Reflections on life, love and loss are often inspired by significant events that rock the foundations of our world. Or by the memories of those whom we have loved and lost.
In my case, July is my birthday month, and always a time for reflections about life and my place in the world. It is also the month during which I experienced significant loss over the years.
For someone who refused to keep a diary as a tween or teenager because I hated the idea of anyone ever being privy to my private thoughts or knowing my vulnerabilities, today is all about the catharsis of spilling my guts.
Reflections on life
The first thing that comes to mind in a reflection about my life, is counting my Blessings.
The blessings of good parents who instilled moral values, principles, ethics and built character based on their religious beliefs.
The blessings of parents who provided a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my belly for as long as I was dependent on them for my well-being.
The blessings of parents who never made me feel like I was less because I was not a first born son.
The blessing of a father who bonded with his baby girl when her mother was in a medically induced unconsciousness for days after birth.
The blessings of a mother who instilled in me the knowledge that I could be anything I wanted to be!
The blessings of parents who instilled an appreciation of beauty in all it’s forms: family, travel, human relationships.
The second thing I reflect on about my life, is how I’ve kept family and relatives at an emotional arms length for much of it. I remember the day that sparked the change.
We were on a summer school holiday trip with the kids from the primary school where my father taught. I was much younger than the 7th graders on the school bus but knew many of them from the hours I spent there after school. They begged my parents to let me ride in the bus with them and I went along happily.
I sat right at the back of the bus so that I could keep an eye on my parents and brother following in our car. For the first few kilometres and until we reached the gas station, everything was fine. We joked and laughed in the back of the bus. Somewhere after we moved on from the gas station, I lost sight of my parents’ car.
As the minutes ticked by and turned into what felt like hours, the anxiety and stress of not knowing where my parents were threatened to spill over. I had to force myself not to cry and to stay strong, but the fear that something had happened to them gnawed away at me until I felt like I was frozen from the inside out.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we reached the school where the learners and their chaperones would be staying the night. My parents finally showed up about twenty minutes later and the relief washed over me in waves. But that cold icy place inside my chest could not thaw. My eight year old self decided right there and then that I never wanted to feel that panic and sense of loss ever again.
From the moment I laid my eyes on my parents beloved faces, I decided that to preserve my own self, I had to distance myself from them. So that losing them would never again feel like my heart was ripped out of my chest and crushed into dust.
There were no more tickle fests on a Sunday afternoon, where I laughed so hard I thought my breath would seize in my lungs.Gone was the bratty toddler who yelled at Aunty Merle from the top of the stairs that I could walk to creche if she couldn’t wait another five minutes for me. Gone was the cheeky girl who asked a shoe shop sales lady if she couldn’t see I was wearing earrings when she asked, ‘What’s your name little boy’.
In her place was an insular and introspective child who shied away from any displays of physical affection. A child who withdrew into her shell and lived inside her own head most of the time, seeking out solitude and quiet before the company of others. A child who became comfortable with her own company to the extent that she still doesn’t miss home.
Reflections on love
The first thing that comes to mind in a reflection about love is Gratitude. For all those who have loved me.
For the people who have loved me without reservation and without conditions or expectations.
For the people who believed in me and supported me even when I was baking cookies in my mother’s kitchen.
For the people who made me feel treasured and worthy even when I felt like a failure.
For the people who always had a kind word when I was maudlin and sorrowful.
For the people who always saw the best in me, when I couldn’t find anything of value in myself.
I miss them every day of my life. And in hindsight I know I could have loved them better. Been a more affectionate and loving daughter, instead of keeping them at an emotional arms length for most of my life.
Read more: How To Cope with Loss and Grief
When my three year old self asked my mother where my brother Rashiek came from, she, like many other Cape Town mothers, said she that got him from OK Bazaars. There was actually a kiddies clothing section with smaller baby mannequins in the Adderley Street branch, so it was plausible. Until they never answered back when I spoke to them. Eventually, she told me where he actually came from. From up the mountain!
