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The most important people in her life
by Abigail George
2016-08-13 10:48:37
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So I turned to my father. I was this kid and said to him.

‘You’re mean. You’re just being cruel. Stay away from me. She’s not dead. I just saw her this morning.’

What does death mean to a child after all said and done but when you’re an adult it defines you.

afric01_400The grief and then the denial of it all settles in with depth and seriousness. There was still the life of the girl inside of her. You’re there but you’re also not there. People talk of cancer. I saw something inside of my aunt that paralysed me. Her beautiful face that was so open. That spoke of kindness and grace. Mercy but all I could remember of her was her cleaning the kitchen. Cleaning up after us all. Her boys and us, her nieces. All I remember was her grilled cheese sandwiches. The two pizzas ‘they’ bought after a trip to the beach.

The pizzas grew cold on the long car ride home. The beach was twenty minutes away but it had become a ritual. It was a summer of video games. I would watch these boys, who would grow up into young men in front of my eyes. Their shiny hair. Inside all I felt was rage. I knew then that I would always be picked last or not at all. I knew that in the world of men I would come last. I knew in which category I fit. My mother always said I lived in the past. Other girls held me in contempt. I wanted to please my Christian mother but I didn’t. I wanted to be a dancer but I didn’t have the feet.

It is easy to think of humanity, of life as always coming full circle and that there will be both escape from your backward past, from unhappiness and reconciliation in your immediate future.

Our conversations transformed me. Made me curious about that constant known as life. The voyage into eternity.

The other constant that was known as death.

My dad is one of the lucky ones. His voice was a river. Scraps of material. Perhaps as children we knew too much of happiness, shelter, protection, religion, kindness.

Our father taught us to follow our instinct. He taught us about betrayals and that its source usually came from a wound, hurt, error, illness, failure. He made demands on us. We had to be tough.

He had seen enough of that world as a child, as a young person.

This is a story about us, a family, a man. It is also a story about my father. Family, aunts, uncles, estranged relatives, funerals, the centre of winter, depression and the fusion of all these things. Fathers are special people. Mostly they encourage you. You tell them about your list of goals and in return, they inspire you to fulfil them. They are the ones standing on the side lines. They are the ones who give you that standing ovation. They are the ones who mouth the words ‘I love you’ and ‘I think that you are brilliant’ when you feel like you did not do as brilliant as you should have. They are the first ones you go to when you feel sad or when you are happy. All my life that is what my father did. He was not all of those things all of the time. Sometimes he was sad and as a child, it made me feel very angry and confused when my father cried or was upset. Now, I imagine him as a young adult as a lonely warrior whose head was bursting out of his skull, his brain cells tormented by the Periodic Table, smashed up against elegant words like bilateral symmetry, biology, anatomy, dissect, zoology and mitochondria surrounded by a mountain of books, hills and green valleys of physics and chemistry textbooks. My father was like a beautiful shadow, my beautiful shadow that always lingered in my presence. We will talk for hours on everything and nothing at the same time. I do think that I am a poet because of him because are not all writers are poets at some stage in their lives or at least they have the potential to become poets within them. He is a writer and a teacher who wanted to become a medical doctor but life had other plans for him. He has been writing all his life to get to this point in time and even now, he is always in pursuit of something or other. He believes in many things and most of all his spirituality, the nature of his soul is like that constellation beyond the trees. Primitive, ancestral, universal. My father is a funny and sweet man. Understanding my love for this funny and sweet man who in his own words has had a curious relationship with his hair on different continents and with the pencil test, whose life story reads like a book of secrets, claustrophobia, vertigo, therapy and it has set my life journey on a trajectory that is (simply put) out of my hands. Human beings do not know as children whether they are truly destined for great things. Whether or not they will always be the follower or the visionary, the leader but all children have the potential for greatness. What unlocked my dad’s greatness? I really do not have an answer for that question. Maybe that surprises you. Maybe you expected me to say that perhaps it was his depression. Most of all, I want your life to be changed by this man’s life and the people who came to love him when he was at the crossroads of the depths of despair, isolation and rejection (and don’t we all fear rejection). I think that every person who suffers from a mental illness has a hidden life. When you are depressed, it is another habitat. You are closed off from the rest of the world. Shut off from the rest of normal (what is normal anyway) humanity. You are in that void, that black hole sinking, swimming for your life, separated from the people who love you the most and there is nothing, nothing that can bring you back from that brink. People tend to think that people who suffer from a mental illness cannot recover completely from it (I think people who think like this think that recovery is the furthest thing from their mind).  Depression damages people and that is a fact. The ego has a mind of its mind here when it comes to chronic illness and the road to recovery. I have seen my funny, sweet, generous and forgiving father happy and unhappy. Seen lucky him, my best friend, through laughter, tears, and the grim winter of depression. I need you to understand that I was invisible as a child.

Elise paused here.

In my father’s words he was born into a cosmopolitan environment with children from all cultural groups together. They played together, went to the same schools, and shared everything with each other. He went to school at the age of five. All along his school career this deficit in age caused much difficulty. There was no room for failure.

‘You’re lovely, my darling. You’re lovely.’ I can almost hear my father whisper in my mother’s ear.

