“Saying goodbye,” Palesa said as we walked her to the taxi that would take her and Katleho from Oliver Tambo airport back to the shack village in Daveyton where they live, “is always hard. But what are we gonna do? You have a soft heart, M’e Makie, but it’s strong. You can cry listening to a song on the radio, but you have a strong love that can handle anything. I saw who you were the first time I met you. I could not speak English at that time, but if I did, I would say, this is a woman with a soft heart that is very strong. If I would even kill an ant, you would say, ‘Awwww.’ So you’re a vegetarian. I’m not like that. I’m African. I have to be hard, hard. Still I always know you love me, and your love makes me stronger, even now. When I feel scared sometimes, I remember how you believe in me, no matter what, even if I try to kill you. It was not me that tried to kill you, it was the sickness, but if I did kill you, you would be dead. I know why Seth and Manko are angry with me. Our mother would be dead if I killed you. I have another mother, but you are their only one. So they have this very strong feeling, and I respect them for that. I am glad I didn’t kill you, even though I did try my best, because I had that thing in me that made me want to kill you. But it’s gone now, and I am glad you have a soft heart and a strong heart to love me no matter what. How long did I live with you?”
“I remember, and I also remember that I am an African woman, and I am strong enough to do what I have to do, and part of that is because of you. Sometimes I believed my mother when she told me you would never want to see me again. But it was not me. It was a sickness. Maybe Manko can’t love me. I don’t blame her. If I was her, I wouldn’t have the heart to love a person who tried to kill me. But in my heart I always believed you would love me, no matter what. And my heart was right, you see? Because you are here. And I am here. And we’re not dead. We’re still loving each other, and I still know your heart.”
Palesa is a talker. She talked almost non-stop from the time we met at Oliver Tambo, around noon, till dusk, when I put her and Katleho on the taxi to go back to Daveyton. I recorded some of what she said on video tape. I wrote down all I could remember after she left. I am still remembering and writing. Still saying goodbye. Writing this is part of it.
On my last visit to M’e Mpho’s house, we had a little time alone on her couch, eating raisin buns I’d brought from the new bakery at the bottom of the hill. She said, “I will get to Heaven first, and I will come back for you when it’s your time and take your hand. My mother told me this, and I am waiting for her now. And I am telling you. Don’t forget me. Leave a little tea for me in the bottom of your cup each day, and I will know you remember.”
I think about Palesa saying she knew my heart from the time she met me. I felt the same way about her, and about M’e Mpho. M’e Mpho often said, “You can never know another person’s heart. But I know yours.” Freed of our lives in these bodies, with these geographies of place, class, color, and culture, who are we to each other? Mutual admirers, friends, people who care about each other in eternal ways? There is much that separates us. But I think we understood each other, and maybe we still do, in the way that I experience with the people I love deeply.
What is it that we call “the heart”? Some essential perception of another person’s core of goodness, another person’s being-ness, perhaps. I think this seeing really does transcend what we look like, what we have or don’t have, do or don’t accomplish. Of course, I could be deluded, sentimental, and wrong. But as I sat driving beside M’e Mpho on the way home from the ocean, feeling a little weepy, I said to her softly, so the kids wouldn’t hear,
“I am happy we went, but I am also sad….” I searched for words. Without looking at me she reached out and patted my leg.
“I know, my dear. I know.”
I felt that she did know. Not that it would take extraordinary perception to see both the joy and the sadness in that moment, but I had a feeling that some part of her that was not her history, her circumstances, her story–some part of her knew some part of me that was not my story. Some part of both of us that had nothing at all to do with our stories looked, comprehended, and recognized–acknowledged–the other. Light meeting light becomes light.
Not one to end on a sentimental note, ever practical, M’e Mpho said, as we walked outside her house for me to begin my last descent from that enormously dusty, over-populated hill where she lives, “If you find a person with a lot of money, tell them I need a roof for my verandah–four planks of wood and three pieces of [corrugated] zinc. In case my mother delays to come for me, I would like to sit in the shade here.” We laughed. I could still hear her laughing as I began my descent.