One of the weirder things about grief is that all of the cliches – the ones you’ve seen play out on TV shows or movies, the ones you’ve read about it in books by more sophisticated authors who write in ways that mask the pallid clicheness – are true. It all comes to life in vivid technicolour in the days, maybe weeks, maybe years, in which you weep and remember.
Stage 1, or the cliché known as ‘all the things we did not say’
When my mom called me on Tuesday, at the ungodly hour of 6am, I did not expect that she would tell me that my aunt was dead. Firstly, my mother has called me at that hour before, just to say ‘hi’. Secondly, she – my aunt – was getting better. She was.
My aunt was HIV positive, and even though, in this day and age, that is not a death sentence or a thing about which we whisper, it was sort of a family secret. Not that the family didn’t know, but none of us spoke of it – to others, to ourselves, to each other – maybe not even to her. In the 6 years since she was diagnosed (or, since my mother first breached the code of silence to tell me about it) she would fall ill from time to time, and my mother would mention it in passing. There was never anything spectacular about these conversations, except the fact that we were having them: my aunt’s flu would not have been an issue had she not been HIV positive. In the week before her death, my mother sent me a text message: “Hi Ru. I thought you should know, your Aunt Sharo is very ill with pneumonia and suspected TB.” I replied that I was sorry to hear this, and I would wish her well. That was that. I don’t know why I didn’t follow through and text her. Maybe because I was so used to the updates on her health, and so used to the way in which we spoke about it as if it wasn’t of much consequence, maybe it was because, as she’d always done, she seemed to be rallying and getting better… Two days after my mother told me that she was much better, the doctors were sending her home, my mother was telling me she was gone.
More than I wish I’d texted, I wish I had said these things to her: I know that you have this diagnosis, and I am so proud of you for telling us all. I am so proud of you for living happily and healthily with this disease in a country and on a continent that barely understands it, even as it ravages our people. You are a brave, strong, beautiful woman who raised two children alone; who used to let me play dress-up with her awesome shoe collection; who told me, when I was down about my driver’s test that she took hers 13 solid times and refused to bribe anyone or buy her license; who once – all on her own – drove me and my siblings and cousins cross-country to Victoria Falls because she thought we needed the holiday… that’s who you are. That’s what I will remember. Not these three letters and whatever meaning they have for anyone but you.
Stage 2, or the cliché known as ‘the pain comes in waves’
I’ve experienced death before. I’ve had three grandparents die in the last ten years. I cried, I worried for my parents, but on the whole, I moved singularly through the pain to acceptance and remembering them fondly. My aunt’s death has been trauma like I’ve never experienced before. Where I visited with my grandparents, adored them and loved them deeply, my aunt was like another mother to me. All my aunts are; that’s how we grew up. When I was little, I looked forward to weekends because that’s when we would go to one of my aunts’ homes and spend time with my cousins. My dream vacation spot – and the dream spot of my siblings, my cousins – was my aunt’s house. When I was naughty, I knew that i’d be getting at least three lectures, one from my mom, and a few from her sisters. It is these things that will hit me, a million times a day, whilst I’m at work, or driving home, or watching TV. Knowing that part of the source of the security and the love I enjoyed as a kid, I continued to enjoy as a grown woman, is gone for good is unbearable. It was unbearable when my mother called, and it has been unbearable each second since. It hits me in waves whenever I think about it for too long.
Stage 3 or the cliché known as ‘blood is thick(er)’
I’ve always imagined myself to have a complex (read ‘difficult’) relationship with my family. I am the child of immigrant parents and have grown up a ‘third culture kid’ straddling two worlds, never really belonging in either one. I’ve felt increasingly distant, and different from them. This week, though, the week after my mother called me, I have never longed so much for the people I have always thought didn’t know me. My whole family flew up to Harare, and, due to passport nightmares familiar to all kids of the third culture, my brother and I cannot leave South Africa and have stayed put in our ‘regular’ lives, where the world and those in it have gone on as if my aunt hadn’t just died. At first I was filled with a deep incomprehension: how can everybody continue to talk to me about work, about their lives and their schedules? My aunt has died. This was followed by a vague passive-aggressive resentment: I will not be responding to your pithy message. Why, you ask? Well, my aunt is dead. Gone.
I realised, though, that the problem was not the world that seemed to continue regardless of whether or not my aunt was in it. The problem was that I needed to be around people whose worlds had also stopped. Who were taking a moment, collectively, to let out the pain burning through their hearts like acid from the knowledge that one of lights in our world was out. I needed to share my story about that Tuesday morning phone call that transformed my world from one with her in it to one in which she was gone. I needed to know when that moment happened for my aunt’s children, who are now alone without their mother. When did it happen for my mother, who has now lost her baby sister? And for my grandmother, my only surviving grandparent, whose mind is wracked with dementia, does the moment keep happening? Does someone have to bring her world to a crushing standstill every day? Every hour? To paraphrase that song by The Verve, I needed to hear some sounds that recognised the pain in me. I needed to be around the only people in the world who would know what I meant when I said my aunt has died.
Stage 4, or ‘you will feel their spirit around you’
I have been desperate for a sign of some kind, any kind, that my aunt’s spirit is still here and that she is with me, and is listening to my pain, so she knows how much she mattered, how much she will be missed, the void that remains where she was. Today, just as my family was making the journey from the graveyard where they buried her, I got a text indicating that my application for citizenship has been finalised, meaning my passport woes will soon be a thing of the past. I have been waiting for that message, banging down doors, standing in queues, holding on calls for over two years. Today, the day that they laid my aunt to rest, in my and my brother’s absence, I got a text that means that in the foreseeable future, I will be able to visit her resting place.
I can’t see that that’s a coincidence. I remember a few years ago, having a (rare) phone conversation with her in which she asked when I would be coming ‘home’. I brushed it off. Soon, Aunty, I said. Hmph, she said. Looks like I’ll be home sooner than either of us thought.
Stage 5, or ‘the ritual of goodbye is important’
They buried my aunt today. They put her in the ground, said words and prayers and sang, proclaimed that they were returning her to the earth, and said goodbye. I wish I could’ve been there to say goodbye to her with the rest of my family but I couldn’t. After work, my husband and I went to the promenade, a place she loved to visit, a place of great comfort, where I take my sorrow and my joy. As, I released the roses my husband bought for her into the unsettled and rough ocean, I remembered her happy, dancing at my wedding. I remembered her at Christmas, dancing with her sisters. I remembered how she loved what she loved – her parents, her children, her nieces and nephews, cooking, her church, her friends – with a full and open heart. I remembered how I never saw her hold back, not once. I remembered. And we went home. And because you should never leave the things that need to be said unsaid, I called my brother, to tell him I love him.