"Unfortunately we're not able to operate," said the gentle-eyed doctor, her mouth slightly turned at the edges in a sad smile, "your grandmother is too fragile to survive surgery."
"What are her chances of making it then?" I asked optimistically.
"Not good," she replied.
"Like, 'not good' she's probably going to die?"
"Well that won't work. My grandpa is upstairs in a state. He'll have a heart attack. I can't tell him that."
"I'm afraid you'll have to. Or I can, if you'd prefer. He needs to know," she said, very matter-of-factly. My heart bounced off the bottom of my belly.
After two years of little contact with my grandfather, I was about to tell him that his whole world was shattered. They'd been old fashioned romantics throughout their lives, my grandparents. They went on evening strolls, their hands always entwined. They chatted to each other through shy grins and sparkling eyes. They danced at family weddings like they'd just fallen in love (with an impressive jive and two-step). Now, they were nearing no longer being a 'them'.
As I climbed the hospital steps towards the waiting room, it struck me that I'd done the unthinkable. I'd left my grandfather with my partner at the time. My partner who's place in my life was so offensive to my grandpa that he'd cut ties with me. I took a deep breath not knowing how to manage the conversation ahead, and not sure of what I'd find in the waiting room.
And there they sat, my grandpa with my cousins and my Tswana partner, whose right arm was tightly wrapped around him. I was stunned. I scanned the brown skin alongside my grandpa's trembling pale arm. My partner was comforting him, telling him that no matter what happened everything was going to be ok, that we'd all be there for him. And my grandpa was leaning into the comfort. Leaning into what would usually be hugely discomforting to him.
The next hour was a blur of difficult decisions, confusing conversations with a neurologist who showed us X-rays of a clouded brain, and devastating news. I don't remember much, just that I insisted on taking my grandpa in to say goodbye to the love of his life, and that waiting with him through his farewells was the most heart-breaking moment I'd ever witnessed.
In the next hours and days, our family trickled home and we took it in turns to stay with my grandpa. It wasn't straightforward for me, I was engaged to a black man. I'd been told by my grandfather that I was written out of their Will (to protect the distribution of family heirlooms), they were clear that they wouldn't be at my wedding and that they didn't support me in any way anymore. And now, I felt compelled to support him. While the compassion returned easily, as my grandpa has always been warm and loving (that was his real nature), I struggled with how it would all impact my fiancée. On the second day when I went to visit my grandpa, respectfully on my own, he smiled as he asked, "where's my pal today?" He meant my fiancée. I was floored. And over the days ahead he wanted the previously-unwanted beside him.
Prejudice is a weird thing. I've often been humbled to see how, when pressed, most peoples' propensity to love is so much greater than our propensity to hate. Within a few minutes in a hospital waiting room my grandpa learnt to understand what he'd never been exposed to before. Many of the lies placed in his mind from an old apartheid regime were turned upside down. He experienced compassion from someone he'd been programmed to fear. In his greatest moment of devastation, he found personal growth.
That moment in my life has made me (admittedly the eternal optimist) believe in the power of our humanity. We're designed to help others, to empathise, to forgive, connect, love - we learn hate, and that teaching can be overridden. Many months after my granny was buried, my grandpa told me not to get too excited - he wasn't going to dance at my wedding. Yet he continued to connect with me and get to know my fiancée better after my gran's passing. I believe with my whole being that had the wedding plans gone through, Grandpa would have opened the dance floor, strutting to Elvis' 'Can't help falling in love' - he wouldn't have been able to stop himself.