#4: The Journey
Dawid Willemse was one very unhappy old man. Well, maybe not unhappy, but he always behaved like a grumpy old bear that had stuck his paw in a thorn bush, always speaking to people in an irritated tone, never smiling, just doing his daily commute from his house, into town, on his trusty bicycle, getting the paper, buying some groceries, and cycling back to his house. He lived in a very small town, it's very secluded, and far from the hustle and bustle of the city. He moved there a long while back, and has been living there for nearly 20 years now already.
But as with most people, he has a story. A reason for his behaviour. His life was an intricate quilt of complex issues woven out of many life-shaping events that transpired over the years. Events that, if they were just a little different, would have made that his life would be totally different to what it is now. But it's like that with all of us isn't it. We live a certain way, not expecting anything to change, then suddenly it does, and the way we react to those changes, determines where we end up.
Uncle Dawie, as he was affectionately known before he became the grumpy man on the vintage bike, is my uncle. Now, you see, Uncle Dawie's life before I was born, was way different to what it is now.
Before he moved to the more rural place he's living in now, he was a successful man. Living a family-driven, work-orientated life. He was a teacher at a high-school, and was very focused on his work and being a very good teacher. He drank a little after work every now and then, as do a lot of teachers, we know the stress is hectic, but he didn't drink so much, that it was a problem. He had two children, a girl, Dalia, and a boy, Devin. They grew up over time, and his wife, Aunty Adele, was a poster-child for the perfect house wife.
After the kids grew up, they moved out the house. First Devin, he became a mechanic, and enjoyed mild success with his own business fixing cars. He got married, to Ashley, a cashier from his town, his high school sweetheart, and after a few years they had a baby boy, Ashvin. They were pretty much a default family, living in the bliss of mediocrity.
Dalia was quiet and studious. She studied to become a nurse, and she soon started to work as a nurse after doing quite well during her in-training. She lived near the hospital where she worked. She was working for about 4 years when the family was rocked by first tragedy, then scandal.
Devin and Ashley were on their way out, to spend some time with each other, since the birth of their child, they've had precious little time to spend with each other as a couple. The little baby was taking up all their time. So they decided to drop Ashvin off at his parent's house. Aunty Adele was at home, so she could look after the bundle, while they went out to spend a couple's lunch together.
When they were done with their midday date, they hopped into their car, and proceeded to go Devin's parent's house to pick up the baby. But this is where everything went pear-shaped.
The town was in a process of rebuilding and renovating, and there were many trucks driving around with big parts of building material as cargo, and there was many roadworks as the infra-structure was being improved. Devin found himself driving behind a large truck that had heavy cement pipes as its cargo, strapped to the carriage behind the front part of the truck. The weather was fine, not much wind, just some clouds, but up ahead was some roadworks, lots of dust was hanging in the air, and the lack of wind meant it wasn't blowing anywhere. Devin tried to overtake the truck, but the construction had reduced the road to one lane only, and it was too dangerous to overtake. Ashley told him to calm down, and he did, but as they approached the roadworks and dust, the road became rather wobbly, then, suddenly!
The truck, that was driving a tad over the speed limit, especially taking into account its cargo, saw a big pothole a little too late, and the combination of the truck trying to sway out the way, and some of its wheels thudding into the pothole, caused the thick wires holding down cement pipes to snap, and the pipes started to roll around in the trucks carriage, and then, the truck saw another pothole too late, and with the momentum of that knock, in a matter of seconds, one pipe slid off, straight into Devin's windshield, killing him instantly. This caused the car to swing and sway, and it eventually rolled onto its side. And that killed Ashley, after surviving the first knock.
It was a terrible sight.
When the paramedics and ambulances got onto the scene, they managed to get the mangled bodies out of the wreck, and saw in his wallet, his identity, and one of the paramedics realised he knew Devin's father, he was his son's teacher at the school, he called the school to tell Uncle Dawie the news, that his son and his sister in law have just been killed...
Uncle Dawie didn't like cars, the school he taught at was near to his house, so he always travelled by bicycle, it kept him fit and he enjoyed it. Upon hearing this shocking news, he immediately left the school to go to his house, where his wife was looking after the now-orphaned Ashvin, so that he could bring her the bad news, and take them to the hospital so that they could do the final identification of the bodies.
