When I was a child, we played a party game called “Musical Statues”. The rules were that, while the music played, everyone had to be in constant dancing motion until a parent pushed ‘stop’ on the cassette player (this was a long time ago, way back in the seventies). Then each child had to ‘freeze’. Any anticipatory slowing down during the crazy dance would be called out as ‘cheating’ by one’s fellow party competitors, and any wobbling after the sudden stop in the music meant elimination.
There would of course be the accompanying protests of ‘I didn’t move’ and ‘Unfair!’, followed by a sulk, of varying lengths, by the sidelined child – until they sufficiently recovered to lustily join the shrill ranks of those now eager to play judge. To spot an infinitesimal wiggle, even a smile, in one of the earnest, deadpan statues remaining counted too.
And so it went on until the last child standing was announced the winner, and triumphantly received their prize of a cream soda or strawberry fizzer, or a Chomp bar.
I grew up. But continued to behave as if still a contender in that game. Joined the continuous motion of a society ever more frenetic and frenzied. Slowed down only (and with a guilty relief) when one of my children was sick. And then only for the briefest time before returning my children – with myself hot on their heels – into the exhausting, unrelenting Southern suburbs schooling competition.
I sat out, watched a little longer from the sidelines when my son was life-threateningly ill. Gained a little perspective, a little wisdom, because I could manage nothing more.
Then, after he died, I somehow jumped back onto a new, garishly painted horse on a new merry-go-round. Breathlessly leaping, tomboy/cowboy-style, between horses on adjacent, rotating merry-go-rounds. Took pride in my agility to boot.
Yet lamented again my personal inability to slow down.
To reflect, ponder, to press my own pause button.
To think before reacting, before speaking.
To knit up all the wool in my stash at home rather than dash to the wool shop for the insatiable high of always starting something new.
To potter in my neglected garden, in which the stick of an Almond Tree has steadily got on with its business of growing where it was planted at the behest of our daughter, in memory of her brother.
To plant slips in anticipation of Easter time rain, and to laugh at my kitten, who follows me, thinking that the little trickle of water in the dusty bed can only be a wee, so she helps by covering it over with sand in my wake. To enjoy the dappled light on the stoep, beside the fuchsia tree that the sunbirds love so much – one of our reasons for buying this house when our son died. Before we began the big rush around again, and forgot.
I picture Pooh Bear patiently watching the changing of the seasons in our garden these past eight years, wondering when we might spot him sitting there under the Almond Tree.
I imagine him pondering – in a kindly manner, since that is his way – why it is that I blindly rush about like his friend Rabbit. Under the illusion that my busyness, my exhaustion, produce or prove something of worth to someone?
I had felt strangely becalmed on the ocean of a busy world during my son’s illness.
Could for that brief time prioritise the important over the urgent, recognise the tiny wonders that interspersed the horrors of the dying of a child. His wisdom and courage, and the wonderful compassion and togetherness of which humankind is capable.
Knew then on a cellular, mother level the sense of a great, universal story being revealed, regardless of my own fumblings, missteps and mistakes.
This 2020 global pandemic that has brought humanity to a collective halt, and to its knees, has driven home again the reality of the sanctity and frailty of a life. And my awe of the mysteries beyond my comprehension, or control.
I am left with a childlike desire to sit very still in Autumn’s sunlight beneath our Almond Tree soon to lose its leaves, with a kitten pouncing dramatically on insects that move in the brittle grass. To register the nip in the air. To hear variations on the theme in the songs of the birds.
To listen to what happens next in this story in which we live. And believe that this tree will breathe out, into a new dawn, a cloud of palest almond blossom come Spring.
On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends. The book will be published the moment it becomes possible.