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And now, the end is near…

Today my parents and I visited my Mother’s cousin. Lenie is 87 and recently had a stroke. She now lives in a so-called “frail care facility”. In spite of the fact that I have worked in and with facilities like these for the past 24 years, it still moved me to tears.

Lenie is the daughter of my grandmother’s brother, Oom Koos. They lived in Hoekwil, and Lenie was a missionary in ex-Rhodesia where she met a man who broke her heart. She worked in Saasveld when she came back from Rhodesia and cared for her ageing parents. Lenie was always the spinster cousin – a very tall, softspoken, very religious, sharp sense of humour. We grew up with her soft presence in our family. She worked for the church and lived a simple life with a few good friends. Over the years we would always stop at her house on our way through George.

When we saw her in May of this year, I could see that Lenie was getting frail. She was still as tall as always with her beautiful hands and long fingers. Her hair set the way I can remember it from when I was a boy of four or ve. Her little tinkling laugh, the smile. She was now walking with a four-wheeler and enjoyed showing us how she could swing it around to become a chair. I asked her about the food at the home (she was living in a commune-like setup with four other ladies) she just looked at me with a look that said “I am not going to tell you…”. Lenie was not one to complain or gossip, ever.

When I heard that Lenie had a stroke, I decided to take my parents to see her. The Care Home is an upmarket establishment (meaning it is not cheap) and belongs to the Church. It is clean. Clinical. Lots of staff and fancy furniture, wide passages, plastic owers. It is quiet on a Friday afternoon, with staff milling around. We go to the Frail Care Centre which is access controlled by fingerprints of the staff. Everything about it shouts hospital – nurse’s station, trolleys and walls filled with information posters about strokes, diabetes, dementia and blood clots. The staff are friendly and calls me “Oom”. (It is the Platteland after all.)

Lenie is at the far end of the centre – a small room with a hospital bed and a wooden dresser that has photographs and personal belongings. Above the bed is a chart with her information – Magdelena Hendrina Gerber (Miss), date of birth, next of kin, and allergies. And a photograph of her obviously taken after she had the stroke. In a chair next to the bed sits Lenie. I can see in the icker of her eyes that she immediately knows who we are. There is recognition, a soothing smile, and a deep connection. She has lost a lot of weight, her hair has not been combed and there is porridge from the morning on her chin above the few long grey hairs sprouting from a mole. She can no longer make conversation, but here and there a word comes out. Her answer to how are you is “old”, with a deep frown. Followed by “tired”. She looks so strikingly like my maternal grandmother that my heart aches from the recognition of family bonds. She looks in my eyes, long, lovingly, sad, lonely, tired, peaceful. She has made her peace with the world. She is waiting to die. My mother says “Lenie, I am also on your path…”

Being in the same room with Lenie, my mother (78) and father (84) I am so aware of the mortality, the vulnerability, the journey towards the end. This will most probably be the last time that I see Lenie. I am deeply moved by the knowing. I feel helpless and in awe at the same time. Here we are, practically saying goodbye to someone who has been a part of my life for 53 years. Someone who represents a part of my bloodline, someone who has known me from the time I was in my mother’s womb, who has always only been kind and loving to me.

We drive back in silence. I know what my parents are thinking…who will go first. In Heidelberg, we go and visit the graveyard to put a colourful Mexican flowerpot filled with succulents on my grandparent’s grave. Their grave is surrounded by the graves of people we knew so well – we laugh in recognition, and share stories as we remember them when we read the names on the tombstones. I remember standing next to many of these open graves at the funerals of people who we knew well. Friends. And I cannot help but think again how dif cult it is to contemplate our own mortality. As the last rays of the sunset touch the canola and wheat fields, we drive home in silence. I cannot help but feel deeply touched by the day’s events, the vulnerability, the wonderful memories, and the knowing that it will all come to an end maybe sooner than later. As evening sets in we go for a pizza. Sitting opposite my parents I am so grateful for the time together, for the connectedness of belonging, of being able to celebrate life, and for the opportunity to have seen Lenie one more time.

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