Outside the car, the sky is lazily turning from velvet night to reddened day. It is peaceful here, next to the road, far away from everyone and everything and I am thankful for the numbness of spirit that embraces me as I sit alone in silence. I still can’t seem to comprehend it. It’s been a week already but it still isn’t real. Today is D-day, the big F-word: The Funeral. I find myself wondering if she would approve of the flowers I chose, or if she would have liked the hymns. Although she attended a typical Afrikaans church, I couldn’t bring myself to choose any of their choruses, opting instead for the old classic How Great Thou Art. I smile now as I think about all the Afrikaans tannies trying to pronounce all the English words. I guess I should be getting back home, but there is one more thing I need to do…
I had found the sealed envelope in my mother’s bookshelf the day she died, lurking between her bible and some or other self-help book. My name was written on the front, and I recognised my mother’s handwriting immediately, I could however, not bring myself to open it. I found myself wanting to phone her to joke about the money I hoped was inside. But then it struck me, she wasn’t here anymore.
As I sat next to my mother’s bed in ICU every day for more than a month, watching her blood move lethargically through the dialysis machine, it started to dawn on me that no amount of dialysis would ever cleanse her of my shame. They say it’s in our blood, in our DNA – The things that make us different I mean. I don’t know much about science but I know that that is where shame lives, the sense that I’m sub-standard; the knowledge that there is something inherently wrong with me, the awareness that it is all my fault.
It all seems to be about colour, here in South Africa, doesn’t it? Even after 20 years of democracy. The white sheets, the black hands of the nurse, the yellow-grey hue of my mother’s blistering skin and the red of her life blood flowing out of her into the dialysis machine to be cleansed, and then pumped back into her. Could the dialysis machine wash my blood too? Could it cleanse me of my shame?
The day the world wept for Elvis, my mother wept also, but in sheer relief. I had been born the perfect colour, the shame of being born out of wedlock, being temporarily forgotten. I was a perfect white, you see. Our secret was safe and our shame was hidden under layers of lies that would continue throughout most of my childhood.
Back then in the 70s, the world was black and white in more ways than one. There was no grey area, no mingling of shades and tones. The world was ordered and ran smoothly according to strict rules that kept us all safe. At least that was what we were told. Everyone knew their place. Birds of a feather…
On the surface, the world was perfect, something out of a 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, all smiles and laughter and song. Walking through a whites-only suburb, one almost expected to have Julie Andrews materialise from a painted red doorway, singing gaily about music and umbrellas. Underneath that placid superficiality however, defiance and deception seethed like a roiling serpent struggling to break free and it is within these coils that my journey began.
My parents had made contact through a pen pal column in the Sunday Times. It was love at first sight, or should I say, first write. Things progressed quickly from what I can gather, and it wasn’t long before my mother had fallen pregnant. That is where it all got complicated and messy to say the least. The colours had mingled and I had been formed.
When my mother had broken the news to my father, he had balked and so the devastating truth had come out. He wasn’t a Catholic, he was a Muslim, He wasn’t white, he wasn’t a swarthy Portuguese as he had led her to believe, he was Indian. She had compromised the race system and stepped over the forbidden line. And oh dear, had he forgotten to mention that he was married with kids? He had lied to her because he had wanted to know what it was like on the other side of the race barrier. It was all meant to be an innocent game. Wasn’t she on the pill, for God’s sake?
“Sort it out yourself. I’m done with you.”
And with that parting shot, he walked out of her life. I suspect that that was the day my shame began to take hold of me, the day my destiny was forged.
There was not a day that went by, that my mother didn’t replay that scene over and over in her head, with the scorn and rejection of her lover filling her with shame. It was only when her belly began to bulge that she had to face the veracity of the situation… she had broken the law, and in all probability, would be jailed once her appalling secret was discovered. Her life as she knew it was over.
Being an uncontrolled Diabetic, my mother was ill throughout the pregnancy, spending the last three months of it in hospital. It also did not help that she stopped eating in an effort to abort the creature that was growing inside her. All the while, my shame grew, an insidious black and dirty demon, clinging to the walls of her white washed womb.
I used to dream a lot when I was a child. And there is one particular dream that has recurred throughout my life, creeping back to embrace my subconscious like a shroud, in times of stress. I am in a dark room of some sort, naked and floating in some form of thick liquid. I can hear muffled sounds through the walls, sounds of shouting and sobbing, and I sense the brokenness of the woman whose essence seems to permeate the space in which I float. I find myself overcome by her fear while at the same time, I long to reach out and comfort her.
