The title for this piece was inspired by a song written and performed by Sara Bareilles which shares the same name. It’s a song about strength, perseverance and learning to trust that if you forge on without fear, no matter the chaos, things will be okay.
Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will know the story of Orpheus. If you aren’t quite sure who I’m talking about then please allow me to tell you a tragic myth about love, loss and regret.
Orpheus was a gifted poet and musician who was also married to Eurydice. One day Eurydice went for a walk in the woods and was attacked by a satyr (a lecherous creature with the ears and tail of a horse). While trying to flee to safety, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and was fatally bitten. It was Orpheus himself who found her body and overcome by such immense grief, began to sing songs so mournful that it made even the gods weep. It was them who then convinced Orpheus to make the treacherous journey down into the Underworld to ask Hades if he could bring Eurydice back up to the world of the living.
When he arrived in the Underworld he begged and pleaded with Hades to give his beloved wife back to him. After singing his mournful songs, Hades agreed but on one condition: Orpheus was to walk back to the surface of the living world with his wife following behind him, but was not under any circumstances allowed to look back until they had both reached the opening of the cave leading back to where they came from. Overwhelmed by fear and not trusting the process, he looked back to make sure she was indeed following behind him. It was at that moment that she immediately disappeared, ripped back into the Underworld by Hades and lost to Orpheus forever.
This was by far the hardest thing I have ever written. Harder than what it’s like living in a foreign country, harder than my divorce, harder than navigating life alone after 9 years with the same person, and harder than the breakup which I was convinced would kill me because it hurt so much.
This is also a story about love, loss and regret. It’s also a story about my biological father.
Even though I’ve mentioned him a few times in some of the other pieces I’ve published, it’s probably best to start from the beginning and include a bit more detail than I’ve shared before…
When I was 5 years old my parents split up after it was discovered that my biological father was having an affair with another woman. My mom will tell you she got rid of him and he would say he left her. To be totally honest I don’t care anymore about who did what. The point is their marriage ended and it ended really badly, having a lasting impact on my life.
The memories I have from before the day he left vary between vague and vivid, but they are generally happy ones. My first pets, the day my sister was born, and the baby bunnies at my playschool. The day he left is probably my first truly unhappy memory, and one which still fills me with a huge sense of loss when I revisit it.
In and amongst the abandonment and trust issues, people-pleasing, self-sabotage, imposter syndrome, never feeling like I was good enough, various attachment styles (mostly anxious), emotional unavailability, toxic relationships and terrible choices in partners spanning across the last 33 years; is a 5-year-old girl who lost the first man she ever loved.
I try very hard to parent her, my inner child, as best I can but it can be very difficult at times, especially when you’re also hurting as an adult and trying to navigate your way through shit storm after shit storm.
The situation between my parents was excruciatingly tense. My mom hated him, for obvious reasons, and was very vocal about it for years afterwards. After he left our family home in George we moved back to Cape Town. It all happened very quickly, with very little time to process what was going on. I can’t blame my mom for her decisions back then. She was 29 with a 5 and 2-year-old, and as much as I think she reckons she knew exactly what she was doing, she didn’t. Who does when they’re that young and hurting as much as she was?
We didn’t see him for months. I can’t remember the exact timelines now, but it wasn’t often. Arguments can be made about both parties and how much effort was made on either side, but as I’ve gotten older I know that it wasn’t easy for anyone involved. I’m also very tired of the blame and the fighting around it. It doesn’t matter anymore and I try very hard to see things from both sides for my own sanity and perspective.
There was however a shining light that changed our lives. This light came in the form of a man who fell in love with my mom and who made the decision to be a part of her life, including taking on her demons and her kids and committing to all of it. They married after a few years together and he eventually legally adopted us when I was about 10 or 11.
He raised me as his own, gave me his name and helped shape me into the person that I am today. He is and will always be my Dad.
Before we were legally adopted we saw our biological father about once a year during one of the various school holidays. We would fly up to Joburg where he had lived for some time, stay with our aunt and spend a long weekend at his house with his new family. I always felt extreme guilt knowing that back home in Cape Town there was another man who loved and cared for us, and at the same time without actually having a full comprehension of what had happened, I didn’t want to make my biological father feel bad about his shortcomings as a parent.
The overwhelming desire to protect my mom, my Dad, my younger sister, my biological father and his wife wasn’t something I should’ve taken on, ultimately leading to losing the ability very early on to protect myself first.
It was an awful situation to be in, and even as I wrote this I could feel the same dread that lived in the pit of my stomach back then slowly creeping up on me again. It weighed so incredibly heavy on my small shoulders, leaving me feeling torn between the two men who meant the most to me and who I didn’t want to let down.
A few years passed, things became even more estranged between broken promises and the fantasy I’d managed to build up in my head about my biological father. Things festered. I had questions, I needed answers and I grew angrier about everything with every month that passed until I was about 16.
It was around that time that I found myself in my first serious relationship. Everything became all too much for me to deal with and I had various breakdowns which presented as tantrums, extreme fits of rage, screaming, crying, threats and feelings of suicide, slamming of doors, smashing of things, telling my family I hated them (and worse).
I was hurt, confused and desperately needed help but nobody knew how to deal with me. I was also completely and utterly unhinged.
After landing up in my first therapy session there was contact made with my biological father again but things got worse from there. Letters were written, stories were told, old wounds were opened on both sides of a fence I found myself stuck in the middle of once again, and everything I had believed up until that point came into question. Everything.
