It felt … horrible. Icy. Not alive.

The surgery I watched was something of a milestone. I’d forgotten that too, until reading my notes. It was the first time of using surgical superglue in a heart transplant in South Africa. They spent an hour stitching the heart and supplemented the stitches with glue. I’m sure by now surgeons use glue alone to connect the blood vessels to the heart tissue. According to my notes that was the goal, anyway.

They’re trying to start the heart by pumping blood into it, massaging it gently by hand, and shocking it. It doesn’t want to start. They massage, shock, look at the monitor. It fibrillates, then stops. They try again and again. They look like Sunday afternoon mechanics huddled around a car engine, coaxing it to life.

Ten minutes in the beat is strong and steady. There are a few little leaks, which the surgeons are stitching and gluing. There’s gore everywhere, and the surgeons are spattered with blood.

Everyone is tired, coming down off a high. The final stage of the process is mechanical. They disconnect the heart-lung machine and the perfusionist packs it and his magazines away. Release the clamps that have been holding his rib cage open, remove the swabs, finish cauterizing the wound – that disgusting smell again. Insert drains and sew him up.

I thanked the hot cardiologist for giving me one of the best nights of my life. “I learned a lot!” I told him, and went home.

The Hubbit’s new cardiologist isn’t especially hot. He’s a large, blustery man, a kind man, I believe a good doctor, but as hard to pin down as a picnic blanket on a windy day. I’m learning from him that the language of the heart is imprecise. Love … fear … loss … failure … What do these words actually mean? I tried to ask him: in the context of this husband, in this consulting room, at this moment, what exactly is heart failure?

I asked him question after question, and his words were like bits of dry grass swept up by a dust devil. They had no shape or pattern. He tried to answer. He opened a folder and showed me printouts – the results of many tests over the past few weeks. He used words like “ventricle”, “left”, “right”, “congestion”. I think he may have showed me a diagram. At last he gave up, ordered another test. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s not his answers that are imprecise, but my questions. I will rephrase them.

Will his heart keep going, or will it just stop between one beat and the next?

Will I wake up one night, hear the soft snores of the dogs snuggled between us, raise my head and strain my failing ears, hear silence from his side of the bed, reach out and touch him and find him cold as ice?

Can you fix it?

In the context of right here, right now, how best should I cherish him?

Usually I end with questions for you, dear reader. An invitation to engage. This time, my questions are all directed elsewhere … but please engage anyway.

So this year for Christmas the Hubbit ran over himself with a tractor

Needless to say, he didn’t pick the little old Ford tractor to get run over by …

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Not this dinky early 40s model, which is the first tractor we bought when we moved out to the farmlet. (Picture taken some years back. We haven’t had any snow this year … and although I should be stressing over climate change, right now it’s working for me. I haven’t the faintest idea how to keep our driveway clear!)

… although, on consideration, that one might have been worse, because although it’s little and cute it has monster wheels designed for gripping soft stuff, like dirt, snow and the flesh of absent-minded old men. In any case, the tractor of choice for his life-altering moment of inattention was this one…

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About 3 tons of He-Power, probably more than you want rolling over your foot-leg-groin-gut-chest, although less horrifying if the tires are smoothish, like those on cars.

If I’m sounding a tad pissed off, it’s partly because this is not how this blog was supposed to go. When I started here, my goal was to entertain, with occasional detours to expound, philosophize, denounce, and share recipes. But the first seven months of this year were so fundamentally shitty that I quit writing altogether until I recognized it was my sole defense against the Black Dog, and since then it’s been one damn shitty thing after another, and now this.

Here’s what happened: The Hubbit was in the workshop getting grain into buckets to feed the cattle before he started on some tractor-related fun-on-the-farm. The tractor takes a while to warm up, so to save time he stood beside it to turn it on. It was supposed to be in neutral. He always  leaves it in neutral. Except this time.

He leaned into the tractor, pushing down the clutch pedal with one hand while he started it with the other. It roared to life, and he released the clutch. The tractor leaped forward. The big rear wheel trapped his foot, rolled up against his leg, and slammed him down onto the gravel scattered over the concrete apron at the door of the shop. It crunched over his pelvis, abdomen and shoulder, before – oh, the sweet grace of God – it rolled off him, rammed into some barrier inside the shop, and stopped.

