Tag Archives: Dad

Three Generations Of Cheese Lovers

12 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 12 – Stream of consciousness day: Start with the sentence “_______”just write, don’t stop, don’t edit. To select an opening sentence, I asked my Facebook friends to post suggestions. I put them all into a hat and drew one out!

How much do you really think about cheese?

Since I’m the second generation in what’s turning out to be a line of cheese-lovers, this is actually a valid pondering for me. Many of my musings about cheese are related to thoughts about my dad, with whom I shared many interests, like reading, running and yes, cheese. Going grocery shopping with him was a real treat, because the pair of us would spend ages at the fancy cheese display picking out our next great delicacy. Meanwhile, my mom would be sitting at home wondering what we were going to buy that would make the rest of the fridge contents smell funny.

One Christmas, when I was a young adult still living in the parental home, Dad received a cellophane-wrapped basket containing boxes of crackers and a variety of different cheeses. When I wandered into the kitchen a couple of evenings later, I saw Dad working away at the packaging of one of the cheeses.

“Would you like to try some Gorgonzola?” he asked me.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” I responded. Meaning, Yes please, I would love some Gorgonzola.

“Let me show you the best way to eat Gorgonzola,” said Dad, reaching for a cake tin on the counter.

Ten minutes later, Mom came back from wherever she’d been. She walked onto the front porch and saw Dad and I sipping glasses of red wine and happily munching on slices of Christmas fruit cake topped with thin slices of Gorgonzola. She was utterly horrified to see the Christmas cake she had worked so hard to make being defaced in such a manner, but it was absolutely delicious.

Now that Dad is no longer with us, I have no-one to share my love of stinky cheese with. Not yet, anyway. My older son George is a trainee cheese lover, but his autistic sensibilities limit him to plain old Cheddar. The smell, the taste, and frankly, the look of the fancy smelly stuff is more than a little off-putting to him. That’s not to say I haven’t tried.

“Do you want some cheese, George?” I asked him one day, holding my triangle of Danish Blue aloft as if it was an Academy Award.

He came closer to take a look, and then said, “That’s not cheese!”

Carefully hiding my excitement at this unprompted-yet-contextually-appropriate verbal utterance, I said, “It is! It’s blue cheese! Do you want some?”

George curled his little face up in an expression of distaste and issued his verdict.

“Yuck!”

And that was that.

Still, even though he only likes Cheddar, he likes it with admirable dedication. I have hope that, with a bit of time, we will make a cheese connoisseur out of him yet.

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Remembering Dad – Seven Years On

6 Dec

I was watching The Apprentice when I got the news that my Dad had died. I should have known as soon as I looked on the phone display that something was wrong. Although it was a reasonable enough hour in my own time zone, it was three in the morning in South Africa. Be that as it may, when I answered the phone, I had no idea that I had lost a parent. Even though Dad had been gravely ill in hospital, the news came as a terrible shock.

The story of Dad’s illness and death is all too common these days. He had been sick on and off for a couple of years, but despite numerous visits to the doctor, cancer had only been diagnosed six weeks prior to his death. By then, the tumour in his bladder was too big to remove, and Dad’s only shot at survival was aggressive chemotherapy followed by surgical removal of the entire bladder. He survived the chemotherapy – only just – and he made it through the twelve-hour operation. In the end, though, his body was just too weak to survive all that it had been put through, and a few days after the surgery, he winged his way from this world to the next.

It was December 6th, 2004. Seven years ago today.

When we lose someone close to us, we are supposed to go through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

I had heard of this theory, of course, but I had never really found it to be of any use. It suggests that these stages happen sequentially, that you cannot ever get to acceptance until you have passed through the other four stages. According to this theory, once you are in the Acceptance stage, you’re done with your grieving.

The reality is that grieving is such a personal, individual process, and everyone does it differently. Denial has definitely been a big part of my own experience, and although I am mostly over that, I still have moments of thinking, “Gone??? What do you mean, gone? That’s impossible!” By contrast, I have not spent a single moment in the Bargaining phase, although that could still be coming.

What about this one, though? Guilt. Where does that fit in with this whole stages of grieving thing? I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience it with the death of a loved one. What could I have done? Why didn’t I travel home to see him before he died? Why am I remembering every argument we ever had, when I should be focusing on the many good times we shared?

