“They want to kill me Baasie!” Oom Karel had visibly aged in the past weeks since JJ had last seen him. When he’d come in for his checkup the X-Ray had revealed the lethal progress of the growths in his lungs, and the young doctor had insisted he remain as an inpatient.
As he lay there now, he was drawn, his complexion sallow, his eyes sunken with the opacity that comes near death but he still mustered plenty of energy to deliver a good argument and a smile that imploded his toothless face.
When he needed it, like now when he was angling toward an objective, he could also somehow manufacture the old twinkle of health in his eyes;
“They say I must have clean air so they take my tobacco,” he grumbled, “and then they put me in this place that smells so bad. I would be better if I could have my tobacco… and be home.”
“It’s antiseptics,” JJ assured him, trying to justify what had been done to the old man, taking his will to live with it, “it kills disease.”
But Karel would have none of it; “It makes a man sick…” he insisted.
The old bushman’s sense of smell was, in spite of a long career devoted to smoking everything that came to hand, refined far beyond the olfactory reach of even a virile young city dweller.
JJ appreciated how the old man must be suffering from the astringent chemical odors and the cultural deprivations away from his people, “I’ll fix it,” he promised.
“And the light is terrible. So bright, everything so white,” Karel wanted to leave no room for misunderstanding.
“It’s how we keep the hospital as clean as possible; but I’ll get you home today, Oom. In the meantime I’ll have them turn the lights down,” and he sent for the administrator to see that it got done immediately.
“Ja… but my poor old eyes…” Karel groused, sounding instantly weak to the point of expiring.
While he had the young Baas JJ ready to argue his case and get him concessions, Karel was determined to negotiate all he could;
“These blankets are too much. They want to keep me covered, but it’s smothering me. And… I don’t know…” he shook his head with a great tragedy and weakly lifted his arm, festooned as it was with drips and monitors, “How can an old man survive with so many pipes and wires… And the food…”
Just then the nurse came in to check readings on the monitor and Karel managed to devise the kind of appearance and manufacture a cough that would ensure him extra special attention. JJ took the opportunity to step into the corridor where Marsha, catching a ride back from Pieter the lawyer, was waiting. She’d heard the exchange and had sneaked a peak past the door.
“Is it a good idea to have him discharged?” Marsha asked quietly, “He looks like he’s at death’s doorstep.”
“Don’t let him fool you, he’s stronger than he looks,” JJ assured her, his voice warm with affection and assurance; but he couldn’t cover the real pang of concern he felt, and she knew she was right. “They’re the best actors in the business. I’ll bet he bounces right back as soon as we get him home. Right now he’s angling for his tobacco before anything…”
“You don’t think it’s as serious as it seems?” she quizzed, trying to tease the facts out of JJ.
“Oh… it’s very serious but it comes down to his will now. I wish they hadn’t kept him. These people are extraordinary… unless you work with them you’ll never believe it; tough beyond imagining. I’d wager that even in this condition he could still keep going for years—it comes down to his will to fight, and they took it away by trying to nurse him better. They took away his reason to keep going.”
“Without a doubt, Marsha; he doesn’t think of himself as an individual like you and I do. Nothing in his background has given him that perception—he was probably conceived in an open room full of other families, born into it, grown up in it, and conceived his own kids that way. To him, his community matters much more than himself. He thinks of himself as just another actor in the unfolding drama of his clan.”
Just then the administrator arrived and JJ followed him into the ward. To much protestation from the man, JJ instructed that they were to turn down the lights and begin discharge procedures to get the old man home.
Earlier, Karel had confirmed that nobody had come to discuss the Heritage Claim with him as the Dominee had said they would. He’d of course heard about the death of Andre and was remarkably sad given that his own grandson had suffered so terribly at the man’s hands.
“I wanted to apologize in person,” JJ had told him, “for the terrible things my father did. They were inexcusable.”
Karel had nodded solemnly and then had countered, “He was a policeman, that was his job.”
“No it wasn’t Oom, not like that. The time is over when police could act that way. He was wrong.” JJ had insisted.
“Dawie is a strong boy, it did him no harm,” it was a long custom for his people to justify the injustices, and though he may well have thought differently about it he would never stand up to authority, certainly not to the man whose father had wielded it over him and his people so thoroughly for decades.
“Any harm that’s been done I want to help fix it, Oom. And that is why we are here… and making sure you get home today.” JJ had gone on to lay forth the option for Dawie to come with him to Cape Town and the new opportunities it would bring the boy—and through his success, success to his community too.
“It will break this old man’s heart,” Karel had confirmed, “but it is my death wish that you take him...”
