Thief in the night: Covid took my mom

Covid-19 came like a thief in the night and snatched my mom. She was declared dead at 10.30pm on 3 January because of “Covid-19-related complications” after only being admitted to hospital the day before. Elsie Ndayeni Chauke, a mother of three strong, intelligent and complex children is dead.

We buried her three weeks ago, on Friday 8 January.

Kgotso Mme Elsie!

My mom’s demise was a sudden unexpected death; the tautology of the term perfectly captures the immediacy and the shock.

She died in casualty because hospitals and ICUs are full. She was in a private hospital with medical aid and none of that helped; people are dying like flies everywhere. 

The hospital called me repeatedly to come and fetch my mother’s corpse; they did not have space in their mortuary. They needed her bed for other patients. 

I was in Cape Town, she was in Pretoria. At 2am, Google was my only friend as I searched and then called random undertakers to go and fetch her body.  

Some cases of Covid-19 lead to such a quick decline that there is not enough time to process what is happening. The regulations are that you have to bury someone who dies from Covid within three days. Everything is so rushed and desperate that it ends up mechanical and logical, there is simply no time to be sentimental. 

I’d never had a death in my immediate family and I didn’t know how to plan a funeral, I was winging everything. 

I went to the mortuary for the first time in my life that week and I went four times. I was in that fridge and there were multiple dead bodies. I asked to see my mom but they refused to open the plastic she was wrapped in — I could not see, let alone touch, her. 

It is important to view the dead; there’s a lot of healing and closure that comes from seeing that fatal reality — it confirms the painful truth and helps you get over the denial. Instead, with the truth contained in impenetrable plastic, stigma sets in.

I’m still reeling from the whispers and stares. We had to fumigate my family home because people are scared. I can’t blame them, but Elsie Ndayeni Chauke deserved a gracious end to her life of toil and suffering. 

Most black people live undignified lives and only see dignity in death. Our freedom is in the afterlife and that’s why we invest so much money planning for our funerals. Covid-19 has taken this last shred of decency from us. It has stolen our rites of passage into heaven, we can’t gather in the same way or practise our traditions to properly send off our own and pay our last respects (except, of course, if you are some important government official, where the same rules do not seem to apply). 

My mom was bundled up like trash, bound in plastic — she wasn’t allowed in her own yard. We couldn’t wash or dress her to the nines for the last time, couldn’t watch over her body in a night-time vigil or give her a final touch goodbye. 

But Elsie is not just a Covid statistic, a number to illustrate exponential graphs. No! She was a woman, a sister, a hustler, a provider, a prayer warrior, a mother — my mother — complex, kind, smart, resilient and brave. 

She was a mere 55 years old, born in Limpopo in 1966 during the tumultuous times. My mother lived up to her name — Ndayeni is a Xitsonga word meaning “guide me” — as she intricately steered me and my siblings and my siblings’ children to come of age.

A domestic worker by profession, she was an ambitious woman who taught herself Afrikaans to be able to converse with her employers. 

Although she never used the words herself, she embodied and espoused values and qualities of a radical black feminist. She left my abusive father, escaped with her three children even though she had no education, trust fund or safety net of any kind. She chose the refuge and sanity of a life  by herself with her children. 

She was also a very direct communicator, funny, and fearless — oh dear God, Elsie was fearless; I once watched her kill a venomous snake in our shack and burn it. 

Elsie belonged to herself deeply and fiercely. She was more than her roles to and for other people and I want to remember her as such — she was much more than the roles assigned to her by society.   

I did not cry when she died and three weeks later I still haven’t cried. How do I begin to grieve properly when I am stuck on the first stage of grief; denial? I did not see her.    

It is not that I am not sad, I loved her and she adored me, but I am walking through the valley of death. We are all living through a global pandemic that has death hanging around our necks like a coiling miasma. 

There is no time to properly mourn or process what has happened because there is so much of it all around us. Instead, I am holding my breath, waiting for the next death; that of others or my own.

Grief needs a safe space to be expressed fully and the world is currently an unsafe place — figuratively and literally. To grieve one needs to be held and have a soft landing for a heart breaking into pieces. My mother was my first home, I am now without a home because of a global pandemic. Some of us have lost those very safety nets that used to hold us, so who will mend us if we break beyond repair? 

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Paballo Chauke
Paballo Chauke has a Bachelor of Social Sciences and an Honours in Environmental Geographical Science from the University of Cape Town as well as a Master’s in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from Oxford University. He has multi-trans-inter-disciplinary interests and currently works as a training co-ordinator.

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