Granny’s gardens

So my gran died.

And it doesn’t matter how much you know it’s coming, or how much you’re expecting it, or how many times you see her with oxygen tubes in her nose and the weight dropping off her and her struggling even to stand up to do dishes …

Nothing prepares you for it.

There’s a gran-shaped hole in my world and I didn’t see enough of her before she left.

I didn’t tell her enough times that I love her.

I didn’t take enough pictures with her.

I didn’t enough ANYTHING with her.

I don’t think it would ever have been enough, though. My gran was not someone you ever got tired of.

I spoke at her memorial. This is what I said. It’s not nearly enough.

When I was thinking about what to say here, a million thoughts of my grandmother speeding around my brain like kites with tails too short to catch hold of, I had a sudden image of a Disney princess wandering around a forest scattering seeds in her wake, flowers springing up in her footprints and all manner of winged creatures swooping around her. And I thought … AH, there she is! Rather shorter and rounder than your average Disney princess, perhaps, but every bit as joyful and beautiful as Snow White drawing water from a well.

My grandmother loved alive things. I can identify many of the Joburg birds by sight or song (hoopoe, weaver, cuckoo, loerie, starling, crow, indian mynah, laughing dove, kingfisher, bulbul, mousebird), thanks to the afternoons we sat looking out of the window at her bird log strapped high in a tree, watching baby barbets poke their heads out of the hole like whack-a-moles as their parents whizzed back and forth bringing them food.

I remember winter mornings breaking the ice off the birdbath with boiling water, pouring a steady stream onto the middle of the sheet without splashing to create a hole that we could stick our hands into. First prize went to the one who managed to lift it off without breaking it. I would carry it with pride, at age three not much taller than the disc of ice under my armpit.

I’ve watched her sit still and quiet on her porch, scattering bread crumbs or biscuits to coax the birds nearer, hop by hop, until sparrows and kiewiets stood centimetres from her shoes, pecking morsels from the ground around her, not fluttering away when she spoke or reached for her cup of tea.

My grandmother loved alive things. Her porches were gowned in wisteria and honeysuckle, and when you stepped outside in the morning the first air you breathed was jasmine and morning glory. Her flower beds were trimmed with alyssum, giving rise to lavender and lemon verbena, petunias and Namaqualand daisies blazing sunshine colors in the spring. Hydrangeas massed along the side of the house, arum lilies and agapanthus clustered around their feet. I collected easter eggs in the forest at the top of the garden and picked gooseberries from the bush and ate them where I stood, the yellow balls warm in my mouth.

She spent three years growing a hoya for me, using a cutting from her own vine. The single strand was less than a metre long when she gave it to me and I carried it home and put it on the porch table. When I returned from work the next day it was lying shredded on the lawn where my puppy had dragged it. I didn’t know how to tell her. I did, of course, but she didn’t say much about it at the time and it was only when we were sitting on her porch soon after her diagnosis that she told me the parent plant, hanging tangled on its trellis behind me, was fifty years old and I realised what I had lost.


That plant has lived in almost every garden she has tended. It has bloomed beside gladiolus and irises, marigolds and snapdragons. Sweet peas have wafted their scent over its velvet flowers and potted daffodils have clustered around its base. Every vein and cell and hair of it, and the soil it grows in, is imbued with her. And while it lives, she cannot die.

This is a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I think it would make her smile.

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 sunlight 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 circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there. I did not die.



The birthday that almost wasn’t

I drive 300km to fetch her from the Bethlehem SPCA when she’s five months old. My friends have her brother and he looks like a Great Dane, down to the blue merle colouring. When I called about the puppies left in the litter, they said they only had one female left and so I said I’d take her, no pictures necessary, I was coming. I walk down two rows of desperate dogs and the only thing that keeps me upright when I see the pleading in their eyes is the knowledge that I’m taking one out. I’m excited, and nervous. I’ve always wanted a Great Dane. Can’t afford a real one but this is the next best thing, and if she looks anything like her brother …

I step into the cage and I spot her, huddled in a ball in the corner of her concrete cell, her recently sliced open belly exposed and one yellow wolf eye peering terrified at me from under a floppy ear. Her legs are too long to fit under her body so they splay to the side of her and as I approach she tries every way possible to make herself one with the wall.

She does not look like a Great Dane.

She does not look like a Husky.

She does not look like a German Shepherd.

She does not look like anything I had in my head.

But I made her a promise, and she had an operation because of it, and so she is mine.

She pees herself as I put her brand new purple harness on her and she will not walk so I have to pick her up, foal-legs dangling, and the pee drips down my shirt and pools around my waistband.

She throws up in the car twice on the way home and spends the next three months eating my socks. She pulls laundry off the line when she’s angry and digs holes in the garden when she’s bored. The first time I leave her alone at the house she tears a hole through the solid wood kitchen door and squeezes herself inside, then can’t get out when she gets sick and I come home to puke and shit and pee. Everywhere.


