The Year of Universal Grief

‘I regret having been so impatient with Gran, and I wish I’d treated my elderly aunt better.’ My mum stares out at the ocean, the never-ending waves rolling onto the shore. ‘And I regret not having been nicer to Jo-Jo.’

This last regret, so unexpected, makes me splutter-laugh. Jo-Jo was our little white Maltese poodle when I was a child. At fourteen, she became blind, deaf, incontinent. So my mum made her a cosy bed on the patio, and she was relegated outside. Thirty years later, my mum still carries the guilt. 

Sweet Nala

Nala, our Aussie shepherd dog, is also fourteen years old. She has known Joel for six months longer than I have. She was there on our first date. She has been blind for the past four years. And lately, she has become deaf. Increasingly incontinent. And obsessed with food. She’d sell her soul for a snack. (She’s kind of like a mirror to menopausal me.) Her back legs have stiffened and she walks with difficulty. She often becomes disoriented. On a few hot afternoons this summer, we’ve had to fetch her from the bottom of the driveway where she is pacing in circles, panting, and gently escort her back to her water. Then guide her to her comfy bed on the stoep in the shade.

The older she gets, the less lovable she becomes

Somehow (and this is awful) the older, the creakier, the more doddery she gets, the less lovable she becomes. She sleeps nearly all day. Such long deep sleeps that she doesn’t come to greet us when we get home. And she doesn’t surrender to belly rubs anymore. She has become increasingly side-lined from the life of our little family. In many ways, it feels like we have already lost her. 

This leaves me with such sadness. I want to enjoy the time she has left here. But she is also inconvenient. She can be smelly. I get impatient with her. And I hate to confess this, but it’s easier to have her outside. 

This seems to be what we in the Western world do with our elderly. We shunt them into old age homes and frail care centres: out of sight, out of mind. 

Befriending death

As a result of this shutting out, we miss the opportunity to grow fond of our own fragility, to befriend Death, or at least, acknowledge its presence in the room. 

If I work to love Nala actively through her old age, to brush her more regularly, feed her little treats, pat her more often, then my love grows bigger. It pulls me past the slight distaste, the gritted-teeth impatience. Through this practical care-giving, we can recognize the cycle of life-death-life. We can weave this knowledge into our bodies with each puddle of wee mopped up off the floor.

Like a weightlifter crumpling a Coke can

Nala’s aging reminds me that, like a weightlifter crumpling a Coke can, time has us in its grasp. She teaches our family that we can’t fight the relentless passing of time, and the crushing effect it has on our bodies. We cannot deny the fact that we’re all going to die.

Facebook keeps spitting out memories of my lockdown diary from a year ago. I read these with an odd mix of nostalgia, sadness and disbelief that there has been so much loss. As Rahla, much-loved writing teacher and author, put it: It’s been a year of universal grief.

Dogged by death

And lately, I’ve been feeling dogged by death. Everywhere I go, I carry the awareness of this thief waiting to steal what is precious from me. I feel footsteps not too far behind. They stop when I stop. Sometimes they are so close the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I see my mum’s greying head peering over the parapet of her balcony as she waves goodbye to me. Suddenly I want to pull the handbrake up, leave the car running and rush back up the stairs. Press her into my skin so that I never lose that feeling of her. I drive off with tears welling in my eyes, in a kind of anticipatory grief. The other day I came upon Joel having a nap in the TV room. For a terrifying moment, I thought he was dead. Relief washed over me when his lips puffed out a little as he breathed. There is so much to lose.

And Jack? He’s ten. He is oblivious to all of this. I have to suppress the urge to tell him how fragile it all is. How transient. To shout out: We’re all going to die! Don’t you know? He has no idea. Yet. So I settle for a gentle reminder: Sweetie, when you hug your dad or Ghee or Grampa –  enjoy it. Don’t rush it. Heart to heart. Enjoy. 

It is all just love

My morning walk takes me past a neighbour’s house, and the sadness of it nearly knocks me sideways. For over a year, she has been enduring a long illness. A few days ago, her husband posted on her FB page that she had passed away. I thought of her husband and children walking into their empty home, the first waves of bereavement washing over them. It is unimaginable. But as I sat at my desk, crying, for just a moment something inside me sank beneath those rough waves & felt flooded by love. A kind of tingling cellular knowingness that, in the end, it is all just love. 

Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves

But the ‘soft animal of my body’* fights this. It doesn’t want it, this Zen-like acceptance of the terrible certainty of loss. It wants to be alive always. It wants to huddle with its pack of warm-bodied loved ones. It wants to nuzzle and eat and breathe in, forever. 

Yet somehow we have to go through the motions of swimming, cleaving the water stroke after stroke, drawing in one soggy breath after another, all the while knowing that the tide of life will sweep all of us up. That beneath our frantically kicking legs, there is only the relentless tug of love, and loss. That one day there will only be a breathing out. 

*With thanks to Rahla Xenopoulos for permission to use this beautiful line (which she used as a prompt in one of her writing workshops)

*from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese

(‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves…’)