February 25, 2013 by talkaboutyork
So, July 1987. I was 14. As usual, my sisters, brother and I went to stay with my dad for the holiday. What happened next defined all of our lives. Nothing was ever the same again.
I don’t want to write about it again. It’s too upsetting. I have written about it once before. You can read it here.
But how do you return from a holiday without one of your siblings? How as a teenager are you meant to deal with that kind of loss on top of the usual teen issues, while trying to hold it together for the sake of your parents (as so many people told us to do)?
Honestly, I don’t remember. That period of my life is hazy. Strangely, I didn’t keep a diary of it. I think we all operated on auto-pilot. It’s as though each of us clung to our grief individually, not wanting to risk upsetting anyone else with it. My mother should have sought help. My sisters really should have had trauma counselling for what they witnessed. I’m not sure how they got through it. I was lucky in comparison. But none of us discussed it.
I remember a few odd things. Like the fact that all of our clothes were burned in the fire, so someone gave us some pyjamas that looked as though they had belonged to an old man. They were checked flannel and were much too big. But for whatever reason, even long after we could have thrown them out, I kept them and wore them. It was as though they were a physical reminder of what had happened given we weren’t talking about it. There was also a grey jumper with a white stripe across the middle of it. It was my dad’s. Either I, or one of my sisters, had it that night so it wasn’t lost in the fire. I kept that jumper for years and years, a kind of comfort blanket.
Holidays changed after that. We still went to my Dad, but his house was no longer there so we stayed in a little cottage behind a friend’s house. We didn’t go every holiday. My dad remarried and had to concentrate on getting a new house built and his new life sorted. The relationship between my parents, which had always been amicable, changed (unsurprisingly). My sisters and I began to feel like diplomats, being careful about what we said to whom. I remember finding it exhausting and lonely.
I recall one cold winter day, I walked to the small park at the end of our road. There was a lone tree in the corner of it. I sat against the tree, looking at tiny ants running up and down the tree trunk. I felt lost and alone and tiny like an ant. I wished that I could hide in the bark, to make a cosy shelter that was home. I spent a long time pulling pieces of bark off the tree, crumbling them in my fingers, wishing I had a pocketknife to carve something profound into the trunk. I found no answers there. But I remember saying to myself: ‘Remember this moment. Remember how you felt. It has meaning.’ And I have remembered it. I still don’t know what it meant but it might have been the moment I realised that sometimes life sucks and you have to just get on with it.
So life continued. I still sailed, but less often the older I got. I changed friendship groups at school. I started to wear make up and go to school discos. I got my first proper boyfriend. I took part in the school musicals. I got my first job waitressing. I learnt how to drive. I was a normal teenager. I didn’t do particularly well at school academically but given all that happened, I think I was a reasonably well balanced teen.
I got my driver’s license very soon after I turned 18. To me, being able to drive meant freedom. I left home and went to technikon, living in the on site residences. I am sure this is true of most students, but wow, I loved the freedom. All the sadness of home could be left behind. I was getting to make a fresh start.
My student years were brilliant fun. It was a crazy time in South Africa. Apartheid had just ended. There were daily protest marches past our college buildings. For the first time we had black people in the same classes as us, which made us feel proud, as though we had single handedly changed the system. One night, while out at a nightclub in Hillbrow, we came out to find that there’d been a bomb blast one block over and we couldn’t get to my car as it was in the cordoned off area. We found that hilarious. We were students. Everything was a laugh. My friends became my family.
I also fell in love. The kind of falling in love that you can only do when you’re young and have a heart that has never been broken. Well not broken romantically anyway. It wouldn’t stay that way.
My final year of my second decade was spent studying Public Relations part time and working part time at the South African Blood Transfusion Service and working as a waitress to save money. I had a very clear goal for the first year of my next decade. I was going travelling.
So what did this volatile, traumatic and crazy decade give me that made me the almost 40 year old I am today?
To expect the worst. I automatically clench my stomache in a way that lets me prepare for any blow that might come along (this isn’t healthy and is probably why I suffer from heartburn).
To just get on with it and to be fairly intolerant of people who don’t just get on with it.
To be independent and determined.
To be a diplomat (when required).
To value solitude with just my thoughts for company. But to love the company of friends.
It taught me the full range of emotions it’s possible to have – the highs and the lows. There are some lows I never want to experience and I will hopefully live through life without them, but to have lived through tragedy teaches you what you’re capable of coping with. It taught me how to be strong.