“I will not cry…I will not cry”
Says Sinah, or Grapes – as her family called her. I call her Auntie. An elderly coloured lady who has become more of an emotional presence, than person I know. She says this as she uses my jersey to wipe her tears. Inhaling deeply to summon back the mucus the was now by her lips. She reliving a very painful past through the story she is telling. The story of how she ended up living on the streets of Cape Town for 25 years.
A small person with yellow skin and a tanned face sketched with wrinkles. She wobbles more than she walks, thanks to polio. Her chest, bared by her large vest is breastless and scared from battle a with breast cancer. A woman whose abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to raise Sinah as a bubbly little princess is what led her to find comfort under a cardboard box and concrete. Yet, I had never seen Auntie beg. She’d just strike up a conversation with you and you’d, unconsciously, reach for your pocket. I have never seen her go through a rubbish been. I have never seen such a clean homeless person. Of all the things that life had taken from her, for her dignity Auntie would fight to the death.
The story of how her she had to wash her soiled grandmother and her linen when she was still a teen broke her down. She grabbed me in an awkward embrace and wept. Being uncomfortable with emotions I just froze. The dinner date I am supposed to attend is now a collection of annoyed friends. It was a strange decision to make: to leave Auntie and attend to people who went from
being my friends to being my family, having being there for me through the worst. The dinner was an opportunity to see most for the last time. Or, do I sit with Auntie, who is telling me a story as if her life depended on it?
I sat there and watched as she composed herself again. Pulling a near schizo turn in her mood. She’s lighter, calmer. “You know, people have to make very painful decisions sometime”, she begins. “Look at Mohamed,” she says, pointing to the Somilian street vendor. “He had to leave his family. To come here alone and to try to provide for them. Why? Why can’t families stay together? Why do YOU have to leave your family? Why do YOU have to go? It’s a very painful decision for
a good reason…” Like a car that had been travelling at high speed and comes to a screeching halt, my crashed into her words. How did she know? My God, how did she know? How did she know that I was not just leaving Cape Town but I was leaving everything that I cared about? My friends, my job, my family. How did she know because I never told her?
My brain is twisted into knots trying to make sense of this woman and what she is saying. She carries on talking but my mind is now far. Everything turns surreal. What was going on? Is this a coincidence or some kind of cosmic joke? Who is Auntie? Has all the years of hardship on the streets driven her mental, that now she just babbling what ever comes into her mind? Or has life stripped her so bare that she was more spirit than human. Was she now seeing life so raw, for what it truly and utterly is, beyond the pretenses that we believe makes us valued members of society. Could she see the pain that I had been hiding from everyone else so well? Was she crying for herself? Or for me? Or for all of us? Or am I just looking so hard for answers that I’m reading too much into the ramblings of a demented vagrant?
My mind is swimming in questions and then I catch her say, “I drink wine. But
my heart is not wine…”