Gratitude Memoirs #3: Beyond the call of friendship

I heard her the first time.

When she spoke softly and tried to gently nudge me awake.

I screwed my eyes slightly tighter, concentrating on keeping my face blank in the futile hope that she would relent and go away.

But instead, she raised her voice, prodded me more determinedly and starting peeling the blankets off my body – before I could restrain myself, my hand had instinctively shot out to counter her action and snatch back the bed covers – still with my eyes screwed shut.

She paused and I could feel her penetrating gaze.

She knew I was awake and now she also knew I did not want to wake up.

I am not sure now, but perhaps she paused more to rethink her strategy in light of the new information she had gleaned.

Because when she next spoke it was with that soft, common-sensical and cajoling tone of a negotiator who knows that their requests are quite reasonable.

“Vuka De, asambe uyegeza” she said in Ndebele [Wake up, you need to go and bath].

Giving up the pretense of sleep, I opened my eyes and made no attempt to mask the resentment I was feeling before responding churlishly, “Ah Dess, hamba wedwa” [You can go alone].

She wasn’t taken aback by the attitude, instead she laughed indulgently and said firmly that it was time to bath and she was going to help me and we should do it quickly before the bathrooms filled up with people.

And as she spoke the tears pricked at my eyes – self pity.

I was tired, I said.

Tired of moving and the pain that moving caused me.

She was not the one with an injured hip, she did not know what it felt like to try and get into those high tubs with my injured hip protesting any movement let alone the elevation required for me to all but jump into those damn Swinton Hall tubs.

She did not know what the shooting pain felt like as it exploded from my hip joint and coursed through my body in protest over any attempts at bending to scrub my feet.

She should leave me alone, I said.

But I have never known Destelia Monalisa Ngwenya to bite her tongue when what she had to say needed to be said or to shirk from a necessary task regardless of the attendant unpleasantness associated with carrying it out.

...for saving me from myself time after time - thank you mngane wami!

…for saving me from myself time after time – thank you mngane wami!

Destelia and I have been friends for over a decade now and in June of 2004, she spent a week bathing my 3-month pregnant self after I had been hit by a car and was unable to move owing to a hip injury that I sustained.

She would wake up in the morning, put up with my moods and my misdirected anger to help me to the bathrooms, half-lift me into the seemingly high tubs, let me bath the upper part of my body which I could reach without straining my hip and then take charge of the rest so that I wouldn’t have to bend or hurt myself in the attempt.

After the bath she would half-lift me out of the tub again, help me back to my room where the task of getting dressed often involved wearing my underwear last because again, the process of wearing underwear involved bending which had become such an excruciating exercise for me.

I remember one morning where I staged a one-woman mutiny and refused to wear my underwear at all.

I wasn’t going to go through that pain again. No. Not for all the words in the world.

I was going to just spend the day without any underwear because it hurt, hurt, hurt TOO much trying to put a pair on!

I remember her laughing, saying “De, you know you can’t go out without underwear”, and I asked why not? Who would know?

And besides I was done with hurting myself every time I had to move.

And wearing underwear required two simultaneous movements that combined to inevitably set my hip on fire – the act of bending and the act of lifting my legs one at a time.

She would stand there, cajoling, encouraging and reminding me that we needed to hurry up, because I still had to eat the porridge that she had prepared and then take my pain medication.

We had exams throughout that entire week and my friend was pulling double shifts to see me bathed, clothed, fed and then she would have to contend with trying to revise for her exams while playing nursemaid to me.

I know I said thank you to her countless times that week and over the years since then but it never feels like it is enough.

I was a sulky patient, wallowing in self-pity and wondering why all these things were happening to me.

First I get myself knocked up and then I get myself run over by a car just a day before my first year final exams at the University of Zimbabwe?

Why was all this happening? Where was God? Why did my parents have to die and leave me… (I really hate it when people play the ‘I-am-an-orphan’ card so it took some severe depression to get me to that point, lol).

I must have been hell to be around but Destelia was totally unfazed.

She kept showing up every morning to get me ready for days I didn’t even want to face anymore – days she all but bullied me into facing.

And usually, when all the bathing, dressing, eating and taking of pain meds was done – she’d text my male friends to let them know I was ready so that they could come and carry me off to whatever exam venue we would be writing from.

Sometimes it was my female friends who formed into teams and carried me from one point to the other – taking turns to rest and relieve each other of the weight that was me and my useless hip.

