Our Hearts – count beats
Rachel had run for so long without looking back, but she could not ignore a dying man’s wish. She climbed the stairs reluctantly and slowly. “I’ll follow with tea,” called her mom.
Rachel didn’t answer. She stood in the doorway and looked with stranger’s eyes at the small, sparsely-furnished bedroom. Pink and blue floral curtains framing a steely grey sky, posters of Jim Morrison looking down on rag dolls and frilly cushions. She sat on the narrow bed. The rough crocheted pattern pressed into her legs and she remembered Ouma’s slow, crooked hands making it for her birthday. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed, crooned a laughing Ouma. The irony hurt.
Feeling too big for this child’s room under the eaves, she slipped off her expensive shoes and curled up, fitting her body to the familiar hollow. She closed her eyes, hearing the tin roof ping and pop. A massive roll of thunder exploding directly above her started her awake. She tussled with the stubborn window, opened it wide to swallow fat, cold raindrops. Lightening illuminated the darkening room, showed her mom, standing in the doorway carrying a cup of tea.
“Just like old times,” said her mom. “You always loved being part of a storm.”
Rachel took the tea, two rusks on the saucer. “From Auntie Nora, especially for you.” The tea was milky, so sweet after years of drinking black herbal concoctions. Rachel sipped, then dunked a rusk.
“You’re too thin. Men like something to keep them warm.’ Her mom laughed wryly, patting her own midriff, then broke into a sob. “Your Dad …” She blinked tears away and stood up. “Come down when you’re ready.”
But Rachel didn’t want to leave the safe cocoon of childhood. She crouched on the floor, faint, raw, assailed by memories and emotions buried deep.
Her last summons to his study had been a descent into Hell. Stiff back to her, hard voice – a stranger throwing questions.
His nurturing hands clenched the bible as he turned.
“I am shamed………..all that I preach………..a mockery……….just 16. I will not be judged by your sin.”
His plans fell thick around her ears, hurting. She swirled like the red leaves being cast adrift outside.
“She is our only child, let her stay.” pleaded Mom.
His face was granite, “Her actions were not one of a child. She leaves tomorrow.”
Rachel had accepted adoption, but this loss of love and home. Was his position in the community more important than her?
She had shut her heart, excluded him from her life.
Now cracks were opening.
Head between knees, deep stabilising breaths, blood pounding in ears. She scraped red nails through her long, dark hair. Treat it as a job and leave, she repeated like a mantra.
Wait. What was that? That whiteness? She reached under the bed and kneeling as she had done as a child, looked at the box between her hands. Slowly she opened it, and was startled by the tinkle of sweet music. Behind the twirling, golden ballerina, she saw her face in the little mirror, strained and thin.
Her precious stash now looked tawdry, childish. Old letters, movie ticket stubs, fake sparkly jewellery, lip-gloss. Incongruous amongst this was her small pocket bible. How well-handled it looked, phrases marked. Could this have been her?
Under the bible, a bundle of envelopes. Who had put them there? Her mother perhaps? Unopened letters, addressed in her father’s strong, slanting cursive. Deliberately, carefully, he had written: Rachel Botha, c/o Erica Botha, Cape Town; Rachel Botha, Boston College. U.S.A; Rachel Botha, 59 11th Street, New York City.
And below this, her own handwriting – hard and uncompromising: Return to Sender, on the first five. The other letters were simply addressed, Rachel Botha. The date on each was the same, 16 April – her birthday. One every year. Twenty years in total.
As she untied the ribbon binding them, a photograph fell out. She looked at it, puzzled.
Her Dad, standing gravely, holding a small bundle in his arms.
A baby. But who? She didn’t recognise the scrunched-up face.
But the blanket was a blow to the stomach.
She felt sick. Felt again the stark loneliness of the “mother’s home”. No visitors. No exceptions. Grim-faced matrons reigned, reminding them of their perilous condition. Self-esteem grew smaller as bellies grew larger. A parcel from Ouma, containing the colourful blanket just days before she went into labour. She knew the rules. No-one ever saw their babies. Taken away to pre-arranged, adoptive parents immediately. Leaving empty, slack-bellied shells with aching breasts.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and a soft voice said, “He drove all night when he heard your waters had broken. Got there just in time to see him.”
“Him?” said Rachel, only then noticing the blue booties in the picture. Him. She hadn’t even known that.
“He christened him. Said it was only right, his being a priest and grandfather.”
Rachel turned the photo, 7 September 1969, Joseph.
“Broke his heart, handing him over, losing you.”
Sobbing, Rachel allowed herself to be hugged. Breathed in her mom’s warm-bread smell.
Clutching the photograph, she stumbled downstairs, into the stale smell of death. In the hospital bed beneath the window the motionless body was frail and thin. She bent and clasped his hand, feeling the thin soft skin. She looked deep into his old, saggy eyes, connecting with the spark still glowing there.
‘Look Dad.’ She showed him the picture. Surely that was a faint squeeze? She placed his hand on the small bulge hidden beneath her loose coat. As his tears spilled, so did hers.
“Yes,” she said. “This is a good home for children.”