Just like that, on a normal Sunday, someone was once here; someone was gone, writes Helen Walne.
Cape Town - Last Sunday started normally. The kitchen was in its usual weekend mode - dishes in the sink, stray teaspoons on the counter, a small scatter of grated cheese hardening on a plate. B was playing music on the hi-fi, the sun played in the trees and the dogs barked at Sunday strollers walking past the front fence. We had nothing planned - nowhere to be, no one to see. Punk-rock lyrics blared through the speakers, about somebody being unexpectedly small.
Then the phone rang. B answered, unceremoniously snapped off the music and walked into the bedroom. His voice was low, he closed the door, and birds played in the trees and the sun made shadows of the front fence and I knew it was bad. B’s nephew Nic was dead. Just like that, someone was once here; someone was gone. We spent the day buried in family, and my heart broke for Nic’s mother, sitting with a straight back in the sun, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
Nic was 27. His wife had given birth to their son, Leo, just six weeks before. Nic had rushed out and bought a washing machine, a coffee machine and done up the nursery. There is a black and white photograph of Nic propped up in bed with Leo sleeping on his chest. There’s a video of Leo in a Superman Babygro, and he smiles at the camera. He really smiles at the camera. It isn’t just wind.
The facts around Nic’s death are emerging: he and a colleague had just arrived in Ghana for work and went out for dinner. They played some pool and ordered draught beers. They began feeling ill and lost consciousness and were rushed to hospital. Nic didn’t make it. Blood tests on his colleague revealed a concoction of chemicals. Their personal effects were missing. Someone, somehow, had apparently poisoned them. That someone is still somehow walking around and sleeping and talking and eating.
Those are the facts - cold words that march up the driveway on a Sunday and knock on the door and destroy the worlds of a mother, a wife, a father and a sister. How does anyone return from that? How is it possible for this family to go back to normal life - shopping for groceries, going back to work, eating dinner? But they will return - I know this to be true. Not because they have to or because they feel they should, but because Nic is everywhere. He is inside them.
People grieve in different ways. There is no right or wrong way. Having lost both my brothers, I am acutely aware of the desperate longing and that feeling that hits you moments after waking up, when your mind slowly realises it’s real and not a dream. I hid from a lot of my grief. I thought if I stayed very still, it wouldn’t see me.
But this family - my family - are navigating each day and its emotional roller-coaster with Nic embedded deep in their bones. The stories are being remembered and told: how he would climb a tree in the garden to talk to the elderly woman next door. How he hated being on the outside. How he cut the medals off his father’s old military dress uniform to bury them in the garden as treasure. How he struggled to find his place in the world as an adolescent. How he set up the garage for gaming weekends with his friends. How he would jump into his mother’s bed in the morning and drink tea. How he saved up to buy his sister a teddy bear she coveted. How he landed a marlin with his father. How he fell in love with his wife. How he planned to quit working in Africa, so far away from home. How much he loved his son.
In this world - particularly in this country of violence - there are too many stories likes this; too many people taken by the invisible hands of others. While this didn’t happen to my brothers, I remember going to the supermarket for the first time after they died. I was angry with everyone around me. The other shoppers seemed to be going about their day with such routine and security. But I now know that painful stories are everywhere and there is no telling what lies beneath that face picking out tomatoes, the cashier’s wide smile.
The road ahead will be long. Grief never goes away - it’s always hiding in the bushes, ready to ambush at any time. For those in its grip, it cannot be outrun or destroyed or deceived. And for those giving comfort, we should not wish it away or pretend it is gone.
We can only witness it and sit with it - and remember how unexpectedly large somebody was.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.