“Telling us a story of a musical savant doesn’t help us all that much, Gertruida. It may be inspiring to a certain degree, but we’re still stuck with the same old problems in the country…or the world, for that matter. Playing a piano never fixed crooked politics, neither can disabilities be used to set the example for South Africa’s masses.” Servaas, after spending a restless night while contemplating the remarkable life of Leslie Lemke, is not in a good mood at all.
“On the contrary, Servaas. It’s about being disadvantaged and overcoming odds. That – I’ll have you know – is the most important and universal lesson for all of humankind. It’s of absolutely no value to sit down next to the road, complaining about the journey. We are each given a route – an individual journey – to complete during our on earth. Some get the easier paths, others not – it’s not something we can demand or change. Read it up, Servaas. (Proverbs 16:33) I suspect you know the passage…you should, actually.”
“So we are mere passengers on a runaway train, helpless to change anything? What about Revelation 20:13? Why judgement in the end if people have no choice in their actions?”
Gertruida sits back to applaud the old man’s remark. “Well done, Servaas! You’ve just proven my point. I’m sooo proud of you!” Despite Servaas’s confusion, he has to smile at her tone. “You see, Servaas, your life will follow a certain path. That’s a given. But…what you do on that path, involves specific choices only you can make. Let me tell you about Jean-Dominique Bauby, maybe that’ll help you understand…”
Jean-Dominique, or Jean-Do as his friends called him, was a young man at the pinnacle of his career. As editor of Elle, he was a know face in the French fashion crowd and a respected writer in his own right. He probably thought Life was a sweet fruit to be savoured and enjoyed – one can only imagine…
Then it all changed. At the age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him an a coma for three weeks. He shouldn’t have woken up, but he did…in a manner of speaking. While he seemed to recognise faces and voices, he was completely paralyzed, except for his eyes; they followed movement. Despair turned to hope; maybe he’d regain more function as time went by?
But it didn’t. Things got worse. His right eye developed complications and had to be sewn shut. Then, with movement and observation restricted to his left eye, the terrible consequences of his stroke became apparent: he had Locked-in Syndrome. He could hear and see…but nothing else. He couldn’t respond in any way to external stimuli by speech or emotion. Only the movement of one single eye could possibly convey messages to the people around him.
A plan had to be made. With all the paths of communication destroyed by the stroke, only the left eye could possibly be used to reach his thoughts. Remember, this happened in 1995, before machines like Stephen Hawking uses, were available. The nursing staff did what they could, ending up with a nurse sitting next to his bed, reciting the alphabet. Over and over and over…and over. When she got to the letter he wanted, he’d blink. The letter was then written down and the selection of the next letter began. At last…he was able to communicate his thoughts to the world out there.
Then…the surprise. i-w-a-n-t-t-o-w-r-i-t-e-a-b-o-o-k. Write a book? In his condition? Surely an impossible task?
But he did. Letter for letter, four hours a day, with the patient assistant reciting and reciting the alphabet over and over again. It took ten months, but in the end The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published in 1997. Sadly, two days after the book appeared on the shelves, Jean-Do died from lung complications…
“Ten years later, a film was made of the book. It won at Cannes, BAFTA, Golden Globes and was nominated for four Oscars. The story of Jean-Do inspired people long after his death. His life was maybe above average before the stroke, but afterwards it became truly remarkable. He had to lose everything – except an eye – to summit the highest point of his life.
“So you see, Servaas, being disadvantaged isn’t fun. People have the right to complain and revolt against unfairness and injustice. But what has happened in the past, is no excuse for poor choices in the present. It is a sad fact that everything we do today, will impact on tomorrow. And that leaves us with but two choices: do we destruct or construct? That, my friend, is the Black and White we have to deal with – there is no middle way in that. Choices determine actions and words, which in turn result in consequences. If we are not building, then we are breaking down.
“So, Servaas, harping on about hardship is an entirely futile exercise. In our society it’s become the norm to be destructive. And that, I’m afraid, is determining how we will be judged by history.”
“Well,” Servaas mumbles, “at least I’m not burning buildings and busses. I’m just saying…”
“Unfortunately,” Gertruida interrupts quickly, “words do more damage than burning a library. They remain long after the broken glass have been replaced and they hurt more than rubber bullets. ‘Just saying’ is no excuse. It’s the mind behind the words that makes you say things – and only you can fix that…nobody else is going to do it for you.”
And, just like yesterday, old Servaas finds himself at loss for words. This is a good thing, Gertruida thinks, because the country is being wrecked by people ‘just saying’. If only we could get to ‘just doing’ – positively – we’d become an example for the world.
But, she realises, we’ll get the future we deserve. And for that we have no excuses. No excuses at all…
After the fact
Sensitivity builds a prison
In the final act…”