A slice of life

On Friday I’m Supposed to Die

What is death but an escape from life? A last breath to depart a world we never chose to walk, a final look at a life wrecked with pain and strife.

That’s been my mantra as I’ve pondered my time to die. And it’s this Friday. For the last 35 years I’ve scheduled my death. 3 June. The day I die.

It’s the same day my mother died. I was 8 years old. I can’t remember anything that happened on 3 June 1981 prior to the news of her death. I don’t remember anything in the days before. I remember walking down the driveway of our small home, which I think was painted a shade of yellow. A happy shade. I remember the rose garden in the front of the veranda where I spent hours playing by myself, imagining I could fly. Running with my arms open wide between the tall, manicured bushes with their distinct aroma and taloned branches that always surprised me when I made contact.

I remember not knowing why our house was filled with people and wondering why they wouldn’t let me in to say hello to my mother. I usually saw her first from school everyday. I arrived home before my brother and I would sit on her bed and recount my day, tales of games I played with friends, books I was reading, or other nonsense that consumes an 8-year-old mind. This time I was shut out.

I remember walking to the next-door neighbour to phone my father to tell him to come home. I never asked why we couldn’t use our own phone. I remember coming back and waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Asking what was wrong but not really fearing the worst. I don’t recall terror or fear. Or even worry. It felt like a game, I had tasks and I had to complete them, my naïve, childish mind hiding what as an adult would have sent fear and impending sorrow.

I remember directing the ambulance down the driveway, like an aeroplane guided by a uniformed employee. And I remember leaving to go and buy lunch, unaware that I was being sheltered from watching my mother’s lifeless body being wheeled from her bedroom where at 10:30 that morning she had taken her own life.

Empty pill bottles, tissues and letters were left alongside her. Still there when I returned and was finally let into my home. My home, that felt like a tomb thereafter. The house where my mother died. The letters said sorry I think, but they didn’t matter, nor her two rings wrapped in the tissues, one for my brother and one for me. All that mattered was what wasn’t there anymore. She had finally walked away, something she had been threatening to do and no one took seriously. Least of all my 8-year-old naïve and childish mind.

I remember crying, and rage. Ripping up pics of her I had in my room were my first instinct. Then terror. I think I locked myself in my room until my brother came home. I remember seeing him run down the driveway, his 13-year-old mind knowing what she had done, and the fear that had consumed him for months before finally finding anchor. I remember his face, etched with pain, perhaps mirroring my own, as we both began navigating a world where internally we believed we weren’t worth living for.

I remember feeling my world had ended. Not knowing that in the moment of hearing about her death and the way she had died, a new script was being written that would shape my world and the way I fit into it. A world that was now scary, unsafe, and promised devastation where once there had been safety. A world that felt like you could be flung aside in a moment. A world that didn’t really matter what you wanted or who you loved. A world that suddenly felt out of control.

And the only way I could regain control was to decide to die. At 8 years old I decided to die. On 3 June. On the day she died.

I have no idea why I decided that. Perhaps I wanted to join her. A world without your mom seems a terrifying place for a child. A world where your mom can decide to leave you seems unbearable. A world where your mom can never come back seems unliveable.

I don’t blame myself for wanting to die.

But at 43, 10 years older than my mother was when she wrote her last goodbyes to the boys she said she adored, I still somehow believe I should die on the day she did. My death and the choice to end my life seems etched on my soul, and each year that I get past the day seems to be filled with regret, and relief.

I wonder now if she knew what she would do to us. Her death will always leave me with more questions than answers. But at 8 years old she changed me. And at 8 years old, somehow, she passed on her pain as she left what she could no longer bear. And perhaps, each year I want to pass on the pain of her death, because living with it feels too heavy. Too consuming. Too humiliating. Too weak. Too out of control. And the thought of my planned death feels controlled, strong and a doorway to release.

I wonder if she knew she would affect every relationship in my life from then on. That her suicide, a difficult word for me to say or hear, would forever keep me at arm’s length from those I wanted to hold onto and love for fear they might depart and leave me. Not just leave me. Her death left me feeling like I had been disembowelled and left to walk the rest of my days trying to hold my body, which keeps refusing to die, together. Leaking. Hurting. And longing for healing. That every person I’ve ever wanted to adore has the 8-year-old child in me screaming in terror. Fear that they too could rip me apart.

I wonder if she knew that her death would mean mine.

And I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. Because at 8 years old I was a victim of someone else’s pain. And I’ve lived as a victim since then. Disempowered. Terrified. Wounded. Weak. And 35 years later, on the day of her death, that 8-year-old still seems to be the hero in the script of my life, wanting me to write the final page with the ultimate act of courage his naïve, childish mind understands. That child who wants freedom from a world that seems barbaric and torturous, wants out. And each year I have to silence him.

I wonder if she knew that this would be her legacy. Her death.

So I write this as an act of catharsis and also to speak to the 8-year-old who consumes so many of my adult thoughts. To attempt to address his rage, his terror and his will to die. To try to reason with his wails, and calm his childish, naïve mind.

