Thursday, June 30, 2011


Michael  Magongoe - Last week, June 2011

 For the last three months we have kept vigil over a friend, Michael, who I wrote about in the last blog.  It has been a mixture of hope, prayer, making soup, and visiting.  We’ve watched him and Cynthia, his wife, battle his beleaguered immune system and go in and out of hospital. 

Yesterday morning a tearful Cynthia called us  to tell us that “Michael had gone...”  I listened to the sentence with shock and disbelief.  I even said “You’re kidding!” which is not a thing to say, but I was sputtering in disbelief.  

At the time of the call, Mario was at the shops, but I made arrangements to pick her up at her employer’s house.  

Not long after I hung up, I got a call from Portia, one of my best friends, who also sounded as if she was crying.  She asked me how Michael was, but I knew she knew.  I asked her how she knew (for a moment I thought God told her) and she told me that she had received an sms from Monica, Cynthia’s best friend and fellow leader at Junction Church.  She started to cry, I suspected half from memory of losing Thembe, her own dear husband, an elder at Junction. 

I listened to her sobs, and her heart-felt grief at the idea that Cynthia had lost her husband and was now alone.  A few years ago Michael and Cynthia lost their only son, Michael Junior, after a friend of theirs hit him with his car.  It seemed, Portia cried, that grief would not leave this woman alone.   I listened closely, remembering that Cynthia had been with Portia the night Junior was pronounced dead. 

“Portia,” I said, slowly.  “Get it together and be there for Cynthia.  She needs you.  God has put you in this place to be with her through this time.  Why not see if you can get off work and we can come and collect you to take you to the hospital?”  Portia agreed, and sniffled through small sentences.  She wouldn’t be able to leave until 12:30, most likely (It was then almost noon); she would try to have someone else take her place; she would be there for Cynthia.  She knew what it was like. 

I hung up and called Mario.  He was on his way home, and when I told him the news he exhaled and said “Oh, no...” I could almost hear his heart deflate, but he said that he would be home as soon as possible.  I waited by the door with my purse, like a twelve year old.  Finally, through the vine covered hurricane fence, I saw his white Toyota come down the Valley Road and turn into the driveway. 

Getting to Cynthia was my biggest priority.  I was on edge until we saw her, red eyed, swollen faced from crying.  It wasn’t until then that I could think of what had just appened: Michael had actually died.  We hugged and cried...and Mario hugged both of us. 

Picking up Portia from the school where she works was next.   I ran to her gate and saw her, head to toe in coordinating black and grey, looking beautiful, as always.  As soon as she saw me, she started crying again.  We had to walk to the car that seemed miles away, because she wouldn’t stop crying.  I was nervous and kept thinking about the hospital, and I wanted to get there as soon as possible.   There we would meet Michael's mom and his sister.  We would have to take Cynthia to identify the body.  There would be a lot of tears. 

When Portia and Cynthia saw each other they began to cry loudly, and held on to each other like twins in a storm.  Cynthia began to speak freely about everything.  She had seen Michael the night before and he had asked her not to leave.  It made her feel guilty, now, for leaving.  Portia nodded, saying something like “They know when they are going...” and they both cried more.  

Two widows crying together in our back seat, both in their early thirties. 

The next stop was to pick up Dumisani in Cosmo City.  He had been sick all week and had not been able to visit Michael, his closest friend here.  Now he was walking and talking and looked like Dumi, but he was very distracted by his grief.  He greeted both of the girls and we set off for Kalifong Hospital, south east of Pretoria.  On the way, all three began crying loudly.  Dumi was very vocal and shielded his eyes.  It was all starting to soak in...we had lost Michael- a friend to all of us....a husband to Cynthia.

On the way it occurred to me that our western way of grieving was much different from the African way.  Our grief is meant to be contained...only permissible if we have lost someone very close to us.  Even then, we must remain strong, and though the tears will come, we are not to dwell on the grief of losing someone.  Here were our friends, wailing and crying openly in our car on the way to the hospital.  Grief was meant to come out of them like lava from the earth, forming new bleak land as it cooled.