That despite the fact that I saw her pregnant belly grow day by day and she went away for a few days then came back with this little pink faced baby wrapped in blankets.
My father didn’t live to see my brother married and have children of his own. He would have been so proud of the man that my brother has become and the father that he is.
Rashiek was always friendly and kind and generous. He was the one who could have life history conversations with total strangers on an inter-continental flight. He was the one who shared his lunch with everyone in the office and then asked my mother to pack more, so no one would be missed.
But more than that he was my baby brother who didn’t stand by when anyone made me cry or sad. He wasn’t more than four years old when he decked a boy twice his age who had been teasing me relentlessly at my cousin’s wedding. When my mother asked him why he had pushed the boy, he told her that the boy had made me cry, and he wouldn’t allow anyone to make his Tietie cry!
I was nine years old when Katriena came to work for our family as a live-in housekeeper. My first impressions on the day I saw her for the first time were that she was sulky and quiet. I was not very approachable because I missed Johanna, who had left us to go home and have her baby.
Months or maybe years later, Katriena went to visit her sister for the weekend and decided she didn’t want to come back to us. My father decided to go there and speak to her himself. I told him that if she didn’t want to come back he shouldn’t beg her to. I figured if she was unhappy with us, then coming back would only make her more miserable.
She did come back, but I heard the note of hurt in her voice when she reminded me long afterward that I had told my father not to beg her to return. I was an irritated and stubborn ten year old and didn’t explain my reasoning. But I could tell that she had felt hurt and dismissed. And perversely, I wanted her to feel hurt, as much as her leaving us had hurt me and felt like she had abandoned us.
Katriena has spent most of her adult life as part of our family. And has seen me through my first menstrual flow, when I didn’t even know that I had bloodstained underwear. She went and told my parents, and I was overcome with embarrassment when my father called me into their bedroom for the birds and the bees talk. My mother offered me sanitary pads and I grabbed the pads and ran out before my father could finish his first sentence. It was up to Katriena to show me how to use the sanitary pads.
She was my teenage confidante when I would whine about all the ways I was bored, frustrated or unhappy. She listened without judgement and wiped my tears when I cried. She would clean up after all my kitchen experiments and messes and became my right hand when I had a home baking business.
My sister-in-law still blames Katriena for my brother’s bad habits. Expecting his clothes to be ironed and laid out for work, with his socks and underwear. Picking up after him, whether it’s the towels in the bathroom or the discarded clothes on the bedroom floor after he gets home from work. Katriena did that for him since he was 6 years old, and apparently he still expects it now, nearly forty years later.
When my father became ill and was mostly confined to bed, Katriena was my mother’s support. Both my brother and I worked full time, so between the two of them they made sure that my dad was happy until we came home in the evening. Nothing was too much for her. She took over most of the cooking because my mother was by father’s side all the time. She still did the cleaning and laundry and her sister Ansie (Simone’s mother) helped out when she came home in the afternoons. Not one time did Katriena complain that she was tired or that she needed a break. In fact, she refused to leave my mother and father’s side to visit her own family unless she absolutely had to.
When my mother’s health started to deteriorate Katriena was still there, helping her wash and dress every day. Getting her meals ready and ensuring that she drank her medication on time and that she had everything she needed. My mother’s sudden death, was a shock and left a big aching void in our lives. Especially for Katriena and Simone, who spent every day with her.
Within a few days of my mother’s passing, I noticed a change in Katriena’s demeanour. She had become very quiet and had a sad and almost resigned look, whenever any of the relatives spoke to her. I thought that perhaps it was only that she missed my mother so much and it was finally hitting home when the house was quiet. Then Simone told me what the problem actually was.
It appears that a few ‘well-meaning’ relatives had thought it their place to ask Katriena what was going to happen to her now that my mother was dead too. A few had even asked when she was going to return permanently to her family home in Citrusdal.
She was too forlorn and disconsolate to ask me what would become of her now that my mother was no longer there. My brother had his own home and I only visited once a year for vacations. I had never felt so much white hot anger in my entire life. That people thought they had the right to hurt someone we love, with their thoughtless and careless words.
