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Rosemund Handler

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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Dying to talk about death

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 14 November 2014, entitled “Dying to talk about death”

Say them quickly, then forget. The dying words. Terminal. Dead. Deceased.

Friends and acquaintances die every day. We go to their funerals, but we try not to think about death.

Most of us have never spoken to a dying friend about death. We ask how they are and then talk about everything else rather than how they feel about what they are going through. It makes us uncomfortable. And it hurts to lose a friend.

We forget that the dying may feel abandoned when they most need our empathy. We choose not to confront that finality with them, not because we lack compassion, but because someone else’s death forces us to contemplate our own.

Talking about dying seems to be the work of somebody like Dr Sean Davison, who helped his mother in New Zealand to die and paid a heavy price for it. Or it is the work of hospice staff, or those who deal in death anyway, such as doctors – many of whom are not of Davison’s calibre.

In San Francisco last month, a family reunion was marred by the death of my daughter’s good friend, Erica. She had died hours before our arrival after a three-year struggle with breast cancer. She fought hard for her life. At 42, with two young children, she had much left to do. It wasn’t to be.

Victims of terminal illnesses appear to find resources in themselves that they and their families didn’t know they had. Some almost become different people.

Erica came to accept the inevitable, yet also rejected its dreadful finality. She couldn’t accept that she was leaving her children forever. Despite her duel with drugs and pain, she felt an immense pressure to make her days count, to spend time with her family during well-loved getaways, to travel to exotic destinations. Instead, as her health deteriorated, she found it difficult to be around her children, and even the thought of leaving home exhausted her.

Between extended bouts of chemotherapy, Erica wrote in her blog about her heightened sensory awareness: binocular vision in which colours sharpened and sounds increased in volume to the point when even birdsong seemed too loud. She found pleasure in nature, but was often overcome by a frightening sadness and apathy. Her seesawing emotions, she wrote, were not contradictory but existed side by side, more so as it became clear her time was running out.

An acquaintance mourning a friend who died of cancer tells me that the friend fought like mad, hoping for a cure and suffering pointlessly through ghastly treatments.

A recently widowed woman confides that her oldest friends are avoiding her. “They are the people who know me best, yet they don’t know what to say. They don’t need to say anything, but it would be nice if they would listen; if I could talk about it.”

An emergency room doctor in a public hospital recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences with terminal patients and with her colleagues. “They treat the illness. Keeping a terminal patient alive seems more important than ensuring that the patient is made as comfortable as possible.

“It’s not the patients who must change, it’s us, the doctors. We need to become human beings treating a fellow human being who, given the choice, may choose palliative treatment rather than aggressive support of failing organs.”

In his recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and New Yorker writer, explores illness and death, suggesting that we exalt longevity over quality of life. There are two issues here. The first is the care of those who have been granted great longevity. The second is how the decline of the body is managed when there is no cure for its affliction.

We can keep people alive for longer than ever before, but we have not developed the essential skills involved in palliative care for those who become dependent because of serious illness or old age. Building compassion among staff and a caring hospital environment does not cost more, and the benefits in terms of improved quality of life are considerable. Sometimes, Gawande writes, the most humane decision is to do nothing.

Helping patients to a good death can be the greatest gift an attending physician can give his patient, yet doctors routinely overestimate how long a terminally ill patient has to live – and oncologists rarely confess to a patient that there is no more hope.

Family and friends can play a significant role: listening compassionately and communicating lovingly while there is still time. We would all choose a quick death if we could, but for some of us that won’t happen. We should talk more about it. We’re all going to die. We should make death and bereavement more manageable for those we love, and for ourselves.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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The dispossessed

What is the true meaning of the word home? How does leaving the home of your birth and upbringing to live in an adopted country impact your life?

Writer Roger Cohen of The New York Times, born in South Africa, and critic James Wood, born and raised in England, have both spent many years in the US. They recently addressed the issues of leaving one’s birthplace from the experience of their own lives. Cohen movingly describes his childhood in South Africa as a landscape ‘of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood’. He concludes that there is no realistic possibility of returning to the place you called home decades ago. Home is to be found in the acceptance of inevitable change and in the connection with friends and loved ones.

In spite of this assertion, Cohen’s longstanding residency in New York, his work and American citizenship have not gifted him with the place of his ‘deepest connections’: if he had a few weeks to live he would go to Cape Town, to his grandfather’s house near Kalk Bay, a place of happy childhood memories. Wood has lived in America for 18 years. In his essay On not going home, he harks back to an interview with Christopher Hitchens long before he died which yielded similar thoughts: in spite of decades spent living and writing in the US, Hitchens expressed a longing to return one day to Dartmoor, where he spent his childhood.

