I started writing this blog the week before Christmas 2021. A month later, I abandoned it. I’d hit a brick wall. It wasn’t only because my Mom had a stroke just after New Year. Everything seemed to have skidded to a halt. I was stuck.
Last week I finally spoke to my daughter.
“Ruby, I’ve not been able to write. It’s not just been because of the constant worry about Nana, of being too far away and potentially just another burden if I went over there in mid-winter. But because I’ve reached the point in the journey where you flew to Mombasa to visit us for the winter holiday. The story ceases to become mine to tell. You need to let me know whether you’re comfortable with me broadcasting it. Or whether I must save it for the book. Or not bother at all.”
She was quiet for a long moment; “I don’t know what I think about that”.
“That’s OK” I said, “You don’t have to decide right now. I’d obviously send it to you for approval first. There’s no rush…”
“No” she interrupted briskly, decisively, “I do want it in there. It’s important to point out the irony, how everyone was scared something bad would happen to us in Africa, but in the end it was Europe that proved unsafe. It’s part of the trip. It’s what made me who I am, it’s what made us who we are. I’m not ashamed of it.”
A great weight lifted off my shoulders. It’s what I hoped she might feel eventually, what I hoped I would feel if it had happened to me, but I couldn’t presume to speak for her. I gulped my gratitude.
It’s taken her five years to get to this point. I couldn’t be prouder.
* * *
On the road north to Watamu, I only managed one hour sitting upright in the cab before having to lie down in the back. I was shocked at the fall out just from that, alongside the increasingly painful PEM pain in my arm from resizing photos the day before. The fact that things had begun to feel beyond my control brought me to tears at the supper table that night. I also had ringworm on my hand – another sign my immune system hadn’t yet recovered from typhoid in Sudan. I felt Rattled, and not just from the brain shake of being back on the road.
At the time I wrote:
“If the lesson of 2017 was ‘If you hide the true state of your weakness from your elderly parents to avoid worrying them, you can’t be upset when they show ignorance of and insensitivity to your condition’, then the lesson of 2018 so far has been ‘You can’t be angry with your husband for not taking the fragile state of your health seriously if you’ve been modelling such behaviour for years’. I have been bitter that he’s not looking after me, watching out for me, pulling me up when I’m about to fall down – but have I been as loving and care-full of myself? I have to be honest and kind with myself if I want those around me to act accordingly. If I’m angry with him for pretending this is not happening – what does that say about me?”
The first place we approached for WVO was the luxury boutique hotel Hemingways. The Watamu site had recently been redeveloped and was so brand new, they were still finishing the thatching: with renewable recycled plastic fronds from Malaysia that last for 25 years! Five star with four pools, it was the premier property in colourful Cornishman Dicky Evans’ hospitality chain (and named Kenya’s Leading Beach Resort at the 2021 World Travel Awards). Dicky, a former Kenyan rugby captain, apparently also owns the Cornish Pirates rugby team in Penzance UK, whose strapline ‘Putting the Aaargh in Rugby’ is a classic groan worthy of Sampson himself!
Hemingways’ manager Melinda Rees was so welcoming to Sampson and the kids, I felt terrible to be simply way too ill to get off the bed to go and meet her. I had to take Ibuprofen to try and reduce my brain inflammation to sleep.
The next day, I was glad Ruby coaxed Zola out of bed to swim, before being whisked off by Melinda’s friend Jane to see the EcoWorld recycling centre, a project of the dynamic Watamu Marine Association, where tons of plastic collected along coastal beaches is building a circular economy in Watamu, being transformed ‘from trash to cash’. When they got back, Sampson did his climate awareness show for 30 Hemingways staff to thank them for their WVO donation. Ruby had to take the pics:
Afterwards I dragged myself up to go on a short windy walk round the whole complex with the kids. I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand or sit up for long, but felt blessed to hang out on the hamster wheel seat with them, more aware than ever how precious our time together now was.
Memories of this time are dominated by a soundtrack of Ruby singing along to 17 by Alessia Cara. This is also when Zola started listening obsessively to The Vampire Masquerade by Peter Gundry, following his research on waltzes as part of a school project.
On third morning there, while the boys were in the gym, I was doing T’ai Chi by the pool and Ruby was enjoying swimming in the rain showers. She kept asking me if I was OK “because you look so pale”. It was true I was really struggling, not to breathe, but somehow to oxygenate. I was also confused as to why my body wasn’t responding like it usually did to Good Solid Warm. The humidity was not that sapping. Why wasn’t I bouncing back?
