Ours was an unexpected friendship that began in a fascinating way. God knows how I needed it at the time. During one of the most lonesome periods in my life, thirteen years ago, I was working with her mother. One day, she told me about her daughter who had no choice but to call off her wedding, but still went on the paid honeymoon with a friend. What an ordeal, I thought. Soon after, I attended an extended gathering of another friend of mine, who told me about this lady she knew from church who was also there that night. The lady had no choice but to call off her wedding, but still went on the paid honeymoon with a friend.
“Hold on,” I said, “I’ve heard this story and it definitely doesn’t happen to a lot of people.”
My friend showed me to this lady. And there she was, Meraai, as she is affectionately known. She lived in Johannesburg and I in Pretoria and we started writing each other long-drawn email after long-drawn email. Slowly but surely we let one another in on our respective worlds, letting down barriers built around our troubles. We visited each other whenever we could. She became my best friend.
But then she left. Almost six years ago, she went to live with her sister in East Timor. At the time, I didn’t even know that a country with this name existed on the planet. Today, I still don’t quite know where it is; except that it is somewhere near Australia and that it takes almost a day on a plane to get there. It is very far from South Africa. But she had to go, I understood why. After a few years, she met her husband there, an Australian. Very sophisticated and all. She found her happiness in East Timor. They moved to Canberra not long before their wedding as his project in East Timor ended.
The headline this past weekend reads, “Almost two thousand South Africans leave the country on a monthly basis”. Meraai was the first of my close friends to leave almost six years ago. In the past year, this number included a couple that my husband and I count in between our most precious of friends. My husband’s cousin and her family left earlier this year. Soon, one of my closest friends will be leaving for New Zealand. My dear cousin and her family are also leaving in January. We are experiencing these profound losses, as do the family and friends of the almost two thousand South Africans that leave the country on a monthly basis.
Most people leaving South Africa have roots that are planted incredibly deep in this soil. These roots have formed over many generations. So every person is a tree that grows from these roots that influence and shape the people and land around them; that either gives life to others or suck the life from them. Sure, when your roots are not planted solidly in this soil, you can just uproot the tree and take it with you wherever you go. But the ones that are planted deeply can’t be uprooted. Thank God for that. For they leave their trees behind that continue to influence and give life to those that stay behind. They have to start anew in fresh soil; planting seeds from which roots will eventually grow and become trees once more that shape their influence in their new country.
But the people tending to their trees on our soil are gone. Gone is the privilege of looking each other in the eye on a daily basis. There is no more driving past each other in the streets of our city. Gone is the security that naturally comes with friends that became family that lived just down the street. Gone are the backups in case of emergency, in fact, emergency contacts must change on every form you now complete. When someone leaves that has a permanent dwelling in your heart, you have love reserved especially for that person that you can’t divert to someone else. I’ve learned that you have a desire to show the love that you hold in your heart for this specific person in a physical manner by spending time together. It is frustrating and confusing when you can’t do this anymore, because the desire and the love are still there. Now you have to find new ways that transcends distance and time differences. It’s not the same, even though you really and truly want it to be. The intimacy established by being intertwined in each other’s daily lives is lost. Technology, although with many advantages, can’t replace this. And you do not stop missing them; in fact, you miss them more every day. These are profound losses.
But then, a few weeks ago, she came back. My friend, Meraai. Earlier this year, her husband applied for a job in South Africa. Indeed, who better to assign the job to than an Australian with a South African wife? He sure has a significantly different interest in our country than any of his peers and he will sure do an outstanding job. Well done for making this decision, Australia. For the next three years, they are back. Magic truly manifests when someone returns. It is to receive the best of gifts all over again. There are not many stories of the like in the news. I can truly recommend this experience.
“You know I live quite far from you,” she tells me when I visit her in her new house for the first time, referring to the almost twenty minutes that we have to drive to each other’s houses.
“My friend”, I reply, “it is nothing compared to how far you were.”
She laughs. I laugh. We laugh together. And there it is; the wonder of laughing together. The mere thought of us being able to spend time together again is wonderful. Knowing that I can now show her the love that I hold for her in my heart, is incredible. The joy of having her in the same city where we live is immense. I can’t even imagine what a relief it must be for her to be able to write her parents and sister’s names as emergency contacts again, as they live very close to her now. She is back to tend to her tree, to cut off dried leaves so that new ones can grow that will give life and influence anew the soil and people around her. As she did when she lived here all her life before she left six years ago. For hers is a tree of shelter, joy and deepest meaning. I count myself blessed.
And somehow, something is more right in the world today.
And that is all I need to know now.