#BeitbridgeMemoirs: Of memories, tears and healing

Last December I went home. Home is Beitbridge. I was received with tears and admonishes for having been gone too long.

I was surprised by the outpouring of emotion, the overwhelming love and mostly, I was surprised that my absence had been so keenly felt.

I will explain the source of my surprise.


I was surprised because I had never quite considered just how much I mattered to my father and my mother’s relatives.

When my parents died, I felt like my value and worth in the family structure had severely diminished. I grieved for my parents as if I were the only one who felt the blow of their passing on.

In fact, I somehow convinced myself that no one else could have been as shattered as I was and I reckoned that if no one else was as shattered as me – it meant their pain was not worth noting.

This was 15 years ago and it has taken me a long time to realize how wrong I was. Grief is a strange thing.

Sometimes it makes us so self-absorbed that we cannot see beyond our agony to acknowledge the pain of others.
I have an inclination towards asserting my individuality such that even in grieving; I sought to individualize the loss and refused to let it be a collective and shared grief.

This past Christmas I took the opportunity to visit my maternal and paternal relatives, some of them had last seen me at my parents’ funerals 15 years ago.

They were very emotional. And they kept talking about my parents. This outpouring of emotion made me aware for the first time of just how much my parents had been loved and cherished by others.

I felt ashamed that I had so disregarded their pain, discounted the depth of their own loss and failed to be a comfort to them even as I’d refused to draw comfort from them.

My maternal uncle’s eyes welled with tears and his voice choked with emotion when he saw me after so many years.

Virginia’s child,” he said, “Is this you? You, who have been gone this long? Without a call or even a random letter to let us know that you are well. I have missed you and not a day goes by that I don’t mention your name, to ask where you are and if you are okay. How could you go and not return, just go and not remember us. Don’t forget us who love you even if we may have no material things to offer you. I am your mother too, even if I am a man – I am your mother too.

I was moved and I was shamed. I had forgotten what it means to be ‘important’ to other people. When my parents died, I stopped expecting people to see me as important so that it wouldn’t hurt me if they neglected or forgot about me.

My maternal uncle was happy and upset at the same time. He adored my mother (his baby sister) and when he acquired a house, the largest and most prominently placed portrait in his living room was one of his late baby sister.

I have many siblings that I love dearly and I cannot begin to imagine how I would cope with losing a single one of them. I only realized now how much comfort and joy my maternal uncle derives from seeing me and from having some ‘tangible, living, breathing, walking and talking’ reminder of his late baby sister.

Yet I had discounted all this in my self-obsessed immersion in grief.

I remember how my maternal grandfather died three months after he buried my mother (his last born child and his favorite too).

My maternal grandmother insisted that he had died of a broken heart. I had been skeptical at the time. For my maternal grandfather had one leg, the other had been amputated below the knee and for many years he limped on an iron stump that was very heavy. My father later bought him an artificial leg and he was able to wear both shoes which he enjoyed immensely.

I recall thinking that a man who had lost a leg was very strong, so strong that surely he could not die from sadness. But over the years, I grew to learn that my grandfather had suffered many things but never had he buried his own child until my mother’s death.

Now that I am a parent, I can begin to fully appreciate the impact of my mother’s death and the lives that were irrevocably changed the day she died.

My maternal grandmother spoke of how my grandfather simply lost the will to live, withdrawing from everyone and often preferring to not converse with anyone. Before he died they took him to the hospital where a nurse scolded them for troubling an old man because she said his blood pressure was so high it probably meant the family was stressing him.

It was not stress, it was soul-destroying grief… the kind of grief known to a parent who has to bury their child.

How I could have possibly imagined that my pain was unique, so extraordinary and so much more important than the pain of my grandfather and other family members is beyond me. In retrospect, I was too immature to have known better.

While they grieved with me and for themselves… my family had to make time to grieve specially for me – for the daughter who had lost a mother. And yet I could not step outside of my own anguish long enough to grieve for them and to acknowledge their loss – the brother who lost a baby sister, the father who lost a daughter, the husband who lost his wife and so on.

For a long time I viewed the death of my parents as something that happened exclusively to me. I bore the grief of losing them as an individual and solitary process, a pain that I felt and suffered alone. I was wrong in imagining that mine was the only pain that mattered because they had been MY parents.

