“The Storm” by Sue Brown

Earth to Mom_illustration

The storm arrived in the darkest hours and mingled with my dream. Lashings of wind and rain adding to the confusion of finding myself inside the house that homed us when our children were little.

I had returned to where I once was immersed in the day and night continuum of young motherhood. As if traces remained, curated within the walls. Where I might gather a lost time in my arms like a just bathed child who wriggles to be set free, runs off still rosy and damp and naked to play.

Until the current owners arrived home to find me intruding, and utterly mortified.

~

Yesterday, the barometer needle dropped to nine o’clock. Seemingly at odds with such a clear sky, and baby wavelets plopping themselves down in the pastel yellow bay outside the window.

The day had been uncommonly windless, only the discordant jar of an angle grinder cutting the atmosphere, the plume of red brick dust giving away the fact that air was moving in from the northeast.

~

Just after midnight the storm tunnelled through to this ledge where our house perches, as if blasting through a hole in the edge of the world.

Where I lay pinioned, blankets anchored by the heat-seeking weights of four cats like a tarpaulin to stop a pile of builders’ sand from washing away.

~

My mind orientated itself to this house, this time, this winter’s storm. To my son nine years dead so beyond my clutches, and my daughter alone back in Newlands, where the rain would be bucketing down too.

Scenes haunted of shack dwellers, miserably knee deep in sewerage-tainted, icy water and I shivered. Reminded myself that my daughter was in a brick home, and a capable adult now.

~

I unlocked my jaw, failed to unknot the scapula muscles, and contemplated how to turn over onto the non-aching hip with minimum disturbance to the cats.

The sharp vertebrae and musty smell of the ancient one. The full figure and spontaneous combustion purr of the middle-aged ginger at my back. The pert tortoiseshell teenager in her hyena onesie against my shins. The eight-month-old, sleek as a snow-white seal pup, snuggled where my top had ridden up to expose my belly.

‘Empty nest fillers’, my daughter observed.

~

‘Betty’s Bay is creepy!’ the writers’ group once concurred. I confessed that their ideal murder mystery setting was my bolt hole.

They imagine the reedy bowels of Malkop’s Vlei being dredged for the remains of missing persons.

I know that place by another name, Bass Lake. A long, wide, watery aisle that shimmers like the surface of a brim-full cup that is blown gently across. One that culminates in the inverted pulpit of a reflected Hangklip, while the original version looks on benevolently.

~

The mossy dip at the foot of the lake, secluded inside an organ pipe curve of reeds where unseen frogs click and clack, is holy ground.

Where a domed blue sky forms a cupola like the one we sat before in my late son’s school chapel, at his funeral.

~

‘Don’t you find that overhanging mountain oppressive?’ ask the writers of this counterpoint to my grief. This mountain whose indifferent gales have stripped me bare, and are strong enough to swaddle flailing limbs.

Here I box in the correct weight division, cannot inadvertently injure another, or traumatise sensitive viewers.

Safe in this house within the jutting pit bull jaw of this mountain. Behind salivating teeth that are the sharp rocks where backs of fishermen stand braced against stinging winds, rogue waves.

~

Morning writings here inevitably turn to molten thoughts of my son. Like the tannin-stained milk of the waterfalls that unfurl like ribbons from the mountain’s forehead, they run to the rocky cairn on the edge of the sea. Where we scattered our son and brother’s ashes at sunset on the tail end of just such a storm.

Ink pools too around my concerns for my daughter, whose surety in the solid state of this world was scattered along with our handfuls of his ashes, released low to the ground on account of the wind, on that day.

~

I paraded for a time as ‘the lady of the house’, for whom the man selling compost outside our Victorian Rondebosch home asked – spotting the imposter in me before I did. When my external and internal personas, like a couple falling out of love, increasingly did not recognise each other.

~

A farm girl never truly at home where buildings interrupted horizons, obscured sightings of the miniature red and grey building blocks of container ships that snail inexorably along that faint meniscus. That other shore on which a great shout of welcome goes up when we die, so say the hymns.

~

My belonging in this place is acknowledged in dots and dashes by a stoep light across the bay on a gale force night.

This place where morning mists can obliterate the line between the heavens and the earth. Mute the outside world. Make null and void unspoken rules of conversation ‘making’, and the window dressing of ugly grief to keep the suburb’s insides feeling smug and safe.

I am silenced here. Held still by the collective gravity of a universe of stars overhead. Relieved to be insignificant, superfluous within such vastness.

~

For two full nights and days the storm raged, and this third morning has dawned across an overfull, labouring sea. A stiff breeze bullies clouds that drag their heels across a deep blue backdrop, and arcs of rainbows wax and wane in the gaps.

Seized by a great urgency I pull on shoes, jacket and scarf, stumble across the beach to my son’s cairn – the best place to watch giant rollers heave their way towards the sand.

To watch salty dragon-breath whipped from their crests, caught up by a cold sun and transfigured into iridescent, tumble-turning beach balls. And to hear a twelve-year-old’s throaty, exultant laughter in the air.

June 2020

On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends.

Earth to Mom is about to reach bookshops. If your local bookshop does not have a copy, please ask them to order one for you: Protea Distribution will be able to assist all booksellers: orders@proteaboekhuis.co.za. The book’s ISBN: 978-1-990931-92-5.

