||The small handprint of a saint
by Abigail George
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|A thousand African suns blazing and burning brightly could not wish the first memory I had of you; of us away. The three of us were playing ‘doctor’. Even then and now when I think of you, my brother my heart is inspired when I think of you talking away animatedly about an opinion which you feel strongly about with your friends or your colleagues in the workplace. The complicated little words that trip over your tongue like lighting in a thunderstorm or honey glazed on the edge of a spoon stripped down to the truth simply come alive unlike any other person I have ever known.
The three of us, my siblings and I grew up in a middle-class home. Our parents grew up poor. They grew up eating sugar on bread and my father’s mother cooked fish heads by boiling it up in water and removed the bones and mixed it with dry bread into a mixture with onions, garlic and tomato. It was fried in hot oil and presented as a meal on top of millie rice. She made pickled fish especially at Easter. Special fish was bought at the Haika. This was where the fisherman sold their fish of the day. My father and his four siblings cleaned the fish. My father’s mother made boiled up potatoes and tomato and onion mix and rice. But we were more lucky. We went posh in a way after my brother and sister started working. We’d go to Woolworth’s now with my sister’s Woolies card, Superspar, Shoprite Checkers or Pick ‘n Pay. Sometimes when they were here on a holiday they would buy us groceries costing nearly over R2000.00. They could afford that exorbitant price even because of the recession and in little ways they never made me forget it.
Poverty gave them an indomitable inner strength that was sorely lacking somewhat in us. They had backbone; a unique and calming self-confidence. It was a learned reflex already there from birth. They believed that they had to work hard for everything they wanted and needed. They believed that the world didn’t owe them anything. We were spoiled rotten and got everything handed to us on with a silver spoon on a golden platter.
We were taught to believe that we were saved; we were God’s children and brought up never to believe in the social classes. We were also taught that we were all equal. No one was different to us. We were the same even if the colour, length and texture of our hair were different or the shape of our eyes. As we grew up in that ticking time-bomb, that mine, that heartbreak warfare, that hot zone, that subtle machine we called a home, a household, a family our own heartache began to wear us down. It began to drown us individually with our own tears, wrenching sobs into pillows at night when the light was off, the television was no longer blaring hard enough to ease the tension in the room and emotional baggage.
We, my brother, sister and I called it subterfuge, warped self-destruction or weird self-sabotage; our parental units called it unconditional love. When we discovered books, another internal world we were spared from any emotional abuse and the ebullient vitriol of my mother. Imagination gave way to escape and vice versa. We didn’t always protect one another. We didn’t know how to keep my mother’s Moodswings at bay. They abated at will. Their wasn’t always a smack or a slap to pull us into place but there was always a mean temper or a tirade against my father for some reason or other that was beyond any child’s reason. It concerned consenting adults, games and affairs for grown ups.
In childhood our heartache lay in an unbearable universe, a planet that was masked and repeatedly unmasked and jaded. It was not opening at all for the brutal once over or business of other people. You are an earthly saint. You were and still are my earthly saint. You saved me from my frail, overpowering, overwhelming madness and falling euphoria and my flailing happiness. I was completely defenceless and powerless to stop it. As a family we all were.
Nobody spoke about the words ‘depression’ or ‘mental illness’ when we were growing up. There were times when I could lay for hours locked in a dreamless sleep, numb with anti-depressants and melancholy. A deep, disturbing, unnatural sadness that was hard to read, cover up or explain that no one in our house could make sense of only our father could. Our father was the hero, the educator, the resilient teacher, the gifted, the giant and the other one who also suffered from the same malaise. He was the one who could explain words like ‘psychometric testing’, ‘in-patient’, ‘lithium’, ‘recovery, ‘electro-shock therapy’, ‘cognitive’, ‘genius’, ‘bipolar’, ‘psychologist’, ‘psychiatrist’ and ‘creativity’. Are there words that will aptly fit those descriptions in any African language? I don’t know. I think too little is seen publicly of what the words ‘madness’, ‘unseen’, ‘unquiet’ and ‘lunatic’ really means. Some people see it as witchcraft. That is word that has been bandied a lot about now recently.
Of what is seen is just of entertainment value that is the lighter side of it. ‘One who flew the cuckoo’s nest’ starring Jack Nicholson. It is the side the funny, ha-ha side that can be endured without fracturing your spirit or endangering your thought processes to actively engage in of what your world or immediate environment thinks the words ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ mean.
