Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Honey Bee Died...

...on 1 January 2012

I, J. Hardspear de la Azotea wish to tell you the story of Honeybee.

I am nearly 39, but I remember… I remember very well… I was 5 years old.

Melissa was born on 3 March 1978.  Shortly after her birth my parents realized something was wrong.  They took her to the family GP who detected a heart murmur.  I was 5 and our middle sister Flower was two and a half.  

Soon Melissa became gravely ill.  In the small town of Heidelberg in the old Transvaal province there was a small but well run hospital with old fashioned doctors who still cared, did house calls and were gods.  None of them were specialists however.  Several hasty trips had to be made to Johannesburg.

My parents were advised to take Melissa to Cape Town to see world renowned heart specialist, Dr Chris Barnard.

As my parents threw clothes into suitcases my mother’s heart was torn into two as she phoned my grandparents in Standerton which was an hour’s drive away to come and pick up little Hardspear and Flower.  She also phoned a friend living one street away to come and watch us till my grandparents arrive.  My parents left even before Tannie Kokkie came running to our house minutes later.  My mother stared at the two little figures as the car pulled away.  I was 5 years old, but I still remember…  I remember VERY well.  I remember the look on my mother’s face.

A nightmare flight to Cape Town ensued.  Our GP accompanied my parents on the trip and he aged several years during the flight.  Soon after take-off life started ebbing out of Melissa’s tiny body.  The doctor invested in all his training, experience, compassion and whatever resources he had to keep her resuscitated.  All the while, he kept a dedicated open channel to God, for what else was there to draw upon.  Time stood still for a moment as the whole plane was gripped in a vice of terror and dread.  Passengers were traumatised, hostesses ran up and down the aisle.  My parents stood crying.  Melissa went in to cardiac failure.  The pilots decided to do an emergency landing in Kimberley.  The doctor managed to bring the little babe-in-arms around again.

Soon after landing in Kimberley, Melissa seemed more stable and the pilots took off for Cape Town again.  Before long she started going into cardiac arrest once more.  Again the doctor, I can’t remember his name, put his very being into the act of trying to revive Melissa.  Eventually he stood back.  “Dit is verby…” (It is over) he told my parents.  By that time everyone on the plane was sobbing, some silently some not. 

My mother shoved the doctor out of the way.  Never in her life did my mother have any first aid training, but what is greater than a mother’s love?  My mother started alternating pumping Melissa’s legs and doing mouth-to-mouth.  Without consulting each other, both my mother and my father silently screamed the primal prayer which raise from the souls of every parent whose child is about to die.  That prayer which has been prayed since time immemorial.  “God save my child and I shall dedicate my LIFE to You!”  The tiny infant Melissa gasped as her heart kicked in.

At D.F. Malan Airport, Cape Town International now, all the passengers remained seated as my mother and the doctor ran out of the plane and into the waiting St. Johns Ambulance.  The St. Johns medic defied all physical laws during a hair raising race car trip which took a mere 7 minutes from the airport to the Groote Schuur Hospital.  My mother gripped the doctor by the belt of his trousers to keep him from tumbling around in the near out of control ambulance as he dealt with oxygen masks, IVs and monitoring equipment ancient by today’s standards.  Both my mother and the doctor started laughing hysterically as they were tossed around in the flying vehicle.  My father followed in a taxi, which arrived much later.
Flower and I stayed with our maternal grandparents for 5 long weeks.  As much as we loved Ouma Rosie and Oupa Piet, 5 weeks are very long for a 5 year old and a 2 and a half year old.  Some nights I cried for my mother.  The strict routine of old people’s lives are a great comfort to children, I now realise.  During those 5 weeks we never had to worry about what was going to happen next.  My grandparents slept in the same room, but in separate beds.  Sturdy wooden beds on high legs which was made by Italian Prisoners of War who were sent to POW camps in South Africa during the Second World War.  Every morning I would jump into my grandmother’s bed with her and Flower into my grandfather’s bed with him.  Soon after Alinah, the maid, would open the back door and there was a rush of tiny paws on carpeted hardwood floors as Vlooi and Miekie the fat Chihuahua and scrawny miniature Doberman came running in.  Vlooi joined my grandmother and me in bed and Miekie jumped in with my grandfather and Flower.

