When the old man was a boy

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The battle between land and sea has taken place since the time the world began. The clash of wave against rock has always fascinated me in a way I can’t explain. It has been like that since I was a little boy. Engulfed in the smell of fish and the cries of seagulls circling around me, I was spellbound by the big swell that gently rolled in from afar.

 

The battle between land and sea has taken place since the time the world began. The clash of wave against rock has always fascinated me in a way I can’t explain. It has been like that since I was a little boy. Engulfed in the smell of fish and the cries of seagulls circling around me, I was spellbound by the big swell that gently rolled in from afar. It rose up like a curved, transparent wall and crashed down against the old harbour wall of Hermanus, upon which I sat. I think I was about four years old and in my hands I held a small bamboo stick.

A length of cotton tied to its tip, dangled a sinker and small baited hook in the swirling whirlpool down below, where I saw the little fish darting back and forth below the surface. When the bite came I jerked, but like so often before that afternoon, I missed again. As I put my last piece of bait on the hook, tears of frustration welled up in my eyes and began to trickle down my cheeks. Then someone knelt behind me and cupped my small hands in his.

When the next bite came we did not miss. As we gathered the line, a wriggling silver “steentjie” came gaping to my little outstretched hand. I clutched my prize as my cries of joy and laughter echoed along the wall. The big man lifted me on his hip, picked up his rod and the two nice cob he caught and carried the little crippled boy over the wall to his car, while his soft brown eyes smiled down at me. He was my father. Throughout his life he carried me over the rough spots in the road of life. I was his second child, as my older brother died at birth. So it was natural that my parents were quite overprotective of their second born.

It must have been devastating that at age two I got polio and for the next year had to remain in a hospital almost 200km from home. Crippled thereafter for life, it was also understandable that more love would then be showered on me than what the average child would enjoy. How then was it possible that I could follow the norm of the average child and obey a rule that does not exist?

The rule of one-way love
There are so many rules and laws in life we must obey. Those in Exodus 20 are clear and etched in stone, the Government Gazette contains a multitude only lawyers pretend to understand, while many do exist but were never written down. Not one of us can say we’ve never broken them. But why then do most of us follow the rule of one-way love that does not exist at all? The behaviour of children young and old is so universal that one can hardly believe that this rule is not a law. Few children I know ever return the bounty of love their parents bestowed on them with equal measure.

As a rule they take it for granted and their return when it comes – when they’ve got nothing else to do – comes in diminished doses. Like prodigal sons we use what’s theirs and the most despicable of us just cannot wait until that day when we can lay claim on everything. The same old man that sacrificed what he once had, including so much time to take you hunting, fishing or whatever your interest was, is left in old age to his own devices as if he has no interests left. He, whose life was so full of interests which he always shared with you, must now waste away in the monotony and loneliness of an old-age home, where others care for him. As if, with the colour of his hair that has gone, his desire to feel alive and do the things he liked so much should have disappeared as well.

Your time, of which you have so much, is just too precious now to spend with him, who has so few days left. I should know because I am guilty of just that. Most of our lives my father and I lived so far apart that the two full days drive there and back was quite a valid excuse. To synchronise the number of my visits with his birthdays, a week or 10 days in the middle of June, was a great escape from the Highveld’s cold weather and often conveniently coincided with the sardine run up the coast. For 350 days thereafter, he’d sit in his old green chair and watch the clock against the wall, waiting for my return. Now the clock hangs on my wall and the old chair stands in my living room.

But the clock has stopped and the chair is empty now – except when I sit in it, waiting for my own sons to come. What I would give to be a little boy again and feel him stroke my head with those big hands that taught me how to hold a fishing rod. But it’s too late now. To many parents the final shock came when they were told that their children had decided to leave this land of their birth, that has turned so upside-down, and seek their fortune far across the sea. Recently it was my turn. Like the captain on a sinking ship, I’ll have to stay behind. The intact supporting circle of the family and the golden days spent with gun and rod in hand with my grandson Tiaan under this sun of Africa will soon be only memories and pictures. And somehow I know what you mow is what you sow.
If you ignore your parent’s need to have you close when they are old, like you needed them when you were young, the same fate may befall you – you may also, when your days are few, whither away in loneliness and empty remorse about what you should have done and did not do. Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].