Outstaring the Abyss

Incipient malingering

So one morning in early December, I woke up in ICU.

To be more accurate, I didn’t “wake up” so much as become aware of my surroundings. The bright lights; the dozen or so tubes snaking out of various parts of me; the wires to the monitors and the deeply uncomfortable feeding pipe extending from my nose. My partner was also there – concern and exhaustion painting her features in thick layers.

Apparently, I’d been awake and responsive the day before and the day before that, but I have no memory of either day. Similarly, I have no recollection of my friends visiting me or any of the interactions I had with them. I was essentially a sophisticated automaton, if you will. For practical purposes, this was the first time I was myself again (in broad terms and putting aside the philosophical vagaries of how one would go about defining selfhood).

Before my emergence from the fog of discontinuity, I’d been unconscious for number of days and prior to that, I’d been placed in a medically-induced coma while the medical team laboured to drag me back from the precipice.

Perhaps a bit of context is called for here: I found out in late November that I have genetic haemochromatosis. For those who don’t feel like asking The Google what this spelling bee nightmare is all about, allow me to elucidate. It’s a disorder that disrupts my body’s ability to regulate its iron uptake. The consequence of this is an excess of iron which gets dumped and stored in various organs like the pancreas, liver, and heart, with no simple way to remove it.

The condition has been misdiagnosed for years, so my ferritin levels are off the charts. The accumulated iron is what punched my pancreas in the face and gave me Type 2 diabetes (not too many cupcakes for lunch). It also dragged my liver into a dark alley and kicked it in the proverbial testicles so hard that according to my gastroenterologist, I have “severely decompensated liver function”, or “cirrhosis” in the parlance of normal people.

Both conditions are somewhat ironic (hah!) because (a) I follow a healthy diet and lifestyle and (2) I don’t drink alcohol. On the other hand, I would probably have dropped dead years ago if I was an alcoholic butterball.

The cirrhosis interferes with my liver’s filtration mechanism and this causes abdominal pressure to build up to an extent where the blood seeks alternative escape routes – the most common being via the gastro-intestinal tract. This causes the growth of clusters of distended blood vessels called “varices” in the oesophagus. These clusters are particularly dangerous little bastards, because if any of them pop, you can easily bleed to death if you aren’t near an emergency room. This is called “exploding gizzard syndrome” (not really).

Anyway, I was admitted to hospital as a matter of urgency to have my varices attended to via a procedure called “banding”. The intention was to subsequently start treatment to reduce my ferritin to normal levels and hopefully restore some liver function.

The procedure was apparently successful, albeit extremely painful. Unfortunately, I developed an infection and several days later, one of the varices ruptured and I started vomiting blood. So. Much. Blood. We’re talking ‘Carrie’ volumes here. My partner rushed me to the emergency room while I called ahead to fill my doctor in. When we arrived, we knew I was headed downhill fast, because the first thing the doctor said was, “We’re in trouble here”. He had that “Oh no, I’m going to have to call the family look”, which is never a good sign. I was hooked up to an array of tubes and equipment and wheeled off to ICU. That was the last thing I remember before I finally crawled out of the near side of the Styx a week later. I’d obviously left my wallet in my other pants.

When I was unconscious, I was transferred to the University of Cape Town Private Academic Hospital, where I received the best care a person could hope for. The medical staff were brilliant; the nursing staff were tirelessly vigilant; and my partner was unbelievably strong. Even though she had to deal with the shock and terror, she still found time to take care of everything – admin; finances; and keeping everyone up to speed on my condition. Most of all, she was there every day, all day, until I was discharged. She was as important to my recovery as the medical team.

They managed to coax me back from the threshold of Death’s door and prod me to the hospital main entrance within two weeks, which left many people with their ghasts completely flabbered. After I was discharged and my friends came to visit, one of them voiced what everyone was thinking. He said, “Dude, we genuinely thought you were going to die”.

I didn’t.

And I’m glad to be alive.

Also, I’m engaged, so I no longer have a partner, but a fiancée.

Life is good.

Perchance to dream

Irony, humour or pathos? I'm leaning towards door number three
The comic is accurate. Unfortunately.

However, that isn’t really the point – I mainly wanted to post something in memory of my late mother.

But how do you condense a life down into a few words? When we remember someone – even someone close – it’s always fragments of the whole, so I guess fragments will have to do:

My mother wasn’t the easiest person to get to know. She was a bit like one of those sculptures that only make sense when you view it from the right perspective and all the components line up.

She was also incredibly stubborn. She wasn’t fond of any post-80s technology and no evidence demonstrating its usefulness and versatility could persuade her otherwise. Similarly, when it came to food, she knew what she liked and any even slightly unconventional menu items would be dismissed with, “Ugh, that doesn’t sound very nice”. Apparently my mother tasted with her ears.

She had varied interests and was curious about many things. She enjoyed talk radio, but detested many of the presenters. She would only tune in to their shows, so she could loathe them all the more. She liked telling embarrassing stories, but she never embellished on them, which made them all the more powerful and impervious to any challenge to their veracity. She loved puzzles, detective novels and bridge. She wouldn’t have been unhappy if her epitaph was a simple, “Here lies Mother Kyknoord, bridge player”.