I was in the corral, around the corner of the shop, pitching apples into a wheelbarrow to feed to the cattle. I heard him yelling. “I’m coming!” I called, starting to close the gate to the stall where the apples were so that my old horse, Vos, wouldn’t get in and eat them all and founder himself. The Hubbit kept calling.

It’s annoying, living with a deaf person. They call you, and you say “Yes?” You say, “I’m coming!” and they don’t hear. They keep calling. Sometimes it’s as though they’re not even trying to listen for an answer. Just call, call, call until you appear. Sometimes it’s so annoying that I very deliberately finish what I’m doing and take my time about going to him, refusing to be rushed.

But not this time. There was something in his voice that snatched my attention so that I left the gate swinging wide, let the apple-laden wheelbarrow tip over, ignored Vos as he shoved forward to grab what he could. I wrested the big corral gate open, hurried to the tractor – I’m too damn fat to run, but I can hurry. He was on the ground and at first I thought he’d just fallen – it happens; his knees are shot and the dogs are clumsy. But he kept calling until I was right up next to him and put my hand on him. He appeared to be bleeding from his eyes, his face was bloody and scratched. “Get an ambulance!” he wheezed.

We live 20, 30 minutes from town. While we waited I hurry-hurry-hurried inside for blankets and pillows – not much use against the cold ground – I didn’t dare move him – but better than nothing. He’d fallen below the bucket of the tractor, and I didn’t trust the hydraulics to keep it up, and even more I didn’t trust myself to raise it, so I scurried about finding random objects that I could prop under it so it wouldn’t drop and crush him. I called the Cool Dude, who called our neighbor Paranoiber, who arrived and then left immediately to chase down the ambulances and lead them down our private road. (They brought in a helicopter as well; it landed in Vos’ pasture, but he was too busy eating apples to care.)

And then the the bustle of people whose clothes glowed luminous orange and yellow, reassuring smiles, figuring-it-out frowns, staying out of the way, staying close enough to answer questions. A wail of pain as they lifted him, the juddering roar of the unwanted helicopter leaving, the wail of the ambulance on the road to the hospital. Cool Dude insisted on taking me in and then didn’t listen when I told him the way to the new hospital location. His battered, swollen face on the white hospital pillow. Internal bleeding that demanded a flight to a better hospital in Spokane. I came home when they took him away, took a shower, threw some clothes in a bag, fed the dogs. I put fresh bedding on the bed so it would be nice when he came home – which seemed to make sense at the time.

He has a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, a cracked scapula, and bruising, but no organ damage. The scans also revealed a lump in his throat – something unrelated to the accident – so before they released him they biopsied that, which gives us something extra to think about.

I spent the first interminable week in Spokane sitting, first in ICU then in the orthopedic ward. I kept insisting that I hadn’t married him for his looks so his brain better be okay until, to shut me up, they showed me scans that proved the wheel had missed his head. I cracked inappropriate jokes about every indignity, photographed under his hospital gown so he could see the astonishing size and purpleness of his swollen groin, nagged him to suck on one plastic tube and blow into another, coaxed him to eat, bitched when his blood sugar soared, applauded when it dropped, and, hour after hour, waited for the doctors to come.

He’s been in rehab now for a week, and the waiting continues. He can sit up, can get from his bed to his wheelchair, can use a portable commode if they get it to him in time, but it’ll be a while before he can walk. He’s on heavy doses of pain medication, so of course he also needs laxatives, and … well, suffice to say they’ve spent the past few days figuring out how much of those he needs and how long they take to work. I’d like to think that next time the need for laxatives arises they’ll be in less of a hurry for them to work before they wallop him with an extra dose, but since the people giving the laxatives aren’t the people cleaning up when they do what they’re meant to do, that’s by no means certain.

