A long time coming
My eyes were always fixed on the heart monitor. I dreaded the moment the blue line flowed straight and the continuous beep turning into one long siren signalling the end. Heavy rains spluttered against the window, making it impossible to see anything outside. The streetlights flickered unwaveringly, like an ever-present lighthouse, faithfully guiding traffic through the storm. I wondered what the world would be like, when I am all alone. He called my name, tugging at his oxygen mask.
“Only if it’s for a good reason,” I responded with a light kiss on his forehead while I removed it.
” …or else it’s going straight back on again.”
At first I thought it was the medication; that he was hallucinating. He spoke with a sense of urgency. “Janice, I had an … affair…when I … was in Johannesburg. I … have … a four year … old … son.”
I wriggled my hand free from his, my mind in turmoil. He was not dreaming.
“This can’t be happening,” I whispered incoherently while I tried to restrain myself. “Derrick, you’re hallucinating.”
He reached out to me, beckoning me to come close but I could see it in his eyes. He was fully aware of what he had just said. I ignored the gesture and moved away from him.
“Why are you telling me all this now, Derrick? Why now?”
“You … have to … fetch … him … no one … to take care of …him.”
“I don’t believe this! Where’s his whore of a mother? Why do I…?”
“She died…a…month… ago. Car…accident. He’s… with… grandmother.”
“So? She can look after him. See if I care.”
“She… can’t…she’s… in…wheelchair.”
I left his bedside for the first time, since he became hospitalised. I went home.
The north easterly wind rushed through the hospital’s entrance doors, as I stepped
outside. How could he, my husband of twenty five years, tell me something so devastatingly life-changing at a time when I was supposed to show my love and support? How did he expect me to keep sane? Sort out his mess while I was dying too. A slower death, with no morphine to ease my pain.
I rushed towards my car with the rain pelting down on me. No sign of the storm backing down.
His laptop was still on the couch where I had left it after rushing him to hospital. Faint trails of his aftershave lingered in the passage leading to our bedroom. I stopped in front of the gold-framed mirror on the wall. I was in my late forties, with a body and looks younger models ‘would kill for’, he used to say. Why then, did he stray? We had spoken about my not being able to bear children. He seemed okay. That was the impression he gave me.
Johannesburg seemed so different, except for the usual busyness of a Metropolitan city. Derrick often suggested we come here for holidays.
“I don’t like Jo’burg,” I used to say.
“What’s not to like?” he’d ask. I never answered.
“Where to, madam?” asked the taxi driver.
“Kensington … 46 Unicorn street.”
I kept fiddling with the piece of paper bearing a name and address. What do I say to this woman?
The taxi stopped outside a small, slightly rundown house.
How could he do this to me?
I opened the gate, its rusty hinges squeaked in protest. The front door was ajar.
“Hello…,” said the little boy, barely taller than the doorknob. “…my Nanna’s coming.”
“Marco! Marco! I told you not to open the door for…”
“Well look what the cat just dragged in!” She was staring at me, her one eye wide open, the other one … blinking. I knew only one person, many years ago who did that, when she was mad at someone. My long-time friend, Lynn Wagner. We were almost like sisters back then. She reversed her wheelchair, making way for me to enter. She was mad alright … at me.
I squeezed past her, avoiding her obvious glare of contempt. “I…I…need to sit…please.”
She spun the wheelchair around, swiping toys from the sofa with the back of her hand, straight into a red Lego toy box.
“Excuse the mess,” she exclaimed. “The ‘help’ only comes in twice a week.”
“Lynn … it’s okay … please …you don’t have to apologise…”
“… Oh, quit selling yourself short now, honey. This house is a far cry from what you’re used to. I feel uncomfortable around you.”
“Why are you in a wheelchair? And what’s with the head scarf?”
“Drop it, Janice! You didn’t come all the way here to enquire about my health. What do you want?”
Well! I never expected the red carpet treatment anyway but nothing … nothing could have prepared me for this.
“Lynn, please tell me the mother of this child is not who I think it is.”
“Work it out, honey! You’ve always been good at that. Figurin’ things out on your own. For the good of your own.”
“Where’s Charlotte? Where’s my daughter?”
“‘Aren’t we forgetting’ something Janice? Then allow me to refresh your memory. Charlotte ‘was’ yours, before you shoved her into my arms, one cold Saturday morning, at a filling station opposite Sandton City mall. Shall we go down memory lane?”
I cringed at her suggestion. Lynn was not one to mince her words. Resigned to my fate, with no energy to engage in a ram-battering session, I did the sensible thing. I allowed her to spill it all out. I had it coming.
“You’d landed a modelling contract in Britain,” she hissed, while staring at the photo above the fireplace. “She’d only ‘be in the way’, you said. She was three months old, Janice! Three bloody months! The child you promised me you’d come back for. Twenty seven years later, you have the nerve to rock up here and ask me, where’s ‘your’ daughter?”
“Okay! Okay!” I shouted, cupping my ears with my hands. “I probably deserved that. I’m sorry.”
“That doesn’t cut it, hon. You should lower your head in shame. Charlotte’s gone and this little boy here, is her son. Your husband’s son.”