But if he thought losing his son was the only shock he was going to get that day, he was in for an even more nauseating surprise…
He came home, and it was quiet. He walked through to where Ashvin was, and he was there, sleeping in his cot. He called his wife's name, but there was no answer. He was now a tad worried. He checked the bathroom, the kitchen, the lounge, nothing. Only his bedroom was left to check upstairs.
He heard shrill quiet yelping sounds emanate from his bedroom, he opened the door quickly and there was his wife. With another man. A man he didn't know. They were so intensely busy that they didn't even realize he was there. Aunty Adele was pinned down underneath the younger man, a blanket covering their action area, moaning with delight, while this strange man was on top of his wife, ramming her like a freight-train. He didn't wait for them to finish what they were doing. Uncle Dawie wasn't a violent man, but he. Saw. Red. He stormed in, and without saying anything kicked the man off his wife. He fell to the floor with a thud and his wife shrilled and covered herself up with a blanket, as if she had something to hide. Both men have seen her outside and her inside multiple times. They knew it well. But seemingly this man knew it better than Uncle Dawie, you could tell that by the satisfied moans Aunty Adele gave moments before. She screamed that it wasn't what it seemed! They always say that, don't they. Uncle Dawie felt something you and me possibly won't ever feel. He felt the abject sadness of losing his only son to a freak accident, but before he could even tell his wife about their loss, he suffered the stinging hurt of losing his wife to someone else, someone else had stolen his beloved wife, but stolen was not the right word, stolen means something was unwillingly taken, and she was willingly taken.
I don't know which pain was worse, the death or the cheating. Only Uncle Dawie knows.
It felt like that very same cement pipe had just fallen on him. The culprit tried to tackle him, and he punched him over, multiple times, without even looking at him, just staring blankly ahead of him, his rage turning into nothingness, emptiness, his wife's screams became muffled as his life literally flashed before him. It all seemed like one gigantic waste. So many years of commitment and sacrifice, disintegrated in an instant. After a while he snapped out it, and the rage came back. He walked to the perpetrator, who was now writhing in pain, curled up on the floor, his nose bloodied, and proceeded to knock him out with a few well guided punches to his temple.
With the man who entered his wife now lying unconscious on the floor, he looked blankly to his wife, who was now crying and sniffing, saying, 'I'm sorry' repeatedly through her fake tears, they were generated more by the fact that she was caught out, than the actual being-unfaithful-to-her-husband part. He told her:
'Devin is dead. Ashley as well.'
'What?!' Aunty Adele yelled, still with the blanket around her.
'That's why I'm here earlier, to tell you they're dead.' Tears were now starting to well up in his eyes.
'What do you mean? How?' Her tears were now becoming genuine.
'They died in a car accident on the way back here,'
'O my Lord, how did this happen?!' She cried, forgetting what she was just caught doing is pretty much the same on the richter-scale-of-doom to Uncle Dawie as his son dying, because, not only did she die at that moment in his brain, but a huge part of him died as well.
'I, I,' he started to stammer, it became too much for him, and his brain switched from his son to his (soon-to-be-ex) wife, 'how do I, how could you? Who the fuck is this?!' He yelled pointing to the bloodied heap on the floor.
'This is not important right now! What happened to Devin and Ashley?!' She screamed.
'You're right, not important. 25 years of marriage is not important. At all.'
'Can we discuss this later, I can explain everything! But please tell me what happened to Devin!'
'Fuck you. FUCK. YOU! I'm taking Ashvin to his sister, and we're going to the hospital.' he screamed. 'You irresponsible witch, you're supposed to be looking after our Grandson, our one and ONLY grandson, but instead you pump yourself full of another man. Was it worth it? Is this the reason why you've been so distant in the last few weeks? How many times have I told you before that we should talk things out? Always communicate. You never listen.'
'You're, you're...' she tried to think up an excuse..
