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Not gentle into that good night

Rage to survive.

I wasn’t sure what day it was any longer, nor did I care. Why should I? Every day was the same as the next. They all ran together like a never-ending throbbing headache, but no amount of aspirin would relieve the constant pain.

There was a time when I led a full, rich life. I mattered, at least to some people. I loved and was loved in return, I had a family, lots of friends, a home and all the typical luxuries to enjoy, including the usual responsibilities and obligations that seem to go hand in hand with all these blessings. But sadly, my good fortune is long gone now.

The problem is that my life changed, became mundane. Monotonous. My daily routine became a matter of instinctive survival - no more, no less. Eat, drink and sleep. Eating was as monotonous as any other physical function. Sleeping was either a welcome escape from reality, or a vivid nightmare filled with large doses of my hellish reality. There was no compromise.

Then there was thinking. One occupation I couldn’t escape, as there was no door out. Trapped inside an unrelenting world of two realities; heaven and hell. Notation to self: list heaven first, hell second. Bear with me and allow me to describe heaven first, saving hell for later. It seems appropriate, considering that this is the order of my life now.

Yet here I am, living in an unfamiliar apartment. I am staying with a relative stranger, an elderly woman who had pitied me and taken me in. I hadn’t even known her before. Now I am on my own - no friends, no relatives, no family, even colleagues I used to socialize with. They all walked away. Perhaps I should be thankful; at least an elderly stranger picked me up.

I was sitting at the window of my small bedroom, propped up with pillows, listening to the rasping noise of my radio in the confined space of my bedroom. It was quite strange after being in hospital for almost eight months.

I could hear the old lady, who I decided to call my grandmother, bustling around the kitchen, banging pots and clattering cutlery. I wondered what she was making. She was an amazing cook. It was too bad I could not eat much these days.

Outside I could see people walking their dogs. There were couples wrestling on the grass carpet, children playing. I wished I could be out there, walking, feeling strong and healthy. At times it was too much for me to try to accept the fact that this was I had become.

My gaze dropped to the photograph propped up against the window. It was one of my favourite photos of Billy, taken when he was two years old. My wife, Angela, and I had taken him out for the day, and he had been so excited to be with the two people he loved most in the world. We had been best friends. I remembered watching him running up ahead, stopping to stare out at the open field in the middle of the fort. He gave a shriek when he saw the cannon behind one of the walls, and I snatched up my camera to take a picture. Billy was my best subject, my son. He always knew when to give me the right shot.

A light scratch came at my door. "My son, do you want something to eat?"

I turned my head slowly to the side, trying to see my grandmother. The door was just out of my line of sight and I was too weak to move much.

"No thanks," I replied.

My guardian angel came into the room. She was tiny; like a doll, with a shock of white hair and a wrinkled face.

But apart from her outer appearance, I knew that her heart wasn’t wrinkled but soft and kind, and that it had the ability to heal the wounds to mine. Sometimes just being around her made me feel as though I was going to be all right.

She leaned over me and checked my air hose. "My boy, you need to eat something. The doctor said you have to eat so that you can be strong.”

I looked up at her. "I’m tired, Gogo."

She pressed her lips together. That's the only reaction I saw before she put her arms around me and gently hugged me against her.

"You’ll be fine… you’ll be just fine."

We didn't say anything for a moment, then she leaned over and kissed my forehead.

"My daughter is coming with her husband and their twin sons today," she added.

I nodded. "Gogo?"

She paused on her way out. "Yes dear, what wrong?"

"Are they going to be okay with the fact that I am staying with you?" I could feel my heart beating a little faster.

"Don’t worry my son, I have already told them. My daughter is an angel. Oh, I forgot to tell you, she’s a nurse. I’m sure she’ll be so happy to meet you. You’ll be in good hands." The old woman came back and kissed me again, then she left my room.

I could feel myself relaxing. I was not sure if it was the intravenous painkillers that were being fed into my bloodstream, or maybe it was because I was going to meet my grandma’s family.

It was still very hard for me to admit that my life depended on a stranger, but nevertheless it was a fact that could not be denied.

I blinked and stared outside, watching people walk by. I used to do that a lot when I was healthy. Billy and I used to walk around the neighborhood, picking up sticks or counting the cars driving past. We would sometimes take a ball to the park and play, or just run around and chase each other. He was a fun kid.

