“To Live a Little” is a window into the fraught moments leading up to a funeral and the futile attempt to delay grief. As one man struggles with his mind slipping away, his family bears the weight of slowly losing the person they love. With a tenderness born of recognition, Phodiso Modirwa describes the faraway places her dying uncle’s mind would go; both she and her uncle know what it is to be rendered unreachable by the depth of their distress and had found in each other’s suffering a quiet kinship. Originally published in The Shallow Tales Review, this essay tiptoes around a fractured family’s reckoning with loss, the beasts of grief, and lurking mental illness.
— Alexandra Valahu for Guernica Global Spotlights
Inside the old Toyota Tazz, the three of us are attempting forgetfulness while the animal we are in speeds recklessly through the country. From inside here, the sides of the road look like blurry murals of abstract existence, and aren’t we all right now? None of us wants to punctuate this moment with anything so much as a cough, lest it be the thing that names this numbness, this harrowing absence we all don’t want to believe.
Oh! The wailing that came in through my father’s phone last night, like a bird shrieking, caught in a heartless trap. It is the same wailing that saw us piling into this small car, stuffing silence with as much denial as to have death almost second-guess itself. We’re not going to bury anyone; we’re just going to save the bird from the trap, to make sure that the wailing voice was mistaken. I tell myself this because in my mind, my uncle cannot be gone. But if he really is, I need to ask him what he means by that, if perhaps he is afraid and needs me to come with him.
I don’t know why my father is rocking his body from side to side. He is flipping his drawing pencil between his fingers with such dexterity that it is making me anxious. At his command, the pencil can mirror any emotion etched into a face with the precision of a photographer’s work. On a different day, he might have captured the angst in this car on paper only. He is not himself. He is a little boy desperate for comfort, and I do not have the words with which to bring him back into his body, the body that is of my father.
“Papa, please breathe,” I hack into the silence with hesitation, noticing that my father has been drawing only little breaths between long periods of time. He is thinking, I suppose, that perhaps if he takes in less air, he can save enough breaths for his brother until we see him again.
“It’s a long journey, Ndo, so let me hold it till we arrive,” he absentmindedly responds, still spinning the pencil between his fingers.
The lady behind the wheel casts a look over me in the back of the car, and then over my father in the front passenger seat. Only empathy places her here, so she is standing outside the loss, on the verge of crying for a man she may have never met in her life.
A minute is a long time when someone you were still getting to know is said to already be gone. There is a whole four hours between us and the place where my uncle’s cold body lies, according to the voice on the phone. Months ago, I wrote this same uncle into a poem, the only way I know how to hold on to things I am afraid I may be losing. He had started talking to himself and wandering off into nearby cattle posts, disappearing first for hours and then for days. When he would be found, all parched, barefoot and often without a sense of how long he had been away, he would call anyone disrespectful who suggested he was lost. Sometimes he would fight the people meaning to take him home and clean him up. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the diagnosis said he was schizophrenic and possibly bipolar. My uncle was losing his mind slowly, and with that we were losing him.
“What do you want to be when you grow up…up…up…up?” my uncle asked me on one of the few times we were together after his diagnosis. It was a strange but familiar question because we had been over that topic many years back.
He had also started to be repetitive in speech — not stammering, just saying the same words over and over again, like a car stuck in the mud, all spinning wheels but stagnant.
“I want to be an accountant who is also a writer,” I said, making way for the river of conversation ensuing, about to sweep over the both of us.
“An accater you want to be,” he said in response, like that was a real word. He was holding his index finger up in the air, his gaze fixed on the horizon like he had just discovered something. He stood in this position for a while, as if to not mull over this new discovery would be to disrespect the gods.
“What will you write about me, Ndo? Will you tell them…them…them I was your muse?” He came back into the moment and, as he brushed his no-longer-there hair backward, his bald scalp now ashy from the aggravating thistles of the brush, asked, “What will you tell them, Ndo? What will you tell them, Ndo? What will you tell them?”
“Well, I want to write sci-fi kind of stories, robots and aliens and things of that sort,” I said, aware that he did not know of this new interest I had developed. My answer seemed to reach his ears at a time he was already done with our conversation, because he looked away from me for some time, then rose up like something urgent was calling, something someplace far away from a girl too obsessed with her imagination.
“When it does not hurt so much, and you are ready, write about healing too,” he said as he shuffled past me, brushing his callused hand over what I thought was my skillfully hidden cut scars.
Surprise coupled with embarrassment washed over me. No one had ever seen the portals through which I called myself back into existence — an ugly coping mechanism I had picked up during my first year of university, when school books and a troubled past had me walking around like a zombie. I grew numb until one evening, in a frenzy, I found a scalpel in my biology material and pressed it hard against my skin. It hurt like it was supposed to, but only for a while. When it stopped, I repeated the torment three more bloody times, one after the other so that the pain could last longer. That night I cried myself to sleep, grateful to feel alive enough to feel something, to feel pain. It had been two years. I did not expect my uncle, of all people, to be the one to notice the scars, and to respect my ache enough not to waltz into it, demanding answers like I had them.