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The Hubbit’s little princesses, Patchee and Ntombi, are learning to make do with me. Today I took them to visit him for the first time. Ntombi was most interested in befriending the man in the other bed, whose wife had brought snacks, but Patchee trembled and lay down under the Hubbit’s wheelchair, and when it was time to leave she begged me to let her stay.

I visit him for an hour or two most afternoons. Usually I take a dog or two. Sometimes we chat; sometimes we seem to have said everything we will ever have to say to each other. They put him through an array of tests when he arrived and, for the first time in his life, he didn’t ace the cognition test. His world has shrunk; it encompasses his pain scale, his physical therapy exercises, his carb intake, his blood sugar count, his bowels. He has a pile of books that he doesn’t read. For the first time in as long as I’ve known him he watches television. I’ve bought him a Lumosity subscription for Christmas, and when he’s dull and spacey I release my inner bitch and pick fights with him over his failure to despise that asshole in the White House as comprehensively or intensely as I do. (Sometimes it takes a poke with a sharp stick – or the verbal equivalent – to send a good surge of oxygen-laden red blood cells shooting brainwards. One does one’s wifely best.)

My world is misshapen and discombobulated, and to find my way around it I’m redefining the boundaries of what matters, and excising everything else with a sharp and ruthless blade. Some days I look at the weeks or months ahead and blaze with a kind of excitement – this is a shake-up, an opportunity to change, to renew our marriage, our life, ourselves. I’m acutely conscious of God’s grace, and hungry to draw close to Him. I make lists of the things I can make better, develop strategies for personal growth and home improvements. Other days I drag myself out of bed and put one foot in front of the other until it’s bedtime again, and then sometimes I can sleep.

Let’s talk. Have you had periods in your life when every time you thought things were as bad as they could be they got worse? How did you cope?

Marmeee’s Day

The memories come like random pricks and stabs during the first year. First Washington summer without her. (I used to send her half-brags about our increasingly high temperatures, and she’d moan about being cold.) First South African spring without a picture of her hoya, its soft pink clashing with our garish autumn oranges and yellows. First snowfall – she so enjoyed the snow, the year they stayed with us. First Christmas. She missed her 83rd birthday, and my 59th, and their 60th wedding anniversary.

And, today, the first Mother’s Day, coinciding with the first anniversary of her death. It seemed like a cruel coincidence, but then I got to thinking about her, and about Mother’s Days with her, and other celebrations, and I couldn’t stay sad.

I’ve always loved eating in bed. I’m not at all sure she felt the same way – she was one to get up and grab hold of the day – but every Mother’s Day and birthday I insisted on giving her breakfast in bed, and it never crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best treat in the world. She wasn’t allowed out of bed until it arrived, typically several hours after her normal wake-up time. No, she had to relax, enjoy the lie-in, of course not make her own tea! What an idea! I guess she learned to listen for me stirring awake so that she could quickly hide the evidence of that essential first cup of the day, and jump back into bed before I tottered down the passage to check on her.

I don’t know what age I was when I started this tradition, but I do remember my favorite meal, which we quite often had for Sunday supper. It was easy to make, and so delicious that it was the obvious choice for any special occasion. For several years, every single Mother’s Day and birthday, I fixed it for her, and then I’d sit at the end of the bed, beaming with pride, and watch her eat every … single … mouthful. It never crossed my mind that (cold, mashed) sardines on (cold, leathery) toast might not be her favorite way to start the day.

After a few years I graduated to cooking eggs, and I rallied my younger siblings to help prepare the ultimate breakfast tray. We prepared every breakfast in the same way. First, we made and buttered the toast. (It was a while ago, but I think buttering it was the Stranger’s job.) Then, while the toast waited on a cold plate, I fried the eggs. Lastly I boiled water, heated the teapot, and made tea. We laid this all out on the tray and paraded to the bedroom, the Egg toddling in last of all with a flower in a vase.

She ate every cold, greasy mouthful of those breakfasts too, washing them down with gulps of mercifully hot tea.

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The flowers on the left are from me. You can tell by the pink carnation.

I grew old enough to have my own money and go shopping alone, and breakfast in bed gave way to bunches of pink carnations. I’m pretty sure she didn’t particularly like carnations but she got them anyway, and when the Girl Child was born, that’s what she sent me.

