I found a little book in one of the drawers of my old desk. Inside, the pages are filled with scribbled thoughts and poems I wrote so long ago that I have forgotten most of them completely. Which is apt, since what I write now is about forgetting.
My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. She fought for years, but when she finally died, in my early teens, it left within me a feeling of relief. Relief that her suffering was over, but a darker, selfish kind also. I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to confront her again.
For me it had become intolerable to be around her. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It robs the sufferer of dignity long before it takes their mind. I couldn’t bear to look upon her shaking hands as she lay in bed, to lean in close and decipher the whispers she tried to communicate with. In my mind the frustration behind her eyes had become annoyance at me. This was when she could still do things. Her disease stripped her of all humanity and made her a thing of revulsion to me.
Years later, my mother (her daughter) would mention things about her and I would stand amazed. When she spoke of Ouma Ria, there was no hint of the creature I remembered. My mother spoke of a woman I didn’t know. Strong, intelligent, playful, loving. I quested back and could find no such memories of her.
My mother spoke of the time we went on a trip and my dad videotaped Ouma Ria giving us sweets against my mother’s instructions. She was looking around conspiratorially for my mother, a smirk on her face, while handing out the contraband to the eager grandchildren.
My mother told me about time spent on Ouma Ria’s lawn, when she’d play with us and we’d laugh. When she took us on trips to the shops, to the seaside. Always, there’d be a light in my mother’s eyes. Love for a woman of stature. For a person who’d fought for what was right, who loved and lived deeply. A woman who instilled a deep respect in everyone she met, because that was simply who she was. And I had been there. I had known her for years.
When my grandmother was buried, I didn’t cry like the others. I had always been a child who fixated on negative things. The last years of her life had given me so much bad to cling to that it had become my complete reality.
We are all like that to some extent. Every day we have the choice before us to focus on aspects of our lives, building our reality from the bricks of our subconscious. I have shrugged off my annoyance at the ceaseless praise heaped upon Mandela after his death, because I have felt the loss of a person’s life again.
It is not a life cut short, but a life that never existed. I didn’t cry at the funeral, but I cry today. I cry for the loss of my grandmother. For the woman she was. For the shell she became. I cry, because I will never know her as I should have, because I was a child too caught up in my own revulsion to treasure what I had had. There is nothing I can do to get her back. I will never revel in the beauty of her life remembered. It is a loss so enormous that it is unfathomable to me.
And now? I will try to live my life in remeberance of all that is good. I will try to revel in the beauty and the love of the people I treasure while they are still here.
Ouma Ria, I wasn’t loyal to the person I knew before the disease. I took for granted all you did, all I hear about. So in tribute to you I say to those who mourn: Sing! Sing of the life of the dead. Celebrate the light of a laudable existence. There will be time to reflect on mistakes later. Now is the time for songs from tear-streaked faces. To mourn the life that is no longer among us, but also to speak of the life lived while it had been.
Lest we forget.