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Of Acrobats & Eyepatches


In 2015 my father was given six weeks to live; during that time I never saw him more alive.
My sister initially hid the news from me. When she told me we were watching a show at a travelling circus. The tent was mirrored and I could see the room reflected at odd angles like a dreamscape. The decor was gold and everyone was drinking ice cold champagne and laughing and having a good time watching the acrobats.
He had gone to the doctor recently because he had been struck with sudden illiteracy. Words had been scrambling on their nanosecond journey from his eyes to his brain. Like an advanced form of dyslexia. He had been told that he just needed to take a break from work but that day he had woken up with a red film over his eyes so he went to the hospital.

A group of Asian dancers did a piece with yo yo's, spinning in sequence like marionettes. A man performed a kind of athletic tango with a pole, involving chains. The music was loud and the tent was mirrored and I could see the room reflected at odd angles like a dreamscape. The decor was gold and it was hot and everyone was drinking ice cold champagne and laughing and having a good time watching the acrobats.
When I finally got through to him his voice was calm and measured as usual as he explained the diagnosis to me. He had a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit pressing on the language centre of his brain. He told me that the tumor was inoperable. I started saying ridiculous things like 'but you won't be at my wedding' and 'you won't see my children learn and grow' (I'm not in a relationship and don't have kids).

People were scraping oysters out of their shells and I could smell the metallic juice. Men in overalls performed a comedy of errors involving a ladder, haystacks and falling down a lot. A drag queen wearing an air hostess uniform was involved and the décor was gold and the room was mirrored and the music was loud and it was hot and everyone was drinking ice cold champagne and laughing and having a good time and enjoying the show.
I think he was relieved that he finally knew what was wrong with him, paradoxically. His intellectual curiosity helped him view his tumour as a fascinating medical case, allowing him to dissociate himself. I am quite sure he felt more alive during those last few weeks than he had since he was young man. He was compelled to live roughly 20 years that would be stolen from his future, in six weeks. One humorous downside was that he became bluntly honest. On his deathbed he told me to file my nails while I was preparing for an interview. He also told my mum that she needed a face lift!
As a young man he would play funny games with me and my sister. One of his favourites was cutting an apple in half and then holding it together to make it appear whole and "cracking" it on his head. After a while he progressed to pineapples, getting carried away with his own stunt and needing to wow his jaded audience. He would bring back different candy from his travels, Indian Sweets from Durban and Brighton Rock from England, which he claimed to have hacked out of the rock himself! But our favourite by far was "the goblins" who he had a direct line to. He would "call them up" on his hand and speak gobbledygook to ask for updates on our behaviour having full conversations in grunts and snorts and relaying the reports to us. He even told us that his antique stereograph photo viewer was a goblin catcher! On our birthdays they left us sweets with notes attached written in an artistic version of his precise hand.
I don't think my dad realised how much he was loved and respected up until those last few weeks. He got phone calls from people from all over the world and the house was always full of friends and family. He went to the prison where he volunteered as a Peace Programme facilitator to give his final lecture. His colleagues told me that he taught them so much about being a leader and a person. The inmates also respected him - one man told him that he looked 'gevaarlik' an Afrikaans word meaning cool but literally translated as dangerous, the highest praise.
In those last weeks we took a family trip up the coast to our old holiday destination that his father had loved so much and where he taught me how to surf. We would sit on the rocks and wear shells as eye patches while we waited for the right current. He told me that when a big wave crashes on you to relax because fighting only made it worse. Although he forgot my name at the very end he still knew he loved me and told me so over and over. I think about him every day almost two years later. I've healed but I'm not the same person I was back then. And I wouldn't want to be.

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