A Map of Heaven
(Soundtrack: In the Arms of the Angels by Sarah McLachlan)
“Brakes, Brakes,” he yelled.
Oh my God!
I jammed on the brakes and we came to a screeching, dust-swirling, stop right in front of a huge ant heap.
I got such a fright I almost swerved into the mielie field.
My grandpa leaned over and gently klapped me on the back of my head.
“Avoid ant heaps,” he said. “Now, carry on driving.”
I was about fifteen years old and my grandpa was teaching me to drive on his farm near Vredefort in the Free State. The car was a huge gray Chevy with a full seat in the front. It was a tank and I could hardly see over the bloody dashboard.
Every time we went to the farm my grandpa took me driving in that grey bumbershoot of a car. And every time I hit a bump or came too close to an ant heap or was about to run over a chicken he gave me a klap on the back of my head.
“Avoid the chickens,” he said. “Now, carry on driving.”
One time I was distracted by a bunch of Meer cats laughing at me when I drove past them sitting on top of an ant heap that I almost drove into the river.
“Avoid the river,” he said. “Now, carry on driving.”
My grandpa was amazing. I often watched him giving the calves their injections. I couldn’t believe how strong he was. He just flipped the little calves over and zip-zip zap-zap he gave them their shots. All the time speaking so nicely and sweetly to them “It’s okay my girlie,” he‘d say to the lowing little calf as he injected her. Then he would carefully massage the spot where he had injected the animal and set her back on her feet waiting patiently as she steadied herself.
A number of years ago, when I began my stint as a board member and subsequent board president of the American Childhood Cancer Association, I started visiting kids at the cancer hospital in Austin, Texas where I now live.
At that time I was known as the Doctor of Mischief. I spent hours and hours at the hospital driving the kids crazy with jokes and stories and cartoon drawings.
One day I was visiting a young guy named Victor who was about ten years old. He was putting up a hell of a fight after a harrowing bone marrow transplant. We were drawing together in his hospital room when he suddenly turned to me and said, “What’s going to happen to me when I die?”
Before I could say a word his mom ran over to the bed and said, “You are not going to die, damn it! I told you.”
Behind his mother’s back the kid looked at me, shrugged, pulled a tongue and flashed a broad smile. He was a naughty little shit I swear.
A short while later his mom left the room and I said to him. “You know buddy we’re all going to die one day?”
“I know,” he said, interrupting me. “She thinks I’m stupid. I know what’s going on. Hey do you think there’s… like… a heaven up there?”
“I hope so,” I said, taken aback by his question
“Do you think they give you a map when you get there?” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“The place must be huge,” he said, “How do you know where to go?”
I laughed so hard I about sprayed the coffee I was drinking out of my nose.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “If you die from this disease, while you’re still a kid, ask for my grandpa when you get up there.”
“What do you mean?” he said, laughing.
I told him all about my late grandpa and what a wonderful, caring man he was and hopefully still is. I told him all about my driving on the farm and the ant heaps and how grandpa would klap me upside the head. He laughed at all the stories I told about my grandpa.
“Look for him when you get to heaven. He’ll get you checked in and get you a great room,” I said.
“But how will I find him?” he asked. “There must be, like, millions of people up there.”
I thought for a moment and then pictured my grandfather. In my mind I saw his face as clear as daylight.
“Hang on,” I said, and I drew a quick picture of my grandpa in my journal. I tore out the page and gave it to him.
“His name is Teddy Tanchel,” I said. “Memorize that picture.”
He looked at the drawing of my grandpa and said, “He looks real nice.”
“Oh, he is the best,” I said, putting my hand on my heart. “You’ll see.”
The next time I came to visit Victor the picture of my grandfather was up on the cork pinning-board in his room next to all his get-well cards.
When I teased him, as I often did, he would point to the picture of my grandfather and tell me he was going to tell my grandpa about it, when he saw him, if I didn’t stop teasing him.
I’m very sad to say that cancer won the battle and Victor died about five months later.
His mom asked me to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
I went to the church only to discover that it was an open casket ceremony. I had never seen a child in a coffin before and I did not want to see him like that. I avoided the casket and went into the church.
They wheeled the coffin in to the church and put it next to the pulpit. Open!
The priest delivered his sermon and then called me up to do the eulogy. I did a humorous memorial based on Victor’s wicked sense of humour. I wanted to celebrate his life instead of mourning his death.
We all laughed so hard and I managed not to look at the coffin the whole time.
As I finished my speech I pointed to the coffin and said, “As he was dying, that little boy taught me so much about living…” as I spoke I accidentally glanced at the coffin.
And I’m so glad I did.
Victor was lying there with his hands resting on his chest. He looked so comfortable and at peace. He was dressed in a black tuxedo with a red bow tie. His head was bald from the chemotherapy. He had such a sweet, innocent, peaceful look on his face.
