The cow was late and Uncle Solly had to wait; some said he was still at the morgue and others said the hearse carrying him was somewhere on the side of the road. I kept on asking when he would arrive and was repeatedly corrected, “Stop asking when he’s coming like he’ll walk through that door, just ask when he will be brought.”
People framed the sides of the road up until the bend down our street. It was the cow that was first delivered and a gap of time was given to allow it to be tied to the apricot tree next to the storage shack. There was fear in its eyes as though it could sense that the end was near. The sight of the hearse crawling towards the gate gave me both relief and a sting of apprehension. He was here. I knew he was here but instead of the tall, bald and dark-skinned man with twinkling eyes, a coffin lay inside the hearse and inside was what I was not ready to accept.
I left my post and waited in the stuffy room where his wife, Ous Ouma was lying on the new mattress on the floor. The chief mourner who appeared to be leisurely resting more than mourning. We were oil and water.
“Is he here?” she asked. I pretended not to hear and walked past without looking at her. She was a pile of indescribable enormity, rolls of flesh sitting in a heap that left one with the inability to tell where the parts of her body started or where they ended.
“I said, is the corpse finally here?” she stressed the words.
“No, he decided to cancel on us,” I retorted. Uncle Solly would have been livid with this sort of behaviour but there was a spiralling hurricane of anger inside me when it came to his wife. There was something about her that said if one ever needed to sample hell all they needed to do was spend a few seconds with her. She was hell standing on two feet. That would later be proven right when she left the day after the funeral and never to be heard from again. I would later learn that she hadn’t been a legal wife but a mere girlfriend who had been hoping to get a ring out of my uncle, followed by money and the house.
She had no time to respond as the group of men carrying the coffin into the house, led by the priest, proceeded into the house singing a miserable dirge that drilled holes in my stomach. A curtain was placed in the corner of the room where the bier stood, I hadn’t noticed the funeral parlour employees walk into the house to set them up. Perhaps their swift and unnoticeable movements came with the repetition of the task.
Night’s blanket dressed the sky and drie-voet pots started boiling over the outside fire, tables were surrounded by women with towels and blankets tied around their waists and some with babies strapped on their backs. Prayer came and went. They prattled on about funerals, the hard life in the township and stories that circulated the corners of the streets. The loss was felt by different people in different ways and for different reasons.
“Eish, Bra Sols was always spoiling me with two beers whenever he came to the shebeen. Now I’m left with these stingy bastards who just want me as a mattress,” lamented the well-known township bicycle.
“Ja ne, that man was a good man. Straight. If only he had picked the right woman, shame,” said a woman with a baby sucking on her sagging breast, with a hint of how she could have made the perfect wife to my uncle.
The aroma of Royco and different kinds of spices filled the night air. There were people who enjoyed these night vigils. Most were genuinely there to pay last their respects to a friend and filled the emptiness left by the loss with an unremitting drive to work and make sure all logistics of the funeral were in top shape. The night died and before the stars could blink, morning was reborn.
The family tent was suffocating; a blend of smelly feet and foul body odour. The stench was unbearably intrusive to the nose. There were faces I had never seen before and only a few of my uncle’s side of the family, which was my mother’s side of the family. My mother had died two days after giving birth and my absent father had was as good as dead.
The skinny woman next to me whose name escaped me competed with the choir. She was off-key and had no singing voice at all.
“It is weeeeeeellllll, with my ssssooooooouuullll,” she croaked. I suspected that the farts I smelled came from her and thought how not so well it was her soul. There was the usual that took place – the mad person springing out of nowhere and wailing, the pastor going on and on for eternity and the young people who whispered among themselves forgetting where they were.
I felt guilty for not being able to weep and throw myself to the ground or wail my heart out like some people did. I wanted to suck in other people’s tears and let them fill my heart to the brim until they’d overflow and gush out of my eyes. There was nothing, my eyes were dry wells. After they left I briefly stood near the covered grave by myself and whispered, “Where are you?”
Just like that the funeral passed, Uncle Solly was buried and the next day brought another new day. This simplicity of life burdened me with sadness – no matter who died, the stars continued to shine, the sun shone and the earth continued to spin. It was a grey morning and the clouds were wet curtains with drips of rain. It was drizzling when I woke. I went out to the front and on the red stoep lay the heap of clothes that my aunt was sprinkling with water from a bucket. I asked what the water was for and she told me that it was just water with a piece of aloe plant to cleanse the clothes.
“You will also have to be cleansed in the same water and have your head shaved,” said one of Ouma’s relatives, a sister or something.
“Not if you paid me,” I said and walked back into the house.
Picking from his belongings meant I’d be collecting memories and it was all too quick for me. Memories were for things in the past and he was not in the past. I wanted my uncle back not his clothes, not things to remind me of him.
My aunt warned, “And listen, you must wear the clothes within three months or else bad luck will follow you.” I wanted to ask what could be worse than losing the only person whose existence had been the reason for my existence. She would’ve smacked the grief out of me.
“Where’s my uncle’s music?” I turned to Ous Ouma.
