‘Death is no child’s play to the living’
These are the words of my dear mother on the death of the oldest man I ever knew from their neigbourhood. The man was hundred and one years old. Born in 1916 in the rural parts of the province. He never went to school but he could read, write and speak English and Afrikaans ‘like a true gentleman’, his words. Everyone who came to live here found him here. Blessed with a humble wife and one son who is almost same age as my dad.
It took over three days for his soul to totally leave his body.
‘Grandpa’, everyone called him that, even people who were older than him in his young age. I think among his very big family, he was the first to become a grandfather. I am told he was only thirty four years when he became a grandfather so it just happened that his brothers and sisters pulled his leg by calling him that. But this did not just end with his immediate family, everyone knew him with that title, so much so other people thought it was his name.
He was sick for a while, ‘Grandma’ his wife took care of him with the help of neighbors and her cousin. Grandpa was demanding in his death bed. In his youth he was a smoker, when old age and sickness took over, he seemed to have forgotten that he stopped smoking and would yell and shout at Grandma for a cigarette.
In his death bed he was a shouter and a complainer sometimes spewing insults like a drunkard, something he never was as long as we knew him. Grandma was overwhelmed by his new nature and resorted to prayer and silence. At night he would fall from his bed because he thought he could still walk.
The last three days of his life were a true testament to what my mother always said, that death is not a child’s play. Grandpa just did not want to die, he resisted death and when neighbors pronounced him dead after he took a long gasp that was exhaled heavily with no more inhalation, pulse or heartbeat until after an hour when he choked and breathed again. By then, as an old and respected member of the community and church, all his neighbors, church people, relatives and friends were by now filling up the yard as the house was filled to pay respect.
They came to do what church people call ‘farewell to his soul’, this happens before the undertakers remove his lifeless body to the mortuary. Instead of hymns and prayers, the pastor came out to say he was still alive. People did not know whether to celebrate, cry or be embarrassed for the family.
Strange thing death, it happens to so much young people so easily, yet to an old man it takes effort and struggle. People were advised to not leave because ‘it might be a fluke’, meaning his breathing might be a miracle that might pass. People waited and it looked wrong that they were waiting for someone to die again. It was an uncomfortable situation that took three days.
When night came most people but family was left behind. They were praying for him to ‘see the road’. Our people believe that there is a road that when one passes, they go through. Sometimes due to the things the people who are living cannot explain, the dying person cannot see the road or what other people believe is the light. Prayers and singing and sometimes talking to those who have crossed over (ancestors) to show him how to get there is done consistently until something happens.
I asked why so many endeavors when one can be left to live. The answer was that when the time has come it has come and there are signs that show that, pain and groaning or snoring in a peculiar manner being part of it. My mother told me that Grandpa was no longer of our world, his name has been called. We the living must help him to cross over.
It is sad when you still love your loved one to see people doing what seems like ‘killing’ him. When they ask God to do His will, that is a direct request that God must take him over. When he is lying on the bed having difficulty breathing and rolling his eyes in pain or discomfort people start singing sad praises to the ancestors to show him the way. Mothers crying because of the pain caused by the sadness to see life so well lived, so loved and so precious finding it difficult to graduate to the next step.
The wailing of the mothers, praying of church people and praise singing by the extended family happened for three days. The extended family left on the third day and Grandma was left with her husband and their great grand children. By now grandpa’s one foot was halfway leaving earth and the other, only God knew where. People got tired and emotionally drained. It was just an unending torture to them.
Until on the fourth day at night. I was at my parent’s when the lights of the whole town went off. As we were busy looking for candles, rain fell hard after such drought that we had experienced. It was hardly five minutes after that when we heard a knock. Grandma’s great grandchild that they were staying with came to report that Grandpa passed away.
It took three days of prayer to the living God and the persuasion of the ancestors, the songs and the mothers wailing for him to pass away. It was when everyone had left that he felt comfortable to let go, in the process taking with him our lights and left us with a welcomed flood of rain.
As my mother would say, death is just not easy not to the living and I would add, especially not to the dying.
I have seen things and I have heard stories, this one is not a story nor a thing. It is a life of a Centurion who lived his life so well here on earth so much so dying was not an option for him.
How we cling to the familiar even when it kills us, instead of letting go and let God. Beyond what we are comfortable with, God has a greater plan for us, plan to heal, bless, prosper us but the journey goes through some tunnels and unfamiliar roads. It is good to have friends, family current or past and neighbors that will help you through life’s journey. Grandpa had plenty and they did the best they knew how in his hour of need. They helped him cross over. If a hundred and one year old man can need help about life, why do you think you don’t? Everybody needs the power of the love from people who love him to open the road.
Life is a journey and pain, struggle, joy and death are just part of that journey.
Rest in Grandpa, as we say ‘those who have met, will meet again
By Namhla Mbunge