On Sunday of the 9th of June 1996 I heard the kind of words a twelve year old has no business hearing.
“She will not make it to tomorrow morning.’”
‘She’ was Evelyn Ramaesela Mahlape, my mother. On that cold Sunday evening, a nurse told us that as of the next day I would no longer have anyone to call ‘my mother’. The world is still to feel colder or seem darker than it did that night.
This is not a night I like to revisit often. Which is why I am writing this from my bedroom, glass of wine in hand shutting out my daughter’s periodic shouting of ’ ko-ko’ from outside. For the past nineteen years my revisits of that night have been fleeting, on purpose, taking what I needed from the memory and shutting the rest out. The events of this past year however, have prodded, sometimes pushed that I go back there. In the past year I have watched some of my friends bury a parent, a painful and harrowing event to witness. What those events set off in me was a series of questions around how differently children deal with death as compared to adults. Had I dealt better as a child? Had it been easier? And this past weekend, while at a funeral, I could no longer say no, I gave in and allowed myself to be transported back through time to that night.
What surprised me though was how once I allowed myself to go back there, that it wasn’t the night itself that would satisfy my burning questions, but the events that would follow. Right from when Papa woke me up on the morning of the 10th to confirm that Mama had indeed passed in the night.
On the question of whether or not I had dealt better as a child, I found the answer to be both yes and no. Childhood does not allow you to fully process the event of death, certainly not in the way you need its presence and its finality. That however does not prepare you for the inevitable emptiness and moments of ‘what ifs’.
The only easiness I find is that as a child you do not need to make funeral arrangements which often extend beyond the financial implications to meddling relatives who may have just the week before remembered a family ritual that had long been forgotten. Children are oblivious to the family politics, which are draining to a point of numbness when you are dealing with the loss of a loved one. And they are oblivious to the financial struggle, as it is often the case, especially when faced with feeding masses of people for a week. As an adult, when your parent dies you have to make the decisions. My being a child when Mama died allowed me to escape reality.
The death of my mother left me lonely as a child, sometimes lost, but it is as an adult that I have cried more for her, felt I needed her. The years of growing into adulthood leave us vulnerable to pain, like stepping into a game Russian Roulette, with bullets aimed at our hearts all the time.
Death is the truest form of truth, you may discuss it but it’s presence and arrival will not be argued or negotiated. We fear dying, but I think death is hardest on the ones left behind. Our mourning is never ending, merely moulds into pockets of time, so maybe the next time we whisper “Rest In Peace”, we will wish the same peace for ourselves.