misty memories: snapshots from a funeral

There’s a haze over Cape Town like a 25% white soft light photoshop fill as I’m headed out of town (unbeknownst to me, a volcano in Chile has coughed up part of it’s lungs into the universe like a butterfly flapping it’s wings…). I’m on my way to Franschhoek for a funeral and I’m not sure how I feel.

The car I’m driving is borrowed from my very first boyfriend. I like to say I chose well. We’re in relationships with other people, but eons later we still love each other and always will have each other’s backs. I remember my grandmother’s funeral shortly after we met, when he, effete German, braved the unknown of a Cape Flats/Franschhoek family and tramped through grave-yard mud with me as I cried hysterically for the woman who used to be the person I loved most in this world. I can’t help but take a trip down many miles of memories as I drive towards another goodbye, even if merely symbolic.

Lining the roads, the trees wear their best brocade. Russets and reds and ambers. Rich, varied textures in which to pay their respects. The wine farms of the valley race toward, then fall away one by one: Graham beck, La Motte, La Provence. The latter two are beacons from my long-ago childhood. The basin of blue mountains curve familiar, yet strange.

Pic by Andy Shader

Against the slopes the Franschhoek sign is barely visible and in need of a good coat of white-wash. How ironic that when I walked barefoot down these icy gutters (my choice – I didn’t want to stand out against everyone else who didn’t have that choice) I never imagined I would one day live in another city on the other side of the world, also famous for it’s white letters against a hill.

When I arrive I find my mom (who has a fractured wrist she conveniently forgot to mention!) scurrying between my aunt and my uncle’s neighboring houses, making last minute arrangements. When I see my aunt I’m scared by how frail and shrunken and ancient she looks. I’m scared i might be booking more funeral flights in the not too distant future.

I’m overwhelmed by all the people, extended, distant family whose faces I recognize, but whose names eternally escape me.  The house is buzzing with the busyness of funeral prep, food, flowers. Mundane yet crucial questions like, “Is there enough toilet paper ?”

One of my cousins is looking for her lipstick. She says she needs to write on her lips, which doesn’t sound quite as descriptive as her actual words and tone of voice in Afrikaans, “Ek moet op my lippe skryf!” I’m reminded of the inimitable sense of humor that runs through the inevitable tragedies of my family.

Silence descends on the house as everyone leaves for the service next door. I take a deep breath and jot down some thoughts before I join them.

Last time I saw my uncle we sat around a Xmas dinner and he talked about the family history. How our clan is made up of a mix of Mozambicans and people from Malabar, off the coast of India, various European explorers,  with a huge dollop of Khoi San and Xhosa and whoever else was to be found wandering these rich hills and southern shores. I meant to get a video-camera and get an oral history record of what he remembers. Remembered. Now it’s too late. Time steamrollers everything with not a shred of sentimentality under its steel wheels.

At the church I’m once more overwhelmed by memories. It looks almost exactly the same as when I practiced my piano lessons in here as a 9 yr old (a concession made because we did not own a piano). I wish now that I’d continued those piano lessons. I have a life-long regret that I gave up music because of the dirty-old-man-piano-teacher who tried to feel me up (one of the countless predators I’ve had to deal with in my life). Another thing which I now realize I allowed to be taken from me.

The service goes on and on. I realize that just about everyone in the packed church is somehow related. Cousins, second-cousins, nephews, second-second cousins twice removed… Everyone seems to be made from 1 of 3 or 4  basic templates and you can see that so and so is related to auntie so and so and that one looks like uncle whatsisname… There’s a singer with a lovely voice, accompanied by a man on a concertina. It’s bizarre. I’ve been asked to read the thanks and can barely get through it. I who was never able to cry, now seem to be capable of deluges.

We push the coffin in which my uncle’s body lies cold, a mere avatar for someone no longer here, out of the church. The white hearse lurches out of the churchyard and with it, that empty shell, too, is gone. Off to the crematorium. An obvious choice for someone like me, I’m surprised that it was his…

At the hall where people have been invited for refreshments, the (mostly enormous) women of the family are bustling,  feeding everyone, amazingly nimble with their amazonian breasts and thighs and hips. There are probably 5 generations present, toddlers, to great-grandmothers. Cups of soup on trays fly out of the kitchen, followed by the ubiquitous chicken curry and rice and plates of samoosas and savories.  People eat and then just as fast, the hall empties and in the kitchen it’s a mess of dirty dishes and sorting of which empty pot belongs to whom. A typical “colored” funeral.

When I’m done with my stint in the kitchen, out in the street I join the cousins from far off places who have been pulled back together by the gravitational force of this death. We congregate on the open tailgate of a car and I smile to see my teenaged niece nestled in the crook of my mountainous brother’s arm. It’s nice to see them both smiling.

It’s nice to see my brother – we have  probably spent no more than 1 day together over the last 15 yrs, if you add up the hours. Not my choice.

