For those who missed it and asked me for a copy they can actually read (rather than peer at the bad photos I sent), here they are. It was a bit of a moment, seeing something so personal of mine ‘out there’, but I am quite proud to see my name on pieces in the LifeStyle section of the Sunday Times (the front page can be such a risky spot!). This newspaper is such a fixture in my house on Sunday mornings. Long before I had my own home, in the days of being in my parents’ home, there was the Sunday Times with koesisters for breakfast. These days it’s just me and the papers with coffee straight up while everyone else sleeps – but anyone with children will know that the quiet time is almost worth the missing koesisters! I hope you enjoy the read and I hope you have a lovely restful and happy holiday season.
Love and promises to write more cheery stuff,
10 December 2017
Theatre of Life and Death
You know, the Heart Unit at the hospital is such a place. It’s only been a few days, feels like a lifetime. And it’s not even me with the hospital ID on my arm.
What happened? Everyone asks. Luck, I say, and there is truth in the spin. It’s not like a heart attack got us here. It was just a month or two of heartburn wedged in between normal life. But then came Wednesday, the day the world started to tilt. The day our clever GP did a stress ECG, and figured out that the heartburn was linked to his heart. Thursday was the cardiologist’s turn to pronounce; he needs an angiogram, maybe a stent. Scared already, we checked him into the Heart Unit on Friday, the morning after a night of wild lightning and thunder and rain as unexpected in the Cape drought as a heart problem in a strong fit man.
I waited. And when the theatre doors swung open too soon I knew. No stent, he would need a heart bypass operation instead. The nurse put the tissue into my hand before the doctor spoke to me. I didn’t use the tissue, not then.
It’s going to be Ok. It’s what I told them, what I tell him, I tell them all. Every day I write the words in black Sharpie on my wrist, on the spot where I can feel my own pulse.
Nothing has changed, his heart is still his heart, but now that we know everything is different. He stays at the hospital and we wait. Monday’s surgery is postponed. Finally, Tuesday. Shaved and prepped, veins marked and body drugged, it is again his turn on the side of the Theatre doors where I cannot go, where only the surgeons and their sisters are with him.
I wait. This time I have sisters, a daughter, a WhatsApp line choked full of messages to wait with me. My neck is a nervous tick checking the theatre doors. I’m too afraid to go for tea. I don’t want the Rock Star heart surgeon or the anaesthetist, the guy who should be called God, to come out before they are supposed to. That is my nightmare. Somewhere on the other side of those doors, his heart is being stopped, his lungs don’t breathe, his blood is pumped through his body by a machine. His heart is in someone else’s hands. So is mine. Our children’s, his mother’s, siblings. But I am the one that the Rock Star Surgeon and the Anaesthetist who should be called God will look for if they come out of those theatre doors too soon.
It’s going to be Ok. I remind myself, watch my pulse.
I wait. Strangers in chairs close to me cry together with relief, or without, as their Rock Stars bring good news or bad news or no news. Nearly all women in the waiting area. All men in the theatres, the wards, the ICU. We crane to see if the guy on the trolley wheeling past belongs to us. We trade stories. We know What Happened, but we don’t know each other’s names. We thumb our phones, read the same pages of new books, interrupted by each swing of the theatre doors.
Six hours after I said goodbye a nurse tells me that it he is okay, that he will be out soon. It is then that I cry. His heart is again where it should be. I don’t cry when I see him wheeled past me into the ICU. Silent, ventilated, tubes and pipes creeping out of his still body, the constant beeps of the machines in the air around him, the stunned shock of those with me who see him. In another time I would have cried. But he reminds me too much of my mother, less than a year ago it is exactly how she looked for a month before she died. The memory is sharp, it makes me too heartsore to cry, knowing where things can go. Instead I help my child who can cry. I know how she feels. And I know that just because you want things to be Ok, doesn’t mean they will be. It is luck. And it changes faster than you can rub the Sharpie marker off my wrist.
I scurry when the nurse says Mrs-So-and-So you can come inside. I stand next to him in ICU and I wait. There is nowhere to touch him.
His eyes blink open. Out of focus. Cloudy with meds and gummy with whatever it is they put on his lids.
“You’re here, dearie. You did good, the op is over, we are on the other side,” I say close to his face. I’ve found a spot to touch on his forehead. I will my strength into him. He sees me! Nods. His mouth twists at the pipe down his throat. We have far to go.
The Heart Unit at the hospital. It’s such a place. No one really wants to be here, but everyone knows there is a worse place to be.
17 December 2017
Mom’s Final Christmas Gift
Last Christmas, my mother died. It’s a clanger when I say it like that. It’s not festive, it’s not how the song goes. It makes people scrunch their eyes and tilt their heads at me. I feel their sympathy. I appreciate it. Truth is that it’s not as if her death just changed the holidays; it’s changed everything, not only the season to be jolly.
I know I’m not alone. I know many others also struggling with loss over this time. In the middle of the smiles it is the gap in the family landscape that draws our eyes, the holes are where our hearts rest the longest. Exactly like the others warned, I have learnt over this past year that the milestone things – the Mother’s Day, the birthday, the weddings; they have a sharpness above and beyond the thorns that catch me in the everyday. Well, sometimes they are sharper. I underestimated the ordinary savagery of not being able to phone her on a random afternoon.
As the day gets closer I’ve started to wonder whether it makes any difference that the first anniversary of her death comes in the time when it’s all blue skies and braais. It’s not like we were a Christmas family, it wasn’t our tradition, so I don’t have those memories to make me cry. But still the December-ness of the season has been catching me, making me swallow hard. I’m starting to realise that it’s this time of year that most reminds me of her life, of the way that she lived, of the thing I miss the most about her. You see, my mother was about as festive a person as you could hope to find. She was the queen of finding her joy in life, that breed of human who could always find the bright side, make the best of every situation she found herself in. “Places to go, people to see,” could have been her personal mantra. She especially loved a party, an occasion, an event. In December she kicked all of it up a notch. Last year she had plans to be on the beach, out with friends, a trip to India booked to see in the New Year. She was stopped mid-dance by a brain aneurysm and stayed in ICU for a month. You already know how it ended.
She died on a stunningly beautiful blue-skied Christmas day. In the middle of the ultimate season of happiness and holidays, when families and friends spend time together, she quietly breathed her last. In the ward outside her room, the tinsel was up, Christmas lunch nearly ready. In the world outside the hospital, smiling happy people took photos next to the Christmas tree and braaied at the side of the pool. It jarred me, that life could go on like that, but I told myself that at least her suffering was over. She would not have to live a life without awareness, dignity and joy. My sister and I joked that my mother was larger than life to the very end. She wouldn’t go quietly in the night. No, she would wait for a beautiful day of parties to make her exit. She would make sure to be remembered.
So last Christmas, my mother died, and it broke my heart. Still not like the song. Now the blue skies of December bring a sharpness that wasn’t there before, but I see that it also still brings a season of family and friends. It’s a time when I can do things to make my children and my home happy. It does not make the absence of her any easier, I do not miss her any less, but I realise that I am finding joy in the way that my mother showed me. I find that joy softens the sharpness. I like to think of it as her parting gift; to leave in a season when there is no choice but to be reminded of the joys in life, when it is easy for me to find comfort in the people around me.
Does it make a difference that the first anniversary of my mother’s death comes in the time when it’s all tinsel and Christmas lunches, blue skies and braais? I don’t know. I do know that December will always remind me of her death, but more than that December will always remind me of the way she lived.