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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


Under the cloud

9 Nov

It’s been one of those weeks.

I saw the dark cloud approaching, hovering on the horizon, probably about ten days ago. I spotted it and I ignored it.

For some reason, I thought that denial might work – this time.

And as the cloud approached, I remained naively optimistic. It will be different this time. I can do this. I can win this battle.

I started feeling slightly disconnected – from those around me, from conversations, from life. And I still carried on thinking I would be ok.

Then. Then – the crash. Unable to get out of bed. Unable to answer my phone. Unable to connect – with anyone, anything.

The cloud had enveloped me. I could no longer deny its presence. I could not fight, I had no resources or strength. Nothing.

I felt so sad. Overwhelmed by disappointment. A sense of loss. A sadness at the world we live in, at the suffering of those I love. A sadness and a questioning – of the path I am on, the world I occupy.

I could no longer see, enveloped by blackness. Bleakness.

I have been under the cloud before. And it is horrible. Awful. It is lonely, isolating, enveloping, all-consuming.

No-one should ever have to live under the cloud.

And today? Today, the cloud is still there but there are some rays of light too.

So please don’t worry. I write these words not to alarm anyone, but in the pursuit of honesty and truth. Of vulnerability.

For I spend many years pretending I was strong. And I am not.

I cannot do this on my own.

And I cannot pretend anymore. It’s been one of those weeks.

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.

Miraculous recovery?

25 Mar

It’s been quite a while since I wrote on here. I have surprised myself with my silence. The truth is – the quiet has been a combination of two facts-of-life: 1. Busyness 2. Complete dearth of inspiration.

Work has been busy – for which I am deeply grateful. Life as a freelancer is constantly unpredictable and I am very happy to have an influx of work, which will keep me busy and out of trouble for a few weeks.

Mostly – and this I suspect is the “real” reason – I just haven’t felt inspired. Haven’t known what to write about. Haven’t felt that I had anything to say. Fleeting thoughts have crossed my mind but nothing has taken root.

Until today.

This morning, I went to church. It was a lovely service. On the whole. A guest speaker and lots of happy faces. All was going swimmingly. And then the preacher mentioned Muamba. Muamba – the man who “died” (technically for 78 minutes) on a football pitch last week, and is now alive. Muamba – the sudden object of the nation’s prayers (or at least, the prayers of those on Twitter). Muamba – the “miracle”.

I must confess, however, that I did not join in with the Twitterati #prayformuamba – although I do pray quite often myself. I didn’t get overexcited about this seeming “answer to prayer”, this “miracle” – and it may well be one (or both) or these.

I couldn’t. I am not a cynic. Nor a pessimist. Quite the opposite in fact.

For me though, jumping on this bandwagon would have meant quelling the difficult questions, the deep agonising, soul-wrenching questions about unanswered prayer.

I have friends longing for a baby, who have prayed again and again for a baby, and who remain childless. And devastated.

I have experienced the darkness of  unanswered prayer in my own life. Where there are no answers to the question “why?”, no “happy endings”.

I am not the only one.

And this morning, I watched a young girl fall apart as the preacher ecstatically exclaimed the miracle of Muamba and the amazing answered prayers witnessed. She fell apart, devastated, because three years ago, she prayed – again and again – that her mum would be healed from cancer. And she wasn’t. Aged 14, she lost her mum. And now she struggles to believe in the God who didn’t hear her prayer.

For her, talk of the Muamba miracle only rubbed salt into the wound. Only compounded her question “why?” and her sense of God’s abandonment and lack of care.

Her pain – so visible and raw – was almost too much to witness. I love this girl deeply. I know how much she misses her Mum. Every day. And like everyone else, I don’t have an answer, a satisfying response.

Does this mean I don’t pray? No. Not at all. I continue to pray even when my prayers aren’t answered. At times like these, my prayers may not be very eloquent or “nice”. More rant-y and raving. At other times, more silent than spoken. At others, there are only tears.

I do believe in prayer. But I don’t like jumping on a bandwagon. A bandwagon that seems to create more questions than answers, more pain (for some) than comfort.

Is Muamba’s life a miracle? Maybe. But let’s not shove that in the face of the hurting and grieving, for like salt rubbed in a wound, the pain created runs too deep for words.


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.

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