I know that many of you have been waiting eagerly for the EoMEoTE roundup and I promise that it will be posted. But (as it has a habit of doing), my real life has rudely interrupted my blogging life and I just have not been able to bring myself to blog.
Regular readers of this blog (and I do entertain the fantasy that there are a few of those…) may remember a post back in June about my friend Christelle who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in February this year. Well, after her remarkable recovery, she had an MRI scan in July which showed that the tumour had responded well to the chemo and radiotherapy, and doctors were confident that a scan towards the end of the year might even show further improvement. Christelle was still plagued by kidney infections and pain, and remained worryingly thin, but she was well enough to come to a braai (BBQ) at our house in August and to fly home to South Africa form most of October to visit her family.
When she returned to London in early November she started experiencing severe pain in her leg and eventually went to hospital to have it checked out. As she had just been on a long flight, DVT was the primary suspect and an MRI scan was done to check that she did not have a blood clot rushing towards her brain or heart. It was during the course of this scan that she received the dreaded news that there were cancerous lesions on her liver – in other words, the cancer had not only not gone away, but it was also spreading. And although it is true that you can live without large chunks of your liver, Christelle was so thin and weak that there was no way that surgery was an option. Instead, the doctors decided to embark on a second course of chemotherapy, and Christelle’s mom flew over from South Africa to be with her.
On 1 December Christelle had her first session of chemo and almost immediately things started to deteriorate. Her immune system is already so weak and the chemo just seemed to knock out what was left, and she promptly developed a severe stomach upset. So for three or four days she was at home but unable to eat and getting weaker, but also terrified of going back to hospital. Eventually, though, Donald and her mom persuaded her and she returned to hospital where they diagnosed a stomach infection that was making it impossible for her to absorb anything she ate. Obviously, further chemo was out of the question for the time being and doctors told Donald they were purely trying to bring the stomach infection under control so that she could eat and regain some strength before they continued treatment.
When Donald called to let me know she was back in hospital, I went that same night (6 December) to visit her. I must say that I was shocked when I saw her. OK, she was thin when I had seen her last, but still looked like Christelle. Even when se was in ICU in June with tubes and drips and a dialysis machine, she just looked like a frail, sleeping version of Christelle. But this was different. She looked more like a concentration camp survivor or a famine victim with HUGE eyes and skin that seemed to stretch too tightly over her cheekbones. Christelle has always had lovely rounded features and suddenly she had a sharp nose and cheekbones that could cut paper. Plus there was the small matter of the drain in her abdomen to drain the fluid accumulating because of her kidney and liver problems. And the antibiotics that she was taking for the stomach infection had given her sores in her mouth and throat, making eating even less successful. But having said all that, she was remarkably unchanged in other ways. We still talked about Christmas plans, which restaurant she wanted to visit when she got out of hospital, what I bought in Dubai – just normal, everyday kind of stuff in a very abnormal situation. She also had that slightly listless look that very ill people have, as if they are gradually disconnecting themselves from this world.
Donnie told me that the doctors had said the next week would be crucial – they would first try to bring the stomach infection under control and then decide on further treatment. And although I called and spoke to Donnie during the next week, I did not manage to make the hour-long trip to the hospital until a week later. On this occasion, a friend and I wanted to visit, but at the last minute Donnie called and vaguely explained that Christelle was sleeping most of the time anyway and there was not much point to our visit. I only learned much later that Christelle’s hair had started falling out in patches and she didn’t want visitors seeing her like that, so she had asked Donnie to head us off. Two days later I called again and this time there was nothing vague about Donnie’s response. Christelle had been sedated and unconscious since Thursday sometime and they had feared she might not make it through Thursday night. The difficult decision had been made to fly her father over from South Africa and he was landing on Saturday morning. At this point, Donnie was just praying Christelle would hang on until her father arrived – that’s how far things had deteriorated. I asked if I could visit and his exact words were “just come, whenever you can”.
