I got it all wrong. For someone who gives this a lot of thought, who feels constantly the push and pull of being away from home and family ... it's taken me a remarkably long time for the penny to drop.
But it did. Today. I have been planning our next trip home - meant for July next year ... we've been talking about game reserves and maybe flying via the UK and all the people we want to see and the things we want to do ... and for some reason in all the planning, when i should be feeling excited, i've been feeling a growing anxiety inside. Not able to put my finger on it exactly, but something's not felt right. Maybe it's the money i thought - the expense of this trip - it means other things still being on hold, the long list on the blackboard staying right there with nothing crossed off ... it means other trips not being taken. But it's to go home ! And that's always been a priority for us.
And then tonight it hit me. I don't want to go back. I know i just wrote about all of this a little while ago - being proud to be South African ... how I still hold on to my identity as coming from there, how that still defines me, how it's still home after almost two decades away. I have met South Africans who have lived overseas their whole adult lives without trips home and i have always pitied them, wondered why they hardly go back, how they're able to get out of bed in the mornings - how the longing does not floor them.
And then it hit me. They've let go. They have moved on.
It's like a relationship which ended badly. First there are the nights spent listening to the same heartbreaking song, over and over. There are the days spent with the duvet pulled over the head, refusing to open the curtains or wash the dishes or accept that life goes on. There might even be some watching the ex's window at night from the street and it not feeling like stalking, just a desperate longing to be back in that circle of two people at one with each other and the world.
Maybe leaving a country is almost the same, in a much bigger and very different way. But it is an ending. It's a walking away. It's saying there is something better out there, there is the moving towards something new. It might be a job, a lover, the urge to travel ... but it's still a leaving. A getting onto a plane and going away. It's leaving loved ones behind to carry on with their lives having to get used to the empty space where that person once was. Like death but not so final. A choice. They left. They did not want to be here anymore. There is grief and then acceptance and then life carries on.
And for the one leaving ... it could be a sigh of relief, a weight lifting ... or it could be how it is after the ending of a marriage or a long term love affair, the heart breaking in a million places but then it heals, slowly. It goes out for a coffee and then a drink and then a dinner and maybe even stays the night. With someone new. It moves on. It might occasionally pull out the box of photos or the love letters cried over, play the song that used to be just theirs ... once upon a time. But then the box is put away and the day ends and a new one begins and slowly those feelings recede. They become softer and less urgent and then suddenly one day there is no longer the urge to go stalking or to see if there's a chance of bumping into someone accidentally. To see their face. Their face becomes just outlines and when the box of photos is pulled out from under the bed it's to remember what the face looked like, not to remember the feelings once felt. And so time makes the pain recede into the distance and the memory becomes just a faint and fond one. Oh yes, i used to love him. But it's over now, I have moved on.
I left. I didn't mean to. I meant to come back. I said - can we take a break, just for a little while. I just need to do some things for myself and then i'll be back, I promise. I'll settle down and find a career and maybe even fall in love and get married and buy a car and a flat by the beach and dream about France but go on holiday in Cape Town. But then i ended up staying. Except that instead of cutting my ties, and moving on, i didn't. My heart kept running back like the night time stalker, watching from the shadows, trying to catch a glimpse through the windows. I kept reading magazines and letters and going back for holidays and trying to pretend that nothing had changed. Like a long distance relationship, but with no long term commitment either way. Still wanting to come back, but not. In denial that it was over and that i was not coming back. Always in denial of that, because it hurt more than i could have imagined. I wasn't over my country. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, to turn my back and not to come home.
But here's the thing. In the years since i left, one by one my friends and family (not all, but some) have slowly turned away. Their lives are busy and i'm no longer part of it. It's no good having a friend who isn't able to come round for tea and bring a cake when it's a bad day ... who can't call and say 'i am picking you up in 5 minutes, you sound like you need a drink.' Who has to be caught up via email but isn't there for the day to day, the little things. The little things which are actually so important. New friends come along and things change. Slowly but surely. Details are left out, stories are made shorter. Phone calls become less frequent and then stop all together. In the end there is no point in even responding, they think, and the silence settles in. The door has closed and i have no right to keep knocking.
All my life i have felt like an outsider. In my own family especially. At school, at university. At work - a little there too. Never quite fitting in with how i think i'm supposed to be, how others expect me to act and think and look and feel. I still carry that around with me, it hasn't really gone away. But i think because of that, i've felt more desperate than maybe someone else would, to hold on. Not able to let go. To fit in and to belong. Not able to acknowledge that our brief trips home are really just a tiny interruption in the lives of everyone back there. We're not there for the birthday dinners and the shopping trips. We can't take someone flowers after a chemo treatment, or hold the hand of someone who's feeling sad. We can't hang out on the deck drinking wine and making plans for the weekend. We breeze in for just a few moments every one or two or even three years, and we're not a part of their lives anymore. We're not there.
