Forgiveness and Karma: My Quest for Reconciliation

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.

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 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 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 stopped off in Bloemfontein for the night and I was surprised at how big it was. I recall a young woman with the most beautiful blue eyes working in a department store. My mother stopped inside to ask directions. I was transfixed. The next day we stopped over at her brother’s place, my uncle, near Pretoria. I remember on the drive back thinking how unfair life was and how much I wanted my dad punished for what he’d done. 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 meting out justice.

Mum passed away in November 2001, not long after the events of 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…

Shuffling Along One Day at a Time

The week just gone has been a mixed bag. Early in the week I decided, against my better judgement, to prod around my right inner ear with an ear-bud in order to remove some of the copious wax that had build up over the last few months. This happens periodically. On the previous occasion the result was that I compacted the wax against the eardrum and only after the frequent use of ear drops and much probing did the wax eventually budge. This was a painful wait of at least a week and despite being advised against the use of anything “narrower than my elbow” I’ve tried to preempt matters and remove the offending material and gone and landed straight back in the same situation. Basically, it’s all my fault and I shouldn’t be boring you with this stuff! 

An aspect of my health that I haven’t had any control over is a cold and cough that’s bugged me all week. Considering that it pretty much overtook my entire respiratory system on Tuesday it could probably be classified as the flu. That said it has not been too severe, more just a hindrance. My sleep patterns have been all over the place and I look forward to reestablishing control over my feeble corporeal being with the help of a few nurofen and alcoholic beverages (vodka, whisky, hot toddies? All advice gratefully received).

I did make it to UP on Wednesday. I arrived at the department a little after the designated time but was received without much fuss (except that I didn’t have the relevant literature to hand) by James and his study group in the staff room. This would have been a privileged experience indeed as an undergraduate or an honours student. However, this was a small group of postgraduates and as anyone in the world of academia knows postgraduates occupy a niche far closer to the teaching and research staff than do the undergrad underlings.

Afterwards James and I went for a couple of beers at one of the campus cafes. I had scurried past it a couple of times in that ‘other life’ of mine but had never had the audacity to stop and indulge in – what! – an alcoholic beverage on campus! Okay, admittedly I’d been corrupted prior to that (I was 24 years old even at that time); I was just a bit insular. Back then the main campus in Pretoria was less heterogeneous: black students mixed by the student union whilst white students fraternised around this cafe and others like it. Many of them were Afrikaans speakers. That was part of the reason I felt a little intimidated I suppose.

What a change a decade can bring. It just seemed that much more relaxed on campus. Students of all colours and creeds chatted and socialized. To see a young white girl and balck guy evidently at ease in each other’s company walking along, books and files in hand, would have been exceptional back in 2003 but today no-one batted an eyelid. Still there’s no doubt there are still huge challenges working towards complete racial and social integration. James told me about the EFF and AfriForum clashes recently and on-going demonstrations country-wide, agitating against fees, Afrikaans language-instruction, employment contracts etc. One can read all about it on News 24.

So I will be looking seriously at acquiring a project at the department this year. The two questions besides what exactly I will be researching (something to do with Karoo-age dykes and their distribution – there are economic implications) relate to a) where I will live and b) which passport I will study on. There are large concessions for local (SADC) students versus international students. Oh, yeah, and the question of £/$/R. As always.

Anyway life goes on and go on we must, as Yoda might say.

To round out this match report some photos from Zoo Lake up the road, a place of interesting provenance vis-a-vie Cecil, Alfred and Julius (explained below).





A Difficult Year. 2003.

I wrote the following open letter to my former landlady in a state of mental despondency. I initially included her full name in the title but I have decided that was going too far. I wish her and Daniel well. Although not mentioned here I had two housemates, Joy and Bianca, and later Travis, who lodged in the main house. Joy lived to the essence of her name which helped when I was sea and needed someone to talk to. Bianca, we fell out over the bacon – how silly! – but I think we reconciled by the end of the year? I wish you all well wherever life has led you.

Dear Marietjie,

People tell me all the time move on, forget the past, what’s done is done. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. I think it depends on the situation. After all there are plenty of retrospective sayings: it’s never too late to say sorry; never too late to forgive and certainly never too late to say goodbye. I don’t know where you are or what trials and tribulations life has dealt you in the decade since I last saw you but I have often thought about the first house other than my parents’ that I would call home. I have to admit that it was a far smaller than that house in Harare, a sprawling multi-roomed, 3 acre property on a hill flanked by trees and a river, but nonetheless it was still a home.

I think it was the giant ferns outside the bedroom windows that made a favourable impression that morning I visited you in my turquoise Nissan twin-cab. You would ask me about that truck a few years later when I called you out of the blue: Do you still have it? you asked. I saw one the other day driving though Pretoria and I thought about you. Why don’t we catch up over a coffee? I was then in Durban living with family but I would have liked that.

During that last call I asked after Kobus and you said that he had divorced you. I’m sure you put it that way – he divorced me. Divorce; a separation, legally enforced, usually final and irreversible. Obviously I wasn’t the one you had said with a little laugh as if to mask the feeling of rejection I imagined you must feel. I lost your number somehow. We never did get to have that coffee and I never did get to say the stuff I really wanted to.

