About eighteen months ago a friend died. This is the first time I have written about it. Not because I was grieving, I grieved as it happened, but in some way I felt the relationship was too precious to share with relative strangers. I think I was wrong.
Let me tell you about her and the gifts she brought to my world. I met her in my first year of varsity, where a group of girls smuggled me into the dorm for a midnight snack. The potential horror and expulsions should we have been caught, would have rocked the whole town. We weren’t. She became something between friend, confidante and in a weird way we become each other’s rebel without a cause. Like in many friendships, there were absences, fights and stilted moments as we explored who we were. She got married, had children and we started careers. We left Bloemfontein and as expected from friends, maintained contact. Thus far, a story many of us could tell.
I was finishing a talk about breast cancer and reconstruction fourteen years ago, when my phone rang. As I am writing in this magazine, you will know it was about a breast cancer diagnosis. The staging and treatment are irrelevant here; suffice to say not good news. Enough about of that, I want to tell you how she dealt with the ten years from her diagnosis to her death.
She told me, as a mother of two kids about 8 and 6 years old, her job was to keep it together for as long and if possible to give love, a family legacy and as much joy as she could share. The ten years she was allotted is a long time to strive for that. Puberty, her husband’s career necessitating moves, a mother who also got diagnosed with a different type of cancer and the ever dark clouds billowing fear every time a twinge or a test result was read.
Over the years, we would sit at the dinner table and ruminate. How we had changed? The way, inevitably, we linked up again repeatedly. After the rest of the guests around the table were exhausted, we would reach the part of the discussion where we shared our fears, our hopes and the things we were happy to have been part of in our lives. From this, I distilled a few things from her that I would like to share with you.
To celebrate each chemo round, she planted a rose in a part of the garden to mark the days she had cheated death and the good days she had with her family. When her hair fell out, she got a wide brimmed hat to protect her head. Two days later, her gardener arrived with a bright pink synthetic church hat. Unsure whether it was a gift or not, she held back. He waited until she came out from under the veranda, he had shaved his hair, then with a flourish, he put it on saying; “Now we look the same.” I know the house has been sold, and new people will not fully understand the random planting they did together, but I sat there in it after her death and it made me happy. As a gift to you fresh from their garden – the next time you smell a rose, smell the hope she planted to share with the world to lift your day.
Every time the cancer came back, like most of us I think, I would say inane things to diffuse what I imagined she was feeling. As the day of the next chemo dawned, she would go to the ward, go through the nausea and the fatigue and go home without a peep. Nothing could subdue her spirit. I asked her how she did it. Her answer was simple. I treat my chemo like “nagmaal” (mass); every time I come in, I know there is hope for me. The day they no longer give it to me, I must be beyond help. Each bag of chemo, each tattoo from radiation and each scar means I am not done yet.
If only I could be that strong, I would conquer Everest. As I am not, I remember the matter of fact manner in which she proved it. If you read this and in doing so share that sense of purpose or gain strength, another of her gifts would be shared.
When travelling, we often took a little gift from a place she couldn’t travel to, as a token of our love. One was a little mosaic dove from Pompeii. It came in two versions, the one already made and the other the worst gift to give – “assemble it yourself.”
Naturally, we bought the latter. It sat in our house until we saw the family again at their house. I saw it later on her veranda painstakingly put together. Every now and then I see a dove in a shop, in somebody’s home or in passing, it gives me a private moment to reflect. Sometimes for long stretches I won’t see anything, then I see one. My version of Casablanca would be: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I saw a dove today…” It was not only that I saw a dove; it reminds that no matter what the perceived time we think we have left, we must live each day as if we could finish a mosaic. Hers sat for years.
Most of all, I think I wrote this to remind myself that each day we live, every kindness we receive and person who we touch is special. Even more that no matter what happens to us; we will leave a version of a dove. Maybe you have one in your life.