25 Lessons

VANESSA SMEETS

My first quarter of a century is up! 26, already?  Inspired by the voice of Baz Luhrmann for the Sunscreen song, I’ve come up with my own 25 lessons to honour the last 25 years that have passed by quietly or with a bang, on my eternal quest for love and truth.

love family

YES, DAD: A beautiful day in Zimbabwe with my dad (1986) PHOTO: CVU

1)    Learn from your parents’ mistakes. Although marriage seems like a tempting way to consummate one’s love for one another, it rather comes from hours of proper communication and compassion. Yet, happily divorced parents tend to give great advice…

2)    Write down your grandparents’ tales. Parky (Grandpa) used to tell his World War 2 tales under the stars. Wish I wasn’t too little to really understand how precious these memories were…

3)    Speak to strangers. As children, we are taught: “Don’t talk to strangers.” But, in adulthood meeting new people adds colour to one’s own world. You’d be surprised at how many similar experiences you actually share. Today, I spoke to an Afghan refugee. It was the most thought-provoking conversation in a few years.

cocktail times

BICYCLE DIARIES: Happiness in the middle of the night PHOTO: CJ

4)    Ride a bicycle in a cocktail dress. Late one night, a friend and I jumped onto bicycles a little tipsy. We never arrived at our initial destination. Instead, we spent an amazing 40 minutes trying to perfect riding a bicycle in a cocktail dress and trying to stay on it without the cops suspecting we were a little over the limit…

5)    Don’t fall too hard in love, although it hurts just as much every time. After a few excruciating heart-breaks, I must say the shortest one was the most painful. Although you become a little more cynical after each failed relationship, you also make the huge mistake of settling for less. DON’T!!!

6)    Keep your girlfriends near. Many girls once in love brush away their friendships in order to make room for their new guy. A true gentleman will allow a wonderful girls’ night out, where you can recharge your batteries away from him.

7)    Ask your guy friends for direction. Blessed with wonderful guy friends, they have taught me how to laugh at myself, step away from abusive relationships and help make the right career move.

Valencia

SERENITY: The beautiful aquarium of Valencia, Spain PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

8)    Travel. Try the Paella in Spain, the white beaches of Mauritius, the beer-gardens in Munich, the apfel-strudel of Austria and the Table Mountain of South Africa. So many languages and cultures to explore, even in your own country.

9)    Write love letters. Somehow, emails never have the same impact. If someone really means a lot to you, the relationship is bound to last longer than a few weeks. Getting a letter written when everything was burning hot re-ignites that spark!

10)  Gain wisdom from children. Two years as a pre-school teacher taught me enough to last the rest of my life. The joys of being human come from our unique gifts: speech, creativity, compassion, reason and enough laughter to keep it all going strong.

11)  Give pseudoscience a chance. This year, I fell in love with Reiki, a Japanese technique of finding out what is bothering you and allowing you to heal in your own time. I also realised graphologists (people who analyse handwriting) contain a lot of truth. Even the way one presses against the paper means something exceptional.

12)  Leave the ex alone. As tempting as it is to flirt with an old flame, you have to realise it’s preventing you from meeting someone new. This is your turn to shine for someone who truly appreciates you.

13) Study in different countries. Travelling is somehow not enough in seeking solace for one’s soul. By living 11 000 kilometres away from home, I‘ve come to appreciate South Africa so much more. Yes, Internet and transport efficiency is amazing in Europe, but the sun doesn’t shine as much, the people tend to keep to themselves and you have to make the effort of getting to know them first. Long live the days of “braais” around a pool…

14) Be prepared to be criticised and criticise. Although I hate conflict, a little conflict with some of my closest friends taught me there is joy in reconciling only a stronger friendship.

15) Keep a journal. Writing your experiences, struggles and feelings helps you meet the person you will spend the rest of your life with: yourself.

Faith through Ibrahim

FINDING FAITH: Ibrahim gets paid a minimum salary for being the care-taker of Stellenbosch's (South Africa) only mosque PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

16) Have faith or find it through others. Whether it comes from believing in G_d or Allah, it gives one direction in living a purpose-filled life.

17) It’s never too late to fall in love. When I saw my grandmother smiling in the old age home because of a certain someone, it hit me that it was never too late to fall in love again. Although at the same time I realised I don’t want to find the love of my life in nappies.

18)  Fear only fear itself. In high school, we were taught by watching Strictly Ballroom that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. I wouldn’t be where I am today (travelling like a nomad with little knowledge of what’s coming next) if I had feared this ocean of incertitude…

19) Party till the sun comes up. Watching the a sunrise over a beach or mountain at the crack of dawn gives life so much more meaning and so many more reasons to appreciate every day as TODAY.

20) Make peace with your past. My childhood friend passed away this year. Although we hadn’t talked properly in years, her death hit me hard. I found  our old letters and photos we had taken 13 years ago. I made peace by her saying goodbye in this way…

21) “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” declared Einstein. The world is so much more colourful when you stop over-analysing situations in exchange for creating new dreams and desires.

