When I look back on this past year, I see a
tumultuous year of change and loss.
Lost people. Lost jobs. And lost dreams.
For many, 2011 was a year that
fundamentally changed their lives. Even those with the strongest foundations quaked.
From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street,
the old ways of life were challenged on a collective level.
From the loss of those people, values and
material assets that we held dear, the old ways of life were challenged on an
Some, shaken and stirred, remained standing. Others, like my fabulous father-in-law, were
swept away as the solid mountain is inexorably washed away by the river of time.
A few, like my Dad with his gritty determination, still cling precariously to
the last few moments of the old year.
What will this new year be like? I wonder…
A friend said to me that 2011 was a year in
which God held a clearance sale. All those things that no longer served their
purpose in our lives were cleared out.
And that, of course, makes space for all
that is new to come into our lives because change is not loss…it’s only
Throughout 2012 there will be loose ends
from the previous cycles in our lives to tie up and pack neatly away. While I
quake at the thought of what those final losses may mean, mostly I look forward
to 2012 with a flicker of hope that can, with very little effort, burst into a
flame of excitement at the new adventures that await.
A new year with twelve months...what’s so
fearsome about that?
2012 be a year of clean endings, peaceful transformations
Do you remember doing the Skeleton Dance as
a toddler?I remember my Mom, with her
boundless enthusiasm and vibrant energy, teaching us the song.
“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones,”
she’d warble as my strong, silent Dad
tapped his foot along. And then, because it wasn’t all fun, but a song
to teach us about the different bones in our body, she’d make us repeat after
her, “The footbone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the
thigh bone,” and so on until, with gales of giggles, we’d work our way through
all the connections until we had a complete skeleton and could do the Skeleton
Dance (I still occasionally burst into the song, without the wiggly actions
Those halcyon days of carefree childhood
fun are lost for, as many of you know, over the past few years my
beloved Dad has suffered a serious of strokes. He is more silent than ever, as
the strokes have also diminished his verbal capacity. But he is no longer
My Mom, too, is fading as, at age 77, she
deals with the hard task of physically caring for a man who is her husband and
yet is no longer the same man who was the first person to love her after a sad
and abandoned childhood in an orphanage. That strong spirit of hers, the one that
helped her rise above so many of life’s challenges, is fading under the multiple
losses she bears. We grieve for her too. Mainly because her joyous spirit is slowly being smothered under the dual pressure of emotional grief and sheer physical exhaustion. We, her two daughters, are filled with anticipatory grief because everyone tells us - with morose 'comfort'? - that long-term caregivers always die first. All we can do is be there as her support. We
help in any way we can, but it’s never enough to bring either of my loving parents
back to us.
Isaac & Dawn, my much loved parents,
on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005
My Mom’s world – as it must in the current circumstances – has narrowed
to the single focus of caring for this man who was her protector and lover for
nearly 60 years. She has no energy left for us; I, thinking myself a strong independent
woman, have disappointed myself with how deeply I have felt the loss of the unconditional support she so generously showered on us all ...until now. Although she still tries so hard to be there for us, there is just not enough of her bright star left to spread around.
My Dad’s world is...well, let's say that at times it converges with our reality. He momentarily comes
back to us, as he did the other day when we chatted about death quite
rationally, and he picked up my hand and said, “I’ll miss you when I go to the
moon.” In his mind, with its broken synapses and lost connections, the white light of the full moon has become associated with the Divine Light of the God
he so faithfully believes in. But those moments of my Real Dad are further and further apart.
As the skeleton's bones become brittle with age and use, the sinews and ligaments that connect them begin to tear and wither too. With each successive stroke that my Dad is subjected too, the
connections that hold our family together are taking more and more strain.
But sometimes, other connections are
formed that return to those muscles the much needed strength and the ability to
somehow dig deeper and go on with a renewed sense of the power of Love.
One such unexpected connection was a book review
on Patricia’s Wisdom, a blog that also reviewed my own novel. Patricia reviewed a memoir
called SO FAR AWAY: A Daughter’s Memoir of Life, Loss and Love. Written by Dr
Christine Hartmann, this story chronicles the author’s journey through both her
parents' very different deaths.
Her mother didn’t want to suffer a loss of
her mental acuity through old age diseases and so become a burden. She openly planned
her death by suicide. Hartmann’s father, like my Dad, saw his death as so far
away that he (and his family) were caught unawares by a series of massive
strokes that (again like my Dad) kept him physically alive, but at the cost of
his mental and spiritual essence.
Browsing Hartmann’s website, I found another
connection: like my Mom, Hartmann suffers with glaucoma. And, of course,
Hartmann’s parents were teenagers in Nazi Germany during World War II. My
parents where white South Africans during the rule of the Apartheid Nationalist
No wonder SO FAR AWAY has had me crying –
no, sobbing – inconsolably for the past two days as I read it. I am drained and
exhausted and utterly relieved that I am no longer alone in my journey of grief. Another daughter has trodden this path and she has shown me that there is a way through this loss; there is even life and love at the end of this
seemingly endless road that has drained all my energy, my enthusiasm and my
optimism, turning me ever more isolationist and remote from real life and unable to write a word on the new novel that is hammering away inside my head. And, she says, addressing one of my most painful fears, when her father's physical body eventually died, she was able to recapture the spiritual essence and memories of how he was before the strokes stole his essence and left only a shell. For too long, it has become more and more difficult to remember who my Dad was, before he was reduced to what he is.