And then it happens. It is always the same. The beginning of the dream may vary, but it always ends the same way.
The walls of the blackened room start to contract and my body is wracked with pain and shame as I am slowly smothered. My lungs fill painfully with water, and in that instant I always know I am dying. I always know that there is nothing I can do to stop the inevitable, and yet… and yet I fight theoverwhelming dark tide. My mind is imbued with the mantra that my heart still beats to on occasion:
“i. will. not. die.
i. will. not. die.
i. will. not. die…”.
I always wake then, gasping for air with those words pounding in my head. It always takes me a while to recover from the vividness of the dream.
Throughout the three months my mother had spent in that hospital, the adoption papers were lying next to her bed, under the Gideon’s bible. Every now and then, she would pick her pen but she could never bring herself to sign the documents. Every day the social worker would visit expectantly, in the hopes that my mother had signed. Every day she left, disappointed. Before my mother went in for the caesarean, she made it clear that she did not want to see me. She did not want anything to do with me. All she wanted was to forget her humiliation and carry on with her life, as though I had never happened.
And yet… the adoption papers still lay unsigned. Years later, in a rare show of vulnerability and caring, she admitted that she had thought that she would die and in doing so, would not have to take responsibility for her choices or for casting me aside like a second hand piece of clothing.
And so it happened that I was born on a clear and crisp August morning in a sterile white theatre, surrounded by masked doctors and nurses with Springbok Radio droning on in the background. They say I did not cry at all when the doctor hefted me upside down to administer the traditional slap on my behind. I just hung there, upside down, staring blankly as if I did not care, as if I waiting for something of more significance to happen.
When my mother awoke from the operation, my grandmother broke the news that I was a “beautiful baby girl… and she’s pink.” As my mother cried with relief, my grandparents stood by her bedside murmuring their support and forgiveness, absolving her of the disgrace she had brought upon them. However, it would only be on the third day of my life, that she would meet me for the first time. All the while, the unsigned contract silently called to her, whispering promises of the atonement contained within its white pages.
By all accounts I didn’t do much of anything in those first three days. I slept in my incubator and did not once cry out while the hospital staff bustled to and fro around me. When the nurses picked me up to feed me, I made no noise but I seemed to be listening for something. On the fourth day after my birth, my uncle, aged sixteen at the time, convinced my mother to at least see me, to make peace with me, before signing me away.
As the nurse brought me into the ward, I turned my head towards the sound of my mother’s voice and as I was placed in her arms for the first time, I started to cry, a wail that seemed to emanate from the very pit of my being, for it was her voice that I had been waiting to hear. The papers were ceremoniously torn up and I finally had a home.
As I sit here in this silent tomb of a car, I wish I could conclude my story with that beautiful image. I wish fervently that I could give you the happy-ever-after ending that I myself, have longed for my entire life. However, that would not be fair to you, nor me and it would mostly certainly not be fair to the democracy we now enjoy, the democracy built on tears and blood and pain of ordinary people living extraordinary lives.
Like so many of us, my mother is…was flawed and broken beyond repair. It seems that mental illness is one of many demons that course through the veins of my family, mingling with the shame and disgrace that is passed on from generation to generation, eating at our souls, devouring our spirits and ultimately destroying our relationships, leaving us alone in our quarries of despair.
From a very young age, my mother made sure I knew that I was not normal. I was made to understand that there was something inherently wrong with me, that I was stupid and inferior and that is was my fault her life had turned out to be such an incredible failure. Her fits of rage, were accompanied by beatings and vituperations of almost religious fervour.
“Coolie bitch”, “coolie slut”, “fat stupid bitch”, were only some of the daily phrases she recited devoutly in an attempt to rid herself of her own shame and worthlessness. Her favourite line however, was how she wished her attempt at aborting me had not failed but while I was being thrown around and beaten bloody, there was always a small voice in the back of my head chanting, “i. will. not. die. i. will. not. die.”
It was only years later, when I realised that only half of the abuse I suffered was aimed at me. The rest were unconsciously directed back at her in an attempt to punish herself for her brokenness and shame. When she beat me, she was beating herself. When she cursed and swore and punished me, she was punishing the things I represented – her past, her shame, her failures and worthlessness.
