Still Life

Today I saw the cobra lying by the side of the path about ten metres ahead of me. Coiled up like a liquorice wheel, like a hosepipe, she was so still that for a while I thought she was dead.

I wondered if the people picnicking further along had killed her; they were drinking and there were empty quart bottles dropped carelessly in the bush heavy enough to do the job. But no, it was just that the cobra hadn’t clocked me yet. The wind was blowing so fiercely in my direction, she couldn’t smell me coming.

* * *

The first time I saw her, it was out of the corner of my eye. The end of her tail flicked up and caught the light as she disappeared into her hole. Lappies told me it was an honour. Even though Cape cobras are among the most common of South African snakes, sightings are still rare. A friend of his who has been hiking the mountains around Soetwater for 25 years has never seen one.

Even from that glimpse, I could tell she must be quite a substantial size. As cold-blooded creatures, snakes need to come out and lie in the sun to raise their body temperature enough to move about. In winter, they go into brumation or dauer state.

I empathise. My body can barely function when the temperature gauge slips below 15˚C.

* * *

We all slow down a bit as we get older. Very few people in their 50s have the va-va-voom to party all night every weekend like they used to in their 20s.

Maybe you count yourself as having half the energy you had then? But could you still pull an all-nighter for a deadline if you absolutely had to? Can you still push the boat out for a celebration every couple of months?

I estimate I now have about 1% of the energy I had before I got sick 30 years ago.

I’ve sunk to a lower level than that, but right now I can get up and get out once a day, walk 100m, breathe some fresh air.

Most of the time I lie here on the bed. I might be recovering from some great endeavour a few days ago – a trip to the clinic or the bank – or saving up energy for an online chat with a loved one. Mostly I’m recuperating from having a shower or making lunch. Those are good days. On bad days I can’t manage either of those things.

* * *

Since the flash of tail, I approach the low wall where the hole is cautiously. Cobras are mostly invisible, mostly stay underground. They’re not sociable, even with each other. If you see them out and about, they’re solar fuelled and ready to hunt.

* * *

I am so good at this now, so expert in meting out my scarce energy, that you wouldn’t have any idea how endangered my existence is. I look casual, my movements appear effortless, but it’s taken me a week of preparation and iron discipline to get to here: standing upright, washed, fed, body bolstered, compos mentis enough to interact with you.

Please make an effort to be jolly. It will take me a week of poisoned purgatory just to get back to baseline and I have to live on the memory of this for a month! Never mind the risk of killer viruses.

* * *

Wellness is a privilege you don’t realise you have until it’s gone.

* * *

Twice more I have seen her, stretched out, basking in the sun at the base of the wall. Motionless, soaking up the life-giving force. Vulnerable but still vital.

* * *

You cannot possibly appreciate the skill it takes to bring about ‘occasions’. How diligently I must pace my days, my weeks, my months. How I must ruthlessly hone my choices, weighing up the costs in pain and dysregulation versus benefits to sanity, hunting down moments of joy amidst the sapping waste of compulsory appointments.

* * *

Unlike the contemporary state of being Black or Queer, being permanently Sick isn’t associated with a defiant Pride. But I am proud of how I’m surviving my erasure. Not just the discounting of the chronic pain and the relentlessness of running on empty. But the forced re-imagining of who I am, the shedding of all the skins of me: the dancer, the walker, the talker, the reader, the promoter, the producer, the provider, the facilitator, the carnivalista, the feminista, the protester, the lover, the mother, the friend.

What is left?

* * *

photo by Bryan Maritz courtesy Tyrone Ping

When she finally noticed me, she raised her head to assess the threat. Ten metres back, I effortlessly became still. Slowly, she tasted the wind before sliding off into the dry grass.

* * *

Today I am happy. Because I was able to walk. Because the sun shone. Because the mountains allowed me complete calm. Because the glinting of a thousand wavelets on the cobalt and cyan sea gave me delight. Because I felt the leap of the massed terns wheeling in the blue.

Because despite it all, I am alive.

You have to choose to focus on what you have, not what you’ve lost. Some days it’s impossible, the grief is overwhelming. But today my gratitude is a balm. I am so lucky to have a loving family who believe me. Who support me by constantly shopping and cooking and washing up. Who allow me to lie down and save my scant supply of energy for things that make my life meaningful. Writing a few words a day. 

This page has taken me a week.

* * *

Someone watching from the outside would think I do practically nothing. That I achieve nothing. But I am an energy virtuoso.

You wouldn’t even be able to lift your head.

I have learned that the stiller I lie, the more life I have access to. It is horribly counter-intuitive and has taken me decades to fully grasp the artistry. Determined rest is the only way to charge my flat batteries and not overload my dysfunctional nervous system. Peace is critical; upset is poison.

The biggest threat to my body is misunderstanding it. My venom lives inside of me. Nothing outside frightens me anymore.

* * *

Drinking homemade rooibos cappuccinos with my husband in the afternoon. Watching my quiet son’s face break bashfully into a smile.

Choosing words.

A thousand birds, roosting on the summer rocks like snow, whirling up into the wind in a thick drift, a blizzard of terns.

* * *

Curled up here on my bed, life is still beautiful. It’s still life.

This entry was posted in 00 M.E., 30 Back in SA and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Still Life

  1. john pearce says:

    Phew, ”You make me feel brand new” (by comparison)! You are giving a fine example of looking on the bright side when most and certainly me could not. Well done!

    Love Johnno and Jilloxx


  2. Mark says:

    That’s poetry
    Such powerful words
    Some of the most meaningful and beautiful writing I’ve ever read
    Happy to shop, do dishes and look forward daily to our cappuccinos together x

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