Did they think that we could discard our family like yesterday’s trash, because they thought they had outlived their usefulness? Katriena has spent all her adult life caring for my brother and I. She took care of both my parents when they were sick and until their deaths. Since my mother’s death she spent as much time at our home as with helping my Aunty Dija down the road.
How could anyone even fathom that we would not love and take care of her in her old age, they way she had always taken care of us since we were children. Through good and bad, she never wavered in her love, loyalty and devotion to our family.
When I told my brother, he took it in his stride and handled it much better than I did. Apparently, Katriena’s son had asked him the same question on the day that my mother was buried. And he gave him exactly the same answer. We love her and our home is her home.
I’ve loved her since before she was born and my fate was sealed the day her mother brought her home from hospital. With every baby smile and giggle she chipped away at the hardened shell around my heart.
One day we came home from work and her mother said she had a surprise for me. Simone was about 6 months old and laying on her belly on my brother’s bed. When I came into the room her mother looked at her and asked ‘Who is this?’. She smiled and said ‘Tee-tee’.
Now she is all grown up and I’ve missed out on most of her major life events but I am so proud of her. And my late father who loved her so much would be too.
Aunty Fatima van Haaght (sister-in-law’s mother)
In many ways this was the hardest to write because Aunty Tiema’s loss is the most recent. She passed away after a short illness a few weeks after Eid al Fitr in 2019.
From the first day that I met her, nearly twenty five years ago, she was always kind and welcoming. I can’t ever remember seeing her without a smile on her face. No matter what the time of day or night.
During the times I spent time with Aunty Tiema and her family over the years, I witnessed her true nature and huge heart. Whether it was providing a sanctuary and home for children of relatives, neighbors or friends or a warm beverage and meal for anyone who dropped by. She could make magic with a few yards of fabric and a few threads of cotton. And her charge was ‘pay whatever you can’. No matter how rich or poor the client, that was her charge.
After my mother’s death, Aunty Tiema practically adopted me. She insisted that when I arrived back home from Dubai my brother bring me directly to her house. For the first few times I objected, because I didn’t want to impose on her. But I realised how much she actually liked welcoming me back home in my mother’s stead. Somehow without me even telling her what food I craved, she always made exactly that for my first and subsequent meals at her home.
When her son complained during the last Ramadan that no one eats liver and onions with mash for iftar, she looked at him and said very cheekily ‘Niemand vra vir jou om dit te eet nie’ (No one’s asking you to eat it). She explained that she had made it for me because she knew I loved it and my mother wasn’t there to make it for me any more. She had no idea that I had been craving that very same food for the previous two weeks.
I didn’t think that the day I said goodbye to her after Katriena’s birthday celebration would be the last time I ever saw Aunty Tiema. I flew back to Dubai the next day already thinking and planning for our next trip on the Garden Route. Aunty Tiema had declared that the passengers would be paying for fuel costs for the trip. I had even started looking at accommodation options already.
When my brother sent me a message to tell me that Aunty Tiema had been hospitalised it came as a shock, but I still did not expect that it was so serious that it would cause her death a few days later.
Although I was not able to be with her when she passed, my sister-in-law and my niece told her how much I loved her and missed her.
They were so much more than aunts to me. Both my parents were the youngest in their families and very close in age to their oldest nieces and nephews.
All my mother and father’s sisters were kind and generous with their assortment of nieces and nephews and we were always made to feel welcome, and be in their homes as we were in our own parents’ homes.
I never had to look for role models among celebrities or the rich and famous, because I grew up in a family of fierce and formidable women who had overcome so many obstacles in their lives and still flourished to build strong and happy families.
Mummy Rachel (mother’s sister – deceased)
My earliest memories are in Mummy Rachel’s home. My parents had been married for just over two years and living with my father’s brother, when Mummy Rachel’s husband, Uncle William passed away. I was nine months old and Mummy Rachel asked my parents to come and live with her.
