My Mother's death

Judith Mason died on 28 December 2016. Here is what I have written about her death (for clarity I manage this website and Mark Attwood is my work and life partner).

The day my mother died Mark, myself and her grandchildren Simon and Maru had a perfect day. We were at Mkhambati Nature Reserve in the Transkei with friends and had arrived the day before, having spent Christmas day with my mom at home in White River.

Mark and I went on a walk down to the mouth of the Msikaba River. After reaching the mouth we then walked along the rocks and a pebble-strewn beach where I found part of a carnelian bead from the shipwreck of the São Bento from 1554. Carnelian beads were used as payment for slaves. My mother’s mitochondrial DNA is from east Africa. Most of the slaves brought to South Africa came from East Africa.

Mark and I walked along a road through the coastal grasslands and were whistled at twice by a rhebuck that we almost walked into. A few hundred meters further a troop of baboons was moving across the veld towards a vlei. One of the big males at the back of the troop was eating a small mammal that looked like a rabbit. From a distance, it looked like Goya’s: “Saturn Devouring His Son”.

The rest of day was spent swimming in the sea, in freshwater rock pools, lazing on the stoep, reading and making linocuts for block printing. I read When Breath Becomes Air, a non-fiction autobiographical book written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of cancer at the age of 37. It is a beautiful book about how to live and how to die.
On Thursday morning I woke up early and finished the book. I was in tears from reading the book, before I got out of bed. After breakfast, Goodman (the reserve manager) came to give us a message that we were to call home urgently. Mkhambati is isolated and has poor cell phone signal, so no one had been able to call us directly. I contacted our friend who told me that my mother had died. She had returned home at midday on Wednesday, having gone shopping for clothes and supplies for a New Years braai. As she came home the skies opened and rained hard. She collapsed at the threshold of her house and died immediately. On Monday she had looked strong and was standing upright (having had a spinal operation a month earlier) and seemed to be recovering so well. I had hugged her gently and said goodbye and then we left. On getting the news, I felt strangely calm.
Simon and Maru had already left to go on a run and to explore the beach. We saw them coming out of the dune forest below the hill we were on. We walked along the path to tell them about their Ouma. A large grey snake crossed my path. Later in the day, having spent five hours using patchy cell phone signal to tell family and friends, and having unsuccessfully tried to reach my sister Petra in Miami (eight hours behind us), we were again walking along a path in the veld and another snake crossed our path. That night we packed and prepared for the sixteen-hour drive home. We left at 5.30 am.
As we approached Underberg, I was driving when I encountered yet another snake. A night adder slithered out of the car’s engine and up the windscreen in front of me. We stopped to gently remove the snake with our snake stick and released it in a vlei next to the road. That evening, as we were about fifteen kilometres from home, we saw some men on the left-hand side of the road carrying the corpse of a baboon. Once in the valley where we live, a huge beautiful porcupine walked in front of us and across the road, its quills extended for maximum effect. An evening or two later Maru was in our garden, writing in her journal when two white-faced owls flew down and sat on the grass in front of her.
The thread running through the day of my mother’s death, and for a few days after, was one of a coincidence of animal and bird sightings that we never usually see. Her work often referenced animals, especially snakes, apes and creatures of the night. In her studio, we found a painting that she was working on of a Yoruba death leopard. She had made a note of the following quote “beautiful death who puts on a spotted robe when he goes to his victim”. We also found a Mobius strip on which she had written ‘Where does the human begin and the animal end.”
A few months earlier, whilst discussing her planned move to Swellendam, she had told me “mainly I feel an animal's need to be on my own when I die”. On the day before her death, Johann de Lange sent her a poem that he had written for her. She read the poem and responded by email to him saying how much she liked it. The poem describes an ageing jackal creeping under some brushwood to die. Johann did not know about her wish to die alone.

I find these coincidences comforting.

Tamar Mason, 25 January 2017

Judith Mason's prints

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