My Ouma (meaning ‘grandmother’ in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages) – my father’s mother – died yesterday: a peaceful death, and one that she has been looking forward to for more than a year. A good death, after a long life: don’t we all hope for the same?
When my sister called with the news yesterday – after my father had been unable to reach me – I sobbed. My body wracked with heartache, I felt at one point as though I would never stop.
I find it fascinating that our reactions to death, even one long-expected, are so entirely unpredictable. My sisters, both of whom spent a great deal of time with her since she became bedridden and in need to support, are relieved for her. Whilst they love and will miss her, they know it was what she wanted and feel their sorrow predominantly for my father, who has lost a mother: and we all now know the pain of losing a mother.
I, who am usually quick to empathy and seeing the positive in everything, feel myself wracked with loss and pain, and I know it’s not for her, but for myself: a self-involved response, that comes from within a context of feeling as though I haven’t even begun to get to my feet after a number of events and happenings that I have found difficult. It’s a horribly familiar feeling of thinking I am barely getting through the days as it is, hardly finding the willpower to climb out of bed, put one foot in front of the other and deal with life’s every-day practicalities, and then feeling yet another blow to my resilience.
One of the reasons it has hit me so hard is guilt: guilt that I didn’t call last week; guilt that I haven’t written in two months when I know how much she loves (ah – loved – always difficult at first to change the present to the past tense) receiving my letters. I flew down to see her last August, when she took a turn for the worse and we feared she might not live much longer, and I am deeply grateful that I had that time with her, but August was many long months ago. The guilt is greatly compounded because I promised myself that I wouldn’t have this guilt when she died: that I would prioritise her within my busy schedule because she was important to me, and would not be around forever. I feel I have let myself down. I know guilt is an entirely unhelpful emotion, apart from its capacity to prompt us to positively change our behaviour, and I know I will move past this and be able to let it go, but it certainly has made the immediate acceptance of her death more painful that it would otherwise have been.
Ouma was the last of my four grandparents to die, and it’s hard to avoid the realisation that this has a special weight to it: an entire layer of the family tree now deceased; an entire generation of our family no longer breathing, or at the other end of a phone call or a letter; a huge piece of our family memory now no longer accessible.
Moreover, as my counsellor reminded me today, it’s easy to underestimate the power of our precious childhood memories of safety, family, and love. While my mother’s parents were occasional visitors in our lives, centrally at family Christmases, when I was young my father’s parents (our ‘Ouma and Oupa’) were very central to our lives. They moved to be closer to the apricot farm on which I was born, living in a little idyllic piece of what seemed like utopia on the outskirts of the nearby town of Ladysmith in the Klein Karoo. My siblings and I spent many a happy hour there – picking plums in the orchard, catching crabs in the stream, learning how to prune rosebushes, and savouring the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen. Those memories are strong, clear and extremely powerful to me, and have provided comfort and security through many tumultuous, unstable times in my life. While at the moment these memories provide stabs of painful awareness of what is lost, once the sharpness of grief has passed I know they will continue to provide consolation.
Ouma, you will always be loved, and missed.