Sorry For Your Loss

Mbali Xabela

© Copyright 2024 by Mbali Xabela

Photo by David Goldsbury on Unsplash
Photo by David Goldsbury on Unsplash

Sorry for your loss.”

A hollow sentiment, one I used so cheaply without the knowledge of the profound, existential, and excruciating burden of a loss. Grief and death were such distant concepts to me, I lived so long without its withering touch upon my life. Yes, relatives and relatives of close friends passed away throughout the years, but no one was so close to my soul that they were a part of it. April 3rd 2023, will be a day that will forever cast a pall on all those that follow. It’s almost been a year since my world had been torn asunder and my soul split from its seams.

The day my grandfather died.

I had been most fortunate to be raised by two sets of parents. My parents and my grandparents. For the first part of my life, I was raised in the family house before my folks got a place of their own. And before my grandparents had to sell the house to get a smaller one. Still, the entirety of my life, I have bounced between homes. I had two remarkable male figures in my life, an exceptional father and an extraordinary grandfather, Wallace Amos Mgoqi.

One of the things we loved to do together was golf. As a youngling, my perception of golf was that it was the hobby of old white men. Thoughts of boredom leaked in, too.

Little did I know how wrong I was. Have you ever loved someone so much that you fell in love with what makes them happy? That’s how it began with our golf dates. What began as tolerance ended in fondness. Aside from the sport itself, I made unforgettable memories doing our typical eighteen holes. I made shots that somehow went horizontal if I was lucky enough to not miss the ball completely. We would always leave the course in a fit of hysterics. And we ended each game with a bowl of hot chips at the on-premises restaurant. My grandpa had mentioned how he tried to get his kids, my mom and her siblings, to try golf with him. But they never did because they found it terribly boring. But I think they missed the point of the offer, which I am eternally grateful that I did not.

My grandfather, despite his goofiness and amusing quirks. He was a well-educated man with his honors and doctorate in law. He studied at the University of Cape, Unisa and even Harvard. He was admitted as an attorney of the High Court of South Africa in 1988. He served as the Regional Land Claims Commissioner for the Western and Northern Cape Provinces from 1994.

If I were to sum up the principles on which he founded his life upon—the pillars that upheld everything sacred to him: God, family, people.

My grandfather had an awe-inspiring passion for people. He was involved in so many community projects and upliftment initiatives like the ‘The One Woman, One Hectare’ campaign aimed to mainstream gender equality. It was proposed that the State should allocate one hectare of land for the growing of food to the poorest rural female-run households.

I knew my grandfather loved people. I didn’t know so many loved him in return. The impact of his loss rippled on for months as the news devastated people beyond his sphere of influence. Since the day of his loss, I moved in with my grandmother. And when we would go to the mall or locations where he frequented. People would inquire about him, wondering why they hadn’t seen ‘the Chief’ in such a long time. All of them, from servers to sales representatives, all got emotional when we broke the news to them. The last instance I can remember was when my grandmother had to go to the tailor. When he had received the news, he said, “He was a warm man, very kind.” By the time we reached the parking lot, I was reduced to a whimpering heap.

That was my grandpa. A gentle giant who touched every life he encountered.

I never knew grief until I had my first, “sorry for your loss.”

His death was truly unforeseeable, he wasn’t ill or impaired. He was as I remember him… alive. A well of wisdom from which so many drew from. He was the sun that brightened my world and the light that illuminated my path. My mother had honestly thought I would renounce my faith after he passed. That I would blame God. What I felt was more volatile and more dangerous than any emotion I have ever felt, because it was a foreign feeling. Something I didn’t comprehend or know how to respond to.

At the time, I thought I had my grief handled. I couldn’t afford to crumble and fall because he was no longer there to catch me. I had to be there for grandma, too. In most African households, especially for ones who converted to Christianity. Prayers were held at the house of the deceased for a week, sometimes two. And that was what happened to us. It was truly a distraction from the devastation that was wrenching me apart from the inside. For over a month, we had people pour into our home. So, I would manage housekeeping and deal with the constant, composure-eroding shows of pity and the endless litany of “sorry for your loss.”

They say the first stage of grief was denial. That alone I could confirm. My grandfather was a working man from start to end. His last position was the Chairman of AYO Technology Solutions. So, over the years, he traveled often. So, at first, it felt like he was still coming back, even after the memorial service. And even at the funeral, even when I had watched his varnished coffin descend into the open burial ground. It still felt like he was going to come home. For so long, I expected to hear that door burst open with him trudging inside, trundling his suitcase and office briefcase with such clumsy vigor.

The denial wasn’t the worst part; it was what came after. The aftermath. The change.

When I would do housecleaning, I liked to use newspapers when I was doing the windows. And there was always a mountain load in the garage because my grandpa was an avid reader. Even though I told him he could just download the app and read online. He refused. He loved his newspaper. And nowadays, I would go to the garage seeking newspaper articles to see that we were all out. Since grandpa wasn’t here anymore to make his usual newspaper runs almost every day. There was a dagger in my heart, and it twisted and skewered deeper into me with every difference of our days.

I used to wonder why my grandma would insist on having lunch at exactly 12:30pm. It took me too long to realize that it was the exact time that grandpa would normally be back from playing a game with his golf buddies. On those days he didn’t have to be at the office. He only had to go in twice a week and guess what time he would be back? 12:30pm.