Well! If I thought Derek’s revelation had left me staggering in the aftermath of an unexpected earthquake, this one left me like a fish wriggling and gasping for breath on a beach abandoned by the ocean, to construct the grand finale. A monstrous tsunami! Destined to leave chaos and destruction.
“How did you find out I was Derrick’s wife?”
“I asked him…straight out. National Geographic’s award winning photographer with the queen of the catwalk by his side? Paris…Rome…Milan. Never a night in one place. He couldn’t deny it.
“ … and Charlotte? Surely she must have known he was married?”
“Oh get of your moral high horse, Janice! Of course she knew. Haven’t we all? You should
know. You’ve been there. But … if it means anything, she didn’t know who YOU really were.”
I bit my lip, swallowed hard. “You never told her?”
“I had no reason to. You weren’t coming back. It was pointless letting her hold on to something that might never happen. I did what I thought was best for her. I changed our names, in case your conscience got the better of you and you come looking for us. Then I burned all correspondence you and I had. Charlotte lived and died knowing she had a mother. Me!”“You could’ve stopped them …”
“You could’ve stopped them …”
“ … and then what? Tell her the truth? That I wasn’t her real mother?”
“Please, Lynn. Try to understand. This isn’t….”
“Hey! Listen honey! This is NOT about you! Now I knew … deep down I damn well knew you might come back one day; mess up what Charlotte and I had. But your husband beat you to it. I had no choice. I just wanted him to go the hell away, so I told him. But it was too late. She was already pregnant.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, choking on the words as it suddenly dawned on me how this was affecting Lynn. Something I haven’t even thought about.
“Janice! You and I know first-hand, what it was like growing up without parents. Living from one wretched foster home to the other; longing for a mother we never knew. I was NOT going to put Charlotte through that. Now I raised her so you could pursue your dream. I would’ve done anything for you, coz’ you promised you were coming back for her … but you didn’t. You gave up your rightful place in her life. Janice. You … have only yourself to blame.”
I was clearly in a one-way street, heading in the wrong direction, colliding with everything I had so recklessly abandoned. Now there were casualties; people were hurt. Lynn was right. What I should be doing was to hide my face; cower in the sand and wait for the first stone to hit my head.
I nodded … with conviction.
“Derrick said she died in a car accident.”
“Yes. His visits became less frequent. He kept sending money and gifts for the boy. Charlotte wasn’t herself anymore. She thought he’d dumped her”.
“He’s dying. That’s the reason I’m here. He wants me to take care of the child … with your
permission, of course.”
Lynn shifted uncomfortably in the wheelchair, her eyes still fixed on the enlarged photo above the fireplace.
“I know,” she whispered. “We’d spoken about it. It’s … just … so damn hard …” She stopped midway through the sentence, her voice trembling as she tried to hold back the tears, but it streamed down her face. “First Charlotte … now Marco will be leaving too. I understand … I mean … just look at me. I can’t even take care of myself, let alone look after a toddler.”
“Come stay with me Lynn, let me make it up to you.”
“No! We’ll only confuse the boy. You’re gonna have to go it alone this time, honey. For yourself … for Charlotte. I’ll go pack Marco’s things.”
“May I see a picture of her?”
“In the dresser … ,” she replied, swinging her wheelchair around. “…over there…left drawer. There’s a photo album. I’ll be back in a while.”
And there I stood, back-tracking a period in my daughter’s life with every turn of the page, gently stroking each photo of which I should have been a part of. Baptism – Primary school – High school – Prom and finally … Graduation. She wore a cap and gown, sporting a broad smile, with Lynn posing proudly beside her. I kissed her photo, clutching it against my breast. And the walls of guilt collapsed under the pressure of tears streaming down my face. Dear God, what have I done?
“No use beating yourself up now, honey.”
Lynn was back, clutching two small suitcases on her lap, with Marco in tow. I closed the album, still snivelling as I wiped my face. “Sorry … I didn’t realise you were here. I’ll just put this back, then we can go.”
“Keep it! You’ll need it more than I do.” Her voice sounded gentle, almost like the Lynn I knew, back then.
“Thank you,” I whispered, sighing with relief. I had this sudden urge to hold the little boy in my arms. My very own grandson! Exposed too soon to the harsh realities of life, yet he had nothing to do with it.
I took his hand instead, squeezing it gently before I backed down, thinking how this might affect Lynn. “Well, big boy! How would you like to fly in a big aeroplane?”
“Really! Can my Nanna come too?”
I shot a quick glance at Lynn before answering, waiting for some indication that she was coming.
Truth be told, I needed her too. I was not sure whether I would cope. Marco was not used to me.
“Hurry up …” she said, “… before I change my mind.”
Sheer relief swept over me. I almost air-punched.
There was something in Derrick’s eyes I had never seen before when he saw Marco. He kept thanking me; saying how sorry he was; how much he loved me. We held each other, all three of us, unaware that Lynn had rolled out on her wheelchair, quietly.
