“Sakkie, did you ever know your mother or have you spent your whole life living with Gertruida?”
Steve used Zach’s Afrikaans name, something very few people did now that he’d moved on to university. He’d arrived in Stellenbosch determined to lose the ’Sakkie’ label he so hated. Why? He didn’t know, maybe because it was his only link with his maternal past. Maybe the name just didn’t suit him. Whatever the reason, he thought it only correct to repay the compliment.
“Stefaans, I really can’t tell. I don’t know… there are a few things I’ve never dared ask Gertruida.”
He paused to think for a second or two, why would Steve ask this question? “What’s it to you anyway?”
Zach instantly realised his friend was hurting and that his flippant reply was adding to the hurt.
“Sorry Steve… you caught me off guard with your question. We’ve not spoken about this kind of thing since primary school. I remember you once asking why I called my mother Aunt Gertruida and when I told you she wasn’t my mother you’d asked where my mother was. Remember?”
Steve nodded… yes, indeed he remembered. Even then, Zach’s feisty nature warned him off continuing the line of questioning. Ever.
“No, it’s I who should apologise… I have no right to ask.”
The hurt evident in his tone… but more importantly, in his eyes. Steve’s expression confirmed Zach’s suspicion that there was hurt lurking, something was eating at Steve. Something more than the scars of war.
The two men’s pensive mood seemed almost tangible… the strained silence only interrupted by the incessant noise of the cicadas. Each was thinking the same thoughts… they’d both managed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Steve was the first who dared break the tension.
“I always felt sorry for you in one way but envious of you in another…”
He let the words flow their own course… not attempting to say anything more… let Zach react, let him direct the flow of the conversation.
“I can understand you feeling sorry for me… you grew up in a house full of love, a mother and father, two sisters and a big brother who looked out for you…”
Zach let his words tail off… he’d hit his return punt… kicked the ball down field again. Let the opposition do their best. They weren’t opponents he reflected, so why was this happening. Why was he playing mind games with himself and Steve? Was Steve doing the same? Why?
“But… you were the lucky one. We all envied you because you had Gertruida. We were in awe of the lady. Everyone. The parents, the children, I think even the dorp’s pets were in awe of Gertruida…”
Steve paused a few extended seconds before he ended his sentence with a low, whispered “… she who knew everything…”
“OK, I think I get your point… I had Gertruida, you had a whole family.”
Steve looked up quite sharply, only to be disarmed by Zach’s broad smile. He was about to say something but Zach raised his hand in protest,
“Let me finish… then you can say all you want. No, I never knew my mother and yes, I am, and always was, in awe of Gertruida. Yes, I also love her like my mother… but that’s not really what matters here, is it? Your eyes are telling me there’s something else on the go…”
“My eyes tell you too much.”
Steve paused, his intense gaze fixed on Zach… looking to see what his friend’s eyes was telling him in return. He thought he saw concern and maybe compassion. Can one see compassion, he wondered?
“Yes, you are right… there is something that’s eating at me. I’ve been stewing over the matter for a while now but maybe it’s time I try and make a bit of sense… maybe talking to you could help me understand what’s going on in my head.”
“I have this image in my mind… it won’t go away. It’s a photo taken while we were away on holiday down at the coast. Remember those days? Remember, you used to come with us before you moved away… ”
Steve paused again, allowing himself to catch his breath, allowing himself a moment to to help suppress his involuntary urge to cry.
“Zach, have you ever seen death? Have you ever watched it eat at someone?”
The words caused Zach to look up… his startled expression intensified when he saw the first signs of tears welling up in his friend’s eyes. He remained silent… respectfully tuned into his friend’s emotions.
“Have you seen it destroy the tissue of that person in front of your eyes? Every time you visit that person it has taken more… more of the physical but even worse, more of that person’s life, that person’s will to fight, that person’s once great zest for life. It steals their dignity… yes, death robs them of their soul… before your eyes!”
Steve fell silent… his tears running like little rivulets down his tanned cheeks… down… down… splashing silently on the floor, making their individual patterns in the dust.
“I don’t really know what to say Steve.”
Zach broke the silence after what seemed an eternity. He sat there looking at Steve… Steve, his one and only friend since boyhood. His friend who’d stepped back into the gap after returning from the army. The friend who helped him deal with his grieving after the death of Ronny, the only other person he’d ever formed a bond with.
“I’m not quite sure I yet fully comprehend what you’re telling me but I’m getting the very strong feeling one of your parents is very ill. Am I right?”
Steve broke their locked gaze, turned his head and stared into the distance before continuing as if he’d never heard Zach’s words,
“The image in my head just won’t go away… it’s of the folks sitting with a few friends on the green lawn beneath palm trees… at the resort we holidayed at on a few occasions. Remember the pool? Remember the fun we had at that place?”
A faith hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Steve’s mouth… as if the memory, the image, was just strong enough to overcome the grief… just.
“Yes Zach… ”
Steve’s gaze turned in Zach’s direction,
“yes, it’s my mother, she dying… the cancer has her totally under its control. I’m going home tomorrow… the professors understand… they’ll get along just fine without one student… “
Zach sat staring at Steve… his friend’s face seemed more relaxed now, the anguish seemed to have left his eyes. Thankfully.
“OK Steve, I am in no way too sure what to say to you, apart from the fact that it will take a little time for this awful news to sink in fully. We break up in just over 3 week’s time… I’ll make my way straight up. Don’t worry about anything… you go off. I’ll make sure all your belongings are cared for here.”
Zach shook his head,
“I’m so sorry man! So, so sorry. Why does death seem to take the most special people far too soon?”
He paused, glancing down at Steve’s hands. In one hand he caught sight of a tatty old photo. He realised this photo must live in Steve’s wallet, it was dog-eared… well used to travel. The image was that Steve described earlier… Zach caught sight of the palm fronds… everything seemed so bright, so vibrant, even though the colours were fading.
“You hold onto that image in your head… remember the best, not the worst. Since you shared your sad news there’s been a through in my mind… it’s a quote I read somewhere… “
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
“Please try to remember the positive, I know it’s a rather difficult thing to ask someone to do but don’t let death steal all the good memories, don’t let death steal your mother from your heart!”
- It is Mother’s Day… yes, my GLW is a very special person to so many folk… she is the mother and grandmother many wish to have and others long to be near. I am a very lucky lad to have met her all those years ago. Indeed! Thank you for rescuing this stay, bedraggled sorry excuse of a mongrel.
- Today we also remember the passing of my GLW’s brother… 10 years ago it was. Where does life go?
- Lastly, today is my mother’s birthday. You were also one of those very special people who were called away far too soon. Never mind… we love you none the less!
Finally, this post is inspired by another lady. One I don’t really know as well as I should. However, your FAITH is an inspiration to all of us. God bless you and help you and your family continue the journey with love, strength and dignity! Thank you SL… we celebrate life with you!
OH, sorry… the quote is another from my literary hero, Hemingway.