2. Dressing Grief
There is a costume for grief.
The men wear it sparingly, on the inside, pin it to an arm. Sit it outside in the sun, amongst the other men. But the women cannot wear the loss privately. They are made into splendid monuments that do not visit in public after dark. If your husband dies and you are still alive, then woman is a carriage for the loss. The whole body is dressed with shadows; blacks fetched over the head and over the shoulder. A grief that covers the bones all the way down and under the knees. This is done again and again until the body is a dress as black as the heart.
I watched as Mama put her beauty away; the way one would by stepping through a rose or a garden of roses again and again without mercy; without a God to shout stop, or raise the decay. She tied a black doek around her braids and wore dresses as black as the wound in our home. They were the kind of dresses you reserved for the catastrophe of dead husbands; loose-long and lonely at the arms and legs. Ugly enough to make room for the calamity. Mama curled Papa’s departure into a statement she could repeat on the phone to family and friends.
“That road is bad. it is full of shadows” she said.
I asked Tlali what she meant; he told me that every road, whether we knew it or not, was full of ghosts who were trying to get home, and they would ride your life to its death to get there.
We are never alone. The house fills and fills with people trying to hold down with both hands the grief rising from the wound in our home. I want to be alone, to feel the rich without, the emptiness looping inside my chest, eating into the middle of words. I want this time to cry to God about how I am unprotected from God. I am a faithless and fatherless leak. Mama says we must stay strong until the week is over. I try strong: I do not allow myself to be touched too long. I look down to give myself distance from the pitying eyes and swallow the tears that push around my face like fists. While the people who come to ward the loss with us make their hands and voices big enough to keep the loneliness from rising too high above the house and taking us in it. If one leaves, another will arrive in their place to plug the chasm.
The women from our church are the first to close around us and offer their hands. They arrange the map for how the house will mourn, and put us at the centre. They choose the fire, borrow the pots, allocate the hands. Not long after they arrive, they are joined by the women in our neighbourhood-their aprons already on. Even those who do not like Mama, who think her too proud for a woman, come. They come to watch what happens when God looks away from you and at someone else. They wait and watch like hyenas expecting to eat from the lion. Death is a lion.
The married women tie a cloth around their waists and hum or sing hymns to beg God to stop taking from here, to give their husbands who are still alive more time. All the women cover their heads and shoulders to respect the darkness in our home. Perhaps they do this because hair and shoulders can be made so beautiful that people will look away from the pain and at you-the beautiful thing. “Is it selfish to be beautiful?” I ask mama. She hears me ask, but does not answer. We stay inside and listen as these women walk the sorrow flat with hymns. Each day: peeling, Amen, passing a knife, Amen, sending Mama tea, Amen, sifting, cleaning, Amen, slicing, sending Mama tea, chopping, Amen, scratching, gulping their own tea, and singing. They use their whole body to turn the sadness over until it thins.
The dining room table is moved into the lounge, leaving only the wall unit where mama has put all the expensive groceries that were bought for the funeral. Things she wanted to keep for people she thought important; things like mayonnaise, liquifruit juice, and the bourbon sauce she liked to use for gravy. It is unusual for a wife to sit her mourning mattress outside the spousal bedroom; but since theirs is on the second floor of our house, mama nodded when Papa’s family decided that it would be better to put the mattress on the first floor, even if we could not view papa because the damage to his face and neck was too grave to fix. She immediately mentioned the dining room, but she said it so gently it was as if the suggestion had not come from her all. And so it was.
She would be able to watch what the women did with her groceries. She too was being watched. Each morning she dressed the grief in the costume made for her by papa’s family. A cotton so black and thick it felt like she was wearing her dead husbands body. She did not complain, because a woman who complains is a witch who can kill a husband. She sat on the mattress and left only to go to the bathroom; or to choose Papa’s casket; or to submit documents for the old mutual funeral cover they had taken to cover the passage of a death, ours or theirs. This is how she learnt that Papa had not paid the funeral cover in years even though she reminded him. He had emptied their savings on something, maybe someone-a woman, or a man I thought when she told me.
“At least we have the house,” she said when I asked how we were able to afford everything. The people before us must have known that our men are liars. That their lies would give you the kind of grief that could drop your body onto the floor so quickly you cannot catch yourself or be caught, making children who were fatherless, motherless too. So they told the women to put a mattress on the floor and sit there until their husbands were buried. This way if she found out things about him that were too heavy for the body she could collapse onto softness.
Mama sat in her place, against the wall facing the wall unit. A black shape, hollowed from loving a man with secrets. She listened as the women came to fill her with sorry’s.
“Perhaps It is Gods will,” they said, their voices kneeling on her bones
Some answered with a question, “What do we know MmeMoswane?”
Or made the house lonely saying that Papa has been called home, when the home in us needed him too. They gave us these small tokens and left to join the dance of women; some watching over us, others watching us.
Their husbands were a lot more quiet, observing the loss, filling it with tasks. A cow that needed to be slaughtered and then skinned. A tent that needed to be mounted. an uncle who needed to be fetched. They did not give us answers, because they did not know why death happened here. They knew only that it was sad. very sad. They gave Tlali and I money when we passed them and nodded to us like people who had lost something precious too. Like people who knew what it meant to walk around with a longing no one and nothing could load. An absence that ate your title and wife was widow.
“Atleast we have the house,” Mama said.