Paradise Road

With my mother’s illness came a demonstration of darkness visible at the roots of it all that I couldn’t explain away.

I shifted the sand through my fingers. I counted my toes. I thought about people who lived though awesome, magnificent, terrifying blizzards and tornadoes on the other side of the world that I was just a spectator to. The beach was one of my favourite places to go to. It was a good place to come to and think. When the tide recedes the waves go with it. The dark sea waters are like pulsing, vibrating shadows. The sand is its friend.

Whenever I felt lonely I remembered those days. My mother walking ahead of me, barefoot, her hair blowing in the wind, across her mouth, a pair of her soft shoes in her hand, yet she still looked beautiful and elegant to me. Her glasses perched on the edge of her nose.

My father didn’t take the news very well. He became sadder as each day rose. He never drank in front of me but sometimes he would fall asleep at night in front of the television. My father and I never talked about ‘imminent death’, ‘cancer’, radiation’ and my mother leaving us ‘forever’; they were all just pieces of thought that hung in the air. We still shared the same space on this planet. We were still a family. But our daily routine was becoming more and more disorientated and abnormal by the day.

I told my mother when she lay in her hospital bed in the ward that she had nothing to worry about. My father and I would take care of each other. It wasn’t a lie but I was just making it up as I was going along.

I have sand in my shoes; sticky and sparkling like glitter, golden beads that catches my eye and spins like wheels in the wind.

I have no idea what happened to that dream of us being a ‘happy family’ forever. I wanted to see her again even as a ghost. I wouldn’t be scared I told myself.

Daddy is lonely. He isn’t sleeping. He is getting thin but he says he is happy. I know he is just putting on a brave face for me. It has only been three months since my mother has been gone. I pretend she’s disappeared; vanished without a trace, without a collect phone call, that she left without a sad goodbye. She left some of her clothes behind. It still has her smell. I can’t let go of that. Was it my fault she left? My father can’t explain that away that I feel it’s my fault.

At first she went through a lot of tests before they said the ‘C’ word – cancer. Then there was some kind of finality

I watch the surfers and the swimmers at the water’s edge. Gulls fly overhead while the gentle waves slap against the rocks from dusk till dawn; sunrise to sunset.

With the rain comes a pale March, an autumn breeze that rushes through me. The ocean is a very magical thing to me. It whispers its secrets to me in the fragments of shells and in the voices of children playing in the water; swimming in the sea.

I remembered when she painted the walls in my room a clean green. Sang me a lullaby to sooth my tears when I was a kid. When she gazed upon my bedroom walls were I hung my works of art that I did in middle school and when she was oh so serious, hip-deep in her work in the kitchen, her knees half-bent in her world.

I remember when my mother and I used to for long walks on the beach.

I remembered how she used to smile at me. When she told me I was her star. I tried to forget about how much pain she was in. The state of mind she was in those last days. I pretended not to care but my father made a better job of it. I cried every night after that for nearly a year and what seemed like six months. It only seemed to remind me of everything I missed about her, my mother, so my father thought it would be a good idea to move.

He thought being in a different country would solve everything but it didn’t. He had a new job even started dating but I had grown into a completely different person. I was growing taller. I always wanted to travel the world but I didn’t want to be uprooted from the only home I had ever known.

I thought that was what we had decided on; that she would slowly get better.

Now she went and gone and done it again. She changed her mind on me without consulting me. Her body gave up on her and she went as she came into this world. We weren’t there when it happened. We were at McDonald’s having lunch; we meaning my father and I, sipping our milkshakes through long straws. My father promised me after we got the news of her passing that I would see the sun again. It was normal to long for her, to long to see her again but I still cried myself to sleep that night.

Do you remember what you said to me, I wanted to tell him when he forgot to pick me up from school and when he forgot to microwave my supper. But I had to forgive him. He was suffering to. It was a long walk to paradise road. Baby steps. You had to count every step

“We had looked for brighter options all that ancient summer”. I was listening to my father as the kettle boiled in the kitchen. We were looking at albums.