'Just shut it. I'm leaving you, as of today. I don't want to see you, I don't want to hear you, and you and your wimp of a man can fuck all you want. But you, are not, going to look after my grandson, not a chance. He's Dalia's child now, I'll make sure of that.'
With that, he stormed out of the bedroom, got Ashvin's things, and went to Dalia.
That's not how it worked out for Uncle Dawie though. After the accident and impending funerals of Devin and Ashley, Aunty Adele argued that Uncle Dawie was not a fit husband, and that his alcoholism was getting in the way of his teaching, and was making him frisky with some girl students at his school. None of this was true. But it did enough to ruin his reputation to such an extent that he lost his job.
Because Aunty Adele was the one that cheated, and because their kids were all grown up and no longer living with their parents, everything was split right down the middle. Dalia got the custody of the child, but because of the accusations leveled at Uncle Dawie, and the obvious treachery of Aunty Adele, Dalia wasn't sure if she wanted either parent to be part of Ashvin's life, and she banned them from seeing him. Aunty Adele moved in with her younger man, who turned out to be just some guy that worked at the gymnasium where she done some exercise every now and then. Aunty Adele claimed he 'showed genuine interest' in her, more than her husband did, and that was what attracted her initially, and for the 'sake of her husband and her marriage' she didn't want to let him know when it started to become serious. Big mistake. As it ultimately destroyed her entire family. Honestly is never overrated. She found this out too late.
Uncle Dawie took his most important belongings, his savings, and his bicycle, and went away. Far, far, far away. That was 20 years ago. In those 20 years Aunty Adele enjoyed 2 years of happiness with her new man, until it turned out that he is abusive and domineering, and he started to hit and abuse her. This went on for another 2 years before Dalia eventually found out and got a restraining order against the douche. Her mother was too afraid to break up with him, scared he might hurt her or worse, Dalia was having nothing thereof. He was forced to go away and when he tried to attack her again, he was arrested and put away for a few years.
25 years of marriage, sacrificed for that. Brilliant.
She later found out she was pregnant with the guy's child, and this devastated her to her core. She fell into a deep depression but eventually, about 4 months into the pregnancy, the foetus died inside her. Turns out she had cancer of the womb, and that's what killed the foetus. For another 15 years she suffered slowly, but she lived with Dalia, and Dalia nursed and took care of her.
Meanwhile, Uncle Dawie was just living his life in a constant state of what-could-have-been, that's why he was as bitter as he was. No-one in the town bothered to get to know him. Over 20 years, hardly anyone spoke to him, and anyone that did, got the same sort of cold treatment. You'd never get more than a nod of the head or a grunt out of him. He had to do that though. If he opened up to anyone about anything, he'd crack and fall into that depression again, and he wouldn't have that. The whole reason he came to live so far was to avoid that from happening.
But one day, on his usual travels, he received a letter from someone. Me! His nephew. Brent Willemse.
I was his only brother's son. They've obviously grown apart over the many years he’s been gone, but I still remember him fondly, and I was sick and tired of this family apart crap. This is what I put in the letter:
Dear Uncle Dawie
It has been years since we've heard of you, how have you been? How are things on that side? Hope everything is cool. This is Brent Willemse, your nephew. Remember me? Probably not. I was very young when you left to start your new life. But I know all about you and your story.
But I'll cut to the chase. You need to come home, to your family.
I know how you feel about your wife, you hate her, with every cell in your body. But that's ok. Most of us do as well, but guess what, she's dead! She started to change a bit towards the end of her illness, but I still remember what she done to you and the name of our entire family. You probably didn't know, but that guy cheated on her, and started to abuse her as well. Dalia did NOT like this, at all, and got a restraining order against him, he ignored it, and was arrested! Score! After that she fell pregnant with his child, but the foetus died, as she had womb cancer. Since then and over many years, the cancer spread through the rest of her body. Dalia was looking after her for many years, but she died, the cancer beat her. BUT. Her sickness has taken its toll on Dalia, who, as you know, has raised Ashvin practically on her own.