Alinah would bring us all a cup of coffee in bed, first discussing the day ahead with my grandmother in Afrikaans and then would have a long conversation with my grandfather in Zulu.  My grandfather spoke Zulu as if it was his native tongue.

My grandfather would dress and go off to work.  He always brushed my cheek with the clean foam on his shaving brush whilst he shaved, slapped Old Spice on his cheeks then mine and flattened both his and my hair with Brylcreem.

For some reason unbeknownst, my grandmother had to go to OK Bazaars in town every single day.  In the afternoons we drove to any of my grandfather’s farms in the district (I only realised later that my grandparents were filthy stinking rich).  Sometimes we drove in his large Ford Granada and sometimes in the Fiat or Isuzu bakkie.  The brand spanking new beige Mercedes 250E was reserved for going to church on Sundays.  My grandfather seemed to have countless cars.  My favourite was the two door yellow Chev SS muscle car with two black stripes over the boot, roof and bonnet.  My grandmother drove a boxy baby blue Datsun S with a tape player.  The Springbok Radio tapes were as large as Betamax video tapes.  We listened to Kentucky Blues and Simple Yellow Ribbon and Women, Beautiful Women at top volume as my grandmother raced about town.  Both my grandparents drove very fast.

One morning we woke early and were carried half asleep into the Mercedes which was packed and ready to go.  We were on our way to Durban.  Five kilometres out of town my grandmother started worrying whether she’d switched off the stove and the iron.  Grumpily my grandfather turned around and raced back to their house at full speed.  As always the stove and iron were indeed switched off, but my grandmother now had peace and we set off again.

We stayed in the Malibu hotel and after each dinner, my grandmother would put cheese and biscuits into a serviette, which she then would slip surreptitiously into her handbag.  We would snack on that later in the room.  My pee burned me and I had to swallow a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda every day.  It made me gag.  We went to the beach every day, save for one day which was reserved for the fun park.  This I remember as if it was yesterday.  My grandmother exclaimed at some stage, “look at that cute little train!”  My grandfather bought tickets and we got onto the “cute little train”.  The little train turned out to be a roller coaster and it was the most exhilarating ride I have ever had.  Even up to this day.  My grandmother realised something was wrong when the Indian man operating the “cute little train” told her to hold tight onto me.  By the end of the ride my grandmother had lost all ability to move.  My grandfather, born out of hardy Boere stock during the Great Depression was not as strong as an ox, he was stronger.  He literally could wrestle a wayward bull to the ground.  My grandmother was a big auntie, but he effortlessly picked her straight out of the cart and set her down onto the platform on shaky legs.  We had to go back to the hotel where my grandmother took a tranquiliser.

I can fill a book on all the detail I remember of those five weeks.  I was 5 years old, yet I remember every single thing.

Fast Forward.

The venerable Dr. Chris Barnard and company told my parents that there is nothing to be done and that Melissa will be lucky to survive past early childhood.  She has a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot.  My parents learned of a Paediatric Heart Specialist team, Dr. (Prof)  Robin Kinsley and Dr. (Prof) Solly Levin in Johannesburg and returned home. Today Drs Kinsley and Levin is attached to the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Clinic in Africa at the Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg.

My dad came to pick us up in Standerton.  His wavy red hair had grown long since I have last seen him and my heart felt big and warm as I ran into his arms.

Dr. Kinsley (cardio-thoracic surgeon), dr Levin (paediatric cardiologist) and team did a ground-breaking, written up in textbooks and case studies operation and Melissa became one of the first persons ever with Tetralogy of Fallot surviving way past infancy.  

You were a child
Crawling on your knees toward it
Making momma so proud,
But your voice is too loud

Melissa spent the first year of her life in the newly built Johannesburg General Hospital.  It was large, it was modern, it was cutting edge.  What a shame to think of what Joburg Gen has become since.

