Caution: not for the faint hearted. For a shorter version, just skip the paragraphs entitled “[Detour]”
You may (or may not) remember the stories I’ve told about the two elderly neighbours, one of whom once died on a hospital stretcher and is friends with high profile politicians, etc. In a separate story – exactly one month ago – I related that one of them (whom I call Magogo) fell ill and I drove her to hospital, etc. Well, I got to drive her to the hospital a couple more times since then. Her abdominal pains became more intense and frequent.
One day, she knocked at my door and looked really frail and worn out. I immediately assumed she wanted to be taken to the hospital again, which I didn’t mind as much as I did the fact that she wasn’t getting admitted and it would have been a third emergency visit in a space of about week and half. But that’s not what she wanted.
The background to her visit is that a few days earlier, she and her sister had told me that a certain woman bumped their car and then tried to escape. Apparently, Magogo jumped out of the car and stood right in front of that car with arms outstretched. She actually demonstrated this to me after that accident, at her sister’s request. She did it with very gangster swag, like in the movies. According to the story, the driver then sheepishly came out and said her brakes had failed. But apparently, she had a really bad attitude and instead of apologizing, she just said they must get three quotes and she’d pay for the damages. Upon getting the quotes, the woman gave them the runaround. When they showed me her email address, it turned out to be a famous TV and radio personality who co-presents some famous breakfast show that you probably listen to. The attitude they described perfectly matched her. I knew who that was!
Back at my door with Magogo, she had come to remind me to please help her sister with that car situation. Apparently, they thought the reason I hadn’t followed that up was that I was upset with her sister so she came to plead with me not to abandon her.
“No, Magogo, I’m not upset with you ladies at all! I just have been quite busy and haven’t had a chance to follow that up. My apologies!” Magogo looked like she’s not really buying that. “Please help my sister when you have a moment, will you? I’m worried about her. God will bless you.” Then she left. It was odd because they both had bigger problems than that scratch on the car. Her sister pretty much can’t drive, being on a wheeled chair because of some health issue or another. I also thought it was patronizing of her to speak that way, as if she wants something, but I recognized that she doesn’t usually mince her words when she wants something. She’d have told me exactly what she wanted.
Well, that happened to be the very last conversation I was to have with her.
Shortly after that, she got admitted in hospital and immediately got operated on. There was some complication with that so she got a second operation a day or two later and it was downhill from there. She was put on life support. She basically never woke up after the ops. Her tone of voice when we last spoke (detailed in the detour paragraph) now feels like it was her goodbye.
The surviving sister
That was basically the surviving sister’s worst nightmare coming true. She feared that this would happen. During Magogo’s stay at the hospital, she lost a lot of weight from agonizing about the possibility of losing the sister with whom she stayed for decades since they both got divorced and the kids grew up and moved to different parts of the world. She said she’d had premonitions about it and even heard the death rattle coming from Magogo’s bedroom the morning she got picked up by the ambulance for the last time. I decided to frequent her house and give her whatever support is possible, given my work pressures, etc. Other neighbours happened to echo that and we huddled around her as her family wasn’t gonna arrive soon enough. We held a prayer at her house on the day that Magogo passed.
“I’m too old for this Siphiwe,” she said on one occasion after Magogo had been put on life support, “my sister specifically asked me not to let the hospital put her on life support. Now I have to tell them to switch it off.” She sobbed uncontrollably for a brief moment and quickly compose herself. I’m guessing she figured out that I’m not one of the most touchy-feely people she’s ever seen so she decided to save me from that awkwardness. The conversation went in and out of various topics, from happy moments with her sister, to politics and current affairs, to the sophisticated support system that African cultures have. That helped neutralize everything. She’s opinionated and very, very witty and informed. She was expressing herself coherently across all these topics, with sharp analysis of every topic.
She showed me Magogo’s pictures from just before I met them. “When you met her, she was the dying version of herself, Siphiwe! Look at these pictures!” She was crying again, but composed. Magogo looked like a model that’s in her 30’s! The illness had taken all of that away in less than a year and made her look her age, which shocked them because she’d never looked that old and worn out before.
When the machine was finally switched off, it was three days before Magogo’s birthday. She almost made it full circle to her birthday. I’ve never witnessed a white person’s grief so intimately before. I bring this up because, while being politically correct would be nice: witnessing someone — whom you’ve considered an enemy for generations — going through something like this, does an amazing job of grabbing you by the gut and compelling you to see your own in them. She basically looked exactly like my mom did when my father had just departed. I reacted to her just as I did to my mom then.