My father was very serious in the picture. There was me, in my crisp summer dress with pretty flowers on; huge blooms, bright and cheerful. In the picture next to me was my mother when she was just a slip of a young married girl with a young, married life. She was wearing her hair fashionably, like the models of that time did in all the fashion magazines – dressing fashionably. My father was behaving fashionably, all gentlemanly-like. “Oh wasn’t that a perfect day on the town. Your mother was just a smitten girl then. She was so shy she wouldn’t even let me hold her hand. I called her baby, sometimes sweetheart but she would just blush.”

My head space was caught up with what I had decided to call ‘mind hurdles’. They were insecurity, self-esteem, self-worth, my sense about my body image, sense of abandonment, neglect, mood swings, anger-management, stress, sadness and depression. They were hard for me to take in. These were hard times. I was a teenager. I was growing up but my mother wouldn’t be there to see me walk down the aisle, help me with my hair, braid it or comb it lovingly like she used to do and help me choose my wedding dress.

We wouldn’t talk about boys. She wouldn’t be my best friend any longer. Who would I talk to when I had questions about when it was ‘that time of the month’ for a young lady? I had to create spaces inside my head where I felt safe. I couldn’t I slowly began to realise always rely on my father. He couldn’t always be there in the way I wanted him to be.

It was difficult in the beginning learning how to manage all of our emotions with everything that was going on between visits to the hospital and seeing my mother weak and defenceless. I had to grow up quickly. I had to learn what the words ‘inner strength’ and ’emotional maturity’ meant.

It will ease the strain some of the doctors said if we prepared ourselves fully for the trials that lay ahead of us. My father and I had to learn how to prioritise our time. We had to make ‘to do’ lists and place the errands we had to run in categories ranging from the most important to the least and we had write down any looming deadlines we had.

We were a family in crisis. There was my mother, tired and sad all the time. My father putting on a brave front for the whole world to see and me caught up in the middle of it all. All these brave emotions running through me like an electric current.

My father was wearing his socks and sandals more often now. Sometimes he even forgot about getting my supper ready. I could make breakfast for us in the morning before I got dressed and went to school. I made it special for him. Scrambled eggs, hot, buttered slices of toast with Heinz tomato sauce or Mrs. Ball’s chutney. He would inevitably get stains on his shirt from the sauce and would have to change his shirt. I would eat huge chunks of peanut butter bread when I came home from school to stave off the hunger pangs with coffee.

At night when I waited for my father to come home I would try to make something decent for us to eat even though I wasn’t really very good at it. I would put sweet potatoes in the oven, whole, unpeeled, I just rinsed the dirt off under the tap and baked it until it was soft and oozing the smell of syrupy sweetness out of every side. It left black blobs on the bottom of the oven that I had to use something metal to scratch off. If I didn’t and put in something else to bake like a macaroni and cheese or bread to make toast out of, the oven would begin to smoke and then the whole kitchen would be filled with this lingering smell of something that was burning.

My father often came home and found that smell just as he walked through the door. He wasn’t very pleased with me when he found me in the kitchen putting the oven’s switch off secretly behind his back and presenting him with my supper made in my own special way.

My mother was a very elegant lady as I’ve said before although some people will think she wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. She struggled valiantly but everyone could see the brightness in her eyes was just a façade. Yet we were all pretending in a way. We thought she had much more time but she didn’t. One day she was there, talking animatedly about the food she got served, sitting upright in her hospital bed, talking to us, smiling, laughing while grimacing through the pain of it all.

We watched this silent killer come and take her away. I tried very hard not to cry when I was with her because I knew it wasn’t very easy for her to see me like that; although I knew she would understand most of all, better than all of everyone that came to see her.

It hurt to cry. I could feel it in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. It hurt to breathe. There were knots and butterflies in the pit of my stomach and like butter she slipped through my fingers. She was gone. I was left frozen. The needles of icicles seemed to be stifling me and stabbing me in the heart.

When we said our goodbyes my father said we should just keep it brief because she got tired so quickly. I remembered all the mean, nasty things I said to her when I was angry at her. I remembered the time when she forgot to pick me up from a rehearsal of a school play and left me standing in a cold wind waiting for an hour.

I felt really sad about that. I thought for a long time whether or not I should ask for forgiveness for what I did and said all those times but in the end all I did was kiss her pale, damp face and tell her how much I loved her and how much I was going to miss her.