She had a habit of adopting disease-ridden stray cats. The rest of us were constantly being pressed into service to run the wretched animals to ground and give them their medication. This is why most of my family is scarred – both physically and psychologically.

Unfortunately, every new addition to the feline cohort didn’t sit too well with the incumbents, so they did what cats do and marked their territory. Now my mother’s standards of cleanliness for the house were pretty high, so this state of affairs did not fly at all. I have this abiding memory of her stopping mid-conversation, wrinkling her nose and whispering, “do you smell that?”. Then she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled around on the floor, sniffing the furniture like a bloodhound as she tried to locate the source of the offending eau de chat.

She loved her garden, so this put her at odds with various species of vermin that also loved her garden, like snails. She didn’t advocate the use of poison, because she was concerned that it would pose a risk to the cats and local birdlife (of course, the cats posed a much more substantial risk to the local birdlife, but that’s another story), so the only truly effective way to control the snails was to collect them manually.

However, this was tedious and labour-intensive, so she concocted a cunning plan involving the acquisition of a pair of ducks that would form the core of her snail death squad. They were quite efficient at the task, but they also destroyed the grass with their corrosive droppings. As a result, the ducks were shipped off and she replaced them with guinea fowl.

Unfortunately, the guinea fowl carved a path of utter destruction through the garden with their miniature dinosaur claws, so when we eventually managed to round them up after many failed attempts (and a lot more scarring), they were replaced with bantams.

It turned out that the bantams thought they were gods or some such and wouldn’t deign to eat the snails unless they were manually collected and presented as an offering, so my mother was basically back to square one – only with a brood of work-shy bantams thrown into the bargain.

These are the things I miss the most about her.

My mother had a strong aversion to sentimentality, so the poem my sister selected for the memorial service seems apposite (If I Should Go by Joyce Grenfell):

If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known
Weep if you must
Parting is hell
But life goes on
So sing as well


Interesting. And how does that make you feel?
I used to date a psychologist. Possibly. It’s also possible that she was just hanging around with me for research purposes and I’ll end up being referred to as “Subject K” when she finally publishes her Big Book o’ Weirdos (working title).

Most people believe psychology involves sitting in a chair saying, “Tell me about your mother” and performing the occasional Jedi Mind Trick. While that viewpoint isn’t entirely wrong (because The Force does indeed give one power over weak minds), it ignores some of the more harrowing realities of the job.

A specific thing your typical shrinker of heads has to deal with is the fact that they are never off-duty. Even when they pack up for the day and go home, they still have to process all the batshit they’ve been exposed to during their sessions. To add to this, there are the frantic after-hours phone calls from clients with boundary issues (which is often a telling clue as to why they are in therapy in the first place).

One such phone call that derailed a quiet Saturday afternoon was from a panicking parent who was worried that some or other imaginary crisis might befall her hapless child. When I asked Obi-Juanita why she didn’t tell the caller that she wasn’t available after hours, she patiently explained that the shock would be too great. Or as she put it: “You can’t say that to mothers. You may as well tell them, ‘Sorry, I can’t talk right now – I’m having anal sex with a dog’“.

I’m beginning to understand why Freud needed all that cocaine.

The French fry Revolution

The revolution will not be televised. It will be Instagrammed
So the latest crop of cretins best and brightest of the new generation are protesting for free tertiary education again.

Their strategy this time: close the universities. Because that makes so much sense. It’s a bit like campaigning for orgasms by cutting off your penis. It seems that the shaggy-haired sandal squad are unable to recognise the giant metaphorical pistol they have aimed squarely at their unwashed collective foot. Then again, I’ve been informed that I’m “part of the problem” and “too old to understand”. I wasn’t aware that logic had an age limit, but there you go.

However, I actually DO understand why the instigators of this movement are so adamant about not paying fees: A scan of the jobs page of any local newspaper will swiftly reveal that there aren’t any organisations recruiting people with degrees ending in the word “studies”. Their future employment prospects almost certainly involve the phrase, “Would you like fries with that?”

The old joke about what you say to someone with a PhD in Humanities is a chilling reality in this country.

Thump thump thump

And that was AFTER filtering out all the Gurus, Ninjas and Rock Stars
One of the less palatable aspects of my job is bidding on government contracts. It would be less of trial if I thought it would be worth the effort, but it’s a complete waste of time.

Most state entities openly thumb their noses at the procurement regulations and carefully word their specifications to favour certain outcomes. The state officials have very itchy backs that require lots of scratching before you’re granted entrance to the preferred circle.

The fact that this is technically illegal is neither here nor there. The government occasionally makes a few disingenuous noises about “rooting out corruption” before election time, but the practice continues because few private firms have the stomach, stamina or stones to take the matter to court. They understand the power of the Dark Side.

Nevertheless, my boss insists that I keep hitting my head against this particular wall, because Senior Management Logic(TM) dictates that if something doesn’t work, you keep doing it until your skull pops.