Journey: 4

It’s six a.m. I phone Paul’s parents.

“Oh, Erica, Erica, oh my child, oh child!” my mother-in-law sobs.

What can anyone say? Paul’s sister Maryke phones me. I curl up next to the desk in Intensive Care – the floor where no-one wants to be.

Karna and Anneke arrive. They bring clothes for me. They hold me. I cry until it feels as if my body is being ripped to pieces. They start organising. What do I need, who has to be phoned, what has to be done? Someone – a dear, sweet woman – fetches me and leads me by the hand along light, colourful corridors to a bathroom, so that I can have a shower. I stand under the warm water for a long time, and rinse the dust and blood from my body. I ask her to throw away my blood-stained shirt, I won’t wear it again. The pants are still OK. I step out of the shower and she wraps a towel around me, like a mother with her child. This gesture moves me deeply. I put on Karna’s clothes. Socks which come up to my thighs. It feels like being held. Who would have guessed that socks can be such a comfort? I remember a day when Karna wore these socks. There are Egyptian hieroglyphs along the sides.

They make me lie down on a bed. There are butterflies on the blanket. Aniek would like that. I can’t lie still. Can’t sleep.

Anneke says: “You need to prepare yourself that your daughter may not survive.”

It’s true. It’s the terrifying, horrible truth. I want to kick and scream and hit, but I lie quietly, hold the hysteria in, shove it into a box, stick the lid on tight. I nod and wipe off more tears. My heart tries to bundle into itself and to hide in a corner of my body.

Wait, wait, wait. The hours are blurred. Anneke and Karna organise everything. How to break into my house to get an extra car key. Our doctor is in Betty’s Bay, she will fetch  Roald and Mila at Jaco’s place and bring them home.

I’ve been awake since the previous morning. 24 hours. I am transparent from tiredness and shock and fear.

My parents land at nine o’clock and come straight to the hospital. I cling to my mum and we cry on each other’s shoulders. Then my dad approaches, quiet and worried. He holds me tight and then leads me to a sofa. I sit almost on his lap and cry my heart out in big lumps. He tries to comfort me, to see the positive and to help me feel better.

One of the doctors says, “Your child is in the very best place. Even if you had gone to a private hospital, they would have sent her here, because in the whole of Africa, there is no better hospital to treat burns. And prof. Rode[1] is one of the world’s experts.”

That, already, is something to hold on to.

Prof. Rode and drs. Brown and Shaw arrive and talk to me. My mum stays with me. I cry the whole time.

Prof says: “Mevrou, your child’s candle is burning very low.”

“What are her chances for survival?”

It seems as if Prof doesn’t want to say it out loud. He circles the percentage that she has burnt on his notes, and says, “With this percentage, it is …” and he writes “20%”.

“Aniek will be my child for quite a while,” he continues in a controlled voice. “I want to you to go home tonight and not to stay in the hospital. I can’t work with a mother who falls to pieces, and you have to rest to prevent that. You must sleep in your own bed.”

A baby boy is admitted to ICU. He is 15 months old. Stomach virus. His mother, Mary, shares the waiting room with me. My dad brings food; I see that she is hungry and I share it with her. We both nibble self-consciously. We look at each other through eyes red and thick from crying. We understand each other’s pain.

She says: “My baby has been sick since Wednesday. The doctors are busy with him now.”

Reverend Fanie arrives with Herman, member of our church who knows Paul well. Rev. Fanie reads from the Bible, trying to give me strength. I cry through everything, but I hear his words: “Even if you walk through fire, you won’t burn.” (No, no, no!!!)

“You are not alone; don’t be scared. Aniek and Paul have burnt, but you are the one who is standing in the fire now.”

He prays. I cry.

Mary says: “Amen.”

When they are gone, I tell her: “That prayer was also for your child.”

I can’t sleep. The sleeping tablet I asked for, doesn’t help at all. I walk back to the ward. I see four doctors standing around a little black child, desperately trying to resuscitate him. It’s Mary’s baby. Later I hear a woman weeping in the hallway and I know: her baby is dead. I lean against a wall and cry and cry for her. She is alone in her darkest moment. Alone.


But deep inside, in the darkest corner of my hiding heart, I think, “Today Death came for a child, but it was not my child. She was spared and Mary’s child was taken. My child lives another day.”


A while later a tiny baby is brought to the unit. He is hooked up to a machine which vibrates his whole body. I don’t know what the machine is for, but I can guess that it has something to do with his heart.

One of the doctors tells her assistants, quietly in a corner, “The prognosis is poor, but we will continue fighting.”

The baby’s mother is sitting next to the cot with a lost, closed expression on her face. And then her nerves shatter and she falls to the ground, shaking and screaming. A nervous breakdown – right next to Aniek’s bed. I don’t know if Aniek is aware of her surroundings. I lean close to her head and explain: “This mummy is upset about her child, she is not crying for you.” I envy this mother. I also want to do as she is doing, but I am too repressed, too inhibited to let go.

Erica Neser (c) 2011

[1] Prof Heinz Rode is also the co-author of A Practical Guide to Paediatric Burns. See references at the end of the book.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Yoga with Nicci
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 21:47:40

    “I sit almost on his lap and cry my heart out in big lumps”. You have a beautiful way with words. I cried for not only you and Aniek, but for poor Mary, and all the other mothers who experience this sort of loss, or the threat of potential loss.


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