Jackson Biko weighs in on death and discovers how relationships can sometimes be defined through grief
The phone rang while I was in bed. It was on a Sunday. “Mom has left us,” my younger brother mumbled. His voice sounded strange, as if it was being refracted from under a swimming pool. The news was long coming. Her heart was rubbish, torn by pulmonary tuberculosis, a terminal condition. The disease had steadily eaten her body away for six years. The cocktail of drugs had aged and worn her spirit. Drugs like Viagra. The veins on her neck popped and twirled around like tendrils. And she was tired of it all. Her resolve had succumbed. But still, the death of your mother, no matter how expected, knocks the wind out of your sails. Shakes you out of your pants.
After my brother hung up, I sat up in bed for a long time. My head went blank. Heard no sound. Felt nothing. Then it started sinking in, very slowly, very deliberately. But even then, it was quite surreal. An out-of-the-body experience. My phone started ringing. I ignored every call. Two days later, I cried.
Throughout the ordeal, right up to the moment Mom was laid to rest, I cried every so often, but always in private. Only once did I cry before the Missus and mourners but never before my daughter. I imagined that seeing her father cry would destabilise her. I’m sure Dr Phil would disagree, I remember thinking bitterly.
My grief reminded me of my father. Growing up, I never saw my father cry. Never thought he was capable of wearing any sort of emotion on his sleeve. He was always so stoic, so together, so unmoved by anything. I suspected a rock lived inside him. And I found that totally sexy, the way a dog finds a wolf sexy.
His inability to show grief or sadness cast him as this super hero-figure in my eyes, this Spartan guy who spat in the face of emotive adversity. Naturally this is the script I read from as a young man, and it’s what shaped my life. Men don’t cry. Then his father (my grandfather) died and I saw him cry for the first time. He was in his fifties.
He wept soundlessly when he heard the news. The veil of strength and control slipped off as my old man wept. And when Gramps’ body was being lowered in his grave, he wept before a mass of mourners. You can’t imagine how relieved I was! Like I had finally been freed from this stifling veneer of emotional conformity. The largest looming irony in all this was that although he had lost his own father, I had finally found my father. He became a mortal in my eyes. A man. That’s what death of close ones sometimes does to people: it humanises them.