Your death, little guy, is not the answer. All you will do is pass on the pain to people who don’t deserve it. People who have tried to love you despite your continued resistance and dismissal. People who kept on loving you despite your wails. Despite you desperation to escape. People who want you to come out of the room into the light and face the world and its darkness head on. These people don’t deserve the pain. Or to be punished as you felt you were. These people want to love you, despite your belief that you’re not worth loving.

Little guy, on 3 June you’re not going to die.

Your mom did and what she did is unforgiveable. Not in a religious sense. But to you. So on 3 June, you need to let older, hopefully wiser me in. And let me hold you. And tell you it’s going to be okay. That your script must change. That you need to let me live. And love. And be loved.

I know you’ll always remind me of my potential pain, little guy. That you’re terrified of what people who say they love you want to really do to you, but I need to stop listening to you, and you need to get quieter. Because what you want to do no one else deserves. You cannot pass on this pain. That would be the real weakness. Protecting them is where you’ll find your strength. Try believing that, little guy.

You need to remember to live. You died when she did. You need to wipe away those tears and start saying: “She died… oh well.” You need to stop making your anger and your fear the script of our lives going forward. And I know you’re just a little guy, but you need to somehow hear this. Because on Friday I want to live. Really live. I want to raise my gaze to the world from Friday on. I want to embrace people and let them in. I want love and be loved in return. I want to feel again. To live. To find the reasons to stay alive, and not wallow in the reasons not to. I need you to let me go. She let us go, and you need to stop holding onto that.

You’re okay, little guy. Look, you’re still here. 35 years on. When you promised you wouldn’t be. And if only you would look you would see so many reasons to stay alive. You’ve had so many moments of complete and utter bliss. Experiences that could have fed your soul if only you hadn’t refused to stop looking at your pain. You need to lift your eyes, little guy. Lift your eyes from that empty lifeless bed and see the life-filled forty-three-year-old man in front of you, who wants to be free. You need to let him celebrate life.

She’s gone little guy… oh well. Now live.


This post was written after reading Matt Haig’s book called Reasons To Stay Alive. This is the first book I’ve hugged after reading. I highly recommend this book, especially if you suffer with suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety. Hopefully this post will inspire others to choose to live, just as his book reminded me of why I should. 

 

 

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2015 to-do list

To do list for the rest of 2015:

* March: watch husband turn 40.

* April: trade husband in for a younger model.

* April: get nose reconstructed (but make it sound a lot more glamorous on Facebook).

* May: recover from new nose surgery while younger model wipes your brow.

* June: realize that younger model does not really exist and forty-year-old husband is still rolling his eyes at your foolishness.

* July: start counting down to seeing Madonna live on Facebook so that everyone can unfriend you.

* August: beg friends’ forgiveness and ask them to re-add you and leave countdown to Google Plus where no one is active.

* September: turn a year older and beg husband not to trade you in for a younger model. Laugh hysterically at your foolish fantasies earlier in the year.

* October: start tweeting @madonna furiously in the hope that she asks to see you backstage in Prague. You know, for a yack over Evian.

*November: see Madonna live but pay no attention to her as you attempt to prove to all the other gay men in the audience that you are a far more loyal fan.

* December: wonder where the year has gone and start plans to get buff in 2016.

So much to do!

Lost and Found – a story about adoption in South Africa

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I have a sister and a brother. But I had only known my brother. For as long as I could remember I knew my older sister was out there and that my mother had been forced to give her up. At a young age I knew having a baby before you got married was bad. Punishable. A sin. And meant a life of regret. That’s how it seemed at least.
 

Mom would drive through the streets looking for her. Looking at the face of each young girl as they emerged from school, with their smart school blazers, long skirts and socks up to their knees. Each little girl represented hope. Hope that she would find the young girl seven years older than the youngest boy in the back seat of the tiny blue Fiat with dog hair filling the rips in the pleather seats.

She would drive in silence. Scanning the streets of each suburb. Looking. Slowing down every time she neared a girl around 12 with dark hair. I wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Or what would happen if she found her. How she would even know. I never knew because I didn’t really know why she was looking. Perhaps looking made her feel less aggrieved, less guilty for abandoning the daughter she clearly still loved and longed for. Maybe looking made her feel better, and gave her hope in a situation she had always seen as hopeless. So I never complained when my mom piled my brother Wayne and I into the Fiat to go on one of our searches.

I never really knew what drove my mom to that ultimate point. I still don’t understand what made her take her own life. Why ingesting lethal doses of sleeping tablets and tranquilisers seemed like a more viable option than living. Living to see me grow older. Why I wasn’t enough. Yet, I knew that giving up Deborah – the name given to my unknown sister at birth – was traumatic for her. It was one of the many demons that haunted my mom, forcing her to disappear.

At the age of eight, in 1981, saying goodbye to my mom at a pauper’s funeral where it was acknowledged how sad it was that her suicide meant she would never see heaven, I secretly promised her that I would find the child she so longed to meet. I would tell Deborah how loved she was. How she was longed for. How I wished she had been a part of our lives. That she wasn’t just one of my mother’s many sins.