She's now ill in hospital with a blood related disease. To heal her they need a particular type of blood, but they can't find the correct kind, so she has very little time left. Don't you at least want to see your daughter one more time before she dies? And what about Ashvin? Don't you want to meet him?! Don't you think it's time you become a grandfather for him! He's nearly a grown man and he doesn't even know the sound of your voice! There are many kids who'll give their all just to spend some time with their grandparents.
I know you'll do the right thing. That's why I wrote you.
Thanks for reading this far.
After reading the letter, he sat down, got his pipe, took a few puffs. Thought about it. Made some coffee. Drank it. And thought some more. He decided he'll sleep on it.
He done just that, and when he woke up at the crack of dawn, he decided he had to go to his daughter. To see her one more time. He got ready, locked up everything and got on his bike to leave for the train station that was about 25km away.
After a good few hours, he reached the station, and got a ticket to the town where his family lived. It would be a long trip. Well over 500km.
The train gave him a lot of time to think about what he wanted to say to his daughter. To tell her why he had to leave. And that not a day went by that he didn't think about her and little Ashvin.
About halfway to his stop, the train started making funny sounds. Then it came to a slow stop. It stood still. For a half an hour. Then it started to go again. A message was relayed through the train that the train was having engine trouble, but that they would try to get the train through to the next station, so that they could get another train. But that never happened. After another hour and a half of waiting, Uncle Dawie took his suitcase, strapped it to his back, and got on his bike.
He still had a whopping 250km to cycle to get to his family, he hoped that he would get there in time to see his daugter alive. The road was open, and the road was long. You could see uphills from far, and long downhills when those uphills were ascended. But he peddled one way, oblivious of the pain the suitcase was starting to cause.
But things were just about to get a little harder. And by a little I mean much harder.
After he cycled about 40km, he road past what looked like a squatter camp, which was weird. He was in the middle of nowhere. He didn't pay much attention to it, but soon he did. Two guys came out from behind some bushes and ordered him to stop. He had no choice. He stopped. The one pulled out a knife and ordered him to take off the suitcase, Uncle Dawie refused. The knife-wielder didn't waste time and tried to come in to force his way, but Uncle Dawie took his bike and whacked him with it over his head, knocking him out cold. The other one then proceeded to run away because he was afraid he might get a metal sandwich through his face as well. What they didn't know is that Uncle Dawie was quite strong for an old man. He worked out regularly each day, and was as fit as he could be for a man of his age.
But his defense came at a price. His bike's front wheel was now deformed. So much so, he couldn't ride the bike anymore. His suitcase only had one spare wheel in it, and it was a tad worn out as well, but he put it on and cycled on again. If he were to be attacked again, he'd have to walk further, he only had one spare wheel packed, which was now in use. But he drove past a sign a few kms back, which said that there's a big service station coming up soon.
He reached the big service station after about 10kms of laboured riding, and stopped to rest.
He chained his bike to a lamppost, and went to the bathroom to relieve himself of the pee that was building for a rather long time now already.
He went to the bathroom. He was sweating profusely and doused his face with some water, and proceeded to urinal, his case still on his back, making him look like a tortoise walking upright. He caught the eye of another man, also at the urinal, not in a weird way, just in a, what-on-earth-is-that-on-his-back way.
When he was done and walked to wash his hands, the man also came to wash his hands. He couldn't resist asking him…
'excuse me, Sir, if you don't mind me asking, why are you carrying that huge suitcase on your back?'
'It's my luggage, son,' Uncle Dawie replied.
'Why don't you just leave it in your boot?' asked the man, who was dressed in simple clothes, a jeans, a golfer shirt and cap with some logo on it.
'I don't have a car. I'm cycling to my destination.'
The man guffawed heartily, then when he saw the man gave no reaction, he asked
'Are you serious?!'
'I'm an old man on a mission. I have no time for jokes, son.' he said blankly.
'Which side are you going?' the man asked.
'South.' he pointed.
'Well, I'm going the same way. I'm a truck driver, and I'm expected in the town in the south in the morning.'
'I couldn't, I don't have any money to give you towards the trip.'
'Don't be silly, Sir. It's not every day you see an old man commuting with a suitcase on his back, I'll help you out Uncle.' He said with a genuine smile on his face.
'Thanks a lot, Son, what's your name?'
