I walk through the front door of my grandparents’ house much like every other time I’ve visited lately, but this time it feels different. My grandmother is losing her memory and I’m losing her. I pass the old re-upholstered lounge decorated with my baby pictures and brassware, and walk directly to her room, where I’d usually find her pinning her hair or on the phone. This time, she’s lying in bed. Her house feels hollow. I look out of the window into the little garden my grandfather used to tend to, and the hydrangeas are wilted. It’s the end of winter and Durban’s salty wind mirrors my emotions: erratic.
When I was a child, we never used the front door. This was only ever reserved for visitors, and for cool breezes to fill the house on balmy early evenings. My grandfather would take his orange and black striped folding chairs on to the cream-tiled verandah and wait to watch the neighbourhood come alive. Teenagers used to play cricket on the street till the sun sighed its last few breaths for the day, and my cousin and I would coyly sit on the boundary wall to pick out who was the best looking boy. The boundary walls were shorter then. “It’s the guy bowling in the green shirt. Oh my word, he’s so cute. Oh my word, he’s looking here!” Then we’d quickly look away and stifle our giggles, glancing around to make sure none of the adults saw us being precocious.
The family entrance was always around the back of the house. You’d have to walk through a black, partially-rusted gate, adjacent to an enormous, overgrown curry leaf tree, up a small flight of stairs to a terracotta-coloured wooden door. Through that door was a direct path to the kitchen where my grandmother was inevitably cooking a curry, the smells of which would waft through the yard introducing itself much too far in advance. I often knew exactly what I was eating for lunch way before I even walked into the house, and my impatient tummy would rumble at the thought of it.
When I was older, I’d walk in and kiss her on the cheek, and then take my seat on a high green stool next to the stove. I’d proceed to tell her all the stories in my armour and she’d listen. My grandmother never betrayed one of my secrets. It was a little secret world we both shared.
A year ago, my 80-year-old grandmother starting using the front door because she got too old to walk to the entrance round the back like we used to do, especially since my grandfather has passed.
Now she can’t walk at all.
I’m relieved when my voice brightens her eyes from beneath the covers she lies in, but my heart sinks because she can’t speak. I smile because it is all I can muster. I’ve never seen her like this. But I’m not paying attention to her eyes. She’s trying to tell me something.
I’m too distracted by her rapid deterioration, and my mind flashes back to my childhood.
My grandmother was a woman who went about her business. A true lioness guarding her own. She possessed a resilience that seemed almost unnatural. Somehow, she always kept going. When my grandfather died, she held herself together and continued, and I always wondered how she did. She set aside emotions for practicality. Whenever I’d cry, she’d say “Come on now, don’t get worked up. Set that aside, we have to go on.” It makes me think that that’s what I must do. Maybe she was preparing me all along?
She operated on acts of service. I’d often wonder why she would not smother us in affection like other grandmothers, but when I think about it now, she was more concerned with “looking after”. It’s all she worried about. Was the food cooked? Was the house clean? Did we have clean clothes to wear? Could she make us a cup of tea?
In her house, not a thing could be out of place, and in life, no one could falter her thoughts on a matter. She was stubborn and proud to a fault, but even with her hardness, she had a softness for me. She and I could argue to the moon and back, with her shouting that I was just like my grandfather with my short temper, but in a few hours, we could come back together and resolve it.
Now I help her up in her bed so that she can sit comfortably, and then lie next to her quietly. Her four-foot frame feels smaller than usual. I start thinking about how this woman who would never sit down or stop talking is now silent and still. Is this an indication of the shadow we become? Will I, too, lose my autonomy? What will I leave behind? It’s impossible for me to imagine the feisty, resilient woman in her being gone. It’s impossible for me to imagine myself being this way either.
I so desperately want to believe that the Leo in her still prevails so I turn to look back into her eyes, before I feel myself falling asleep, and I see it. The fire. And that’s how I know she’s still in there.
By Mayuri Govender