 

Andrea had always known she was adopted. She can’t remember how she was told, she just always knew. “Initially I didn’t understand what it really meant, but I knew the word ‘adopted’ made me different to other children, and I didn’t like that,” she says quietly.

Andrea was adopted by a couple living in Boksburg in 1965. They adopted a sister Karen two years later. Surprisingly, the topic of adoption was a taboo subject in their home. Perhaps speaking about it would raise too many questions for the adoptive parents to answer. And perchance their children would begin a search to find the mother or father who hadn’t chosen to love their children.

While she was forced to remain silent, Andrea had a million questions about being adopted. The burning question – where did I come from? “As an adopted child I was very conscious that I didn’t look like anyone else in the family. People used to comment on it, and I used to hate it. I kept feeling that if I could go back where I really came from, I would be happy. I kept wanting to be fetched,” she says. Looking down at her hands while trying to get the words out, or right, she adds, “Although my adoptive family were the only family I had ever known, I always felt like I wasn’t really a part of it; that I was watching my life from outside of myself and that one day I would be ‘rescued’ and taken ‘home’.”

Images of orphan Annie sitting on the ledge of her window singing a prayer for her parents to fetch her may offer a romanticised version of a child longing for her birth family, Andrea’s experience of being adopted represents an internal battle of a child in turmoil. A dichotomous inferno of feeling grateful for parents who chose her to love, raging against a burning desire to know where she came from, who she looked like and the deep seated desire to understand why she was rejected. “In theory, adoption is ideal. On one hand you have a family who want a child, and on the other hand you have a child that needs a family, so logically it should be a match made in heaven. But it’s not. The reality is that you can’t transplant a baby from one mother to another and think that life goes on as normal for everyone, because it doesn’t. On some cellular level that baby knows that something is different. And every adopted child I have ever spoken to has battled with feelings of alienation, displacement, a fear of being different and issues of abandonment. I am nearly 50, and I still fight those same battles every day.”

Anys Rossouw, a Pretoria-based psychologist says in an article about adoption that the feelings of disconnectedness and abandonment are not unusual for an adopted child, “This is why so many adopted children think about finding their birth parents. And not necessarily because of a bad relationship with their adopted parents. They just want to know: where do I come from.” She also explains why adopted parents sometimes feel betrayed by hearing their child wants to know about their birth parents. “These parents have often waited a long time for a child, have been excited, prayed, planned and been through a large number of processes. For so many parents, the child is a miracle and a dream come true. When the child decides to find his or her birth parents, it’s often difficult for the adopted parents and they experience a range of emotions, insecurities and fears,” Anys adds.

Andrea did try to find her birth parents in the late 1980s but the adoption files had just been opened (the Child Care Act 74 of 1983, which regulates adoptions in South Africa, made information more available for children to be reconnected with their birth parents). Andrea’s experience was a frustrating one though. “The process was so long and complicated, and the adoptions agency in Pretoria were not keen to give info to an adopted child. Initially it was to be for birth mothers only. I also knew very little. I knew the hospital I was born in and my birth date, but that was it. I was too scared to ask my adoptive mother as she saw my curiosity as a sign that she wasn’t good enough as a mother. It was very difficult. ”

“The adoptive parents are often very afraid,” explains Anys. “They are afraid of rejection and that the child will choose to bond with their biological family and not love them any more. They can also feel that the adopted child is not demonstrating loyalty or appreciating what they did for them for so many years. They are angry that they have done all the hard work raising the child and now someone else might simply step in and ‘steal’ them.”

Andrea was acutely aware of her mother’s feelings about her curiosity regarding her birth family. Her mother actively discouraged her search for her birth parents and shortly after starting the process, Andrea gave up. She never tried to look for her birth family again.

 

I would lie in bed and wonder what she was doing. If she looked like me. If she was even still alive. I would imagine what she’d look like. Dark brown hair like my mom’s, with blue piercing eyes? Maybe she would even have the same small beauty spot on the left side of her face that my mom had. Maybe that would help me find her. Or maybe she looked like her dad. We never knew who he was. My mom never spoke of him. To me at least. All I knew was that he hurt her, abandoned her and left her to face the wrath of a staunchly Catholic family who saw her pregnancy as an embarrassment to all.

I wished I could find Deborah. I had no idea when or where she was born. I knew it was in the mid-1960s and that was all. And I had my mom’s name. How would I even start?

A friend, the only person I knew who had been adopted, had tried to find her birth mother and discovered she had died fourteen years earlier. She was devastated. She told me she always used to think that on her birthday her birth mother had to be thinking of her. And now she knew for the last fourteen years, since 1986, she had been deluding herself. I thought of the sister I had lost and what might happen if she discovered our mom was dead. Had been for the last 19 years. I didn’t want her to think she hadn’t been thought of.

I called the Registrar of Adoptions in Pretoria and spoke to Mrs Wenstra. I explained about my sister, my mom, and how she longed to meet her. Mrs Wenstra told me that she could only give the information to a birth parent. After a while she gave in, perhaps sensing the honesty of my plea, and said I could write her a letter with the details I knew and fax them to her. She would then see if she could pull anything up in the records and would give me call. I wrote the letter, dated 12 September 2000, and faxed it to Pretoria.

