…This is by far one of the toughest Blogs I have ever written. But I just had to. I owe it to my dad.
My dad, Stoffel Burger, is not my biological father – my father, Chris Nel, died in a fatal car accident when I was only one year old. Delien was three years old at the time. I don’t remember anything about him – I only have a few pictures of him. But our mom made sure that his legacy lived on – we kept his surname as a middle name. When my mom remarried Stoffie Staal Burger, as my dad has always smilingly referred to himself, he accepted Delien and I as if we were his own, just like Adele. The word “stepfather” was never part of our vocabulary.
I was proud to be Mirna Nel Burger, and the only time ever, that I can recall feeling embarrassed about being a Burger, was when I started teaching at Hoërskool Ermelo, and was nicknamed “Patty” (as in Hamburger, duh!)
My dad has always been one of the strongest people I know. Don’t get me wrong – he is not a big man. His body has always been very lean, in a muscular kind of way, but his strength lay in his hands. For as long as I can remember, my dad could do anything! He could build anything, create anything, and fix anything. Literally anything. When I was small, I used to think: “Surely, if my dad tried hard enough, he might even manage to change water into wine!”
When I needed to build a miniature farm stall for a school project, my dad stepped in. It was a masterpiece! When I dreamed of having my own treehouse when we lived in Vereeniging, my dad built a beautiful one. Years later when Eswee and Mariné were still toddlers, my dad drove all the way from Pretoria to Lothair to build them a treehouse. He made bows and arrows, and doll houses, and once, in grade 9, even came to the rescue with the rag doll we were supposed to make in Home Economics class. (I smuggled the doll home when I realized that I had sewn the head on facing backwards.)
My father was the one who taught me how to ride a bicycle, and long after my mum’s patience had run out, my dad was the one who eventually managed to teach me how to drive a car. When I was 11 years old and told my parents that I wanted to give my heart to Jesus, my dad was the one who guided me and prayed with me.
…As a child we see our parents as these invincible adults… Obviously, this concept changed immediately when my mom became severely ill with cancer, but with my dad…? It always seemed to me that he would just keep on living forever.
And then, last Friday when I called to check in on our dad, Theresa was rushing him to hospital. He had a bad fall and they suspected that he had broken his hip. His condition was worsened by the fact that he had just recovered from a bad bout of flu. I never thought there would come a day that we would have to stand next to a hospital bed, watching our father look so vulnerable. It was heart breaking to see our 84-year-old dad, lying there in ICU, helpless, frail, and sedated, attached to countless tubes and monitors.
It’s almost impossible to think that barely seven months ago, my father and Theresa were able to drive sole alone, all the way from Pretoria to Stellenbosch, to attend Zander and Mariné’s wedding.
…The last few days have been really tough on us. It took a few days for the doctors to stabilize Dad’s condition before they could perform the hip surgery, because he also had a few seizures. Last Sunday morning was the last time my dad turned his head and looked at me. He also squeezed my hand. Little did I know that it would probably be the last time. Theresa kept us up to date throughout the week, but my dad’s condition hasn’t improved. He has been in a deep sleep since the operation…
Theresa says that when the ambulance pulled into casualty at Wilgers Hospital last Friday, my father looked at her and said: “Isn’t it strange how one’s life can change in the blink of an eye…”
For days I have been confronted with this profound truth – Life can change in an instant. One fall, one diagnosis, one phone call, one moment, can change everything.
There are no guarantees, no order or set amount of time our loved ones will be here for us. No promises that the health we enjoy today will be with us in the morning. We all lose people we are close to if we stick around long enough ourselves. This is an inconvenient truth of life – Life IS fragile. And that is scary.
But I firmly believe that the fragility of life also teaches us something. Facing up to the fact that we all have a temporary place in this world should be reason enough for all of us to apply a degree of clarity and purpose to our days. And it leaves us with the conviction to make the most of our days.
I wonder why it is, then, that we all put things off until tomorrow, as if we have unlimited time to make our dreams happen…?
In her memoir “The year of Magical Thinking”, the American author Joan Didion writes: “Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant…” I have been sitting with the weight of these words since my father’s incident, and my interpretation is split between two paths of thought. The first, and more direct path, is this idea of how fleeting and fragile life can be.
But the second one is how life itself is made up of, an infinite number of ordinary instants, that when added up ultimately shape and mould our entire lives. These small moments might seem insignificant, but in truth encompass the beauty of our existence.
One ordinary instant can be life shattering, but it can also be life changing. In every moment a choice exists. How do we choose?
Do we make time for the people that matter most to us? Do we treasure our health enough? Do we look for the silver lining? Do we do our best in this moment or do we just give in to apathy? Do we choose to LIVE our lives, or do we wait for life to start? Do we choose to smile or frown in this moment? Do we choose to be bitter or thankful?
I would give anything, anything, to hear my dad laugh out loud again, walk again, make a joke again, give me a hug again, tease me again, call me “my skatjie” again. We are not ready to let him go. (Are we ever…?)
Life is short and rare and heart breaking and precious and cruel and sweet – and it CAN change in the blink of an eye. But you and I, we choose how to live. Each. Ordinary. Instant.
Yours in fitness
PS Theresa, you have been a rock. You have taken such good care of Dad. And loved him. And has shown so much soft-spoken kindness. To him. To us. Always. Thank you. Thank you.
(We are busy with a Winter Challenge, with everyone facing their own personal challenges. And it’s scary to think that the show must go on. Challenge members who have read the Blog, please send a WhatsApp to Mirna with the Joan Didion quote above, before 20.00 today…)