It’s clear that the word home has multiple interpretations depending on individual experience. ‘Immigration is a widespread modern condition,’ says Cohen, ‘perhaps the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety.’ Wood writes that if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress may be linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: what he describes as displacement anguish.

The exile chosen by both Cohen and Wood, however, is the ‘softer emigration’ of voluntary homelessness. Like Wood in the US, I often encounter in South Africa people from all over the world who are homesick for their native countries, who miss family and hometown, but would never seriously think of returning, preferring to visit when they can. Some have integrated their lives and the landscape of South Africa in such a way that the longing for their birthplace has diminished to almost nothing. These are the fortunate expatriates who do not dream ceaselessly of their past, and whose childhood places await them should they wish to return.

I don’t debate the ‘truth’ of displacement anguish or the nostalgia of immigrants – I have been an ill-fitting one myself, and that anguish never completely heals. Coming home was the right decision for me, but the scars of displacement are not easily erased. I still have dreams of waking up in strange places, the intense feelings of alienation as unwelcome as they are familiar.

But it is the fate of the forced exile, the refugee deprived of his homeland owing to oppression or persecution that takes on the dimensions of tragedy. Edward Said’s essay, Reflections on Exile, differentiates between the exile and the émigré. He describes the experience of the former as ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’

The words of an Afghan exile stay with me. ‘Part of my life,’ he wrote, ‘is lived in a place of unassuageable sorrow and yearning.’ There is the Zimbabwean refugee in Johannesburg who almost lost his life for leading a march in his village and can never hope to return in safety, but worries about the fate of his widowed mother; the Iranian medical specialist who hasn’t mastered English sufficiently to qualify in the US and sells jeans from a stall in downtown Los Angeles; the Sudanese teacher who cleans toilets in Israel. And the boat people, lost and found, almost universally abused.

Wood describes his unforced exile as ‘no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there … and I wonder: How did I get here?’ On a realistic level, he knows the answer: he brought himself. He was not obliged to abandon his home. He had free will, he made the choices of an educated man and both the world he left and the one he entered recognised those privileges.

Not so for the countless millions of displaced people from all over the world. The refugees who have a present, but no attainable past and at best an uncertain future; who must wake up every morning with a sense of bewilderment and anxiety all the greater for being immutable. These exiles are mostly unwelcome in their places of refuge, and do not have the luxury of Wood’s ‘afterwardness’ – a Freudian concept that describes the recognition of something too late to change or undo.

They are the truly dispossessed.


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Paris, then and now

Twenty-three, newly wed and in Paris – specifically in Montmartre, at night, when the Sacré-Coeur glowed like the moon come to earth, and in the daytime when the square teemed with artists and backpackers and being young and happy seemed reflected in every face I met. Portrait artists jostled and cost almost nothing and I couldn’t stop smiling at the Edith Piafs that allured from every side street or ogling the glamorous trannies who tottered on stilettoes, batting false eyelashes and dropping salacious comments to passersby they fancied, suspenders peeking above black stockings sheathing muscular legs. We drank rosé with lunch and Côtes du Rhône with supper and it was all delicious and cheap, the tiny aromatic restaurants run by people who took pride in every dish they presented.

I thought about my father who had visited Paris before the war and patronised the Lido and the Moulin Rouge in the days when performances dazzled, and who had had his portrait painted in the fifties in the same square where I had mine done two decades later.

Paris was spring and summer and seemingly as youthful as I was. A gorgeous woman of a city, vivid, vivacious and adored. It felt as if she would be forever young. I’ve been back since then, but mostly on the way to somewhere else. Twelve years have passed since my last brief visit, when the weather was rainy and we were mostly indoors in the Georges Pompidou and the Louvre; then we left to spend some glorious summery days in Provence. This year, we had planned a hike for eight days in the Pyrenees with two friends from England, and I decided it was time to visit Paris again for a few days, this time in the fall.

Hotels were exorbitant on the net, so I located a pocket handkerchief of an apartment near l’Avenue de Grand Armee, which meets the Champs Elysees. We didn’t have to lug our bags up six floors: a miniature elevator transported us one by one, with a bag each, to the fifth floor, then one flight of stairs and voila – our very own pocket handkerchief!

