In the hospital’s courtyard, if you look up and you eliminate the hospital signs and the aircon units on the outside walls, the mismatched plastic chairs scattered like lost, worn, old men around dusty tables, you can almost imagine that you’re on a tropical island where all is well and endless days are drenched in sun and framed by an untouchable horizon. Up there palm trees sway like huge fans in the breeze. Like huge hula skirts that went flying, calling you with island songs to a different place of seemingly golden sands and tranquillity. Better not to be reminded of mermaids beckoning sailors to an imminent death.
Sometimes, for a few moments, one has to escape because on the other side of these hospital walls the harsh noise, the reality of machines sizzling with the merciless pang of feeding human energy, waxes and wanes.
As a visitor to a hospital bed the texture of prayer becomes hard bone knocking against fingertips. Clenched knuckles the colour of pallid bone washed clean by antibacterial, by tears and pleading. By seriousness: like a tight dot, a core of absolute seriousness right in the middle of yourself. A knotty koan. Understood only by the spirit.
Softly, softly, we speak. Softly, softly, we touch. To keep at bay the pain. Wishing, hoping that soft words and loving gestures and human warmth will replace affliction and discomfort. Because suddenly you are amputated, standing by helplessly in an unfamiliar soundscape. Helpless against fate. An extra deadweight amongst beeping monitors, whooshing ventilators, alarms like sirens.
Surrounded by a distorted carnivalesque landscape of colourful lines pulsating up and down, graphing the curves of blood pressure, oxygen, heart rate, pulse. People on beds tied, like marionettes in staged elegies, to a robotic puppet master. Here the flow and push and pull of insides and breath curl in thin lines across screens like road maps, rivers, the sharp spiking of hills and mountains. A world of medical science and technology functions within a larger world of clean cut lines, shiny floors reflecting the clarity of logic and reason and starched, white sheets and towels.
You lose your bearings because, even as you learn to decipher the readings on the puppet master’s screen, the heart does not understand. Softly, softly it wants to operate but the sight of needles and pipes and tubes and buttons depict a different story.
And so we judder and rock through 40 days and 40 nights in the belly of anguish, in the shell of hospitalisation. On the ebb and flow of a submarine because suddenly your world has shrunk to a hospital bed; your job has become that of guardian angel. A dysfunctional angel with no wings and a broken heart that softly, softly murmurs and stands defeated by the cacophony of bad news and the irksome din of patients wheeled into ICU. Your patient stationary, going neither here, nor there. Drops of various fluids keep its steady pace like an hourglass through a TPN: small lifelines of deceiving hope. Every day you scrape your heart – too heavy from grief and helplessness – off the floor and awkwardly push it back into your chest. Until the next visit.
In between, at home, it is as if all the physical objects, the furniture and the spaces between them – the whole house – had, over the years, become him. He’s infiltrated, absorbed its fibres, with his presence. Shocked into stillness, into confused quietude they wait for their owner because they carry the patterns of his fingerprints all over themselves, the weight of him and his unique pulse. The indentation in the sofa where he used to sit carries his familiar hollow. The house seems unwilling to submit to the will of a stranger. It holds its breath for his imminent return. He will always be die baas van die plaas.
40 days and 40 night pass. Then, from the minaret of the mosque next to the hospital the imam sends a prayer, a lamentation for mercy, across town. We turn our own silent prayers upwards to the sky, untangle our knotted fingers joint by joint and let go of our own desperate invocations. On the way home the sea of white cars in Volkswagen’s vast parking lot are frozen waves and the Hanekom mountains are etched blue against a pink sky. As we throw open the doors and the windows of the house, the hadidas send their familiar cries over the rooftop. We squint against the bright light at first, then slowly, over many days and many nights, we learn to live with it once again.
Because, in the end, every marionette cuts its own thread and even the seemingly indestructible face of a monitor screen goes blank, its incessant beeping quietens. To let the real light, the real sound in. At last.