The stage of grief that I have the biggest problem with, though, is acceptance. This is supposed to be the pinnacle, the reward we can all look forward to if we can just get through all of the other stuff that comes before it. But is it really truly attainable? Yes, we can get to a point where we can lead our lives without the person we have lost, but can we ever fully accept it? Can my Mom, who was married to Dad for forty years, be reasonably expected to completely reconcile herself with the fact that her husband – her best friend, the man she lived with, travelled with, and raised children with – is no longer by her side?

Here’s the bigger question: what does acceptance really mean? It seems to me that once someone reaches that magical stage, they are expected to be OK. They are not allowed to be sad anymore because their grieving is done. And honestly, there is a part of me that doesn’t really want to reach that stage. Because doesn’t acceptance imply that you are OK with the person not being around anymore? And isn’t that a form of betrayal to them? Like you’re prepared to finally let go of what little you have left of them?

To some people, the stages of grief can be a useful roadmap, a guide to let them know what’s coming next. For me, it’s frustrating. I loop back and forth between the stages too much, and I’m ambivalent about the prize. I mean, how likely am I to strive for acceptance if it’s not what I really want?

So today, seven years after Dad left us, I don’t really know where I am with this whole grieving process.

What I do know is that Dad was many things to many people. He was a great marathoner in his youth and he fuelled my own love of running. He was an astute businessman who gave me countless tidbits of financial advice and did my taxes every year in exchange for a bag of sugar-coated almonds. He was both reader and storyteller, dramatist and comedian. He had an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life, and would take his time washing the dishes just so he could watch the sunset through the kitchen window while he was doing it. He adored his dogs and cats, and spent many Sundays polishing his car surrounded by family pets. Along with my Mom, he gave me and my brother the opportunity to grow up witnessing what a loving, supportive partnership should look like. To me and my brother, he was Dad – the best one we could have asked for. And during the brief period of time for which he shared a planet with my son George, he was the most loving, doting Granddad any kid could wish for.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I choose to believe that Dad is around somewhere, watching fondly over his grandsons, cheering me on when I run races, clicking his tongue impatiently when I make stupid decisions, and having a good old giggle when I get caught in the rain and wind up with a bad hair day.

Rest in peace, Dad. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.

The Amazing Race: South African Edition

12 Apr

I developed a love of running when I was a teenager, years before I started to actually run. The running events were always my favourites in the Summer Olympics, and along with the rest of South Africa, I whooped and hollered and jumped up and down as Josia Thugwane won the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, mere months after being shot during a carjacking.

My Dad and I had a ritual that took place once a year, at the end of May. The ritual went something like this:

I am woken by Dad gently shaking my shoulder and placing a mug of coffee down on my nightstand. It is early in the morning – so early that it is still dark out. Despite the fact that I have the option to sleep – it is a statutory holiday – I choose instead to get up. Yawning and rubbing my eyes, I carry my coffee into the living room, where Dad is already sitting down and the TV is already on.

The TV screen is filled with thousands upon thousands of runners wearing race numbers, milling around at the starting line of South Africa’s greatest race. These runners have worked hard, trained hard to get here. They have a gruelling day ahead of them. The energy at the start line is so intense that it filters out of the TV and reaches me and Dad. We are literally sitting on the edges of our seats, all trace of sleepiness gone from both of us, as we make small talk about the runners.

“I don’t know if Fordyce has it in him to win this year,” says Dad.

I look at him, aghast. Bruce Fordyce always wins. The man is virtually a mascot for the race. How can he not win? Dad has a point, though. We keep seeing footage of him continually stretching out a calf muscle, as if it is troubling him.

All of a sudden, we hear the strains of Chariots of Fire coming from the TV. The runners, who only moments ago were a somewhat chaotic crowd, have arranged themselves into an organized pack. They are ready, they are focused, they have only one thing on their minds, and that is the finish line and how they will get there.

Chariots of Fire comes to an end, there is an excruciating pause, and then the gun goes off. And with that, South Africa’s greatest race – the Comrades Marathon – is underway.

The Comrades Marathon, a 90km event not for the faint of heart, has a long and illustrious history. It comes from noble beginnings: it was first organized by a World War I veteran to honour the memories of South African soldiers who had died during the war. A prime goal of the race, in addition to honouring the war dead, was (still is) to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.

