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

A Dream in the Time of Covid

Is this all a dream?

Six weeks ago I was placed in self-isolation by my hospital for ten days.

“I had a dream that you asked me to polish your shoes” my maid, Londiwe, messaged me a few days later. Now you should know I have never asked her to shine my shoes. Erasmus does my shoe shine at the airport regularly (I fixed his shoulder years ago so please look out for him at King Shaka Airport after lockdown). I had asked Londiwe to stay away from work until I was cleared of a possible Covid-19 infection.  Londiwe in Zulu means “protected or kept safe”; I truly hope that both of us stay safe.

I knew immediately what her dream meant.

It has been a long journey and we are still in the early hours of the first morning of the months that will unfold in social and economic upheaval. I have found it important to choose my words carefully during this time. This pandemic is a global crisis but I believe it will change who we are and how we do things for the better. At a price, I know.

Yesterday at the screening entrance of my hospital I saw the matriarch of a Zulu family with her daughter and twenty-year-old grand-daughter. They were tense, as most people are now, and were huddled too close around the Perspex shield protecting the nurse attending to them.

In my surgical mask outside the hospital I introduced myself, and then asked them to move apart and stand two metres behind one another. There was a sense of loss and fear in their eyes, from old to young. 

“I’m sorry” I said, “we need to keep social distance to protect each other.” They didn’t move apart and I stopped myself from being authoritative. 

“Can I help?” I am saying that many more times than I used to. I act on it many more times as well.

I cannot remember what the nurse said. I should. It was important. But it was a blur of “they have come to see or pay last respects” to the grandmother’s husband who had died in ICU. 

No visitors are allowed into the hospital now. No one can be at the bedside of a dying family member, and no one can gain closure by seeing or touching the cold lifeless body of the departed.

“Please wait here. I’m afraid we cannot allow you in. I will find a manager to help you”. You have to speak clearly and loudly in a surgical mask in order to be heard. That removes any tone of sympathy. The assistant nursing manager grasped the urgency and went out immediately to explain. As I turned to look back the daughter and granddaughter walked away, their souls battered by the new normal. The next I saw was the nursing manager opening a big official book, with carbon copies, for the matriarch to sign away the body of her beloved outside the hospital.

I was shattered. Even in my first world hospital I had once seen a young man reverently carrying a branch of the Mpafa tree, the Zulu Tree of Life. A Straight thorn points to the future, while a curved throw connects us to our past. He was taking a branch to the ward where his father had died. He would rest it on the on the body and capture the soul of the departed and take the branch home to tuck into the eaves of the homestead. On the way home he would buy a ticket in the taxi for himself and the spirit in the branch.

In this dream in the time of Covid I thought we could allow families to bring a branch of the Ziziphus mucronata,  the Mpafa tree, and we could put it in yet another safe plastic bag, and leave it with the body. They would never be allowed to take the branch home. It would burn or be buried with the body.

Londiwe, may we be kept safe, had a dream to prepare my shoes for this long journey. A dream in the time of Covid.

A storm over the Indian Ocean, Friday 24 April 2020