My brother is basking in the testosterone of “hanging with the boys. I love seeing him this relaxed.

I see the empty beer-bottles in the trunk and say, “Organize vir my…” and the boys scurry off  and find me a cider. Slowly everyone disperses. The older crowd washes up at my aunt’s house and before the younger guys float off with an ice chest to go and hold an old-fashioned post-funeral wake, we stand around in the street and shoot the sh*t and laugh at each other’s stories. It’s good to see everyone together. Uncle Willie would have approved.

Long before I even thought of becoming an actress, my uncle was the rockstar of the family. He even went by a single moniker. Uncle. That was it. He was the “crown prince” of the family and he was a rapscallion. The 6 children he sired are proof of the fact that women loved him! He always seemed to have an impish smile on his face that said, “I know something that you’re dying to find out!”.  As a family member read in the eulogy, he was not a perfect man… In fact, in many ways he was deeply flawed, but swaggering in his 10-gallon hats like an outlaw from the westerns he loved, he lived! And he lived most of all, for  fishing at his favorite Hentie’s bay. I have fond memories of trips to Namibia to spend salty holidays by the sea. He was gruff, rough and funny and educated, lived to educate in his role as teacher and was one of those people who was always the focus of any crowd. He always had  an enthralled audience and a great story and I guess it’s a good gauge of his life that he had so many of them to tell.

For all his flaws, I guess love, the fact that he loved and was loved, is what made him perfect..

RIP Uncle.

I’m sure he’s regaling everyone with a fabulously fishy tale wherever he is right about now.

Willem Johannes Davids 1935 - 2011

humpty dumpty

first i was:

there’s  a small, picturesque and also rather  famous village in the western cape. it’s called franschhoek after the french huguenots who settled in it’s verdant valley in the 17th century after escaping religious persecution back home; a beautiful little enclave with extensive vineyards and wine-farms which has become an essential stop on any cape wine-tour. a village filled now with top star restaurants and spas and a magnet for tourists.

that’s where my mother’s family is from and to this day, most of them still live there.

i loved visiting as well as living there from the ages of 9 to 12, running wild with my myriad cousins, playing hide and seek, or  “k.i.n.g. spells king!” in the twilight on the large back stoep of the traditional gabled house my grandfather had built for his family. i mostly loved roaming wild through the country side picking blackberries, trying to dodge the stinging nettles and black jacks in the fields, even though i was devastated to find out that my favorite place, the library in the centre of town, was off-limits to me. you see, in those apartheid days, you had to be white to enter that hallowed hall, so i was SOL. and almost every single one of the kids in my class was the off-spring of a farm-laborer. i was lucky. i left my shoes home and walked bare-foot in the freezing water running downhill so that i could fit in with everyone else. see, my grandfather had managed to escape the farms. he’d built up his own bus-business transporting school-kids, which sort of made us “royalty” in a world intent on creating generations of alcoholics through it’s “dop-system“. this was a world where at 10, it was not unusual for me to have 15 year olds in the same grade. 15 year old teens who had to leave mid-year because they  were pregnant.

but wait, i digress. and yet, in a way i don’t, because the point of all that, is that after a life-time of heeding my mom’s advice to not come home pregnant, i finally at 45, unexpectedly, but very happily, conceived while on a wonderful weekend away at a place called franshoek lodge in the orange free state. it seemed appropriate and apt.

i couldn’t believe it when that second pink line starting forming on the test, at all of 6h30 that monday morning. and the s.o., even though his first response when i woke him was, “take a picture and go back to sleep”, seeing that there’d been so many false alarms, was ecstatic. a dream come true.

i finally decided to let my friends know that the impossible had happened – that at the age of 45, i was unexpectedly pregnant.

i composed a little missive on fb and sent it off.

less than 24 hours later, i woke up at the crack of dawn for a bathroom visit and found myself staring at blood – bright and scarlet red. not that much of it, but with an intensity of color that left me pale.

and then the cramps started. i’d had plans to attend a meditation workshop for the whole of the day, but instead wound up in bed, scared by the intensity of the spasms. by mid-morning they’d started to abate, but i decided to take it very easy and stay as still as possible.

monday morning i finally got hold of my gynae. he said  to come in for a scan and a blood test. late in the day we got the test results. turned out that the hormone level in the blood had not gone up very much. red flags and screaming signals all round. in the meantime, emails of congratulations and support came flooding in while i had no idea how to respond to them. the doc put me on progesterone, but the spotting continued on and off. he told me to take another blood test 2 days later, in order to see if the numbers were rising. if not, something was wrong.

then i wasn’t

wednesday afternoon i get a call from the receptionist. the numbers have barely risen and i’m still spotting. “you’re most likely beginning to miscarry,” she says. i’m absolutely frustrated by her language. “what do you mean, most likely?”  i demand to know.” is there a possibility that this is still a viable pregnancy?” “not really,” she says. she tells me to come in to see the doctor to determine if he will give me pills to speed up the miscarriage, or whether i will need a dnc.

