Toimba NeNgirozi – With the Angels (Shona)
I dedicate these words to the grandparents I never knew. What I do know though, is that you are all together, with the Angels, and I hope you look down with pride. I also dedicate them to my parents who have struggled through loss, heartache and hardship but who, through their steadfast and unwavering commitment to each other and to my brother and I, have taught me the importance of the unbreakable bond of family. Even to those members I know only through the fond recollections of others.
How do you grieve the loss of something you never had?
I guess, by pure definition of the word, it wouldn’t really be considered a loss but arguing semantics does little to change the way I feel. I feel a substantial loss in never having known 3 members of the quartet that were my grandparents. My Dad’s Father passed away when my Dad was nine years old. My Mom’s Mother and Father passed away in 1991 and 1992 respectively, when I was two and my mom was in her early twenties. Other than for a few months at the very outset of my life, before my family emigrated from Zimbabwe and before my Mom’s parents died, these people have been nothing more than photos to me, characters in a play whose curtain closed before I found my seat. All I was left with was the play’s review, told to me by people who had seen it, even acted in it themselves. But reading reviews is never as fulfilling as seeing the show yourself.
I’m told I would have loved them. I have no doubt. I’m told that they would have loved me and been proud of who I’ve become. I hope so.
My Dad’s father was born in Lisbon, Portugal, and moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he met his wife, my one surviving grandparent. It was there where together they had three of their four children and when the bloody Mau Mau uprising took place, they fled the country and eventually settled in Zimbabwe. I know nearly nothing of my grandfather other than he worked in the Portuguese Embassy in Harare, died of Cancer, and was my namesake. We both share the name Carlos DaSilva Vieira (I have an added Daniel after my first name).
My Mom’s Mother was named Mona and was born in Pretoria, South Africa. My Mom has always said she was kind, patient, soft and affectionate. Qualities that make a perfect grandmother.
My Mom’s Father was John. Born in Poland, he fought for the British during the 2nd World War. He once walked up to a river, somewhere in Europe during the war, and went to fill his canteen. Dead bodies had been tossed in the river though and its waters ran red with their blood. He never drank water again. He left Europe after the war and settled in Zimbabwe where he met his future wife, Mona.
These, and a small spattering of stories like them, are all I have left. There are no birthday hugs, no sharing of special moments and no loving phone calls bridging generations. I know I am not alone in this. Many people have never known their grandparents and even if hugs with my surviving grandmother have always been borne out of duty and obligation to the moment rather than out of any genuine affection, at least I have known her. But knowing others have suffered greater losses does not diminish the loss I feel.
As I have gotten older, the desire for a deeper connection with these people has grown. It is a desire that can never be fully satisfied in this lifetime but I have found that by honouring their memory and keeping their stories close to my heart I can have some semblance of a relationship. That’s why, last week, I found myself in a small room in the offices of Warren Hills Cemetery, in the outskirts of Harare, looking through a dusty old book.
The room, small and bare except for an old wooden table and a small shelf of crumbling old books similar to the one I held in my hands, was the cemetery’s crematorium records office. It was in this book, on the torn and age stained pages, where I hoped to find two names, John and Mona Merrick. Beside their names I hoped to find what I was looking for, the exact location of their final resting place.
The copper cast with their names and dates of death that had marked their plot had long been stolen, pried off the stone along with all the others, and melted down and resold, an unfortunate yet common occurrence in financially strapped Zimbabwe. Many of the graves now lie unmarked and anonymous. If I had any hope of finding exactly where they were, I would have to find their names in the records.
As I carefully flipped the pages of the book to the correct date, 1991, and the correct letter, M, I thought of all the times I spoke to my Mom about her parents. She spoke so fondly of them and I loved to hear her stories. When the stories would end her face would always darken and she would somberly lament that she didn’t even know where they were buried anymore. My heart broke every time.
As my finger followed the long list of names I was determined to find what I was looking for. I read the names as I passed them: Mussa, Madden, Moultrie, Mukwewa, Merrick… There it was. Merrick Mona Dorothy Elizabeth 17-03-91. My grandmother. I looked to the red ink beside her entry. Plot V-339. I let out a sigh of relief. I had found it, another piece of my family’s past rediscovered and another piece to the puzzle added.
I knew my grandfather was buried in the same plot but I turned to 1992 to find his name anyway. There he was, John Merrick 26-03-92, 1 year and 9 days after his beloved wife.
I found someone to guide me to the spot and when we got there he pointed. “Here it is,” he said, “V-339”. I stood there, not knowing quite what to do. I placed some flowers, red and yellow roses, on the ground. Could these have been their favorite colours? I’d like to think so. As I stood there in silence, the warm breeze against my skin, the sun high in the sky and the birds singing their song I tried to imagine what I would say to them. I couldn’t think of anything adequate. What I wanted to do was to run to them and wrap them in my arms. But that couldn’t be done. I settled on silence instead, simply standing there in their company. That was enough for me.
How do you grieve the loss of something you never had?
As I stood at my grandparents’ grave a realization took hold of me. Yes, perhaps I never knew them, never shared any physical connection with these people, but without them I would not be here. My parents, whom I love dearly, would not be waiting for my return to Canada. Even though I had never known them they have occupied a part of my heart for nearly 23 years. And that’s how I grieve them, by treating their memories like prized possessions, something of theirs that I can feel, not with my hands but with my heart, and in that sense I had them right there with me all along.
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Until next time!