In a way, I wished I could grieve this way.  There was something so freeing to get rid of all of the grief inside by purging it loudly and shamelessly on our way to the hospital.  I remembered every single time losing people close to I sat in shock way too long, only to be mugged by grief much later, usually in the most inconvenient times.  I wished I could cry the very day I heard.... I wished I could join in with them, crying and wailing and being unafraid of judgement.   Instead, I sat in shock... feeling the dull ache of loss.  Seeing that the church, his family, his wife had lost Michael’s influence permanently.  Knowing that he was in heaven was a comfort, but nothing changed the fact that he wasn’t here for Cynthia anymore.  She looked out the window most of the ride to Kalifong....

At the hospital we met Michael’s mother.  She looked precious and forlorn, her deep set eyes (like Michael’s) were searching Cynthia’s as she told her about the check in at the hospital.  Cynthia’s Zulu name (Smongile) was used from here in – and she guided her mother-in-law and sister-in-law to the ward where just yesterday Michael had been sleeping. 

When we walked in, the nurse told us that she would need Michael’s ID booklet (which we didn’t have) to process his paperwork.  Mario offered to run back to Diepsloot for it, but it was too late in the day, and the nurse suggested we come back tomorrow.  We agreed.  In the meantime, Cynthia and her family went to the bed (hospital curtain drawn all around it) where Michael had been.  Under wraps there lay Michael’s body. 
I saw Cynthia look around the wrapping at the top and I drew back.  I didn’t want to see the body without Michael in it.  I didn’t want to see Cynthia’s grief, either.  I went to the nurse’s station and asked if she was sure Mario couldn’t run back for Michael’s identification .  She could see right through me, and lifted up her head only to look deeply in my eyes and shake her head.  “No thank you, Mama,” she said, sweetly.  What she didn’t say was “Why don’t you go be with your friend behind the curtain, now.  Choose the better thing and be with your friend.”  She didn’t say it loud and clear.

I made my way back to Cynthia and her mother-in-law, who were all crying with Portia. They all seemed weakened by the viewing, but comforted in seeing that Michael was no longer there. 

I didn’t know how much tears were in people.  Cynthia and Portia cried a weeks worth of tears in the few hours we were together.  We all said goodbye at the hospital, unable to take everyone in one car.  Mario had ordered a private taxi to take the ladies back to Diepsloot, and we made arrangements to take them back the next morning to get the paperwork done. 
This morning I dressed in a long black dress and picked up the Michael’s mother and sister and took them to Kalifong without Cynthia, who could not get out of bed.  The rest of Michael’s family met us there, where they processed the paperwork and made arrangements with a funeral home in Michael’s home town of Polokwane.   The family seemed grateful that I was there, and encouraged more support for Cynthia, who would need me later, after Michael was buried. 

The drive back to Diepsloot was not as somber as yesterday.  Instead, there was talk of the family coming together in Polokwane and the memorial service at Junction.  The ladies seemed as if they were satisfied with the way things had gone today, and from what I could understand of their conversation (all in Sotho or Spedi) they were concerned for Smongile. 

In the African tradition, when someone is happy, there is a song.  When someone is grieving, there is a dirge.  Music is everywhere in the African home... and people sing if they’re happy, they sing when they’re sad.   Today and yesterday, a low dirge has been playing in my head.  When I finally got home today, I began to sing it out loud... and I recognized it as a song by Charlie Peacock – Now is the Time for Tears. 

The song tells us that we are not required to behave a certain way around people who are grieving.  We can just simply be there.  When people are grieving, their grief needs to be shared.  The grief that’s shared is cut in half, and eaten by those around them .  These are the events that make you family- these are the events that make you close. 

Now is the time for tears
Don't speak
Save your words
There's nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don't try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don't try to fix me friend
That's how you'll comfort me

Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears

©Charlie Peacock 1992