But she’s mine. And when my life falls to pieces just a few months after I bring her home, I find a way to keep her. She bounces between friends and when she digs under their fences and tears up their lawns she spends two months in kennels, where I can visit on Saturdays and I can hear her screaming for me the moment I step through the gate despite two hundred other dogs barking between us.



We move to our tiny cottage on the farm and she jumps over two gates and a fence to go looking for me when I go away to work, then has the good sense to knock on someone’s gate when she realises she’s lost and they have the good sense to let her in and call the vet. I arrive to pick her up, frantic and desperate, after racing home from work 40km away, and find her lazing about in their living room making friends with their dogs.

I raise the fence.

She shreds her chest climbing over it.

But she doesn’t leave the property alone again.

She follows on my heels as I ride my horse around the block and through the veld. Her long legs eat up the ground and we ride for hours, travelling in a great loop through the long grass, picking our way over stones and through wetland mush. She hardly looks like she’s making an effort as she floats over puddles and ditches. Dogs yell at her from behind high fences, even rush her out of open gates, and she drifts past them as if they were smoke, her whole attention focused on me.


I take her camping in the mountains, where we laze around and gaze at clouds. She scratches and snaps at the bugs buzzing around her head but doesn’t do much else. She wanders off to find another patch of shade, or damp earth, to cool herself in the summer swelter. Every now and then I lead her to the shower. She climbs straight in and sits down, waiting for the cold spray to tumble down onto her head, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking the water out of her ears.



She stretches her horse legs to full extension chasing a rabbit across the field in front of our house. She’s remarkably fast, for such a big dog. I hold my breath for the rabbit and I feel my heart racing as it just makes it through the fence, leaving her trotting high-stepping down the wires, lolling pink tongue spilling out of the side of her mouth.

She’s caught four of them, that I know of. I’ve found three on my lawn, one half eaten, and one she carries proudly to my car door as I arrive home from work. It’s a youngster, not wily and wise enough to escape her quick-turn action, and still warm when she drops it at my feet. I only get close enough to make sure it’s dead, but there’s still an aura of life floating around the supple little body. I can’t scold her though: my girl, my huntress. She’s much too proud of what she’s done.

She catches rats and guinea fowl too. She and Hercules engage in a tug of war over a freshly killed rat, and I look away, afraid this time will be the time they tear it apart.

Not yet, though. She always gives it up to him.


It’s Friday evening, last weekend. I’m lying in bed. I’ve been sick, so I’ve been home with her all day. She jumps onto the bed with me, tounge lolling, panting, so I think she’s been running silly buggers outside and I poke a toe at her to get off. She’s shaking the whole bed and she must go get a drink.

She climbs down, and her back legs collapse underneath her. She walks two steps and she falls. Her breathing is harder than I’ve ever heard it but she won’t stop moving. She’s spinning in circles, falling on the floor, on the rocks, on the edge of the barrels which are sharp as knives because I haven’t got around to protecting them with rubber yet. She can still kind of walk so I race her to the car, sending frantic messages to L to meet me at the vet. I talk to her: you’ll be ok, hush baby, you’re ok. She cries on the seat behind me as she scrabbles for purchase, trying to stand. You’ll be ok, you’re ok, shhhhh, hush baby, don’t stand up …

When we arrive at the vet, she can’t walk any more. I collapse weeping as more efficient people try to get her out of the back seat of my undersized car. She’s seizing, though, and her legs keep stiffening against the door. There is drool everywhere. She has shat herself. We carry her inside between three of us and lie her on the floor, where she continues to shake, and spin, and drool, and cry, and her head is all sideways and her tongue is hanging the wrong way and she keeps trying to stand up and the vet says the chances are slim and I’m screaming I’m not ready I’m not ready she’s supposed to only go when she’s twelve …

But she’s mine. And I’m not leaving her lying in a cage to die I don’t care how many drugs she has in her. So we bring her home and she seizes again while we’re carrying her inside and we manage to get her onto a pile of blankets where the shoes normally are and luckily she doesn’t try to get up again and luckily the Valium kicks in and luckily she starts to fall asleep and I just want to stroke her and stroke her and tell her she’s precious and I love her and I don’t want her ever to leave me but the vet said I mustn’t bother her so I just wait till she’s quiet and then leave her to rest and go message my mother that I’m losing my dog and I don’t know what to do …

And then she stands up and staggers outside to me and climbs on the couch.

And ten minutes later, her face isn’t that awful crooked shape and she’s breathing quietly and I can count the breaths and I don’t dare to hope.

But when we all go to bed her back legs aren’t even wobbling any more.

And on Saturday morning she’s fine.

She’s slower now, though. The greyhound streak across the pasture has turned into more of an amble.

But she’s alive.

And she’s with me.

And she’s mine.

And on Sunday she turned nine.