When you lose your mind, you become a tree dying slowly at the roots. Your leaves fall off first, before the stem of your whole being. The first person to leave was my uncle’s first wife, Chandapiwa. She was so plum and well-kept when she left, and several months later we learned that she got married to the man who could have been my uncle’s therapist, had we been able to afford his fees. But a year later, she started visiting her ex-husband at the asylum where he was hospitalized. No longer plum and pretty, she had hollowed eyes, and her face wore a permanent look of shame. No one made much of her reappearance. Then my uncle’s employer let him go, after which his children, foolish enough to think that the severance benefits and whatever payments their father received from the job would last forever, spent their days drinking themselves to stupor with his money. It was autumn in my uncle’s mind, and everything around him was helping shake vigorously the shriveled-up tree that he was becoming.
There were times when the thing that made my uncle a tree would leave him alone. On those days he was calm, like still waters. He grew particularly fond of colors and would tell me that, in his mind, hues of different colors burst into vibrancy. According to him, even emotions had color, so he could tell when I was happy or sad — most times, I was the latter.
“That is why I like talking to you, to see your cloud of gray become pink, become happy,” he would say. I liked it when he was that present, that okay. On some days, though, there were steel bars in his mind grinding against each other so violently that he had to clasp his palms against his ears to shut the noise out.
“Make it stop!” he would scream. “I am stuck inside the engine. Stop the car!”
On those days, none of us at home could reach him. Soon the ambulance would be called, and he would have to be away for some time, getting the psychological help he needed. I was still getting to know this new uncle.
I remember having a conversation with a boy I might have loved if he had not made too many ignorant comments.
“You know, as a country we are progressing, but we seem to copy everything from first-world countries,” he said to me.
I agreed with him, thinking he meant the dress code, culture, and language, but then he said, “Like mental illness. Nowadays everyone has some diagnosis or another.”
All I could hear was, Your uncle is trying to be something he is not, something American, maybe. I was upset, but that was just his opinion. His comment stayed with me longer that it should have, but I was not surprised, because here at home, while anyone not Black might have mental illnesses, our own people ba a tsenwa. They are mad. That statement is said with such dismissing finality that the person spoken of is reduced to just that opinion. Nothing beyond that. So I wrote the poem “Defiant Seed,” in which my uncle was not anyone’s opinion, not even his diagnosis. He was just a man who cared about his family, who drove his red Hyundai sedan by himself to the city and back, even with the color, or the buzz of a thousand machines, spluttering in his mind.
A few hours later, we arrive.
Something eats the time so ravenously that the days are a blur till the day of the funeral. It is on this day I learn that the woman who came driving us is my mother, in a way. (What is the respectful way to say “my father’s girlfriend” without calling the woman a girl, without reducing her to my mate?) A few days ago, she was just a woman driving a grieving man and his daughter to a funeral; today she is my mother. I can identify with the out-of-placeness in her eyes because even I am not home here. When I see the older women who want to spite her, I assert my presence so that they do not get to walk away without shame. They ask about my biological mother’s well-being from behind their ingratiating smiles to say that they do not see the woman standing next to me; as if they ever loved my real mother, never called her nkhwa behind her back, never said she was only with my father for his money, please!
So when they ask, I hold my new mother’s hand and answer, “O teng,” to hold space for my mother back home, but my hand says, Do you not see her?
During the last conversation I had with my uncle, he promised to come see me in the city. He said it would be like the old times, only he would not ask too many questions. I did not know why he said that, but before I hung up the phone, he asked, “The boy you love…love…love, Ndo, he loves you back, right?”
“I think we’re okay,” I said, listening with bated breath for what he would say next.
“You have not answered me,” he responded, his voice still in the same range, so if there was even a tinge of irritability, I could not attest to the change in his emotions.
“Yes, uncle, well, he makes me happy.”
“Then keep him, my girl, keep him,” he continued. “Don’t keep anything that does not make you happy. This life doesn’t make me happy, Ndo, do you know that? Do you know that? You said it’s a boy you love? It’s a boy, a boy, boy, girl, keep her!” He went on in monologue till he hung up on me.
That conversation did not sit well with me, but when I called later to inquire after him at the hospital, the doctor said he was heavy on medication and may have been hallucinating earlier. I had no idea that would be our last conversation.
Setswana is an interesting culture. When my parents parted ways, I stayed with my mother longer, so I do not know much about my father’s side of the family. When anyone strikes the rock of identity to ask my name, I say my mother’s clan name instinctively. Depending on who does the striking, though, I could be of my father’s tribe, especially if they ask in my father’s language, which I’m still learning, thanks to, I don’t know, the city? With so many of my people who I recognise but cannot call mine because I cannot converse with them. There is a story in my family of how, when I was a toddler, my father took me to my maternal grandparents with only Ikalanga on my tongue. For months, I spoke and no one could hear me. By the time I went to live in the city, I had forgotten most of the language. My father (who was the only one tethering me to my Ikalanga roots) neglected the duty of making sure I grew in it. Sometime during the funeral, I remember this and resent him for it. I inherited this unbelonging because of his complacency.