22) Appreciate everyone, even the bergie (beggar) that will one day save your life. When I was being followed in Stellenbosch after a late night working at the newspaper, I bumped into Moksie (Stellies’ famous bergie). By being nice to her the week before, she “took care of” the people following me.

23)  Embrace your childhood. Time for the clichés: run like you’ve never fallen, laugh like it’s your first time, play before it’s too late, love like you’ve never been hurt and find your inner child again!

school days

PRECIOUS MEMORIES: Laughter and sunshine with school friends (2003) PHOTO: VS

24) Trust your teenhood. If it wasn’t for that first cigarette or terrible first kiss, we wouldn’t appreciate the real taste we have now.

25)  Feast your adulthood. People take for granted the ability to savour each new memory or experience. It comes from soothing your soul. You need time-out from work, friends and family to reflect in solitude. Ever listen to your own heart-beat? It’s possible…

Stranger in the mirror

granny crying

TEARFUL: Granny cries after laughing. She doesn't remember for what. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I left my granny 11 months ago, to study abroad, with tears in our eyes. I remember her sitting every day watching me swim. She would smile, laugh and play with the dog.

 

 

I knew then I didn’t have much time left with the grandmother who had taught me how to make French toast, paper boats or how to be money-wise. Her neurologist claimed in eight months time, she wouldn’t recognise us. He explained to us her two cerebral hemispheres (logic vs. creative) were completely detached, making it impossible for her to decipher between her emotions and reasoning. There were also visible holes in her brain, shown up as grey patches on the MRI. She was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

At first, it was apparent in small things. She would forget where she placed her spectacles or that she hadn’t eaten that morning. She would confuse me with my mom or wake up shaken, believing her nightmare was real. This became more and more frightening, as she would accuse us of beating her or stealing her money. My once confident, stylish granny had turned into a skeletal, paranoid stranger.

 

gran foot

SWOLLEN: Gran's feet speak of years of hard work. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I expected the worse. Every few months, I would visit my family and speak to her. Sometimes, she was quite alert, remembering things from my childhood. But, other times, she would speak of her youth with little sense. Suddenly, she was a mother to three sons who went to war. My mother is her only child, so this information fascinated me. It was like putting puzzle pieces together, only the pieces she had were slight versions of mine. She was confusing her sons with her three brother in-laws.

 

The trick to speaking to her is kindness and patience. This is extremely difficult, as it involves hours of repeating the same information and consoling her child-like spirit. She is afraid of everyone and everything.

Every time I visit, she smells different. One time, she smelt like mint and lavender. It turns out she was using the foot cream I gave to her for Christmas on her face. Her once beautiful ash brown hair is now straw-like and falling out. Bits of chipped toothpaste are found on her pillowcase. Toothpaste has her become her new shampoo.

She cries all the time now. Sometimes, she expresses herself through a few words “Father…dead.” I thought she was speaking of my grandfather and missed him. I showed a picture of him to confirm: “No, no! Who is that?” she snapped. She was talking of her father, who died in 1941. “He died yesterday…why oh why?” she sobs daily. It’s no use explaining to her when he died. So, I hold her and let her sob.

stockings

FORGOTTEN: Granny removes her stockings for the ninth time. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I use her for my photo portfolio. Her ageing skin fascinates me. It is creased in a perfect pattern, linking up around her thinning muscles. Her swollen feet speak of years of working hard since the age of 14. Her adult nappy was the hardest to photograph. She is a baby again. Once obsessed with bathroom hygiene, she can’t control her bladder anymore. Instead of changing nappies, she pulls out the cotton fluff and litters it over her bathroom floor. It amuses her.

 

For her, the hardest part to make peace with, in ageing, are her sagging breasts. They reach her waist now. The other night, she held them in the cup of her hands: “What are these for? I don’t remember what they are for!” I tell her they’ve done their job well in her life. She smiles, still confused. The next day we go bra shopping, but it’s completely useless: nothing fits perfectly. She’s still very picky. Whatever sort of fits is the wrong colour or texture.

I don’t know how much time I have left with her. At least, she can still express herself. At least she wakes up smiling. At least she can walk to the window to pat the dog.

Most of the time, she is just waiting. Waiting for the train that gave her purpose and took her to work every morning. Waiting for my grandfather, whom she loved to argue with, to call. Waiting for her father to show up at the door and take her far away. Or, waiting for us to start making sense.

Our words mean nothing now. I can tell her I love her and she’ll simply walk away. I can tell her we’ll go for coffee and she’ll change into her pyjamas.

Her family members overseas have stopped calling. It’s exhausting and frustrating speaking to her. She bends over to see what I’m typing. I try to tell her, but she walks away to check the door again. My words will never bring the escape she yearns for.