In the morning, Ntombi trips in a fog of sleep and finds her balance on the bed. The sudden movement of the bed wakes up her mother, Thembi. The sun is out and glorious, each ray lighting up every corner of the shack with a purpose.
Thembi’s shack is one room, built with mud, wood, and a corrugated metal roof. It has one window. Sibusiso slept on a sponge mat on the floor with Sipho, Thembi’s son, while Ntombi shared the bed with her mother. Thembi has no recollection of tripping and falling yesterday as she wakes up and looks around the room.
She can hear Sibusiso and Sipho chatting outside. “I need water; my throat is parched – please, Ntombi,” she calls.
Ntombi rushes to the bucket by the door, next to a grey basin they use for bathing. She scoops water into a jug. The arrangement in the shack is neat, reflecting Thembi’s personality. She has always been a well-organised, genial woman with a radiant smile. But the lung cancer has taken that smile away.
Thembi struggles to drink water while lying on her back. Ntombi lifts her head.
“Thank you so much, my darling,” says Thembi, after drinking a few sips.
“It’s okay, Ma. Is your thirst better now?”
“Do you need anything else?”
Thembi shakes her head slightly.
Ntombi is an energetic child. Her restlessness reminds Thembi of Ntombi’s father, Lungani. Lungani and Thembi were madly in love but he had a wandering eye. Lungani would constantly receive calls from other women and Thembi caught him multiple times with other women. Their relationship came to its demise when her youngest child, Sipho, was only few months out of her womb.
“Thank you,” says Thembi.
The last sip of water she takes is difficult to swallow, like when she received the results that informed her she had lung cancer. Her eyes turn glassy with tears. What will become of Ntombi and Sipho when I’m gone, she wonders.
The sun shining and the voices of Sipho and Sibusiso laughing outside come through the window and the open door and touch her wholly. She feels alive. She inhales the familiar smell of the fruiting mango tree carried by the wind from her front yard. She sits up in her bed and looks out of the open door. Her eyes meet the light and the colours of life. Ntombi places the jug next to the water bucket. Mother and daughter connect their gazes and smile.
“I need to talk to you, Ntombi. Come here,” Thembi pats next to her on the bed. “You’re the oldest,” Thembi says. “I want you to know that even when sometimes you don’t believe it, I love both you and Sipho very much.”
Ntombi is confused. “I know, Ma. Trust me, I do know.”
“Come a bit closer,” Thembi says. She puts her frail arm around Ntombi. “You look lovely as always, my beautiful daughter. You are a big girl now. I want you to look after Sipho. Do you understand?”
Tell us: What do you think is so hard about what Thembi is asking Ntombi to do?