During the funeral, when anyone asks me, “Uno lebeleka?” I say back, “Anto ziba Ikalanga,” to mean that I do not know the language in which they are speaking to me. I remember Trevor Noah’s joke about how we always learn just the words to say we can’t speak a language. This makes the person speaking to us continue on in that language in disbelief. It is not funny now, just serviceably mundane that I have a phrase to help me waddle out of a language I should be able to speak.
My uncle’s casket lies in plain sight, yet I cannot go see him. My father has an altercation with family elders, and whatever the bone of contention, he says they can go on with the funeral without him. They are speaking in a language I love, but because of my grief, I struggle to hear even the words I know. My father is infuriated. He says he knows who killed his brother, and I want to tell him, Not now, Papa. These words usually work when he is this apprehensive, but not today. Today he is a wounded lion with things to say from inside his loss.
“Papa, let’s continue with the burial; you will talk later,” I say to him as gently as I can.
His bloodshot eyes dart from side to side bewilderedly before he proceeds to ask whose child I am: “Ingwanana wa yani iwoyu?”
I know it is grief — it does that to a body, disconnects it from everything that was once seamlessly tethered to it. I am his daughter, but he does not see me right now. I want to go hold him, but he is my father. Whose daughter will I be when he is just a boy in my arms’ mind? I saw that boy already on our way here, so I will take the animal he is right now.
My darling father — both his parents died, and now the last of his brothers is gone. He has lost everything; what more has he to throw into death’s greedy, bottomless mouth? The tape of his tongue is going on and on about his brother’s first and second wives and witch in-laws who wouldn’t let his brother succeed. My uncle died divorced, so there is no one to be faulted for having killed him in that way, the way family members like accusing wives. But my father says he wants his brother alive; he says whoever caused his illness killed him seven years ago. That was before my uncle’s second marriage, before we made promises to each other.
“What will be done after the funeral?” I ask one of the ladies standing next to me outside the yard. She is wearing a head wrap atop a wig I wish she could have taken off before coming here, before she went to spend the whole night cooking with big pots around an even bigger fire.
“I don’t know, my child, this is not a usual funeral,” she responds, tightening the cloth around her waist.
“You mean since — ”
“Since both the women are here. Your uncle married twice and never divorced.”
“Wait, I’m not sure about the second wife, but I’m sure the first one left him. She got married, remember?”
“Well, it turns out they never divorced. They both moved on with other partners and married traditionally. Your uncle’s second wife did the same thing too. That is why there are two women in there sharing a widow’s mattress.”
At this point, we’re talking in hushed voices. I have a lot of questions, but I am worried the woman might find me too prurient, so I keep them short.
In the end, I understand that if he had been the one who lost a wife, my uncle would have had to pin a small black cloth to his coat to signify his loss, the beginning of widowhood. If by any chance the cloth fell, he would have had to leave it on the ground, never to pick it up again because then that would mean his wife had released him, his mourning period now complete. But since he is the one gone and behind remain two widows, they will have to be draped in black garments for him. Their mourning, a dirge smothered in melancholy, sung only by grackles till the end of the mourning period. This will go on for six months or a year.
Later, a hole will be carved into the fence around the yard to make a temporary gate for the widows. They will use it for the entire period of their mourning so that when they complete it and the hole is closed, the deceased’s spirit will understand that he is no longer part of their lives. Grief cannot be contained in any way, but in this, an effort is made to bridle its untamed mercilessness.
The lady also tells me about how, as is custom, someone had to whisper into my late uncle’s ear after his passing, to funnel the whirlwind of his departure into sure acceptance. To say to him, You are gone. Please, give in to the process of our losing you. This is done to let him know that he is now in the spirit world and should not fight to come back, and also to plead with him not to be used for evil purposes, like witchcraft.
Death is a shrike whose thorn is grief, and where does that leave us? If not pierced and hung for the vultures, they are descending now like night, around the carnage that loss has left behind in its wake. They are here for boswa, inheritance. Strangers show up out of nowhere after the funeral, speaking of some cattle once lent to the deceased, some plot of land once sold to them that they never took. They will even examine your roof before conveniently remembering a time they sold a zinc sheet to the deceased on credit; they will make a demand for it too. Vultures. They did come, but at that point the city called us back, or my father called us back into the car, or the void inside my heart told me there was nothing left there for us, so we left.
We did not bury my uncle, because loss plowed my father’s mind and body so much, he could not sit still. So we stayed with him to hold him together.
But if we did not bury my uncle, did he really die? And if I still see him in my dreams, am I dead too?
At night when I go to bed, I dream that my uncle is still alive, but as smoke wafting playfully before my face. When I reach out to touch him, he escapes my grasp, then comes back another way making funny faces. I am still sad that he is gone, and I find nothing humorous in his refusal to let me touch him. Noticing my fallen countenance, he comes up from under my chin to lift my head and says, without repeating any word, “I am here. Lighten up, baby. Live a little…little…little, okay?”
And so I continue living. A little.
Written by Phodiso Modirwa and originally published by The Shallow Tales Review, which describes itself as “an online literary outfit that curates the best literature from Africa and across the world.” Reprinted with permission.