I wrote in my diary “If I’m about to have a period, or officially hit menopause (it’s been 11 weeks now) or about to go down with malaria, then this drastic lack of energy could be explained. Otherwise, I have to admit to the possibility that this might be it. My new level: pretty disabled. Basically bedridden but for one hour in the morning and one in the late afternoon?”
The sobering realisation that I wouldn’t be surprised at my heart conking out at any time now made me resolve to finish letters I’d started drafting to family in the event of my death. I wasn’t scared, just facing facts. I was very glad my husband was in a strong enough mental state to share thoughts with; it was so much better not to feel alone with it all. I was less distressed at the shrinking of my physical capacity as mental. I could feel my fogginess getting denser – I was increasingly getting lost in it, which was so frustrating when there was so much to do and so little time.
This disease was messing with me like PJ with this crab.
It was only another 20km on to Malindi, but a very bumpy road. Big Reg parked on an empty sandy lane outside the five star Ocean Beach Resort. It was stiflingly hot and I was so grateful for the sea breeze at the end of it, even if I couldn’t get there yet. I’d taken Ibuprofen again to preempt brain shake and it zonked me right out.
Sampson was beside himself at the prospect of some decent surf, as excited as a kid at Christmas. The boys got two sessions in, and the swell was so big, Zola snapped his board. For the next couple of days their pattern was: gobble down breakfast, surf, back for brunch, surf, back for supper, collapse.
I decided to focus on Ruby as she’d been spending far too much time concentrating on me being ill the last few days. We spent several hours on the bed researching universities across SA and UK. Her preference was for a BSc at WITS in Jo’burg, at that time with fees at about R50000 p.a. She knew the reputation of UK universities was better, but at £9000 a year now, she decided they couldn’t be 3 times as good. She was saying she wanted to study Cell Biology so she could become an ME researcher. Bless her.
The next day I managed a short walk on the beach before it got too hot. My stomach was painful and weirdly bloated, distended far more drastically than from dodgy food. Eventually I realised it must be the result of taking Ibuprofen 3 days in a row. Finally, I got stuck into some editing; although I had failed to get two blogs up in June, I felt I was back on track now.
At the end of the afternoon, Ruby came to lie next to me on the bed and told me about a chat she had had recently with our friend, her fairy godmother Clare. Sheepishly she related that, after she’d told her about a memory that had come back to her, Clare had said “You really must tell your mom”.
Ruby said she didn’t know why she hadn’t told us at the time, and she had really wanted to tell me since but… “Just tell me” I said. “Well,” she breathed in, “remember that time in Spain 2 years ago, in the campsite?” “When you woke up to find the man in your tent?” “Yes… Actually he was on top of me.”
(How the world can capsize in a second.)
She told me she’d woken up when one of the cats, Cleo, walked over her face. When she shouted, he put his hand over her mouth and throat so she kneed him in the groin and he’d legged it. She said she’d screamed for help and we hadn’t heard because there a strong wind off the sea taking her voice in the opposite direction. (We’d moved the truck two parking places over to get more sun on the solar panels and although Zola had shifted his tent too, she’d refused to move. We’d all thought she was safe here.)
She didn’t recognise him, but knew he was Spanish.
Only when she ran out after him – facepalm – did she realise he was naked below the waist, carrying his jeans.
* * *
* * *
* * *
* * *
For every time I had ever thought “How could a mother not realise when her daughter had been sexually assaulted?”
I never would have guessed that a daughter of mine would not tell me something like this. I had always made an effort to be open and approachable, so that no child would feel that they couldn’t be comfortably honest with me. What I hadn’t reckoned on was her not being able to be honest with herself. She said she thinks she blocked it out immediately, blanked it so completely, that the memory had only started coming back to her in flashbacks during the panic attacks of the last few months.
What could I say. There were no words possible to encompass the scope of the sorry I felt. I just held her, while the world rocked.
* * *
The incandescent anger
* * *
‘holding her down by the throat’
* * *
My darling girl
* * *
She’d just turned 15
* * *
At the beginning of Feb 2022, 20 year old mid-pandemic UNISA BSc student Ruby called us for an hour. In the last week of 2021, three months after arriving at her uncle’s in the UK, she had finally got a job, and, in quick succession, found a room in a shared house and some lovely new friends. She was so happy, relating how someone had told her how loving and open and fun she was, concluding “I feel back to myself again”. Her Dad and me looked at each other across the phone with tears in our eyes. We’d felt it already, but it was wonderful to hear her claim it.