Breathless

The piece above is a portrait of my mother when she was a 4 or 5 year old kid. I recently found the photograph and decided that I needed to create an artwork around it. I was challenged by my friend and art teacher, Angie, to create a mixed media piece – so I used pencil, acrylic paint and embroidery cotton to create the portrait of my mom. The embroidery cotton is symbolic of my mother since she would always be sewing something; whether it was my matric dance dress, curtains or dolls clothes.

The story below is my account of the night my mother passed away of a heart attack at the age of 45, I was 21 at the time. It took me a few years to write it because the pain and grief were just too fresh to deal with. Anyway, I’m sharing it with you all.

***

Breathless

August 22nd 2001, I remember that night as if it were yesterday. A familiar lump forms in my throat. My eyes tear up, my gut feels empty and a dull pain forms where my heart is.

I was 21 years old and didn’t have a driver’s license, or a car for that matter; hence having to rely on the ever-so sporadic bus transport system. God how I hated taking the bus! I’d finished my day job, took the first bus into town to wait for the second one to take me to the restaurant. Thursday nights were my regular shift.

It was getting late, the sun was going down and the wintry night air made its presence known. Downtown Johannesburg isn’t the greatest of places to be during the day, let alone at night. It was cold. So cold, that when the wind blew on the back of my neck it forced me to scrunch down into my jacket. Goosebumps riddled my skin and there was still no sign of the bus.

I panicked about being late for work. I called to tell them the situation, to let them know that I wouldn’t be able to make my shift. Eventually the bus arrived. I decided to go to my mom’s place. My sister, Nicci, and I had recently moved out to a townhouse just down the road from her. Mom dished me up a plate to eat. While I ate my mom filled me in on the day’s events in between her coughing, smoking and tea drinking. My siblings Dean and Lara, 13 and 11 years old respectively chimed in with their news too. My step-dad was away on business in Hong Kong at the time.

Mom dropped me off at home around 8:30pm and offered to take me to work the next morning. I remember saying I love you, see you tomorrow at 7 am.” She drove off in that white Fiat Uno, waving at me. I was home alone. Nicci was playing volley ball with her boyfriend and some friends; she would be home a little later.

I was almost sound asleep when buzzer rang. I thought it was strange for someone to be ringing at this time of the evening. Perhaps Nicci had arrived home early and forgotten her keys? I picked up the intercom phone; Dean’s voice came bellowing desperately through to me… “Sim, come quick!!! Something’s wrong with mom!!!”

Adrenalin pumped through me. Mind and heart racing I found an old track suit and some shoes. I threw them on as I fumbled with the keys trying to open the security gate. Renette, my mom’s neighbour from across the road had driven the kids to my place to fetch me.

Arriving at my mom’s house I raced inside, down the passage to her bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed.

Her face ashen.

Clutching her chest.

Battling to breath.

Shaking her head in a desperate gesture to say she couldn’t speak.

I can’t remember who called the paramedics. I can’t place much of anything that happened in the next few moments. I do recall them working on my mom.

One of the paramedics turned to me and said, “Get the kids out of the room!”

I forced myself to put on a brave face while leading the kids into the living room.

“Everything will be fine. Mom will be fine” I told them.

“Dear God, please let her be fine. Let her be okay. Please. Please. Please?”

The paramedic walked into the living room, told us how sorry he was but that my mother had passed away. He rambled on about the technicalities.

I heard him but wasn’t listening.

I wanted to scream but couldn’t.

The words “Your Mother’s dead” punched me in the gut.

I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping for air.

I made my way down the passage to her bedroom. Mom lay on the floor, a ghostly grey colour on her face. Lifeless. That wasn’t my Mother. My Mother was full of energy and life.

I stood there. Numb. Staring at what was left of her.

I knelt down. Kissed her forehead and felt the last of the warmth drain from her grey skin.

I gasped for more air.

What was I to do now? I’m the eldest; I needed to be strong for my siblings. Oh, God. Nicci! Nicci didn’t know! How do I tell Nicci?

I called her phone. Clive, a friend, answered. Apparently she was still on the volley ball court. I screamed at him to get her home immediately. I could hear he wasn’t very impressed with me yelling at him. I didn’t want to say anything on the phone. I just needed her to get home.

Whilst waiting for Nicci, I called the necessary people to let them know what had happened to mom. Aunty Shirley was the first person I called. I’d woken her; she was confused and thought I was my cousin and that my mom’s sister had died instead. Once she registered what I was saying she gathered up that side of the family and drove to the house.

I called my dad and step-mom next. Dad also made his way to us.

I finished calling everyone I thought I needed to know. The ambulance was still outside; they’d just loaded my Mom’s body into it as Nicci arrived. I don’t know who told her but she totally freaked out. She screamed and ran away from the house down the street. She collapsed before she could get further than twenty meters from us. Someone, her boyfriend, I think, ran after her.

Renette invited us to have tea at her house while we waited for everybody to arrive. Funny how some people think that in times like these a cup of tea will fix everything. I can’t remember drinking any.

I sat there.

Thinking of nothing.

 Thinking of everything.

My right leg was shaking.

People arrived. Hugs, tears and “I’m so sorrys” were passed around among us.

I hadn’t cried yet. I was still gasping for air.

I sat down again. Still numb. I stared into space.

Thinking.

 Not thinking.

Gareth, my second cousin, told me it was ok to cry. He said all the usual mumbo-jumbo you think you should say to somebody who’s just lost someone close to them. He told me to let out the emotion I was feeling…

I didn’t know what I was feeling. I just wanted the night to end and morning to come so that I could wake up from this nightmare. What should I be feeling? Grief? Shock? Anger? I didn’t know what to do.

So I sat. My right leg shaking. I continued to stare into space. While everyone else made pathetic small talk amongst themselves because they didn’t know what to say or do either.

My dad arrived later than the others because he lives about half an hour away. He gave Nicci and I a pat on the back and R60.00 worth of airtime for our phones.

I wanted to call my mom, but couldn’t.

I still couldn’t breathe.

I don’t know who took us home. I got into bed. Eventually I cried myself to sleep.

 ***

That was almost 15 years ago, with each passing year it becomes a little easier to handle the painful, gut wrenching feeling.

There are still days when I’m left breathless.

 

 

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