Among those who carried me to write exams that year was Falimehang and Nomsa (I can’t believe I forgot her surname and she used to speak Venda! But she was Polite Ndlovu’s girlfriend at the time, lol…hoping those clues help my former college mates to jog my memory); there was Jacob and Sean; and there was Mmeli and Yvonne.

I know I thanked them.

But I must do it again to remind myself of the good fortune I have met with in my life and to let them know that their kindness will always mean a lot to me.

For sacrifices that went above and beyond the call of friendship; I want to say thank you but words are not enough.

With gratitude to Destelia Monalisa Ngwenya – for being there and for saving me from myself more times than I care to count or recall.

My soul limps… now

I go through the days with a firm resolve and the same goal that pulled me back from the edge of that precipice now propels me forward.

But it is never an easy thing to drag anyone away from the carcasses of their hopes and the mortuary of dreams. It is not enough to say to the soul, “look here, it is dead. Let it go.”

The soul will not have it. It will not be reasoned with. Because wherever a person’s heart ventures – the soul plants its roots and calls it home. And you were my home.

You were home.

In the aloneness of this solitude I have no one to put up pretence for. But some habits must have somehow snuck into the tightly packed luggage I brought with me. Even though I am surrounded by strangers, I still pretend I am fine – as if they could tell the difference.

Some things are hard to live behind.

They are too burrowed deeply into the survival kit of our psyche. And they are forged by seasons of hardship, of pain and of life’s endless unknowable and unshareable sorrows.

Home is not a place. It is not a thing or an object. Home is a person. If you’re lucky it’s many people but for most of us – it’s usually just one person.

And even if the home goes up in flames the soul lingers round it like some crazed phantom refusing to believe that all is lost. The soul is too stubborn to be reasoned with.

It will keep you there. In the rubbles of the past, driving you mad with its frenzied desire to go through the rubble attempting to find something salvageable.

There is nothing left. It is all gone. And in the end you have to be okay with the fact that it’s gone. But your soul wants to go home to a home that no longer exists.

You show it pictures of the devastation. You show it the witness reports your heart has compiled over the years – detailing every pain sustained, every hurt inflicted and every self-demeaning act of retaliation.

Your mind weighs in – with minty fresh memories of disasters endured, of laughter that got extinguished and soul deep agonies to which the defenceless body curled up through long nights.

You want to tell the soul, “let’s go.” And it won’t budge. It won’t.

Like the desperate futility of holding on to the corpse of a cherished one, the soul wants to stay here.

Wants to try and nourish these drought-hardened soils. Wants to sacrifice itself by making manure out of its roots to fertilize the ground again… perchance something may spring up again.

You tell it “no. We have tried it all. It’s over. Let’s go. Please.”

And in the end you are left with no choice. You must go. This is no longer home. It hasn’t been for a very long time. You must go.

And so you wait until your soul takes a nap, lift it gently and tenderly; try to carefully uproot it from the ground and realize you can’t – it’s too deeply rooted.

If you don’t hurry, your soul will awake and keep begging you, “let’s try one last time. Please. Just one last time.”

But you know that one-last-time would be a waste of last times. You know the reserves containing your one-last-times have become depleted. You know you spent them on this very space and you are running out of one-last-times to spare.

You cannot try it one-last-time.

You are looking at the flatline on the screen, telling you that there is nothing left to resuscitate – that the dreams which once thrived have shrivelled and died. That the hopes which were on life support slipped into a coma and did not survive the wounds inflicted by sterilized loss.

Sterilized loss is a silent killer; a grief denied gains potency with time. Grief is a messy business but sterilizing it only pushes it deeper into our souls. By denying it an outlet – it becomes at home in our hearts – tiny slivers of unacknowledged pain.

We die from tiny defeats, from small let downs and from tiny flesh wounds…it is not their tininess that matters – it is their multitude – death by a thousand paper cuts is still a death.

Your soul is starting to stir and you know the nap will soon be over. You must go. And if you cannot convince your soul then you must just take it with you by force. There is nothing to stay here for.

So you grab it. Grab your reluctant soul and realize the roots are still tied to this ground. Your soul wakes up in alarm and demands to know where you’re taking it, why you don’t want to try one-last-time. You are done talking.

You tell your soul it is time to go. Go before you die in this mass grave containing all the dead dreams and hopes of the past.

Your soul says it will go but there’s a price, “Leave something behind. Leave a piece of me here. This used to be home. Something must be left behind. This used to be home.”

And so I carried my soul out of there, stumbled out into the open of a new day and am blinded by the brightness of future prospects.