It seemed to me back then that no one else was as hurt as I was…like no one else ‘could be’ or even ‘should be’ as hurt as me. Over the years I have come to appreciate and understand that my relatives lost two people they loved and cherished the day my parents each died. It is such an obvious thing to me now.

But I was so blind to it back then. Trying to elevate my pain and suffering and loss and grief above that of others. Trying to assert a more exclusive claim to the burden of grief as if others did not feel it as keenly. It shames me now to recall how self-centered I was.

This past holiday I realized what a comfort I am to my relatives…seeing me and talking to me gave them so much comfort and eased their pain. And I had withheld such comfort by being so distant and straying so far from them. I was chastised.

I am not the only one who lost someone the day my parents died. My paternal uncles lost a big brother who’d vigilantly watched over them all their lives. The youngest of my uncles was expecting his first child who was born less than a month later. It must have been such a bittersweet year for him.

I reckon it must still hurt to know that his big brother did not live to see his first child. In any event, my paternal uncle went on to name his first child after my dad. Now when I visit him, every day the name of my father is mentioned when we call his namesake. My uncle also gave his son a Venda name – Aifheli – which means something doesn’t end.

I asked him about it once and he said, he meant that memories do not end. The memories we have and carry of people we’ve loved and lost, they do not fade or end – we do not forget them. I have no doubt he was thinking of my father mostly when he named his first child.

Looking back now, it feels like I never fully appreciated the depth and texture of my paternal uncle’s grief.

How could I when I had been so busy elevating my pain above that of everyone else. So selfish of me.

It didn’t occur to me that other people were as hurt as I was by the death of my parents. I failed to consider that my parents were deeply loved by others and that their death changed other people’s lives forever.

I was not the only one who loved my parents and who mourned their passing on. Even though it seemed like everyone just carried on with their lives despite my parents’ death.

The fact that they could carry on with their lives after such a terrible blow had been dealt seemed to suggest that perhaps they had forgotten because perhaps they had not been as deeply wounded or affected as I was.

But now I know we can move on without forgetting, we can move on in many aspects of our lives but in other aspects we can stay stuck, stay grieving, stay hurting and stay remembering.

I learnt a lot over the holidays spending time with my relatives from both sides. Maybe because I was emotionally ready to learn and maybe because I was met with such breathtakingly fierce love that I found myself wondering why I never noticed.

I think it is because I felt lost without my parents and didn’t know how to claim or locate a place for myself within the family without them.

But going home was a therapeutic thing. Lots of painful memories relived and lots of tears and healing was gained.

Every now and then I think it is important to just go home.

Home where people know you as the child of so and so…. where your status and position and education and accomplishments don’t change who you are in the eyes of those who watched you as you grew up.

And when we lose the ones we love, we must never hesitate to draw comfort and strength from the pool of people who share in that loss.

Some glimpse into my parents can be found here —>

 Remember me…or maybe not (written when I forgot the anniversary of my mother’s death in 2010)

My father – A man of emotions (written in fond and bemused memory of my dad)

The day Mmawe followed me (written as a nostalgic recollection of my mother’s protectiveness)

My soul limps… now

I go through the days with a firm resolve and the same goal that pulled me back from the edge of that precipice now propels me forward.

But it is never an easy thing to drag anyone away from the carcasses of their hopes and the mortuary of dreams. It is not enough to say to the soul, “look here, it is dead. Let it go.”

The soul will not have it. It will not be reasoned with. Because wherever a person’s heart ventures – the soul plants its roots and calls it home. And you were my home.

You were home.

In the aloneness of this solitude I have no one to put up pretence for. But some habits must have somehow snuck into the tightly packed luggage I brought with me. Even though I am surrounded by strangers, I still pretend I am fine – as if they could tell the difference.

Some things are hard to live behind.

They are too burrowed deeply into the survival kit of our psyche. And they are forged by seasons of hardship, of pain and of life’s endless unknowable and unshareable sorrows.

Home is not a place. It is not a thing or an object. Home is a person. If you’re lucky it’s many people but for most of us – it’s usually just one person.

And even if the home goes up in flames the soul lingers round it like some crazed phantom refusing to believe that all is lost. The soul is too stubborn to be reasoned with.

