Lessons FROM MOM’S DEATH

Af­ter pub­lish­ing a col­lec­tion of her late hus­band Joe Slovo’s writ­ings, strug­gle vet­eran, lead­er­ship coach and aca­demic He­lena Dolny turned to a book on death. She recorded 57 peo­ple’s tes­ti­monies on rit­ual, dig­nity, be­reave­ment and liv­ing a rich life. In

CityPress - - Voices -

Be­fore For­ever Af­ter: When Con­ver­sa­tions About Liv­ing Meet Ques­tions About Dy­ing by He­lena Dolny

Stag­ing Post 336 pages R290

Ngiphiwe Mh­langu, also known as Mapi, grew up in the town­ship of Kwa­Mashu. Her mother was a life­long teacher who taught many peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. Mapi was her youngest, the love child of a li­ai­son dur­ing wid­ow­hood, a daugh­ter she trea­sured and im­bued with the deep­est sense of self-worth.

By her late thir­ties, Mapi’s ca­reer had se­ri­ously ac­cel­er­ated. She be­came the head of eNCA TV news. As the pro­fes­sional suc­cess in her bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily of three sis­ters and one brother, it’s Mapi who pays what’s called the “black tax”, money dis­pensed among rel­a­tives for school fees, help with rent or for funer­als.

Mapi told me the story of her mother’s ill­ness, the chal­lenge to in­te­grate her Zulu tra­di­tional rit­u­als with Chris­tian­ity, and her claim at the age of 25 to the fam­ily lead­er­ship po­si­tion in a cul­ture which has pa­tri­archy as its de­fault set­ting. The first time I knew my mom was ill was around lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions in April 2004. My mom had al­ready found out that she had can­cer, but hadn’t told me – she was wait­ing for me to fin­ish with that year’s elec­tion cov­er­age.

Dur­ing the rest of April, May and June, I caught the bus home ev­ery other week­end. I watched her de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. I took leave in the last week of July and went home, ex­pect­ing her to die.

I started a con­ver­sa­tion with her. “You know you are not get­ting any bet­ter, you know we have tried ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble and there is noth­ing more to be done. How do you want your fu­neral to go? What songs do you want sung? Who is your MC? Who must speak for you?” We got into all those de­tails.

Ini­tially my sis­ters were com­pletely un­com­fort­able, so the first talk took place just be­tween me and Mom.

I asked what poli­cies she had and we looked at the files to­gether. About the fu­neral, she said: “I want to be buried on Thurs­day be­cause it’s Mother’s Union Day.” That was one thing in her re­tire­ment she’d al­ways looked for­ward to. She would put on her blue church uni­form and go around with other moth­ers who were dressed the same. She said she’d like a blue cof­fin, the same colour as the uni­form. There was a youth leader in her church, and she wanted him to be her MC. She named the rev­erend to of­fi­ci­ate. She named the friends to speak, she named the songs. She was very clear which fu­neral par­lour she wanted to go to. My mom also stip­u­lated: “Do not slaugh­ter the cow in the house be­cause I don’t want the blood in here.”

Later, I called my sis­ters to sit with us and my mom re­peated her wishes. It was dif­fi­cult for them, but it hap­pened in such a way that when we were fi­nal­is­ing the fu­neral pro­gramme – my sis­ters are great singers – they started to sing the songs our mother chose. They warmed up to that idea of hav­ing a plan. My mother dic­tated her wishes and I wrote ev­ery­thing down in an ex­er­cise book as she spoke, wit­nessed by my sis­ters.

By Thurs­day, she didn’t recog­nise me. She was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing, talk­ing to peo­ple, talk­ing to the dead. On Satur­day, I had to re­turn to Jo­han­nes­burg and I stopped at the hos­pi­tal on the way to the sta­tion. She was in such pain as I said my good­byes.

When I phoned on the Wed­nes­day morn­ing, they told me she had just passed.

When some­one dies in our fam­ily, the first thing peo­ple do is cry. But I couldn’t be­cause I was in that or­gan­is­ing mood of, okay things must be done right.

When I landed in Dur­ban from Jo­han­nes­burg, those meet­ing me at the air­port were cry­ing and fall­ing apart. I was the only one think­ing and or­gan­is­ing: “Let’s just stop by at Check­ers. We need to get juice, chicken and other food­stuff to feed peo­ple who will come to pay their re­spects.”

With all the im­me­di­ate prac­ti­cal ar­range­ments made, Mapi found her­self fac­ing a much more com­pli­cated chal­lenge.

On oc­ca­sions like funer­als or the tra­di­tional cer­e­mony that takes place a year af­ter some­one dies, the el­ders in the fam­ily al­ways take charge. But I just couldn’t let them. Peo­ple tried to ad­vise me: “You have rel­a­tives in Lady­smith and Jo­han­nes­burg. The rel­a­tives pro­posed that the fu­neral should take place a week on Satur­day.”

There was ten­sion be­cause, cul­tur­ally, men are used to be­ing in charge. My bi­o­log­i­cal brother had never as­sumed any fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­ity what­so­ever – he never even came to the hos­pi­tal once. But now he ex­pected that, when the rel­a­tives came, they would make sure that we women recog­nised his role as the el­dest male.

For me, it was just one of those things. I could not ac­cept my brother tak­ing over. I needed to step up. I had my own self­ish rea­sons. I wanted to make sure that what my mother re­quested would be done. I knew that, once I gave power away, they would bury her on the Satur­day and do all sorts of tra­di­tional things that my mother did not want.

I took out my ex­er­cise book and told them: “I have it in writ­ing. These were her wishes. It’s go­ing to be done this way. Our mother will be buried on a Thurs­day. The cof­fin will be blue.”

I be­came this young woman who was stub­born – no one could over­rule me. I needed things to be done just the way that my mother had wanted.

Mapi strad­dles tra­di­tion and moder­nity ... The elder aun­ties from the Mh­langu fam­ily moved in to as­sume their mourn­ing tra­di­tion of sit­ting on the mat­tress and pray­ing in the days lead­ing up to the fu­neral. Mapi as­sumed her role of du­ti­ful daugh­ter tend­ing to their ev­ery need.

When Thurs­day came, we buried my mother, fol­low­ing all her re­quests. There were pictures of her and a printed pro­gramme. We sang the Zulu songs she asked for, like Dwala Lami Laphakade, which trans­lates as Rock of Ages. They were the songs she used to sing with her friends in the choir. I still re­mem­ber her fu­neral so vividly – sev­eral bus­loads of peo­ple. My mom the teacher, known by ev­ery­one. So many peo­ple came. And yes, it worked out just as she wanted.

When her older brother tried to claim his pa­tri­ar­chal space, Mapi, aged 25, had al­ready im­bibed her mother’s wis­dom. With fore­sight, she’d se­cured her mother’s voice, in writ­ing, to sup­port her de­ter­mi­na­tion to bury her mother ac­cord­ing to the wishes she had so care­fully set out.

RE­FLEC­TIONS ON LIFE The au­thor, He­lena Dolny

FAM­ILY LEAD­ER­SHIP TV news boss Mapi Mh­langu

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