The following day, I was surprised to hear Mrs Wenstra’s voice on the line when the call was put through to me. She had information, and had in fact found my sister. She allowed me to ask a few questions, but would only reveal what she could. My mind raced. After years of so many questions I suddenly had none. I asked when she was born. 14 September 1965. The next day. The same day as my brother. I would later find out that my mom would always give him a special extra gift on his birthday at 3pm. He never knew why.

I asked what her name was now.

Andrea.

 

She recalls the day she was found like it was yesterday. “I remember my mother phoning me at work the day after my birthday, telling me I needed to sit down as she had had a phone call from the Registrar of Adoptions. I had two brothers that were looking for me. She said that my birth mother was dead, but the youngest of my brothers was trying to find me,” Andrea says with a slight smile on her face.

She was surprised her adopted mother had shared the information, finding out only later how much she had grappled with whether she should or not. “She gave me the lady’s phone number and said I could contact her if I wanted to. She said it was her duty to give me the information, and it was up to me what I did about it. She said that she wasn’t comfortable with it and if I did get in touch with my brothers then she wanted no part of it.”

Trembling, Andrea headed to a coffee shop near where she worked to take in the news. Was her fairy tale of being found really coming true? After pulling herself together she called Mrs Wenstra at the Registrar. “She asked me lots of questions about my background and told me a bit about my birth family. She said she had a letter from my youngest brother and that he sounded like a really genuine young man, so she decided to take a chance on this case and put us in touch. She faxed me a copy of the letter and I remember that I read and reread it over and over and over again. It felt unreal. I was so happy that my family ‘wanted’ me.”

 

She responded to my letter. Photos dropped out as I unfolded the pages. Computer printouts, pixelated, but clear enough to see the immediate resemblance between her and I. And our mom. Long dark brown hair framed her round face. Her eyes were darker than I expected. But she was definitely my mother’s child. And my sister. I trembled as I held the photograph, not sure how to take in the face before me. I felt an immediate love for a stranger I knew nothing about. Blood. Mine.

 Nephews. There were photos of my nephews. Two young, beautiful blonde boys, snapped while sitting in the kitchen sink, smiling mischievously. Their names and ages were written on the back: Christopher (4) and Matthew (2). Good Catholic names that would have made their grandmother proud. If only she could have met them. 

 The letter was dated 26 September 2000, a mere 13 days after I began the search. I held my breath as I read the first words Andrea had penned, breathing life into this person I had dreamed about finding for so long.

“Well, if somebody had told me a month ago that I would be writing a letter to one of my brothers I never would have believed them… but here we are. I feel I have lived a lifetime in the last two weeks with emotions ranging from shock to disbelief to excitement. Somewhere in each adopted child is the wish to find or to be found and yet it so seldom happens. As far as difficult letters go, ours to each other must rate top scores.”

 I cried as I read the first lines. I was experiencing the same shock, disbelief and excitement. When she wrote about my mom, our mom, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. I was overwhelmed by the thought of finding my sister. In the same breath, I was acutely feeling the loss of my mother and feeling the need to mourn all over again.

 “I have wondered on and off through the years about my birth mother and whether or not I had any siblings. I would like to know as much about her as possible. I was very sad to hear she had died. There is so much I would have been able to tell her, and maybe it would have been able to put her mind at ease to some degree and let her know that I am happy, and she needn’t have worried.”

 I’m not sure I had ever longed to have Mom alive so she could hear those words. They would have healed her. And perhaps made her more alive.

 

She mentions the first letter she received from her brother with grin on her face, “It still makes me cry when I read it, which why I don’t. The letter is locked away with other documents for safekeeping.” With her youngest brother living in Cape Town, communication first took place via email and then over the phone.

“What really comes to mind is my first conversation with my youngest brother. He emailed me pictures of Mom and I was actually able to see her for the very first time. He sat in Cape Town and I was in Jo’burg crying into the phone as I opened the pictures one by one while he spoke me through them. There is one where she looks so much like me I thought for a mad minute that it was me.”

 

I was desperate to meet her. Being able to chat over the phone wasn’t enough. I had a picture but still no real person to put to the soft voice and the surprisingly loud laugh that sometimes emerged. Our conversations were long. Emotional. I always fought back tears. Wanted her to know how excited I am without placing any pressure on her or assuming some kind of relationship that could be deemed inappropriate for strangers.

 Living in the other side of the country was frustrating. For the first time in many years I was desperate to head home, back to Johannesburg to meet her.

 

Andrea and her youngest brother got to meet in the flesh three months later. They were both on holiday on the KwaZulu-Natal coast and decided to meet halfway between their holiday homes.

“We met at the Steers in Ballito, can you believe?” says Andrea. This was the only landmark they both knew. “It was so weird because we’d been talking and emailing up a storm, and suddenly it was going to be face-to-face. It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t get on – and I was just so excited to finally meet him. I remember hearing him before I saw him – this excited scream as he came rushing through the door. And lots of hugs. It was just so amazing.”

 

I stood outside the entrance to the Steers for what felt like an eternity. I was so excited, but surprisingly petrified. What if she didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like her? What if she was nothing like Mom? She was already there. I could see her through the entrance. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her. My sister.

 I took a deep breath and ran in. I remember seeing her face for the first time and recognising that same mix of delight and fear, like a blind date no one else has really ever experienced. Where you know that you love this person, but don’t really understand why.

 She stood up and threw her arms around me, and we hugged. A lot. And then we sat down, with flabbergasted customers and waitresses looking at us strangely. We sat down and for what felt like a lifetime, we just looked at each other. There was much to say, yet in that moment silence was appropriate. She was there. Years of searching, driving, praying and pondering was sitting in front of me.

 “We were both trying to talk at the same time. I was vaguely aware of people just watching us, and the staff standing with their mouths hanging open. I found out so much, but not enough. I could have sat there forever and by the end of the day I felt I’d known him my entire life. It was very difficult to say goodbye,” says Andrea. “I still maintain that Mom was there and knew that her dream had come true.”

Now when we’re out together, people immediately know we’re siblings, and I can see her face light up as they place us. She’s not like Mom, or at least what I can remember. She’s loud, and funny with a sharp sense of humour. She loves to travel. And eat. And drink. She’s clearly my sister.

 I wish my mom could see us together, talking about her, and laughing at the idiosyncrasies we have in common. She would have liked Andrea. I know she loved her. She gave up both of us and I suppose Andrea and I will always have that in common. Yet, we both celebrate her. And know we’re her legacy. What she left behind.

 “I wish I could have met her so I could say to her ‘I KNEW you were coming’. Just like the fairy tale. I sometimes talk to her in my head and I hope she knows that I don’t blame her for anything. I understand how things were in 1965 and why she did what she did and the pressure she was under to give me up. And it’s okay. I’m okay with all of that,” says Andrea, looking likes she’s struggling to hold back tears. “The fact that while I was wanting her to find me, she was looking for me, is something I hold onto.”

 

 

Writing about writing…

Writing about writingYesterday’s post surprised me. I never expected the response I received. While not much of it occurred on this platform, my Facebook and Twitter feed was buzzing. It seems that writing about my return to Benoni struck a few chords – some positive and some negative. I enjoyed each interaction…

The piece was written for my Masters course. I’m doing my Masters in Journalism and one of my electives is creative writing. The course has been illuminating, and I’ve really enjoyed the time I got to play. With words. With stories. And find my voice. I’ve found a style emerging, and rediscovered why I love writing. I feel inspired to write.

But then, I read things like Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls and feel totally inadequate. There are writers and then there are storytellers. I think I’ll always be a writer, but not sure that a story lies within me. I’m not sure my imagination runs that deep. Or that I have that much confidence.

So I’ll probably pen a few more nostalgia pieces and publish them here. Maybe inside the memories the story will emerge.

Going back to the small town city…

The big bulky man in the oversized red cap strolled down the aisles of Woolies. His cap, probably hiding his bald, shaved head, was emblazoned with the word Monster. Apt. It settled loosely on his lily white ears, almost like he was wearing some sort of designer potty (and I use the word designer loosely). His wife, or as she is probably known in these parts, his cherry walked ahead of him, piling fresh chicken after chicken into the trolley. After about seven bird carcasses, she looked to see if this was sufficient. He nodded his orange fake-tanned face in approval. Monster was happy with his protein selection for the week. As his synthol-filled biceps pushed the bird coffin along the aisle, another bulky man walked along, this time with no cherry by his side. His snug red T-shirt wrapped around his over-sized biceps and pecs. The fact that it was winter did not stop this man from showing off his very worked on physique. The cold was just another challenge his body must overcome.

Recognition occurred. Monster knew No Fear.

“Howzit my bru!” chirped orange face.

“Lekker boet. Howzit hanging your side?” said No Fear as he slapped his hand into Monster’s, before doing this boyish man-hug thing where pectoral could touch pectoral, but face couldn’t meet face. It was like it was rehearsed. Perhaps intrinsic. Cherry was not even acknowledged.

“Lekker, lekker. To the left and in a knot,” replied Monster.

They both guffawed and slapped each other’s hands again.

They stood there awkwardly.

“Cool, my bru. Lekker seeing you,” said No Fear, finally finding something to fill the gap.

“Lekker, Lekker.” Monster was a lot more prolific with his lekkers.

They parted ways heading for the next animal carcass they could find to add to their protein intake for the week.

I was in Benoni. My old hometown. The place of my birth. And the place I fled from as soon as I learnt to drive.

Deciding to go back to Benoni, this time with my journalist’s cap on (which hopefully is far better fitting than Monster’s), filled me with all sorts of emotions, even before we climbed into the Mini Cooper to venture onto the N12. I remembered that N12 well. Many days and nights were spent flying along at 120 kilometres per hour or more to hot spots far more exciting than those I could find on the East Rand. I never really felt like I fit in with my fellow Benonians. I wasn’t the beer drinking, soccer-playing type (soccer had an avid following in Benoni and was the only sport offered in the English schools in winter) so no one really understood this drama-loving, novel-reading boy from Benoni. Hence my need to escape. I would head onto the N12, in my clapped out yellow Opel Kadett, feeling freer and freer as I passed the Rietfontein, Jet Park and Gilloolies interchanges. While my Benoni counterparts were klapping back the beers watching Benoni Northerns moer Old Bens at the soccer fields, I was at Rosebank sitting in a darkened cinema by myself, watching a movie with subtitles. As soon as I could, I packed up my yellow skadonk and hit the highway to move from this city with a small town mentality permanently.

Now I was returning. Surely there must be more to this city than gym bunnies and the beer drinking soccer boys I ran from in my youth. Surely there must be a charm, an allure and an energy I somehow missed when I was growing up. After all, most of the people I went to school with were still living in Benoni. I know this thanks to Facebook – I was greeted with much excitement by the girls I reached puberty with in a little school named Tom Newby Primary School. The name rings a bell you say? Why yes, it was the primary school featured in the You magazine all thanks to a Benoni swimmer who became a princess. Charlene Wittstock of Monaco fame. Or Prince Grace Junior to some. She too walked the corridors of the school I called mine, but made it far more famous than I. After my stop at Woolies for some protein inspiration, I decided to head back to the Mini Cooper to see my old school.

I suppose I need to avoid the cliché and not say it appeared smaller than I remember, but it really did! I remember expansive fields where we spent our break time playing marbles (one of the few sports I allowed myself) or I hid while the boys played ghastly things like cricket or, I shudder as I type, soccer. The fields were enormous and running across them left us red-faced, and huffing and puffing as we ambled the long path back to class. Looking now I see it was about twenty metres, but my legs were a lot shorter back then.

The grey corridor floors and red facebrick walls perpendicular to them are still the same. Surprisingly the poles lining the corridors, propping up the extended roof, brought back many memories. Somehow the idea of keeping one hand attached to the pole while I ran round and round in circles for what felt like hours was a highlight of my primary school time. As was playing ‘scoot’ with the girls. This highly strategic game that we proudly developed ourselves required us to each own a pole. When someone ran up to us and yelled scoot we had to run to another pool and yell scoot to kick the other person off their pole. They then had to do the same. Then the same. Then the same

Genius.

The poles are now painted royal blue. I can’t remember what colour they were but I suspect they required this royal touch up to hide the scuff marks from years of unending scoot matches.

I stopped at Mrs Schwenk’s class. She was my Standard Two teacher and was the strictest educator in the school. I recall her walking along the corridor outside her class, where I now stood, slapping all of our bare thighs with her red nail painted hand as we stood in a row, because someone had been speaking in line. Yet I loved her. I can’t recall why, but somehow I know that she shaped me. I remember her telling me I was good at things, and because she took no shit, I believed her.

Other teachers came to mind. The media centre teacher who was single but had a daughter – the talk of the town! The deputy principal, who walked to the beat of her own drum, and made me fall in love with art and theatre. The elderly maths teacher who smelt of cigarette smoke. The Greek principal with the Magnum moustache, and the rugged good looks. Somehow here I did fit in. In this little old primary school that now had a princess to its name.

As I walked along the grey corridors I reached the school hall. Tiny. Yet I remember it as this massive auditorium with its pine sprung floors that we crammed into each week for assembly. The stage where I made my theatrical debut. Good times. And above that, the school badge, blue and green and rather amateur, and its Latin lotto hung on the wall below the ceiling. Conabor. I will try. I decided to head off before I started to see if I could remember the school anthem.

Benoni isn’t just famous for its Monaco princess. You may have heard of its number one attraction? You have. The mine dump is famous then! The Table Mountain of Gauteng, Benoni’s mine dump is the stuff of legends. The city was born out of its gold-filled land, with many heading to the town to find their wealth and live the dream. The grey mine dump bears testimony to a time of hope and wealth, when Benoni was the jewel of the Transvaal East Rand. Heading to the dump now I was surprised to see that the most iconic cliff face was different to what I remember. Like a virus has attacked it, the mine dump is shrivelling away, half the length it used to be, but still a massive presence. The dump is being reclaimed. Small particles of gold and other precious metals still lie in this dumped soil and bit-by-bit the dump is being sifted through to reclaim these bits of treasure.

Yet for us young Benonians the mine dump never held the prospect of gold. We stayed away from the mine dump. Our parents told us that the sand could shift and swallow us up whole if we set foot on its precarious surface. Tales of dead young people lost below the soil were told with glee as soon as any mention of exploring the mine dump was made. The only people who ever set foot on the mine dump (and survived) were the town Satanists.

The Benoni Satanists were well known amongst us. Not that any of us knew a Satanist, but we all knew the Satanists were after our pets or our chewing gum (I now realise this was a clever way the teachers got us to stop sticking our gum under our desks). They would sacrifice our pets to the Lord of Darkness in an attempt to show their evil ownership of the city. I don’t think we ever knew why our chewing gum was to be used, but I vaguely recall it having something to do with being able to track our DNA. Churches even preached about the need to “take back Benoni for Jesus.” For too long it had been under the curse of the Satanists.

I heard terrifying stories about the drugs they put in the Coke in the Northmead Mall Wimpy or the razor blades carefully inserted and hidden to slice you if you used the slides in Trim Park. Whether these were stories created by terrified parents who were desperate to keep us indoors or if there was any truth in it is beyond me. All I know is that they remain stories until I see proof.

In a later conversation with a fellow ex-Benonian, she said that the disappearing mine dump is symbolic of the city. As the mine dump’s size has declined over the years, so has the city declined. The clean, well-run town I once lived in seems more desolate, dirtier and tired than I remembered. Driving through the CBD I see buildings in desperate need of repair and paint. TLC as the décor experts would put it. This is a city centre that has been forgotten as businesses have moved to the suburbs or malls, and spaza shops, Adult Worlds and fast food joints dominate the stores that are occupied.

The city library was where I spent many happy childhood moments. Here I discovered books that I devoured. Shock as I discovered the Jewish holocaust in I Am David, escape in the hours spent rereading The Happy Prince and The Snow Goose, and let’s just say, it was a life changing moment when I discovered What Every Boy Should Know. Now the old city library is as I remember it, just dirtier, grey and tired, like an old person head down, shoulders deflated in defeat. The civic centre is a typical government department – busy, manky, smelly and over-crowded. The city hall (or town hall as I knew it), once the pride and joy of the city centre, and home to some of the most prestigious events on the East Rand is no longer the white pristine building in my memory. The peeled paint shows the building’s age and the clock in its steeple is stuck. Not moving from 10.20. Just like the clock, the city seems stuck, no longer able to define itself by its hope, its wealth or its potential. It’s a city that seems caught between the so-called new and old South Africa. Not knowing how to evolve and emerge as a South African city. Perhaps not allowed to.

Standing in front of the dilapidated city hall, I can’t help but think of the city’s name. Benoni. A biblical name, but one you might miss. Originally the name given to Benjamin, brother of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat fame. Benoni means ‘son of my sorrow’, and I sense that sorrow. The sad city hall, and the buildings running in the streets along it seem to be sighing. Or perhaps that was just me.

It was time to liven up things and see another icon of Benoni. This is probably what I know Benoni best for. Let me rephrase that, what I know people not from Benoni knew the town for. The, shall I call it infamous, bunny park. Every Benoni child has been to the bunny park. It’s a kind of rite of passage. You’re not really a man or a woman if you haven’t held a carrot to the ground and watched some little rabbit thumper its way over to you to have a gnaw. As a young primary school pupil you wouldn’t fit in if you couldn’t swap war stories. Tales of man-chasing goats, and possessed cows after your bunny’s carrots abounded in the playground, with some stories mentioning actual bites and tears. The guinea pigs were also not to be trusted, even though they were caged and hidden in a grotesque stone castle, refusing to come out no matter how long you sat there with your carrot dangling through the wire fence to lure them. I was pleased to note that the park was still there. Those same turnstiles were still there. The same turnstiles that I would run through excitedly, ignoring my mom’s screams to stop running and to wait for her. You could still buy carrots there, tired looking things, but a feast for the creatures waiting to hop to you. And hop they did. I thought there may be less bunnies, but I think breeding is something rabbits do well, so they were en masse. The hard clay ground looked much like the roads in the city – pothole-like bunny burrows were dotted around, making the ground look like a block of Emmental cheese. I was more concerned about potentially twisting my ankle than looking for a bunny, and I certainly admired the children who had their hands in the holes – I wasn’t sure what could be lurking beneath the soil.

It was all the same. Just tired. Jaded and run-down. No longer the amusement park of delight I remembered. Perhaps I was now the jaded one and no longer saw it with child-like amazement. I’ll never know, but I still walked away sad.

Perhaps thinking of the Oscar-winning Hollywood blonde bombshell who came from Benoni would make things a bit more enjoyable. I often tell the story of seeing Charlize Theron when we still pronounced here name Charlize T’ron (be sure to roll the ‘r’). She had won a model of the year competition and was featured in some big magazine. I found this out by reading our very own newspaper – the Benoni City Times. My dad called it the Benoni Shitty Times, and we would all laugh when he said it, but deep down we all waited for it. We all wanted to see who was in it, or, even better, if we were in it, and the specials at Checkers at the Northmead Mall of course. Charlize was in there and I knew she went to a school near me. I’m sure it was her walking past my house on the way to school with her hair tied back, a dirty blonde with curls cascading from where her elastic freed her hair. She was in her school uniform. I knew it was her. Being in the Shitty Times was a big thing for us town-minded people so it was like I had seen a star. I can now say that I had. She of course never even looked my way. But that’s irrelevant. I was the one with the story.

