My wife on our wedding day was my Cinderella. I was her prince. For the young, making love is just for fun. I have never read Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee. I’ve never even heard of Salinger. They have all swept my eldest daughter away. Sometimes I think to myself will she ever be a bride? Will she ever fall in love? Feel what her dad felt as he looked at his new wife. With our married life ahead of us. A day old. Will a man ever take her in his arms and say, ‘I love you best?’ But these are just the thoughts of an old man in the autumn of his years. This morning I felt depressed. The world can do that to you when you’re infirm. You think nothing will ever hurt you again. You’re built like an impenetrable fortress in the mountains at the end of the world.
Our marriage had promised us new beginnings. Wonderful beginnings. But now there’s silence. I cry for what I have lost. Not real tears. Just a sob or two that wracks my body. She’s not so far away from me. The two double beds are in the same room. Gerda is reading by the light from a lamp while I search for my pharmaceuticals. Swallow my tablets as if they were aspirin. Looking at her now I realise how much I still love her. Let me count the ways. Love has a delicate smell. It means to offer you the rituals of sacrifice, buying a house, moving furniture, a wife by the name of Gerda staring at her reflection in the mirror while she brushes the tangles out of her hair, pats her hair down, puts a stocking on and wraps a scarf around her head.
She is still beautiful, but not just to me, to other people as well. I still think I didn’t deserve her. Is she happy? Have I made her happy? She stayed with me for better or for the worst. I ministered to my children. I lectured my children when it needed to be done. To set them straight. To set them on their life journey. Their pilgrimage of sorts. And I took them all, my loving, boisterous family from hell to an eternity of hell. And of course in the wards of hell, or the wards of Valkenburg, there is not much of a presence of becoming indoctrinated by religion. I didn’t find Buddha when I was in Valkenburg. I didn’t turn into a Brahmin. I was only introduced to that much later when my children were teen-agers. Things like meditation. I did give up smoking, but not red meat. Wiping the fat off my lips. I never drank much. I hated the stuff. I saw what it did to my own father. Gerda is silent. In her own world, and I wonder (it is not for the first time) what is she thinking about? Does she still love me as much as I love her?
What I wouldn’t do to embrace her like I did the first night of our married life? I hate this loneliness that is flowering inside of me like a lotus. I must write about what I like, what I mesmerises my all-knowing, all-seeing eyes, about the difficulties of married life, the first meal my wife cooked for me as my wife, how I watched the movements of my wife at our wedding feast set out in a church hall, filled with Johannesburg people, and a few members of my family. I must write about what makes me emotional (yes, even men get emotional, over-excited about the annihilation of evil by good). I must write about what makes me misty-eyed, what cuts me deep where the depths of suicidal illness awaits, watching my children in Victoria Park playing while I watched them from afar, sitting on a park bench that was once reserved for Whites only in a White people’s park.
Over weekends the park would usually be deserted. I’d get chocolate and packets of crisps for the children. I’d see their smiles. Their laughter and sticky fingers would lift me. Give me a buoyant mood. Perhaps you are sensing that I am not telling you the whole truth. There were days when I had to force myself to get out of bed. I was a man who had plenty of responsibilities. I couldn’t just give in, quit life, quit family life, lie on the sofa, stop taking cold, refreshing showers that restored some vitality, some energy to my brain, and clarity of thought, vision and self-actualisation to my insight. I couldn’t escape my children, I couldn’t not acknowledge them (their pain was my pain, their emotional fabric in time, was my emotional fabric in time and place, and their moments of childhood depression stopped me dead in my tracks).
I couldn’t just quit my children’s world, divorce their mother, live without the difficulties of a husband, live in a bachelor pad with relative freedom, no domestic responsibilities from their world, because they needed me. My family needed me. And as I watched my small children looking at all the things I couldn’t buy for them (their choices they already knew had to fit my pocket), things like that would melt my heart in the Greek’s shop, and as they carefully made their purchases I was eternally grateful that I had made it through another day. I had made it through another manic depressive episode. No more aspirin for me. I had put Valkenburg behind me. There was Elizabeth Donkin, and the beginning of lithium therapy. There was my beautiful wife wearing blue jeans, a comfortable jersey that I had seen her in many times, and a white shirt. There was my wife getting out of the car.
I was waiting for her on the steps of ward F. Waiting for her perfunctory kiss on the cheek. Waiting to sit down in well-worn chairs.
‘How are you?’
‘I’ve missed you.’
‘I’ve missed you too. When are you coming home?’