This experience also taught me quite a bit about myself. I learned that it’s possible to face death in the eye and, crying as you may be, tackle everything that needs to be tackled. I observed that as she navigated her own emotional landscape, she wasn’t falling apart, she was expressing her grief in response to everything that reminded her of the fact that her sister is no more. And the more she speaks and cries, the longer her eyes remain dry between her bursts of tears; like watching a person begin a journey of shedding her grief, one cry at a time. Being a man, I generally skip the crying and focus on the logistics. This time, I decided it will be a great experience to explore how else this can be handled.
“The hospital says I need to come identify her body and authorize for it to be released to the funeral parlour.” She didn’t cry this time. I offered to drive with her and she appreciated that.
There was a female friend of hers whom I thought would come with us but she stayed behind at her house, for some reason. I’m getting used to how conversational she generally is, flowing in and out of all kinds of topics, but I suspect she switches about like that so that she doesn’t cry and make me uncomfortable. I wish I was a bit better wired.
“I think she refused to give him sex and he shot her Siphiwe. I’m telling you!” The newsreader had just said something about Oscar Pistorius having been found guilty of murder. That came from nowhere! We had just joined the highway. There was silence , and then I couldn’t hold it anymore, I burst out laughing. She had this “of course I said it, now get over it” facial expression that dissolved the situation and somewhat gave me permission to thoroughly laugh it off. She seemed to laugh at the fact that I got so shocked and shy and didn’t know how to handle that discussion. She guided me through the shortest route to the hospital. She knew that I had relied on the GPS on the few trips I took with Magogo and was sure she’d one-up that, and she did.
I parked, got her wheeled chair out, and started wheeling her into the reception area. The one female guard recognized me from the day Magogo screamed in shock when I showed up unexpectedly as she was trying to have a smoke. I smiled and asked where the morgue is. “Sorry, the what?” she asked, looking confused. “The mortuary,” I explained, and that wiped her smile off as she recognized that I’m not with the same white woman I was with the last time. She directed us and we got moving.
“People are gonna think you’re my porter,” the ol’ lady said, with a belly laugh.
The closer you get to the morgue, the more sombre the atmosphere gets. Everyone says very little except to just answer your questions. you see stretchers that have coffin-like compartments on them, and as you walk, you wonder if there are bodies in them. “It’s gonna get hectic Siphiwe!” she said, also morphing into the sombre mood.
We met the forensic pathologist on duty. He had a polite manner about himself. He sat us down and Ol’ lady didn’t seem to mind me being in that room with them (and leaving the room felt inappropriate) so I stayed. The guy took the her through the paperwork and asked if she’d like to see the body. That brought her to tears. “What do you think, Siphiwe? Should I do it?” I looked towards the doctor and asked if it’s compulsory. He gave me a sheepish look that says yes, and I gave him one that says “but you can see she’s in no state to be viewing the body!” There appeared to be a mutual understanding. “You can always view her body later after it’s handed to the funeral parlour. They will have washed it and made it much more presentable there.” The guy was polite but occasionally gave too much detail. The last nail on the proverbial coffin (if you’ll excuse the pun) was when he told us that the corpse was in a body bag and the face was covered with clear plastic/cling wrap. Ol’ lady sobbed intensely, saying “I can’t see my sister looking like that!!” She cried like a helpless baby. I somewhat distracted that and asked if there was anything else. There wasn’t. I wheeled her off.
I was on autopilot mode, only managing the logistics of all this, concerning myself with making sure we find our way to the parking lot and remembering where the lift was and the floor numbers, etc. She still knew that better than me though. We drove back home, with the random conversations continuing uninterrupted. It was as if she knows how to drive me almost to tears and then pull me back out of that and into something funny or a different kind of serious so that I don’t actually cry and embarrass myself, or whatever the case may be.
I still haven’t come around to deal with the celebrity who bumped their car yet. I honestly don’t have the energy for that now.
Today’s the late Magogo’s birthday. As per Ol’ lady’s request, I went and got her black forest cake, Magogo’s favourite. I don’t know how women do this but this crying thing is just not for sissies, I am learning.
As per custom, thank you for reading this. Even if you jumped straight to this paragraph LOL; and sorry if it made your eyes watery.
Caution: not for the faint hearted. For a shorter version, just skip the paragraphs entitled “[Detour]”