“We always had a problem with him and pools. The people who own the pool upstairs said they caught him walking around it when I already told him not to. I gave him a hiding. He said he wouldn’t do it again. And then just 5 days later, he came back to report to me about how excited he was to touch the pool water upstairs. I said, ‘Ah! So I have to give you another hiding again because you didn’t learn the first time?’”
She laughed ruefully as she recalled the memory of her son telling on himself. Another memory came back to her.
“And you remember the first time he came to your house, he peed in your pool when he had to use the toilet?” She chuckled a bit.
“I remember,” I answered, laughing lightly. “My whole yard was his toilet that day.”
“Yeah, neh? I guess it was meant to be the pool…”
The levity in the room evaporated as quickly as its unexpected entrance. We five women – the grieving mother and we her friends and family who had come to grieve with her – enveloped ourselves in silence once again. The constant pinging of her phone from the incessant stream of WhatsApp messages swallowed the otherwise quiet. The memory of Matthew was everywhere. There was so much to say and not enough strength to say it.
I met Thandi* in 2016 at a local spa. After months of ignoring the follicle forest that had sprouted on my chin, I went to a local spa to have it waxed away. Thandi was a new employee – new to Plett – and I was one of her first clients. I have always been self-conscious about my facial hair (one of the strange consequences of carrying and bearing a son) and cope with it by being self-depreciating. Thandi put me at ease by taking to focus away from my imperfection and focusing on what had caused it.
“I have a son too,” she said. “Matthew. He’s four.”
“Oh really? Mine is seven. His name is Stone.”
“They don’t stay with me. I’m working to bring them home. Maybe next year.”
Within days we would transition from a client-service provider relationship to becoming sisters.
Matthew lived with his older sister with their grandmother in a township 5 hours away by bus. Like many South African women – single mothers in particular- Thandi had to leave them in the care of family in order to find work wherever she could and care for them as best she can. As a consequence of a failed education system that stretches back generations, many women labor as domestic workers (a term I dislike greatly) and come from a long line of women who have had the thankless job of cleaning up after and caring for other people’s children. Thandi’s life took a different path when she made a decision a divorce and decade ago: she would study beauty therapy. This is how she’s earned money to care for her children, her mother and her son, and recently her former mother-in-law who had charge of the kids. Three households are dependent on her check and occasional tips, a pittance when you consider the long hours and shocking indignities she and other women have to endure in the massage industry. But if she had learned anything in this life, Thandi has learned to endure.
Matthews sudden, silent passing is yet another.
No one saw it happen. At the largest and most popular hotel in Plettenberg Bay, during one of the busiest weekends of the year, no one took notice of a little boy who scurried from the toddler wading pool into the deeper pool just feet away. He had already been told to stay put by his older sister who’d swum off to play with her age mates…but if you know anything about five year old boys, and five year old boys in particular…they are not very good at staying put or being excluded from big kid fun.
I’ve seen the pool at that hotel. It’s designed to allure you, to invite you in. I imagine he was thrilled as he descended onto the shallow steps. Saturday, January 6th 2018 was a hot day in Plett. I imagine the water in the larger pool felt cooler against his skin, which must have delighted him and bolstered his confidence. I imagine he took more steps downward and slipped under unseen. I don’t care to imagine much more after that.
Matthew was discovered at the very bottom of the pool. It was a group of children – no one will say who – that dove under and pulled him to the surface.
We don’t discuss these details as Thandi sits on the floor, supported by a mattress and covered in plain cloth. We talk about my kids’ recent return from Ghana, about the weather and about the precious moments shared with the little boy whose absence had brought us all into that pink bedroom a day after his passing.
His presence is everywhere; reminders that he not only lived, but as most preschoolers do, dominated his domain.
Thandi glances in the corner and takes note of a soccer ball that has been sitting by the bedroom door. It’s blue. Captain America, Iron Man and few of the other Avengers stare determinedly into space from its globular surface. Thandi recalls how Matthew loved to kick that ball with her. Her bully auntie who has been sitting on the mattress with her gets up and takes the ball away. This too I suppose is her right.
Nothing prepares you for the moment you become a mother. It’s just something you learn to do. When a woman becomes a mother, the birth of her child does not change her life alone. The ripple affects go deep and wide. Suddenly, in one moment, we who are her friends and sisters become aunties and godmothers. Her mother earns a grand title. We all have new responsibilities. Life is never the same after the birth of a child.
Life is never the same when you lose him either. Nothing prepares you for the moment you lose your child. It’s just something you learn to do.
There is a grief that is unspeakable, almost incomprehensible. The questions come, in a trickle at first, and finally in a deluge. After the deluge, a steady dribble, echoing the rhythm of your beating heart.
And when there are no answers, at least none that can satisfy, then comes the silence. And it’s the silence that’s the hardest to bear.
We’ve lost children in our family before through miscarriages, within hours of birth, through tragic accidents similar to what happened at the pool. This is an ancient pain, experienced by the First Woman herself. This does not make this moment any easier to carry. It’s something that we must all carry together if we’re to get through it.
On the night it happened, we wearily came home to tell our kids. They sat in stunned silence. Aya covered her mouth, as though afraid to breathe. Stone – who was watching YouTube when we arrived home – was back on his computer moments after the announcement. I wondered if he grasped what was being said to him.
“Matthew was one of the 10 people who drowned in South Africa this weekend.”
He held up his laptop to me and pointed to the screen. He had been searching for details on his “annoying little brother” and friend. It was a natural reaction for a child of his generation – to seek answers from the Internet… answers that adults could not provide. He took back his device and gave me a blank look before retreating back to the steps and staring into the inky, uncertain night that stretched out before us all.
I don’t want to end this post. I don’t want this to be the end. And though we all have to accept that this is the end of Matthew’s life as we have known it, we will always cherish and give praise that he existed. His life mattered. You had to see him. You would’ve loved him too. The last time we saw him was on New Years Eve where our families watched fireworks from the top floor. Long before midnight, he’d given everyone in the room a big hug that night, something he’d never done before. He was so tiny, but he was a force. A tornado. He’s wrecked our house (and my nerves) on many a weekend. I’d give almost anything to pick up after that wreckage again. I can’t help but wonder if those exuberant, unexpected hugs were his way of saying goodbye.
Fly with the angels, sweet Matthew.