Recently I drove over a familiar railway bridge in a Cape Town suburb and as I got over the incline and approached the traffic light at a busy intersection ahead, I was suddenly choked up at the sight of a building on the corner being torn down. A large metal ball pounded at its crumbling walls and several identical cranes like cold yellow vultures circled, waiting to collect the debris. This was not just any building. This was the hospital where my life like in an earthquake’s aftermath, had split in two. 5 years ago on New Year’s Day I had sat in my obstetrician’s cubicle on the 4th floor of this hospital with my husband clasping one of my hands in both of his, our eyes fixed on the small foetal monitoring screen while the doctor gently described the signs we should see and hear, to prove that our baby girl, after almost seven months in-utero, was no longer alive.
Later that Wednesday evening we checked into a private room in the same building where she eventually, after two surreal days and several labour induction attempts, Iman Bongiwe was stillborn at 3:35am on Friday 3rd January 2003. That building has now transformed into a corporate block with exclusive apartments in the top floor. Joy Mc Pherson, the phenomenal midwife who supported me throughout this and two other pregnancies, died of a brain tumour in 2007, after more than twenty years in midwifery. Except for the few birth pictures she was wise and loving enough to take for me, the birth and death certificates we have locked in our safe, the small grave on a hill near our home, there is little physical evidence that our daughter ever existed. Yet like that reconstructed building the entire landscape of all our lives has fundamentally changed. Nothing can be as it was before. Time has relentlessly brought on this change and I am still taken by surprise some days, when I realise how much time has passed since that turning point, how I have ached and cried less and less, how I have found and developed ways to live with what I thought I couldn’t and didn’t want to bear in the beginning.
Just over a year after Iman’s passing I gave birth to her brother Kwezi Michio – now 4 years old. His was an unplanned-far-too-soon-but-then-again-perhaps-perfectly-timed pregnancy which doctors and family alike held great fears and doubts about. But he was born at home emerging safely from the very same womb in which she did not survive. His physical presence is for me inextricably connected to her physical absence. His growth and daily milestones never pass without my thoughts lingering on how it would be if she were here or on remembering the depths of sorrow that he lifted me from, when he entered our lives. Still, with time and the many forms of healing I have chosen, the harsh strokes on this canvas of my heart have begun merging, blending, blurring so that I rarely ever think of what my eyes saw in those few hours of holding her tiny body or those few precious photographs. I don’t choose to re-member her that way. I am able to see her now, in my own inexplicable way, everywhere and in everything. She is an inner compass for me, a reminder of what matters in this life, how fleeting it is, how fragile we are. She is also fully present in our family memories, our occasional verbal recollections and in the lives of those who carried my family and I through the initial shock and heartbreak. For each of us in our individual experience of her, the cycles of grieving continue, ebbing with time. She lives through us and through all those whom her story, our story has made an impact on. Through my book Invisible Earthquake: a woman's journey through stillbirth, that circle widens and the overwhelming silence and invisibility around her life and death and hopefully many others like hers, is penetrated.
Cape Town, February 2008