It was an absolute clusterfuck of a situation made worse by the fact that I was also secretly in the grips of an extremely emotionally, verbally and physically abusive relationship with a complete psychopath who waxed and waned between telling me he was the only person who really loved me and regularly threatening to kill me. He managed to fool everyone into thinking that he was doing everything he could to help me get through my crisis and I can assure you, he was doing the exact opposite.
After a few months, the dust had settled, I managed to gather enough courage and strength to end my relationship, swept everything under the carpet and got on with my life.
Over the next 8 years, I worked, drank and danced my feelings away. I found myself in more unhealthy relationships and situationships, although a lot less abusive. I avoided nice guys like the bubonic plague, finding myself magnetically attractive to the unavailable arseholes who were ideal challenges and men I could try and save without letting them get close enough to me. Anyone who knew me at the time will probably tell you how much fun I was to be around and how I always presented as a strong and stable person with her head screwed on properly, but deep down I was very lost and very alone.
It was just before my birthday in 2010 when I met my ex-husband, and it was only after a few weeks of dating that I told him everything about my past, including my biological father. It was him and his own cautionary tale of not getting closure with his estranged father before he died that set me on a course that would lead me to accept everything for what it was and make a fair amount of peace with it.
He was living in Ballito at the time and we met for coffee at a mall I can’t remember the name of. I sat across the table from him, staring into the same blue eyes as my sister, while catching up on life and asking one another questions in an attempt to reacquaint ourselves. As we chatted it all began to make sense and I realised that everything that had happened, happened for a reason.
All of the regret and guilt which had followed me around for so long started feeling a little lighter.
We didn’t really stay in touch much after that. I distanced myself from the situation and slowly started working on ways to get over it all and shake the ghosts from my past which had haunted me for so long. It was years later, over a cup of tea in bed on a cold winters morning in Shanghai, where I suddenly realised that the old feelings had been replaced by new ones. I understood for the first time what healing felt like and I didn’t feel deep anger towards the situation anymore.
I was dealing with a lot of other issues at the time, which in hindsight could’ve been the substitute for all of those old ones, but things were fundamentally different. I was beginning to make peace with my past.
Over the next few years I’d think about him sometimes in the quiet moments I found myself in while on the bus or metro in Shanghai, on one of my long haul flights to or from South Africa, on the tube or train in England or during road trips when I’d be staring out of the window at the outside world whizzing by.
He’d briefly come up in conversation when I’d talk about my family, and I did wonder when the day would come that I’d receive a call or message telling me that he was either sick or had passed away.
That day finally came earlier this year on the 6th of January, just as I’d finished packing my bags about to return home to Joburg after my incredible month-long holiday in Cape Town. I saw his wife’s name pop up on a WhatsApp notification and I immediately knew that it had to be bad news.
My heart sank as I read her message. He had cancer.
We scheduled a Skype call not long after that which made me re-evaluate a few things and reaffirmed the decision I’d made to leave South Africa again to embark on the next chapter of my life. It was time to make some bold moves, leaving everything that I’d lost behind me and moving forward with my life, prioritising my own needs and putting myself front and centre for once.
It was a shock seeing him again after so long, a frail and much older version of the man I’d had coffee with 12 years ago. He asked me to forgive him for all of the pain he had caused me, and I told him how I’d forgiven him years ago and didn’t hang on to any hatred towards him.
I’d never hated him to begin with.
What I didn’t say is that all I’d wanted for so long was for him to love me enough to be there for me. I didn’t want him to walk out of my life the day he did, abandoning his responsibility as my father. I wanted to have a relationship with him. I didn’t want to feel like he’d forgotten all about me. I wanted him to be proud of me for all that I’d managed to overcome and achieve throughout my life.
He started crying, told me how much he loved me, thanked me for my forgiveness and called me “my darling”. I stayed strong during the very short 6-minute conversation but when we said our goodbyes and ended the call, everything I’d ever felt about the situation since I was 5 years old swept over me again and I fell apart.
Over the next few weeks, the tears came and went as quickly as they appeared. I turned 38, announced my move to Bali, resigned from my job and got on with things like I usually do. All the while knowing that my biological father would soon pass away and feeling an immense amount of grief and sadness for what could have and what would never be.
At the time of publishing this, he will likely only be alive for the next day or two. My last Skype call with him was two days ago and I told him that I loved him for what is most likely the last time. Even though he hasn’t been part of the majority of my life, he is still 50% responsible for bringing me into this world and had a huge impact on me.
I might have stopped idolizing him, but I never stopped loving him.
Death or the idea of it makes you question things, especially when it involves a parent. Over the last two months, I have questioned my own existence, my reasons for being here, how much I contribute to society and the broader world, my family and my friends. I’ve questioned whether or not I’m a good person, the choices I’ve made, what direction I want to take going forward and what impact I want to make.
I’ve also become fearless about certain things, as well as a lot less risk-averse. “Yes” has become an entire sentence. The same applies to “No”. The three piercings and tattoo I had done in the space of 10 days is a testament to my new lease on life. I’ll likely be jumping out of aeroplanes and swimming with sharks in the next few months.
I’m moving halfway across the world again on my own.
I don’t want to reach the end one day having to ask my children to forgive me for the things I put them through. I want to live a full and happy life, take risks, go on adventures, be spontaneous, love with my whole heart and be loved back. I want to build a life for myself and share it with my family and my friends.
There will of course always be loss and heartbreak along the way, but I want to know that I lived with the best and brightest of intentions while not looking back with any regret. Trusting the process and knowing that despite the uncertainty and chaos, everything will be okay.
“No fear, don’t you turn like Orpheus, just stay here. Hold me in the dark, and when the day appears We’ll say we did not give up on love today”