Well, the conversation would go something like that.
I watched her shield her eyes, looking, looking, and looking for me. And then her field of vision changed. Her eyes met mine. And then she was locking the car door. Making her way towards me with that day’s newspaper, a selection of magazines, bottles of juices, or a fruit basket. And the depression, with its elated highs that felt so invincible, that made me feel exquisite frustration, the faith that I had that the feelings were killing me, every day would come with their turning points. My heart was suicidal depression’s apprentice. My brain was its master. I put my wife on a pedestal, but did she know it? In the beginning before I was married, I thought of all women as sex objects. Did I tell her how much I loved her? I worshiped the ground she walked on. Before her I was not romantic. Before I met my future wife my style and technique of a lover was dry when I was depressed. She made me into the man I am today. Throughout it all she convinced me to choose life, and to discriminate against death. For every season there is a senseless tragedy. In love nothing is insignificant.
‘Off to the old age home with you.’ She said the other day. It broke my heart to hear her say that. We don’t make love anymore. We sleep in separate beds. There’s a distance between us now that I can’t describe. It has no time or place. It’s like a bridge. If we stayed together or even for as long as we have it is only because of the children. Sometimes I wonder what my wife was like as a child. The grief she must have felt as a young child after losing a sibling, a brother. But we never spoke about things like that. I never yearned to ask my fiancé, or new bride anything that would make her feel uncomfortable. In her eyes, I wanted to be give her only good memories. I wanted to make her forget about the pain of her childhood the way she made me forget about my own painful childhood. How I was bullied, terrorised on the playground, teased, called names.
As a child I was a watcher, a dreamer. I was always in love with books. With self-learning. With teaching myself new things about the world around me. Life experience. That’s what White people called it. White people had cars. White people sold. White people were business minded professionals. When I was a child I fell in love with education. Maybe that’s when I became a teacher. In childhood. I had an unquiet mind. I still do. There are a lot of rituals when I go to church on Sunday morning. There’s the breaking of bread and Holy Communion. It’s not real wine of course. It’s just grape juice. I’m a changed man when I leave the church (less depressed. I feel less lonely. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it has to do with the biochemistry of the brain, or social activities, being involved in something even if it is as mundane as going to church).
And the bread is not the thin wafers we used to get at the Union Congregational Church that the children looked at so longingly in their innocent hearts with that angelic shine on their faces. My wife and I would bite into the wafers. With that one bite the body of Christ was now part of our spirit, our soul consciousness, our physical bodies. Abigail couldn’t understand that she had to be confirmed before she could partake of the body of Christ and the drinking of grape juice. She told me that we (it was always we even though I was the one behind the steering wheel of the car) road past Mrs Turner in the street, and that although Mrs Turner (Abigail called her Mrs Turnip behind her back after that day) saw us, must have recognised our car she didn’t wave back. Well her body is all weirdly shaped like a turnip was Abigail’s thought and I told her that’s what happened to people as they got older. Everything physical changed and sometimes they started to forget things too like their manners (etiquette to Abigail).
I just smiled and then I laughed and said, ‘Really? Maybe she didn’t see us.’
‘Daddy, really? Are you sure? She looked right at me and I waved and I waved and I waved and she still didn’t wave back.’
I couldn’t tell her this then. She was too young. An innocent. They could hurt me, but I would not let them hurt my children.
The following year we started going to Pearson Congregational Church which was situated in Central. Everyone who went there was White. You love your children. You really do whether they’ve done something good or bad. You’re the one person in the world they can to when they need anything. If they ask you for money you bend down and you tell them to pick the money off the money tree. You tell them that you love them because that is the remedy for everything. When they’re sick you nurse them back to health. When it’s their birthday you buy them a cake, presents wrapped in brightly coloured paper, blow up balloons, and you give them a party and invite all the neighbourhood. You give them a hug when they need it the most even when they’re at their most rebellious nature.
Shower them with fatherly concern when giving advice. It’s also your honour, and privilege to provide daily inspiration from a verse in the Bible, to help with school projects. But when they get depressed of course you worry for them. You have discussions behind a closed bedroom door in the middle of the night that go and go on until the early hours of the morning and you think back to when you were in high school. I was from a different generation. The more things change the more they stay the same. Isn’t that what the adage says? Should we all go and talk to someone like a family counsellor, a therapist. Gerda was always the one who was two steps ahead of me. She didn’t come out and say it or tell me what she was thinking. She took Abigail when she was barely out of her teens to a psychiatrist who studied in Vienna.