I wrote an open letter to my former landlady about 5 years ago. It referenced the time I rented a room from her 10 years previously. Another 5 years have elapsed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I want from life and how I choose to deal with past events. I have traveled far and wide between 3 continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – seen my youngest brother marry and become a father, indeed become a father myself… but beneath it all there is still a deep wound from the past. I am in absolutely no doubt that it relates to my connection with my late parents, particularly my father, and I want that to change. But in order to change I must be courageous and go back to the times when the connections were broken.
Firstly, I must give some perspective. I have forgiven my father for his misdemeanors. Entirely. But 20 years ago, in the eyes of my mother, and probably to many in the fairly conservative community in which I was raised he was a pariah, a man without scruples. He cheated on his wife and family with a woman he worked with and had children by her in secret. On paper it looks pretty damning but if you knew the man, the person that he was, you might well think differently.
He had a kindness and gentleness to him when it came to young children, he laughed easily and in these moments his eyes shone with mirth. That’s how I remember him as a boy when he was still married to my mother. And it’s also true that I remember his other side as well: working late and missing dinner with the family, bringing work files and the hated Dictaphone home on weekends, and feeling as though my ambitions and studies were of little interest to him. The double life had begun to take its toll as my teenage years rolled on.
By the time I left for my first year of uni it seemed as though the marriage was on the rocks. Mum had confided in me that she might divorce you if things didn’t change. That upset me a lot. Not enough in itself to make me drop out perhaps, but it contributed to my struggles down at Rhodes Uni in Grahamstown, a long way from home. I ran away that first year or better put, cycled out of town, such was my shame at deserting. It was a crazy stunt but I somehow made it to Port Elizabeth the next afternoon after cycling through the night. I had cramped and as my blood sugar levels plunged I had become dangerously weak. Fortunately I had been able to purchase some sour goat milk from some local African villagers for R20 – a princely sum at the time – and that gave me the sustenance I needed.
From there I flew home on a return fare and after ten days or so mum put me on a bus straight back to Grahamstown. 6 or 8 months later she plucked up the courage – or was it premeditated? – to go and out my father one evening at the house of his mistress back in Harare. She did it with the help of her dad, my grandpa. They just parked nearby and watched my father playing affectionately with the two young boys. That was all the evidence she needed. The rest came out pretty quickly. 3 or 4 months later the divorce papers were on the counter-top. I dropped out of Rhodes early on in my 3rd year and went home.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but the having the affair was my father’s choice many years before and one that probably satisfied some very basic need of his, to have children with this woman and share a part of himself with her and their boys, for reasons of his own. For my mum’s part it was all shame and public humiliation and the way she saw it, completely undeserved.
I spoke of my own feelings of rejection to her and she spoke of hers. She didn’t seem to hear me and that annoyed me. I started seeking out a life away from her heaviness – her Catholicism, her guilt, her sense of keeping up with the Jones’s. It worked for a while. I got a job, a salary and a decent social life. But then she got a relapse of her cancer and it was all thrown back at me – why was I so selfish, so secretive? Why didn’t I ever do anything for her anymore? she wailed. I capitulated and it was back to university, this time the University of Zimbabwe or UZ for short.
Later I would look back and see that she was simply forcing me along the same road she had taken years before after some personal traumas at the University of Natal brought her back to Harare (then Salisbury). She did a 4th year at the University of Rhodesia (now the UZ) majoring in Sociology. Soon after she went into government-sponsored social work and met my father, a fledgling lawyer, and married.
It was with some difficulty that I managed to register at the UZ in September 2000 and get accredited for the 2 years I’d spent at Rhodes. All the same I had to repeat some 2nd year courses before I could start my 3rd year in September 2001. My mum wasn’t so happy about that but there was nothing she could do.
At some point we had driven down to Rhodes – my mum, myself and my youngest brother Ivan – to get my stuff. We tied it in with a trip to see her brother near Pretoria and maybe some other friends in the vicinity. I remember on the drive back thinking how unfair life was and how much I wanted divine retribution. I knew my mum would die of her cancer – she knew it too – but it was my father I really wanted dead. I couldn’t believe in a god who condoned such behavior without some sort of punishment.
Mum passed away in November 2001, not long after 9/11. Despite everything I loved my mother – we’d been close – and I cried genuine tears of grief at her bedside and her funeral. She had asked for a requiem mass at our family parish church: St Gerard’s. There were many people there from around town – perhaps as many as 200 – and it was obvious that she was well known in the community.
It was a bitter-sweet moment. I had loved her but I also felt that with her death things could be easier for my brothers and I. We wouldn’t have to shoulder any of her expectations, the one’s I just mentioned. I didn’t say that when I spoke in front of everyone there but I said it in my heart. My father was seated somewhere at the back of the church. He would have listened to my eulogy but I never noticed him and he slipped away early.