The doorbell tinged faintly, jerking me from the past, announcing the arrival of grandma’s family. I waited patiently for her to come and fetch me, which took longer than I had expected. When she finally came into my room, I could see that something wasn’t right. Grandma looked as though she'd been crying, but she smiled at while unlocking the wheels on my wheelchair.

"Are you all right, my son? They’re here. I don’t know if you want to see them?" she asked, leaning down to look me in the eyes.

I nodded, aware of how she battled to push my wheelchair. I suppose it would have been difficult even for someone of average height and weight. I am tall and well built, and even though I had lost quite a lot of weight in recent months, I was still heavy. The additional load of all the various pieces of equipment necessary to keep me alive, like the oxygen machine and heart monitor, made it even more of a struggle for her. But we eventually got going, and she steered me slowly into the kitchen.

Julia Chula, grandma’s daughter, and her husband Dave were sitting at the kitchen table, Julia sipping water while Dave busily flipped through a newspaper. He looked fit and healthy; even though he was in his forties his hair was still black, without any hint of grey - unlike me. I knew that I had aged.

Julia was beautiful, almost regal, not at all like the picture I had of her in my mind. She reminded me of Angela, my adorable wife. The memory was so painful that tears came into my eyes, and a pang of grief tore through my body.

They both looked up at me, but only Dave spoke.

“How are you doing, my man. I hope you’re getting better every day.” Not sure of what else to say he got up to shake my limp hand, then returned to his chair.

Julia’s mouth opened and closed, but no words came. She finally forced a smile.

"How are you?" Her voice was cool.

She came over and gave me a kiss on the forehead, then leaned back to look at me. I wondered what she saw. Probably a man who looked old, whose old self had died. My skin was pale and rough, my hair was turning grey and thinning. Not the kind of guy you’d want to hug and kiss.

"You look fine!" she remarked brightly, but I was aware of the falseness in her voice.

I suddenly realised that Julia was not at all happy about the fact that I was living with her mother. Maybe she already told her mother, which was probably why the old lady had been crying. But Julia was good at pretending: she was trying her best to act as though everything was fine, but her face contradicted her actions. Perhaps she didn’t want her husband to know how she really felt.

I had a sudden image of what my funeral would be like; it was already happening. I looked up at grandma with pleading in my eyes, my throat closed. She didn't need to hear my question. She said something about my being overtired and wheeled me back to my room.

She crouched down in front of me, staring into my face.

"I'm sorry, so sorry… but things will be fine very soon," she said brightly.

I tried to hug her but I felt so limp and weak, like a piece of cold spaghetti. She gave me a hug then went out and closed the door. I could hear the couple’s children screaming in the other room, and Julia raised voice, telling them to be quiet.

It made me to think of Billy, his sweet personality. I never had to yell at my son, nor did his mom. We never had to scold or punish him for anything. It wasn’t necessary, because he was such a good child. Always smiling, always cheerful. Even when he got sick, he never complained.

I reached out and picked up the picture of Billy, almost dropping it as I tried to lift it onto my lap. Running my fingers over the glass, around the smiling figure of my little boy, I remembered how frail he was that last week in the hospital. He had been seriously injured in the car accident, and had fought so bravely, but his injuries finally got the better of him. He was only five.
My wife and I had also been in the car, but Angela didn’t even make it as far as the hospital. That was my fault.

We were on our way home after a party. I didn’t think then that I’d had too much to drink. All I knew was that it was late, and I wanted to get home. If I had known how everything would turn out, I would never have broken the golden rule of not drinking and driving. But I hadn’t, and now it was too late for regret. And too late to mourn the fact that my life was also coming to an end.

My eyes were smarting with unshed tears, but I could not cry anymore. The time I had left wasn’t going to be spent on tears. It was the only time I had left to think about the next life, if there was any.

I was lost in thought when I heard Julia shouting at her mother, "I can't believe you are taking care of him after what he did!"

Her mother murmured something; I couldn't hear her words, but I heard Julia’s loud response. "I don't care, Mom. He's an alcoholic. He murdered his family!"

So that was it. I wondered why Julia still hated me. Her hatred made me hate myself even more. I listened for more angry words, wondering where Dave was.

Grandma was saying something I couldn’t hear, but again I clearly heard Julia’s angry reply.