It will keep you there. In the rubbles of the past, driving you mad with its frenzied desire to go through the rubble attempting to find something salvageable.

There is nothing left. It is all gone. And in the end you have to be okay with the fact that it’s gone. But your soul wants to go home to a home that no longer exists.

You show it pictures of the devastation. You show it the witness reports your heart has compiled over the years – detailing every pain sustained, every hurt inflicted and every self-demeaning act of retaliation.

Your mind weighs in – with minty fresh memories of disasters endured, of laughter that got extinguished and soul deep agonies to which the defenceless body curled up through long nights.

You want to tell the soul, “let’s go.” And it won’t budge. It won’t.

Like the desperate futility of holding on to the corpse of a cherished one, the soul wants to stay here.

Wants to try and nourish these drought-hardened soils. Wants to sacrifice itself by making manure out of its roots to fertilize the ground again… perchance something may spring up again.

You tell it “no. We have tried it all. It’s over. Let’s go. Please.”

And in the end you are left with no choice. You must go. This is no longer home. It hasn’t been for a very long time. You must go.

And so you wait until your soul takes a nap, lift it gently and tenderly; try to carefully uproot it from the ground and realize you can’t – it’s too deeply rooted.

If you don’t hurry, your soul will awake and keep begging you, “let’s try one last time. Please. Just one last time.”

But you know that one-last-time would be a waste of last times. You know the reserves containing your one-last-times have become depleted. You know you spent them on this very space and you are running out of one-last-times to spare.

You cannot try it one-last-time.

You are looking at the flatline on the screen, telling you that there is nothing left to resuscitate – that the dreams which once thrived have shrivelled and died. That the hopes which were on life support slipped into a coma and did not survive the wounds inflicted by sterilized loss.

Sterilized loss is a silent killer; a grief denied gains potency with time. Grief is a messy business but sterilizing it only pushes it deeper into our souls. By denying it an outlet – it becomes at home in our hearts – tiny slivers of unacknowledged pain.

We die from tiny defeats, from small let downs and from tiny flesh wounds…it is not their tininess that matters – it is their multitude – death by a thousand paper cuts is still a death.

Your soul is starting to stir and you know the nap will soon be over. You must go. And if you cannot convince your soul then you must just take it with you by force. There is nothing to stay here for.

So you grab it. Grab your reluctant soul and realize the roots are still tied to this ground. Your soul wakes up in alarm and demands to know where you’re taking it, why you don’t want to try one-last-time. You are done talking.

You tell your soul it is time to go. Go before you die in this mass grave containing all the dead dreams and hopes of the past.

Your soul says it will go but there’s a price, “Leave something behind. Leave a piece of me here. This used to be home. Something must be left behind. This used to be home.”

And so I carried my soul out of there, stumbled out into the open of a new day and am blinded by the brightness of future prospects.

“Put me down”, says my soul, “I can walk from here”.

I put it down and begin to walk, thinking that it was right by my side… but a few steps and I realize something is wrong.

I turn back to see my soul following with a limp, “what did you do?” I ask in distress.

And my soul says, “I left something behind. So that I could remember the home that once was. If I could not save it, then let me at least remember. It used to be home. It used to matter.”

Now I understand why my soul limps and why my smile curves into a sad tilt and why my laughter goes out of tune sometimes… ringing in a high falsetto.

You used to be home. You used to matter. And my soul limps to honour that.

My writing has packed its bags… and is leaving

I have been struggling to write of late. And it is a frustrating and frightening thing. Frustrating because writing is something that has always come effortlessly to me.

And when I have to exert myself when writing an article; I let it go. I cannot force it.

That is not the kind of relationship that words and I have… I don’t force them to come. There is no coercion just camaraderie.

Words and I. For as long as I can remember we have been ‘in this’ together. And by ‘this’ I mean the business of living. The business of thinking, of questioning things, of seeking answers, of trying to do better, be better and be relevant.

I need the words. I need to write again.

I am frightened. Frightened by this silent treatment my mind gives me when I say to it, “hey why don’t we find words and scribble something up?”.

Writing has always given me release, always allowed me free reign – enabling me to make my thoughts visible where I could not make them audible. I want it back. My writing.

