The Naming of People

T.S. Elliot wrote a collection of poems on cats. One of the poems is called “The Naming of Cats” and it starts like this:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games; 

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter 

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

Luckily I am not a cat and only have one name. However there are more than three Basils in my family. I am one of six first cousins named Basil after my maternal grandfather, the late Basil Moutsatsos, who had come to South Africa from Greece. His legacy was one of love and generosity. He also loved to watch his children (he had five daughters and four boys) perform Greek dancing.

So Basil is from the Greek word meaning “Kingly”. In Greek my formal name is Βασίλειος (Vasileios). The shortened version is Vasili. When I was at university I liked Vasili. Many years later a Rumanian colleague would call me Vasili. He would also call on every 1st of January to wish me for my name day. 

In Greece the villagers who had been to the United States called all the Vasilis “Bill”. So I became Bill, Billy or Billaco in Greece. Bill came from their arrival at Staten Island in New York City. The immigration officers spoke no Greek, so they asked with which letter of the alphabet the name of the immigrant started. Vasileios starts with a “B” in Greek. So they were all called Bill. 

The seven cousins needed to be distinguished from each other. So we had Big Basil (or Sili) and Little Basil, who was the youngest Basil until two younger ones came along: JB and Sil. In the middle was me and cousin Basil, son of my Uncle Basil. I had a few nicknames besides the Bill derivatives: Budgie, Charlie and maybe a few others I cannot remember.

Oh , and my cousin Big Basil married Athena whose brother Basil shared my birthday, along with JB.

Names are important. Sometimes they make who we are. A name can mean recognition and connection.

When we were in the second wave from December 2020 to February 2021 at Netcare Kingsway Hospital, the hospital was all Covid except for one small ward. We all wore full PPE including visors all the time. Everyone looked the same in gowns and visors. Everyone was tired.

“Hey you” was not a polite way to address nurses when at work, and patients had no idea which angel was caring for them. Remember, as a doctor during the Covid wave I was working with teams I had not worked with before as an orthopaedic surgeon.

I decided that we should label everyone’s visor with their name and position in the hospital. So even the head of the gastroenterology unit in theatre got her label: Sister X, Theatre Gastroenterology Sister. She ended up heading up the Rest in Peace Team, so her patients did not see the name on the visor.

My receptionist used my label machine and five cartridges of labels supplied by the hospital to make labels for the whole hospital nursing and administration staff and the doctors. Each cartridges has a ribbon that is twelve meters long, so she printed sixty metres of labels.

Covid-19 has presented like a cricket game with the statistics. All sorts of useful numbers have been extracted and then equally so, misinterpreted and used as a foundation for some outlandish conspiracy theory.

We are now preparing for the third wave at our hospital. Many of the staff have new visors in preparation for the battle. Most have been vaccinated. My labelling machine is doing the rounds as people print their name to stick on their visor. 

What the label does not say is that these nurses are angels. They are the ones sacrificing themselves and their families as part of their calling to care for the sick. The sick are arriving again at our hospital with Covid pneumonia, grey skinned with wide-eyed white eyes searching for oxygen and help.

Thanks to our nurses they will receive more than just help. They will be cared for and connected to their families by these superheroes with names we should remember.

Grass cutting visors from the local hardware store have become the preferred from of protection globally.

The Tree of Life

I had been searching for a year. Because of the pandemic, in spite of the pandemic and to heal from the pandemic. Finally in May this year I was gifted what seemed to have become an impossible task.

I messaged the hospital manager : “the trees have arrived. I’ll come by later in the week to chat about where to plant them.”

“Excellent” was her answer.

We have a garden of remembrance as you enter our hospital. It has two benches, three tall aloes and a variety of African indigenous lilies. There are two glass walls with stainless steel plaques for anyone to pay homage and remember the departed. One wall has become the Covid-19 Memorial.

A few days later I popped into the manager’s office. 

“Hi.”

“ Oh hi Dr Stathoulis” . She always calls me that. We asked about each other. “Can we do a walkabout to see where to plant the trees?” 

“Sure”. She always makes time for me.

We walked into the sun of autumn, a warm day, with the trees huddled in their black plastic uterine bags.

Ziziphus mucronata. The tree of life. That’s what the Zulus call it. uMphafa. If someone dies  in the hospital they bring a  branch from the tree of life and reverently capture the spirit to take it home. They even pay for an extra bus seat on the way home. The branch that has captured the soul of the person who has died is tucked into the eaves of the roof of the homestead to rest. 

I have a plaque in memory of my father’s passing in 2008 on the first glass wall. It reads in Greek: “Η αιωνιότητα είναι ποιότητα, δεν είναι ποσότητα, αυτό είναι το μεγάλο πολύ απλό μυστικό” from Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek. Translated it means “Eternity lies in the quality, not the quantity; that is the great secret.” When I finished school in 1980 I planted a  Ziziphus in the garden of our family home. After my father was buried in Johannesburg I took a branch from that tree and left it at my grandfather’s house in our village in Greece. 

It was difficult to find the trees. I had asked far and wide of nurseries and tree growers and finally a friend of mine, Jane Bedford, who had trained as a traditional healer with the Zulu’s, gifted them to me. A few days later the local nursery found another three small trees for me.

Jane delivered the first three trees as soon as  she got them. The thorns tore at her car seats. He forearms had bright red spots where the thorns had drawn blood.

The tree of life has a straight thorn that points to the future and a curved thorn that connects us to out past. The branch has a zig-zag pattern, much like the path we follow in life.

I had a dream in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was moved by the pain of families who could not visit their loved ones in hospital. I thought of these trees after my dream, and knew I should plant them in our Garden of Remembrance. I finally found them. Rather, they found me. So Rachel the gardener at the hospital planted them. Three in a row. The other three small trees were planted in a group a but further away.

This weekend I mixed some concrete and planted a sign to remember the reason we planted the trees of life.

A sense of peace descended over me. Now my soul can rest a little easier.

Rachel, our gardener planted the trees of life.
The tree of life….
The Garden of Remembrance