“You are far from dying Oom … but if you allow this, I will bring him back here every holiday—four times a year,” JJ assured.
“He has been my reason to live, and I am only holding him back by staying…” no amount of arguing against this dire prognosis would sway him from his decision that it was time to go.
And, it was true—in spite of JJ’s hopeful claims that the old man could beat his condition if only he could be back home, the doctors had confirmed to JJ that the old man’s time was running short, the lung cancer was advanced; the weeping puncture wound made to drain fluid from his lungs was uncovered to let it dry out. It looked like a small mouth between ribs that stood in stark relief of the baggy old skin.
JJ asked if it was painful and the old man insisted he could not feel it at all.
“I think I have an idea,” JJ told him with a wry smile, and in a conspiratorial voice he suggested something cunning; “we get one of the nurses in here and ask her to make wounds in each hand and maybe a few prick-marks around your scalp.”
“And then?” The old man squinted, puzzling the suggestion.
“Well—when you get to the pearly gates, St. Peter there may confuse you for the Son of the Big Man in the sky.”
Karel began to laugh, the little mouth in his side chortling along with each compression as laughter morphed into a life-threatening death rattle. He thought it a fantastic idea that, in his own words, a little “Lelike ou Boesman”—ugly old Bushman—might be mistaken for the handsome son of God he’d seen in the statues and stained glass when the farmer Bauer had once taken him to the big church.
Karel told them that Dawie had got his phone back, but the screen was cracked and the battery missing.
“That’s nothing,” JJ told him, “I will get him a better phone. I will also get you a phone too… I’ll go buy it right now and get it to your house before you get there.”
The old man heartily laughed again at the thought of it. He had no need for a phone, not now or before, or ever.
“I am serious,” JJ had insisted. “Your community needs at least a phone between you. I will talk with Baas Bauer and ensure that this is done.”
Karel conceded that it might be a good idea—he had a good eye for trade and he’d seen how cleverly Dawie had used the device to make some money and begun to arrange improvements in their lot, so Karel agreed to identify the next best individual to whom JJ could entrust the valuable asset.
“I only ask for one thing,” the nurse had finished her fussing and gone; Karel looked drained from acting so deathly sick, “that I can lie on the sand again.” Afraid that, in his weakened condition, JJ might deny this extreme wish to him, he quickly played out a trump card, “I want to see the sun one more time, because I don’t have much time Baasie. I have already seen my people here at my bed, come to fetch me.”
The way he said it, JJ instantly knew what he meant—he’d already established that the old man had received only scant few visitors who’d managed the trek in from the farm; “You have seen people?”
“Ja, coming into the room to look at me,” the old man confirmed.
“Do you recognize them? Are they ancestors,” he asked gently.
“I think so, baasie… I know you will say they’re not really here, but they do look friendly and I’m not afraid. They want me home.”
“I’m arranging it already, Oom. As soon as our new ambulance is back from the emergency it is on, they’ll get you straight home,” he assured Karel.
Another small interruption and he stepped to the door, admitting to Marsha that her the worst were true, “I think he’s slipping faster than I thought, I hope we can beat the clock. His brain’s shutting down, I’ve seen it before.”
“I know, I can hear,” she said, “and it’s heart breaking. I’ve never met him, yet it feels like losing an old friend.”
“He is an old friend, an old friend in an instant, because he’s a piece of us deep within that we can all recall.”
She wiped at the tear that those resonating words sprang from her eye.
JJ stepped back inside, “The visiting time is almost up, everything is in place… I must go buy your phone now,” JJ assured him.
“That would make me very pleased, baasie.” Karel wasn’t laughing, it was the first time JJ had seen him so earnest.
JJ went out to ask the doctors to make all haste with preparations, then returned to say that it would all happen within the hour.
They said their goodbyes and as JJ went out through the door he heard the old man say something so he stepped back inside.
“I am very proud to know you,” Karel told him.
JJ’s throat locked up and his mind clamped fast, he could only repeat the same sentiment to Karel, “I am proud to have known you too my old Oom.”
He quickly left before the old man could see him cry.
Before JJ could reach the phone shop, his own mobile rang; it was the hospital.
“He is going fast Meneer, and I’m afraid we didn’t manage to let him see he was unplugged from the machines as you’d asked before he slipped...”
By the time they’d doubled back and hurried into the ward, Oom Karel looked peaceful. The drips and monitors were gone and serenity had returned to his shell, lying neatly covered by the light sheet he’d earlier kept pushing aside.
The look he wore on his face said he had seen the sun after all and that he had returned with it to the wild bushland of Africa.