“Put me down”, says my soul, “I can walk from here”.

I put it down and begin to walk, thinking that it was right by my side… but a few steps and I realize something is wrong.

I turn back to see my soul following with a limp, “what did you do?” I ask in distress.

And my soul says, “I left something behind. So that I could remember the home that once was. If I could not save it, then let me at least remember. It used to be home. It used to matter.”

Now I understand why my soul limps and why my smile curves into a sad tilt and why my laughter goes out of tune sometimes… ringing in a high falsetto.

You used to be home. You used to matter. And my soul limps to honour that.

My father – a man of emotions

My father was a man of emotions, the strongest of which was love.

He loved us (his children) with a breathtaking intensity. There is no doubt in my mind we were his greatest vulnerability.

I think we were a vulnerability he either didn’t care to conceal or simply didn’t have the means to conceal. His love for us was fierce, overt and abiding.

My father was not a very expressive person. Yet his love for us was so incongruous with his nature – it forced him to wear his heart on his sleeve.

My father could never abide to witness the pain of any of his children. He was incapable of stoically absorbing any hurt we endured. If any of us got hurt – it always affected him deeply.

Considering what a tough and fearful man he was perceived to be – we found this trait endearing and slightly amusing.

My father would get so agitated whenever one of us got hurt, regardless of how minor the ailment appeared to be.

He hated not being able to protect us from getting hurt. I knew (and took for granted) that he would always try to place himself between us and harm.

My father could never endure the agonizing spectacle of our wounds.

I remember when I was about 7 years old and had tonsillitis. I got hospitalized and operated on. My father was tormented by every hospital visit – fearing that I might have died in his absence.

We teased him behind his back for a very long time after that. We laughed at how he would send an ‘advance party’ to my room to check that I was still breathing while he waited anxiously in the lobby.

One day, my big sister Shonisani stumbled, fell on the tarmac and scrapped her knee. My father made her miss school, took her to the doctor to get her knee checked out, insisted that they place a bandage on her scrapped knee (it was totally unnecessary) and then he purchased lots of unnecessary painkillers which the doctor had not even prescribed.

To be honest, I did not count her injury as being anything noteworthy – her pain of course was something else – but the knee didn’t look too bad to me.

But the highlight of my father’s fretful vigilance over our wellbeing occurred the day my brother Dalton came down with malaria (or something which presented with malaria-like symptoms).

To this day my father’s reaction is a laughter-inducing topic. It is probably one of my fondest memories of him. My laughter and my tears often accompany that recollection.

Dalton fell sick in the most random and undramatic fashion. I, for one, was totally unimpressed with his symptoms thinking that he was feigning the illness.

Part of my nonchalance originated from the fact that I was nearing the end of a fantastic thriller novel and could not afford any distractions.

We, the children, lived at home while my parents mostly stayed at the family’s business complex in the Siyoka village of rural Beitbridge. The complex incorporated a bottle store, a grinding mill, a supermarket and a vegetable garden/market.

My big sister had seniority, we all deferred to her and when Dalton fell sick – it was my sister who decided the ailment was serious enough to alert my parents.

Knowing our father as we did, we had developed a habit of not getting alarmed about minor injuries or ailments so as to not set him off.

My parents’ arrival was heralded by a cloud of dust swirling from afar as my father – true to form – sped to the homestead without a care about how many of the neighbours’ chickens he might run over in his haste.

It was an altogether hilarious sequence of events.

My father strode into the room, with my mother anxiously in tow (Dalton was the ‘baby’ in the family). My father instructed that Dalton be brought to the lounge immediately.

I ditched my novel long enough to catch the unfolding drama that inevitably took place when my father had a sick child on his hands.

I arrived in the lounge in time to witness my father laying out the last bottles of medications he’d brought along with him.

There were dozens of over-the-counter medications and pills on the table. I wondered whether he’d looted a pharmacy on his way home but that was unlikely – because Siyoka village has no pharmacies. This must have been his own stash kept (with dread) in case of emergencies.

My father proceeded to engage Dalton in the most unconventional diagnostic dialogue I have ever seen. It went something like this:

My father would ask, “where does it hurt Dalton?”

And my brother would respond with something vague like, “my head hurts”.

Without further prompting my father would point at some packet on the table and tell my mother, “give him one of those”. My mother would comply.

As soon as Dalton was done swallowing, my father would ask for the next symptom, “so what else hurts?”

And that question would also elicit another ambiguous response from Dalton who’d say something like, “my throat feels itchy”.

