My day started with an irate phone call from a guest who called from OR Tambo in a wild panic. He had an early flight back home after he spent two months with us while he was getting a fancy prothesis fitted, as his leg was amputated some time ago. Mr Patrick lives on a teeny tiny island in the pacific with 3999 other people. There is no restaurant, no hospital, no mall, not even an x-ray machine. He had never left the island, except once when he went to India to have his leg amputated. Coming to SA was like having his own personal triumphant vacation. Not only did he get a fully paid trip with a fancy new leg, he experienced amazing things like Uber, Checkers Sixty 60, KFC, Mr Delivery, Take-a-lot and Netflix for the first time. He refused point blank to do his exercises and kept postponing his return date. SA was the paradise he always wanted to live in (ironically his tropical island seems pretty euphoric to me, but what does this Jozi-chick know?). The insurance people started getting edgy and eventually, with a lot of persuasion, we booked a ticket back home for Mr Patrick. He insisted that he wanted to take things back home to his mates. (He never found a wife on the island and has no siblings or children that he speaks of). I thought he would buy one of those tall wooden giraffes every American tourist takes back, or maybe a stone carving of a rhino, or even a bottle of Amarula or some bead work. But guess what Mr Patrick chose… a bucket of KFC chicken! I kid you not. On Sunday night he ordered 21 seven-secret-herbs-and-spices chicken pieces from Mr Delivery and  stashed them in his hand luggage. We all told him that this is a very bad idea, but he is not interested in our opinions. When we dropped him at departures, we encouraged him to rather check in the chicken and not carry it in his back-pack, but Mr Patrick feels he is now a world traveler and does not need advice. After all, he has been out of his country twice and is sporting a new leg (which of course, he still carries with him while he zips around in the wheelchair).  When he phoned to inform me that security will not let him through, I bit my tongue and did not say “I told you so”. “What can I do?”, he implores. “Well, Mr Patrick, I believe all you can do is throw the chicken away or donate it to the security.” We ended the call, but about 45 minutes later he called me back to report that he did not throw away the chicken. He left security, parked his wheelchair and with his big fake leg and the KFC chicken on his lap, he ate that entire bucket of fowl. I look forward to welcoming him back to the lodge, at this rate, for a cardio-event in the not-too-distant future.


The rest of the week was not so funny, although it was filled with many beautiful moments. My one daughter loves to ask each evening around the dinner table what our best and worst moment of the day was. I think our worst moment this week was when we realised that even if we protect and love our guests during their end-of-life stages, sometimes the cruel reality of a very broken world breaks through and we simply have to do our best to make things easier. We have a man, exactly six months older than me, who was recently discharged from hospital. He has stage four cancer and probably only weeks to live. While in hospital and confused from the cocktail of drugs being pumped through him, he locked himself out of his bank account. There is no mercy and no other option to get back in – the bank heartlessly insisted that he had to come in and fix the issue in person. And so, we wasted one of the few precious days he has left pushing his frail body to the bank so that he could pay his ex-wife’s maintenance. It was always my belief that your last days are filled with last rights and lullabies. Not so. I have never in my life seen a ravenous cancer gallop through a body as viciously as with this man, and yet, as if this is not cruel enough, he is going to the bank, sending emails and worrying that the ANC will win elections again next year. We have to live in this world I suppose, until we don’t have to anymore. I wish there were a guaranteed gentler time for everybody.


We did also in this week have a victory in this regard for another guest. The distraught wife of Mr Green phoned me on Wednesday. Her husband of 48 was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two weeks ago and he was scheduled for a biopsy next week. The past fortnight had been a whirlwind of medical opinions, tests, queues, phone calls to medical aids, negotiations, authorisations, specialists, reports and confusion, all the while being hit with the cruel reality that Mr Green, who is a keen biker, loving dad and die-hard romantic has cancer! In her phone call her only problem is that she cannot get him up the stairs to their bedroom. She has not slept in a week and asked whether she could possibly bring him to us where he can get stronger and wait for the biopsy in five days’ time? After that, they can plan the future, navigate his treatment plan and hopefully get him back to his upstairs bedroom. He arrived, they had dinner, she tucked him in and she went home to get some much needed sleep. He died four hours later. It was such a shock, but is it not wonderful that he was able to die in a gentle environment? Is there not grace in the fact that Mrs Green and their high school children were spared the trauma of him dying at home? None of us want to get that phone call at 2am. From the other side, I can assure you that no one wants to make that call either. I asked Mrs Green if we could come and fetch her. When she and her eldest son arrived, she fell into my arms, and kept repeating ”Thank you for being kind, thank you for being kind.”  I had coffee with them by the fireplace. We talked about his sudden death. We made the decisions. I encouraged them to walk with me to his room where I had put a rose from our garden on his chest after my staff bathed him. He was so peaceful. They sat in his room until daybreak and wept and laughed.


On Friday I was not firing on all cylinders. I need sleep and getting two hours the night before did not do me any favours. I chatted to my sister and justified my sluggish personality on the lack of sleep and I told her about Mr and Mrs Green. My sister is a brilliant grade school teacher. If everyone had the privilege to spend a year in her class, I can guarantee this world would not be the sordid mess it is. She told me that she could never do my job, it is just too sad. (I could never do hers… imagine 25 little children with sticky fingers, syndromes, allergies and entitled parents expecting you to teach them to perform as functioning people! I’d rather do what I do anytime). Actually I find that it is not so sad. We gave Mrs Green and their son a beautiful last memory. Mr Green knew he was loved and cherished and died with dignity. Yes, of course the best option would have been to live until he was 95, but if he had to die on Thursday morning, why not like this?


In between the three deaths we had last week we have had many victories. The usual joint replacement guests went home after making friends, eating too much and promising to write Google reviews (which they promptly forget to do once they drive out of that gate). We have a mom whose three day old baby just had life-saving surgery on his tiny little  pulmonary artery. The mom should still be in hospital herself after her cesarean but was medivacked with her baby and we get to take care of her and love her through this unexpected nightmare. She is so relieved that there are brilliant CT surgeons here that can fix her little boy Jacob, but would it not have been much better if he was just healthy and perfect? I love how my staff became friends with two young men from African countries. One only speaks Portuguese, one only French, but somehow we wing it and with a lot of smiles, the odd drawing and some Google translate, their recovery is going better than could ever have been expected. Both their surgeons are astounded at their progress. We have two ladies for respite care. One has a high-flying executive daughter who needs to travel for business and we simply love looking after her mom whose voice box was removed. She sits quietly in the sun and smiles. I send her daughter a bi-daily updates of what her mom is doing. We giggle about how the roles have been reversed and how wonderful it is that we can care for our parents.


And then, to end this sad blog on a bit of a hopeful note, we got to say goodbye to a guest on Friday after she spent a month with us. She made the most incredible recovery! She had a complicated neuro-surgery and the staples in her back seemed like enough to fill an entire stationary shop. She had awful pain, on top of out-of-control diabetes. I am not going to lie… it was difficult to love her at first. She was so grumpy and snappy, and then she would sneak the odd MARS bar in just to freak us out completely. But over the days we learned her ways, we found the chocolates she hid, and Dylan made such wonderful food that she stopped craving them. Her sisters (one from Texas and one from Montreal) arrived to take her home and spend the next two weeks with her. She cried so much when she left that she actually had to take the box of tissues with her in the car.


When I look back on each week, I am drained and tired, more often than not, but humbled to walk these different journeys alongside the people we are entrusted to love. We get to share such life-changing victories and devastating losses, but all the while, we are tangibly aware that we are alive, we are human, and we are doing this together.