Death in the Family

2014-02-08 15:43

Camping never gets easier. My boytjie won’t swim without his shirt on– “What d’you think my nipple looks like to a grunter?” he says. Our family camp site remains a no-braai zone for three days as we de-stress, getting used to no home comforts, no microwave oven, no DSTV, no Internet. At night we listen to the sounds of nature…. the frogs, the crickets, the river, cars passing, human babies crying, dudes snoring, snorting and grunting worse than a troop of wallowing warthogs, the crunch of human feet on gravel as campers make their way to and from the ablution block at all hours... Days later we’re in the swing of it, hanging out in our bathing suits and bare feet. We braai not only the healthy options of yellowtail and butternut, but vleis. "Ja," we agree with our fellow campers, all of us sinking teeth into succulent tjops and wors, licking greasy lips afterwards, "dit was 'n lekker happie daai!" We light-heartedly warn our children: "When the caravan’s a rockin' don’t come knockin'!"

A week later, only home a few days from our camping adventure, Robert, my husband, is dead. Yes, that’s right, from one hour to the next, my world is rocked.

Robert had just turned 52. He sparkled with dreams for the future. He was fit, ate organic, campaigned for a good life for chickens; he enjoyed a dop or two, but didn't smoke; he hardly had a boep (according to him). Yet this whole person, my better half some might argue, was so unexpectedly gone as the consequence of a massive, unexpected and fatal heart attack.

What can I say? There are no words. Yet it is through words, through writing that I believe one makes sense of things, or some sort of sense at least. It’s what I advocate and I’m compelled to apply it to my own life.

As Jonathan Van Meter reports in a New York Mag interview with writer Joan Didion on the death of her husband (also by heart attack) and the illness of her daughter, Didion was taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble.” She read everything she could get her hands on about grief: memoirs, novels, how-to books, inspirational tomes. “Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it…. which was the interesting aspect of it to me—how really tenuous our sanity is.”

It’s been a difficult month. My husband has been gone twenty-eight days. He died on Saturday January 11, 2014. I’m racked by sadness, a torture, but also by guilt – why didn’t I force him to have a checkup, why didn’t I tell him over and over that I loved him, why did I take him for granted? Did I get him to the hospital on time?

It’s the finality of it, the shock of Robert simply, from one moment to the next, not being there. Here. Not being physically present in my life, in the lives of my -our- children. His daughters wear his T-shirts now; they cook Thai chicken and moussaka, meals he loved to prepare himself. They cope in their own way. In my eleven-year-old son Alister’s words, "When someone dies you realize you had so much more to say to them…."

On the Friday night before he died, Robert and I had an argument over Facebook. I let it all hang out.  In a dramatic flourish I unfriended my very own husband. The ultimate insult! Before I went to sleep, I asked, “Let’s be ‘friends’ again,” but he was still a little peeved. He said he’d think about it, rolled over and went to sleep.

The next morning he woke complaining of chest pains, hot and cold sweats. I got him in the car. Sped to Constantiaberg Emergency Hospital. Did not kill us both in the process. Robert walked in, with the help of two paramedics. He insisted it was heartburn. I reckoned, maybe at the outside, that he’d need a stent or balloon or pace maker or whatever fancy gadgets the docs stick in you to make your ticker beat in good rhythm. I was thinking, I am going to lecture you, boetie, for complaining about exorbitant medical aid fees. See, we have to keep up the payments. You never know when you’ll need to be admitted…

Yet forty-five minutes later, a nurse and doctor led me to a quiet room, asked me to sit down. I refused at first. I insisted, “I know what it means when a doctor asks you to sit down. I’ve watched enough Grey’s Anatomy to know it’s bad news. You must have the wrong person.” Till at last I did sit down, and gently they let me know Robert was gone. Dead. How I hate to use that hard, unrelenting word.

During the morning, at the hospital, the family spent time with the body. It was partly covered by a sheet.  We touched him, held his hands, rubbed his feet. We kissed him. I squeezed the warm parts of him. His thighs, his upper arms. I willed Robert to wake up. But his flesh was starting to cool, his body mottling a little as the blood settled. We had, at last, to leave him there.

Days later, the family gathered at Maitland Cemetery Chapel for a final goodbye. We saw him in his pine box, the cheapest on the market (he wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise - why waste good wood in a cremation?), his head was settled in a pillow of satin. We’d asked that he not be shaved, though his curly hair and usually unruly bok-baardjie were nicely combed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my hippy-hubby - who hated wearing shoes and loved the feel of the world under and at his feet - looking quite so neat, quite such a spruced-up Billy Connolly lookalike. Again we stroked his flesh, his shell.

Robert’s ashes, sealed in a small pine box and weighing about three kilogrammes, joined us and the crowd at the memorial function. "Robert Hichens, don't RIP! Beat your drum! Turn up your guitar!" our friend Niki Daly paid tribute.

From friends overseas to our next door neighbors, from the tellers at Shoprite to the petrol pump attendants, all part of our extended community, we’ve been inundated with caring messages and calls, and cards bearing flourishes of poignant poetry - ‘I am a thousand winds that blow’ (Mary Frye, 1932); we've had countless arrangements of flowers and yummy pastas delivered (one of my daughters said, "Ma, the carbs are killing me!" I reassured, "It’s comfort food.") We’ve all been brought closer through this story of Loss.

Joan Didion notes that the “Funerals” chapter in Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette advises that those close to the grief-stricken should “prepare a little hot tea or broth and it should be brought to them . . . without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it . . .” "This was a world," says Didion, "in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view." So I hold it up now, as part of life. I’m struggling and will struggle for a long time with the shock of ‘here one moment, gone the next’, no magic trick to be wondered at, just a harsh and unbelievable reality. How do I soften the emptiness? I’m not sure how to move forward.  How do I, and others like me who experience loss, keep going in the face of loss? As we scream through it, as we feel ragged, torn and bleeding, as we continue to be called on to fetch kids, warm up supper, help with homework.  How do we go on? Robert was an atheist, a supporter of Tim Minchin and Richard Dawkins. He was at times fundamentalist in his fervour.

I know he'd appreciate this sentiment from philosopher Alan Watts who writes, his work so succinctly presented on Brain Pickings:  “Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. . . . All belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty.”

Though for me ‘dead is dead’ a measure of comfort is found as I read more of Watts’ words: "We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves”, the universe “peoples”. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe."

When the kids say "I miss dad so much", I remind them that dad is with them, in their very flesh, in their cells, 50 % of their DNA is Robert DNA. Two nights before his death the girls and their dad went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. What an unforgettable father-daughter jol! I remind Alister of the Friday night prawn supper, the ‘boys’ getting messy and greasy, sucking the flesh from shells, and telling rude jokes.

I have to find meaning, reinvent a life without ‘my man’, the children’s father, in it. I have to believe, in the face of the depth of emotion and the care of so many family and friends, that we remain inspired to live. But oh, what I would not give for another braai, with the whole of my family, on the banks of the Stillbaai River.

I cry a lot, I wish Robert was here. I get on with life, forget sometimes that he won’t come walking through the door – then a bolt of grief strikes and the pain is worse as I start over. For two weeks I kept his water glass at the side of the bed, his slip-slops are still under the bed. I phone his work answering machine to hear his gentle voice asking callers to leave a message or try him on another line - for the rest of my life I am destined only to hear him reciting the sequence of the numbers of his cell phone.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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