Traces of Traci


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. 1She 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. 3If 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.4 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.

Next of Kin

My sister and I used to fight so much when we were children that we once broke a coffee table (She started it), but when I used to call her in the middle of the night with a feverish baby (and there were many), she would arrive within minutes to babysit the rest (and there were many more!) When she is sick, I am her person. It’s a position of some ambivalence: to see someone you love in pain, weak and sometimes fearful (When Brigid reaches grumpy I know I can leave her because she is on the mend) is distressing; yet it is a huge honour to be called on to be present when your person is vulnerable.

Last week Brig was in hospital for some routine, though unpleasant, tests under anaesthetic and I spent some time sitting in the cafeteria of Netcare Blouberg Hospital, nurturing a series of coffee highs and observing other patients’ ‘persons’ coming and going, watching their harried, anxious, pensive, distracted and even bored faces from my increasingly restless perch.( It was good coffee so I had a few cups.)

The Blouberg area is Smallville so there are the inevitable sightings of people one knows. In five minutes, I spotted Michael’s neurologist – who I finally realised looks a bit like George from Seinfeld – sneaking down for his daily latte; a deacon from our parish popping upstairs to bring Communion to the sick (I was rather impressed that he took the stairs;) and a former colleague with her three month old granddaughter.

The dads arriving to visit their wives in the maternity ward with the older siblings were fun to watch. Shew, but men do parenting so amusingly different! They were nothing like the urbane and debonair Prince William, drawing up in the family Range Rover with darling Prince George in tow. We breed ‘em a little wilder in Table View:

Despite the freezing cold, one jogged in with a toddler bouncing excitedly on his shoulders, dressed more for a day at the beach than a wintry, windswept Cape Town morning. He put her down with a jolt and the minx beetled off sans shoes, but  delighted to be out with Dad. I wondered whether he would be in trouble when Mom saw.

One father who would almost certainly be in the dogbox when he presented Junior to Mother was one who would have failed the fashion police test – his cherub sported a bizarre combination of clothes, none of which matched at all – I suspect they came out of the ‘only for home wear’ shelf and he would get it in the neck when he showed up, especially if it was the milk-coming-in Day Three. I hope not though, because if his wife could have seen the tender way he hugged that little mite to him, her heart would have melted, along with all disapproval.

I chuckled at the male bonding of a couple of boys and their dad and wondered when the sugar high from the lollipops that they were being bribed with would hit.

One poor man laboured under several trips of balloons and bags and flowers and baby luggage being taken to the new family member’s awaiting chariot. And then I watched with benevolent voyeurism as a midwife accompanied Madonna and her child pushing the portable, transparent crib to the car. Their spontaneous embrace was delightful. What a special moment in their history I was witnessing: going home as three. I sighed nostalgically, remembering how terrified I was to take Sean home, mortally afraid that it was up to me to keep him alive. Oh well – he has made it to 22 relatively unscathed, if you don’t count numerous stitches and manly scars.

Netcare Blouberg is built like a fancy hotel with vaulted ceilings and elegant marble. Its sweeping staircase curls up to several mezzanine-type floors from where the coffee shop is situated and so one can witness the progess of patients and visitors who eschew the elevators. From my vantage point I could see up to the third floor where an elderly man shuffled along so slowly he took several minutes to progress along the corridor. The nurse’s aide who escorted him did so with amiable patience. What a job, I thought. What dedication to care.

A young woman, clearly used to more athletic endeavours gingerly took each step at a time, while her tattooed person, slowly accompanied her, all the while texting on his phone. I expected him to stop for a selfie to post on Instagram, but he was more conciliatory of her pain than I gave him credit for, allowing her some dignity.

One or two ambulatory patients appeared in their dressing gowns and drip stands with that guilty, coy look, caught in public in a state of undress. One brawny chap (thank goodness the gown was tightly belted) kept re-appearing and glaring at me as if I had taken his personal table. But perhaps it was just that I wasn’t hiding the horror I was feeling as I hoped there were pyjamas covering his girth under the robe and not one of those hospital gowns.

Then there was the corporate type in her tailored suit, powering her way in long strides across the atrium. She certainly was not letting illness of any kind get to her.  She was welcomed by the ebullient concierge who should have been manning the doors at the Dorchester. He spent hours pointing folk towards their destinations, his smile never wavering, even when Mr and Ms Paris Fashion Week,undulated towards the reception, pelvises jutting, leather gleaming, unsmiling and superior. ‘How does she keep that hat on in this wind?’ was all I could think.

Said-wind howled outside and the shadows lengthened as they do on those days of weak sunshine. I checked my watch and worried why my sister was taking so long.  I hauled my laptop and keep-myself-busy paraphernalia up to the third floor to check on her, but she was still out for the count, so I went back down to watch the visiting hour arrivals, reassured that she was in good hands.

Purple hair – lots of it, but all on women under thirty: clearly I was witnessing a new trend – lavendar is the new peroxide. Now in my day (!) a blue rinse was for grannies. The real elderly visitors were many… I was distracted from pondering the reasons for these phenomena by a Whatsapp from my elder daughter asking when I would be home. ‘It sucks being you,’ she complained. ‘No one listens.’ I smiled. A teenager sulked in her parents’ presence at a table nearby, huffing in displeasure at something they had said, before burying her face in her smartphone. I smiled again.

Eventually it was time to return to the day ward, hoping that Brigid had only heard the endearing nurse call her ‘Lovie’ and not the ‘Tannie’ part. I should have warned her of my sister’s prowess at destroying furniture. I found the patient quite docile though and more lucid than when she first came around, eager to be gone, relieved to be still clear of that ailment we’d feared, but not spoken of, and grateful that her chronic pain could be treated.

We left for her to recuperate at home: She was just one of many patients staff attended to in the course of their jobs, but it was a significant time for us. I couldn’t wait for Brigid to be cranky again so I would know she was fine.

She is. Images For > Happy Patients In Hospital Cartoons