i’m still at the studio and have another scene to film, so i swallow my emotions and do what needs to be done. i start telling people on the crew. and only when i get home to the s.o., do i have a good weep. he is probably more disappointed that i, but very supportive. i finally respond to people’s emails, but have to inform them that the bubble has burst.

thursday i trek across town to the gynae’s office inbetween scenes. he’s in theatre and i have to sit and wait for him to finish before he can come and see me. he looks through my already fattening folder (4 scans and 3 bloodtests in 10 days) and i go through the by now familiar ritual of stripping and putting on the gown. i clamber up on the table and he lubes and puts a condom on the probe. the images on the monitor are still greek to me – grainy moonscapes, but suddenly he says, “yes, there it is. there’s the sac.”

and then i still was

what? WHAT?! i stare at him in disbelief. i’ve already starting mourning. i’ve been through the disappointment and relief. i’m so convinced that i’m having a miscarriage that i’ve had two huge whisky’s the night before. i’ve stopped taking the progesterone. i’ve started taking my allergy meds again. WHAT? “are you telling me i’m still pregnant?” i ask him incredulously. he just shrugs and points at the monitor. “well there it is,” he says. “it wasn’t there on monday, so it’s grown since then…”.

i continue to stare at him, shell-shocked. mind-fucked, confused. “so you’re telling me i’m still pregnant?” i repeat, my incredulity growing. i’m like the gyroscope in my iphone, with the landscape of my world constantly changing. like humpty dumpty, yanked back mid-fall, my eggs mysteriously unscrambling. he starts explaining about numbers and dates etc, but i can barely take anything in. i have to get back to work. i have scenes to shoot.

“make another appointment for next thursday”, he says, as i stumble out of the office. at the lift my composure breaks and i start sobbing as i push the buttons for the lift, probably startling the cleaning lady who is going about her duties beside me. she comes over to push the button for me.

i call the s.o. to break the news and he is ecstatic. i’m almost scared to believe what i’ve just seen. but it’s there, on the black and white printout the gynae handed me, now folded neatly in my bag. the proof. that little grey smudge in the otherwise random moonscape on the monitor. a tenacious little sucker still sticking round.

so, it seems that the rollercoaster ride has just begun. and i have no idea where it’s taking me. or should i say, us? i find my horoscope for the week on a brilliant astrologer’s website, jonathan cainer and i shake my head in disbelief.

Your Week Ahead: What is there to celebrate? What is there to be inspired about? What is there to suggest that existence is anything other than the result of some perverse mathematical or chemical quirk? If you don’t already know, you will soon find out. Or rather, for really you do already know, you will be reminded. Life is a gift; a magical, illogical manifestation of a force which is wondrous beyond words. Focus on petty problems and your life will swiftly fill up with them. But this week, while the Moon grows full in your sign, if you look for a reason to feel glad and to start making good things happen, you will find not one reason, but hundreds.

friday night after a very long day’s shoot in which my character is subjected to all kinds of indignities, i get home exhausted, but happy and melt on the couch. around nine i start getting slight cramps and when i go to the toilet i’m slightly alarmed to see that i’ve started spotting again.

saturday the spotting and cramping get worse as the day progresses. by afternoon i’m in severe discomfort. in the evening i get up and  we go out to a movie. that night i wake at 2a.m. to go to the bathroom and i almost pass out. i stumble back to bed and experience the most awful cramps that pin me to the bed and have me crying out in pain. they feel like contractions and last  for about 15 minutes before i can turn on my side and fall asleep again. sunday morning brings more of the same. cramping and bleeding that gets worse till i have to send the s.o. off to the pharmacy on a quest for sanitary towels. when i finally get to speak to  the gynae he agrees that i can take some myprodol for the pain and that yes, i’m probably miscarrying.

oozing life

tired of this pain

staining everything red

still life contracting

and then i really wasn’t

(TMI alert – stop reading now if you’re squeamish) this morning i get up at the crack for work and when i use the bathroom i am appalled as i feel something slide out of me and land in the toilet with a disconcerting plop. this happens a second time.

(so just a little aside here: probably the worst thing you can do to me, is leave me in limbo, not knowing. might have something to do with my history as a kid, but reality is, good news or bad, i’d rather know.)

so, horrific and devastating as it is, as i stand there staring at what should have been a life growing inside me, i realize that this is the sign i’ve been waiting for. now i know. the last few weeks have been merely a very expensive exercise in futility.

i said to exmi a few weeks before i even knew i was pregnant, that i’d been to many mind-boggling card readers and none of them ever said that i’d bear my own children. maybe i was predicting my own future, scrambling old eggs.

humpty dumpty sat on the wall

humpty dumpty had a great fall

and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men

couldn’t put humpty together again….