My cousin Traci was not really my cousin, but in fact was closer even than a sister at times. I say ‘was’ because one ordinary day, she went to work with her usual jolliness, had an aneurism which bled into her brain and was rushed to a top hospital in a slow ambulance (the worst of signs). Two surgeries later, with not even enough time for all her children to gather, at age fifty, she had a stroke, lapsed into a coma. Then she just died.
I could not cry that week she was in hospital. Separated by ICU rules and not being nuclear family, I remained glued to my phone/tablet/ Facebook Messenger. And prayed. And thanked strangers for praying. And called priests I know to say mass for her. And sent encouraging messages to my cousin, Peter, her husband. It wasn’t enough.
When I heard that she had slipped away it wasn’t a surprise, but was/is unbelievable. As with all grief, which hits at unexpected moments, for me, it was not in the first hour after hearing the news. Then, I sat silent for over an hour, staring at my laptop screen,filled with figures for my school budget which suddenly seemed so pointless, despite its urgency. It was when I went outside to feed Maggie and stood under the stars that the knowledge of her absence bulldozed its way into my consciousness and I wept into the labrador’s water bowl. I cried for the unfathomable reality that she was. Just.
And wept. And wept. And lay awake trying to imagine a world without her breathy tsking over the foibles of our families; her unwavering love for her family, no matter how cross she was; her permanent love affair with my favourite cousin; her genuine humility and self-deprecating sense of humour in stark contrast with societal arrogance. How am I going to navigate old age knowing she will not be there to be a grandmother with me in the same way we celebrated and commiserated our motherhood, our wifely trials and chuckles (and there were lots of both – sometimes guffaws)?
I have known Traci since she was 16 and I was eighteen. She was younger with all that carries when you are teenagers, but in many ways she was more switched on than my convent school world view allowed me to be. She was the only person I confided in about the abuse in my first marriage. She nursed my wounded spirit through the break-up of that union and stitched together the fabric of my life’s tapestry with her companionship, sense of style and pragmatism. I held Baby Abby while she packed up her house and left her troubled first husband.
She was younger than me Goddamnit!
My children adored her. She had a warmth and affection that made her one of the most huggable people I know. Knew. The fact that she would sneak them padkos just before we left her home (no matter how much they had pigged out during the day on unimaginable delicacies their boring mother never purchased) did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The leaving-the-braai dance always included a sudden gathering of children in the kitchen while I was busy gathering the paraphernalia of five children from the other rooms (imagine all those water wings and costumes, towels, favourite toys-which-had-to-go-everywhere and beloved dresses abandoned during the cousins’ games).
My children, forced to be dressed by their Tartar Parent in Pick ‘n Pay sales items (before it became de rigueur and expensive) were thrilled to be gifted with Matthew, Abby and Becky’s hand-me-downs. Any photograph in which my kids look good in Naartjie Clothing, or are playing with dinkum Fisher-Price Toys (not the Checkers equivalent) should have a caption saying: ‘dressed and accessorised by Traci.’
Most importantly Traci participated in life. She jumped enthusiastically into the swimming pool with the children with as much energy as she immersed herself in living, and as she did, she drew out the fun in all of us. I remember a time, recovering from my own chemotherapy and suffering from the ugliest big, red acned side-effects, so unsightly that I wanted to hide in my apartment from the world. Traci was having none of that. She called me up and dragged me out to play on the blue train in Mouille Point with Matthew. ‘But we love you, Col,’ rings still in my ears, which was her simple response to my cries of feeling so absolutely unfitting to be seen by genteel society with my angry pimple-rouged cheeks. You see, Traci could see to the heart of a person. That was her super-power. She made you feel important. That was her talent. She made you love yourself. That was her gift to us.
Traci made no headlines; nor did she found any great organisation, so in the grand scheme of things, the world carries on without her. But that is what I am battling with. It is not right that we should carry on without her. How can that be it?! I drive past the turn-off to her house every day on my way to school. I cannot believe she will not be there for tea. At her wake I sat outside the house. It felt wrong to be inside without her. I took a purple plant with me for her purple and white garden. I cannot believe we shall not wear purple together and grow old outrageously. I cannot stand the thought that when I am 70, she will be ‘the friend who died tragically young so long ago.’
Yet mine is not the greatest hurt. She and Peter’s epic love spanned 40 years. If any two individuals were meant to be together it was Peter-and-Traci. They were that sort of couple – the ones you say in one breath because they cannot be separated as a unit. I grieve for Pete who must wake up alone, traverse the night without Traci’s snoring (She admitted that she did quite happily) and be unhyphenated.
They were married in my lounge in Johannesburg. Traci was barefoot. Not because she was a hippy – heaven forbid – it was the nineties after all. No, she was unshod because she couldn’t find shoes and because it didn’t matter. That was Traci. And then we braaied. That is Pete.
Traci adored her children. I know all too much how hard it is to miss out on having the ceiling disappear when your mom dies; staring balefully at moms and grans and babies, knowing you can’t do that; wishing your mom could see you happily married to someone she would just love; and being able to consult her wisdom when no one else will do.
Traci’s parents, John and Dee have faced the impossible – it is ’gainst nature to bury a child. I do not want to contemplate how that must feel. I hope she is enjoying some tea with her Nan and my mom in the afterlife. I’m tired of the ‘Why?’ part of this grief. I know only that I do not like its fact.
It is a month since my friend died and it has taken me this long to be able to write anything about her passing. All I can think of is the reassurance someone gave me when my mom died: that heaven must be so awesomely better than life here on Earth for it to surpass the joy Traci had. Was. Is.