'Ronny,' he replied. I'm Ronny.
'I'm Dawid. But just call me Uncle Dawie.'
'Ok, lets get going'
'Ok. Just have to get my bike quick.'
And with that Uncle Dawie got his bike, and joined a new friend, something he's not had in years, on a, now faster, trip, to see his daughter.
It was pretty quiet for the first few kilometers. But then Ronny broke the ice and said:
'Uncle Dawie, it's still a long way before we get to our destination, so I'm gonna go ahead and ask you...what's your story?'
'What do you mean by "story"?'
'Well, tell me more about yourself? And your journey?'
'Well, I don't usually talk to people about myself. It's better that way.'
'You don't have to worry with me. I'm just driving you to your destination, then we'll never see each other again, so you can vent all you want.'
'I don't know.'
'Well. If you're not going to talk, then I will. Heaven knows I travel alone all the time, so now that I've got a companion, I'm gonna talk a bit!' Said Ronny talking to Uncle Dawie, but looking ahead of him, focusing on the road.
Uncle Dawie thought for a bit, then conceded: 'Ok, go ahead, son.'
'Ok.' He took a deep breath, 'well, my story isn't a very long one. I'm a truck driver, from far south. Dropped out of school in Grade 11. I was very lazy. And didn't have real direction in my life. Both my Mom and Dad were very much stuck in the bottle. Argued a lot, but very much stuck in love as well. I think the alcohol kept them miserable, and that in turn kept them together. Not exactly a good environment to breed success is it,' he smiled, 'anyway, after that I slumped a bit in my life. Got drunk every day, partied with people I thought were my friends, but they were just as lost as I was. I got a girl pregnant, but the mother was even more irresponsible and messed up than I was. We both lost custody of the child after she was born, we were too reckless. She's living with my grandmother now. But that was the thing that got me to change. It got me on track. Seeing my daughter taken away from me, got me thinking there must be more to life. It gave me direction again. I wanted to care for her, so that she can grow up better than me, and not in the same environment. So I stopped drinking so much. I limited myself to just one beer a night, and one party day each fortnight, when I wasn't working, with the view in the future to stop it permanently. I went to get my truck license, and, although I didn't pass first time, I got it second time round. Started at this company and I've been promoted twice already, and I stopped drinking after the first promotion. I've now earned enough money to send my daughter through school, and I even married her mom, getting her off the alcohol as well. So, although my life's not perfect, at least I have direction. Family can do that to you.'
'Wow. I'm so glad things worked out for you,' answered Uncle Dawie, who was filled with the trials of this man he'd just met. It made him remember that life is hard for other people too. And with that he began telling his story, from start to finish.
'Ok, I'll tell you a bit about me..'
'...And that's where I'm off to, to my daughter. I don't want her to die without me telling her I love her dearly. And that I'm sorry for staying away so long.' He concluded morosely
'It takes a big man to do what you doing. To man up and ask for forgiveness. I really admire that.' Ronny smiled while keeping his eyes on the road. It was starting to become dark now. 'By morning we'll be at our destination.
They drove all through the night. Ronny not even flinching. His body clock was tuned into this driving by now. Uncle Dawie slept right through, and the sun rising gradually woke him.
'How far are we now?' Uncle Dawie asked, still very sleepy, doing a stretch with his arms
'About 10 minutes away Uncle. Where do you want me to drop you?'
'Just drop me at the hospital, thanks.'
'Ok, no problem, sleep on, I'll let you know when we're there,' he said smiling.
'Nah, it's ok, I don't want to be sleepy when I meet my daughter. Do you have some water? I wanna brush my teeth'
'Sure, in the middle compartment,' he said while opening up the seat part in-between them.
'Great, thanks, and thanks for all that you've done. You really helped me out, son.'
'It's a pleasure, it was great having some company for a change.'
And within the next few minutes, they were at the hospital. After 20 long years in solitude, Uncle Dawie was about to see his daughter again. He hasn't seen her since she was a young adult. He's not seen Ashvin since he was a baby. He had a lump in his throat the size of a tennis ball. It was too late to turn back now. He thanked Ronny with a handshake and a tip of his hat, and he walked slowly into the hospital…
His heart starts to beat a little faster. Everything else seems to blur out, then back in again. He asks someone at a reception desk where she's lying. They say where. He gets an elevator. It stops. He gets out on the 3rd floor. Go left, after the red door, go right, Room 3 E.