I recall sitting at the kitchen table while my mother cooked and the neighbors boys, Thomas and Kevin, were around me. Kevin pulled my hair and when I shrieked at the sharp pain, he announced very proudly that he had pulled out one of my two grey hairs. I was two and bit years old at the time.
I remember trying to untangle the Christmas lights with my chubby three year old fingers so that I could string them over the Christmas tree in the corner of the sitting room. It was my favorite thing about Christmas, getting to switch on the lights for the tree. I was not very successful though and my father and Mummy Rachel usually ended up doing the untangling.
Like most children I loved bath time. However, when I grew older my mother decided that I could wash my own hair and rinse off the shampoo under the shower over the bath. Regrettably, it took me a while to feel like I wasn’t drowning when the water flowed over my face. It took me weeks to figure out how to rinse off the shampoo without getting a mouth and nose full of water. Mummy Rachel showed me not to stand so far back under the shower and to tip my head back so that the water did not run over my face.
I was nearly three when my brother was born and only a few months older when Mummy Rachel had a baby girl of her own. She never loved me any less though. And still took me everywhere with her like her very own Mini-Me.
Whether it was buying me the prettiest outfits from the factory where she worked, or hiding the yummiest knuckle joint on the roast leg of lamb until I came, she always made me feel special. And loved. And treasured.
My greatest regret is that I didn’t get to spend enough time with her before she passed. Her illness and death came so quickly that it left us all a little bit adrift for a very long time.
Aunty Josephine (mother’s sister – deceased)
We spent many a Saturday at Aunty Josie’s home when we were young children. When my grandfather was alive he would make egg-in-a-hole for breakfast before we could help clean the kitchen. After we could play cricket or tennis in the back yard. I sucked at both and still have seriously defective hand eye co-ordination.
Aunty Josie did not have an easy life back then, raising three sons, but she never complained. Sometimes she would get angry and frustrated with her husband and we’d all be packed off across the big field to another sister, Aunty Sheila’s house. After Aunty Josie calmed down we would invariably make the journey back.
There was always a warm meal waiting whenever we stepped in. No matter what the day or the time. Whether it was Uncle Mylie’s big pot of soup bubbling on the stove or Aunty Josie’s stew.
When I got older we usually went there after work on a Saturday. If it was sausage bredie (my father’s favorite) for dinner, I always avoided it and made myself a peanut butter sandwich with tea. After a few skipped meals Aunty Josie noticed that I never ate the sausage food. When she realised that I didn’t care for sausage she always made sure to have an alternative, even though I was perfectly happy with my peanut butter sandwich.
I loved ginger snap cookies and one day Aunty Josie couldn’t wait to show me the surprise she had for me. It was a packet of Stem ginger cookies. And I was smitten. Still am! Whether it was making her milk tart or pineapple tart or any of the other things she would sometimes surprise me with, she always made me feel special. And loved. And treasured.
Aunty Gadija (father’s sister)
My parents were finally able to buy our family home and we moved in a few months before my fifth birthday. Aunty Dija’s house was at the corner of our road and although I remembered seeing my cousins when they came to functions at Mummy Rachel’s house, I didn’t really know them.
The younger two only spoke Afrikaans and I only spoke English, so communication was a bit fraught in the beginning. However, my cousin Rufkah somehow taught me enough Afrikaans to make it easier.
Aunty Dija’s home was always a hive of activity. Constant cooking and baking for all the visitors and students who came to see her husband every single day. Although they had seven of their own children plus two aunts living in their home, they always made place at the table for my brother and I if we were still there at meal time. When we are children we don’t realise how much of an imposition this can be, we just accept the generosity and kindness as if we are entitled to it.
Like my own mother, Aunty Dija loved pretty things, and Rufkah and I often accompanied her on her retail therapy excursions in Garlicks / Greatermans on a Saturday morning. Although we were bored senseless walking through the linen and crockery departments, being in the city was exciting. The two things that never changed were the very high heels that Aunty Dija wore and the French Nougat that she carried in her handbag for shopping snacks. I still love nougat!