We could barely squeeze past each other, but the place was clean and the location excellent, a quiet side street with a boulangerie around the corner that specialised in croissants that melted in your mouth. The sun shone, the cafes were busy, the coffee strong and good. We walked everywhere, strolling past the magnificent Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries, and eventually crossing the Seine, tranquil in sunlight, on the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge which used to be at the heart of medieval Paris and, after much ado, was inaugurated by Henry IV in 1607.

On the Rive Gauche, the Left Bank, we had an early lunch on a sidewalk, sipping rosé and watching the tourists. We decided to return there the next day to explore the Musee d’Orsay which, being Monday, was closed. It’s my favourite gallery in Paris and was originally the Gare d’Orsay, a railway station. Opened as an art museum in 1986, the unique architecture of the Musee houses a remarkable collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces which deserves many hours of relaxed scrutiny.

After lunch, feeling lazy and self-indulgent, we caught a cab to Montmartre. Gazing out of the window, I enjoyed a cityscape that had changed significantly over the years. Traffic was heavy, and we passed slowly through a variety of ethnic neighbourhoods lined with shops. People in ethnic garb crowded the pavements, and tantalising aromas from food stalls drifted through the open window.

As we approached Montmartre, memories began surfacing. The cab stopped near the Sacre Coeur and I climbed out and looked around expectantly. My, how we’ve aged, I thought, you and me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m seeing you through very different eyes.

The glistening Sacre Coeur curved skywards as gracefully as ever, its outlook as splendid as it ever was. But everywhere else appeared tatty, lack-lustre. Triste. Weary tourists sprawled on the grassy terraces below the church, where vendors sold imitation luxury handbags, splashes of colour that drew the eye. Higher up, restaurants splayed carelessly across the cobbled streets, offering Menus du Jour too similar and touristy to stimulate appetite. In the artist’s square many more restaurants, shackled to one another, competed for business while hungry visitors gesticulated for service and impatient waiters ignored them, hefting trays and pouring drinks.

A row of bored artists clung to the edges of the square, barely bothering to tout for business. Their work was uninspired and repetitive. We explored the surrounds for a while, enjoying panoramas of the city that nothing could spoil. Then, slightly blue, we called it a day, retreating to our tiny refuge to shower before dinner.

In the evening, as ragged ribbons of red and gold set l’Arc de Triomphe ablaze, we sat at a cafe with a good view. Gradually dusk coated the sky and night fell. A full moon bowled among moody clouds and the Arc shimmered and glowed with incandescent light, a breath-taking, otherworldly monument.

We rose reluctantly from the theatrics of the evening. The quest for dinner was next.

Luck was with us that night. We try not to go to recommended restaurants as they are often packed with milling tourists and horribly overpriced. So we ambled along the Grand Armee in the opposite direction from the Champs and took a random turn to the right. To our relief, a number of restaurants hove into view. We scrutinised menus dubiously, conscious of Paris’s well-earned rip-off rep.

My husband pointed to a line of people ahead. Lines of people almost always signify interesting food in my experience, so we joined the line for Relais de Venice l’Entrecote. And a good thing we did – the line behind us grew exponentially, but it also moved rapidly. In twenty minutes we were seated at a table upstairs, escorted there by Madame, an elegant Catherine Deneuve lookalike, clad in tight black dress with blonde chignon and a slash of orange lipstick; 75 if she was a day, but a Parisian of the old school, dignified and business-like.

Crowded yet not uncomfortable, we waited for menus. Dressed green salads adorned with walnuts, and crisp baguette chunks, were plunked down in front of each of us. Menu, I inquired tentatively of the busy middle-aged waitress (definitely not a waitron!). She gave me a fleeting grin. No menu, she said, bleu ou medium?

Bleu pour moi, medium pour mon mari, I said, warming to the task. Vin? As usual, I wanted red and my husband white, but it was his turn, so I said, blanc, s’il vous plait. Bouteille ou carafe? she asked, her attention on two newcomers. Bouteille, I shot back.

Five minutes after our salads – delicious – were whipped away, we were presented with our main dish: entrecote, of course, swimming in the best buttery pepper sauce I’ve ever tasted. And my bleu was brilliantly bleu. But almost the best part (the best was yet to come) were the frites, crisp yet tender mounds that kept coming; and the second you finished your entrecote, it was replaced by seconds, equally delectable.

Only one white wine and one red are served at the Relais, and both are excellent. The people seated next to us were Parisians and friendly; my French came in useful. The waitresses, world-weary and winsome, worked like dogs. Their service was impeccable. There is a Relais in Manhattan now, and I’m sure the food also excels, but I can’t imagine the waitrons there can possibly imitate the matchless esprit of those French waitresses.