Next was the house. The house too was haunted by his absence, and the brain-jarring silence. The house was always clean, too clean. The floors were no longer besmirched by muddy shoe prints, leaving tracks of grass he brought in from the golf course. No longer breadcrumbs flecked across grandma’s Persian carpet in the lounge from his massive sourdough slices of peanut butter and jam. The washing line hung in its dolor, unadorned, no longer ornate with vibrant prints of grandpa’s traditional shirts. Which was a common sight because grandpa could not have a meal without spilling something on his shirt or pants.

The rooms no longer sounded with the vim and brio of his voice. I used to be lulled to a state of serenity by just listening to my grandma and grandpa talk. At night, even when they would go off to sleep at 8pm. When I would leave the TV room after 10pm, I could still catch a chorus of their laughter from their bedroom. Now, most days and every night were inundated in silence.

His death was not the worst part. This new reality felt like a callous sense of betrayal. The reality of being forced to have a life without him—to go on, and not only go ahead, but to do so with joy. I know this because I knew my grandpa. He was a joyful man, always smiling and never complaining. Not even when the world was bearing down on him. The darkest time of his life was when he faced eviction, water turned off, electricity turned off. Still, his joy never once wavered. His faith was so deeply rooted that he himself was unshakeable. He had told me once that, “Death must find you in the bosom of Christ.” He was truly a man of God that imparted his biblical values onto me from when I was a child.

And yet nothing could’ve prepared me for the day that his heart stopped and when mine broke. I thought I dealt with the grief, but all I was doing was evading it. The enormity of this loss re-shaped my world. Life seemed to be nothing more than a gaping abyss. Perilous thoughts bled into my mind… I didn’t see the point of anything life had to offer me anymore. I was going to die, anyway. A day I now longed for because it would reunite me with him. That’s how strong my love was. I was willing to cross the great distance of death just so I could reach him in the afterlife. I knew he was there, waiting, waiting for his wife, his children and his grandchildren. What staved off my darker impulses was the fact I knew that if I had joined him before my set time, he would not be happy to see me. He would be disappointed. Not long before his death, my grandfather had to attend a ceremony with all his robes and graduation sashes. And there were many.

He pointed to all of them and said, “You will do greater than I.”

It was moments like that made me believe he knew what was coming. I suppose my denial began even before his death. My grandfather had an uncanny belief in me. Something I failed to see for most of my life. I was subpar throughout most of my schooling career and failed math miserably. I had to study ten times harder than anyone just to achieve a percentage that most kids would obtain effortlessly. In short, my academic performance convinced me that I was never going to amount to much in life. What evidence did I have to refute that?

My grandpa saw something else. My family had always loved and supported me, but he was one among the very few who had an unparalleled belief in my potential. That I was capable of greatness and going further than even him. Which I thought was impossible. I mean, he mentioned going to an IV league university, Harvard, like it was on his grocery checklist. How could I beat that? Only through time am I learning that it wasn’t about getting more distinctions in law or even pursuing law. It was about being the best I could be with the talents I was born with.

I thought I was handling my grief. A pitiful delusion.

Grief was ceaseless torture. His existence murmured through every breath of wind. Memories eclipsed my vision with every sight that my gaze. I would take evening runs within their estate and I would glimpse the names of the streets. Memories would yank my mind to the time where we walked together, and he pointed out that the streets were named after notorious English playwrights. I would breeze past our neighbors’ homes, and I would pass the house growing a pomegranate tree. And I would be plagued with the images strobing my mind of us eating pomegranates that grew in Uncle Lionel’s backyard. He was the neighbor of my childhood home. The branches of his pomegranate tree would dangle over onto our property. My grandfather and I would pick them off and eat them right there on the spot. Laughing, talking, and spitting the small seeds on the ground.

He was everywhere, but nowhere.

A morsel of me was angry with him. Grief was a strange creature, strange as it was cruel. Only days before his death, I was nagging him about playing another game. He had promised me that we would drive up to the Burgundy golf course and hit our usual eighteen holes. A promise we both didn’t know he would never be able to fulfill.

I had to accept that pain and I would have to co-exist. What was grief if not love still persevering? Which was why I shall always walk with wounds that will not heal. The driving force behind my days, the conviction behind my ambitions, was that my grandfather imagined so much for me. He wanted so much for me, and in honor of his belief. I am duty-bound to actualize my dreams, however impossible it seems. Even beyond the boundaries of the grave, his will and words still inspire. Grief has taught me so much. Grief was indeed the price we pay for love. I learnt that the heart that’s broken could still beat strong. I owed it to both him and I to live this life embracing every moment, taking every risk and leaping off each edge.

Yes, grief was a weight bound to my soul, but that was the love that anchored me to him. In a way, the agony of his loss, the slither of joy felt from reliving those memories, were all pieces of him that I could carry to each day, bearing some part of him to fill the void left in my chest. Grief isn’t a gradation or linear, it cannot be measured or put tightly into the conceptual constraints of man. Love and loss were the whims of the wind; felt but never fettered.

I have found peace in my pain. No matter what I achieve or do not achieve, I shall boldly pursue my aspirations as if I have never failed. So, when the day comes when I see the silhouette of my grandfather’s figure upon heaven’s golf course. I could tell him that I gave it my all. And he would smile proudly because that is what life requires most from us.

My name is Mbali Xabela, I live in Cape Town, South Africa. I am 23 years old and I graduated with my business management qualification at Eduvos in 2022. My favourite genre to write in is speculative fiction, and I have currently working on my first sci-fi novel and one of the characters is named after my Grandpa as a tribute to him.

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