He's standing in front of the door. Suitcase in hand. Heart in mouth. What was he going to see? Was he ready? Enough wasting time. He's wasted 20 years of his life, because he was too scared to confront his demons, too proud to open up to anyone, to heartbroken to live a normal life.
That was about to end.
He slowly gripped the handle of the door. Turned it. He walked in..
The room was...empty?
The room was empty.
He looked on the bedside table for anything. Any papers or notes or anything. Nothing.
He quickly ran outside the room and found a nurse and worriedly asked her:
'Excuse me, Nurse, I'm looking for Dalia Willemse?'
'O, Sir, you've just missed her. She's been moved to Intensive Care.' said the nurse with an amicable face. 'It's just down the passage, I'll show you where it is.'
'Here it is, Sir,' said the nurse as they arrived at the room. She left and he opened the door. Dalia was lying motionless, pipes all over the show, in her mouth, in her side, he couldn't see if she was conscious or not. There was a young man sitting at her side. Holding her hand with his head down. He looked up. It was Ashvin. He was all grown up now, and didn't recognize his grandfather when he caught his gaze.
'Hallo. You must be Ashvin.' Said Uncle Dawie.
'Yes,' he confirmed. 'Yes, I am.'
'I'm Dawie. Your...' he hesitated, 'Your Grandfather.' he said, as the tears welled up in his eyes. Without saying anything more, Ashvin let go of Dalia's hand and ran to Uncle Dawie and embraced him. They held each other for a few seconds. When they let go of each other, both of their eyes were tear-laden.
'You came,' he smiled as he looked at his grandfather in real-life for the first time in his life, the first time that he'll actually remember, and not as a baby.
'I did,' Uncle Dawie smiled, it came so naturally. Smiling was something he hadn't done in years, and it just came naturally when he saw his grandson for the first time since he was a baby. 'How is Dalia?' He asked, as his smile turned to worry.
'Not good. She needs a particular type of blood, with a certain type of chemical in it. No-one seems to have it.'
'What do they mean by 'chemical'? Maybe they can test my blood?'
'I'm not sure. We can ask the doctor when she comes in later.'
'Can I?...' He asked Ashvin as he motioned with his hand to hold Dalia's hand'
'Go for it. You've waited long enough.' Ashvin smiled.
Uncle Dawie walked over to her bedside, and held his daughter's hand, for the first time since the incidents that ruined his life. It felt different, yet familiar. He could feel the strain of adulthood in her hands, but he could still feel the child he reared in his hands. Her hands were like a time-machine, showing him images of years gone by, happier years. She fluttered her eyes slightly, and mustered a single word through a sickly smile
'Yes Dalia, its me'
'I'm so glad you came,' she said in a barely audible voice, 'I'm so glad I get to see you one last time...before I die'
'Don't talk like that Dalia, there's still hope, there's always hope.'
She gave one last smile before she lost consciousness again. Uncle Dawie thought he'd lost her, but Ashvin assured him she was like this, the sickness made her very weak.
'Take me to the doctor.' He’gently commanded to Ashvin.
They went to the doctor, and his blood was tested. It turned out that Uncle Dawie had the blood that was needed. But they also found out another thing when they tested him. That he had water around the heart. And here comes the ironic part. If he didn't go for thes tests, he would've died in the next few weeks!
They told him he'd have to be operated on, and he agreed. His blood managed to save Dalia. But there were some complications with his operation, and he was in, what looked like a coma for a day or two.
But he came to four days later, to Dalia, Ashvin and my relief. That operation got himself another few years in the tank. Just enough for him to enjoy his new life that he found. Dalia forgave him for running away from everything all those years ago, and the family grew from strength to strength from there.
This photo was taken at 13:18 on the 15th of December 2010. They say a picture speaks a thousand words, this one spoke 5460 words.
© Spenelo 2012
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