Then I couldn’t hold it back anymore. It was too much for me to handle but my father somehow he knew that. It was as if he was reading my mind. My father let me go in by myself. Other family members stood around him, shielded him from my demeanour as I came out. I went straight to the bathroom. Luckily there was no one else in there so I quickly washed my face with cold water. I washed my hands and I went out again.

My father couldn’t understand or rather he couldn’t make sense out of the bizarre meals I made for him sometimes. I had to pretend somehow that there was still something of her that still belonged to me even though it was just through food and preparing meals for him.

Sometimes he would work late at the bank. I knew it was only an excuse though when there was no more reason to go to the hospital anymore to visit her. I just missed her so much. I would think about her all the time. Like right in the middle of a test at school or a conversation with my friends I would find my mind wandering. I would find myself in the middle of reverie. It wasn’t unpleasant. I had fond memories of her.

My mother taught me about success and humility. She always said, “It’s not if you win or lose its how you play the game.” My father on the other hand taught me things like how our own society defined success and that was by climbing the ladder of social status and by how much money you earned. He taught me how the different denominations of churches defined success but most importantly how do you define success that would lead you to have both a fulfilling and successful life as well as a career.

After six months I could only make out fragments of her face in my thoughts from memory. We still had pictures of her around the house we had moved to. My father thought it would make things easier. In some ways it was. She was always different in the pictures though. Sometimes smiling, laughing, posing, standing still, caught unawares, dressed in a turquoise floor-length dress with her hair all done. That picture I kept next to my bed. It was my favourite. It was taken in her childhood home. She had never spoken much about her childhood and where and how she had grown up. I had always been unsure and confused by this. What stopped her from speaking about it?

Was she trying to run away from something that had frightened her, scared her half-to-death when she was a child? What was she trying to escape from? Was she blinking back tears in this photograph? Was she sad, was she happy, did she like her parents; or rather more importantly did she love them for who they were? Were they responsible for making her a socially aware and capable citizen of the world always feeling happy and free when she was with her own family?

I never felt alone or lonely because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters around to play with or to keep me company. My mother’s sport; tennis, her infectious humour, zest and energy for life, her enthusiasm for any kind of gardening project that she had in mind over the weekend more than made up for it. Our drives to the beach, swimming long laps in the Olympic-sized local swimming pool, our long walks made me happier than any kid could be. Most of the kids my age had friends in the neighbourhood. They were making mud pies while I was my mother’s confidante.

But from a young age I was inseparable from my parents. They lavished attention on me and spoiled me but they also taught me important life lessons.

When I was about five my mother decided to cut a tree that was on our property. It was a mulberry tree. I remembered eating the sweet berries off that tree. My mother plucking them one by one testing their ripeness and juiciness between her fingers and then she would hand it to me. The juice would dribble down my chin and leave purple stains on my clothes.

Then one day out of the blue off the tree came in the middle of the garden. This tall grand tree; magnificent and stately. And all traces of sentimental childhood memory with it. I often thought about what that meant. What was my mother trying to say? Was she trying to tell us something or did the tree just represent nothing to her. Was there a history behind her actions? What did the previous owners that left it behind think about when they first planted it? Did they perhaps plant to coincide with the birth of their first child?

I let my imagine run wild. Perhaps my mother just thought it was time for new beginnings.

There were times when it was hard for me to reconstruct my mother from memory. I liked the world better when she was around. She made things brighter and even more beautiful than they really were.

She wore these thick, yellow plastic gloves when she was gardening. She would mow the lawn. She didn’t play tennis anymore. She was the picture of health. She never taught me how to play tennis. Instead she took me for tennis lessons to six different teachers when I was at different phases of my life. It was a sport that I never really took to. First I didn’t really understand rules like ‘foot fault’, ‘ace’ and ‘match point’.

Not that there was much to understand about it. Some people would say the rules of the game were pretty straightforward to understand.

Honestly, I found the game boring to watch and I didn’t have the patience to master the game or learn the rules.