Late one night when I was about three years old, I wet my bed for the umpteenth time. I was a bed-wetter too you see, another weapon that was used against me, in the hands of a broken defensive soul. I was a bad girl. I was naughty. I did not deserve to be loved. She did not want me anymore and so she made me pack a small black suitcase and roughly heaved me into the back of our old sunny yellow Volkswagen Beetle, while my grandmother wept and pleaded with her to “please just stop this madness”.
I was left in front of the local orphanage with my suitcase and still dressed in my white urine-stained pyjamas while she threw the dirtied, tainted bedclothes down beside me as she cursed and swore. She bent over to look into my tear stained eyes and screamed, “I hate you, you little whore”, and with that, she climbed into the car and drove away.
I can still remember the white-grey smoke that bellowed from the Beetle’s exhaust pipe as I watched her drive away into the night. I stared blankly, filled with an indescribable feeling of acquiescence and in that moment I understood that I was alone in this world. I did not cry. I just stood silently staring at the red taillights as they grew smaller and smaller and disappeared around the corner. Fifteen minutes later, she drove back and without uttering a word, loaded me into the car and took me home. But I had learnt something valuable that night. I had tasted despair and rejection and had accepted my fate. From that day on, I would scrub myself raw each night in the bath, in an attempt to be more acceptable, to be whiter, to rid myself of the shame of my Indianness, my wrongness, my shame.
When asked about my father throughout my childhood, I would recite the lies that had been drilled into me: My parents are divorced, I don’t know who or where my father is.
Life was filled with fear, fear that someone would find out and take me away, fear of the kaffirs and the other non-whites that rioted and raped and would exterminate us if they had the chance. But then there was Monica.
Monica had worked in my gran’s home for over 25 years. She loved me, she played with me, and she took care of me. She held me when I cried. She was my family. She sat at the table with us at lunch time. I loved her. If she was so bad, how could I love her so much? But at the end of each day, she would leave and go back to where she belonged, the local township. At the end of the day, she was still black, and I still looked white and that was how the world worked.
It was a Monday afternoon when I arrived home from school to sit down for lunch. Casually my gran asked me about one of my friends, and wanted to know who fetched her from school that day.
“Some kaffir”, I answered without thinking. The room went silent and when I could pluck up the courage to look at Monica’s face, I saw that her eyes were filled with tears. We didn’t say anything about it. We all just pretended that it never happened, but in that moment, I realised that something was very, very wrong with the world. To this day, I wish I could go back and make right that wrong, I wish I could erase those words and heal the pain I inflicted but life is never that simple, is it?
I knew all about that kind of pain. My mother never let me forget who and what I really was. Ironically, it was often Monica who comforted me after I had borne the brunt of one of my mother’s outbursts – an outcast being comforted by a second-class citizen.
When I was about ten, my mother’s car broke alongside a road on the way to Klerksdorp, black smoke billowing from the engine. My diabetic mother’s blood sugar was dropping, my grandmother was trying to get her to eat something and I sat in the back paralysed with fear. Would my mother die? Would she get angry and hit me again? Would we be stuck here forever? Cars raced by, no-one giving a damn. Except one…
An old black man in an ancient Ford Cortina stopped and towed us to the nearest garage. He calmed my mother down, and convinced her to eat her peanut butter sandwich and he smiled at me through the window as he hooked up our car to his. He stayed with us at that garage until someone we knew came to fetch us. I can still see his black face with his Colgate white teeth smiling at me through the window of our car. I remember thinking that maybe he was Jesus, because only Jesus would make me feel so safe.
And now the day is awakening as I sit next to the road, and mentally recall my journey thus far. In the field next to which I have parked, there are three horses grazing contentedly. I am struck by the fact, that although they are all horses, they are different colours, white, brown, and dappled. The metaphor they represent strikes a chord within me and I find my eyes filling with tears.
Somehow I am drawn to the white horse, and so I fumble in my handbag and locate an apple which I intend to feed it with. But it does not respond as I stand at the wire calling to it, instead it is the dappled horse that slowly makes its way towards the promise of an early breakfast treat. And as I stroke its head and whisper sweet nothings as it crunches the green apple, it is as though time has slowed and we are lost in a moment, just the two of us. Both mixed colours. Birds of a feather… I find comfort in the way it nuzzles my hand, the way it looks into my face, expecting more food.
