“The Hero’s Journey” by Sue Brown

Sue Brown and Cathy Park Kelly at the Karavan Press Literary Festival

I am looking through my notes from a ‘how to write’ course. They speak of ‘dramatic imperative’, and stories only as strong as their antagonists. And of that crisis near the end of the book when yet another cruel hurdle leaves us agonising over whether the protagonist, our exhausted hero, will be thwarted – or not – so close to the end of her long, hard journey.

It strikes me that Friday’s shock travel ban would make a perfect illustration of this. All those thousands of heroes who were feeling pretty wrecked after almost two years of the pandemic, but cautiously optimistic about being with family and friends for Christmas. Or of going on that adventure. Getting to that job. Having the holiday they have dreamt of and saved up for.

Antagonists can come in many guises, my notes teach. Oh boy! Here we have no shortage of examples of those. A lethal virus and its mutations. Trigger finger journalists. Powerful, prejudiced countries with fearful constituents and bunker mentality politicians. And last but not least our hero’s internal antagonist, who thought she could bear no more disappointment, injustice and loss. Who could not even cry as she stood with her packed suitcase this past weekend, negative Covid test in hand, staring in numb disbelief at a departures board.

What my writing course notes did not say was how to rescue my hero, to give her journey a happy ending. I want to write relief, an eleventh-hour rescue, and tears of joy and reunion into this tale, but even this writer’s inner protagonist is finding believable words of consolation hard to come by.

The notes did mention that what a hero wants and what she really needs may be in conflict. That what a hero usually needs, according to the great moralists, is to not get what she wants.

In Cathy Park Kelly’s inspiring memoir Boiling a Frog Slowly, she describes how reading the self-help gurus reinforced her self-doubt. Her belief that her abuser was right, his anger her fault, that it was she who needed changing. And that when she eventually left her partner, Eckhart Tolle and his ilk were summarily boxed and dropped off at a charity shop.

I think this new travel ban story is one in which our hopeful, seeking heroes should not be pushed any further, or encouraged to seek ever more transcendent states of self-actualisation.

Can’t they, please, just be allowed to get what they want for a change?

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.

Beginnings by Sue Brown

Illustration: Steeven Salvat (Source: Colossal)

At the start of 2021, I am surprised again by the freshness that a new year inspires. Struck by the arbitrariness of the ten … nine … eight … countdown of the second hand to one particular midnight, yet the naive hopefulness that insists on rising with the ensuing dawn.

Despite the tsunami second wave of Covid-19 that swept us in, our fearful concerns about vaccine procurement, and the violent storming of the US Congress by right-wing mobsters, one dressed bizarrely like a Davy Crocket Viking. Despite humanity’s collective horrors, and my internal echoes from this day a decade ago when my son became a paediatric brain tumour patient, there is a quickening.

Perhaps it is like Jonathan Livingston’s seagull trying to master flight, and catching an unexpected updraft.

Or Emily Dickinson’s ‘hope’, ‘the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the song without the words –’.

That liberating of the soul that I observed in my son, and those around him, when our physical surety is stripped away.

My internal little bird chirps at the sight of clear spaces in my diary, gaps which I despaired of ever conserving myself. This pandemic has pruned weeks and months that had become overgrown with obligations. Pared back a self-inflicted schedule that was like the tick-tock clock in the stomach of the crocodile that ominously pursued Captain Hook.

Yet my relief stands with a guilty conscience alongside the concurrent, living hell of healthcare workers, people struggling to breathe, or to support their families.

In his memoir A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser emerges from unimaginable personal tragedy to observe that he preferred the person he had become as a result of such loss. A paradoxical title that offended me, having felt the ugly underbelly of grief heave and repeat itself painfully in the wake of my son’s death. Until I read Sittser’s qualification that he would never in a million years have chosen this route to personal growth, would have chosen – if only one could – to remain his ignorant self with his mother, wife and daughter still alive.

‘Happy New Year’ we still messaged to others in 2021, although more soberly due to the alcohol prohibitions, the curfew, and the sobriety invoked by mounting Covid numbers and names.

My friend, a nursing sister, remembers the theory of pandemics from nursing college in the 80’s. To me it was an outdated word relegated to dusty, foxed hardcovers with blurry black and white photographs which never sell in charity bookshops.

This pandemic feels like humanity slithering down the longest snake, which I for one did not see coming on the snakes and ladders game of human history.

I punctuate my WhatsApp wishes (for now at least, before accepting, or not, the new T&C’s) with little illustrations. And suddenly remember P. B. Bear’s Birthday Party by Lee Davis. A charming children’s book from twenty years ago in which sentences were dotted with pictures – his striped pyjama top, a picnic basket, a slice of cake – instead of their corresponding words.

Who could possibly forget Ant and Bee thoughtfully organising a surprise birthday party for their friend Kind Dog, in which Angela Banner used the rebus form in the 50’s to teach her young son to read. The excitement of Ant and Bee’s invitations and preparations, the dog biscuit and pink frosting cake, Kind Dog in his new hat and kennel are happy images and feelings that have lived with me into my own middle age.

Into 2021, where we wrestle with social media privacy issues. Yet who remembers with me the old party line telephones and switchboard operators? Who watched ‘Nommer asseblief’ on SABC TV in the 70’s in which the switchboard operator doubled up as the small-town gossip?

My junior school prize-giving evenings featured, year upon year, our nicotine infused headmaster – in his mustard polo neck for the Hilton Village mist, reading from Ecclesiastes:

‘There is a time to reap, and a time to sow’, etc. That same thousands-of-years-old book that asks whether there is indeed anything new under the sun.

I find myself now, mid-late in my own story, truth be told, before a neglected sewing machine. Finding comfort in the crinkly rustle of unfolding and smoothing out pattern piece papers. The faint adrenalin rush that accompanies the no-turning-back-now snip of scissors through fabric. Those time honoured rituals of pinning and tacking. The hiss and spit of a steam iron and the singed smell of neatly pressed seams. The hum that is the vibration of the machine. And the soporific, train-like, tick tick, tick tick, tick tick of the needle as it falls and rises, falls and rises, falls and rises again.

~ ~ ~

Sue Brown is the author of The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey and Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love (published by Karavan Press in 2020).

You can buy Earth to Mom from all good bookshops (RRP R230) or online at Loot.co.za (R219).

“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



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!’



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.