As I write I’m listening to a symphony by Mozart; classical music is the only sort I can actually listen and work to at the same time but whilst I’m listening to this I’m also thinking of music emanating from the house in Harare: obligatory clarinet practice in the evening for me; piano for Dan and mum; the flute for Ivan. I hated scales and theory and tricky sight reading, but the orchestral stuff was good. An orchestral arrangement has harmonies and melodies, brass, strings and percussion.

I may have been practising alone in my room but in my head I was not. I could usually tell who was playing the piano – Dan hit the notes with a certain urgency and tempo, my mum deliberate and given to doggedly repeating any bits of the musical score that were giving her trouble until stopping abruptly and often with a stern self-admonishment. I wished I could hear her play just one more time. Anything, anything at all.

And now I think of you Marietjie walking across from the main house to your music room and your piano, quietly unlocking it and letting yourself in. You were accomplished I could tell, the notes floating out on the evening air. What is it you were playing? How did you feel when you played? Like I did with my mum I listened from the comfort of my bedroom. More than likely the TV was chattering way at the same time. Still, I remember the piano; not every night, not even every week, but just every so often. Is it the memory of you or the memory of my mother I hear? She died a year before I came to live next to you and Kobus and Daniel.

Daniel! What a lovely smile he had and how his eyes still sparkled when he laughed. Not yet an adolescent his laugh was pitched high. He liked to sing too as he wandered around the yard, a little aimlessly it seemed. I remember Joy remarking that she thought he was a bit of a lonely little boy. I remember too that he would wander into our communal kitchen and sitting area; cold steel and glass dining table and chairs on a dark green tiled floor, not an area I remember with any particular affection.

During the day the sun at least warmed it a little and Daniel might come in looking for a cat or someone to talk to. He knocked on my door once and asked me to come with him outside around the side of the house to where a pedestrian gate was situated next to a clump of fuschia. He was building a little fort in the plants and he wanted me to join him, just for some company. I stood there in a state of unknowingness. I remember making an excuse to go back to my room. I’m sorry now. I should have played with you a bit longer. Is that little Daniel I’m thinking of or my brother of the same name? I wish we had had more time together too. Why did we grow up so fast?

Kobus was a lawyer I think, like my father. I thought he was Daniel’s biological father but he was quick to point out that he was only a stepfather by virtue of you having remarried. He never wants to do anything with us Daniel surprised me by saying one day. All he does is watch TV, especially golf. Always golf. I avoided the man if I could. He spoke little, laughed and smiled less. The most I ever saw of him was when he parked his car in front of our tenancy on the narrow brick driveway between your music room and the opposite wall which separated us from the horticultural plot next door.

We only ever had cause to speak once after we negotiated where our respective trucks would be parked and that I was to leave him just so much room to squeeze his white, single cab bakkie into position next to mine. I didn’t leave him enough space the one day and I thought he might shout at me. Or am I just imagining it? Only a matter of months earlier in Harare I had turned my back on my father and invited a stern reproach.

We hadn’t been on talking terms for a while and I still harboured a lot of anger for his long-standing affair and the years of lies. He had taken me outside to the front of the house away from Ivan and dressed me down thoroughly. I had felt like I was 10 again and being told off for a misdemeanour. I was wary of him and wary of Kobus.

He sometimes came out to smoke around the front of the house in the evening. I wonder what he thought about on such evenings? Should I have gone out and spoken to him? Good evening mineer, are you enjoying the air mineer? Or was it my father I really wanted to talk to? He was in my thoughts every day.

Quite often I think about my little room which I furnished as best I could with a desk and bookshelf to supplement the bed, wardrobe, glass and side table already there. All the same when I look back it feels empty. My room was always my sanctuary both then and before. You may not have known it but your tabby cat used to come and sleep at the foot of my bed most evenings –  Kitsy I think her name was.

She would arrive quietly and unexpectedly after I switched off the bedside light and leave just as independently before first light and if I stepped outside and sat down on the small wall fronting our tenancy in quiet contemplation she would startle me by bounding across the driveway from behind the trucks, chasing some real or imaginary nocturnal creature I never could tell. Perhaps she needed me as much as I needed her. After all she was the different one – the outcast? – amongst your strange collection of feline pedigrees who you kept interned in the laundry room. You garnished them with coloured bows and no doubt lavished them with love and attention, but Kitsy seemed hardly to belong there at all.

But what saddens me is this Marietjie: I never got to say goodbye. I knew you were selling the house. I was even there once when a prospective buyer stuck their nose through the door to have a look at my room. But I didn’t expect to come back from my week long trip to Cape Town to be at my brother’s graduation to find the house vacated and builders beginning to demolish our annex.

Joy arrived back at the same time and I remember how horrified she was to find her possessions covered in dust, the builders already smashing down the partition wall between her room and your soon-to-be flattened music room. We didn’t deserve that. I didn’t think to phone you but I should have. I was a paying tenant and the month was not yet up. It hurt deeply. But I don’t want to incriminate. Perhaps the buyer pressured you to move immediately? All I want you to do is read this letter. I think I understood you more than you imagine.

I liked it that you watched the Hallmark Channel and that I got the channel feed to my room. I never told you that. There were some good films on there. I missed saying goodbye to Daniel too, being able to wish him well, to hope that he would outgrow the boy and become a man in the fullness of time. How is he? Will you tell him I think of him too?

Kind regards,