Anyway I have worked it out. Why the words won’t come. Why the writing is being so aloof. It’s because I am distracted. Because my mind is on a leash… tethered to that nasty thing called ‘unfinished business’.

And in my life there are people who go by that name as well – the people I have ‘unfinished business’ with whom I have judiciously avoided dealing with to the point where it is stressing my mind out!

And now even my writing has packed up its bags, is standing at the door and telling me how things won’t work between us unless I get rid of the distractions.

Now the ‘unfinished business’ is people or things that fall into these categories:

1) The hurts I can’t let go of…
There. I said it. Every year end when I sort out through the stuff I want to enter the new year with; there are certain hurts I make sure I pack to take along with me. I keep the hurts, the really deep ones because I want the pain to be a constant reminder of why I should not let people in. Why I should not trust or depend or need anybody. Why I should learn to crawl if I can’t walk rather than accept the outstretched hand of someone offering to help me to my feet. I keep these hurts because they are souvenirs of risks I was once willing to take, gambles I was once brave enough to make and I especially keep them so that I don’t forget the person who inflicted them on me. So that I don’t ever forget. If I forget it may trivialize the enormity of their transgression against me. But if I keep the hurts – keep them minty fresh – hold on to them tight; through the years and seasons; then it will be reminder that I got hurt and that the hurt was so bad it has not healed and so the offense cannot be pardoned.

2) The things that could have been…
And every year when I pack up for the next year… I pack again a little box of the things I almost had that life cruelly snatched out of my reach. By life I am referring to specific people and their choices that impacted on my life because I had been foolish enough to bank my life on theirs. I keep this box as a set of lessons that I must never attempt to travel through life without. All the things that could have been have one thing in common – they all required the cooperation of somebody else and they all failed because that somebody failed me. So the lesson I learned from the things that could have been is that I increase exponentially my chances of succeeding in life when I go it alone. I learned that if I premise my life on relationships or make someone other than myself central to what I am hoping to achieve – it has the terrible potential of becoming a colossal failure. In short, it has taught me to regard with fear, suspicion and scepticism the hand that would interlace its fingers with mine.

3) The hopes that got deferred…
Each year I carry over, the hopes from the previous years that never came to fruition. And with the years, I find there are some hopes that lingered year after year even when I can see that there is no way they can ever materialize. These I keep locked away and double-bolted in the attic of my mind because they are the worst form of self-torture. They are the heart’s refusal to accept what is and the soul’s refusal to let go of what never was. Because these are things that were fed by everything in me that was beautiful, good, well-meaning, pure and positive. How can such things, fed on such a wholesome diet of everything that embodies goodness in me not come to be. For hope is fed by nothing dark, negative, malicious or twisted. No. Hope is the stuff of goodness. In the balance of life and karma… the hopes that got deferred hurt the most because they sting my innate sense of fairness, of rightness, of just reward and deservingness. So I carry them along too; to remind myself that life is too stochastic to entertain certainty in self, in people and in what the future holds. In short, the lesson I carry from this is – you never know what’s going to happen.

4) The people I won’t forgive…
I have a list of people held captive in my dungeon of grudges. These are people who have let me down; and these people who’ve walked away when they’d said they’d always be there; and these are people who returned my good with evil; these are people who took something from me that I have not yet figured out how to restore – my faith in humanity. Every year, I declare an amnesty for these captives of grudges and I am glad to say many often go scot free. BUT there is a select core of people whom when I release others; my heart reinforces the cage of bitterness and resolutely increases the chaining restraints to make sure they don’t escape. This dungeon is safely guarded somewhere in the recesses of my heart and they have made for light luggage over the years to the point where I can go for months on end without thinking of them but some little thing will trigger a memory and before I know it; I am standing in that dungeon reliving the unjust treatment they gave me and wishing I had more rope to tie them up in. They are ‘unfinished business’ because I am afraid that if I set them free; it will make what they did to me right… it will sanction their actions and it will trivialize the gravity of how they wronged me. I don’t want it to be okay that they hurt me. Because it is not okay. And it will never be okay. Forgiving them would be like saying it’s okay. And it’s not.