The reddened sky, my pink skin, the black tar of the road, the faded blue of the beat up old car and the brilliant green of the dewy grass all seem to overwhelm me in this moment of solitude. And it punches me in my proverbial gut and leaves me gasping for breath. Life is all about colours.
Colours. I am struck again and again by colours. Colours that speak a million words, colours that sing and weep and tell stories of love and loss and hope and despair. Colours so important, that they rule our lives, they are always there, always talking back, always whispering unspoken secrets. Colours and smells and noises, they are the things that tell us stories. Those are the things that we remember most vividly.
I think back now, to when I first discovered my mother naked and comatose in the bath where she had lain helplessly for three days. Her pink wrinkled body, half floating in a few inches of water, while the open tap dripped incessantly onto her claw-like toes are lucid in my mind now and I remember the way her head hung down onto her chest, hazel eyes half open, blankly staring at nothing. I think of her chest that moved in uneven heaves, her pendulous breasts, hanging limply and her grey pubic hair so stark and vulnerable against the white of the ancient porcelain bath.
I recall the bright yellow beach towel with which I covered her nakedness in an attempt to preserve her dignity and then after the phone calls, there was the waiting and still the white pink chest heaved unevenly up and down, struggling for air, fighting to win the war against the inevitable. And in the background of all the colour, there was my voice, pleading with her to wake up, to respond. And when that did not work, there was the sound of my frantic praying, my garbled intercession and when I had no more words, silence came in, flooding the room, heavy with omens of death and loss and finality.
Finally, there were the red lights flashing on the white ambulance as they drove up. In my mind, I summon up the blackness of the faces and hands of the paramedics as they tested her blood sugar and the brown leather of the stretcher they hefted her on to. I clearly recall the squeak of the wheels of the stretcher as it was pushed urgently towards the front door.
Mostly though, I remember with gratitude, how one of the paramedics, a young black man, kept the towel in place as they pushed the rattling stretcher out to the ambulance, out through the lush green garden with its grey-blue lavenders and silky shades of trees. The air was filled with the heady smell of Wisteria and the brightness of roses belied my dread, and covered up the soul-numbing devastation that filled my being as they made their way up the stony driveway. Would this be the last time my mother would find herself here, amongst her beloved plants?
One of my mother’s dogs began to howl then, a long mournful howl, like a creature of the night and we had to stop it from jumping into the ambulance. And as we drove off to the hospital, the dog continued to howl and moan and futilely throw itself against the gate again and again.
The young paramedic sat next to my mother in the back of the ambulance, with his big black hand still holding the sunny bright yellow towel, in an attempt to cover the indignity and nakedness of a white woman he did not know.
I think now, about how he came back to the hospital a few hours later to see how she was doing, and to tell me to not give up hope. He told me there is always hope, that miracles do happen and that I am in his prayers. He placed his black hand on my white shoulder then, and gently squeezed, a gesture filled with a million words. Black on white. Compassion meeting me in my place of utter hopelessness and fear.
Life is funny sometimes, the way people are brought across your path. There was a young black man in ICU with my mother, and because I was there all the time, I had gotten to know his family. So one day I stood and held his reedy black hand in my white one, and I prayed for him. As I prayed, I watched his blood flow through the dialysis machine, red blood. Blood, the same colour as my mother’s, the same colour as mine. And there it was again, colour. Within days, he was strong enough to be moved to another ward, while my mother grew steadily worse, and yet every day, his family would pop in to see if I needed anything. A black family caring for a random white girl and her dying mother. Black on white. Colours.
I have spent the last month of my life, cooped up in ICU, next to my mother’s bed, watching her blood run through transparent tubes of the dialysis machine. I have witnessed the hands of Black, Indian, Coloured, and White sisters changing sheets, adjusting her catheter, and checking machines.
My days in ICU have been filled with colour. White sheets, blue files, red blood, brown urine, and the white blisters that started to cover my mother’s body as her organs started to fail one by one. I watched her pasty blank face frozen in slackness, as I stroked her brown grey hair and whispered to her of how much I loved her, and how I needed her. I held her swollen yellow hand as I begged her to wake up, to not die, and to forgive me for not being what she needed me to be. I promised that I would try to be whiter, to be more submissive, to be a good girl. And still she slept her sleep of the dead, a macabre parody of Sleeping Beauty.