Those carnations arrived while I was still in the nursing home. She followed them a few days later, having flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town to help us get settled into the house baby Girl Child and I shared with three other girls and a total of six dogs. I learned later that she’d had to throw quite the tantrum to be allowed to come… The Old Buzzard wasn’t pleased to have grandfatherhood unceremoniously thrust upon him. It wasn’t the first time she’d set herself as a small, determined buffer between him and me, however, and she got her way. I, of course, was oblivious to the fuss, aware only of the tremendous comfort of her presence, reassuring me – in the face of all probability and in defiance of her private fears – that I’d be fine, that I’d be a good mother, that everything would be okay.

Every afternoon while she stayed with us in Muizenberg she announced that she needed some alone time, and was going for a walk. I would generously encourage her to take the dogs along for company. It was years before I fully comprehended her indifference to dogs. She never said a word in argument – just leashed up all six and bobbed in their wake down Ventnor Road and to Sunrise Beach, like a small, anxiously squeaking balloon.

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Sunrise Beach, Muizenberg

Oh Marmeee … you left such a rich trove of memories! I love to dig through them, fingering, admiring and sorting them the way I used to play with your big tin of buttons, lying on the carpet next to you while you sewed. You were sewing and I was lying on the carpet, a band of sunlight across my back, when I discovered that I could read without moving my lips. Another time, you sat sewing on a chair in my bedroom, while I was in bed with yellow jaundice, and you told me about sex. You were embarrassed, and I was appalled; I’d thought the girls at school were joking!

She sewed a lot. Was that necessity, or did she actually enjoy it? Dresses for me – those damn Butterick princess line dresses that I hated, but she said they were slimming. I wanted flared skirts, circular skirts, in gaudy parrot colors, and at last she gave in and made them for me, and never said they made me look fat. Later she made me caftans; they make me look like a ship in full sail, and I love them and wear them every hot summer day.

Her home felt like a sanctuary, even when money was short, and especially when the Old Buzzard was tearing it apart in order to put it together again. One year she made light shades, one out of papier-mâché and another out of string and flour paste. She did batik and macramé, she crocheted blankets and made candles. She talked to plants and they grew for her. She expressed a liking for owls and unintentionally acquired a collection.

She sang, not quite as well as her mother but better than I. For years she sang in a choir; as long as I knew her – until cancer stole her breath – she would break into song in supermarkets and in the car and while gardening or cooking and just because. Now I do it. I wonder if the Girl Child does.

She wanted to be an actress, but settled for secretary. This paid off for me in my final year of school, when I took part in an essay contest – 50 typed pages on “The Press – Something-or-other of the People”. As usual I’d procrastinated; three days before deadline I’d completed the first of four sections perfectly, and had nothing else but a collection of notes. The night before it was due, we stayed up all night in her office while I scrawled and dictated and she typed. Every hour or so I’d raid the kitchen for sugary snacks to keep us going. I’ve never read the essay, but it won me a book voucher that I spent on the collected works of TS Eliot, which I have read.

Years ago, as we were getting ready to run away together for a rare few days without the Old Buzzard, she commented how much she was looking forward to some alone time. I hastily assured her that I wouldn’t be getting in her hair – that she mustn’t hesitate to tell me if she needed me to disappear with the Girl Child for a couple hours. “Oh, I don’t mean you,” she scoffed. “Being with you is as good as being alone.” If you get why that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had … well, then, you’re our kind of people.

It’s nearly midnight. Mother’s Day is nearly over. The first year without her … nearly over. And this is what I’ve learned: She isn’t gone. She’s in me. I kill plants and I hate sewing and I’d sooner stick a fork in my eye than learn macramé, but a few minutes ago the Girl Child WhatsApped me a message that began, “Argh I forgot mother’s day! I’m a terrible child” – which is precisely the kind of message I sent to Marmeee any number of times. And I responded with “Hmph”, which is exactly how she would respond to me. And I know with no shadow of doubt that the Girl Child rolled her eyes and laughed, because that is what I would do.