I was exhausted and must have fallen asleep on the couch while Marco babbled on with his father. In the wee hours of the morning, the dreaded sound of the heart monitor awoke me and by the time the nurse had rushed in, the blue line flowed straight, followed by the siren. Derrick had passed away, with his arm still around a sleeping Marco.
I was hurting, in the core of my soul, for having lived in my own world, overlooking things that were important to him. There was the time when we were house-hunting. He’d go for homes with big gardens; a swimming pool and courtyard where he’d talk to himself; envisaging the perfect spot for a basketball net; a little swing in a corner; bright yellow and red spades and buckets with big plastic balls strewn around.
My reason for wanting a big house was totally different. I wanted my own home, shared with someone whom I knew would always take care of me. Someone I loved deeply. At the time, that was all that mattered. But deep down I knew, I was only fooling myself. My husband longed for us to have a child. I chose not to see this.
Lynn was waiting for us in the courtyard, when we got home. She had a ball in her hand,
contemplating a shot at the basketball net.
“He knew about me all along, Lynn. Why didn’t he say something?”
“I guess things were complicated at the time but he really wanted to make things right, you know. I’ll give him that much. After I told him who you were, he tried to end the relationship with Charlotte. She wouldn’t hear of it. She stormed out, threatening not to let him anywhere near Marco again.”
“So he didn’t get a chance … to tell her about me?”
“I think he just never got around to it. The driver of the truck she had collided with, said her car was on the wrong side of the road. She went straight for him … deliberately.”
“Now she’s gone, not knowing that I was her mother?”
“And what would you have said to her, Janice? That your career was more important, so you gave her up?”
“Lynn, I needed to hear her yelling at me; telling me what a lousy, rotten excuse for a mother I was. I just wanted to ask her to forgive me; tell her how sorry I was …”
“Well … if you ask me Janice, what’s done is done. There’s really nothing you can do other
than seizing this opportunity to make it up to her … with Marco.”
“You make it sound so easy, Lynn. Yet you devoted your life raising my child, while I ….”
“ … Fate handed you the relay baton, Janice. Whether you stay on track and finish the race, is entirely up to you. I don’t wanna have to go into much detail. So please … let’s not go there. I’ll just be opening up old wounds, which is the last thing I want feel like doing right now.”
Lynn refused to talk about her illness, let alone stay with us. She was her cheery old self
when I dropped her off at the airport.
“…better this way, honey,” she chirped. “…and don’t worry, I’ll call you.”
I tried calling her anyway, but her phone was always on voicemail.
The last message I received from her was that she had landed safely and that she was on her way home. Two months later, I received a message from a hospital in Johannesburg. My ‘sister’, Lynn, was being transferred to hospice. I didn’t even know she was in hospital.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Lynn from the moment I boarded the plane until it touched down at O R Tambo International Airport. The sun had distanced itself from the horizon, now speckled with migrant birds returning from afar. I felt like one.
As the taxi cruised along the highway, my eyes wandered intermittently across sleepy suburbs and shanty townships. Both had houses surrounded by stately trees and shrubs heavy with bursts of pink and white blossoms. I was home!
I stood next to her bed, watching her drifting in and out of sleep. She had been given a dose of morphine earlier. I was hesitant to wake her, unsure of what my reaction would be if she sees me. She was propped against pillows, her head shaven, her eyes sallow and tired.
“Honey, this is it!” Her voice was barely audible but she managed a little smile, moving her fingers as a sign for me to clutch her hand. “I’m off … to departure lounge … cancer’s taken over … not much they can do for me anymore.”
I started bawling in full view of everyone, and was promptly asked to wait in the visitor’s room or contain myself.
“You’re gonna have to pull yourself together now, honey,” she bantered. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
I laid beside her, snivelling while I hugged her frail body. We talked and giggled, like old times.
“Wanna know something, honey?” she whispered. “What doesn’t work for some, might turn out just fine, for others. Charlotte was the light of my life. I must thank … you.”
Lynn fell silent. She never made it to hospice.
I’ve had the not-so- pleasant task of explaining to Marco his involved parentage. Not an easy thing, but it had to be done. He filled a void in my life, which sometimes I have to ask myself, what have I done to deserve this unexpected gift? Not only has it been offered to me in a mysterious way, but it has also led me to find inner peace.
I told him everything, watching him closely, waiting for any signs of resentment. Not once did he interrupt me. He got up instead, went to his bedroom and stayed there for what seemed like a lifetime. I thought it best to leave him alone. I owed him that much.
The next morning, while I was preparing breakfast, he walked in and asked. “Janna, is it okay to call you ‘Grandma’? ”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I replied, ruffling his red curly hair before hugging him.
I have been given a second chance … to make things right.
I miss Derrick. A lot though but I am comforted by the fact that he had died peacefully, knowing that Marco was in good hands. Lynn and Charlotte were happy. That’s all that counts. Yes, there are regrets re-surfacing from time to time, when I wish I could have had my life all over; done things differently. Marco’s existence has made things tolerable. I cannot imagine life without him.
Now if I could only squeeze in one more photo, amongst all those who played a significant part in steering me back to finding myself. Marco … wearing his cap and gown, standing tall beside me, smiling like a Cheshire cat. Perfect!