When my head began to feel lightheaded, sometimes because of the medication I was on and sometimes not and when pictures were reduced to dots or a fuzzy and drug-induced haze that refused to be captured to make any sense. When words and sentences became curling loops and swirls in front of my eyes that was the sign that I wanted to be left alone and I wanted the rest of the world to go away. I wanted to curl up in a foetal position on my bed and the rest of the world be damned if I was going to pay attention to it and speak.
Lines, reality, the world around me were blurred around the edges. They were conniving, cunning, manipulative and filled with awful lies and deceitfulness that couldn’t be trusted. These lines stabbed at the air around them like knives. They pulsated like the thread of a purple vein on the inside of the arm. These lines had a pulse and life all of their own. They did not look the other way when the shroud of depression fell over me and all the loveliness and the beauty I could see in the world, that I counted on to always be there disappeared without a trace.
The illness transformed me into someone who seemed to live in two worlds. There was one world where I seemed to fall into a slipstream of a depressive slump. I slept whole days away at a time. I couldn’t remember the date or which day of the week it was. I couldn’t account for how much time I allotted to chores or daily tasks like a shower, brushing my teeth or cleaning my bedroom or watching television. I watched drivel, talk shows, nonsense, soap operas, sitcoms, bad B-movies; horror like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and cartoons. All their behaviour rubbed off on me a little. I was a giant walking human stain of inadequacy and worthlessness. Self-pity was my middle name.
In the other world I was liquid happy, high on life and manic all the time. It felt pure and like I was always having a joyful time. It was a time when I felt no peace of mind, just kerfuffle. There were just random thoughts, even more random places, disjointed ideas which lacked any sought of solid consistency, basis and commitment. My brain was always half-full.
These ideas floated held up by unseen hands like the chair of a ferris-wheel. They were as colourful and acid bright as a rainbow seen through the smudged windscreen of a racing car in traffic because of an emergency. There were inelegant corners and angles sometimes of words that bewitched me and that I left me stone cold inside like ‘hospitalisation’, ‘death’, ‘overdose’, ‘swallowing a handful of sleeping pills’, ‘Dr. Kevorkian’, ‘Sylvia Plath’, ‘Ingrid Jonker’, ‘Anne Sexton’, ‘Virginia Woolf’ and ‘suicide’. I only became aware of that later in my life as I looked back on the consequences of what became my ordeal; my illness. I had to live with it. In the beginning when the doctors still had to figure out a diagnosis for me I had to suffer in silence alone with my journal. I shared it with no one.
Writing strengthened my mind and my will and it motivated me to overcome my dark moods, my blue-black thoughts and unresolved feelings towards God and the universe. But in the background you, my brother were always there. My sister, the good, the educated girl was rendered invisible through what felt like forever. She seemed to be the only one in the family that remained wholly untouched and pure by my illness.
Instead of being put out by having no solutions and no answers for my illness’s appearance, she stayed blasé, an innocent and withdrew into a hardened shell of her own making. After that she was a tough act to follow and an even harder nut to crack open and reveal her frustrations and vulnerability.
You, my brother were small, brave, determined, fighting against everything that was bad and sometimes good in the world and I left you well alone to do it all and to make up for what I didn’t do then I am writing this now to you. I want to say thank you for the small handprint of a saint on my active life that lay finally belatedly discovered, the unconditional love that was always there in your heart for me and the imprint of God of the universe, the supreme in it that you reminded me of.
There was no other way for me to explain what was happening to me but through writing prolifically in cryptic and condensed notes in journals and diaries, sometimes with a blunt pencil on scraps of tissue paper that were so thin that they erased some of the letters that I wrote down in haste trying to hold onto them for as long as I could make sense out of them. They finally and ultimately masked the hurt and the sadness, the isolation and rejection that I was feeling from being born being very different from other people.
Borders and boundaries were blind-sided inside my head. They were gray and instead of reading between black and white there existed a world that was heavy, gray and where there was a continual downpour of rain that swept all cognitive thinking, hope and optimism away in a heap. It made me lazy and made me feel hopeless and helpless.
I became more sensitive as the months went on and little by little as you grew up in this mad household you too became more intuitive and sensitive to the telepathic link I seemed to have to crazy, creative, genius and obsessive compulsive, lunacy.
The hardware of my heart seemed to by wired up very differently than other people my age and my gender. I suffered in silence rather than letting my parents know exactly what I was thinking and feeling and you, my saint, my brother followed my lead, played the same role I did as I grew up. There I was stuck, selfish, with a morose attitude, a defiant and stubborn air that would not reveal anything that I was really feeling and you followed suit not giving anything away that you could not take back for yourself in return.
