The sting of death during a plague

Woman wearing a face mask looking out window

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”

William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3

Several people I know have lost loved ones during the Age of Corona to both the virus and other causes. Our particular lockdown levels have strict limits on mourning though: funerals are limited to fifty persons, wakes and night vigils are prohibited even under Level 3. You can’t hug the bereaved or cross provincial borders unless you are close family. I have not attended funerals of a few people I might otherwise have gone to to pay my respects.

It is bad enough to face the sudden or even expected death of someone you have loved, but not to be able to celebrate their lives and be comforted is especially hard.

Two deaths of famous people this week brought home to me how difficult it must be to grieve in the middle of a pandemic, as well as how sad it is that the lives of two people who spent their whole lives dedicated to our country should not be commemorated with appropriate ceremony at their passing.

Both Zindziswa Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni have passed away this month and I am moved by the fact that both have lost out on the kind of farewell that would be fitting – because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote about them in this week’s school newsletter:

I have often wondered about the childhood Zindzi endured as her parents sacrificed so much for the freedom of the nation. Yet she proved her mettle time and time again, missing out on her schooling in the struggle, advocating for her mother to the United Nations (when she was just 12!) and boldly defying PW Botha on her father’s behalf.

Mr Mlangeni stood at Madiba’s side at the Rivonia trial and suffered with him on Robben Island for over twenty years. Our flags at school are flying at half-mast until Wednesday to honour his quiet strength and life of sacrifice for us all. But it doesn’t seem enough.

Our children can learn so much from his wisdom:

“One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though, was the jail of ignorance.”

Andrew Mlangeni, ‘The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story

What power there is in learning from the great people who gave up so much for freedom. To our learners I say, respect the education that comes so easily to you now. Those who made it possible studied sporadically, far from home and, in many cases, in prison.

How small these deaths (and their lives) make me feel about moaning about corona-stress; and how sad I am that neither of these two leaders who fought for us with such courage and wisdom can be publicly celebrated as they deserve because of the enemy-virus.

But I take from their lives the knowledge that a life relinquishing selfish goals and focused on the greater good will make a difference; will have an impact and will change the world.

“We need to live in a world that is ego-free and humble ourselves to talent, wisdom, and courage, when it reveals itself.”

Zindzi Mandela, activist, diplomat, poet, daughter, mother

Mourners have only the comfort that Cicero referred to when he said that the life of a person is implanted in the memory of those left behind, and the knowledge that their passing changes us and becomes part of us too.

There is hope in that.

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’

– William Shakespeare

Remember Y2K and all the fears that the world’s telecommunications and banking systems would come crashing down at the stroke of midnight? I can measure the passage of time and world events around which of my babies I was pregnant with or feeding at the time.

I watched the start of 2000 from Baby Shannon’s rocking chair in her beautiful nursery, in our home on a hill in Johannesburg, with a spectacular view across to the fireworks in Sandton City. Besides all the conspiracy theories and apocalypse predictions, it was an exciting time to be alive, with much anticipation about the dawn of a new era, even if there was much disagreement about whether 2000 was the end of the millennium or the beginning of the 21st century (it’s the former fyi).

I was nursing my newborn daughter when the night sky was illuminated by the magnificent display of pyrotechnics. It was as if the heavens were celebrating her birth, this tiny princess who was already a celebrity in the house with her delicate features and easy nature (well then, anyway.)

We had measured record rainfall that summer (the highest in over 20 year), so much so that Shannon was nicknamed ‘Mapula’ which means ‘rain’ in Setswana, but on that night the sky’s curtains opened on a perfect evening and the vison of those fireworks remains imprinted in my memory, like a happy portent that the 21st century would be better than the previous one. I was overwhelmed with the pleasure of my life.

Of course, I was relieved to have shed the swollen ankles that went with carrying a baby through a hot, muggy summer on the Reef. My misery was topped only by a mother at the older children’s school who was carrying twins. When we bumped (literally!) into each other at the year-end school concert, I was chastened at the sight of her, for feeling grumpy over my own discomfort: by then she had abandoned any attempt at haute couture and waddled into the auditorium in a tent dress and her husband’s bulky size 10 running shoes.

“I was full of self-pity in this heat, until I saw you,’ I whispered, ‘but now I just feel so sorry for you.’

She didn’t even bother to be poised about it and, beyond dignified denials, merely hissed, ‘Yes! You should be!’

My mother used to say that you can always find someone better off and someone worse off than yourself in this world, and on that evening, I realized the truth of it. And a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve 1999, I felt my life could not get any better.

I had no idea of course what the future would hold, and how my world would come crashing down around me just over a year later. Who could have foretold that I would lose it all: house on the hill, imported 4×4, husband, and even my birthplace.  

Perhaps it’s better we can never see into the future – we’d wouldn’t be able to face the harrowing days if we could see them coming and I think we wouldn’t appreciate the good times either, if we were living in dread of what was to come.

I didn’t lose what was most precious to me though. Even though, I was heading into a time of dark despair and incredible loss. I just didn’t know it. I also didn’t know that I would one day experience the unbounded joy of both another child and new love.

But in that moment, on the edge of the era, as the lights from outside flickered over my sleeping baby, I was content.

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on.

Hal Borland