When we came back from our hospital visits in the evening I would make toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. I would grill it in the oven and hungrily watch the cheese melt. Then I would boil the kettle and make two steaming cups of Milo. My father would sit at one end of the kitchen table and I would sit at the other. We didn’t speak much those days. It was early days yet, we spoke around the illness or so we thought.

My mother taught me how to love and that there were many different variables, solutions and equations and variations that came with it. Her love was warm and kind. It was tolerant and patient during the times that it was called for for her to be tolerant and patient. It was there even when she got angry with me over something I did. I could still feel those intense vibrations in the air. I never had room to question it. I could always recognise it in her voice when she spoke to me or my father.

Just now, I can’t stand him. I want him to pull himself together or snap out of whatever has taken hold of his mind. I want him to be my dad again. I want him to walk around the house whistling and calling out my mother’s name out from the top of his voice. But she won’t answer him back because she’s not here. This is when the reserves I have within me of bitter resentment, anger and negative energy over my mother’s untimely death seem to spill over into the air. I have no control over it. It sweeps all the loveliness and happiness I have inside of me that I have kept away from prying hands and eyes away.

Sometimes I feel my father doesn’t respect my space or my attitude towards certain things that I feel very strongly about. I can’t stand this place now. I can’t stand being around him here and being judged all the time. I can’t stand not being outstanding at doing something which I love; being in the spotlight like it was when I was on the stage shining for my mother. It’s not something I want to do again sometime soon.

It reminds me too much of her and knowing that her seat will always remain empty forever leaves me on edge.

Sometimes my father says I am just like her. My moods, my mannerisms, the things I say, the fact that I like books and reading so much (although I hate romance novels, the endings are too transparent; you know how the book is going to end from the first page already), when I think about something long and hard before I reply and my nose crinkles up and I get these lines on my forehead.

The day stretches on. We fill it up with car pooling, lists, priorities and schedules. He hurts. I hurt. We both have this ache in our heart that can never go away. There will never be another mother’s day in our household unless my father goes and remarries and I get a new stepmother. It’s not something I look forward to; my father getting out there and dating again. I can’t choose who he falls in love with; that’s not my prerogative. I wouldn’t want to anyway.

My father still sees me as a child. He called me ‘you’re just a girl, a smart aleck’ (we were having an argument) the other day but inside after everything the two of us have been through these past months I don’t think that’s fair. I hate the word ‘teenager’ even more. I feel more grown up that’s all. Not a girl, not yet a woman.

We had moved to Johannesburg or Jozi as the locals called it. It was hot. Sweltering heat seemed to melt everything in sight; my ice-cream for one and my pain, the pain that came from my mother’s passing into pieces of thought.

We live in a new house on Paradise Road now. My mother would have liked the garden that is here. Everything smells like dew, fresh and pure in the morning. You feel like turning over a new leaf or if I wake up and have a bad mood in the morning I just have to step outside with my cup of coffee, barefoot, my nightgown trailing on the outside steps and then I feel as if I have been welcomed into a different world. I see the world in different eyes.

It’s winter now. A chill has descended on everything outside even the shrieks of the children at play end long before night time. Dark clouds are gathering in daily as they often do this time of year; winter has come soon; rain closes in, plummets into umbrellas, eyes are shielded by hands. There are slick pavements, congested roads and traffic and the windows filled with cosmopolitan displays, some with mannequins in the expensive shop windows are now in blurred states.

I am left with a blank emotional slate. I cannot escape from the silence that fills my room. Some nights are bittersweet. Is my mother watching over me from heaven? Does it even exist? As I fill in the quiet moments with the beauty that is introspection, I am left an empty shell of a girl or perhaps it is just the weather that is making me feel so blue.

The support that we got from Hospice during my mother’s illness encouraged me so much that I thought about maybe volunteering for a charity, Red Cross, a nursery school or a not for profit organisation. I even thought about becoming a doctor or a psychologist. Working with people who were deeply impacted and affected by a death, untimely or otherwise, in the family and the unconditional love that they had for the person who died and the love they built up over many years struck me deeply. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to teach other people that hope is in the letting go of someone that you love and deeply care about.

The grieving process is not one that is easy. It has not been easy on both my father and me. It slowly gives way to inner strength, human will and emotional maturity. I’m growing up. There’s no turning back now.