The course alternates every year – “up” runs start in Durban, “down” runs start in Pietermaritzburg. Runners have twelve hours to complete the race, and they have to reach predetermined points along the course within certain times in order to be eligible to continue.

Every year when the Comrades was on, Dad and I would park ourselves in front of the TV and watch the action unfold. Because contrary to what many might think, it’s not just a bunch of people running all day. There is a lot of drama and excitement that goes on. You see many, many aspects of the human spirit – both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Running is, in many ways, a metaphor for life. The Comrades Marathon especially so. The frontrunners in any race get a lot of coverage as spectators and TV viewers anxiously wait to see who will win. In this race, though, it’s not just elite athletes. Everyone is a star. Every runner is a hero – even the ones who have to suffer the heartbreak of not finishing the race.

When I finally started running at the age of 26, I knew that I wanted to be like a Comrades runner. Not in terms of form or distance or speed. It is highly unlikely that I will ever actually run the Comrades myself.

No, it was other characteristics of these athletes that I aspired to: the mental strength, the determination, the courage, the fortitude to reach out and help a struggling athlete, the sheer grit to keep going no matter what.

I wanted to be like a Comrades runner in terms of spirit.

And that is still what I strive for, not only in my running, but in my life.

Ashes And Roses

6 Feb

It is with a bittersweet feeling that I pay tribute to both of my parents on the anniversary of their marriage. The sweet part of the equation stems from the fact that my parents had a fantastic marriage. They had a deep, profound love for one another and apart from the occasional spat, they treated each other with the utmost respect. I could not have asked for better role models to show me just what a loving, solid marriage should look like.

The bitterness, of course, is because Dad is no longer with us. Today, Mom is in Cape Town without her beloved husband by her side, gazing longingly into the sea in which she placed his ashes six years ago today, on what would have been their 40th wedding anniversary.

As I reflect on this day, I cannot help but contemplate my own relationship with Gerard, now almost a decade old, and our own upcoming wedding. For all intents and purposes, we are already married. We have been living together for a long time, we have created new human beings, and our union is legally recognized as a spousal relationship. But still, getting married will, I believe, add a new kind of depth to our relationship. We see it as the chance of a new beginning, a new and wonderful chapter in our lives.

People ask why we waited for long to get married; why, indeed, we are bothering to get married at all. The answer, quite simply, is that we have arrived at a point in our life together where we feel that we can get married. You see, Gerard and I have been through a lot. We have survived a great deal: the loss of both of our fathers, my post-partum depression following the birth of James, George’s autism diagnosis, near-bankruptcy, to name but a few. Our relationship has been placed under unbelievable strain; it has reached the breaking point.

But when it reached the breaking point, it didn’t break. Somehow we saw our way through all of the dark times. We found a way to stick together, to emerge from that terrible bleakness and desolation as a pair, as an integrated whole. We know what we are capable of surviving. Neither of us could imagine life without the other one. We feel that we have earned the privilege of being married to each other.

I cannot wait. I am really, really excited when I think about the day I will exchange wedding vows with my beloved, in front of friends and family. It will be an amazing feeling, walking down the aisle on the arm of my brother, and then looking into Gerard’s eyes as I declare my eternal love for him. Mom will likely shed some tears, but there will be happy tears mixed in with the sad.

It makes me sad, knowing that I will not get a father-daughter dance with Dad. But I know he will be there, hopefully nodding with approval and glowing with pride.

February 6th, 2005

Dad has been gone for exactly two months. It is almost sunset.

Mom tentatively carries the urn holding his ashes to the edge of the rocks, with her sister standing a respectful distance behind. Clutching Dad to her heart one last time, she whispers her goodbyes to the wind, and hands the urn to the man standing beside her, the man who is surefooted enough to brave the rocks.

Mom stands beside her sister, and watches as the ashes of her beloved are gently transferred from the urn to the sea, from whence they will travel to who knows where? Many, many rose petals are placed into the sea to travel with the ashes.

Mom watches in silence as the ashes and the rose petals float out into the ocean. The tide is low, the rose petals waft lazily as they escort Dad into the beginning of his eternal travels. Together, the roses and the ashes reach the horizon. With the sun directly behind them, the ocean current moves them around in a small circle, as if they are waving goodbye to the widow standing on the rocks.

Ashes and roses disappear from sight, just as the sun dips below the horizon and closes the chapter on the day.