I have been sitting out here for four hours now. Or something close to anyway. I just want to see him once, that is all, and then I will go away and never come back. I am not supposed to be here. It is not allowed and I know that. But I just must see for myself and then I will be satisfied.
It’s cold but I will wait.
This began eight months ago. My new baby was three weeks old when my husband passed. He died of Aids in our shack in Alex, cold next to the river that floods every summer. This is where I still live with my eldest son Sam, who is eleven. Before he died my husband and I decided that it was unfair to bring another child into the shack, where there was not enough for the people living here already. And all the people here with HIV as well. It was only when I fell pregnant with my second child that we discovered that we were HIV positive, but by then it was too late for my husband. My Sam will be OK, if he takes care of himself, and I should be able to see him into early adulthood. But the little one? I cannot say how long I have.
We decided to hand him over for adoption.
My hands shook so much when I signed the papers releasing my tiny son into the hands of strangers. They were so kind to me and assured me that a healthy boy will find a good home in no time, and that I was doing the best thing for him. Still my hands shook and I could not speak. I remember that it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze, one that made me think of my own childhood in Zimbabwe. The smell of the syringa trees in bloom and the anticipation of my father returning home to the compound from work on the tobacco farm. It seemed so long since I had remembered, for those carefree days were really not so long ago. But the life of hardship on the banks of the freezing river in Alex, fighting for work and acceptance in a foreign land had blotted out the memory.
Besides, that place in Zimbabwe and the way it was, does not exist anymore.
With my youngest sleeping at my breast, and my eldest clinging to me in that filthy bus back to South Africa after burying my husband next to his sisters, brothers and parents, I was almost happy to be returning to the place I now called home, despite knowing that I was to lose my son soon. My Sam had known nothing of life other than what he had had on the banks of the river, but the poverty and starvation in Zimbabwe that he saw distressed him. We might not have much money in South Africa, but at least there is food to buy with what little we have.
I was not able to speak properly for many days after the day I handed over my son, but slowly the pain of loss drew itself into me, and I have learned how to hide it far away. Over the months though, the longing has not gone away. It is not like the longing for the home I grew up in that I know will never exist again, it is a longing that gnaws at me, eats me like a rat at a carcass.
That was when I went back to the agency where I had left my baby, when I could bear the pain of it no longer. I did not want to take him back; I just wanted to see him. I was told that he had already been placed and was in a good home. I begged for details but was denied. Again and again I went back and begged over and over again, but I was given the same answer every time. They were not unkind to me, but they were very firm. Parents who hand over their children are to have no contact at all. This is for the well-being of the children, who will be given details of their biological parents when they turn 18 should they wish to make contact. Finally, when once again I was in the offices of the agency, standing in the office of the lady I had handed my child to eight months ago and being told the same thing, I chanced to look down and saw an open file on her desk. There was my name followed by a date. Underneath were other names and all sorts of details that made no sense to me. But there was also an address.
Sitting here now I think of how I have grappled with this information over the last few days. As I have stirred the pot over the gas stove, or pounded washing in the river, as I have tucked my boy into sleep next to me at night and sent him off to school the next day, on the way in the taxi to my cleaning jobs in Sandton – this has been all I can think of. I know it is wrong. But what could be the harm? I just want to see, just once. I don’t want to touch him, or even speak to him; he will not even know I am there. What can be the harm in that?
So now finally I have taken a taxi and then a bus to this place in the North of Johannesburg. I cannot see the house from the road, because there is a huge wall around it. There is electric security and a motorized gate. The pavement is well cared for and the flowers are pretty against the starkness of the wall. I wait opposite, on the lawn, in the sun. The day draws towards midday and I don’t feel so cold anymore. I eat the apple I have brought with me. Just as I finish the apple a car arrives. It stops outside the house and a lady gets out. She pushes on the buzzer and I hear it ring. She waits, and I wait.
“Hello,” I hear a voice through the intercom.
“Hi,” says the lady, “It’s me.”
“Hi Mom,” says the voice, then, “Bernice! Mom’s here! We are running a bit late, Mom, can you just give us a minute. We’ll be out in a moment.”
“Sure,” she says, and goes back to her car. She opens the passenger door and adjusts a car seat for babies. Soon the gate opens by itself and a young woman comes out. She is carrying a bag with little bears on it.
“Hi Mom, “she says.
“Hi Mel,” the lady says and she kisses the younger woman on the cheek. “Bernie’s is on her way, we have had a bit of a busy morning. Luke crawled outside and had a lovely time in the mud. We had to give him another bath and now we are late. Here is his stuff. There are spare clothes and of course nappies, and his bottle. He should not need more than that; it’s not as if we are going away for days. I mean how long does it take to sign final adoption papers? It’s the trip to Pretoria that takes the longest.” The lady laughs.
“Yes, but all the baby stuff you have to carry around it always feels as if I am going away for days.” She turns as a second woman comes out of the gate.
“Hi Mom,” she says. She is holding a baby. It is my son! My son!
The world stops for a moment. Breath leaves me and in the warmth of the midday sun, I am still. Does he look like me, my husband? I cannot see. But I do see a healthy baby. The woman holds him out to the lady, and he puts out chubby arms to her.
“Look Lukey, here’s Granny!” she says. The lady takes him, holds him to her, kisses his face; kisses his face. Her face glows. She is full to overflowing.
“And where are we going today, Luke?” she asks, “We’re going to the zoo!”
“Don’t get eaten by a lion!” says Mel, as she picks up a little shoe that has fallen off. “We should be home by five,” says Bernice, “We’re having cottage pie Mom, would you like to stay for supper?” “I’d love to,” she says, as she puts Luke in the car seat and straps him in. “More time with my grandson, and maybe I get to give him his supper this evening. Say good bye to your mommies, Luke.” Mel folds her body in half to kiss the boy, who reaches chubby hands to grab at her long fringe that tickles the boy on his face.
“Be a good boy for Granny, Luke. No more mud today, see.”
“We’ll see you later, little bear child,” says Bernice, and pats the boy on his tummy.
The world moves again as the lady starts the car and turns around. The women get into a car in the drive way and I catch a glimpse of rolling lawns, a jungle gym and a neat home tucked into syringa trees. As they drive off the gate closes me out. They hoot and wave. The lady waves back. She is talking to the baby in the car seat next to her, but I can’t hear what she is saying. Her face is bright, and as she passes me standing on the pavement, she sees me and smiles.
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