After Aunty Dija’s husband passed away I spent much of her Iddah period with her, because she didn’t like to be alone. I saw how affectionate and patient she was with her grandchildren and how much she doted them. How she cooked full meals for her grown children so they wouldn’t have to cook when they came from work.
I learned how the 5 year old Aunty Dija felt abandoned by her parents when they sent her to live with her mother’s sister Attie, because my grandmother was too ill to look after both Aunty Dija and my year old father. I heard the hurt and distress in her voice when she told me that her most profound memory of my grandfather was of him throwing the ball she’d been playing with, at her. Not in a fatherly playful manner, but in a bruising shot into the middle of her back, because he was irritated by her playfulness during one of her visits to their family home.
Many years later I learned about how, when all my cousins and assorted relatives were gossiping about me in my absence at a family get together, Aunty Dija told them to be quiet and stop talking about things they knew nothing of.
It was Aunty Dija’s 81st birthday in June and when I spoke to her I could feel her frailty in her every breath. I can’t possibly make up for all the kindness and generosity she’s shown me throughout my life, but I pray that I will be able to spend time with her again, God willing.
Aunty Zuleiga (father’s sister – deceased)
My father was raised by his eldest sister Fatima. When they moved to Harfield Village from District Six, the sisters Fatima and Zuleiga lived next door to each other in Bedford Street.
Somehow my father and everyone else called Aunty Fatima, Tietie. But when he referred to Aunty Zuleiga (Aunty), he said My Tietie. When I was a child I never knew who he was talking about until I recognised the slight difference between Tietie (Fatima) and My Tietie (Aunty).
Aunty was such a force of a woman who seemed like she could do anything she put her mind to. She had a husband, but during my childhood he seemed to spend a lot of time travelling or away on business.
If my dad didn’t have any after school activities during the week he would sometimes pop in just to see her. He always drove there directly on a Friday night after my mum was done at work. For a few years it was his job to do the banking for Aunty’s family business and he always made it to the bank on time. We went there every Saturday morning, me usually in my pajamas and nightgown if I was too slow waking up before my dad left.
Aunty was kind and generous. To her friends and her neighbors. Anyone who needed anything dropped by. Whether it was a loaf of bread or a tray of eggs. She gave whatever she had.
The most unhappy years of my father’s life were the years when he was estranged from Aunty and her family. He loved them so much, but the betrayal he felt burned inside him for many years. When he was finally able to put it aside he went to reconcile with her, and it seemed like the light came back into his eyes.
I tried to spend as much time as I could with Aunty when I visited home after she became ill. Despite her failing health, she still maintained a positive attitude and spirit. Even with her weak voice and whispered breath she made dua for me the last time that I spoke to her.
Reflections on loss
‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all – Alfred Lord Tennyson
My best friend
On 20th July 1997, my best friend Cecelia was killed in a motor vehicle accident coming back from her 25th birthday celebration. We were practically inseparable during high school and like two peas in a pod, from the moment we landed in the same Grade 9 class.
We often switched lunches, Cecelia would pass me her Grandmother’s avocado sandwiches for anything I had. I would listen to her recount her unhappy home life since the death of her mother, and she would hold my hand while I was having palpitations in the throes of one unrequited high school crush or the other from the class next door.
Where I was shy and permanently afflicted with Resting Bitch Face during my teens, Cecelia always had a smile and an outgoing friendly personality. She was fearless in ways I could never be, and lived life to the fullest. Even the birth of her son, diagnosed with suspected spina bifida while still in utero, didn’t daunt her at all. It was just one more challenge to overcome.
In December of 1999, Ashiek, the teenage son of close family friends; a child beloved to my parents as if he were their own grandson; was involved in a motor vehicle accident. For what felt like weeks, Ashiek was in a coma in hospital. I was living in the UK at the time, and could feel my father’s grief every evening when he called to give me an update on Ashiek’s condition.
