Copyright 2006 by Ngaio Carlisle
In 1988 I returned to South Africa, a country I loved for the first time since leaving in late 1983. I watched the day bleed away in flames, and my heart caught in my chest at the beauty laid out before me. As the day bled, my mother’s life bled along with it. Although I felt great excitement, deep within me was infinite sadness. The woman I knew as Mum was about to leave me, and losing her was like losing my hand. She was my best friend, my confidant. She knew me like no one else did, was the keeper of my secrets, which she would take with her on an unknown journey. She had always been in my life, the one person who loved me unconditionally. Her life was ending as I began a new, and uncertain, life in the United States.
The craggy peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains, tall, mighty and proud, dominated the skyline, as the plane floated down into Durban. My heart raced, with uncertainty, the uncertainty of the unexpected. “How will she look,” I wondered. The last time I saw her was as we left for our new country. Knowing she was ill made the decision to leave my beloved Africa more difficult. But she knew our decision was the right one, that Africa’s future was tenuous at best.
I felt the heaviness in my footsteps, as I crossed the tarmac towards the airport, and hoped I’d recognize her “friend,” Ted. But he was there, waiting patiently, as I exited the building. As we walked, he gave me an update on my mother’s condition.
“Ngaio, your mother went to hospital this morning. She had a blood transfusion, but there is nothing more they can do for her.”
More bad news. It was bad enough to know that her little body had finally succumbed to the leukemia she’d held at bay for nearly six years, but this news meant finality, and was something I was not ready to accept.
I held my breath as I walked into the ward. She looked so frail, vulnerable actually, and I held onto tears, which threatened to fall like a summer rain shower. She did not need to see my distress; she had enough to deal with. Though unspoken, she and I knew she faced great pain to get where she was going.
During the first week, she was coherent enough for us to talk. She wanted to know how we were adapting to our new lives. She asked about our children, and my health. I had breast cancer the previous year, which caused great concern, but was the least of my worries as I sat beside her bed, and held her small shriveled hand.
Towards the end of that week, her doctor performed a spinal tap.
“Why are you doing that?” I questioned his decision.
“We want to make sure she does not have meningitis,” he replied.
“What the heck are you talking about? We both know she has leukemia, and it is causing her back pain,” I said with great scorn. He ignored my protests.
She regressed rapidly, as a result of that spinal tap, so rapidly that the hospital staff moved her to a private ward. I watched her closely before calling my brother, Peter, who lived in the coastal city of East London, about twelve hours away. I also called our family in Durban. They came to pay their last respects to a woman they all loved, and the pain in my heart increased. Peter’s arrival brought great excitement, along with great sadness. I wished, with all my heart, that the circumstances of our meeting were different. We sat in the family room and talked, catching up on the past four years, and I was grateful for his company. Little did we realize, that night as we talked, that we would never see each other again. Peter was killed in a car accident in 1996. As we sat in that silent room, in a dark and silent hospital, the duty nurse came through to the family room.
“Security is bringing up a visitor,” she said.
My brother and I looked at each other. “I wonder if it is Graham?” he speculated.
Graham was the son of a first cousin, and lived in Johannesburg.
“No, Graham would go home, and come here in the morning. It is someone from far away,” I said knowledgably and with great conviction!
We walked towards the elevators, and waited with baited breath for the doors to open. As they opened, I saw a man I’d known all my life, but had never met. My mother was from New Zealand, and I’d met two of her brothers, but this man always fascinated me. Of her six brothers, Jim was my mother’s favorite, and somewhere deep within, I knew he’d be the one to come to Africa as the family representative.
Between the three of us, we took turns in staying with my mother, but I stayed longer than my brother and uncle. I needed, and wanted to be there. Often, after spending the night at the hospital, I’d return to her flat, bathe, change, eat something light and walk along the beautified beachfront to the hospital. I enjoyed that walk, as I was able to think, reminisce, and the beauty which surrounded me brought a modicum of tranquility to my troubled mind.
My mother rallied during my second week in Durban, and Peter returned home, with a promise from me to call. Jim and I talked about my mother, their childhood, and I sensed his great love for his sister. We developed a closeness, which brought a sense of peace to my life in a time of great turmoil.
She found it difficult to eat, but was always thirsty, and as a result, her doctor inserted an IV. Her veins collapsed and the fluid seeped in under the skin. Her hand turned black, like a burn, and at night, she’d whimper with the pain it caused. They immediately removed the IV. Despite our endeavors to feed her, she refused the food we offered, and my heart broke as I watched her waste away.
While Jim sat with my mother, I took care of her affairs, but at great expense to my peace of mind. Knowing she had a short time to live, she lived spartanly, and there was very little to sell. I kept a few treasures for myself and Peter. I called my cousin, who was an ordained minister and asked him to conduct the memorial service.
On the Monday of my last week, I decided that I needed to “let her go.” I took her hand, squeezed it lightly, as was my custom. She returned my greeting with a slight squeeze as a signal she was aware of my presence.
“Mum, I cannot stay; I have to leave for America on Thursday. I have taken care of everything; you do not have to worry about anything!” She squeezed my hand, a touch so light, I almost missed it.
The following day, I returned, hastily, to the hospital after having lunch with one of my cousins. I walked into her room, squeezed her hand and said. “It’s me Mum, its Ngaio.”
I left the room, made a cup of tea and when I returned, heard her gasping for breath. It was a sound I shall never forget. I know, as surely as my name is Ngaio, that she waited for me to return to the hospital that day. One of the hardest things I ever had to do, was watch the person who brought me into this world leave me behind, when I needed her so badly. Despite the intense pain, I felt great relief that I witnessed her departure from this world. This was the reason for the hours I spent at the hospital with her. I did not want her to die alone. I walked out of the hospital with a heavy heart and watched the day end in a blaze of fire.
I had three weeks in South Africa, hopefully to
take care of my mother’s affairs, her cremation and memorial
service, and I wondered, and hoped, that I’d be with her, as
she left this world. Those three weeks were full of twists of fate,
and unexplained coincidences. I found it unbelievable that on the day
I arrived in Durban, she went to the hospital, and as I was about to
leave, her life ended. What great hand was at work in our lives?
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