When you are sullen you are silent. Here your thoughts working overtime. Your mind is hard to read. You are stuck in a fabricated world of your own making. What am I made of in that world I ask myself? How did you see me as when back when we were growing up? Were we close, did we confide in each other, were we loyal to one another, were we completely honest with each other or did we keep a useless and safe distance from each other? Did we keep each other at arm’s length when it suited both of us?
Everyday I hope all is well with you and that you are happy and keeping safe as always and using your best judgement when it comes to anything hard that you have to face in your life. We haven’t really spoken to each other in a long while so I thought I’d sent you this email not that we have to catch up on anything important or say we love each other. We love you very much and we miss you everyday although we understand now that you are older and wiser and we have to learn not to control what you say, feel or think anymore. I think it’s harder for mummy to let go since you will always be her baby. These are things that seem easier to say when faced with a screen and a keyboard than face to face. You are growing up, growing fast as you take on new responsibilities, new roles to play and it is hard to let go.
I hope we will still remain in touch and in contact with each other with each new role that you take on. We pray for you everyday. You are always in our thoughts. You are never far away from what we think, feel or do each day. But on some level I feel I don’t have to tell you that. It is something you intrinsically already know via that link through the telepathic close knitted families sometimes share. You are blessed. You will be a blessing to others presently and in the future. You are a blessing. But I am probably telling you something mummy has always said about you. There was always something about the futurist about you even when you were very young. I think that is one of the wonderful qualities about you and why it attracts certain people to you and the kind of people it does. Everyone is attracted to light because of its purity, its kindness, and its encompassing tenderness. I don’t know why I’m writing this. I just felt I was compelled to. But I know you will understand why.
You have left an invisible signature in every room of this house before you went away finally to university leaving everything that belonged to you as a child, as an insolent teenager behind. Your invisible handprint is embedded on every cup, spoon, fork, knife, plate, the remote for the television set; an imprint that only I can see and feel and brush my fingertips across with a fervent longing. What do you think? What do you see? What do you feel now that we are apart - a brother and a sister, separated by space, distance, time, cities and a skyline?
We are separated by a city that is filled with corrupt politicians, the slavery of money, a city that never sleeps and that seeks daily emancipation from stress, burn out and depression. It is a depression that lingers in the state of mind of every civilian, innocent girl or boy child that is orphaned or seeking attention, a naïve young unmarried woman or man who wants to know what his meaning and purpose is in the world.
It is a sadness that exists for those people in who can’t account for a sweet, unadulterated union in their mind that is not unlike my adolescent clinical depression. It is one that seeks a cure for all that ails it. People escape from it by not abstaining from alcohol, refusing to be sober, functional, productive human being, from gambling, wheeling and dealing, from using over the counter prescription drugs, sex, pornography, anything that can re-stabilize you from venting, ranting or behaving irrationally or abnormally from the point of view of people that you come into contact with or in your immediate environment.
You live there now. You are in the midst of tragedies everyday. You live in sin city. You are one of the city’s kings. You live well. You are well-off. You no longer have any reason to come home now. Although I am still here. Saint or no saint maybe. Your childhood was rough and is through and while it did manage to through you off balance somewhat in those years. There were years you perhaps felt you had no control over what was happening in that house when I was no longer there with my own moods brewing surfacing underneath it all. I could not resist judging both of them any longer. You are a jetsetter now. You don’t walk anymore, run and swim to get you to the other side roughly the safe side where you can stand in the water. You don’t swim under water holding your breathe anymore when you could your breathe the longest. It proved that physically amongst the three of us you were the strongest. Now you fly through books, through the air in airplanes, play squash, soccer with your colleagues and poker. That easy familiarity we had between the two of us when we were younger is now over. We are the adults now and we are always careful about what we say around each other. Sometimes I think you are punishing me for what I did. For leaving you behind. I did my best Saint Maybe.
The place, the city that you now call home is not so different from the one I live in now and that is filled with most of the same things. Side streets filled with prostitution, clubs with thumping music coming out onto the street, missionaries with tracts about God, requesting, appealing to every drug addict or dealer to come to church on Sunday where if it’s God’s will they will receive forgiveness for their sacrifice. There are backstreet abortionists, sleek, well-heeled pimps, drug dealers, substance abusers, rehabs, trafficking, xenophobic attacks, criminal activity and syndicates. They are both cities that are filled with all things mean, insensitive, impure, nasty and bad people who do the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.
