Monday, 27 January 2014

what goes around

Johanna and Old Lady

Kindness to children is never forgotten.

You know that one adult that takes a moment to listen to a dreamy child, without saying anything profound and the child doesn’t say anything in particular either.  Nothing is really said but the child understands there’s a grownup that sees and cares. Those moments might have words, but it isn’t the words that convey any meaning.  

Johanna was that adult for me.

She lived in a room behind our house and worked for my parents; responsible for the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry. The title is maid in South Africa but that doesn’t really explain everything she was to me.

When I was 12 I wrote a poem about Johanna which appeared in the school magazine. I’m looking at it now and smiling. 

The class of ’74 have gone on to become pediatricians, accountants and architects. We were given more chances in life than Johanna who never learned to read or write.

But even without knowing letters and numbers, without any education at all, you can make a huge impact on a child’s life.

Kindness, cooking well, respect and the daily practice of taking care of others are all the things I learned from Johanna.  And every time I do those things I pay her gift to me forward.

My parents called to say she died last night.  I never told her before she died how much she meant to me. 
But I know that without words, she knew what I am struggling to say now.   

There are no words for love.

This is the poem:


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Seeing ripples

I didn’t recognize her at first. At first glance she looked like a young Haredi woman wearing a long black dress. We talked about how she couldn’t drive and had little sense of direction even around Stamford Hill where she lives.

As she talked, I remembered I had met Leah Stern before. She had astounded me with her story last year. I remember she told me she had a profoundly physically and mentally disabled child who lived in specialized residential care in Israel. 

I remember her telling me she wanted to bring her daughter, Yitty, back to England and with no suitable facilities here, she decided to create a home from home for children with special needs.

She had big plans for the home. She wanted residential care for 25 children and day-care for 50. She wanted a hydrotherapy room, sensory rooms, comfortable bedrooms and a kosher kitchen for the children and their visiting families.  

But in real life nothing came easily – she had to argue for the land. She had to struggle for charity donations. She had to find an architect and sort out planning permission.

When I saw her today, I wanted to know if she had succeeded. 

She told me animatedly that the home had been built. They were now at the stage of doing the interiors. 

She had plans for a fish-tank at wheelchair height in the reception area for the children to enjoy. She was hoping to convince her committee about that, but that the doors were nearly open.

I asked her about her daughter for whom she was building the home.

She told me her daughter had died recently in Israel. She was 14 years old.

Leah was not there when she died, but she asked to be able to hold her daughter before she was buried.

In holding her, and stroking her daughter’s face, she saw how beautiful her daughter was. How beautiful. How beautiful.

To Leah Stern, her child’s death was about love, not about fear.

Although the home in England has come too late for them, Leah says she is still committed to finishing the home for other children and their families. There is still work to be done.

I’m not sure I have the capacity for such grace and determination in the face of adversity.

We don’t all have the same qualities or get the same lives.

I'm more the dreamy type.

I like to imagine we are all making the world a better place

I like to imagine we all have a job to do in doing that

I like to imagine a plaque on a fish tank that says:

In recognition of the determination of Leah Stern, in memory of her daughter Yitty, whose short life started a ripple that reaches to you here now.

There is no Just Giving page but Leah gave me this email address:

Monday, 13 January 2014

War and peace

My father in the trenches

My father was a man who worried about his children’s survival to the point of crazy-making.

If I ever told my father, I was going to Llandudno beach, for example, he would remind me that Llandudno was where sharks ate surfers.  Be careful in the water he would say. 

If I said I was going for a hike up Table Mountain, he would remind me how many people fall and die on Table Mountain every year.

Now that I am a parent myself, I know that fear.

But there is a level of anxiety that I have never experienced that my father knows too well. I am grateful I didn't see what he saw, and didn't have to do what he did. Although he loved his job and he was good at it.

After his long career as a surgeon, I had concerns about how he would take to the next stage in his life. I needn't have worried.

When I asked my father yesterday how his retirement was going, he said he was loving it.

He said that for his whole adult life, he had lived with the anxiety of wondering if his patients would pull through their operations, if he had made the right decision operating, and mostly if he had made the right decision not operating.

That anxiety was over now. He was free from the terrible responsibility he had.

My father saw how disease could fall at random on good people. And armed with just a scalpel, his knowledge of the terrain and his courage to act, he waged war on cancerous cells and rotting limbs on behalf of those people.  On the operating table, there was no time to be afraid, but afterwards there was lots of fear.

He took that terrible responsibility daily, often making tremendously difficult decisions under fire.   
In over 60 years of fighting, he saved thousands of lives, but not all the lives he tried to save.  And he suffered for the lives he saved and the lives he couldn’t. 

It was not an easy way to make a living. 

But I didn't see any of that as a child.

This is what happened every Sunday morning of my childhood.   We would go on family outings around the Cape Peninsula, in my father’s green Valiant.  Outings always started with a long wait in outside hospitals. Us four kids played for hours in the car-parks of the Monastery Hospital, Groote Schuur Hospital and mostly in the old Somerset hospital which had a pretty garden and a fountain.  You could sometimes see the patients in their pink dressing gowns on the balcony. 

I remember the sun was always shining.

And then my father would come out of the hospital and we would go on our outing.