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The weight of responsibility
11 Mar 2011

I HAVE heard the horror stories about the boarders being forced to visit the local old- age home from my mother from when I was little. I have heard how the heinous “wrinklies” forced the seventies schoolgirls to spend their hour of servitude lowering grannies onto blue commodes.

The compulsory visits to the old-age home have since been abolished along with the packet of biscuits rationed out to the sweet-toothed boarders each Sunday. Nowadays we are allowed to choose where we would like to help the community.

But, on a bright Friday afternoon, I found myself being dropped off with some friends at the same old-age home that had been the scene of my mother’s horror stories. The corridors were disappointingly bright and cheerful and the staff suggested in a friendly manner that we spend some time chatting to the lonely residents. It seemed that I would not have a horror story of my own for my children.

The residents we talked to were charming and I felt almost as if it were I that was the one being entertained and cheered up. A carer explained to us that there were not enough staff to give the senior citizens as much company as they would like. Some, she said, were unable to walk on their own and the staff had been too busy for some time to wheel them outside. She suggested that we each collect a wheelchair from a storeroom and take a resident for a “walk” around the gardens. We were happy to help.

We were sent to get the wheelchairs and when we returned the senior citizens were waiting in anticipation. When I saw my allocated granny, I faltered. I had never seen a person quite so large off reality TV. She did not just take up every little centimetre of the wheelchair, she overflowed from it. Bare skin spilled from her waistband and rippled in waves of cellulite over her XXXXL skirt.

Now, I should probably explain that my build is remarkably similar to Olive Oyl’s. However, I refuse to believe that I am any less strong than Popeye (after his spinach). The nurse raised one ice-princess thin eyebrow as I flexed my skin and bone and slowly wheeled her out.

We enjoyed a slow stroll around the lower­ garden before my friend decided that there was nothing more to be seen there and so we simply had to go to the upper level. The only wheelchair-friendly way to get up there was a steep gravel driveway. I gulped while my friend raced up with her rake-thin old man. I began the ascent, literally­ moving an inch at a time. It was not difficult to empathise with Atlas. My granny was very friendly, but while I heaved her up the hill I did not have much breath for conversation and I think she fell asleep halfway up.

We eventually reached the top. Our walk on the upper level was a relative breeze and although my granny was asleep I followed my friend around the garden until it was time to return.

In the triumph of our climb I had not considered the problems that our descent might pose. Now I had gravity to contend with. My toe-by-toe descent started quite well. I leant back as far as I could and moved so slowly that a couple of snails probably overtook me.

I was almost a third of the way down the hill when the right handle of the wheelchair slipped off under the pressure. The chair swerved a little before the left handle followed suit. Handles in my hands, it turned out that the cliché about time appearing to slow down in times of utter panic is true.

Even so, I watched the wheelchair accelerate downhill at a frightening pace. Half of my mind planned how I was going to tell the carers that I had killed a granny. The other half realised with horror that, even if I did manage to catch up with the wheelchair, I could easily knock the chair over and suddenly stopping it would send her catapulting through the air.

By now we had reached the bottom of the slope and my shaky legs began to catch up with the jittery chair. I threw myself at her and enveloped as much of her as I could reach in a tight bear hug to keep her seated. We jolted gently to a standstill as we bumped into a little step. She sleepily opened one eye and then the other, wondering why this child had woken her with a hug. She smiled quizzically.

I smiled back and with utmost care wheeled her back to her room. The weight of responsibility suddenly seemed greater than the mass in the wheelchair.


Emily Potgieter grew up in Pietermaritzburg. She is a Grade 12 pupil at The Wykeham Collegiate. She hopes to study medicine next year and is actively involved in the school's community service programme.

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