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A Good Death by Gwynn Scheltema

Rock formations in Matobo National Park, Bulawayo. Image by toubibe from Pixabay 

My sister contacted me by text from Zimbabwe a few days ago to tell me that my mother’s step sister had died. My mind immediately defaulted to “From covid?” After all, Carole was in her eighties and I’m not in contact with her, so had no idea if she was in a retirement home or not, and well… retirement homes these days…awful to say, but the first thought is….

Turns out, she died peacefully and not alone. She’d been living for some years with her daughter in the USA and was not ill. I’m sad that she’s gone, but in these strange times, a least she had good death. A good death. Wow. Would I have thought that a year ago?

I’m so sorry

My mother lives in Zimbabwe too. She lives alone in our home town Bulawayo, a 6-hour trip from my sister in Harare—and, of course, the other side of the world from me.  Living alone in a decimated and violent country is her choice. Heaven knows we’ve offered more times than I can remember to have her come and live with either my sister or me – but that’s another story.

She has a smart phone, but intermittent internet and electricity only a few hours a day, so video calls—or phone calls of any kind— are not possible. A simple text message is the only contact method we have. Add to that my mother’s frustration with “using these new-fangled devices that don’t work half the time and erase my typing at a drop of a bloody hat”.

Nonetheless, I texted her to say how sorry I was about Carole. Such an inadequate medium. I was more concerned about my mother’s loss and sadness than the fact that Carole was gone. But there was no voice inflection to impart that. The words “I’m so sorry” seemed so empty. And “sending love and cyber hugs” so so inadequate.

Waiting for a reply

I waited for a reply. I imagined her in her house, the sun blanketing the garden in warmth outside her window. If she was checking messages, she’d be in her favourite chair, shabby now from years of use and being shared with a long succession of dogs. The tea tray would be on the table beside her, the silver leaf strainer still laid beside the milk jug even though she uses tea bags these days. Throughout the decline of Zimbabwe over the last forty years, she has insisted on maintaining the same rituals she’s always known, especially those involving tea. And I knew she’d insist on maintaining a “stiff upper lip” too when she read the news.

I wasn’t wrong. The reply came the next day: Thanks for your wishes. We had a special bond. I wrote an obituary and asked Steph (my sister) to post it on Facebook.

Silent heartbreak

I wanted to scream. Shout out as loud as I could that she might hear me across a whole ocean. “Yes, but how are you FEELING?”

Just as I imagined her getting the message, I imagined her reaction: “Oh,” she would have said out loud to no-one. “Oh dear. How sad.” And that would be an end to it. She’d reach for a tissue and wipe a tear away from the corner of her eye. She’d take a deep breath and stare out at the garden.

I have no way of knowing what she thought. Would she think on old times with Carole when they were kids? Would she think of the future? Would she think of Carole and her passing or think about anything but? I’ll never know. Even if I asked her, she wouldn’t say.

A good death

She is the last one of that generation now. She did was expected of her: wrote an obituary. And it makes me wonder if, when it’s her time to go, there will be any-one left who remembers her as a child or a young woman to write her an obituary.

And more than that—in this crazy world we live in now, I not only fear she might die a violent death, or an impoverished death because of where she chooses to live. Now I also wonder if she might have to die a lonely, horrific Covid death.

I cannot change what her future will be. All I can do is wish her a good death.

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