Divided attention

May 21, 2014 § 13 Comments

I had to attend a funeral last week, one of those where someone has died far too young under gut-wrenching circumstances, and the funeral was a just a bedraggled collection of broken, bewildered people with nothing but questions on their lips.

I sat in the pew in a chapel that seemed too bright and sunny for the sombreness of the occasion. My insides were twisted, gnarled at the pain in evidence all around me. I listened to heartbreaking eulogies, and flinched at the desolate wail of a seven-year-old who just wanted her daddy back. Until the pastor stood up to preach, and the bile rose in my throat and threatened to choke me.

He smiled beatifically, encouraging those present not to mourn, but to celebrate that the person we’d gathered to commemorate was in a better place. That he was whole, and happy and waiting for us to join him someday.

It angers me every time I hear this – I’ve been at funerals where people were practically dancing on the grave of the person who died in “celebration” that they were in a better place. And it angers me because funerals are not for the dead. They are for the living. They’re for the people left behind who have a person-shaped hole in their lives, a hole no-one will ever be able to fill.

We need to be a little selfish at funerals. We need to be comforted. To be held. To be rocked and cossetted and heard. Deep down inside most of us know that we’ll be okay, that things will work out in the end, but on that day we need to grieve, to lament, to feel really sorry for ourselves. We don’t care that the person who’s died may or may not be in a better place. We just want them back.

And so, as he preached, I seethed in my seat, wanting desperately to administer a sharp slap to his simpering face on behalf of my friends, who cried silently in the front row.

And then he took my anger to a whole new level. Halfway through the sermon he reached into his pocket, pausing mid-sentence to pull out his cellphone and check his messages. He placed it on the lectern where he could keep an eye on it, poking at it from time to time. And, having pronounced the blessing, he stood on the podium, tapping on the screen to answer his messages while a family member ran through a list of thank yous.

It took every ounce of self-restraint I possess not to stand up in my seat and yell at him to put his f*cking phone away. Every ounce. What on earth is wrong with people? How has it come to this?

That man’s complete lack of respect for the bereaved, for the situation, for his office as a minister, gave me pause. It made me think about how tethered I am to my smartphone. It made me worry anew about society as a whole, myself included. Do we really not know how to be out in the world without staring at our phones, answering messages, taking pictures, Instagramming, tweeting, or posting to Facebook? Do we even remember how to make eye contact? How to experience something without putting a smartphone inbetween us and it?

I know someone who leaves his phone at home or in the car while if he’s having a cup of coffee with you, or grabbing a bite to eat. While he’s with you, he’s unavailable to everyone else, and focused on you – only you.

That’s something we can all learn from. That’s something I’m trying to remember. That I don’t have to be instantly available to others simply because technology makes it possible. That my smartphone is for my convenience, not yours. That nine times out of ten, a response is not required immediately. And that it’s far more important to be fully present when I’m with others and to give them my undivided attention.

I haven’t quite got it right, but I’m trying. So if you need to get hold of me, do leave a message. I’ll get back to you.


Remembrance and remembering

August 28, 2013 § 82 Comments

In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended two funerals: one was of someone I knew very well; one not so well, and at both I’ve wondered whether it would be particularly ghoulish to write eulogies for my parents now, while they are still very much alive.

People are often outraged to hear that newspapers already have obituaries written in the event of certain prominent people dying – Nelson Mandela comes to mind. Or that television stations have news teams and ready-made tribute documentaries that just need updating, for example. But of course, it’s simple pragmatism – they can’t afford to be scrambling for words or footage when he dies.

And I feel the same way about my parents. I don’t want to be penning a tribute to people I love when I’m blinded by grief and overwhelmed by the long list of practicalities that the death of a loved one inevitably brings.

I want to recall the time my dad lost his keys on a huge sand dune, and I, aged nine or ten, proudly found them after an extensive search. I want to remember the time we were in Cape Town in a downpour and he scooped four-year-old me up in his khaki raincoat that smelled just like him, and scarpered for the car while I giggled and bounced in his arms.

I want to write down now how much I loved listening to the Goon Show with him in the kitchen, or jogging with him in the early mornings, both of us built for comfort, not speed, neither of us containing even an ounce of athleticism in our DNA.

I want to be sure to tell people how lucky we were to have an awesome stepmother who was brave enough to marry not just my dad, but three children aged 17, 14, and 10 who were still reeling from the death of their beloved mother.

How, before she and my dad were married, we loved going to her house for Sunday lunch where she served such delights as upside-down pineapple cake, or a triangular cheesecake – wonders we had never beheld before.

And how we noticed our dad changing back from a grey-faced, shrunken version of himself to the punning, jovial joker he’d been before. How the light returned to his eyes; the smile to his face.

Every semester when I set off for varsity, she baked me biscuits and helped me pack; today she is a wonderful grandmother to my own children. And she has been the best thing that happened not only to our family, but especially to my dad, who really wasn’t designed to be alone. She has loved my dad – and all of us – for two and a half decades already, and we have loved her for it, and for herself.

I don’t want to do all of that when I’m sad. I also don’t want to forget to tell both of them now, while I still have them, how much I love and appreciate them. Because if I’ve learnt one thing in my 44 years so far, it’s that life is short and death is often unexpected.

And if you don’t tell people that you love them today, you may not have the opportunity to do so tomorrow.

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