A couple of days ago, it seemed as though she was starting to wake up. Once she even opened her eyes to look at me, and when I smiled and told her I loved her, she mouthed the words, “I love you too”, before closing her eyes and falling back into an even deeper coma from which she would never again wake and now as I stand watching the dappled horse, I cling to her last words, like a man drowning in a torrent of icy reality. There will never be a chance to sort out our differences and with regret I think of all the times I could have told her that I love her, that she is accepted and that I wouldn’t change her for the world. And there is still that damned letter I am too scared to open.
She “died” a few times, the night she finally left me. Each time her heart would stop, and her breathing would still, I would kiss her hand and beg her to come back to me. And her heart would slowly start beating again and she would draw in a breath and fight on. I knew I was being selfish, begging her to stay, but I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t face life alone, without anyone. However twisted our relationship was, she was still family.
But eventually, I pulled together enough strength and leaning over her still form, I stroked her hair and told her how much I loved her, and that it was okay for her to go. But still she fought, labouring to breathe, her heartbeat slow and irregular.
I silently prayed for the words I needed to release her from her pain and suffering, and it was only when I kissed her forehead and whispered, “Mom, it’s okay. I forgive you. I know that you have always loved me”, that she could let go, releasing her last ragged, tormented groan of a breath and then… she was gone. All that was left was the shell that had encased the woman who had shaped my life. I was left alone in that room. The only thing I could do was touch her face for the last time and walk out.
And now a week later, I find myself in this car, next to the road, watching three horses going about their business. It is 6 o’ clock in the morning and it is now or never. And so with trembling hands I tear the envelope open. My insides quiver as I unfurl the delicate pink paper and begin to read:
“Ever since I can remember – since I was a child, I always dreamed of having a daughter. So when I got pregnant, I thought the child growing in me must be a boy, because I had made a real mess of my life at that stage and didn’t dare hope that after all my years of dreaming I would really have a daughter of my own.
After the caesarean, granny told me I had a lovely pink baby girl. I felt ecstatic! But couldn’t stop crying because I didn’t know if granny and granddad would help us. But, thank God they did, and the first time I saw you and held you, you were three days old. The love that poured out of me to you was indescribable! I didn’t think I could ever love anyone so much.
When they brought you towards my bed and I talked to you, you turned your face towards me like a flower turns to the sun. The sound of your crying was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
I’ll never forget that day. You were so beautiful. Your little hands and feet and nose and ears. You were so perfect. After you were delivered I felt so empty and I missed feeling you moving and kicking in me.
These emotions will always be with me, in my heart, forever. In other words, I will love you always! You are perfect just the way you are.
I let my head rest against the steering wheel, and I let go of my rigid self-control… I let it all burst forth. The years of shame, the years of not being quite white enough, the years of pain and anger and fear. I cry and weep and punch the dashboard as I try to make sense of all the lies, of all the hurt, of all the brokenness.
But now there is someone tapping on my window, and I lift my tearstained face to see a black man. He looks vaguely familiar but I cannot place his face. As I roll down my window, I realise that it is the brother of the young man I prayed for in the hospital.
“Hello Tanya”, he greets me. “I thought it was you sitting here. Today’s the funeral isn’t it?”
I nod, afraid to speak in case I start to cry again. I have to pull myself together, have to put on a brave face.
“It looks like you need a shoulder right now,” he says gently. “Why don’t we go to Wimpy and talk? I think it’s time for you to tell your story so that you can make peace with the past. Meet you there in ten.” He smiles and gets into his car and drives off.
As I start up the engine of the battered blue car, I realise he is right. It is time to tell my story. It is time to shake off the shame. It is time to heal.
And it’s all starting with a cup of Wimpy coffee and a black stranger who cares enough to spare an hour or so for a broken white girl. A white girl filled with so many secrets and shame, secrets and shame that will no longer rule her life.
This is a holy moment. It is the end of a journey and yet, it is also the beginning of one. The only difference between them is this journey I am embarking on, is a journey of hope, of healing, of forgiveness and most of all, it is a journey of truth.
I glance again at the horses, and as I drive away, my mind fills with a new mantra:
I Have Hope!
I Have Hope!
I Have Hope!
One day when I am old and grey, this is one of the memories I will think of often… how the kindness of a stranger overcame any racial barrier there may have been were the circumstances or times different.
“I… will… not… die… because I have found hope!