Thursday, June 22, 2017

When my Safety Net Broke

My grandfather, Douglas Lang
I had the most wonderful grandfather.   I remember going for walks with him up into the forest with my little hand in his big one and I felt so special and so loved.   He called me “Little One”.   We used to always go to the quarry and continue to build a wall with stones.   We called it our building society.   It was our secret.  Each time we went, we would build it a little higher.   It really was quite a small wall, but at the time, I thought it was great.

My first really painful moment in my life came when he died.   It is not that he died but how I was exposed to it.   I knew that he was sick with TB - that was a secret.  We were living in Engcobo and moved in caravans to Umtata so we could be near him in the hospital.   I had one of those folding top bunks in the caravan.  There were three caravans, one for my parents, one for my grandmother and one for the children.  

One afternoon, my father came in and told all of us that Pa (that is what we called our grandfather) was sick and would we like to go and visit him.  Of course I was in the car before anyone else.   When we got to the hospital we walked along an outside verandah that was polished red.  We entered a private side ward, although at the time I did not know that it was private, and there was Pa.  But it was not him.  He had tubes coming out of him all over the place and he did not even say hello to me.   So I left and went to swing around the verandah poles, my thoughts on other things.   Pa was not in the hospital.

That evening, my father told us again that Pa was very sick and that he was going to die.   Being brought up as a Catholic and knowing that St Bernadette of Lourdes cured people who went there I went and asked my father to please take Pa to Lourdes then he would not die.  He said no.   I begged and pleaded but he just said no.  He did not explain why.  I remember lying on my bunk bed, pulling the curtains aside and staring at the stars and thinking that my father did not love Pa enough to take him to Lourdes and I begged God to find a way for me to take him or for Him to make Pa better.

I never was told that Pa had died.   I was told to dress in my little white shirt and blue pleated skirt, with long white socks and black shoes with a tie across and we went to church.   I remember standing in a front pew with my grandmother on my right hand side in the church and a long box with white flowers on it was in front of the alter.  “What is in that box?”, I whispered to my grandmother.   “That’s Pa in there”, she said.   “But he can’t breathe”. “Shh, be quiet”, she said.   “But ….”.  “Shhh”.   I held my  breath.   If I held my breath then Pa would also be able to hold his breath.    I held my breath until I couldn’t any more.   I took a deep breath and did it again and again until I almost fainted.   My grandmother was singing on top of her voice, using some soprano voice and embarrassing me at the same time.   My mother and father and other children were sitting on the other side of the pews.

Before long, the box was carried out by my father, uncle and some men and put into a long black car and then we were at the cemetery.   The men were lowering Pa in the box into the ground and I started screaming and running and jumped into the hole to try and get Pa out but some strong arms lifted me out and I was sent with some woman I did not know, who had two children, to her house.   I remember sitting at her kitchen table and she gave me some cooldrink and I watched her children playing on the kitchen floor.  I was very confused.    It seemed like hours before I was taken home.   When I got back to the caravan, my parents told me that I would now be living with my grandmother because she could not live alone.

I slept with her in her caravan every night for three months,  to keep her company, and spent all weekend with her and during the week, I was going to school with the other children.   We build a real house, my parents, laborers and we children.   I was 11 and from this point on my memory of things are quite clear.   Without Pa, I had no safe place to be.  And with him gone, the vicious sadomasochism was released upon the family in full force. 
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