A tale about saying goodbye, over and over again

Saying goodbye is hard enough. Saying goodbye. Goodbye cuts deeper and hurts longer than the uninitiated could ever imagine. There was no easy or painless way of telling our parents we were leaving. Leaving. It had to be done in person. Such news is not mentioned in passing or over the phone. First, we’d tell my parents, then my in-laws. We decided to share the news with them over a meal.

What better way was there than to break bread with those you love and break their hearts at the same time? I anticipated their shocked expressions, scanning our faces for affirmation that it was all only a silly joke, a delayed April Fools’ prank; only to read the truth. You’re leaving, really leaving? Not Namibia which is at least only on the other side of the Kalahari Desert, but Canada? Across the Atlantic. Isn’t that an endless wasteland of frozen tundra tucked in under the North Pole? How far exactly? Sixteen-and-a-half-thousand kilometres? How much is that in miles? Miles sounds kinder.

The word emigration never left our lips, and it would take years before we’d roll the word with hesitation on our tongues, before allowing it to slip out. 

No one prepared me for the loss I’d experience — a loss somewhat similar to having a limb torn off without anesthesia; akin to the ache of losing a loved one; a hurt that would soften over the years, yet remain, not too deep below the surface. After two decades, a dull ache still remains.

Father, when present at family gatherings resided over saying grace. He then also insisted on saying a short prayer at the end of the meal, giving thanks — as was his habit, as was right. Known far and wide for his passionate and protracted prayers, he would easily forget he only had to give thanks for the food, not intervene for his family by name and atone for their sins and plead by his Maker for peace in the Middle-East and the unreached in the far corners of the earth. Anyone who would steal a glance at the patriarch praying unperturbed would notice Mother’s hands inching closer and finally touching Father’s, giving it a firm squeeze, meaning, ‘enough already.’ Father would then give an embarrassed cough and say amen.

It was sometime between sending the dish with mashed potatoes and the smaller gravy-bowl around the table that I dropped the first bomb. “We’re going to Canada for a week in June.”

Unsuspecting, Mother took the bait. “The four of you?”

“The two of us.”

“The girls can stay with us.” Mother’s sweet heart had as much room as the barn on Grandfather’s farm where she’d grown up.

“They have school. They’ll stay with friends.” The initial hurt in Mother’s eyes was nothing compared to the looks we received each time we said goodbye after visits years later.

“Isn’t a week a bit short? You’ll be traveling for three days. How will you rest?” Father was nobody’s fool.

“It’s not a vacation.” It was impossible to soften the blow. “It’s a fact-finding mission.”

Mission?” Forty years of marriage had taught Mother how to read between the lines. I was confident she would have little difficulty with braille.

It was my time to laugh embarrassed. “It’s only a visit.

Everyone around the table joined in the laughter. Silly me. Silly Dad. Silly son. It was only a visit.

While we cleared away the dinner plates to make room for dessert, Mother leaned in my direction, “You’re not thinking of leaving now, are you, son? Really leaving?”

Mother?” How do I lie to the woman who bore me, raised me, suckled me to her breast?

She leaned closer, managing to brush my arm, her face brimming. Could her love be more obvious?

I took her sun-flecked hands, capping them, patting them — hands that had served a lifetime. Where to start? How could I help her understand the burning need we felt to leave our Fatherland? How could I make her appreciate the betrayal that I felt, not toward our family but toward the country’s leaders, past and present, especially the military and law-and-order leaders and the games they played with people’s lives? How they had become ruthless. Reckless. How could I tell her that we saw no future bringing up our young children in such an environment, in a society where lives had become as cheap as a deck of cards. How should I explain to her how I cringed each time, each week, giving anesthesia to someone who had just been hijacked or shot or robbed — that after four years of not abating, it had become cancer invading our souls and eroding our joy.

How could I tell Mother, without tearing her heart apart, how we had decided, six months earlier, the day after we had learned about the murder, execution-style, of a friend who lived nine houses away, that it was time? Time to leave. Time for a new beginning.

How does one explain the bleeding in one’s soul?

Over dessert and coffee, I reminded her of all those years, decades earlier, when she, as a young school teacher, brimming with dreams and hopes of grand adventures, bade her parents farewell and travelled three solid days by train into the African Interior, into the unknown, guarded only by her faith and her God. Fearless. How, being three thousand miles away, she’d only see them once every three or five years. How that broke the parental hearts.

Mother’s eyes brimmed when she brought my hands to her lips. “That was different.”

Father, having sensed the gist of what had happened right under his nose without him ever suspecting such radical action from his second-born and daughter-in-law, (didn’t think the boy had it in him), he closed the meal, the first of many last suppers, with a prayer. Him giving now thanks, not his usual short and perfunctory close, soon pleading with his heavenly father to intervene and instil some sense and sensibility in his son and his wife to see the error of their ways; it lasted the best part of ten minutes.

Mother felt no pressing need to intervene.

Image by author

Four months following our week-long visit abroad, our earthly belongings crammed into a twenty-foot shipping container, it was time for the final good-byes. We had a last meal at Mother’s. She loved having her chickens under her wings, their legs pushed under her table. The brothers and sisters were in attendance too. As was her habit, she stood, prim, with shoulders straight, the dinner plates spread in a crescent moon around her, dishing up. She’d measure for each one to receive an equal and fair helping — not that there wasn’t enough food. Having grown up during the Depression-years does that to a person.

No amount of making light or severe of the matter would let her deviate from the practice, her adult children rolling their eyes in spite.

No amount of whispering under my breath, “Mom, just pass the plates. We’ll apply self-constraint with your delicious food,” would sway her.

She’d gently tap my hand with the dishing-up spoon, pushing it away, rewarding me with a brave smile. “Darling, why don’t you pour everybody some juice? I’ve done this before.”

Mother . . .”

Lips trembling, she met my eyes. “Let me be. I’m cherishing these moments, having you all around the table — stretching them as far as possible, engraving each one in my heart. For all I know, you may be an old man by the time I get such a chance again.”

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Danie Botha was born in Zambia and completed his school education and medical training in South Africa. He has called Canada home for the past 19 years. He writes modern historical and contemporary fiction and blogs about positive aging and writing as healing.Visit Danie at DanieBotha.com.
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Danie Botha was born in Zambia and completed his school education and medical training in South Africa. He has called Canada home for the past 19 years. He writes modern historical and contemporary fiction and blogs about positive aging and writing as healing.Visit Danie at DanieBotha.com.

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