Tonight, I had barely begun to cycle up the hill in Greenwich Park when I felt my quads begin to burn. I became increasingly aware of how many parts of my body were aching from the last 48 hours of running, cycling, push-ups and crunches – my calves, quads, glutes, abs, and back. I love the pain of stiff muscles; however intense, it is deeply gratifying to know it is part of my body’s process of getting stronger and more efficient, and that it comes from the satisfaction of exercise. As I pumped the pedals and felt the fatigue in my legs growing, reminding myself that I had to push through and work with this pain to get fitter and faster, the image of my mother in her dying hours hit me out of the blue, almost taking my breath away. Her pain is hard to imagine. Broken bones, crushed organs; deep and irreparable damage. She stayed calm; she told Dirk she was ‘so sore’, she asked after rescue, and she tied Dirk off somehow; yet she was unknowingly slipping away, away, away….
My mother had a remarkable attitude to pain. She was with me through both of my labours, and she would remind me that the pain of childbirth was pain with a purpose – it was achieving something, and should be accepted and worked with, rather than avoided, or become something to be afraid of. Through contraction after contraction, she held my hand and helped me ride the waves of pain, and use each contraction to bring my children closer to being born. She was so steadfast and thoughtful and brave, and she handled even that final pain. That pain which was without purpose – she worked with it anyway, as best she could. She died as she lived: bravely, and actively.
Some of her colleagues have contributed towards donating six olive trees and three plaques for the memorial wall at Goedgedacht, a charity which helps rural children out of poverty. There has been some discussion around appropriate dedications on the plaques, and all of the ideas are beautiful and moving. One of them, which feels more appropriate than ever tonight, is “Mosadi wa go swara thipa ka bogaleng”, which is Pedi and translates to ‘one who handles the sharp side of the knife’, which means ‘a brave woman’.
How impossibly difficult it is to face the reality of her last hours. Somewhere, somehow, I have come to believe that face this reality I must, to be able to move past it. It is comforting to know that the pain would have seeped away from her fairly quickly. But oh! for her body, her beloved, warm, body that grew my own flesh and bones within it, that held me, and comforted me countless times. Her articulate hands that were cold, achingly cold and unmoving as I held them, standing beside her coffin. Her forehead icy to my lips, her features unmoving, her self no longer there. I do not remember her as this wintry corpse; it does not haunt my nightmares or override her vibrate, living self in my mind. Yet somehow this is part of her story, and thus part of mine; and in the end, our bodies will all become corpses too.