“Being Still” by Sue Brown

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BEING STILL

When I was a child, we played a party game called “Musical Statues”. The rules were that, while the music played, everyone had to be in constant dancing motion until a parent pushed ‘stop’ on the cassette player (this was a long time ago, way back in the seventies). Then each child had to ‘freeze’. Any anticipatory slowing down during the crazy dance would be called out as ‘cheating’ by one’s fellow party competitors, and any wobbling after the sudden stop in the music meant elimination.

There would of course be the accompanying protests of ‘I didn’t move’ and ‘Unfair!’, followed by a sulk, of varying lengths, by the sidelined child – until they sufficiently recovered to lustily join the shrill ranks of those now eager to play judge. To spot an infinitesimal wiggle, even a smile, in one of the earnest, deadpan statues remaining counted too.

‘You moved!’

‘Didn’t’

‘Did!’

And so it went on until the last child standing was announced the winner, and triumphantly received their prize of a cream soda or strawberry fizzer, or a Chomp bar.

 

I grew up. But continued to behave as if still a contender in that game. Joined the continuous motion of a society ever more frenetic and frenzied. Slowed down only (and with a guilty relief) when one of my children was sick. And then only for the briefest time before returning my children – with myself hot on their heels – into the exhausting, unrelenting Southern suburbs schooling competition.

 

I sat out, watched a little longer from the sidelines when my son was life-threateningly ill. Gained a little perspective, a little wisdom, because I could manage nothing more.

Then, after he died, I somehow jumped back onto a new, garishly painted horse on a new merry-go-round. Breathlessly leaping, tomboy/cowboy-style, between horses on adjacent, rotating merry-go-rounds. Took pride in my agility to boot.

 

Yet lamented again my personal inability to slow down.

To reflect, ponder, to press my own pause button.

To think before reacting, before speaking.

To breathe.

To knit up all the wool in my stash at home rather than dash to the wool shop for the insatiable high of always starting something new.

To potter in my neglected garden, in which the stick of an Almond Tree has steadily got on with its business of growing where it was planted at the behest of our daughter, in memory of her brother.

To plant slips in anticipation of Easter time rain, and to laugh at my kitten, who follows me, thinking that the little trickle of water in the dusty bed can only be a wee, so she helps by covering it over with sand in my wake. To enjoy the dappled light on the stoep, beside the fuchsia tree that the sunbirds love so much – one of our reasons for buying this house when our son died. Before we began the big rush around again, and forgot.

 

I picture Pooh Bear patiently watching the changing of the seasons in our garden these past eight years, wondering when we might spot him sitting there under the Almond Tree.

I imagine him pondering – in a kindly manner, since that is his way – why it is that I blindly rush about like his friend Rabbit. Under the illusion that my busyness, my exhaustion, produce or prove something of worth to someone?

 

I had felt strangely becalmed on the ocean of a busy world during my son’s illness.

Could for that brief time prioritise the important over the urgent, recognise the tiny wonders that interspersed the horrors of the dying of a child. His wisdom and courage, and the wonderful compassion and togetherness of which humankind is capable.

Knew then on a cellular, mother level the sense of a great, universal story being revealed, regardless of my own fumblings, missteps and mistakes.

 

This 2020 global pandemic that has brought humanity to a collective halt, and to its knees, has driven home again the reality of the sanctity and frailty of a life. And my awe of the mysteries beyond my comprehension, or control.

 

I am left with a childlike desire to sit very still in Autumn’s sunlight beneath our Almond Tree soon to lose its leaves, with a kitten pouncing dramatically on insects that move in the brittle grass. To register the nip in the air. To hear variations on the theme in the songs of the birds.

To listen to what happens next in this story in which we live. And believe that this tree will breathe out, into a new dawn, a cloud of palest almond blossom come Spring.

On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends. The book will be published the moment it becomes possible.

Karavan Press title: Earth to Mom – Personal Essays on Loss & Love by Sue Brown

Earth to Mom

DESCRIPTION

A cow mooed and a dog barked, their voices travelling the still air from a distant hilltop. And the white tail of an airplane left a stripe on the baby-boy blue of the highest sky above.

Then pale rays warmed my back on the deck of the hut, steamed the acrid smoke smell from last night’s fire from my jersey, as I wrote of our own family’s catastrophe. Our own golden, unforgettable little prince, whose bold laughter rang out, whose tears fell and sadness echoed, and whose bravery inspired. Wrote our own tale of a visitation from an extraordinary small person. Of his lessons in great love and its loss, in loyalty and our limitations – and of being irrevocably changed by him.

Sue Brown’s son died of cancer a few days after his thirteenth birthday, leaving behind a Craig-shaped crater in the lives of those who knew and loved him. Sue chronicled this unfamiliar, tragic landscape of diagnosis and grief in The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. In Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, a collection of poignant vignettes written since the publication of her memoir, Sue addresses her son, still the magnetic centre of her family’s world, and tells the story of how they continued reshaping their bonds and finding hope and light beyond the loss of their beloved son and brother.

ISBN: 978-1-990931-92-5

Publication date: Autumn 2020

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue BrownOn New Year’s Eve of 2010, SUE BROWN’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends.

Author: Sue Brown

Sue BrownOn New Year’s Eve of 2010, SUE BROWN’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends.