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Dear JJ

27 Nov

Dear JJ,

I can’t believe it’s over a year since you died. I think about you often.

This morning, I read a beautiful letter. It was written by my friend Chris Russell, following the tragic death of his almost-one-year-old nephew Tommy.  I read it in his book Ten Letters – and was particularly struck by these introductory words:

“As a way of dealing with grief, a friend of mine who is a psychologist suggested I write a letter to Tommy, expressing my thoughts and feelings”.

And so, as I read his letter (with tears in my eyes – for it is extraordinarily beautiful), I decided that I would write to you. One year on.

You see, JJ, I don’t feel like I have properly said goodbye yet. I couldn’t come to your funeral in South Africa. And I didn’t see you for over two years before then. I wanted to – so much. I wanted to visit you when you came off the streets and went into rehab – I was so proud of you and delighted that you were choosing a new way of life. And when the honeymoon period ended, and you ended up in prison – I really wanted to visit you there. I could have come actually, for I was visiting Durban when you were locked up – but I was advised not to, advised that it would be traumatising.

I really regret not coming then. Of course it would have been traumatic – but not seeing you, not taking that opportunity, has been worse. For I am left with the “what ifs” and an abiding sense of regret.

I didn’t – and this is probably my deepest regret – see you when you were dying. Oh – I wanted to come. Wanted to jump on a plane and visit you in hospital, and afterwards, when you were staying with your sister. But we didn’t have any money, we were totally broke at that point. So I didn’t come. I am sorry.

I wanted to see you with your brand new baby daughter, Thokzile – born only a few weeks before you died.

JJ, can you believe that I still haven’t met her? And she is over one year old now. I am hoping to remedy that very soon. She is a sign of hope, and – in her little body – I feel as though you live on. I want her to have a totally different life from you. And I plan to do all I can to make sure that happens! I am going to ask some of my friends to help me – to help me make sure that she goes to school, has a safe home and always knows – every single day – that she is loved.

You would be so proud of Thokzile’s mum (your girlfriend Thabsile), she is doing really well and working on the LIV village. Thokzile goes to the baby home each day so that Thabsile can work. They are both doing so well – and that makes me really happy.  I think that, if you could see it, you would be really happy too.

So, if I had seen you one more time, this is what I would have said to you, JJ:

“Don’t give up. Please don’t think that you have to live on the streets forever. That is not your destiny. Life away from the streets is hard (and not many people understand that). People usually think it is easy, and therefore better, but I know that the community you had there was so strong. They were your family, I get that now. But – and this is a big but – in the long run, you would have found a new family, a new community. Tich and Joan were always there for you – and they wanted to help you find a new life. Mike too, and myself. We all wanted you to truly thrive, not just survive. So choose life JJ, choose life.”

JJ, I tried to help you choose life and I feel like I failed. I am sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. At all. I thought I was helping but in the end, I just let you down, like so many others.

Do you know how utterly charming you were? Do you really get that? I still miss you, and smile when I remember your charm. Calling me “mama Becca”. Feeding me stories (how you loved your stories!) about this, that and the other… I was so sucked in. And then I felt like a fool, for a while. For believing everything you said when your very survival depended on your ability to win over people like me (those with soft hearts who always believe the best in people – the suckers!). And yet, now, I don’t regret it – for, and this is my hope, maybe you knew you were loved. That someone believed in you. And that there was someone you could call in a crisis.

Oh my goodness, do you remember the time you and Nicky got stabbed? Do you know how squeamish I am? How much I hate hospitals? And there I was, the only white girl in the whole hospital, sitting with you both in A&E for a whole day. No wonder people gave me weird looks – you looked so rough with that gash on your face, and there I was acting like your mum, as though it was totally normal. But inside I felt so sick, I hate hospitals so much. And then you asked me to stay in the cubicle with you while they injected you and sewed your face up – I felt as though I was going to faint, but I managed to hold it together! The thing I loved about that awful day was this – I think that, by the end of it, you and Nicky knew I was on your side. And that was all I wanted really.

JJ, this is turning into a really long letter! I guess there is so much that was left unsaid. And I haven’t known how to say goodbye, being so far away. I have had a thought though – I want to “create” something in honour of your short life, so that you will never be forgotten. And not only you but all the other kids who die on the streets in Durban too. What do you think we should do? I like the idea of a public memorial – a public space, a public art project – so that the community of Durban can no longer pretend that kids like you never existed. Do you think that would work? Maybe I could write about your life too? You lived a thousand lives in your two decades here on earth and I want everyone to know how amazing you were – how you embraced life in spite of all you suffered, how you loved even though you knew so much rejection, how you taught some of us so much about living.

I miss you JJ. I wish you were still with us.

But I know you are in a better place now. And you left your mark here in this world – you will never be forgotten.

Love you,

Mama Becca


Words that change everything

2 Nov

Today has been a “grateful-for-all-I-have” day. A “don’t-take-anything-for-granted” day. And a sad day.

Today some good friends heard, from a doctor, words that none of us ever want to hear. A few words, just a sentence, but it changes everything.

Today I am reminded that none of us are immortal, invincible or insulated from pain. Not even little children.

I feel sad but deeply grateful too – for health and life and family and friends.

It might not last forever but I am thankful today.


29 Feb

Death feels so unfair. It is so final. It is also, as I am learning, sometimes so unexpected.

I am not sure that I could write about anything else today apart from my grief at the loss of Thoko. So young. So unexpected. So unfair. Grief feels like a roller-coaster, but one where you are blindfolded and have no idea where you are heading. One where the sound is turned up so high that you end up blocking it out, unable to cope with any more sensory overload. It is a roller-coaster that makes you feel nauseous at times, and consumed by hunger at others. It is not really “food hunger”, I know that, but instead a longing to have someone back – a hunger for the one you have lost. It is a roller-coaster of happy memories, regrets, missed opportunities and emotional turbulence.

I cannot imagine how my dear friends Tom and Mandi (Thoko’s “adopted” parents) feel right now. How intense their grief. How deep their loss. I’ve just been looking through some old photos – of the four of us. We were always together – Tom, Mands, Thoko and I, rarely apart during 1999-2000. Since then, they have become all too acquainted with bereavement – this is what happens when you work with streetkids. Yet such loss never becomes “normal”; it can never be ok.

I cannot imagine how we will recover from Thoko’s death. I know we will, for people do – all around the world, every day, every week, every year. Millions of people in the throes of grief get up one more day, head off to work, go to the shops. Do “normal” stuff while feeling so disconnected from normality. Wandering around in a daze, looking “there” from the outside but so “not there” inside. Emotionally and physically exhausted. Wrung dry.

In grief there is no logic, nothing anyone can say to make it better. There are no time constraints. No rules for grieving and saying goodbye. No “normal”.

Grief is to be experienced, a tunnel from which we will one day emerge. It cannot be circumvented. There is no fast-forward button. This is what makes it so painful. Yet so important. We miss the ones we have lost – that is why it hurts. We miss them and the ache does not go away.

I wish I had five minutes with Thoko, for I know what I would tell her. How loved she was. How beautiful and brave. How wanted and cherished. How the future without her would be a darker, sadder place. I would tell her that I love her – for now I can’t. Now it is too late.

And I would walk away, wondering who else I should find and tell of my love and respect, of how they are cherished and lovely and unique. For we don’t know how long we have on this earth. We don’t when “the last time” is. So maybe, I would tell myself, I should stop assuming immortality and start telling those I love that I want/need/appreciate/enjoy/treasure them. Stop being shy and start being more bold. I would rather regret this than regret never having said anything. Now that is the worst. It really is.

Death unexplained (gone too soon part II)

25 Feb

I heard today that a friend from South Africa died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving all who knew her reeling and disoriented. Thoko was only 17 years old. I met her when she was 3 years old – a cheeky, tiny little girl who spoke hardly any English. At the time, her mum was really unwell and unable to look after her, so good friends of mine (Tom and Mandi) were caring for her full-time. A few weeks later, Mandi and I moved into a flat together – with Thoko, who now spoke English fluently. She was adorable, all who met her seemed to fall for her smile, charms and dance moves instantly.

Mandi and I became “mum” to Thoko. She slept on a little mat by my bed. I woke her up in the mornings, got her dressed, took her to nursery school, picked her up at the end of the day. Once I forgot to pick her up – and felt terrible for days. I managed to teach her to have a lie-in at the weekends! She was beautiful.

She celebrated her first ever Christmas with my family in South Africa – she didn’t know what Christmas was until the age of four. She kept telling everyone what we had bought them, prefixing this with “It’s a secret but…”. She made us all laugh. Once, in a restaurant, Thoko and I told the waiter it was Mandi’s birthday. He bought out a pudding with a candle in it and made everyone sing “Happy Birthday”. It wasn’t Mandi’s birthday at all – we just thought it would be funny if everyone sang to her!

I remember taking Thoko to see the animals at Tala wildlife park, we went many times. I especially remember our trip to Tala with my good friends form England Liza and Beki, and another trip with Suzi. Happy memories.

Thoko never went back to her mum’s. Tom and Mandi took her in, she also lived with her aunt for years. She was loved. Deeply. And now she has gone.

Last time I was in Durban, I could have seen Thoko but I didn’t. I thought there would be another time, many more chances. That makes me feel unutterably sad – for now it is too late. I can’t remake that decision. But I can learn from my assumption. Life is uncertain. Love and show love to those you love while you can.

I  feel like death is all around me at the moment. I don’t know what this means. But I know it is excruciatingly sad. And mostly senseless. I do know, however, that it is making me reassess life. I am alive. I want to choose life. Not just survival, but life – in all its fulness. I want to live – because I can. I want to choose adventure and risk, embracing life – because I can. Not everyone can. But I can, right now, and I don’t want it to pass me by.

RIP Thoko. You were loved. Deeply. You will be missed. Always.

The Other

6 Jan

The need to belong is a powerful one, maybe as visceral and “human-y” as the need for love. Each of us needs an emotional home, that safe place where we are accepted fully, where we belong. Yet belonging is, by its very nature, about differentiation and preferences. I cannot be friends with everyone, therefore I choose some. I cannot help everyone, therefore I prioritise some. Such differentiation, “tribe creation”, seems to be the way of human beings. We create social norms, standards by which “normal” people live, and those on the outside are invariably marginalised, isolated and pushed to the periphery. Playground cliques do not, it would seem, end when we leave school.

So then, what does it mean to be “the other”? The one on the periphery? The one marginalised by depression? The one who is homeless and losing hope? The one with HIV/AIDS? The one with a disability? The one working in a brothel? The one with an unexpected teenage pregnancy? The one longing for a baby, yet unable to conceive? What would it be like to not be in the majority? What would it be like to carry the invisible stamp of differentiation?

Many of us in the West live lives that are impoverished by their homogeneity. Our friends, colleagues, community are “like us”. We have not heard the stories of “the other” and we are encumbered and enslaved by our own presumptions. The homeless became a sub-tribe of addicts, the mentally ill become “those we avoid”, street kids become criminals. We do not understand, and so we create boxes and confine individuals – each made in the image of the divine – within bland, beauty-less boxes. And so we lose out. We create an impenetrable chasm between “them” and “us”. We fail to enrich our lives because we do not acknowledge the worth of someone else’s story, the worth of someone else’s life.

And the reality is, that for many of us, “the other” makes us feel better about our lives. We are more together/successful/wise/normal than them. We have made better choices. “They” confirm our place in the centre, where we need only occasionally glance at the unfortunate souls on the periphery of society. We remain “normal”; “they” remain marginalised and misunderstood.

Could 2012 be the year where we seek out the story of “the other”, giving dignity and worth to those silenced and overlooked because they are “different”? Could it be the year we seek to understand and know – truly, not superficially – those who are not like us? “The other” is, after all, simply another one of us – a fellow human being with unique emotions, hopes and desires. A unique individual who shares our intrinsic human needs for love and belonging.

Asking for help

21 Nov

An insecure economy, an insecure job market, rising unemployment… none of which are ideal for someone trying to make it work as a freelancer. My last job ended rather suddenly in September and I was left flummoxed and in shock. My husband had just started a one year course, we had just been burgled and now I didn’t have an income either. Whilst looking for other jobs still, I am attempting to launch on my own. Except it’s not really ‘on my own’ at all. Life just doesn’t happen ‘on our own’, or – if it does – it’s not that much fun.

I know that collaboration is the way forward (but still I am conditioned to try first on my own). I recently took part in a course on missional entrepreneurship where, at one session, we talked about ‘skill sharing’ – times when mutually exchanging skills may be more important than exchanging money for skills. In other words, I write your fundraising & communications strategy and you help me develop my website. I love this idea. Yet I know that there are times when good old money is what is needed too.I currently find myself in that place – urgently needing more work that pays!

So I decided to send out an email to some friends this morning, asking for their help. Which is actually harder than it sounds. I swallowed some humble pie in the process – you see, I don’t want to be seen as a ‘failure’. Someone who can’t find work. Someone who isn’t self-sufficient enough to make it on my own… except I am not. I cannot do it on my own. Somehow it is still quite difficult to admit this. To become vulnerable enough to ask for help.

But I bit the bullet. And am waiting to see if it yields any fruit.

I feel challenged by how difficult it was to write that email. Challenged to remain interdependent, to foster interdependency rather than join in our cultural worship of independence. Maybe all of us need to be more willing to ask for help. For as the great Bono once said, “Sometimes you can’t make it on you own”

Failure to speak the little word

15 Nov

Today I had a difficult conversation with someone I used to work with. Difficult because there was some unresolved tension between us. Difficult because we were friends as well as colleagues. Difficult because those sort of conversations are, let’s face it, never going to be easy.

What I realised today was – sometimes we should choose to apologise, even if we feel we are losing face, rather than insisting on “being right”. Or, as the great Nelson Mandela put it: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace”.

I am not someone who is very good at arguing! I am an internal processor, I like to mull things over and ponder before I speak. I am not always good at defending myself in the moment. I tend to think of all the great lines later on, in the bath or in bed as I replay the conversation to myself. Today, this felt like it was to my detriment. And yet, even though I felt like “the wronged”, I also knew I should be able to apologise for my weakness/flaws/inadequacy. For peace is better than being absolutely right.

I still left feeling a bit hard done by, a bit shaken by the conversation. But I also left knowing I had chosen the bigger picture of friendship over the little picture of self-justification.

Saying sorry is a hard thing. Even when we have every reason to be sorry. It takes courage. Yet, if I look back over the life of Mandela, I see his willingness to apologise again and again – even when he wasn’t wrong. I see his choice to prefer relationship over justified revenge. I see his humility, courage and grace. What an incredible role model. As I write these words, I realise again how much I still have to learn, to put into practice.

And so, it only feels right to end with more wisdom from Mandela. He spoke these words when reflecting on being released from jail after 27 years – “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

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