5) The things I regret…
Of course the most unfinished business is the stuff I regret. The choices I made that I shouldn’t have made; the people I hurt that I shouldn’t have hurt, the places I stayed when I should have left; and the places I left when I should have stayed. The promises I made that I failed to keep; the people I rejected when they deserved a chance; the people I kept making excuses for when they didn’t deserve the generosity of my loyalty; the people I have betrayed when they’d honoured me with their trust; the things I did that I shouldn’t have and mostly the things I didn’t do that I ought to have done. I carry these along with me to remember that I am not better than others. That I am as messed up as the next person. That I have no right to judge. That my pain is not special, unique or more noteworthy than that of others. That I am only human and can only do the best I can with what I have when I have it. That I too have done horrible things and yet remain a good person. That people deserve a second chance to redeem themselves but also that some people cannot be redeemed and regardless of how many chances they get – they will be what they’d rather be. My regrets teach me that no one can save me from myself and I can never save others from themselves. In short, I cannot change other people; I can only change me.

So my writing is still standing at the door, all packed up and ready to leave – my mind is still tied to a leash, straining to get past all the ‘unfinished business’ so that we get on with the dreams yet to be fulfilled.

Remember me (or maybe not)

This year I forgot to remember the day my mother died. I mean I went through the entire day without even thinking of her, without stopping to be sad or to be appropriately somber. Even now the admission makes me feel wretched.

When I realized what had happened, I was ashamed – ashamed that the wounds had healed -ashamed that the tears had dried up, ashamed that I had carried on with life, ashamed that I had lived while my mother had not.

What kind of a daughter was I? How could I have forgotten to remember?

...we all forget the people we love that's why we 'remember' them. For remembrance presupposes that one had forgotten. For it is not human nature for one to remember unless first they forget...

How is it possible that when we lose the ones we love – we are convinced that we will never ever get over it? And how is it that time has the gumption to heal us without our consent and often without us realizing it?

How is it possible that the dagger of pain that lodges in our heart when we lose someone we love eventually shrinks and fades into a distant memory? And how is it possible that life fills us with so much to do we barely find the time to sit and ponder where the pain disappeared to?

How is it possible that the anguish of the loss can so disorient us, that we find ourselves adrift without a compass to navigate life’s hazards? And how is it possible that we make choices, one way or the other and find we’ve reached the destination on our own?

How is it possible that the grief which tears at our guts recedes into a barely perceptible ache? And why is it that our hearts continue to beat when we no longer have the will to live?

How is it possible that the memories that once besieged us, gradually vacate our minds to make room for the new memories we make along life’s journey?

What right do we have to carry on when the ones we love are gone? I mean what is a more fitting tribute than to grieve and mourn for them, to prove to ourselves and to others that they really mattered, that they still matter and that they’ll always matter?

I find myself thinking, who’ll remember me when I die? Who’ll miss me and who’ll care enough to mark the months, to count the years and to recall so trivial a detail as the date of the day that I die?

Will my son? Will the man I choose to spend my life with? Will my brother or my sister? Will the people I befriended, the people who befriended me and those who helped me or those I too, helped? Who will remember me?

Or will life inexorably go on? Will the memory of me lie discarded in the attic of their minds, gathering layers of dust and tucked away in the recesses of forgetfulness?

I think that if the memory of me brought nothing but sadness to those I cherish, I would much rather they forget me and embrace life. I would rather that they would sing, dance, fall in love and experience every possible wonderful thing before their time runs out.

For I would hate to think that my death would signal the end of their own lives – that in loving me, they chose to hate life – what a horrible waste I would think, what an awful tragedy it would be.

So as I ponder upon it; I find it is not a thing of shame that I did not remember that date – I think it is a thing my mother would have approved of. For she would not want me to build a shrine to her in my head – in the space where I could build dreams of the future; neither would she want me to erect an alter of sadness to pay tribute to her – in the space where I could weave fond memories to share with the grandson she didn’t live to meet.

So when I am dead, may those I love honor the memory of me by living and not by dying.

May those who looked up to me immortalize me by succeeding and not quitting.

May those who cherished me pay tribute to me through laughter and not tears.

And in the words of Christina Rossetti: Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

…in fond memory of my late mother, Virginia Machoeni Ndou (nee Lamola) who’ll always be in my heart though with the inevitable passing of time; she may stray from my mind.