Melissa was such a happy child.  Dreamy, imaginative and sometimes lost in a world of her own.  People took to her very easily.  As a teenager she rebelled at being called a miracle child, wanting to be like everyone else instead.  Melissa trained as a chef, but after her studies and practical placements she must have realised she cannot work in such a physical demanding environment.  After a few years she found her balance and became deeply religious.  Never pious and although loving God, by all accounts she seriously challenged him sometimes, yet never wavering in her belief.

We like to watch you laughing,
You pick the insects off plants
No time to think of consequences

I remember my childhood as happy, but different.  Melissa still had the tracheostomy (hole in her throat) for another year after returning home and we had suction machines like they have in hospitals for removing phlegm from her lungs.  One was in my parents’ bedroom and one was built in behind the back seat of my mother’s Volkswagen Beetle.  I was 5 turning 6 and when Melissa would start choking in a shop for example, I would grab the car keys from my mom, run to the car, put it in neutral and start it.  By the time I managed to get a few good revs in, my mother would arrive with Melissa and Flower.  She would dive into the back put a catheter on the suction machine and clean Melissa’s lungs, with me revving away much more than was strictly needed to make the suction machine work.

Control yourself
Take only what you need from it
A family of trees wanted
To be haunted

Melissa had to have massive heart operations again at the ages of six and seventeen.  She recovered miraculously every time.  And now, so much more recent, I cannot remember if she had another one between 17 years old and the last one when she was 30.  How strange that I remember so much better of what had happened so far back?  Recovery after the last operation was slow.  Melissa suffered pain, fatigue and arrhythmia.  Eventually, after two years she was ok again in a way, but I could see that her old vitality only surfaced sometimes.  After the last operation Dr. Kingsley avoided my parents and spoke only very briefly to them, avoiding all talk of prognosis and the future.  The poor man knew, I think, that time has started running out.

The water is warm
But it’s sending me shivers
A baby is born
Crying out for attention

Melissa spent her last three months as she did the first three, fighting for her life in an intensive care unit of a hospital, attached to monitors and with tubes running in and out of her and breathing through a hole in her throat.

The memories fade
Like looking through a fogged mirror
Decision to decisions are made
And not bought,
But I thought this wouldn’t hurt a lot.
I guess not

I am sad for Melissa who lived her life, not for herself, but for others.  She touched the lives of innumerable people.

I am grateful for the two nurses at Joburg Gen, who in long shifts relieving the other were with Melissa every single moment of the first year of her life.

I am angry at the callous, lazy, Kentucky Fried Chicken munching, heartless fucking bitches who were supposed to watch over her during the end, but slept through the night shift.  (All the SAffas will know which important descriptive pronouns I have left out in relation to the first and second sets of nurses.)

I am thankful to God for 34 years.

I feel guilty for not always giving Melissa the time of day

…….Even so… It is well with my soul.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.  
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul. 
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.  
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!  
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.  
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!  
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Three of the Gospels tell the story of the Temple Official whose daughter had died.  In different ways they recount how Jesus resurrected the girl.  I can tell the story further.  I can tell you that the miracle does not stop after the act.  Sometimes I am jealous of my parents’ faith, for boy, did they keep their promise…

Baai Noenoes ek mis jou baie. Met hierdie elegie laat ek jou gaan.  Jou boetie Gerrie J. Hardspear de la Azotea

MGMT  - Kids

It is well with my soul


Momcat said...

Im so sorry! Im shocked and so saddened by the news of the loss of your dear sister at such a young age. She will live on in your hearts. Thank you for memories of that time. And thank you for your tribute to her. Once again, Im so very very sorry for your loss.

Michelle said...

You have me crying here. My heart goes out to you and your family. You are a magnificent writer to paint such a picture for me. Blessings to you and to your family.

*Whimsy (Michelle)

Julia said...

Beautiful, BEAUTIFUL post and tribute to what sounds like a phenomenal woman. Much love to you and your family.

Angel said...

Wow Spear, what a beautiful post. My sincerest condolences on your family's loss.

Vanessa Bruwer said...


Hardspear said...

Thanks everyone. I must say... having written this post did a lot to help me feel better.

Momcat... I cannot comment on your blog. Something wrong?

Momcat said...

Spear, there shouldn't be a problem with commenting on my blog. Sorry about that.