I am not convinced that God interferes in the affairs of men nearly as much as we think He does, but if I were a little less cynical I could be persuaded that God had His hand in the opportunity I had to visit my grandmother yesterday. I had travelled 1200km from Johannesburg to run some training workshops in the Eastern Cape. The schedules are normally tightly packed enough that I don’t get to socialise with any friends I might have in the regions I travel to, but on this occasion my morning session had been cancelled at the last moment and I unexpectedly found myself with a free morning. Because of tough economic times, and the expenses attached to traveling so great a distance, I had not seen my gran in about five years. I knew I had to take this chance.
Naturally, she was thrilled to see me, and I could tell that she was moved that I had come to see her. She had recently broken her leg in a fall, and was clearly in a lot of pain, but my gran is both tough and stubborn (whenever I spend any time with the older members of my family, I am confronted with the reality of how little the formation of my personality has been in my control), and has been refusing to move closer to her family, to allow us to nurse her. I was not able to persuade her either. I let it go and we just talked.
It was a bittersweet three hours. She kept saying that God had been good to her because this was the last opportunity she would have to see me. I am pretty good at stark honesty, but even I was thrown by the certainty with which she spoke. And looking at her, she did, indeed, look frail and tired. But I don’t think she was feigning the animation in her eyes as we reminisced. I showed her pictures of Nathan, whom she has never met, and talked a bit about my family and my work, but mostly I let her talk. And in the stories she told I could see her whole life: how tough it must have been to be married to my grandfather, who was himself an uncompromising man, not unfamiliar with drink, judging by the stories she recounted; how the murder of her daughter (my mother’s only sister) by her psychopathic husband, had shattered her world, causing her to blame herself for never seeing the signs. How could she have?, I insisted, but she would not hear it. I understood, as she spoke about the colourful characters in the small town where she lives, and of the changes the years have wrought, why she refuses to move to the city to be closer to us, a potential source of support in her frailty. How do you give up on everything that has come to define you, simply for the sake of convenience? Sometimes the heart has its own logic. And despite all the implicit pain woven into the narrative, I was moved by the ease with which she could recall humour and beauty, by her unconscious refusal to drown in bitterness or resentment.
“They’re all gone now,” she commented at one point. And she named them, “Patrick and Sarah. Susan and Jim”. Her eyes were momentarily far away, crossing years to catch a glimpse of faces she alone now would recognise. And then she was back with me, launching into a story about bumping into the Minister (buried now in the church cemetery) at the liquor store. She was laughing, and I smiled, too, but I felt overwhelmed with sadness. How quickly the years pass, how terribly trivial our lives are. I have long known it to be true, but at that moment I found it hard to accept: we are but vapors in the wind.
I clung to every moment, but when I could not delay leaving any longer, I held her thin body for as long as I could. I kissed her, and looked back briefly at her lying in her bed. I smiled and told her I loved her. On the way out, I stood for a moment in her lounge and let the memories wash over me: Christmas mornings talking with her, dipping homemade biscuits in coffee as we waited for our parents to wake up; family meals around the dining room table that suddenly looked too small to have hosted the enormous festivity I remember; porcelain figurines in a glass cabinet, guardians of treasured moments long-forgotten; echoes of excited voices, returning from long days at the beach to sticky rice and homemade gravy. And I knew that she was right: it was over.
My gran is far from perfect. She is deeply prejudiced, although – in as far as she is able, as far as the philosophies and education that shaped her have allowed – she has worked to overcome that. She has served others as best she knows how. She has tried hard to be virtuous and faithful, and possesses a wisdom and strength forged in the fires of hardship. Times beyond counting she has got it wrong. Times beyond counting she has not. She is like all of us, I guess. She did what she thought best with what she had.
The world at large will not notice her passing. There will be no memorials to bear witness to her life. Her unique splendour will be lost and the universe will be undiminished by it. My universe will not. If she had been watching closely, perhaps she saw my tears as I closed the garden gate in parting, staring wistfully at the house. I am certain that she would have been crying too. We shared an unspoken recognition of a chapter closed, and cried for the time we lost, the world we used to know. In ways invisible to everybody else, my universe shifted, shrunk.
The evening was suitably sombre as I boarded the plane home. A thick canopy of grey cloud shrouded us, and an icy breeze chilled my face. We flew into the dark horizon, where the impermanent orange glow gradually gave way to a more lasting black. Far below, the lights of a small settlement flickered briefly and were gone, vanished beneath the clouds. I do not think that I will see her again in this life.