You can’t swop lives like postcards but you can start building bridges for transitions. Things will start to feel alright again – not so dislocated or distressing. Farewells are the worst. Farewells of any sort. They equate endings. Fact. Walking away, step by step, was devastating.
We leave home at three in the morning on a Sunday. We pay our first chai (bribe) at 3:20 am to the policeman who is posted outside Mohammed’s Space Oil - a petrol station which no longer sells petrol. The only good thing about leaving home so early is that the road is empty, but for lonely, hungry, cold policemen.
He kisses his sleepy little sister goodbye, all warm like a scone in her giant bed, hugging her fiercely as I hover in the doorway. He hugs his older brother, a louche but tender 16 year old who actually makes it out of bed for this terrible goodbye. As he walks out the door, without looking back, he says “I love you D” into a cold and dark 3 o clock morning. I look on helplessly, hands limp at my sides. We bump down the hill and I hear imperceptible sniffling. “I’m going to miss everyone so much.” Nyamuhanga, the askari, had hugged him too long. The afternoon before, Marco, the groom (preacher and self professed healer man), had held his St Christopher in his hands and mumbled blessings, prayers and Maasai magics into it. Bumping down the hill, into this cold, still morning feels wrong and too sad. I am Queen Elizabeth. I am Queen Elizabeth, rolls my mantra like a repetitive cine in my head. I hold his hand and tell him everything is going to be alright and of course you feel sad saying good bye and feel sick and little in the pit of my stomach. And alone.
Checking in at 5 in the morning at Kilimanjaro Airport is a rude and banal distraction from my emotional turmoil. The check in man writes a PhD single fingeredly into a screen and still makes errors, as I discovered in Nairobi when I am called up by security along with a fellow called something like Mohammed Al Quaeda Bin Laden from Mogadishu. The dwindling Kilimanjaro glaciers shine soft and quiet as we fly by, the patient granite face of the mother mountain saying nothing, giving no comfort except perhaps that she will be there when we return.
We arrive at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg along with the rest of Africa: A football team from Angola, our flight from Kenya, a boeing from Nigeria, one from the DRC and another one from Cameroun. Everyone wants to come to the land of milk and honey. The luggage belt churns around, spitting bags out. We find mine. He says, “ I don’t think mine’s made it…” his words laced with anxiety. He had been packing his little suitcase for a week, carefully labeling each loved piece of him from home in his squonky scrawl, methodically ticking off the list. He’s right. It doesn’t arrive. He and I are not supposed to travel together – we’re far too similar – too emotional and fiery. Calm is a foreign country to us in times of adversity. I don’t think the Lost Luggage Counter had ever seen anything like it. Nothing could produce my son’s bag. Not his tears. Not mine. Nor my rage or despair.
We head on, for the next flight to the sea, our eyes scratchy from tiredness and tears, bewildered by this giant airport. Through the crowd, like an angel, strides dear T, from nowhere, a dear and beloved face in a sea of nothingness. He whisks us off for milkshakes and vodka all round. Sometimes life is kind and uplifting, soaringly so.
We head on – numb from tiredness, mile after blue mile sliding below us, foreign crinkled mountains and then, there, far below, a vast emerald sea dotted with little ships, twinkling in the twilight. We fly closer to the D Day of all goodbyes. The B & B is cold. Horrible. In the morning he creeps into my bed and we curl up and he murmurs, “This is what you call lying like spoons.” My brave, cold boy.
We race through ghastly shopping malls, throwing things into trolleys, bags, madly ticking off lists. We get lost in the new city. Me: Oh hurrah! We’re on Cape Road at last. Him: No Ma! It says…K…Kaap Weg.
He will learn enough Afrikaans in good time to get by, I know. We race up the highway, through the new country, sad songs on the radio which we can’t change and a hard and sleety rain hammering the rented car windscreen. Crunching gravel, we arrive at the new school. Between each breath the heaviness of the imminent goodbye rests. I am Queen Elizabeth. I am Queen Elizabeth. “Try this shirt for size,” smiling, in the uniform shop and other vacuous pleasantries. The moment of truth arrives as we walk into his dormitory and we see his little naked bed where other boys like him have slept before. Reality slaps us in the face. I am Queen Elizabeth. I am….her. We frantically label all the new shopping to replace his lost luggage. I see his big boy hand shaking, unable to write. My mouth is dry. Somehow I keep smiling. I talk to another mother but I don’t really know what I am saying. Labelling, talking, making his bed, folding . . .until…until he says “Ok Ma…I’m going to watch football,” and walks away out the door. I look up. I say, “You can’t walk off without saying goodbye, man!” to his back. He turns. I see his eyes and crumpled face. I grab him. Hold him. Kiss the top of his head. Kiss his cheek, his lips. “Be good darling. Be brave. Try your best. Have fun, ok? Bye, you…” and I drop what I am doing, grab my bag and leave without looking back. I am Queen Elizabeth. I was her. Not anymore. Not at all. Fact. But she got me through, for sure.
It was terrible.