Bringing Our Hearts Home
I don’t know how I know. No-one has sat me down and told me. Perhaps I just pick up snippets of whispered warnings. Perhaps I just sense it in the ethers as children do. It’s about my father’s heart.
On Sunday afternoons my father always lies down for a nap after the family dinner of roast meat and gravy, crispy roast potatoes and vegetables. I sit in my room down the passage and do my homework. Every so often I tiptoe to his door and quietly peek in to see if his chest is still rising and falling. My own chest ceases to move as I watch and wait. Confirmation of life sends me scuttling away with relief. But the panic of possibilities propels me down the passage over and over again.
My father is not a man for the church. He says he doesn’t believe in the devil. That it is fanciful. The messages of his eternal damnation shoot down from the pulpit and lodge in my heart.
At Sunday School we are told: the Communists are on their way. Are we prepared to be tortured for Christ? Is our faith strong enough? My twelve-year-old self knows that I will denounce Christianity in the blink of an eye if anyone threatens to hurt me or those I love. My faith is found wanting.
Years pass. My father still breathes …my mother laughs …the family gathers.
“We’re going to David’s after the consulting rooms close on Saturday,” my mother says.
My father’s driving terrifies me. The thought of travelling at high speeds on bumpy dirt roads to the Mission Hospital in Zululand, where my brother works, is too much for me. I figure staying at the pastor’s house might protect me from the demons.
On Saturday, everything is a rush. I grab my overnight bag and dash out the door. My mother drops me off at the manse.
“Mom, please tell Dad I say good-bye. I forgot.”
I sit up in bed with a thudding in my chest. Torn from sleep by some internal sense of catastrophe, it takes minutes to orientate myself in a strange bedroom. The outside light shines through the gap between the curtains. I lie down terrified. I want to weep, but no tears fall. Black hours pass.
The knock on the front door comes at 5am. I hear the footsteps coming down the passage, closer and closer to where I lie waiting. My pastor stands at the door and calls his daughter out of the room. I wait. He comes in and sits on my bed. His lips move and words come out in broken bits.
“So sorry …Father dead …Mother … Door …Take you home … So sorry… Pray.”
‘Do not hide thy face from me in the day of my distress.’
I arrive at the door fully dressed. My brother drives through the silent streets towards our home. Phone calls are made. News spreads. The phone rings incessantly. Repetition hammers it home.
“Charles is gone …Heart attack …Middle of the night …Just fifty-four …Thank you.”
‘Thou hast taken me up and thrown me away.’
The town wakes up to the death of one of their doctors. The doorbell rings. People pour in offering condolences. Flowers crowd the mantelpiece. Plates of eats mount up in the kitchen.
I am given a tranquillizer before the funeral and it passes in a blur.
‘My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?”
To survive on this ghastly sea of grief, I sever my ties with the church. I am adrift. The Bible collects dust in the bookcase. Sundays lie fallow and echo with the guilt of unsung hymns, unuttered prayers. The drama of loss imprints itself in my cells.
My life slowly darkens. On the surface I cope, underneath the blackness builds. I run away to England to a cold, grey November.
I stand at the window, arms spread out, ready to fall forward. The milky sky casts a gloom over the city. Rain runs down the pane and collects in a puddle on the ledge. A few cars are parked below, carefully positioned to avoid the potholes. The paint on the merry-go-round has peeled away in so many places that it is now mostly a dirty brown.
From across the courtyard a song of exquisite beauty drifts into the room. It is in a language I don’t know or recognize. The notes lift and soar and then dip again carrying with them the warmth of the African sun, the smell of the parched earth after rain, a vision of the big blue African skies. The melody moves through me, down into the dark, hard place of loss where it rests, a lullaby for the living.
‘What do you need to say to those behind you?’
The dramatherapist’s gentle voice brings me back into the room. Behind me the other members of the group remain as I have placed them, in a tableau of my life.
In a voice which carries so much certainty and truth that I hardly recognize it as my own, I proclaim: ‘We need to bring our hearts home to be mended.’