Here where you live now and call home far away from what knitted you together in the womb and what shaped you were a little boy is a vibe, an army made up of a ‘sandwich’ of people called the Salvation Army, a beat, a rhythm, a friendly mix of different nationalities, Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, expatriates, nations, religions, faiths, beliefs, values, lips that chant melodies, curse and sing choruses, feet that stomp, march like dapper soldiers on the streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa that is like no other. Here there is no sea mist, no pier, no shark warnings and surfers in wetsuits that hug their bodies, seagulls squawking overhead, shells, blue bottles that drift on the foam of the sea water at the end of the edge of a rippling tide on a wave, driftwood and beachcombers. There is no sea, no boats, dinghies, buoys, beaches, cave like dunes, no smell of salt in your hair, salt windswept against your face, the taste of it on your lips, no fish and chips wrapped up in yesterday’s old newspaper; a takeaway at a cafe.
Mouths and lips lock in a furious battle, a war of words that knows no beginning, no middle and no end. Who is to blame this time? Whose turn is it this evening? My eye is on the fire ants on the floor chewing up a scrap of rotting fruit, the core of a discarded apple; the ants keep at it with commitment. There is nothing on the blaring television that masks my mother’s emotional blows, emotional scarring. Not the shadows lurking on the wall. My eyes are everywhere except at intercepting the painted face of mum and the eyes of my dad.
Now you live in a city that is landlocked almost like with the claustrophobic barriers of a prison cell or psychiatric hospital, filled with craning skyscrapers, hollering taxi drivers that get you where you want to go at a feverish pace, hawkers at every corner plying anything that the heart desires and anything that can be sold at a price.
Cell phones, jewelry, porn, DVD’s, fruit, vegetables, sweets, colourful toys that when squeezed make a sound, fluffy mielies made in an open air fire in a drum. Women and men sell anything imagineable and that includes anything that they can make a decent living out of and so that they can put food on the table for their impoverished families and snot-nosed, bleary-eyed kids.
They sell donuts, magazines, newspapers; vendors sell meals cooked out here on the streets; delicious smelling braised meat, rice, curries all these smells are slowly filling you up with a sweet, nourishing feeling especially when you are famished or you’re left with an appetite that is not yet sated by a takeaway if they’re not killing you. Here in the slowly refurbished inner city smells hold you captive and roll into one another; they evaporate into a mist made up of other pollutants that settle on the strange, orange horizon of the city that appears first as white smoke. The city shakes with a vibrancy that you could never discover anywhere else.
I wonder do you miss Port Elizabeth at all, the steaming fog on rainy days, the white sea mist that tasted of salt mixed with water at the back of your throat? Where you grew up?
Do you remember the screaming voices of our parents when it reached fever pitch in our childhood home? Do you think our childhood was dysfunctional, warped, weird, abnormal, emotional scarring and unstable or was it normal compared to the kids you went to school with? How does your childhood compare with theirs? What did you do to drown it out?
I escaped but I didn’t take you with me. I escaped to boarding school in the verdant-green, rolling hills of Swaziland. It seems to me now that I was running away from myself more than anything else into the southernmost tip of the deepest, darkest Africa. I shelved all ambitions of being a government puppeteer and an ambitious politician.
I sunk my teeth into books, lived in the corridors of books at library everyday after school reading everything I could get my hands on, fashion magazines like ‘Fair Lady’ and ‘People’, academia, the poetry of dead geniuses long buried, pushing up daisies, who lived seemingly ordinary lives until they committed suicide. I never kept my promise. I never came back. We’re not only shaped by who and how we were, how much we were loved but also by hate, self-loathing, when we were lonely, when we reached the bottom, crashed and burned out and had no way to go but up or popular, exiled, reviled and when we were triumphant and praised; showered with blessings and compliments be it for our talents and our gift of giving.
Look at you now. There are so many words to describe your talents and your gifts. There are too many adjectives and verbs to count in all. You are tall, slender, handsome, young, not old enough yet not to remember the bad things that took place between your mother and father, a charming playboy, intelligent, hungry for ambition, power, money, perhaps even sex now, you are old enough, emotional and financial security, well-connected, happy, satisfied, content, compelling and self-confident. Others will say you are arrogant but I know well enough to know it is just a front that you hide behind. Only drawing them in, letting certain people in by screening them thoroughly on your terms.
People admire you. Women and girls want to get to know you better. You memorise their digits, text them or date them, go out for drinks, flirt with them in exclusive bars and restaurants in Melville, get to know them better on your own turf. Perhaps this is how all children who come from homes where parents had their own problems, their own secrets long before the appearance of their progeny cope with their own brokenness and heartache or perhaps this is that weird wired normal.
