Anyone For Chemo And A Nice Cup Of Tea?

I lost my mother a few days ago. Not in the way that you might lose your car keys. Keys can be replaced. Mother’s hardly ever.

It all started several months ago when she developed a cough. Our family doctor, who must be 104 years old, gave her cough mixture. Later, when she complained of chest pains, he gave her a modern miracle drug he’d just come across. Panado, I think it was. Then she started coughing up blood. “How much?” he demanded to know. “A cup full? A bucket?”

A few weeks later, my father suggested she saw someone other than a geriatric GP who spent most of the time complaining about his own ailments.

Her consultations went something like this: “Please sit down. How are you? I’ve got this terrible pain in my knee that just won’t … would you mind not spitting blood onto my carpet? Thank you. As I was saying …”

So she went off to see a man who took some X-rays, told her she had six months to live and suggested an around-the-world cruise rather than chemotherapy. Not being married to Richard Branson, my mother went to another specialist who scoffed at the first specialist, saying: “What does he know? He’s a cutter.” What? You mean this is his part-time job and he actually works for the municipality trimming verges along the M4?

Not quite. He’s a surgeon. For some reason, doctors who aren’t surgeons look down on those who are. Jealousy, I suppose. After all, what red-blooded South African man doesn’t long for a sharp knife and a couple of hours alone with an unconscious woman?

Oncologists look down on everyone because they are fabulously wealthy and also because they get to play with lots and lots of human guinea pigs who eventually stop bothering them because they are too weak to pick up the phone and make another appointment.

House calls? Please. I have no idea what you’re talking about. James? Bring the Jag around to the front and get these weeping peasants out of my office. They’re upsetting the angelfish.

Thanks to the tobacco industry, red meat and deadline stress, oncologists are able to afford offices the size of Khulubuse Zuma’s breakfast nook. Which, in case you didn’t know, is the size of a tennis court.

Oncologists would rather their patients didn’t take a cruise around the world. At least not before signing up for one of their once-in-a-lifetime chemo courses at just R40-thousand a day. Free tea and biscuits included! If lines are busy, call later! But do call!

By the time my mother’s hair fell out, the medical aid was squealing like a stuck pig and the tumour in her lung had shrunk to the size of a grape. I don’t know how big it was to start with. If you ask the family doctor, he’d probably say: “Oh, I don’t know, the size of a hippo? Did I tell you about my leg?”

Then the oncologist, giving us the full benefit of his dazzling smile (no extra cost), suggested she went for radiation. The tumour loved the radiation. It got big and fat off it. Radiation causes cancer, so let’s give cancer patients radiation. I’m missing something, here. An enormous salary and perfect teeth, for a start.

Her tumour was inoperable because she also had emphysema. And why shouldn’t she? After all, she came from an era when they made cigarettes that were good for you. Better than fruit. Yum yum. Got a light?

I had already uprooted the family – if you can call Brenda and two dogs a family – and moved from Cape Town to Durban so I could help out and spend time with my mother. I bought her a wheelchair when she began struggling to walk and forged a disabled sign so we could get the best parking, even when she wasn’t in the car.

Not being a fan of country music, Brenda had apparently never listened to the song, Stand By Your Man. After a while, she packed the dogs and disappeared two weeks before the grand finale.

I suspect all cancer patients ultimately face their fate with extraordinary courage and fortitude. But not all face it with the same degree of acceptance. Some go quietly. Others, like my mother, rage, rage against the dying of the light. Even after she slipped into incoherence, she was still shouting at us. I shouted back, trying to get her to take her medication. Then my sister would shout at me and my father would shout at her. It was like my childhood. Lots of shouting and nobody making any sense at all. The only difference being that I was too big for anyone to hit me.

A hospice nurse dropped off a bottle of morphine. I insisted on trying it in case it was poisoned but my father slipped the bottle into his pocket and gave me the lazy eye.

My mother died in her bed, but I wasn’t there. I was down the road at a strip club playing pool with three lesbians from a local biker gang. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. It doesn’t really matter. When I left the house two hours earlier, she was already in a coma. I said my goodbyes while she was still breathing.

The crematorium was fun. To get there, we had to negotiate a part of the city that makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like Disneyland. Hesitantly, we walked into what they call a chapel. Not a sound. No one around. Just rows of cheap blue office chairs facing a low stage. A curtain twitched and a coffin glided into the room.

A monochrome man appeared from nowhere. “Is that one ours?” asked my father, perhaps expecting more coffins to start appearing and a sudden rush of people claiming them as if it were the baggage carousel at OR Tambo International Airport after a suicide bombing in Kabul.

The ghoul nodded, unscrewed the coffin lid and went to stand a few metres away, watching us in case we stole something.

My father recited a Hindu prayer because he doesn’t know any Christian ones. Then I kissed my mother on her ice-cold forehead and walked out into the sunshine.

Hamba kahle, Ma.



18 thoughts on “Anyone For Chemo And A Nice Cup Of Tea?

  1. Siebert Kruger says:

    I guess there are plusses to knowing when your time is going to come to an end, but most people would probably prefer to pass on in an instant. I’m sorry that your mother had to go through such a difficult period towards the end. Your piece was extremely moving. Your acute insight, observation and perception is what makes you such an incredibly valuable writer. And you are very funny too! Keep well.

    1. pumla says:

      Think your the best and LOVE you :).

  2. David says:

    Touching, sad and unfortunately familiar … Great piece. Condolences

  3. Shawn Driman says:

    Hey Ben, I lost my Mom to cancer too. One long agonizing slide into the inevitable. I feel your pain. My condolences to you and your family.

    1. Hey Shawn. Thanks man. Sorry about your loss, too. Hope you’re well.

  4. Kanam Jr says:

    Sorry for you loss, Ben.
    How you manage to still find humor in such a tragedy is a gift you are kind enough to share with us.
    My sincere condolences.

    1. Thanks Kanam. It was one of the easiest and yet hardest columns I’ve ever written.

  5. surfwordsig says:

    Heavy story. I lost my dad few years ago, similarly untidy situation. hang in there.

  6. Byron Loker says:

    Well put, BT. I lost my mother to cancer. The helpful advice from her doctor when she first complained of pain near an armpit: “Change your brand of deodorant.” Damn the medical profession to hell.

    1. Thanks Sebastian. Much appreciated.

    2. Hey Byron. Glad you feel the same way about this bunch of money-grubbing buskers and leeches. See you in the line-up.

  7. Sebastian Zoutendyk says:


    My condolences. I fully relate to your disdain for the treatment process and final arrangements.

    Wishing you strength and acceptance.


  8. Albert Jack says:

    I am guessing this is true, sorry man….. Nicely put though. Come back to Cape Town stop me and Jameson waiting for you to arrive stop then we can start another raid stop

    1. Thanks mate. We’ll have another Jameson raid soon.

  9. tesscat4 says:

    I WAS trying to think of something witty to say but words failed me. I would have chosen the world cruise option for sure. Sorry for you loss Ben

  10. Irene says:

    Oh Ben. So sorry. Sorry for your poor mom with her pain, sorry for the rest of you for the heartache. Just, sorry.

  11. amandzing says:

    Ben. No words man.

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