When the perfect way the light drapes itself across the hills makes me catch my breath, when I warble in the supermarket, when I cackle at an absurdity that no one else finds funny, when I just can’t be bothered with makeup, when I’m depressed by my knees my calves my ankles, when I argue with the Hubbit about organic gardening, when my hair grows vertically upward, when I think about God, when I say “Oh FIDDLE-de-dee” or “Bugger it” or “Phooey”, when I see how my footprints in the sand point away from each other … there she is. There she is. She’s there.

Do you have special memories of your mother? I’d love you to share them.

 

The Olde Buzzard and the Easter bunny

After my mother died we put my father in a home.

Funny how that sounds like a confession! It sounds like abandonment, like kids who don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with a dotty, demanding old man.

In fact it was the best we could do for him. The home – actually two houses on adjoining suburban lots – was a little shabby, but the lawn was green and mowed smooth enough for walkers and wheelchairs, and the tree between the houses was huge, with comfortable chairs set out in the shade. The caregivers were kind. The food was delicious and plentiful. It didn’t feel like an institution, but it was safe, staffed by people who understood how to care for people with his condition.

He had a little room to himself that opened out onto a grassy area. Outside the sliding glass door we put potted plants that used to stand on their stoep – his and Marmeee’s – and a small clay garden gnome that my sister the Kat had given them. The room itself was very small, but we made it big with the framed photographs from their trips to America, and the life-size photograph of the first (and last) trout Marmeee ever fished for, the intensely colorful blanket she had crocheted on the bed, a few books that we hoped he might still be able to read. You know … the random odds and ends that one hopes, against all odds, will make a place home.

Lindt Easter bunny

Oh, and a chocolate Easter bunny. That was a housewarming gift from me; of all his children, I’m the one who has inherited his chocaholic genes in their most potent form. He loved plain chocolate with licorice shoelaces, and as a child I gave him some in a brown paper bag every birthday – and then demanded my share, which he would eke out with a stingy hand. You haven’t been able to get licorice shoelaces for years, but he was happy with chocolate on its own – always plain; he didn’t want any potential chocolate space in the slab taken up by nuts or raisins or other junk.

But that was for everyday munching. Everyone knows Easter chocolate is better – a special treat, guaranteed to make any situation more bearable! (Actually, in the US Easter chocolate mostly sucks. But this was in South Africa, and anyway it was a Lindt bunny.)

I put it right next to his bed where he couldn’t miss it, and imagined him nibbling on it on his first night in his new bed. But when I visited him the next day it was still there, untouched.

I picked it up and brandished it at him. “Oy! You didn’t eat your bunny!” I said.

He blinked at it bemusedly. “Is that mine?”

“Yes, you silly nit! That’s why it’s next to your bed!”

He looked down at the bed he was sitting on (there was space for only one chair in his room) and fingered the crocheted blanket. “Oh! Is this my bed? This looks like the blanket Mom made.”

“Yes, Dad,” I replied gently. “This is your bed. You live here now. And this -” I brandished the bunny at him – “is your own chocolate Easter bunny! You must eat it before it gets old and yucky.”

“It’s an Easter bunny? Well, when is Easter then?” he asked.

“It was a few weeks ago. Never mind about Easter – we’ve already celebrated that. But the store had a bunch of leftover chocolate bunnies on special so I got you one.”

He took it, stroked the ribbon with his forefinger. Said, “I think I’d better save this for Easter. It’s so pretty… It wouldn’t be right to eat it on an ordinary day.”

The next time I visited I took a slab of plain Cadbury milk chocolate, which I put into the top drawer of his bedside table, where he had no difficulty finding it. The bunny was still there … and it was still there a week later when I went to say goodbye before flying back home to Washington. I wonder whether he ever ate it? I like to think that someone eventually slipped off the red ribbon, peeled away the gold paper, and shared it with him. I like to think the taste of good chocolate melting on his tongue brought him a moment of simple pleasure.

But if my sister the Egg found it when she went to clear out his room, and either ate it or gave it away … well, that’s okay too. At least it didn’t sit there long enough to get stale.

The envelope

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.

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Things Marmeee loved: Me