I arrived at the hospital on Saturday morning, sick with worry and fear. Christelle’s parents were with her and looked tremendously strained. I could not believe the change in Christelle. Once again, she was sedated, as she had been in ICU in June, but this time there was nothing left of her. Although I didn’t think it was possible for her to get any thinner, she had surprised me and got a lot thinner. She was still breathing on her own but in shallow gasps that were both terrifying and mesmerising to hear. I suddenly began to understand what Donald had said about sitting in the darkened hospital room on his nightly vigil, counting the seconds between each breath and wondering every time whether there would be another breath. It was as if cancer had totally subsumed my friend and her whole being had become the disease. But she still wore a pink scarf around her head, decorated with little hearts, so cancer never got her sense of style, even if it got everything else. Her mom told me that the doctor had said Christelle was sedated but could probably hear us, so they had been talking to her. And then her parents did a beautiful thing: they went for a walk and left me alone with Christelle for 20 minutes or so. And so I sat with her, holding her hand and talking (inexplicably) about my Christmas plans, our mutual friends’ lives and the weather. It was only after a good ten minutes of this that I could collect my emotions and tell her how much I have always loved her and how very sorry I was that she had to walk this final journey alone. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but also the most necessary, and something that I never had a chance to do for my own mother. After her parents returned, we spoke for a while and then I kissed Christelle goodbye and left, promising to return the following day.
On Sunday morning we got up and Nick was getting ready to drive to the hospital when the call came. Christelle had slipped away just after 10 on Sunday morning. She and Donald (who married in the registry office in the UK) were due to have a marriage blessing service in front of her friends and family in South Africa on 7 January. Now those same friends and family will be attending a funeral. She was 29 years old.
Two days later, on Tuesday 20 December, a memorial service was held here in London for her UK friends. I was asked by her parents to speak at the service and I don’t think I can say anything more appropriate than what is already contained in the speech below. Christelle, our lives were richer for having known you and we will miss you forever.
EULOGY FOR CHRISTELLE’S MEMORIAL SERVICE, LONDON, 20 DEC 2005
Thank you all for joining us at such short notice on this very sad day. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Jeanne, a friend of Donald and Christelle’s from PE who has been living in London for about as long as they have and I want to thank Christelle’s family and Donald for letting me speak here today.
What you don’t know about me is that when I was younger, I used to write a lot of poetry. Hey – I was a student – that’s what students do – write anguished poetry in the middle of the night!! Most of my poems are safely locked away in South Africa and mercifully unknown outside of a very small circle of my friends. But one of them was a poem that my father found great comfort in when my mother died in 2003, and when uncle Bennie asked me to say a few words today, it was the words of this poem that came back to me:
“If I died today
My shadow would melt
My reflection would fade
And a little piece of you (that lives in my heart)
But a little piece of me (that lives in your heart)
And I think it is safe to say that a piece of Christelle will live on in the heart of every person that she met.
I have known Christelle for relatively few years –in fact, only since 1999, when Donald said he was bringing along his girlfriend to a weekend away near Knysna organised by our mutual friend Paul. Within a couple of hours of her arriving on the weekend, she had made firm friends with both me and another friend, Bronwyn, who promptly christened her “Sneaky short red-haired person” in honour of her short hairstyle at the time, and her mischievous sense of fun. From that day on, she and Donald became part of my “inner circle” of friends who were always first on the guest list for any party, first to hear any big news, and this relationship was cemented further when they became our closest friends to move to London. We have shared so many wonderful times and silly private jokes, and those are the memories that will be treasured in my heart for all time, and I hope to share some of them with you today.
When I was trying to put down on paper my thoughts and memories of Christelle, a number of words sprang to mind. The first is BEAUTIFUL. And I don’t just mean our long standing joke of, whenever a camera appears, to say “you’re so beeeeaaaauuuuutiful, the camere laaaaahves you!”. No, Christelle was one of those very rare people who truly do not know how beautiful they are. When I told my mother that I had a friend working at Red Square and she should ask Christelle for help when she needed to find something, she came home and said that she had just met my most beautiful friend! But that was only half the story – her beautiful soul shone out through her eyes and charmed every person she ever met. I cannot imagine anybody knowing Christelle for more than a few minutes and not falling in love with her. Testimony to this fact is the number of people who could not be with us today but have asked me to convey their condolences and best wishes to Donald and Christelle’s family. From PE we have Bronwyn, Andrea, Anton and Paola; from Joburg we have Catherine, Claudette and Lisa Baird; from Durban there is Gillian; Roger and Lesley from Kent; our friend Lizel who is herself recovering from breast cancer; and two friends of mine who have never met Christelle – Johanna and Moira. Moira is an American living near Cambridge and she sent Christelle a “care package” of sweets and magazines when she was first having chemotherapy, even though she never met her.