In the end what captivated me though were the desserts: raspberry tarts, chocolate profiteroles, a tulip of meringue and berries and more, much more. We went back for two more nights and became quite merry with waitresses and patrons alike. My husband received an exuberant kiss on each cheek when we said our farewells.

Those desserts lingered, not only on my palate but in my dreams. Fortunately, some strenuous hiking lay ahead, and, the next day, our last in Paris, an encounter that displaced dessert from my tongue for a day or two.

On our final day in the city we crossed the Seine to the Left Bank on the decorative Lover’s Bridge where, for the past few years, love has been padlocked to a chain link fence on the Passerelle des Arts. These love padlocks are called ‘Cadenas d’amour’, and lovers engrave them with a personal message, then they toss the keys into the Seine as a symbol of eternal love. Other cities have picked up the idea of a lover’s bridge: there is apparently now one in China. Interestingly, many of the padlocks for sale boasted the South African flag on the bubble wrap. So we do export some things – among them, lovelocks to the Lover’s Bridge in the city of love!

As I reached the end of the bridge, a young woman beside me swooped with an exclamation and picked up a thick gold ring. Her expression astounded, she proffered it to me (equally surprised) on her open palm. I shook my head. Non, I said. Not mine. Mais oui, oui, take, take, she urged me, grabbing my hand and closing my fingers around the ring. We cannot wear this.

I kept shaking my head and trying to give back the ring. The young woman then thrust her fingers under my nose, and all became clear. My husband parted reluctantly with a Euro and we turned to walk away. Behind me I heard a hiss of outrage.

A gendarme appeared. The ring finder was gone. Gypsies, said a Frenchwoman nearby angrily. They are everywhere, like, like … insects. They will steal toutes and you will know rien. They are a plague in this city.

I remembered The Mugging in Madrid. A friend and I had left our shabby hotel to find dinner. Uncertain how safe our valuables were there, we took passports, credit cards, travellers cheques, and in my case, a pair of gold earrings, with us. Under a bridge a scooter with two men came by and one of them ripped my bag from my shoulder. An old trick that left me deprived of everything of value, including my identity.

We were living in America and US citizens by then. At the American consulate the official was sympathetic. Yes, she agreed, the tourists should be warned, but the authorities are afraid that warnings will frighten them away. She’d been at the embassy in Pretoria for two years and said she loved South Africa. In three hours I had a new passport, from which my shocked, hollow-eyed face pursued me for the next ten years.

In the Musee d’Orsay I debated whether to throw away the (brass) ring, but decided to keep it as an object lesson in the necessity for vigilance. We spent some wonderful hours in the museum, which wasn’t as busy as it can be. When we emerged, the sun was low in the sky and on the Lover’s Bridge young couples were buying padlocks, scratching on them, attaching them to a link of the fence, and tossing the keys into the river. We stopped to chat with the padlock vendor, who was pleased to learn that we came from the country that produced most of his wares.

My husband sat on a bench to watch the boats and I wandered on. Behind me, I heard, take, take. I turned and saw a different woman, much older, offering a gold ring to a tall man whose back was to me. I saw him place the ring in a back pocket. The woman held out her hand, clearly asking for money. The man shook his head. She gabbled something and he took the ring from his pocket and dropped it into her palm. She cast him a bitter look.

Thirty seconds later, her eyes starting from her head, she was in my face. She spat some words and before I could move, gave me a savage pinch on the arm. Get away from me, I yelled. Two women heard me. I call gendarme, said one of them, taking out her cell phone. But the pincher had vanished, melting into the thinning crowd like a ghost.

Her well-honed sensors for trouble had picked up my lurking; perhaps she thought I brought her ill-fortune, or maybe she’d just had an arid day with the hapless tourists. But that pinch, which quickly blossomed into a dark bruise on my arm, remained stubbornly in my head.

That evening, everywhere we walked seemed beset by men and women finding gold rings and pantomiming astonishment. We witnessed several tourists being approached and harassed. I recalled the words of a Russian friend who had spent time in Romania. A country with a lot of problems, he said. The Romany people are everywhere else, for decades now. In the towns there are palatial homes that belong to them. They are empty; the owners are all over the world, stealing and mugging. They educate their children to steal, he said, and shrugged. They come from a hard country. Only the old men and old women remain behind, looking after enormous, silent homes with no families, no children.

On the train out of Paris to Lourdes, where our hike was to begin, I experienced the reprieve one feels leaving an unsafe part of any city. Paris, I thought, was somebody else’s dream now. Mon amour no longer.


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