by Piet Coetzer

When does life become absurd?

Old age and the theater of the absurd

Final word

Last Friday was my mother, Tertia’s 97th birthday. Accompanied by her 'baby' sister Petronella, who turned 87 recently, we went to the old-age home just around the corner where she lives to join her for afternoon tea to celebrate. And what an occasion it turned out to be! 

We took along three dozen cup cakes, specially baked by our youngest, Tertia jnr. (more than 86 years younger than her Ouma Tertia), as a treat for her and the other old folks residing with her. The 'Zone 2' wing of the old-age home houses around 20 residents all suffering from severe dementia and Alzheimer’s and in need of full-time care.

Convinced that I am one of her late brothers – it must be my grey beard – Ouma was quite excited to see us when we found her among her friends in their own special tearoom.

Within minutes of the cup cakes being set out in front of them, I had the distinct feeling that I was watching a group of very old people acting out a party scene in a nursery-school play. Some were scraping off the icing sugar from the cakes, others attempted to hide some extra cakes on their laps or were inspecting their neighbour's cake as if to make sure it was not bigger than their own.

One old lady was pacing up and down, trying to clean-up the crumbs behind everybody, moving plates to the wash-up basin and giving stern looks at anyone who dared to spill anything. She must have ruled her household with an iron fist in her day, I thought.

We noticed that Ouma’s roommate, Nell, was not present and asked after her. With a twinkle in her eye the matron informed us that Nell was very upset. She had heard  there was a party but had not received a formal invitation.

One of the staff went off to fetch Nell and rolled her in just in time to help sing Happy-birthday. As the last 'hip,hip horrah' faded, Nell looked at Ouma and exclaimed, “Oh, I see her every morning!” This is when we burst out laughing and I observed that it was like being at the theatre of the absurd.

Back home, having done some work on absurdity and the theatre , I had reason to reconsider the validity of my observation.

The word “absurd” derives from the Latin absurdus, meaning 'out of tune'. This, judged by the attempt at Happy Birthday by some (including myself), could still hold true for the party we'd had in the tearoom.

But when it comes to the definitions given for the word which are to be “at variance with reason; manifestly false” and “inconsistent with reason or logic or common sense”,it starts to look much less appropriate for the celebration of Ouma’s 97th.

It becomes even more so if one looks at the origin of absurdity as a strand or school of philosophy. According to, it is a “ term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”.

What finally blew my initial assessment is the description of thetheatre of the absurd, which hails from the 1960s. According to the same source, the critic Martin Esslin coined the phrase in 1961 to refer to a number of dramatists of the 1950s.

The classic work of absurdist theatre is Beckett's En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot, 1952), which ”.

There is no way that a life that contributed so much to the lives of those around her and still can evoke so much pleasure and joy, can never be without purpose or show the “paralysis of human aspiration!”

The more accurate description of the 97th birthday party experience came two days later. I took Ouma's 'baby' sister to say goodbye before returning to her own home in Stellenbosch.

While she and Ouma were saying their goodbyes in the tearoom, I went to look in on Nell in her and my mother’s room. Making conversation I asked her where her roommate was.

“Maybe in the sunroom,” she said and rolling her wheelchair back she looked at the continental cushions piled on an armchair and inquired of them, “Sweetness, where is our neighbour?” She was clearly in a space I did not recognise.

I came out of the room laughing and saying to myself: “This is better than bioscope!”

When back at home I later, related the story, Tertia jr.quizzically asked me, “What is a bioscope?”

Only recently I asked her what the heck the BBMs were she was talking about while frantically busy with her thumbs on her smartphone. Clearly, although the age gap between us is much smaller than between her and Ouma, we are already experiencing different realities.

But if I can make as much difference to her life as my 97-year-old mother made to mine, my life will not have been a “paralysis of human aspiration”.

By the way, 'bioscope' is a uniquely South African word for a movie theatre, dating back to 1900,derived from the name of the type of projector that was used in those days of the first silent movies.


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