Unfinished business: a road trip to my parents’ hometown

Posted on 4 July 2023

Sometimes we find ourselves searching for things that were never lost.

In the last few years of my dad’s life, I had planned to take him on a road trip to his hometown in the Eastern Cape. Though we hail from that part of the world and retain connections to families still living there, none of us had visited for 30 years or more. 

With his health getting progressively worse I wanted, before it was too late, to go back to the old places — to the house in Colley Avenue where they brought newborn me; to the East London Museum where he worked under the mentorship of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer (who famously identified the coelacanth); to my granny and grandpa’s house where I would play in the sunshine on their red, polished stoep.

I wanted to visit the beaches and lagoons I remembered only from photographs; the places that knew my parents before I did: Oxford Street, Cambridge West, Nahoon and Cove Rock. Names I grew up hearing but couldn’t see in my mind’s eye. I wanted to take him there because I thought he would like to go and see it all one last time. But there was another reason which I didn’t admit even to myself. 

All my life I had been trying to piece together the clues as to who he was. Someone I had known forever, but didn’t know at all. He was a mystery as deep and unfathomable as the wild stretch of the Indian Ocean he fished as a young man. Before the days of my mom; long before the days of me. He knew the beaches, the coastline, the bird and marine life as well as he knew himself.

But this person who could fix anything, build anything from scratch, and did; I couldn’t work out the workings of him. His rages, his silences, his eyes that saw all but gave nothing away. The loneliness that emanated from his person even when he was in a roomful of people. Who was he? What was he thinking? 

If I could just go back to a time before, maybe I would find a clue. Maybe I could crack the code. Perhaps he would even show me.

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Illustration by Jess Nicholson

And so I dreamt about this trip that we would make together. I googled hotels and checked the prices of hire cars as there would be six of us and we would need extra seats. 

But our children were young and they would hate being stuck on the road for hours on end, so we thought perhaps it would be best to wait a little bit longer. With the added complication of work travel and busy lives, we kept postponing till we could find the perfect time. 

One ordinary day, as I was leaving their flat after a visit, he gave me a long and especially tight hug. I had come to understand that the hugs I went without as a child – but received generously in late adulthood – were his way of trying to say the unsayable. 

The words that had failed him all our lives; a demonstration of the love for me that had surely existed all along but was hidden from my sight; too nuanced and subtle in form for a child to comprehend. Gestures like the regular hand-written letters when I lived overseas. Sending me the cricket score, despite my having no interest in the game. His insistence on walking me to my car every single time, even when I told him not to, and then standing at the gate, waving, till he couldn’t see me anymore. It took me a long time to understand that love has many faces.

I never got to take him to the Eastern Cape. Two days after our long hug he was taken by ambulance to Groote Schuur hospital and he never came out again. While we went home to sleep, agreeing to meet and bring him breakfast the following morning he died quietly in the night, alone, as unobtrusively as he had lived. 

An impatient nursing sister unwrapped the plastic shroud so that we could gaze on his still face one last time. I missed the chance of finding him in his old neighbourhood. But it occurred to me, as things sometimes do, that maybe the streets of a changed city were the wrong place to look all along.

By Susan Hayden

Illustration by Jess Nicholson

A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2022 print issue of Getaway

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