Each morning starts the same. First the quiet, dark hour, as Lily is driven to school and the younger two toddle around the house by lamplight, and I sip tea. Then yellow light falls through the blinds, the traffic picks up outside and the morning finds momentum. I change nappies, wipe spills, fill bowls, kiss foreheads, throw in laundry, pile dishes high on the countertop. And then the red car beeps at the gate and five more children flood the garden and fill my arms, and they are a blessing – everybody can see that. I pick up Jamiz. He’s three but the size of a one-year-old. The doctors are trying to work out why – malnutrition? disease? – and his baby teeth are dark, rotting away. But his eyes are shining brown and endless, and his self-forgetful smile lifts me up every day. It’s hard to put into words what a blessing it is to be gifted a cuddle by Jamiz. I hold him tight, this warm lump of a boy, melting into my arms. He doesn’t want to be put down.
In ten years he will be in a very dangerous position. Raised in the centre of Manenberg’s gang activity by a mum who’s trying her best, he’s one of five young kids, and he’s already slipping through the cracks. Every single gangster on the street corner, every single addict lurking around the bins was a little boy, just like this. Eyes shining brown and endless. A warm lump of a boy, melting in a woman’s arms. Not wanting to be put down.
I don’t know much about gangs, or addiction, but I am watching these children in the morning and their mothers in the afternoon and there is nobody on earth that could convince me they are disconnected. Already tiny Zinnia is hitting and swearing, partly because her mother Bilquis is hitting and swearing, but more so because her mother Bilquis has broken Zinnia’s heart. Zinnia came into the world with black newborn eyes searching for her mother’s. She rooted at her mother’s breast for safety. Her body cried out to be rocked to sleep. As she learned to lift her head and crawl on all fours she would fix her little eyes on on her mother’s face. She looked for her, every single day of her life. Her mother couldn’t come. Bilquis was carried by another force, an evil force that swung her around from hyperactivity to anxiety to violence to deep, frightening sleep. Zinnia longed for this woman to be her source, her warmth, her world. But Bilquis was gripped by something else. When Zinnia looked to her mommy, she was beaten, laughed at, neglected. Now Zinnia is three and she is hitting, because her inner world is in turmoil. It’s very confusing and dark in there. And if Zinnia was ever to reach 13 years old and use a drug to escape her insides, somebody stand up to cast the first stone.
We had church in a field on Sunday, in this green stretch of farmland not far from home. It took us just 10 minutes in the car, all eleven of us squashed thigh to thigh, but it felt like a lifetime away. Surrounded by fields of green and mountains, we sang together. The joy of the Lord is our strength. The sun shone against the brilliant blue canvas and I breathed in the beauty.An hour before I’d been standing above Bilquis’ bed. Wake up, I‘dsaid. I’m sleeping, she‘dreplied. Finally she pulled on a mini skirt and sandals, as men walked in and out her shack, some the slippery kind. She pulled Zinnia on her knee and into the backseat ofthe car. Within minutes we were under the open sky, surrounded by grass.
There’s not much to small talk about with somebody who seems like they’re walking the edge of death. She has done this for years, tik’d through four pregnancies and births, lived outside under scraps of metal for years. Did your mom die? I ask. Yes, she nods. She was stabbed to death. By her boyfriend. Her eyes are fixed ahead at the blue mountains in the distance. I think of this, her mother stabbed to death, just like her own boyfriend who was murdered outside our house by the metal stairs. Three of her four children taken away to be raised by others.Abreeze blows through the fields. Sheis lost somewhere for a moment, she is unable to hold it together and her eyes fill. And I think – seethis woman on the streets of Manenberg, scavenging and screaming and smoking, and we might reach to cast a stone. Put her in a field and ask her about her mother,and she will start to cry. And the stones fall.
Shinitahas been teaching at Skatties for two months. She’s growing like a flower with her face in the sun. By day three she hadasked for prayer and tears escaped. Instantly she left violence and drinking behind, breaking the cycle she’d be born into.She‘d already astonished herself by spending her child welfare money on actual clothes for her kids, but last week really took her by surprise. She arrived at my kitchen flustered. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “I don’t know what is going on. I need to talk to you.” I’m all ears. “So, tomorrow is a holiday. And… and I need you to know, I don’t know what is happening. I need God to explain thisto me… I want to take my children out.”
She did. She took them to one of the most beautiful beachesin Cape Town and pushed them on the swings and paddled in the water. This week her son turned two, and we gathered at her house and ate white cake and kissed his face. The happy chaos of children filled the room, and she shone. Weeks before she had sat on my couch, and I’d said to her it was amazing to me how ready to change she was. “I just needed someone to pick me up,” she said.
When our stones fall, we find our palms carrying love – something altogether more weighty and beautiful. “Judgement, after all,” writes Gregory Boyle, “takes up all the room you need for loving.” Yes, the weight of loveis heavy. I’m convinced more than ever that God needs absolutely nothing from us to love us, but asks absolutely everything of us to love other people. I don’t really need to know the ins and outs of that, except I’m signingup, wholeheartedly. And I find a secret there – it’s the gateway to joy. That’s the bit that surprises, I think, because it all seems so costly from a distance. But there I am in the field, with a woman discovering her belovedness. There I am, holding Jamiz with his endless brown eyes and we can all see he is the one holding me. There I am watching Shinitacome in with hercake, and she is radiant, and we are singing.
And here we are, Easter Sunday morning. Gathering in the dark, babies bundled up, huddling by the fire. We sing and tell the story to each other as we know it – the one of our Saviour, Healer, Forgiver, Friend. The sky grows from indigo to yellow blue, and we toast buns on the fire. It’s not lost on me that as I picture my palms releasing the stones that come between us, we recount the story of God who blew breath on the heavy stone of His own tomb, and He rose. A tender man, a new friend – clean after 20 years of abusing his system – sits to my right. “I used to think I had to do life alone,” he says. “I can’t believe I thought that.” “I know what you mean,” I said. The stones are gone, we belong to each other, we have all won the lottery, and the sun spills over the horizon, covering us in light.