“An excerpt from the book I wrote about my father’s life entitled ‘Living Without Limits'”
“Naartjie… Can you hear me?” His whisper snaked around the silent room.
“Uh huh,” I sniffled as big tears rolled down my cheeks and hit the pillow.
I felt so small in such a big world. The pounding of my heart would echo in my ears all day and night. I felt its constant surge upwards and it seemed my hands never stopped shaking. My fingers would grab a cup of tea and I would get lost in the milky waves my tremors created. How easy it would be to just drown. I already felt trapped underwater fighting for every breath.
Maybe this is what it felt like to die of a broken heart. Maybe I had a brain tumor like my mother. Maybe my brain was telling my body to just give up.
“Do you want to play chess?” Jan’s voice punctured my thoughts. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was now crouching next to my bed.
Silence again filled the room like thick smoke. I knew he was worried – he always looked worried these days.
Jan Swiegers was the only constant I had left. A farm boy just like me, he knew the ins and outs of the life I used to know. He was my best friend – sometimes a crutch when I couldn’t walk, sometimes my voice when I couldn’t talk. He saved my life so many times without ever knowing it.
“Sure,” my voice cracked. “Sure.”
I slowly swung my legs out of bed and let my feet touch the icy floor one at a time. The cool air surrounded my warm body and for a split second I felt a slight relief.
I found myself in a hot, sweaty mess every night. My sheets were soaked with stress. The same little beads of sweat I wiped from my upper lip and forehead during class, came in torrents at night when my subconscious reminded me of all that I had lost.
In my dreams I could hear my father’s laugh. It would ring out over the veld. I could see his face as the sun hit his eyes and he used his hat to shield himself. I could see his strong, tanned hand on the steering wheel of the bakkie as dust flew up around us.
I would look at his face and he would turn to smile at me. I knew he could see me… the real me. I knew he could see into me like only a father can see into his son and, now that he was gone, no one would ever be able to see into me like that again.
A little light clicked on and bathed the room in amber. It wasn’t much because we didn’t want to get caught by the boarding school teachers, but it was enough to play.
I could hear Jan as he rhythmically placed the pieces on the chess board. It sounded a bit like a ticking clock and the steady beat slightly slowed my rapid pulse.
I sat across from him and pulled my legs under me. I was on the cusp of being a man – limber and strong – but I felt small.
“You go first,” I mumbled as Jan’s eyes avoided mine. I knew they were swollen and laced with red. My eyelashes felt heavy with tears and I aggressively wiped them away. It was one thing for him to know. It was another for him to see.
And so we played. Our eyes didn’t leave the board much. We had strategies to develop and I had a momentary distraction from the pain. We weren’t the best but we were equally matched and that made for interesting games. Thinking of ways to take his queen steadied my quick pulse and dried up my tears.
In that little room, in the middle of the night, we were safe. We played hundreds of games. Jan sensed that I needed a focus – even if only for a bit – to keep me sane. We would play until 5 am and then we would get up, play a game of tennis, and I’d put on a brave face for the world.
Jan was my saviour. He became my rock and, although I didn’t know it then, he would be a rock forever.
A photo of my dad and his best friend Jan laughing together in the Karoo in 2015 close to 50 years after they first became best friends all those years ago.