“I don’t know, the trunk must be around somewhere. There was a lot of work to be done and things were shifted around…” she stuttered.
“Where is my uncle’s music?”
My aunt spotted it being loaded and into a van and rescued it.
“I just wanted to remember him with that music,” said Ous Ouma.
“You can use the memories of when he swiped his bank card for you,” I said.
A choir of disapproving voices rained on me.
I spent the evening trying to negotiate with death and asking if perhaps there had been an error in admin. I wasn’t ready and I refused to accept that Uncle Solly had been ready. They all did their best with repeated words of consolation and tales of him being in a better place. What they didn’t get was that a better place was with me. What was a thirteen year old going to do with loss in her hands and her heart missing from her chest? I didn’t win in my negotiations and I had to accept that death had walked out with my uncle in tow. The things that adults told me didn’t make any sense to me.
“He went like a king.” How do kings go?
“He is in a better place.” Have you been?
Each day, cracks formed on the earth beneath my feet and a river of pain bled towards me. It gushed forward with determination and no intention to stop. It burned. The river. It burned me. I stayed there and waited for it to drown me but it didn’t. Instead, it licked me with its flames and I waited until the day I would become a pile of ashes but it didn’t get there. Broken. Hollow. Haemophilic wounds wouldn’t stop bleeding.
“Are you okay, nana?”
I lied and said I was fine and hanging in there. I was not ready to hang in there so I lied. I made excuses for my pain. They sympathized for a very short time and then they sought what’s normal. I felt that people could only bear so much of a sad face and catch so many tears until they grew tired and all of my grief soon became a burden. I had to be a child and quickly forget because children aren’t meant to understand these things.
I had to repeat after them, about places and the next world of peace. I had to say I had found tranquillity in the arms of deities. I had to tell them I had moved on. I had to tell them that I was only left with scars and that I would find joy in happy memories. I had to lie. I didn’t tell them that each night, after they left and the world left me alone I stared at the door hoping Uncle Solly would return.
“My day was good.” Lie.
“I’m just thankful for the time he was here on earth with me.” Lie.
“I celebrate the great moments we shared while he was still alive.” Another lie.
I refused to go play with my friends or go anywhere except school and church. I wanted to be at home. I wanted to be in the same space that he had dwelled, breathe in the same air that had filled his lungs until the day his lungs decided not to take in any of it anymore. I wanted to look for him and feel him so that I could accept his absence and learn how to be without him. I wanted to feel the vibrations of his beautiful heart on the ground he had danced on.
I wanted to sit on the chair that he used to sit on when we ate in the living room, hold the spoon on my left hand just as he had done even though I was right handed, and chew like him, taste the food he used to enjoy and wash them down with a glass of ice-cold water the way he used to. I wanted to look for my Uncle Solly in the natural spaces he had occupied for so many years. I wished I could see him in the eyes of the people who last saw him and think of him through the way they spoke about him and the way he had made them feel.
The tears that had been locked inside my ribcage refusing to leave and free me of misery dripped out the day I gathered the courage to open the trunk and play the records. We used to sit in his room for hours, with the only words coming out of our mouths being the lyrics. Tea would sit until it got cold and no one would interrupt.
I found my Uncle Solly in his records, in the music he had loved and in the depth of their lyrics and the peace in their rhythm. I was reviving his heartbeat through the melody of the songs, hearing his laughter in the songs and learning to find happiness in the happiness that I would remember to once feeling when I would sit in that same room and sing along to words I barely understood. He was right there in the music.
They never told me how or why he had died and I lost all interest in knowing. The knowledge would not bring his physical presence back to me. For a long time I thought I knew loneliness and the emptiness of not having parents but with losing Uncle Solly I felt its reality. I had to keep on playing his records to never feel alone.
I swayed my head side to side as I sang along, at the top of my voice, to Stevie Wonder as he delivered the poetic lyrics of Free. I hoped that before Uncle Solly passed away he had danced in his heart and that he had truly felt “freer than a smile in a baby’s sleeping eyes.”
They all came to my rescue in the worst of times; Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Louis Armstrong, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Anita Baker, Donna Summer, Marvin Gaye and all of the occupants of the trunk. I cried at most of them but I also laughed at some of the reminiscences they painted. I remembered how I would sing along to Barry with as deep of a voice a little girl could muster and say his lyrics without any understanding of their meaning, “Hey babe, your foreplay just blows my mind.” Uncle Solly would laugh and say that one day I would be too shy to sing the song around any adult.
I slept in the comforting embrace of the sounds of Ashford & Simpson, I grieved to the stabbing closeness of Soul to Soul by The Temptations. There was so much that the songs managed to say in a way that I failed to deliver. I wanted to speak what was in my heart but my infantile heart didn’t know how and all I could do was hear myself in the songs, all my thoughts spinning with the records.
I remembered how we would both attempt to pull the long note with Billy Withers when he sang Lovely Day and both fail dismally. We would laugh so hard, his roaring laughter overpowering my soft giggles. With each trying day, I hoped that it was true what they said about him being in heaven. If that was where he was I only prayed that God would look after him as my uncle had looked after me and love him as he had loved me, and that would be enough for me.