In his coffin, surrounding his body, were all his childhood toys and a sea of flowers. His train set was in there. Also his baseball glove, hundreds of Legos and his blankie from when he was a baby.
I smiled and mouthed goodbye to him as I walked past the coffin on the way back to my seat.
And that’s when I saw the picture of my grandfather that he was holding in his hand.
What Goes Around
(Soundtrack: Rocky Mountain High by John Denver)
It happened a long time ago.
A time when people actually did what they said they were going to do. I was driving along a dirt road in the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa with my girlfriend.
In the distance I noticed a speck on the horizon. A speck that would teach me something that, until then, I did not know even existed.
I know it’s a big word and hard to explain but I will try none the less.
You see, that speck on the horizon was a very old, toothless, African man with a white beard, riding an old bicycle.
I slowed down so that I didn’t spew dust all over the poor old guy.
I waved at him and he waved back as we passed. His smile was wonderfully warm and friendly. He looked about eighty and way too old to be driving a bicycle.
I watched him in my rear view and then looked up to see a bakkie coming toward me at full speed. It was moving very quickly. There was a dust cloud billowing behind it.
As the truck passed me I saw three young guys in the front seat. One of them had a Lion lager in his hand. I’m embarrassed to say but I could spot a Lion Lager beer from a mile away. That’s something I learned in the army.
I glanced at my rear view and my heart almost stopped. The driver of the bakkie was heading straight for the old man on the bicycle. I saw the old guy look nervously over his shoulder as the vehicle came up from behind.
I closed my eyes because I knew that were going to try and dislodge him from his bicycle.
I opened my eyes and saw them swerving towards him and missing him by inches. I could also see them gesticulating and shouting at the man as they drove past.
The old man wobbled on that bike and I saw him drive off the road and crash down a little ditch.
I slowed down and turned the car around.
I got to the old man and he was sitting down in the veld rubbing his knee. The front wheel of his bike was buckled and bent.
The old man looked so sad. “Haai eh-eh,” he said, shaking his head. “What is wrong with those kids?”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Ja, baasie, ” he replied. “It is just my heart that is sore.”
He told us he was a gardener at the Champaign Castle Hotel and was on his way to work.
I put his bicycle in the trunk of the car and we took him to the hotel, which was about three or four miles away. Apparently he drove his rattletrap bike to work every day rain or shine.
As we were leaving, I gave the man about forty rand in cash that I had in my wallet and a few rand my girlfriend had in her purse. “It’s to fix your bike,” I said.
“Sorry my kleinbaas,” he said, “I can’t take your money.”
My girlfriend told him to take the money because I was just going to use it to buy drinks and get drunk anyway.
The old man chuckled and told me I had a wise girlfriend. “I will pay you back my baasie,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to.”
But he insisted that I give him my address and I did so on a little scrap of paper knowing that he would lose it in about ten seconds.
Needless to say I had the resources to find more beer money. And my girlfriend and I had great weekend in the berg and I forgot about the old man.
The scuffed and wrinkled white envelope arrived at my little flat in Sandringham, Johannesburg one month later.
In it was one rand twenty-five!
Yes the old man did what he said he was going to do.
I swear, at the end of every month, an envelope arrived with a one rand and twenty-five cents in it. No note, no return address, just the money the old man promised to pay me back.
I was in advertising in those days and a little over a year later I went back to the Drakensburg to shoot a television commercial with Sarel van der Merwe, the rally driver. It was for Jurgens caravans and he was towing the caravan through the berg showing how rough and tough those caravans were.
The filming took place very close to where that old man had fallen off his bike and I decided to go and find him and to tell him he didn’t need to send me the money every month because I was doing fine.
I found out that he had retired from the hotel. They told me that he lived in the village near where I first saw him and they told me where his place was.
My art director and I went to his home. It was exactly what you’d imagine. A thatched mud hut with missing windowpanes covered in Spar plastic bags to keep the wind out.
An old African granny with gray hair answered the door. She had a doek on her head that was tied under her chin like people used to in the olden days when they had toothache.
Inside the hut, the floor was hardened mud and swept clean. There was a primus stove, a galvanized tub with a bar of sunlight soap in it, a rickety old table with a clean cloth on it, a little cupboard and a bed with white sheets on bricks.
It was spotless.
The Sunlight Soap was the only thing of colour in the entire place. I have such a clear vision of that bar of soap. I can see it in my mind when I close my eyes.
Other than those few items the place was spare.
The woman was the old man’s wife.
I asked if he was around so I could tell him that he didn’t have to pay the money back to me.
What she told me stopped me cold.
The old man had died six months before and she had continued paying his debt.
I was stunned. She had nothing. Absolutely NOTHING! Yet she was doing what she considered was the right thing. Paying their debt back as promised.
She kept his word. She continued sending me money every month despite the fact that her husband had died and she was poor.
I told her I didn’t need the money and gave her a little more that I had in my pocket.
She was so grateful and would not stop hugging me.