What makes this book special is that Dr Hartmann’s life,
losses and love are mine too. Reading Hartmann’s story allowed me to cry for
her that which I cannot yet cry for myself: the loss of my hero, my “pardner,”
my beloved Dad.
I could cry, too, for the fading of that strong
light that was the hallmark of my courageous Mom, her joie de vivre overshadowed now by the endless day-to-day caring of
the physical body that houses the lost soul of her husband and my father.
Hartmann’s compassionate caring, the relentless
journey to understand both herself and her parent’s emotional wounds, fill this
memoir and made me realise that I have carried the burden of this private grief
and double loss inside me for too long.
I had forgotten that this cycle of life, too, can be a
path of mutual love and respect between special parents and a daughter they
had, despite their own wounds and private griefs, always surrounded in love and
support. "Autumn," said John Keats in his most famous Ode, "thou hast thou beauty too." Hartmann has reminded me to search for the beauty in even this, a challenging life situation.
The subtitle of this book is that it’s a “memoir
about life, loss and love.” Ultimately,
SO FAR AWAY is simply an Ode to Love and it has gifted me with the memory of
love at its best. Whether singing the Skeleton Dance or sitting with my Dad daily
so my Mom can wallow for twenty uninterrupted minutes in a hot bath filled with
bubbles, I know once again that connections forged in love ever remain.
SO FAR AWAY has "soothed the ragged tears of my
heart" and, for that, I sincerely thank Christine Hartmann for having the courage to so honestly share her life, loss and love with us. You can buy your own copy of SO FAR AWAY from Amazon
and other major bookstores.
And, of course, this post would not be complete
without one more rendition of The Skeleton Dance:
My reading of the English
translation of "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink may be influenced by the outstanding movie version,
which won Kate Winslet her (well-deserved) Oscar.
Often, when I read the book
version of a movie that has moved me deeply I’m disappointed (or vice versa – the movie version of the
emotional “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” was a huge disappointment.)
The Reader doesn’t
disappoint on any level. Perhaps because
of my personal experiences (a white South African born to the generation who
voted the Apartheid government into power), this novel moved me in ways I can’t
begin to describe.
Stripping away the love
story between Michael and Hanna, the way this novel explored and articulated
the nature of guilt reflected many of the questions in my own mind. The
deceptively simple prose style is ideal for keeping the focus on the
soul-wrenching and difficult issues the illogical love Michael feels for Hanna
raises in the reader’s mind (excuse the pun.)
At times I wondered if
Hanna wasn’t symbolic of Germany herself, and Michael’s statement “I wanted
simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it” is a poignant
echo of the post-war (or, for that matter, post-apartheid) generation’s complex
Is Hanna’s illiteracy and
ignorance enough to excuse her? And is it a metaphor for previous generations
of people the world over who were simply unaware of the darkness to which that
ignorance/lack of education/whatever could lead them to? Should we condemn or
understand them? And, if we condemn those who have lived before us, what will
future generations – those yet-to-be-born generations who will have more
knowledge on which to base their choices and actions than we have – find to condemn
in our behaviour? Perhaps in a hundred years times vegetarian children will
have to bear the guilt of previous generations who (considering themselves
perfectly civilised and moral beings) today deliberately slaughter living
creatures to eat.
This novel almost defies
categorisation and review. As Michael himself says, “The tectonic layers of our
lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against
earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and
pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this.
Nevertheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”
Sometimes I find it hard to
bear that I and my beloved parents – good, ordinary people, all of us, or so I like
to think – were simply too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to fight the
evil of apartheid and become heroes of “the struggle.” Sometimes I find it hard
to bear that, just as the German psyche will never be entirely free of the guilt
of the Holocaust, so the white South African psyche will never be entirely free
of the guilt of Apartheid.
Bernhard Schlink does an
admirable job in addressing a topic that raises difficult moral and legal
questions, none of which has easy answers.
Kate Winslet in her Oscar winning performance as Hanna Schmitz
“The Reader” is a necessary read for anyone
who needs to learn that there are three sides to every story in our collective and
individual histories: the victim’s side, the oppressor’s side and the truth
that can never be fully known or understood. As Michael says “Whatever I had
done or not done, whatever [Hanna] had done or not done…it was the path my life
had taken…there are many different stories in addition to the one I have
are no guarantees that the story of the good and evil that mankind is capable
of will not be repeated: the victim may
become the oppressor, the oppressor the victim. As I write this review, the
Palestinians live in ghettos under Israeli rule. On Black Tuesday 22-11-11, in
South Africa, the black ANC government has voted in favour of an information
bill, which limits the democratic freedom of speech, while the good, ordinary
people (as in previous eras) were too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to
care about some law whose significance they didn’t fully comprehend.
So, who knows what those
who find it easier to condemn than to understand would do if a malicious Fate places
them in Hanna’s shoes? “What would you have done?” Hanna asks the judge
presiding over her war crimes trial. But she got no answer and nor did she
This simply written tale is
a melancholy and insightful book that will linger in my mind for a long time.
While it gives no easy solutions, it does provoke a deep and thoughtful analysis
of how the human spirit copes when confronted with deep and
horrifying truths about one’s individual and collective identity.