I was at work when I got the news of Ashiek’s passing. My colleague Steve somehow saw that something was wrong and came to check if I was okay. I had never prayed so hard that he would not be kind and sympathetic. Because in that moment, even one word of kindness would be too much for my fractured composure. I felt like brittle glass that had shattered into a million pieces.
For months I had nightmares every single night… usually of white lillies and Ashiek’s mother at his graveside, asking why I had not come home when I heard of his accident. The overwhelming guilt at not being at home to comfort his parents and my own parents during their time of heartbreak was hard to bear.
I still cry when I think of Ashiek. He was such a happy loving child who grew into a kind and thoughtful hard working young man. One of my last memories of Ashiek is of us sitting at their kitchen table eating vanilla ice cream, and him running over to the snack cupboard to get out the salt and vinegar flavored potato crisps. A weird combination that I had shown him once when we had visitors, and that he subsequently indulged in even when he was eating ice cream alone.
My first love
On 21st July 2000, my first love walked out of my life. On my birthday, twenty years ago.
What started as acquaintances eventually transformed into something deeper and more profound. Something that gave me butterflies when we were together and sleepless nights when we were apart.
When he first asked me to marry him a few months after our first chat, I laughed it off and didn’t give it much thought. I wasn’t in love with him, and I doubted that he was in love with me. He didn’t mention it for another few months but in the interim he wrote me every day and called once a week. Even in the dead of winter when he had to walk for twenty minutes in the evening snow to a public phone.
One day out of the blue he proposed again, but I rejected the idea out of hand. Nothing seemed right about our situation. We lived in different countries and I could not imagine how such a marriage could even work. My parents had not even met him, although two of my cousins had spoken to him on the phone when he called.
He was hurt and angry and said that there was no point in being friends if I had no intention of ever marrying him. I agreed, and we stopped all communication.
Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes. In my case, it taught me more than anything, never to act or make decisions while experiencing feelings of intense grief, or any heightened emotion for that matter. Those decisions are seldom the same ones we would make when we use our heads as well as our hearts.
A few weeks later, on the eve of Y2K (31 December 1999), I decided to go into the office to clear out any last minute payments. If the system crashed, as everyone expected it to, at least there would be a back-up somewhere. I was crossing the road from the train station, my mind going over my last conversations with Ashiek, tears running down my face. My heart felt battered and bruised because I felt like I had somehow failed him, by not being there and coming to the UK when he was going through his teenage angst.
In that moment, I had an epiphany. Life is so short, we never know how much time we will have with our loved ones before we or they are taken away. Ashiek was only 17, and yet his life had been snuffed out by a reckless driver. I wondered how I could have been so cavalier about my own beloved and realised that I needed to see him.
The first thing I did when I sat down behind my desk was to write an email to him. I vaguely recollect what I said, but the end result was that I missed him and agreed to marry him. He must have been having similar thoughts because no sooner had I pressed send, than I received an incoming email from him. He loved me and had been as miserable as I had been.
To be honest, I had no expectations. Of him or of marriage. I had no long term visions of happy families and happy homes. All I knew was that life was too short and I didn’t want to die without having spent time with him.
I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with him. Whether it was after our marriage, walking hand in hand in the frigid Spring evening air. Whether it was seeing his shy smile when I caught him looking at me. Whether it was knowing what the other was thinking without having to say a word.
Fast forward to the last time I saw him… He was travelling back to his city of residence and I wasn’t sure when I would see him again. I was going on a trip with my family then back home, and he was going to do his military service. The last email I had from him was before his deployment to Kosovo. And then nothing for six months.
It was the most desolate and wretched time of my life. Not knowing if he was alive or dead. Every day I prayed for his safety. I prayed that Allah would protect him and even if I never saw him again, I wanted him to be safe and happy and alive. I didn’t see him again, but he did return to his home and eventually the marriage ended.
It took me a long time to get over the feelings of abandonment. It took even longer for me to learn to trust my own instincts and regain the self-esteem that had been battered and bruised after we split. It gave me the determination never again to settle. For less than the love I truly want. But also to know my own heart and to be clear about what I want and need from my life and anyone I allow in it.
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