I went to the funeral for a friend to my children on Saturday. I couldn't stop thinking about the mother and putting myself in her shoes. Batswana are a very stoic people; wild emotions are frowned upon. For women, when someone very close to you dies you are put in a room with all of the elderly women in the family. This bit of writing is about that.
The Dream Dying Room
She sits in the room she’s been assigned to for the last week and a half. At first she wanted to rebel against tradition and get out. Her son was dead and it seemed only right that she should be involved in laying him to rest just as she’d been involved in every aspect of his life up until then. But the routine of the room has become a comfort. The abnormality of it gives structure to the dead end her life has run into. The room is a fitting place for dreams to die without hopes begging for their resurrection.
People crowd. She can hear chairs knocking against each other in the garden. People talking. The smell of cooking fires drifts in. People pass through to view her son, so abnormally still in the wooden coffin, so quiet and solemn. She sits, statue still. She’s found it helps to keep down the emotions simmering just under the surface, like lava in an active volcano. No one wants an eruption, it’s frowned upon; she’s been taught that since she was a little girl.
People are settling. She can hear her husband’s aunt start a hymn in her strong, solid tenor. Though she mourns with them, a sprinkle of excitement can be heard around the edges of her voice. She revels in every opportunity to share her talent with strangers.
Everything is heavy and distorted. The old women pack her up and push her into a stranger’s car. It smells of dust. The blankets are tucked in around her as insulation against the world and she sweats in their folds. When she sees the ragged hole torn into the red soil, her mind clears. This is it, she tells herself. She will leave her son here. Alone. Forever. She tries to think of other things as they lower the casket. She picks at her anger at the minister who pleads with the gathering to save themselves before it is too late, but she has no energy to build up any proper fury. She’s not succeeding in diverting her attention. The soil drops shovel by shovel onto her son. The echo of it bangs against her weary heart. It will continue in her mind long after this day.
She’s weak from the effort of keeping herself sane. She sits in the room again. She can hear people stacking chairs. Cars start and drive away. Plates clank against each other in a metal washing tub. Men lift the massive three-legged, iron pots onto the back of a baakie that brought them.
The room is emptying. People must go home. They’ve finished what they came for, to bury her son. They must get back to their lives that have been running along without them. At some point, she knows, they will come and tell her to leave the room too; to get back to her own life. But her life is no longer waiting for her. Her life was not running along while she stepped out of it for a few days. The room that she rebelled against at first is the only place her new life still goes on. Now her only wish is to cling to the abnormal; she knows the ordinary will force her defenses down. She might not survive it, she thinks, as she buries herself deeper into the heavy blankets and dreams that she might be forgotten.
That was so good, Lauri. It made me tear up at the end. I've not lost a child, but I think I would be like her and not leave the room.
Straight From Hel
Thanks Helen. It seems almost unbearable the loss of a child, I don't think I'd manage.
You highlighted at the end what all of us would feel - that clinging to the abnormal would be the only way to cope with such horror.
There was a starkness to this story that was just so effective.
I am intrigued by the stoic response to funerals in Botswana. A few months back I attended a Greek funeral and there was much wailing and weeping. It was very, very loud. I was exhausted by the end of it. I suspect stoicism would also be exhausting in its own way.
In some ways I think the Setswana response to death and funerals is helpful for me. I know my perspective might be skewed but I feel that emotions are often a matter of control and to let loose of that control can be dangerous. I grew up with a mentally ill mother and always felt in many ways she just didn't try hard enough to get control over her wayward mind. I'm sure that's unfair on so many levels. Nevertheless as an adult I fear wild emotions, though I've been part of them and, in most cases, it has not gone well.
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