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.


11 thoughts on “Pain

  1. In very different ways on a very different timeline I also found it hard to see strength diminish and be replaced with pain and hurt. My dad often told me that having been a fighter his whole life, it was hard to stumble upon a battle that could not be won. He knew he had to face surrender but for him it meant a lot to accept but do it with courage. I guess sometimes that is all we have left. Sadly there are no words to fix these places of pain, they have to be travelled through, but I’m sending my thoughts and a squeeze.

  2. I am so glad that you are brave enough to take these thoughts on, Laurel. It has been so important to me to face Tessa’s last hours and share them with her, over and over again. These are not a nightmare for me because Tessa was so strong through them and to deny or avoid this would be a betrayal of her strength. Tessa was a brave woman. She died bravely. Her pain in her last hours is not something for us to avoid. She confronted it and we must confront it too. She held herself, she held me, quite possibly saving my life consciously or unconsciously. Tessa lived bravely – life was not always easy and definitely not always pain free. She handled that and moved through into happier and easier spaces in life and in death. A brave woman.

    1. Thank you my Dirk. I was a bit worried about causing pain to others – and you – through posting this, but decided some things just need to be faced… I am so glad we can hold each other through this. Love you x

  3. I certainly have not gone through the same experience you’ve been facing, so I often feel kind of shy as for trying to leave you comforting comments, but I got you in my prayers and I hope that helps.
    I’m sure it must be overwhelmingly hard to think about your loving mother and remember her strength and then just face what happened and feel like your hands are tied, also, I know how bloody irritating it is to contemplate this “future knowledge” people say we achieve when we face such loss, but maybe what would really help right now is allowing yourself to reach the very bottom of the well, letting those tears stream down freely so you can empty your hands before grabbing a renewed amount of inner strength to arise.

  4. Blown away by that saying ‘one who handles the sharp side of the knife’, it makes me think of so many strong woman who I’ve seen leave leave this world. Maggie, who worked for my family for 25 years, was killed (we think murdered, the circumstances are hard to decipher) about 50m from our house a year and a half ago when I was in Korea. I read what you wrote and as that line entered through my eyeballs into my brain it exploded into visions of Maggie’s hands peeling thick green-white rinds off wedges of pumpkin with a sharp kitchen pairing knife that she preferred. And then I could see her smiling and laughing at me as I told her silly stories from the day. Broke my heart a bit, but I suppose that’s what love does. Strong African women, hey? Your mum, Maggie…beautiful people.

    1. Indeed. It’s amazing what can trigger memories, and how powerful they can be. I hold onto the fact that love and memories stay with us throughout our lives – some aspects will fade, but others will remain crystal clear. Hugs for you x

  5. You bring up such a strong image of Mom’s hands – strong hands, not perfect. Bearing the marks of her life with a long-ago crushed finger nail, coarse from farming hands-on, yet gentle and firm in holding us… You are so right that certain images and memories will stay clear while others fade, and they bring back the person too.

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