Clinging to the arithmetic of loss


Clinging to the arithmetic of loss

209 days after her mother died, ANNELIESE BURGESS finally feels ready to start sifting through her possessions and is engulfed by a mangled longing as dense and confusing as smoke.


MY mother died just after three o'clock on the first Thursday in August.

I had forgotten how difficult it is to die. My father had died in the same room a year before, almost to the week. It was drawn out and unspeakably cruel. But the mind protects the heart, blurring the hardest edges, because otherwise we would not go on.

As we watch the hearse drive up the road with her body, I am aware of a yawning, gaping nothingness that settles over me like the mist in a cold valley before the sun.

The house is littered with empty teacups and other debris from the death watch. I scrape shut the door, latch the garden gate and count the 59 steps to my house across the road.

I avoid the House of Passing until I can't. I need to find documents on my mother's desk. 

The familiar sound of the front door catching on the uneven tiles, the smell of kitchen and books, dust and disinfectant, threatens the numbness I have come to rely on to keep me from coming unmoored.

I cannot afford to. I have to work. 

The house under the coral tree was only ever a transit camp towards death — a monument to illness and suffering and sadness and nights of hallucinations and bedsores and pain. I cannot dredge up a single happy memory. I want it dismantled.

On day 63, that's what we do.

My brothers and I scrape what remains of our parents' lives into boxes and load a lorry to take it back to the farm. To the house among bluegums at the foot of a frowning sandstone koppie. Where they lived before dementia stole my father's brain and cancer killed my mother.

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One hundred and thirty-four days after my mother's passing, I drive up the avenue at Bannockburn for the first time since the funeral.

The geography of belonging: the lovely old stone shed, the lamb enclosure sprouting blue thistles, the fallow land that used to be my mother's magnificent vegetable garden. 

My brother has left the kitchen door unlocked.

The boxes from the House of Passing are stacked in the passage, the pantry and my mother's room.

Two distinct chapters superimposed on each other — the boxes from the Life of Illness and Endings in East London set down like rocks in the garden of the Life Before.

The slasto floors and dented steel kitchen cupboards, the long dining room table, the view down the passage lined with wedding photos, the heavy security gates at the bedroom door, the view from the front porch to the palm trees at the edge of the bed of agapanthus.

I carry my bags to my parents' bedroom. I will sleep in a bed that still smells of them, on a mattress curved with the imprint of their bodies.

My mother's shoes are on the floor next to the table — the socks, caked with garden mud, propped in the sockets. 

A hot mangle of longing grips me. Dense and confusing like smoke.

I am not ready for the intimacy of my mother's things. 

We cover everything with blankets and sheets.

Grief is a fire — smouldering embers and leaping flames.

Grief is a cooling breeze and a hot berg wind that sweeps down from the mountains, scorching leaves and wilting grass.

Grief is a tidal pool with lapping waves.

It is bewildering and breathtaking, lush and luminous like the waxing moon. It is connection and disconnection. Holding on and letting go.

But most of all, grief is ordinary and mundane.

It is the nature of things. There is no way but through.

“Grief has no distance," says Joan Didion. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, and sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees, blind the eyes, and obliterate the dailiness of life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.” 

It isn't. 

I sleep in my parent's room for 22 days.

Three separate times: 6 + 9 + 7

I have moved the big table to in front of the window. I sit here and write. I make tea in the glass teapot. Drink from the glass mugs they loved (and I disliked for the thick rims). Look through the bluegum branches towards the grain silos and the pig shed. And the mountain with its mane of fir trees. 

On day 22, I pull the shroud off the dressing table.

It is 209 days since my mother died.

I open the top drawer.

Twenty-three empty bottles of Revlon Age Defying Foundation —natural beige — two small baskets with hair clips and combs, a hairbrush tangled with blonde hair, some hankies, a broken watch, two ceramic mice and a worn-down lipstick. In another drawer, two black leggings and a T-shirt — threadbare and stretched — a nail file, a pencil sharpener and a short stub of red lip liner.

I feel the seams come apart. The discord between what my brain knows is now only memory and the tactile reality of touching my mother's things has me finally unmoored. I cannot stop the dry, heaving, guttural keening that I realise, with a bizarrely detached sense of amusement, is coming from me. 

Tins of knitting needles, files of recipes, notebooks, baskets of papers, and grocery shopping slips on a spike (mielie meal, Russians, butternut, potatoes, butter, milk, tea). A box with old spectacles. A drawer full of paper clips and staplers and measuring tapes. A glass jar of shells. An unopened packet of Umoya sweets (liquorice flavour). A file with “pottery ideas". One labelled “Bill memories" (empty). A wedding photograph. A box of vegetable seed packets. A drawer of rags and shoe polish and a jar of ancient Dubbin. Paintbrushes gathered in an upturned lampshade, a big drawer of locks with keys, a Christadelphian hymn book, row upon row of photo albums. Canisters of slides marked with black koki: Diepkloof. Vergenoeg. Wild Coast. Bill fishing. Barkly. Bannockburn. Farming. School. Germany. A row of carved, wooden sheep. A red chicken. An old-fashioned brass iron. Walking sticks. A pad of blue airmail paper with matching envelopes. Gardening books. Religious books. History books. German novels. Bird books. A pair of binoculars. Stacks of black exercise books with staff wages, budgets, diary entries on farming activities and rain measurements.

“Evening Planning", says one — written on the front with white Tippex. It is from 2012. I notice that my father's handwriting is spidery and shaky in places. The entries read like reminders — what cattle are in what camp, loans to staff, what was done by whom that day. My father's mind was clearly starting to play tricks on him more than a decade before he died. I had never noticed. There is a small flip album labelled “Bill" — pictures my mother must have gathered as reminders of their life together after he died. 

I pull the blanket off the steel shelf with the neatly arranged tomato boxes, marked with green paper labels in my mother's still distinctly German handwriting. Always one for order: T-shirts, underwear, socks, jerseys, shoes, belts, scarves. Shoes on the bottom shelf. Gumboots. Walking boots. A pair of old takkies. Green plastic Birkenstocks.

I cook soup for supper — my mother's bean soup. I brown the bones and grate the potatoes like she used to. I pick leaves from the bay tree she planted beside the chicken run and harvest a handful of thyme from a surviving bush in her old herb garden.

My brother comes in from the farm at six. We drink whiskey on the verandah as the sun dribbles away and an icy south-easter whips up.

“There goes the bloody rain," he says, just like my father used to lament when a turning wind wiped away the day's promise of precipitation.

We sit in the quiet. I tell him of my day in the valley of desolation.

I have set the table for supper in the kitchen. My brother stands at the stove, scooping soup out of the pot. And then he puts down the spoon and steadies himself.

“Fuck, the kitchen smells of Mamma tonight. For the first time in such a long time. It's the soup."

The following day, I fetch flowers from the garden. It is blazing hot, drought weather. I find three blue agapanthuses for the glass vase I once gave my mother for Christmas. I set it down between the stacks of books, papers, files, bits and bobs on the table in my mother's room.

My clothes, creams and perfume are now in the drawers of my mother's dressing table. It feels like a small but meaningful achievement.

But I am still not ready to throw anything away. I will have to live with my mother's things for a little while longer because letting go of the 27 boxes feels like a betrayal of the things she gathered — the things she loved, the things that held meaning for her. A betrayal of her life and her memory.

So, for now, I live with the boxes. I will know when the time is right. When letting go of some of her things will no longer feel like letting go of her.

♦ VWB ♦

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