My father would then ponder that response while glancing over his collection of medicines before grabbing a spoon and saying to my mother, “hand me that bottle over there, with the green lines”. My mother would comply.

Then Dalton would have to drink a half teaspoon of whatever it was (probably cough mixture).

When he kept pressing Dalton for more symptoms he eventually got rewarded with a feeble description of how Dalton was feeling cold one moment and then feeling hot the next.

This particular set of symptoms seemed to leave my father stumped. He started reading some of the labels on some of the bottles to find out if they could remedy this hotness and coldness his precious son was enduring.

Eventually, it was my mother who (helpfully) ventured that it sounded like malaria, but didn’t that happen when you got bitten by mosquitoes?

My father immediately announced that Dalton had to get into the car – they were going to the hospital right away (which is what I had personally thought should have been done all along, but no one asked me).

Dalton got better. But I will never forget how my dad frantically tried to single-handedly kill cure Dalton with his pharmaceutical ‘concoctions’.

That was my father. A man who watched over us vigilantly, who loved us with the entirety of his being.

He was a man of emotions. Ultimately, he taught us to love unconditionally or not at all.

I miss him. He did not live to see the woman I have become. I like to think he would have been proud.

In loving memory of my late father, Desmond ‘Dazzman’ Manavhela Ndou – who gave to me the gift of self-expression and taught me to value the counsel of my own heart.

Remember me (or maybe not)

This year I forgot to remember the day my mother died. I mean I went through the entire day without even thinking of her, without stopping to be sad or to be appropriately somber. Even now the admission makes me feel wretched.

When I realized what had happened, I was ashamed – ashamed that the wounds had healed -ashamed that the tears had dried up, ashamed that I had carried on with life, ashamed that I had lived while my mother had not.

What kind of a daughter was I? How could I have forgotten to remember?

...we all forget the people we love that's why we 'remember' them. For remembrance presupposes that one had forgotten. For it is not human nature for one to remember unless first they forget...

How is it possible that when we lose the ones we love – we are convinced that we will never ever get over it? And how is it that time has the gumption to heal us without our consent and often without us realizing it?

How is it possible that the dagger of pain that lodges in our heart when we lose someone we love eventually shrinks and fades into a distant memory? And how is it possible that life fills us with so much to do we barely find the time to sit and ponder where the pain disappeared to?

How is it possible that the anguish of the loss can so disorient us, that we find ourselves adrift without a compass to navigate life’s hazards? And how is it possible that we make choices, one way or the other and find we’ve reached the destination on our own?

How is it possible that the grief which tears at our guts recedes into a barely perceptible ache? And why is it that our hearts continue to beat when we no longer have the will to live?

How is it possible that the memories that once besieged us, gradually vacate our minds to make room for the new memories we make along life’s journey?

What right do we have to carry on when the ones we love are gone? I mean what is a more fitting tribute than to grieve and mourn for them, to prove to ourselves and to others that they really mattered, that they still matter and that they’ll always matter?

I find myself thinking, who’ll remember me when I die? Who’ll miss me and who’ll care enough to mark the months, to count the years and to recall so trivial a detail as the date of the day that I die?

Will my son? Will the man I choose to spend my life with? Will my brother or my sister? Will the people I befriended, the people who befriended me and those who helped me or those I too, helped? Who will remember me?

Or will life inexorably go on? Will the memory of me lie discarded in the attic of their minds, gathering layers of dust and tucked away in the recesses of forgetfulness?

I think that if the memory of me brought nothing but sadness to those I cherish, I would much rather they forget me and embrace life. I would rather that they would sing, dance, fall in love and experience every possible wonderful thing before their time runs out.

For I would hate to think that my death would signal the end of their own lives – that in loving me, they chose to hate life – what a horrible waste I would think, what an awful tragedy it would be.

So as I ponder upon it; I find it is not a thing of shame that I did not remember that date – I think it is a thing my mother would have approved of. For she would not want me to build a shrine to her in my head – in the space where I could build dreams of the future; neither would she want me to erect an alter of sadness to pay tribute to her – in the space where I could weave fond memories to share with the grandson she didn’t live to meet.

So when I am dead, may those I love honor the memory of me by living and not by dying.

May those who looked up to me immortalize me by succeeding and not quitting.

May those who cherished me pay tribute to me through laughter and not tears.

And in the words of Christina Rossetti: Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

…in fond memory of my late mother, Virginia Machoeni Ndou (nee Lamola) who’ll always be in my heart though with the inevitable passing of time; she may stray from my mind.