Sometimes people live dying

2008-03-10 00:00

There are few things more frightening than receiving information that a loved one is possibly terminally ill. One of those things is actually seeing your friend in that state and having to go home with the memory of that indelible fear in their eyes.

I have received such information on more times than I can count on one hand and in each instance my response has been to be a better, more visible friend to the person to make their subjective experience of pain much easier.

The trick is to mean everything you say and not undermine the person’s intelligence. Have integrity. Otherwise, you just make that person feel much worse. Some people do not want to be seen. What inspires me to write this is the fact that there is such disregard for the ill in our society. Whatever affliction they have is none of our business unless it can infect us but even beyond that, we just need to remember that life is more than breaths in and out of lungs.

“Sometimes people live dying”, said a rapper called Cee-Lo once upon a time and I witnessed this before I knew what it was. My mother’s sister, the beautiful Aunt Kholeka, was the first person I saw live dying. Once she became very ill she lived at our house sometimes and other times she would be back in Matatiele where Ma would either visit monthly or send a “message” via mutual friends who were travelling in that direction.

Ma is the greatest sister anyone could ever wish for and I have watched her love her siblings unconditionally to their very last days. I want to dedicate this article to her not just because I’ve learnt from and been inspired by her but also because when I said I wanted her to read this article before I sent it to get published she said: “I will see it with everyone else. We trust you not to disrespect us.”

Aunt Kholeka and I had the greatest times when she stayed at home with us in the early nineties. She taught me how to cook rice (of which she loved to chew a raw handful) and stew and other things. Barely able to walk due to severe arthritis, the treatment of which eventually gave her cancer, she would come to the kitchen and see how I was doing. Other days she would be in her room and we’d chat, usually during school holidays. She would make fun of me about this girl named Natasha whom I adored while I brought her a cup of water to take her medication. She would smile as I reacted in shock to the number of pills she was taking.

My favourite memory has to be our argument about which of our respective favourite artists, Dolly Parton or Michael Jackson, had had the most plastic surgery. Aunt Kholeka died some years later and I now remember her as one of my best childhood friends. Illness gave me a chance to get to know her.

In the past decade I have lost a lot of people my age and younger. The biggest lesson I have learnt from these situations is that a strong mind and spirit usually determine if one is severely or terminally ill. I am not sure though and I do hope that my friends who have survived and those who are still fighting to survive, as well as their families, know that I am not trivialising their trauma.

To give strength to people I would SMS Bible scriptures, motivational lines and sms poems and take books and magazines. I did whatever I could think of, right down to telling Ma to pray. I guess I never know how much I love some people until I feel that they they won’t be around for long. Now, I tell people all the time that I love them. Some think I’m beautiful and some think I’m weird.

The truth is we are all dying from the day we’re born; we should strive to be happy and make others happy whether we have 10 or 100 years to live. It is very possible to have your motives questioned but unconditional love means you are happy someone is healthy somewhere, even if they’re no longer in your life. Believe me, that is a happy ending.

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