Feeling slightly relieved that Christmas is over and that my second sober Christmas passed without any disasters or dramas. I spoke to an AA member and friend on the phone this morning and she said that she went off to a Cape Town meeting last night and had a terrible fright. One rather louche 13th-Stepper type who relapses and bounces back with monotonous regularity had just finished talking about his latest ‘slip’ when he had a seizure and fell writhing to the floor. An ambulance was called and the dazed and confused man was helped onto a stretcher, his tongue bleeding profusely. Everyone in the room was very subdued after he had been taken off to hospital.
Yesterday was glorious weather out in the university town of Stellenbosch surrounded by vineyards and with streets lined with mature oaks. We drove out over the Franschhoek Pass, where elephants once crossed each winter, and into Franschhoek, one of the wealthiest villages in South Africa with restaurants that are international foodie destinations. People eating brunch at Le Quartier Francais and Reuben’s, cafe tables set out amongst tubs of lavender and lollipop trees in planters. Tourists browsing the art galleries and delis and French-style patisseries. All very provencal, and not entirely incongruous because Franschhoek in the Cape is where the Huguenot escapees took refuge in the 18th century after the Edict of Nantes.
Tricia and her husband Andre live in a townhouse complex overlooking a dam with white ducks and a view of vineyards and mountains. I was shocked when I saw her, so bloated from cortisone and steroids with eyes blackish and swollen from kidney failure. She forgets everyday words ( our names!) and keeps stumbling and falling. The lupus has found a neurological pathway to the brain and is wreaking havoc. She has had seizures and bouts of psychosis, and unless the massive intake of steroids can rein in the lupus there will be worse to come.
She thinks she is dying and that may well be the case. But she is still recognisably the thorny witty friend I first met nearly 20 years ago and she wanted to chat to me even if she had to point and mimic whatever she could not name. And despite a severe hand tremor, she had made a dreadful gazpacho and soggy lasagna in my honour. I ate it all up with extravagant praise and we laughed and talked as if it was the old days back again.
When I got back home I ran a hot bath and sat and wept in steamy privacy. The capacity for deepened and genuine feeling that comes with sobriety opens us to deeper grief and compassion and heartbreak. Another understanding of powerlessness.
One of Tricia’s consolations, though, is that a sleek bachelor of a black and white cat has moved in to keep her company. Mr Waffles has temporarily deserted his socialite owner and decided to spend his day with Tricia, grooming himself at the end of her bed and accompanying her to the shower. Unobtrusive and soothing and aware of her moods and need of him, as only an intelligent cat can be. Grace comes in curious forms.