I chose not to speak to my father for another year. It hurt a lot but I wanted to punish him for his deceptions. It felt somehow justified. A friend of mine, Matt, who I cycled with and who was a close confidant, told me he could never do what I was doing. It would just be too painful, especially after losing his own mother to illness. The funny thing is that I knew what I was doing was not doing me any good. Even my mother before she died had implored me to forgive him. Just be happy, it’s a conscious choice. I told her I would be happy, just not right then. It would have to wait a bit
Meanwhile I continued with the degree, all the while feeling a growing loneliness there in Harare. There had been a large exodus of families and friends from the country after the government had started taking land from white farmers and in the process collapsing the formal economy and the currency. Not surprisingly I was the only white student in my department, not that it was a problem in itself, but I felt the weight of privilege. Most of the students were from working class families and would have seen my upbringing as just that, privileged. The academics were fleeing as well.
When I finished the degree at the UZ I picked up the transcript and left the place. I didn’t care to go the graduation especially since my father wasn’t much present. At the end of that year, ’02, he called me aside and with tears in eyes, implored me to talk with him again. We used to be friends he reminded me. We talked again a little while later and we both shed some tears I think as we remembered mum. He spoke of his guilt and pain through the tears (she never forgave me!) for the first time and I recalled the pain of being so far from home before and after they separated in an equally emotional way.
I look back now and think that could have been a watershed moment. If we had both been strong enough to make peace with her memory and not feel so beholden to it. The guilt had been killing him and I felt like I was living some pre-scripted existence. I didn’t know how to get out of it except to keep going in the same direction.
A few months later I was back in the bakkie, the one my mum had gotten from my father in the divorce settlement and which later came down to me, and driving back down south to Pretoria University where I would enroll in an Honours degree in Geology just as mum had wanted. Once I had my honours I was free to do as I wished. Just get your degree she had said, and as an aside, to get a 4-year degree was much better than 3 for future prospects.
For a week or two I stayed on the East Rand before I was able to find lodgings in the city. I was almost driven to despair trying to find a place that fitted my needs – close enough to cycle in to uni, not too noisy (certainly not a house share) and where I had a good deal of privacy. Basically somewhere just like home. What transpired over the next 8 or 9 months was uncanny. My life there unfolded almost as a mirror-image of my former life in Zimbabwe. If you believe in the laws of attraction, in a metaphysical sense, then I was attracting both positive and negative entities. I soon realised that I wasn’t really interested in being ordained a geologist. I just wanted to get through it and try and find a special someone on the way to help me make sense of it all.
My father called through a couple of times but I was still pretty angry and wrote him a letter to tell him as much. I kept his response closed for at least a week before I opened it. I was hoping for an I’m sorry sort of a reply but instead I perceived excuses and explanations. I kept my distance from other men especially the alphas – and there were a fair share of them around – and became very reclusive.
I guess somehow the life-energy that was so vital in him started to ebb and around late August/early September he phoned through to say that he had a been diagnosed with something in his brain – cancer? – and that he was coming down to be examined and get a prognosis. He came and borrowed the bakkie for a couple of weeks and drove it up and down the motorway to a place in Jo’burg where he was staying with Cheryl while being treated. I wasn’t happy with the inconvenience but what could I do. It was pretty obvious that I still owed him something on account of him paying my tuition, even if I didn’t look up to him anymore…
The prognosis wasn’t good – he had something called a Grade IV Astrocytoma. Apparently it could only be treated surgically in a limited way without causing serious damage to the surrounding brain tissue. The most serious symptom he suffered was an inability to speak but steroid medication reduced the brain swelling and it quickly returned. I returned home after quickly writing my finals in a dreadful depression and spent the next few years helping my father from time to time cope with his illness.
The corticosteroids he was medicated with caused him more suffering than the tumour itself but they did give him back his faculty of speech for long stretches of time. But for the last weeks speech deserted him and he could only listen to those around him. I didn’t know what to say except that I was so sorry for holding a grudge against him for so long. His grey eyes glistened for some moments and I knew he had heard me. He died shortly afterwards in early 2006.
Probably my biggest trauma from back then – a sense of abandonment – was mirrored in the sudden departure of the Els family from Sussex Rd during the time I was visiting my brother Dan in Cape Town for his end of year graduation.
They had been looking to sell the place but it came as a shock nonetheless to arrive back and find the house sold with my things still inside and builders already making modifications to the exterior. My housemate appeared shortly after, enraged that all her stuff was covered in plastering dust. It was a shock after everything that had happened in recent months.
It is important for me to write this because it is my truth. There are many images and memories that I can call upon. In one I can picture my landlady’s hubbie walking slowly around the perimeter of the house, lighting a cigarette and contemplating life. What exactly I’ll never know. I felt your aloneness intuitively. I hope you figured it out whatever it was that you needed back then.
Do you remember the evening I found the big old white cat outside my window playing with a baby sparrow? I knocked on your door intending to give it over to your stepson but he was asleep. You took the bird from my grasp quite suddenly and tossed the bird in the air. Lo and behold it flew across to the top of the roof and to safety. It was a metaphorical moment. I’ve thought back on it often.
Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday, maybe we won’t. If we did I’d love to fill you in on my life after Sussex Rd. If not I hope you get to read these words. Maybe you’ll also see something in them that went unsaid…