"I don't care, Mom. He killed his wife and son, his own flesh and blood. I really can’t believe that you feel sorry for him. Do you know… I think you’re brave, if you’re not insane, for having a serial killer in one of your bedrooms? Even if I turned out to be one of the biggest angels in the heaven I wouldn’t let a monster stay in my home. Not even in my dog’s kennel, and certainly not even in a hospital ward as long as I’m working there!"

I could hear my grandmother now. "He doesn't have much time left, Julia. Why can't you try to have some pity or understanding for a change?"

A few seconds passed without any answer from Julia. The old lady came into my room and closed the door. “Are you okay?" she asked softly.

I looked out the window. "I suppose so. Are you?"

I didn't expect an answer: I could see the expression in her eyes. She left the room quietly and a few minutes later I hear the dinner preparations.

The noises seemed to be coming from far away; my ears felt odd. I had no intention of joining them at the table - I wasn’t hungry anyway. Instead, I watched what was going on outside. There weren’t many people around now; it was close to suppertime. I remembered all the meals Angela, Billy and I had shared. We'd eat at the coffee table, just the three of us cuddled up on the couch. It was very casual, but we loved it. How I missed that.

Grandmother came into my bedroom again and stood in front of me. "Do you want to eat with us?"

I shook my head. I felt dizzy. Tired. "I think I'm going to sleep; could you help me get into bed?"

After doing what had to be done, she tucked the blanket up under my arms. Just moving from one spot to another in bed was exhausting.

I could feel myself sinking, drifting towards sleep. A soft kiss on my head, and she was gone.

I closed my eyes but couldn’t shut out the scenes of the accident that started running through my head, like a video. I saw my son, Billy, bleeding from his wounds, I saw my Angela, lying on the side of the road, not moving. When they covered her with a sheet I knew that it was too late for her.
But it was too late to tell myself that if I hadn’t been drunk, then all this wouldn’t have happened.

The scene changed; it was my last night in the hospital. Doctor Simon told me I was going to be discharged the following day because my medical aid could not provide any more cover. He was holding a newspaper, and asked me whether our home had been insured. I wondered why he wanted to know.

After telling him that I wasn’t, he gave me the folded newspaper and left me alone. I almost collapsed when I saw the photograph of the house that had burned down.

It was mine. Or should I say, it had been ours. According to the article, the fire had been caused by a heater that had not been switched off.

I had nothing left: my family, car, medical aid, house and furniture; they had all vanished into thin air. What else did I have left? Only pain and thoughts I couldn’t escape from, no matter how hard I tried. That was when my life turned into a living hell, and I spent my time thinking endlessly about the events that had led me there.

There was nothing really left to do, or live for.

I was still alone in my bedroom when I suddenly felt a hand on my head. I looked up to see grandmother standing next to me, smiling that crooked little smile I loved so much. I was surprised because I had not heard her coming in.

“My dear son, it’s our time to go now,” I heard her say.

She had not told me that we were supposed to be going somewhere. I wanted to ask her where we were going, but I didn’t. I just stared at her. She helped me out of my bed, and I noticed that we were almost the same height.

“Don't be afraid. Your wife and your son are waiting for us.”

All my pain had gone. I could not believe that I was standing on my own. I turned around and saw Billy and Angela standing at the door. I was so shocked and trembled so much that I fell back onto the bed.

“I’m dreaming. No… this must be a dream. I know that you and Billy are dead.”

Angela walked towards me, smiling. “Don't be frightened, darling. It's time to go, that's all.”

I looked from her back to my son. They both seemed so… serene was the only word I could think of.

“Go where?”

“I’m taking you to our new home, and you’ll be staying with us.”

She stopped in front of me, her brown eyes wide and clear. She wrapped her arms around me. I felt warm and safe for the first time after a long time.

“I'm so sorry Angela. I won’t drink alcohol again. Please forgive me for everything.”

“You don't need to ask for forgiveness now. Just know you are loved,” she said, turning back to the door.

An old lady offered her hand to me. “Can we go now, son?”

I looked back at the window; I could no longer see the streets. The lights were so bright that I was blinded. I suddenly realized that I was dying, but at the same time I was scared.

I didn’t want to go. Even though all my pain had gone, I was not yet ready to go gentle into that good night.

Published: 2007-03-23
Author: Skeelo Khumalo

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