The Maths Teacher and the Walker
2001. Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg. I know these wards and corridors like the back of my hand. These pale green and blue hallways with their disinfectant aroma are my playground every twice a week after school. Mom is plugged into the dialysis machine for hours on end. You can’t enter the ward unless you’ve disinfected your hands with the vinegary liquid – I do it automatically. I know this routine, you can’t tell me anything about gardening books and waiting rooms and Huisgenoot magazines. Mom reads religiously while on the machine. I do too. Whenever I get my hands on a magazine I turn straight to the page where they sometimes have a poster of a comic book character right up the middle. Other times I draw mustaches on the faces of celebrities or blacken out their eyes and teeth. And when I’m not witnessing entropy do its thing on gurneys, I do my homework or kill time sleeping in the car.
But mostly I walk. I walk up and down these sterile passageways, to the cafeteria, upstairs, outside. I walk for hours, wondering about. I walk in on dad reading mom a passage of scripture, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters…” She likes it when dad reads to her. She often asks him to read just this portion.
At home, dad hammers a hook into their bedroom ceiling so they can hang a drip that connects into a plug somewhere in mom’s abdomen. I don’t like looking at the plug – the pipelike protrusion is always covered in red and yellow betadyne stains and bandages. Our garage is stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of transparent plastic bags filled with water-like liquid. Sometimes it’s my job to open a box, pull out the bag and put it in the microwave so that the inside is warm enough to go into her body. I hate this job. Mom sits there under the hook for hours reading or calculating their medical bills in a black, 92 page hardcover. I’m too young to understand all the complex words and long numbers, but I know they must be important. Mom’s a maths teacher, she’ll figure it out.
One day mom gets a kidney transplant. We all are happy, no more hooks or plastic bags. I don’t have to hang around the hospital after school, I can come straight home and play outside with my friends. In exchange for a new kidney, the doctors give mom a pile of pills that she has to take everyday to keep her body from rejecting the foreign organ. I watch her sort the pills into little plastic containers, one pill for this, one for that, this white one goes here, this yellow one there. She sorts them the way a mathematician would and stacks them one atop the other. Seeing them arranged like that on her bedside reminds me of an abacus.
Mom is more sick than ever. I walk into her room and ask her to help me with a maths problem. From underneath the covers we work through my tutorial and I fall asleep beside her. Her body is warm and comforting. She’ll always be here to help me with these numbers because she’s a problem solver and she’s tough. She takes the knocks one after the other and because of that, I can tuck my problems away under her. With mom the odds are even. No sum is too big. The next day I get home from school and find out dad drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Nobody told me.
I’m standing around her bed with my dad and brother. We don’t say a word, we have nothing to say. We just look at each other, eyes darting between us. Mom sees us, but she can’t speak. It’s like she doesn’t know who we are. In that moment I meet death for the first time, its countenance is unflinching, unbending and resolute. I’m sick with the gravity of what’s about to happen pressing down on me from somewhere on the other side of the universe. So I leave. I leave the ward and I walk. I don’t know where I’m going but I walk. All the places I usually walk seem strange and foreign to me. Faster. I think that if I walk faster I’ll repel the nausea.
I’m alone at home staring at a maths tutorial. I don’t know how to do it. The last time I met with a problem, mom was here to help. The house is dead quiet. It’s just me and this problem in a stand-off. The nausea and grief come back to me as I explode into tears. No one is around so it’s easier to have a meltdown, but it’s harder to sit down and cave in. So I walk. I walk up and down our living room, it’s loud with the void of what mom left behind. I’m estranged from my own house and I’m burning circles into the floor beneath. I think that if I walk, the problem will solve itself.
I’ve been walking ever since.