Another word that springs to mind is PUGS. I imagine it will be a very long time before I will be able to walk past a card or a picture of a pug and not think “ooh, I must buy that for Christelle!” It always pained her that she had to say goodbye to her beloved pug and leave it with Donnie’s family when she came over here, and so she extended her love to every four-footed creature she came across – cats, dogs, Donald, you name it. As many of you know, she was planning this year to enrol in a pet-grooming course and I have no doubt that there would have been a queue round the block of pets eager to spend some time in her loving and tender care.
Another word that I also associate strongly with Christelle is LOVE. She was so incredibly generous with her love – love for animals, love for her family, love for her God, her infectious love for life and of course, her enduring love for Donald. As her friends, Nick and I would often come home from Donnie and Christelle’s house feeling as if we had just been guests of honour at a state banquet with the queen – she treated all her friends as if they were precious jewels and it always made you feel incredibly special. And as far as her love for Donald goes, I can honestly say that they were one of the few couples that I never saw argue. The worst you would hear is the occasional “DonalT!” when Donnie was annoying her, but I don’t think I ever saw her annoyance level rise beyond this. Their love for each other was a joy to see and an inspiration to others.
Another word that came to mind and something that I shall miss terribly is Christelle’s LAUGHTER. She loved to laugh and seemed to laugh often and heartily. Her laughter was never restrained and bubbled up from her like water from a fountain. Mostly, I think, she liked to laugh at my and Bronwyn’s silly jokes and rambling conversations. Her particular favourite was my translations of English songs – we spent hours doing Abba translations – and I can safely say that I am the only person on whose wedding video the bride and bridesmaid are captured on film singing an Afrikaans translation of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. As Bron and I start “Eers was ek bang, ek was lamgeskrik”, all you hear in the background are Christelle’s helpless giggles. She always made me feel as if I were the funniest person on the planet and I have many memories of her and Donnie clinging to each other, helpless with laughter at some joke. Donnie will no doubt recall the “Gereedskap vir Gemeenskap” joke, or Platbek padda, which was a particular favourite of hers.
No list of words about Christelle would, of course, be complete without SHOPPING! Oh, how Christelle loved shopping. She loved it almost as much as I do, and I have Olympic colours in the sport of shopping. She had an inexhaustible capacity for shopping and even while in hospital, she would talk about how she looked forward to the day she was well enough to go home and go shopping again. If there are shoe stores in heaven, I hope they are fully stocked because let me tell you, their sales are about to triple.
A final word that I would use to describe Christelle is Afrikaans and sadly has no English translation, and that is deursettingsvermoë. Roughly translated it means the strength to see things through and carry on despite adversity. And I don’t just mean in the last few months – no , Christelle’s steely will and deursettingsvermoë has raised its head before, Like when Donald first came to England and Chirstelle tried to get a visa to join him, but her application was turned down. Christelle then told me that she was going into England, visaless, as tourist and that they would sort out later how she could stay. I immediately panicked and told both her and Donald how strict the Immigration authorities could be and that there was every likelihood that she would be questioned extensively and sent back to SA, never allowed to return to the UK. But no, she was determined. And armed only with her determination to be with Donald and her deursettingsvermoë, she endured the questioning at Heathrow and arrived safely in England. I was amazed. But of course, the real test of Christelle’s deursettingsvermoë came this year when she was diagnosed with cancer. Through courses of chemo and radiotherapy, a terrifying battle with septicaemia, DVT, kidney problems and the dreaded news that the cancer had spread, her deursettingsvermoë pulled her through where many others would simply not have had the strength to continue. Even while she was having chemotherapy, she set up a fundraising page for other cancer sufferers and raised over £500. When I saw her in hospital the week before her death, she was planning which restaurants we should go to when she was better, determined to look beyond her current state of health. All the nurses that I spoke to mentioned that she was such an incredible fighter and had survived long after medical science would have said it was all over. And I am sure it was her deursettingsvermoë that provided her with the strength to wait until Oom Bennie arrived from South Africa before finally setting down the heavy burden her body had become.
I truly believe that now that Christelle is no longer earthbound like the rest of us, she will be with us all over the world. No longer will being in England mean that she cannot be with her family. No longer will being in SA mean she cannot be with Donald. She will always be with each and every one of us, watching over us and guiding us, and smiling at us from every beautiful thing we see.
On that note, I would like to leave you with a very beautiful poem called Grieve Not by Mary Frye:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.