Operation Oysterhood: 25-26 December

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.

— @HaggardHawks

Two days that feel like a lifetime, and they perfectly sum up this year: heaven and hell; things happening at such a speed that it seems impossible to take them in or comprehend them. I am overwhelmed by sadness and fear, but also eternally grateful. The story of 2021.

Journalist Miriam Mannak died at the age of 45. Apart from following her on Twitter, I did not know her, but she was a very dear friend to somebody I care about – somebody who has had a terrible year, but it had been made bearable largely thanks to the selfless efforts of Miriam, who assisted my friend during many months of need. I read the news of Miriam’s passing just before leaving home to spend Christmas & Boxing Days with my love. Miriam was my age; she died without any warning.

My love and I needed to be mostly alone this Christmas. We wanted to have a calm festive season and celebrate that we have survived this year and to honour all the miracles and grace that this year has afforded us despite all the horror. Earlier this month, when South Africa’s borders were effectively closed to travellers, many restaurants and other tourist destinations suffered immediate cancellations and reopened bookings for the festive season. When one of our favourites – La Colombe – sent out an alert about their open seats, we grabbed the opportunity and booked for Christmas lunch: our Christmas gift to us. It was the first time ever I had a meal in a restaurant at Christmas time. And it was beyond-words-marvellous. I am not sure that there is a going back to Christmas cooking after this … unless it is my Mom’s cooking.

Because I did not want us to drive after such a meal or bother about securing safe transport, I booked us into the neighbouring Silvermist Hotel. We swam, sunbathed in the late afternoon, walked, read, relaxed and slept early after having a pot of rooibos tea for dinner (nothing else had room in our happy stomachs).

The next day early, we headed back home and picked up the Sunday Times which featured my book of the year. The text was slightly shortened, so the full version is beneath.

I was uncertain whether I wanted to read anything else about the irrefutable fact of our mortality at a time when we were constantly confronted with its reality during the pandemic, but I have the greatest admiration for writer/editor Bongani Kona, so I braved the anthology he compiled on the subject this year, Our Ghosts Were Once People: Stories on Death and Dying. And I have no regrets. Not only does the book include contributions by some of my favourite authors, delivering incisive and exquisite writing – Mary Watson, Hedley Twidle, Tariq Hoosen, Dawn Garisch, Musawenkosi Khanyile, Karin Schimke, Shubnum Khan and Nick Mulgrew among them – but allowed me to immerse myself in the topic in unexpected ways, whether through Stacy Hardy’s haunting short story told from the perspective of a murdered forensic pathologist or Madeleine Fullard’s indispensable essay about the disappeared victims of apartheid’s horrors. I am deeply grateful to the writers for this remarkable book which feels like essential reading for our complex present.

Our ghosts were once people. Today, one of our people became an ancestor …

We started preparing breakfast when the news arrived via a phone call. My love was called back to work to report on the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Blinking away tears, I said to him, “I know he was old, and that he was ill. But it sucks.” And I wrote to a friend, “2021 can fuck off.” It really can. Because if we thought that this day was done with us, this afternoon, we found out that a dear friend is in the ICU awaiting a bypass after a brush with death yesterday.

I don’t know whether to mourn or celebrate. A life has been taken, another saved. With Tutu’s death, it feels like our country lost her soul. He was a truly good man, a man of greatness and grace. Someone we could always turn to for guidance. Always. But after the initial shock of the news, I realised that this soul, the moral compass that guided us and millions of others around the world for decades, is not lost as long as we continue cherishing the Arch’s legacy and carry his wisdom and compassion in our hearts.

I am a bit numb. All of this is impossible to hold simultaneously. My friend has cancer, another is waiting in ICU for a life-saving operation, another is mourning the loss of someone who cared for her deeply. And here we are, watching TV, writing, squeezing a loved hand, and having a simple dinner. We are feeling a gigantic sense of relief that our friend’s life was not taken, and we are shaken by the death of a moral giant who has come as close to being holy as a human can.

A friend told me today how special cherries are for her, and I remembered how we used to collect and eat them by the bucket during the cherry seasons when I was growing up in Poland. We need to celebrate the small, mundane pleasures in life. Those everyday joys. And live our lives with wisdom and compassion, so that we can live without regrets.

And tomorrow, we wake up with hope, no matter what.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Be kind. Wear a mask. Support local. Get vaccinated, please. Live.

“Physical distancing remains one of the key strategies to curb this pandemic.”


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