Happy Birthday Mom

Friday 12 February 2010

Dear “Mom” Nadine

Thirty-five years ago, in 1975, you adopted, through Rotary, another eighteen-year-old son from South Africa.

Simple arithmetic will tell us, therefore, that you were 45 years old at the time. Thinking back on it now, I had thought that you were much older at the time – certainly much older than I am now at 53! But then, I guess, we as the younger generation definitely age much better than the generation before us!

That was the start of a relationship that has now spanned almost four decades. For a long while, when I lived with you and “Dad”, I avoided giving you a name – Mom and Dad didn’t seem quite right and Nadine and Bill seemed too familiar.

There are so many things that stand out from that year – playing in the snow in the middle of the night, homemade ice cream on the back porch, you changing the channel on a Sunday night from Sonny and Cher to the Disney channel, walks in the woods, the huge fire (so I thought) that had destroyed your trees, lying on the plush shag carpet watching TV (a novelty for me then), the Lake of the Arbuckles, … the list continues ad infinitum.

I have had the good fortune of returning to see you in the United States on a number of occasions. In 1989, I spent a month in Sulphur with you. In 1999, we met briefly in Atlanta. In 2001, just after September 11, our whole family was privileged to spend time in Atlanta and Missouri. And then, there was the last visit to you in March 2007 to attend Dad’s 80th surprise party.

Unfortunately, as we all remember, that was not to be and we spent the time with Dad in the hospital. How grateful I will forever be that I got to see him just before he passed away.

I had considered coming over for your 80th birthday, but was scared that another surprise visit from me would send you to the hospital, too!

Nevertheless, my heart and thoughts are in Oklahoma this weekend. I would so dearly have liked to be there with you and the whole Whitley family to celebrate this major milestone in your life.

We will raise our glasses to you and celebrate your life here in South Africa. As the sun sets in the west here tonight, it rises in Oklahoma – a new day, your 80th birthday!

May your days be filled with good health, prosperity and love. Enjoy this time with your very special family. God bless you all!

Thank you for the memories.

We wish you a very happy 80th birthday and many happy returns of the day!

With much love from your African American son, Ed, and Pera, Sean and Phillip.

Get Well Soon!

 Thursday, 11 February 2010: Three years five months on …

From the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass (420m above sea level), one looks out westwards over False Bay. Below you lie Gordon’s Bay, Strand (where I grew up and spent the first 27 years of my life) and Somerset West. This whole basin is encircled by the sea and the Hottentots-Holland Mountains (which lend their name to the High School I attended in Somerset West) and the Helderberg. Behind the Helderberg lies Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa, my birthplace and the academic town where I spent six extremely happy years of my life at University obtaining my degree and other post-graduate qualifications.

In the distance lie Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, the oldest town – the Mother City, Cape Town – and the mountains of the Cape Peninsula; all this described by Sir Francis Drake as the “Fairest Cape in all the World”.

After having lived in Port Elizabeth for 26 years now, I still “come home” to Cape Town and remain in awe of this magnificent panorama of sea, beach, land and mountain that lies below me.

This weekend is a flying visit to watch Sean and his cricket team play against Rondebosch Boys’ High and the Diocesan College (Bishops). It has given me another opportunity to “come home”, and Sean has driven us, for the first time, the eight hours from Port Elizabeth to here.

It is difficult to come to Cape Town and see everyone you know – sometimes, it’s easier to come in under the radar and see no one, lest you get to offend anyone! This is planned as one of those weekends. But, it becomes hectic – squeezing in the cricket and seeing friends and family who come to watch: Jacobus and Tillie Wust from my university days; Nico de Vries, Adrian van Westenbrugge, Morgan Morris, Brendan Kierman, Janet and Wayne Brown (who have flown down from Johannesburg to watch their son play) – Old Grey’s from my teaching days; and Sebastian Ridgway, my niece’s husband. We catch up on old times between the amassing of runs and the falling of wickets.

This weekend also carries special significance. When we head back to PE on Monday 8 February (after having beaten both schools), it is three years to the day that I headed back to PE from Cape Town by air after having seen Prof Carr at Tygerberg Hospital. He is the head of neurology at Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg. That morning he had informed me that I had corticalbasal degeneration (CBD), a disease that would lead to the paralysis of my body. “Go back to Port Elizabeth”, he said, “and enjoy the next three years of quality life that you have left. You will become severely incapacitated and be confined to a wheelchair. We don’t know what causes the disease and there is no treatment nor any cure.”

