And so it goes…

During the 1966 summer swim camp I noticed that one of the boys – let’s call him Adam – was looking a bit bloated. He continued training, but was sluggish in the water. Out of the pool he was listless. One day after a morning session I saw him lying on his back, clutching his knees and rocking from side to side. A doctor was summoned and a decision made to send Adam home. He did not return to camp, but we heard later that he’d recovered and would be resuming swim training soon. He’d had a bout of nephritis.

Nephritis[1] describes a group of diseases that cause swelling or inflammation of the glomerulus – a cluster of nerve endings, spores or small blood vessels around the end of a kidney tubule – that reduces the kidney’s ability to filter waste from the blood. Most types of nephritis are caused by the body’s immune system responding to an ‘insult’ of some sort; a drug or poison, an infection or a change in the way the body responds to one of the substances in its tissue.  In responding to this insult the body’s antibodies often damage the kidneys and, in some cases, our immune system attacks the filters causing swelling and scarring.

Nephritis can vary from a mild, non‐damaging condition to a serious one leading to kidney failure. It comes in various forms and most people who present with it will have at least one of blood or protein in the urine, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reduced kidney function, swelling to face, feet, legs and hands, or fatigue.

Modern-day diagnostic and treatment measures – at least in the developed world – have been responsible for bringing conditions like nephritis under control. In 1907 it was among the top ten causes of death in Australia, accounting for 4.1% of all deaths; by 2000 it was off the list.[2]  In its heyday it had caused the deaths of many well-known people, among them the writer Emily Dickinson, Emperor Alexander III and geneticist Gregor Mendel. It also claimed my grandfather.

Harry died on 19 January 1921, three months’ short of his 45th birthday. His death notice reveals his last address, the house at 73 Alexandra Street; the names, status and residence of surviving kin – my grandmother Rose, aunt Julia and father Phil, as well as my paternal great-grandmother Sarah, curiously referred to by the surname of her first husband Israel who had died more than 44 years earlier; and a little, but not enough information to draw any useful conclusion about my grandparents’ marriage.

The death notice also sheds light on Harry’s affairs. The progress of winding up his estate makes for entertaining reading, with a patient Master of the Supreme Court witness to delays arising from incomplete forms, misdirected documents and a hospitalised bookkeeper. By August 1921, a clear picture had emerged. Harry died owing £2,700 – somewhere in the vicinity of £100,000 in today’s money – to the law firm of which he was a partner. After accounting for his equity in the firm, the amount was reduced to £900. A further £200 was claimed by the Department of Inland Revenue, presumably for unpaid taxes. With no assets to cover the debt, the estate was declared insolvent and the amount owing to Inland Revenue written off.

After Harry died – this snippet from my mother – Rose started making regular pilgrimages to Braamfontein cemetery where she’d sit on her husband’s grave, have a cry, and ‘ask advice’. It wasn’t her fault that all she knew was how to keep house.

According to the family oral history Harry left Rose a legacy, part or all of which may have been sourced from the £2,700 debt owing to his law firm. According to my mother, ‘Rosa had enough to buy a fish shop. She ran it for about two years and then it went bang. There was enough money left over for her to “mooch about”.’

Mom was correct. Sometime in 1921 Rose bought a fish shop in downtown Johannesburg. Unfortunately her business partner had a proclivity towards racking up debt. Two years later Townhall Fisheries was declared bankrupt.

Whatever my mother meant by Rose having enough over to mooch about, it wasn’t sufficient to keep the household running. Julia left school to go and work in a factory. A friend of Harry’s covered my father’s tuition fees through school and university in Johannesburg, and later in London.

Dad came home in 1937 and joined a medical practice in Cape Town. It was not long after that Howard Florey’s team performed one of the most important medical experiments in history. I remember Dad once saying to me, ‘Before penicillin, all I could do was sit there and hold the patient’s hand.’ What a long way we’ve come since then.

Three years ago I spent an evening in Johannesburg with my cousin, Natalie, and her extended family. At 83, she is the ‘senior’ cousin and grandmother to five adult children. Most of them were at dinner that night and some, while obviously fond of Natalie, were a bit impatient with her deafness. I told them to be grateful to have her, to treasure her and to listen to her stories. That one day they would wake up and find her no longer there. They giggled awkwardly, not sure how to respond to a blow in from the other side of the planet. I understood and was sympathetic; in my twenties, I gave as little thought to where my place in the world was and how I fitted into it, as they did. That kind of reflection and introspection only comes after a life more than half-lived. At which point we realise how little we know.


[1] Notes on nephritis are from Kidney Health Australia.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Table 5.1

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