African-American poet Nayyirah Waheed writes: “a friend. is someone who supports your breath.”
I thought of Nayyirah as I held my diaphragm with one hand one evening, and held the phone in the other. I took brisk steps towards my car, and heard my sister’s voice call out — crystal clear from 1 400km away. “I realised I hadn’t spoken to you in a while and I just wanted to catch up.” To excavate the essence of her statement and look at it in the clear light of day, I asked her: “How was your day?” I listened to her breathe, I listened to the lilt in her voice as she said, “I am so tired”, before telling me how she had spent all night on campus, and how things were going at work.
There was an easy way about her chatter and, as I extended my ear, I tried to support her breath.
I work in Cape Town and she lives in Johannesburg. When she phones, it’s usually right after the 9-to-5 clock has rung out. My big sister and I are in (at least) two WhatsApp groups, besides our own private WhatsApp chat, we SMS, video call and tag each other in countless social media posts. We connect on several different levels each day.
She was born roughly two and a half years before me. Every major moment in society and pop culture has shaken both of our earths at their axes, at the same time. When Princess Diana’s car crashed in a tunnel in Paris, we stood on the tiles in our home in shock, two small bodies blinded by the flashing CNN: Breaking News sign on the TV screen. When her nose was smashed by a cricket bat on our primary school field during an after-school game, we hobbled together, two small bodies, towards the school sick room.
On a fateful day in 1998, Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls. Blinded by tears, my sister and I watched the news unfold on Total Request Live and then Top of the Pops, convulsing with tears. On the day that two airplanes crashed into two skyscrapers in New York City, we clutched each other and watched the world burn. When we lost our only paternal aunt, my sister and I grieved, two small bodies, together.
[The Spice Girls perform at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2007 (Reuters)]
Even at that young age, barely tall enough to enjoy the rides at Gold Reef City, we learned how necessary it was to support one another and to help each other to find peace in times of turmoil. From the moment that I was knitted in the womb, my life’s destiny had been decided. Our parents had made my sister a friend.
My sister used to dress me up in her ballet slippers, tights and leotard. I was the doll she dressed up and twirled around. I was her secret-keeper under the cover of night, the person to whom she whispered her fears and joys. When my sister phones, more than 20 years later, she speaks with lightness, from an unburdened heart, or from a heart that is about to share its burdens with me. My breath is heavier; my conversations are not as light.
When our geographic locations had been reversed, while she was at university in Cape Town, and I was a high school learner in Johannesburg, there was a period during which I phoned her almost daily. Young love had devastated and disappointed her, and during those phone calls I rested the phone on my shoulder, just to allow her to cry into something other than her university pillow.
During one of those phone calls, she dropped a gem that I will never forget. She had sprained her ankle during a netball game and the pain was so excruciating that an ambulance had been called to collect her and tend to her injury. “The pain of my ankle feels better than the agony of my broken heart,” she said.
Almost a decade later, our roles were reversed. I was studying in Cape Town and she was working in Johannesburg. One Monday, her phone number flashed on my screen. She told me that she had heard news that a friend of mine from varsity in Johannesburg had died in a car accident. I convulsed in pain. The shock of her news collapsed my knees and I doubled over. This was probably the shortest phone conversation we have ever shared and the most burdensome. It was a day that will forever be marked in my calendar with the profound sadness of unexplainable loss.
Two years before, I had broken my ankle while playing touch rugby, but when I phoned my sister I assumed it was a mere sprain. Gradually though, I watched my ankle swell to the size of a grapefruit. I don’t generally keep painkillers in my home, so when I phoned my sister to explain the depth of the pain that I was trying to endure, she suggested that I have a glass of wine. I remember her words again, weighing the agony of a broken heart against a broken ankle. Years later, with mine full of pins and plates, I laugh as I consider a lifetime of catch-up phone calls.
Some of these conversations have shaken my hands with the veracity of grief. Some of them have been light and gleeful, discussing new crushes or episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Some of these phone calls have been bitter, angry, wild, argumentative and unpleasant. Some of our phone calls have been devastating, and some have been rambunctious as we plotted Friday night plans.
But the most unforgettable phone calls have been ones when we barely shared any words. Ever since Bell first invented the telephone and Jobs perfected it, the art of the phone call has been a wonder of the modern world. The most heartfelt, heart-stopping, earth-shaking conversations, whether you are right beside your loved one or a two-hour plane ride away, have all begun with an inhalation and the hope filled exhalation of “Hello!”