The rest of that day, three years ago, I spent at Cape Town International Airport, waiting for my late afternoon flight back to PE. I don’t recall much of that day now, except watching thousands of commuters scurrying around doing the usual airport things. The only unusual thing was that everyone and everything I saw that day was wet – moistened by the never-ending waterfall of tears through which I saw them.

When one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it places a strange new perspective on life – suddenly, all you have is a bunch of yesterdays and very few tomorrows. Your today’ s become the important issue at hand.

So, today, as we drive back to PE, False Bay recedes into the distance and I think back to that yesterday and the consultation I had at Tygerberg. Then, I had seen so many doctors (and undergone six months of tests) because I was unable to type with two fingers on my left hand and was having difficulty in shaving with my left hand. My left arm would pull up and come to rest across my chest!

Now, all my left fingers are almost paralysed and all curled up. I have a numb feeling all the way up my left arm. The same numb feeling that extends from my curled up left toes, through my foot, up my leg into my left buttock. And the same feeling that now extends from my curling up right fingers to my right elbow – the one I broke when I fell in October last year. My two arms feel like cement bags that I carry with me. My walking becomes slower and more difficult. It is only my right leg that remains unaffected.

Then there are the cognitive changes talking place – the short-term memory, the dyslexia, the planning ability … Strangely, my stuttered and broken speech has improved so dramatically that it appears to the outsider – most times – absolutely normal.

Having said all this, the wheelchair still seems such a remote tomorrow!

The filling station at the Storm’s River Bridge is one of those places on the Garden Route where most people travelling along the N2 make an obligatory stop.

And so, after some 7 hours into our return trip, we stopped there to fill up. I was wearing my “teddy bear” in the car. That is the name that Phillip has given to the brace that I have strapped my left hand into for the last two years when I go to sleep at night. It consists of a hard fibreglass mould lined with fur and has straps of Velcro. It is designed to prevent my fingers and arm from curling up. Of late, I have needed to strap my arm into it when I sit down for periods of time during the day.

It is one of the few outward signs that displays to the world that there is something “wrong” with me. Hitherto, it has only been seen by my immediate family. But now, I was sitting in the front passenger seat, and I had forgotten that I was wearing it. Enid, the petrol attendant, spotted it, and said something about “Eina – what is wrong? That looks very sore!” It isn’t – just uncomfortable – so I shrugged her off and said it was nothing really.

After she had filled the tank, and Sean had signed for the payment, she put her head in the window to say thank you and goodbye. She added, in a very caring manner, “ I hope you get well soon!”

Sean winked at me and said “ Dad, if only she knew!”

Thank you, Enid, for caring. You will most probably never see this, but it meant a lot to me. After having been ill for 3 ½ years now, that, too, is my prayer before I fall asleep at night, and whether it is in today’s world or tomorrow’s,“ I hope I get well soon”!

Sir Lowry’s Pass Summit
Storms River Bridge
Cape Town: The Fairest Cape in all the World
Written about a month ago · Comment
Janet Brown
was good to see you Ed (as always!!) our PE friends always have a very special place for Wayne and I – lots of love!!!
11 February at 10:37 ·
Sebastian Ridgway
Is ALWAYS nice seeing you guys, wish you would “come home” so that we can see you more!!!!!!Lots of Love
11 February at 13:13 ·
Paul Williams
Thanks for this perspective into your world Ed. It is humbling and yet so filled with the warmth of “noticing life”, which often becomes invisible as we fill our lives with work and ‘stuff’. Travel well and enjoy the fullness of life you are experiencing which others don’t really get a chance to notice… you are blessed.
11 February at 14:56 ·
Jackie Anderson Whitley
Just googled CBD & now I am depressed.
11 February at 18:24 ·
Dee Womersley
Ed, I always enjoy your reading your notes – you are an inspiration to us all.
11 February at 19:28 ·
Simon Whittaker
As I have said before…thanks for puting into perspective all that we take for granted each day! Thanks for the humbling way you make us take note and say “there but for the grace of God”……Oh, and come to Cape town again without notification and your health could be seriously affected!!!! lol
11 February at 20:54 ·
Liese Pienaar
may it be in today’s world that you can throw away your ‘teddy’ and enjoy a 100 000 tomorrows, x L
12 February at 01:07 ·
Jeannie Walls-stringfellow
Wow Ed, you have reduced me to tears! You are one brave man! Thank you for sharing those thoughts with us all. As someone who also “comes home” regularly, I enjoyed that part as I could travel with you. Lots of love from Downunder your cousin Jeannie xx
12 February at 01:13 ·