I watched a show the other night, just a silly comedy - but there's a scene where one of the characters has been in town (a new one) for almost two years before she is ready to go and meet her extended family (that she never knew she had before she moved to the new town). She's finally ready and excited and a little nervous. And then she meets them and they're lovely and she imagines family dinners and picnics and doing things together and how wonderful that would be because she never had all of that, it was just her and her mom. But then the new family aren't so welcoming - they're angry that it's taken her two years and in all that time she wasn't there with any of them. They tell her - it's not about being related by blood, it's about putting in the time.
It's so true, isn't it. Yes, we can fit back in like we were never gone and for a moment, that brief shiny sparkly moment it feels like we were never gone. Like we're back where we're supposed to be. For one brief shiny moment it's like we're home again and we imagine living just down the road and how nights like these would be so wonderful to have all of the time. But the moment passes and the sparkles vanish and we're there for a moment and then we're boarding a plane again. And the ones we leave behind can't be blamed for guarding their hearts. Their children don't know ours, we're not going to be invited for dinner or to go fishing on a Sunday morning or just to hang out by the pool. They'll never know the music we listen to when we're on our own, or the books we read or where the wine glasses are.
I've been holding on so tightly for 17 years. So tight i could not let go. With my eyes on the horizon and pretending to be living but one hand was still on the rope connecting me to home. Always. Always planning the next trip. Always missing someone to the point of sometimes not being able to breathe. Always wondering how it would have been ... could have been. Playing those breakup songs over and over. Not willing to let it go. That post break-up, i can't get over my love, i can't stop thinking about him or her ... for 17 years. That's how it feels. All my energy and time going into missing something which is no longer there. Missing my old life. How it once was. Everyone moved on and me still running crying and shouting for the world to stop, i'll be back, save me a seat - don't go on without me. I wish i was there.
But there's no holding back time and the choices we make, well they shape us and our lives swell and fade to a different tune now and part of growing up and moving is the letting go.
Something I have battled with my whole life.
My children are never going to know what it's like to grow up close close in the bosom of a large extended family. They will always be guests at the table, never at home even if their grandmothers are able to come and visit sometimes, wonderful as that is. It breaks my heart but it's time to face the music and to stop holding onto a place and a life that no longer belong to me.
Do i belong to Africa ? Not anymore. I still love it. But i can't really claim any rights over here, not anymore. I can't claim to know her like i used to. I can't get angry and walk out after a fight and come back apologetic. It's done. We are here and she is there and so is most of our family and my friends that have known me since i was 13, some of them.
It's hard to go back and meet a good friend for one night of dinner where we try and condense a whole two years of living and feeling and thinking and then it's time to go home because the kids still need putting to bed, even on holiday ... and no one knows their routines because we don't live down the road. It's hard to meet for breakfast and to pretend that it's normal and we could do this every day because the whole way through we are watching the clock and know that time is running out and we're trying to make the most of it but it can't last forever and soon we'll have to say goodbye again and who knows when the next time will be.
It's hard to drive through the sugar cane fields and feel the wind on your face and it brings back memories of when you were 20 and life felt so different then and you knew where you belonged and what happened to that girl anyway ? It's hard to walk the beach and feel so at home and know that this is just an interlude, you have no claim on this place or this day or this sunlight. It's not yours for the having, no matter how much you love it, not matter how much your body remembers and recognises every last inch. You're just borrowing the smells and the way the light falls and the humid coastal air, for a small time.
Maybe that's why they don't go back to visit, those ex-South Africans who have lived overseas all their lives. Maybe that's how they make peace with their past and move into their future and really start living. Because you have to learn to let go, or you have to go back, but living straddling both worlds will surely kill you. You can't be in two places at the same time, not even if it's your head or your heart. Because then you're not really present in either one and something is always missing and it tears you apart, from the inside.
It's hard. The letting go. It's taken me 17 years and i'm only just starting to understand. And i still don't know how to do it but i'm starting to see why maybe i'm scared to go home again next time. Why maybe it would be easier not to. When i go back it reminds me how much has changed, how little a part of lives there we are nowadays. How it's not our life anymore, not our world.
And it hurts so much. Each time. It rips that scab right off and i have to start all over again when i get back to this life, this home. The one right here.