My father taught me that loneliness was only a gap. It didn’t have to be a reality. Ordinary does not intoxicate.

Ordinary people do not intoxicate. Ordinary places do not intoxicate me, I’m sorry I should have that love intoxicates me. So does passion. My mother was beautiful but a beautiful person inside and out. I like to think that my father fell in love with her soul instead he fell in love with her ‘stone’ heart, ‘stone’ voice of all things. If you think I should see a psychiatrist, then I will. I have your blessing. I had a friend called Jupiter once. We liked the same music. I think that it is important that you understand my history which is why I talk about my father. I do go on about him at length, don’t I?

Did I ever tell you about her? About Jupiter. She looked like a model. Like Alek Wek. She looked like she could go in for Miss South Africa.

Talkers are remarkable. Girls like that I mean. They are the tall and popular ones. I don’t think that tall and popular girls ever find themselves going for therapy. Going to see a psychiatrist. They’re lovely. Some of them are not all there. Not brainy. I mean they’re smart enough. Are they smart enough, really? What does it take for a girl to be smart enough, to be called intelligent? You listen but you don’t really believe in what they are saying. You can see their hearts are in it, in what they are saying.

But I don’t listen to talkers really. At the funeral (here Elise pauses again chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully) the whole world changes. After the funeral it blends into landscapes that have different textures, and the hymns are made up of waves, tunes. There were talkers at the funeral too. This kind of unhappiness seemed random. I guess cancer and having two deaths in the family can do that to a person who is unprepared. Pretty unfair.  My mother is a talker when she is in her element. When she is amongst her own tribe. Her own people.

Women. Girls who were like her. Tall, confident, popular. Girls who played sports. I was in another loop and didn’t really matter to her. What could she do with someone who could not be spoilt, coddled, fed titbits from her plate and I really tried to understand her, I tried to understand them all? Why they pushed me away, the Johannesburg people, why they tried to erase me?

I don’t fight them with words anymore. I fight them with silence. It helps me more than saying. ‘Please help,’ or ‘Please try and help me figure this out. This thing called life that has me in this loop.’

They’ve punished me. She’s punished me. I’ve punished me but I haven’t been able to completely revenge them away. Put my mind at ease. I’ve danced around with this perspective, this view on things but it hasn’t been enough. I thought it would be temporary, this discontent but it hasn’t. I thought it would make me fearless and brave if I followed through with that instinct.

My mother is in a class of her own but she is the only thing I know of love. She is my unhappiness. My world. Can you understand that? Poetry has become a job. I’ve tried to make a career out of it. Anything that I have tried to share with her she doesn’t change her look, her outlook of it. It doesn’t mean anything to her. We come from different worlds and it is enough for her.

It is enough for her that she has brought me into this world. She lives. I live. It’s the same house. In the rooms she coasts through she is light-hearted. As cold as the centre of winter. I wonder does she feel the cold the same way I do. Is this what it means to be born beautiful? To hold the world of men hostage. She’s light years ahead of me when it comes to making conversation with the opposite sex. She can see my humiliation. My failure without even me confessing anything.

If only she could love me but I knew that kind of love would never be enough. The friends with benefits kind of love.

At the funeral were aunts. Uncles. Estranged family. And everywhere Elise looked there were the remnants of chronic illness. Cancer had marked all of them. The beautiful stranger found herself in a dark house with accidents waiting to happen around every corner. She could not take her eyes off the woman with peacock blue eye shadow at the funeral. Elise watched her careful movements out of the corner of her eye.

The woman dapped her dry eyes with a tissue. The woman was Elise’s sister. The grand one who lived in Johannesburg. The sister who had overcome her fear of living on her own. Who their mother called ‘independent’. Their uncle who had lived for most of his life in America had said she would never get married.

She didn’t need a man (what do you need a man for if you have money, a car, your own house, right). In the cool and windowless church hall Elise put carefully spooned creamy potato salad onto her plate. After the funeral everyone tucked into the soup that one of her mother’s sisters had made. It was too hot for soup but nobody seemed to really care about the heat of the day. They all tucked into it anyway even though it was a summer’s day. Nobody made a beeline for her and this made her feel self-conscious. She had gone up to her mother at the grave but her mother had pushed her away which had made her feel small inside.

Hissed at Elise, ‘Go away.’ But she had been doing that since Elise and Christine, (the woman with the peacock blue eye shadow’s name) since they were girls. As Elise surveyed the clean room with its trestle tables, inhabitants hovering near to her, and to the delicious food, and the white tablecloths spread out on the tables, the Indian women bringing in the food, she thought to herself that illness was a part of being human just like family, wives, husbands and children. In the dark house in Port Elizabeth, the city by the sea booming with tourists, back after the trip from Johannesburg, in the early hours of the morning the house was like a beautiful stranger too.

Much like her aunt and Christine had been. The cancer had eaten away at all of her aunt’s vital energy. Her soul world. The light in her eyes. Her world. The thick veil of black hair falling over her shoulders down her back no more. Gone into the hereafter. Forever into eternity. Her bones turning into dust. Elise was still thinking of the soup that they had served that day. The piping hot soup.



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