You also suffered. I see that now. You suffered in silence, needlessly and without reproach. You deserved more and now you have it all and for that I will always be forever grateful. The imprint of God was always there all along without me asking or begging for it and I got the forgiveness I clamoured for in my waking dreams and reverie even when I did swear that he had no-existence in the realm of this humankind.
I finally got it. The medication grounded me. Therapy replayed the demons inside my head like a cassette player or the noise of the radio. Going to church, sitting in the pew week after week every Sunday, prayer, meditation and the politics of church reminded me of what I had left and what I still had to be grateful for; that I still had so much life in me and around me to appreciate. Brotherly love saved me.
Writing poetry, an essay, a composition for school when I was younger or really anything I wrote gave me a voice to my pain even if the details of my illness freaked me out or left me wired somewhat.
Now my brother, you can afford to buy us the most expensive meal in this place; sushi. The wasabi brings a rush of burning white, hot, salty tears to our faces. We can afford to sit and eat at the tables of posh, fancy restaurants frequented by the well to do and the rich. We are swept away by the beauty of it all. Both humbled and blissfully delighted by it all but it means absolutely nothing to you that you can do something like this for us now. Perhaps it makes you feel honoured somewhat and proud in a way that is indescribable. You do not wish to corrupt us. You reach out and take your gold card out of your wallet when the waiter comes, he asks if this is your card and you nod, he goes away to swipe it.
We relish our meal, lick our fingers, let the golden juices drib down our chin and catch it deftly with a napkin. It will be a lunch, a family get-together that we will remember in a long time. Pictures were taken with your phone. All of us with wan smiles because of the hot weather that was melting all of us under the shade of a beach umbrella with blue and white colours almost carried away across the fake lake surrounding the eatery when the wind turned up later in the afternoon. My sister holds up her poison, a margherita with salt along the rim of her glass, with exotic polished nails, her hair blowing fashionably in the wind behind her laying dark and wild like a petrified forest, or lichen or moss across her shoulders.
You tucked into sweet potato and Kaseler chops that day. Daddy is relaxed. Mum is self-conscious. I had the green Tai curry and it came with popodums. Our aunts, my mother’s sisters are here with us also today. My mother is the youngest. My aunt is wearing a cheap pair of brown sunglasses that she bought at Pep Stores. She has a headache; there is a dim throbbing like a migraine that she can pinpoint behind her eyes. She wears a scarf that covers her thinning, hennaed hair. My other aunt, Caroline is wearing jeans and a pink shirt. Her small wrists rest on the table. Her hair is lays flat across her the front of her head flat. It is chemically treated. She straightens it periodically. Here is something that finally throws my mum’s sometime ambivalent and unpredictable personality and mood off balance. Today is a day out at the beach with the whole enthusiastic family and I am back to my emotionally balanced normal self for now. My public person, another haunting effigy; I am a ghost of my former self. I am back from the dead.
Here salads come with complimentary bowls of green, leafy salad, with balsamic vinegar and olive oil in ornate Grecian jugs, bowls filled with of tepid water for sticky fingers, fresh eggshell white napkins that felt like paper to the touch. We all look so normal on this summertime day. Not a hair, a whisper, an order out of place, laughter all round.
Our drinks are cool to the touch and we open up the cans and pour the liquid in until it reaches the brim of the glass. We wipe the drops on the side off with our thumbs. We stick our straws in and watch in secret delight as it caresses the side of the glass and dissolves the aerated bubbles inside. Today was just another day at the beach, a family outing, a family ousted from troubles and humiliations for just one day, one afternoon.
At home when we were younger meals could become very dangerous quickly, abnormal, screaming, a slap could ensue even out of something rational.
Supper, breakfast, what she made for our lunches, if we were late in the afternoon when she picked us all up from school and even when my father ate at his mother’s house in the afternoon after taking my grandmother to the hospital. His appetite was ruined. She left his supper in the oven wasted. It had to be given to the dog. Sometimes I thought when he did things like that she really truly, deeply hated in her heart him but in the morning sometimes she would turn into someone who was sweet, a kinder version of the mother she really was sometimes daily. Sometimes we just couldn’t keep up with the different versions and the three of us just gave up deciding what went for what. On different days we tried to put our best behaviour on but it was useless walking on eggshells around her.
She was too unpredictable for us.
Sometimes when I think of you I feel the small handprint of a saint maybe pressing, pushing hard, making an indentation, a faint pressure in my hand. Sometimes I work very hard to push that feeling away, far away beyond the memories I still struggle with that I can’t abide so that all that is left is a portrait of you. There is only you. No faint murmur of raised voices anymore blinding my vision.
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