I’m anxious about what Auntie is about to tell me. The story of how she ended up living on the street, she had said. I’m anxious not just about the story but also because of the fact that I’m already late for my own farewell dinner. A farewell that I’m dreading because, at the end of February, I’m leaving Cape Town for good. For that reason I will be seeing many at the dinner for the last time.
It’s a cool Monday evening that finds myself and Auntie sitting behind the big Universal Church building. My eyes keep glancing at the thick scars on her chest, thanks to her over sized vest, from mastectomy. A gaunt, weary old yellow bone with gums for a smile.
“I am here because of my father”, she begins. Elderly folk have a way of telling stories. They seem to, in that moment, be living the story more than telling it. “My father treated us like animals. MY own father. This one day, I was 12 years old, I came home from school and he had locked all the food cupboards. I asked my mother what we were going to eat. She just told me to go to sleep”. Tears start shining in her eyes. The irony is that the reason Auntie had been missing for months was because she had gone to take care of her dying father. She keeps repeating the words, “my own FATHER, my OWN father”, with emphasis on different words. Some how giving the words different meaning every time. She stops talking about her father. The pain is literally choking her voice. “I will not cry…”
“I will not cry. One day I was washing my grandmothers laundry. My grandmother calls me and says ‘Grapes!!’. They called me Grapes. “Come make me some tea!”. But I ask her, ‘why me? I’m already doing the washing’. But she doesn’t want to listen. She has 3 grandchildren. Why me? You see my friend, I had polio. At that time I wore leg braces that came up to my waist. I was also the youngest. Why did she pick on ME? I leave the washing and hobble to the kitchen… I will not cry”, she says as the words strangle her throat and strands of tears flow down her wrinkled face. My phone starts vibrating. I’m an hour late.
“While I’m making the tea, my sister comes to me and says ‘your gran is calling you, she soiled herself again and she wants you to come clean up’. WHY ME?” She asks, as she starts to cry. “I say ok, I leave the tea and go to my grandmothers bedroom. The room smells. It smells so, so bad. But she’s not done with her business. So, I have to wait, and watch. The smell is making me nauseas”. She starts convusling like she’s literally about to vomit. “I wait. Then first, I clean her. Wipe her clean. She’s heavy, but I have to do it. Then, I take the bed linen and I have to go wash it. It’s dirty. Very dirty”. Her voice finally gives in and she breaks down. Tears, mucus and drips of saliva leaving her mouth. I don’t have tissue. I give her my jersey. My emotions have frozen. I’m not sure what to say, feel or do. Personally, crying makes me very uncomfortable. “I was just a child” she weeps, grabbing me by my shirt and burying her face on my shoulder. An elderly woman cries for the child she never got to be.