Waiting for news

The day your mother died was like this wintry morning, bleak and gusting, with torn branches and  leafy twigs scattered across the highway. We were driving back from town when your sister called and told me to tell you your mother had gone, suddenly, in the ambulance, heart failure. I asked you to pull off the road and told you this. You nodded. All the same, you didn’t (couldn’t) hear me and drove home planning to go and see her right away, somehow speak with her, save her, hear her voice once more. But she was gone, your shock and denial held you aloft until you could face that finality.

And now your sister so ill, again this sudden and unexpected crisis. The family all gathering, bewildered, shaken, trying to offer comfort to one another. Differences forgotten for now.

This is the stupid thing about severe and agonisingly mysterious illness, we all Google medical approximations and search for instant answers, confirmation of our worst fears, new cures, things the  medical team might not know. Ridiculous. We fall back on cliches that have to do with “pulling through,”  “being in the best hands,”  “keeping hope alive”. Or we take comfort in statistics. “She has a 50-50 chance.”

It is rainy and cold outside, the first winter storms, and the patient is in an induced coma or multiple organ dysfunction — or perhaps her body has begun fighting back and responding. We don’t know. An interminable waiting game and something we shall all endure one day, somewhere we cannot but go. End game.


Coffee, sleeplessness, tension headaches, the tedium of waiting but not wanting news unless it is good news… and the ordinary daily routines must be followed but seem irrelevant and pointless. The woodland scenery glimpsed from the train window while speeding towards life’s end. The darkness that keeps falling earlier than we thought. But a sink of dishes to be washed or a chopping board piled with diced carrot, the frightened sentences tapped onto a screen,  are ways to  try and  convince ourselves life for us will go on, for now. We must care for one another, time is running out.

What Auden said, “We must love one another and die.” Earlier he had written “We must love one another or die” but he came to recognise the deeper, more unsparing truth.

Waiting for news, not giving in to despair. Not yet, perhaps, the postponement, deferral, second chance, small miracle. The cliches may be all we can hold onto  at times like these. And the wind blows rain hard against the windows, the sky darkens towards storm.

Radiant vanishing ephemera

The first snow fall north of us, in the Karoo, unseasonably early. Days of solid rain, power black-outs, the whump! of an ignited Cadac gas lamp and that dazzling blue-white flare, meekly glowing candles in the bathroom and on windowsills.

The housemate’s sister ill and in hospital, breaking off from work to dash out. Dogs curled up under old heavy blankets. Extra socks, torches, boxes of matches, heavy sacks of kindling and firewood. Stage 3 load-shedding, rolling mass black-outs across a country in turmoil after xenophobic violence against desperate migrants and refugees.

Preparing litres of organic chicken consomme for invalids, golden and clear broths strained through a delicate raft of egg-white to remove impurities, a fragrant broth both digestible and nourishing. So much illness all around in the sudden bitter cold. Lovely mornings though, when the landscape glitters like crystal and silver. Eating sweet amber grapes, naaltrosse, the last and sweetest of the harvest.

Copying out lines from old handwritten poetry journals, the unexpected juxtapositions and combinations that make a rough music.So much music is inaudible when we are in the grip of fear or hurry.  And that is a pity.


From Wislawa Szymborska


Death? It comes in your sleep,
exactly as it should.

When it comes, you’ll be dreaming
that you don’t need to breathe;
that breathless silence is
the music of the dark
and it’s part of the rhythm
to vanish like a spark.
Only a death like that. A rose
could prick you harder, I suppose;
you’d feel more terror at the sound
of petals falling to the ground.

Only a world like that. To die
just that much. And to live just so.
And all the rest is Bach’s fugue, played
for the time being
on a saw.

Know as we are known

Wouldn’t the only revealing history of my life be that written by my dogs who see me as I truly am, frowsty and half-awake, pyjama jacket half-buttoned, barefoot and pattering about, loving, absent-minded, smelling of strong coffee, toothpaste, apples, the sun in my hair, yawning, calling to them in a multitude of known voices, all good smells and warmth there for the sniffing?


And in my own mind I am troubled by  renewed violence amongst taxi drivers, vehicles burning on highways, xenophobia, rising costs of basic foodstuffs, fewer jobs each year, the simmering violence that cracks out like gunfire around cities and towns. I fight fear and despondency in myself.  Yet there are my dogs waiting to see if I will give them another biscuit or pat their heads again, the small birds crying out in trees, a number of petitions to be signed, ways to help and not harm. So on we go. The birdsong mingling with the kettle’s electrical whistle, my tired face in the mirror, the soap bubbles iridescent in the basin. Life’s harsh rainbow.


“For when you examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorrow lends, it is amazing how they stretch, like the finest goldbeater’s skin, over immense tracts of substance.”

—  Virginia Woolf, from “Reminiscences” in Moments of Being

Just another Sunday

Woke up to autumn sunshine splashing the kitchen, sat with coffee singing Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat to my small white dog who looks like a polar bear in her winter coat.

Trying to rejiggle the newish WordPress template. Looking up recipes for Tarte Tatin with crunchy blush-pink apples and homemade rough puff pastry.

Reading Claudia Rankine’s ‘collage of the real’ on race and micro-aggressions, the continuous assumptions, implied insults and petty thoughtless racism that black people experience all the time from those oblivious in their ‘whiteness’.

‘A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.’

The language that betrays fear, ignorance, hatred. Reminded again of how puzzled I feel when I read mainstream American fiction and it is all about ‘white’ people, all about that incorrigible privileged myth of whiteness, no African-American voices, no Hispanic presence, no Asian-American characters, just some rootless American middle-class partial selves who don’t seem able to notice who is standing next to them on the bus, who wipes the tables in the cafe, who lives next door. Bizarre. The same way LGBYTI people and Jewish people and disabled people, single women and children were once invisible, not heard, not spoken of, not really there.

And it is out of this obliviousness, invisibility, avoidance that violence erupts, the unseen war against young black men, those who are mentally ill, the homeless. I sit thinking about the xenophobia here in southern Africa ( more legacies of racism and ostracism), the struggle to make refugees and exiles seen as belonging, as ‘us’ not ‘them’. And how to render justice to others and selves in fiction, what needs to be embodied and shown. Acknowledged, made whole.

Over and over, thinking about this as the coffee perks and the dogs run in and out of pools of hot sun, the image of a dead body being handcuffed, as if even a dead man’s black body spells too much danger, too much significance and potential for escape.

Such dark times we are going through.

Days like a band of gold

Mustard yellow, sere yellow, a bitter canary yellow, dull gold, primrose yellow, butter, butterscotch, apricot-gold, sunshine yellow, lemon yellow. The leaves turning and tumbling.

A friend in Britain, not seen for years posts an image of himself as the Green Man, peering out through a curtain of  foliage, green-eyed and grey-bearded. A joke but some old memory touches me — I have seen you like this once before, in another time and place.

Walking as I think out  projects and  refresh my mind. The acorns spitting down from old oaks, smell of woodsmoke, a lone goshawk circling over the fields. A landscape of golds and purples and autumn splendour. I need to go down and walk beside the sea in this dying summer.e sea this summer. Lines from Pablo Neruda come back to me —

In which distance, facing what window,
in which train station
did I leave the sea forgotten, and there we were left,
I turning my back on those things I love
while there the struggle went on and on
of white and green and stone and glimmer.