Readers gathered last night at Exclusive Books Cavendish for a live literary event: a discussion of Death and the After Parties by Joanne Hichens. I (Karina) had the great privilege of interviewing Joanne and the occasion gave us a wonderful opportunity to talk about the path our friendship has taken through first encounters at launches and festivals, reading of each other’s stories, grieving the sudden deaths of our husbands, drinking many bottles of pink bubbly and working on several literary projects together – Short.Sharp.Stories and the HAIR anthology among them – before most recently publishing this exquisite memoir at Karavan Press.
Our gratitude to Linda and the wonderful team of booksellers at EB Cavendish – your support for local authors is exemplary. Thank you also for making us all feel safe during these difficult times. And thank you to everyone who attended the event, especially readers who had loved the book and came to listen to Joanne talk about it. Last but not least, thank you to all readers who bought the book and had it signed – your support is what keeps us going.
At the start of 2021, I am surprised again by the freshness that a new year inspires. Struck by the arbitrariness of the ten … nine … eight … countdown of the second hand to one particular midnight, yet the naive hopefulness that insists on rising with the ensuing dawn.
Despite the tsunami second wave of Covid-19 that swept us in, our fearful concerns about vaccine procurement, and the violent storming of the US Congress by right-wing mobsters, one dressed bizarrely like a Davy Crocket Viking. Despite humanity’s collective horrors, and my internal echoes from this day a decade ago when my son became a paediatric brain tumour patient, there is a quickening.
Perhaps it is like Jonathan Livingston’s seagull trying to master flight, and catching an unexpected updraft.
Or Emily Dickinson’s ‘hope’, ‘the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the song without the words –’.
That liberating of the soul that I observed in my son, and those around him, when our physical surety is stripped away.
My internal little bird chirps at the sight of clear spaces in my diary, gaps which I despaired of ever conserving myself. This pandemic has pruned weeks and months that had become overgrown with obligations. Pared back a self-inflicted schedule that was like the tick-tock clock in the stomach of the crocodile that ominously pursued Captain Hook.
Yet my relief stands with a guilty conscience alongside the concurrent, living hell of healthcare workers, people struggling to breathe, or to support their families.
In his memoir A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser emerges from unimaginable personal tragedy to observe that he preferred the person he had become as a result of such loss. A paradoxical title that offended me, having felt the ugly underbelly of grief heave and repeat itself painfully in the wake of my son’s death. Until I read Sittser’s qualification that he would never in a million years have chosen this route to personal growth, would have chosen – if only one could – to remain his ignorant self with his mother, wife and daughter still alive.
‘Happy New Year’ we still messaged to others in 2021, although more soberly due to the alcohol prohibitions, the curfew, and the sobriety invoked by mounting Covid numbers and names.
My friend, a nursing sister, remembers the theory of pandemics from nursing college in the 80’s. To me it was an outdated word relegated to dusty, foxed hardcovers with blurry black and white photographs which never sell in charity bookshops.
This pandemic feels like humanity slithering down the longest snake, which I for one did not see coming on the snakes and ladders game of human history.
I punctuate my WhatsApp wishes (for now at least, before accepting, or not, the new T&C’s) with little illustrations. And suddenly remember P. B. Bear’s Birthday Party by Lee Davis. A charming children’s book from twenty years ago in which sentences were dotted with pictures – his striped pyjama top, a picnic basket, a slice of cake – instead of their corresponding words.
Who could possibly forget Ant and Bee thoughtfully organising a surprise birthday party for their friend Kind Dog, in which Angela Banner used the rebus form in the 50’s to teach her young son to read. The excitement of Ant and Bee’s invitations and preparations, the dog biscuit and pink frosting cake, Kind Dog in his new hat and kennel are happy images and feelings that have lived with me into my own middle age.
Into 2021, where we wrestle with social media privacy issues. Yet who remembers with me the old party line telephones and switchboard operators? Who watched ‘Nommer asseblief’ on SABC TV in the 70’s in which the switchboard operator doubled up as the small-town gossip?
My junior school prize-giving evenings featured, year upon year, our nicotine infused headmaster – in his mustard polo neck for the Hilton Village mist, reading from Ecclesiastes:
‘There is a time to reap, and a time to sow’, etc. That same thousands-of-years-old book that asks whether there is indeed anything new under the sun.
I find myself now, mid-late in my own story, truth be told, before a neglected sewing machine. Finding comfort in the crinkly rustle of unfolding and smoothing out pattern piece papers. The faint adrenalin rush that accompanies the no-turning-back-now snip of scissors through fabric. Those time honoured rituals of pinning and tacking. The hiss and spit of a steam iron and the singed smell of neatly pressed seams. The hum that is the vibration of the machine. And the soporific, train-like, tick tick, tick tick, tick tick of the needle as it falls and rises, falls and rises, falls and rises again.
The aptly titled Death and the After Parties is Joanne Hichens’s long-awaited memoir following four sudden horrifying deaths in her family. Blisteringly accurate, humorous and lyrical, the book follows her investigations into how we mourn, and how she nearly lost herself in that process. Hichens initially began a scholarly dissertation on grieving soon after her mother’s death, titled “Loss and the City”, which examined Cape Town’s tortured past and present – the losses of land and identity. Then her husband died, and her theory was proven in hard and personal practice.
The passing of seven years since his death has given Hichens a clarity of thought even in the ongoing chaos and fever of grief. The memoir is divided into five parts, a kind of guide to grieving.
“A cow mooed and a dog barked, their voices travelling the still air from a distant hilltop. And the white tail of an airplane left a stripe on the baby-boy blue of the highest sky above.
Then pale rays warmed my back on the deck of the hut, steamed the acrid smoke smell from last night’s fire from my jersey, as I wrote of our own family’s catastrophe. Our own golden, unforgettable little prince, whose bold laughter rang out, whose tears fell and sadness echoed, and whose bravery inspired. Wrote our own tale of a visitation from an extraordinary small person. Of his lessons in great love and its loss, in loyalty and our limitations – and of being irrevocably changed by him.”
Sue Brown’s son died of cancer a few days after his thirteenth birthday, leaving behind a Craig-shaped crater in the lives of those who knew and loved him. Sue chronicled this unfamiliar, tragic landscape of diagnosis and grief in The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. In Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, a collection of poignant vignettes written since the publication of her memoir, Sue addresses her son, still the magnetic centre of her family’s world, and tells the story of how they continued reshaping their bonds and finding hope and light beyond the loss of their beloved son and brother.
Publication date: Autumn 2020
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.