Death of a Farmer – Part 2

On my way to see my dying grandfather.

Death of a Farmer – Part 2
- Advertisement -

Took the N2 in order to cross the M5 to the N1, going between Valkenberg psychiatric hospital and the eco village at Oude Molen. I sang song after song and then fell quiet for a hundred kilometres. On the other side of Montague, I picked up a hitchhiker. A woman. She wore a pink cap, and under that a green headscarf. We didn’t speak for a long while, and she spent the first minutes tying her jeans at each hip, where there were split Vs and string for tightening them.

I finally said something about a vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road just near a desert bar called Ronnie’s Sex Shop, and soon afterwards she started singing. She sang a four- or five-line chorus, explained that it was from a song by a rap artist, and sang it again. It was something by Snoop Doggy Dogg. I sang Alison Krauss’ “As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way…” and she quietly said, “Ek hou van Gospel.”

Together we sang The End of the Road by Boyz2Men, then Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. My new friend gave no indication that she could converse in English, though her pronunciation of English song lyrics was perfect. I sang Damien Jurado’s sad Ohio as we twisted, turned and descended towards Ladismith’s famous Otto Hager church. “Dis mooi,” she said, as I pulled up outside the taxi rank. “Dankie vir die liedjies.”

- Advertisement -

The Alan Blyth Cottage Hospital is perched above Ladismith, partly screened by eucalyptus trees. At the entrance several invalids were grouped around a bench under the corrugated eaves. Their wasted bodies put me in mind of the figures under the trees around the company station as reported by Conrad’s Marlow in the novella The Heart of Darkness: “dying slowly – it was very clear.”

From his bed in a small room that he has to himself, but which is nevertheless more like an alcove, open to the stuffy corridor, he smiled his palsied smile. An oxygen mask slipped off his nose and he manoeuvred it back by champing his lower jaw.

I played with the bronze doorknob, engraved with a spiralling line that seemed to hold the entire history of the place, like the logarithmic pattern on a shell.

“Your uncle wanted to pinch those doorknobs,” said my mother.

“Who’s this?” the old man barked suddenly, jerking his head upwards and to the right. “Is it someone’s knee?”

Because his mind is deprived of oxygen, the periphery of his vision has become a spirit world. What’s merely the dark corner of his pillow case becomes a knee. Tricks of the corneal limbus. What was it that Alexander Pope wrote about half-grasped things in his poem The Rape of the Lock? That they’re stored in the moon, the limbus of the moon?

Some thought it mounted to the Lunar sphere,
Since all things lost on earth are treasur’d there.
There Hero’s wits are kept in pond’rous vases,
And beau’s in snuff-boxes and tweezer-cases.
There broken vows and death-bed alms are found,
And lovers’ hearts with ends of riband bound,
The courtier’s promises, and sick man’s pray’rs,
The smiles of harlots, and the tears of heirs,
Cages for gnats, and chains to yoke a flea,
Dry’d butterflies, and tomes of casuistry.

Often it’s something or someone standing behind him that he sees. But it’s not only the corner of his eye which misleads him: he hears dogs barking every so often, and there’re no dogs up here. He attempted to explain this last night to his son and daughter, but because his speech has deteriorated after several ghastly attempts, he simply growled, “woof woof” in extreme frustration.

His hearing is bad too. He misapprehends the meaning of almost everything we say, and once we’ve cleared the matter up for him – almost always some inanity: the state of the lavender, the reappearance of a black cat in the yard – he shakes his head and clutches at the air in front of him with his big farmer hands to show his state (clutching at figments).

The palsied eyelid never closes, and when his head falls back in frustration his eye rolls wildly upwards.

We left, watched the sun go down from the stoep of the farmhouse and returned smelling of beer. He was worse, and shouted out in pain when I stroked his swollen toes. The black cat came and disturbed the yard cats later, and everyone started at the spooky caterwauling.

Prognostic words are heavier than lead: full-time oxygen, full-time care, etcetera. There’s also the heaviness of officialise about insurance forms. The fact that the old man’s medical insurer will only cover a certain number of hospital days has made Uncle T very cynical. Everything gets to him. Last week, just before the ambulance came, he severely put his back out while walking across the yard. In this condition he may or may not make his peace with his father.

The old man is exhausted, vague, becoming incoherent. A procession of doctors, physiotherapists and nurses has left him broken. We found him sleeping and it was possible to appraise his wasted body, the flaccid spread of skin around his elbows. I thought of a line from a Stephen Watson poem: “Not the skeleton fast wearing through your skin/nor the plates of bone gone blue beneath your face…”

But there’s no wearing, no frisson here. It’s more like his bone and muscle are somehow melting, dissolving, and there seems to be no poetry at all.

T directed me up the metal stairs on the exterior of the farmhouse to the loft. A cool, quiet place to read and sleep. Lying down, I could see right through the dark triangle of the roof to a square of light on the other side, and through that square of light, perhaps 12m away, the green orchards with their poor yield ripening fast. Behind it all were the vast walls of the Swartberg, the peaks out of view.

Before sleeping I had begun to read Arthur Goldstuck’s The Ghost That Closed Down the Town. On the first page is this poem from Arthur Markowitz’s With Uplifted Tongue: Stories, Myths and Fables of the South African Bushmen Told in Their Manner…

The day we die
The wind comes down
To take away
Our footprints

The wind makes dust
To cover up
The marks we left
While walking

For otherwise
The thing would seem
As if we were
Still living

Therefore the wind
Is he who comes
To blow away
Our footprints

A few pages on, writing about the destruction of the Bushmen people, Goldstuck mentions that “hidden beneath the centuries lies a second destruction that has gone unnoticed: their spiritual death. This was not merely the death of those who shared a common belief, but the death of the belief itself. And the one belief that could have lived on after they were gone, a belief in their own spirit lives, did not exist in the first place.”

I laid the book on my chest and tried to think about what this must be like: an entire people – everyone around you from birth until death – with no conception of an afterlife. Although I have, at various stages of life, thought of myself as an atheist or an agnostic, I couldn’t imagine it. Couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a community with no conception of an afterlife.

Something my mother said came back with astonishing force. We were walking behind the hospital, turning right towards the small waterworks and then onwards into the fynbos. “That person he sees standing behind his hospital bed,” she said, apropos of nothing. “Who’s to say there isn’t somebody there?”

Rest in peace, David Barry Bennet Dobson.

And I seem to have stolen a march on grief.