Charlize, probably Benoni’s best export flies the Benoni flag high, and gave us Benonians a reason to stop lying about where we lived or came from. For years I would claim to live just outside Johannesburg, and if pushed would lie and say I lived in Bedfordview. It was still in the East Rand so not a complete fib. I was usually introduced by out-of-Benoni-town friends like this: “Hi. This is Clive. He’s from Benoni, but he’s very nice.” I would laugh, so would they, usually louder than I did. Now I could say Charlize came from the city too. I was cool by association. We may not be, but us Benonians will hang onto this possibility for as long as we can.

I never stayed long enough to try the restaurants or see the interior of the grotesque New Orleans ship that never sailed type shopping complex called the Lakeside Mall. I never ventured further than the CBD. There was nothing more for me here. I will never escape Benoni, and perhaps therein lies my sadness. The sadness of family no longer with us. The memories of times best forgotten. A childhood misunderstood. A boy who will always remain just that – a boy from Benoni.

The memories keep fading…

You’re just a memory on a fading photograph.

Like the images in my mind.

Moments I remember, but I’m unsure really happened.

Conversations that continue to fade.

 

You’re just a face on a fading photograph

That eats into my mind.

Reminds me of a time gone by.

Of a pain I can’t lose.

 

I hold onto those fading photographs.

Because they remind me of you.

Because I may just forget.

Forget who I am and why.

 

You’re just a memory.

On a fading photograph.

That I can’t stop from disappearing.

That I can’t keep from dissolving.

Fuzzier and fuzzier.

Like the picture in my mind.

Not sharp.

Like the pain that never subsides.

 

You’re just a memory.

Connected to my soul.

Part of my everyday.

Lost in my past.

 

A fading photograph.

In my mind.

A photograph is all that’s left to hold.

 

Mother Child Memory

Keep calm, I’ve turned 40

I’ve dreaded turning 40 since I turned 30. In fact if you read back on this blog you’ll see numerous posts where I lament the fact that in my 30s I was closer to 40 than I was 20. Somehow, 40 had become thkeep-calm-and-turn-40-1is illusive crossroad age, where my life needed to meet some sort of childhood standard set when I dreamt of a prince rescuing my damsel in distress. (I usually played the damsel.)

Forty meant that I had to be sorted, that I was halfway with my life and needed to have settled down, made my millions, had children, and most of all, dealt with all my childhood, teenage, and twenties issues and fears. But as the impending 4-oh loomed I realised how far I was from that ideal.

Most of my childhood dreams for adult-me were wrapped up in things like winning an Oscar, finding a cure for cancer or doing something that would mean I would be recognised. Applauded for my brilliance. Validated as someone who was more than just average. I grew up wanting to change the world, but only if it meant I would be noticed. And liked. So I idolised movie and TV stars. I cut out pictures of Lady Di marrying Charles and stuck them to the wall in the hope that I too would command world attention. I acted. I sang. I made people laugh. I played hockey and cricket. Badly.

And as I faced 40, I found child-me in the mirror. He was kicking and screaming and moaning about the poor excuse of an ideal adult-me was. I was filled with disappointment. One of the things I’ve grieved most about being gay is not being able to have biological children with my partner. I grieved this acutely as I faced the big 4-0. I should be richer. I should be living in a bigger house. I should have more friends. I should have worked out more. I should have  studied commerce and ignored my penchant for the arts. I should have written a novel. I should have been more. Accusations of what should have been filled my mind daily.

I vacillated about throwing a 40th party. Why celebrate an age that made me realise how little I was? That, as a gay man, 40 made me one of those creeping old lurkers we judged as young twinks trolling the clubs (okay, I was never a twink*, but otter** seems so hairy). That 40 meant I was pretty much halfway if I was lucky and still hadn’t done half the things I dreamed I could do. A party celebrating this seemed so silly. But the reminder of presents and people hopefully telling me that I don’t look a day over 30 forced me to book a venue, invite friends and plan as much alcohol as I could afford. If I was going to turn 40, I may as well be drunk (just like I was in most of my 20s). (And 30s).

And, surprise, surprise, as the clock turned 12 and the bells chimed the new decade of my life, my butt never spontaneously sagged to the floor, more lines never appeared on my face and my hairline never receded any further.

Turning 40 became a crossroads unlike what I expected. As I recovered from the hangover party, I felt loved and supported. I realised that child-me was righbirthdayt to dream, but adult-me didn’t have to be blamed for not always meeting his expectations. Who I am is enough. I might not be famous and applauded, and I may just be a regular middle-class guy who is married to a fantastic man and between us we’re childless, and that’s okay. Forty has made me realise that where I am is cool. Who I have in my life is who I’m meant to have in my life. What I’ve done is achievement alone because I’ve done it. And the people that love me and add to my life are the treasure and trophy to a life well-lived. Turning 40 is okay.

Turning 50, well, that’s another story.

In 20 years’ time, I’ll probably be back on this blog lambasting 40-year-old-me for wanting 60-year-old-me to be better. And that’s okay.

* A young or young-looking gay man with a slender, ectomorph build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair.

 ** A gay man who is very hairy all over his body, but is smaller in frame and weighs considerably less than a bear***.

 *** A term used by gay men to describe a husky, large man with a lot of body hair.