A Short Bio of Shirley – Part 1

A Short Bio of Shirley – Part 1

In 1970 Brian and I decide it’s time to start a family. But we can’t fall pregnant. The five years that follow are tough. In the end we put our names down for adoption. Two more years of heart-anguish go by.

Then an amazed gynaecologist has to admit we might be pregnant. “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe this!” he says. “Go away,” he says gently, “and come back in two months and then we’ll know.”

So, after a very long two months, we come back. And, shaking his head, he has to admit, “You really are pregnant, four whole months pregnant.”

When Shirley is born in 1975 no baby could have been more loved or welcome.  A pastor friend says, “You haven’t lived until you’ve had a child.” How right he is!  

As a little child, Shirley is a delight. She loves to chatter, learns very quickly and likes to do things for herself. She loves cheesy bread, but vehemently rejects banana custard and pawpaw. She never runs short of ideas, to the point of sucking three dummies (pacifiers?) at once, always with a mischievous twinkle in her large green-brown eyes.

Shirley as a toddler with dummy in mouth

At bedtime she loves the stories I make up which stretches my imagination big time. When she is out of line – like taking a liking to dog biscuits – a stern voice is all that is necessary.

During Shirley’s teen years, our youth group becomes her brothers and sisters. We produce a musical together. We sell boerewors rolls every Saturday until we have enough money for the group to fly from Pretoria to Cape Town for four days’ holiday with no sleep.

In Cape Town - Shirley is in front on the left
In Cape Town – Shirley is in front on the left

Shirley is born with only two – not three – blood vessels in her umbilical cord. This suggests to our paediatrician there could be trouble ahead. I dismiss such a thought as absurd. At no point does God say He is giving us a perfect baby, but I assume it. So I never follow up the two-blood-vessel story and its possible implications.

In time a shadow of concern does creep ever so slowly into my heart. School days bring the catty interchanges of little girls. This is distressing for most of them, but Shirley goes to pieces. I am always comforting, holding her on my lap and gently drying the very many tears.  Her troubles are extreme and intense. Eventually I do have to admit that Shirley really struggles. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s not how it should be. I become incredibly concerned about her. 

I remember being on the beach on holiday at Scottburgh. Nine-year-old Shirley takes off her thick glasses. She doesn’t want to lose them in the sea.

The day Shirley got her first glasses
The day Shirley got her first glasses

There is a moment when I look up to see her coming up from the water, totally lost. I see my child as so lost and alone. She just can’t see where we are. I run to fetch her, aching for her and how she must feel.

From then on, pics of Shirley utterly alone always stirred up an ache in me. Perhaps this is because they suggest the intense loneliness and isolation she experiences as a result of her psychological challenges. Her deep insecurity, poor self-image, and battle to find relationships satisfying whisper that she is in trouble and that anguish lies ahead. Tears drench each new challenge.

I know something is amiss, although I can’t put my finger on it. Along with hers, my distress grows too. I know this is when my pain for her began – pain that lasted for a very long time.

As a family we move to Cape Town on New Year’s Day, 1991. It proves to be a very long, very sad journey. Shirley is devastated. No matter where she turns, she sees nothing but loss. She was probably going to get provincial colours for netball. To be part of the school’s debating team … to sit on the junior city council of Pretoria … to get distinctions for all her subjects in matric. She was almost certainly going to be a prefect. She’s also lost her extended family, her netball team friends; youth group pals and worst of all, Brendan her brand-new first boyfriend. She depended upon her relationships to survive and now they were almost all gone. Loss is just everywhere.  

Some weeks later, Shirley finds herself in the playground of Westerford High in Newlands. It’s a beautiful setting because of the Cape Mountains, lawns and ancient chestnut trees. But Shirley continues to yearn for the people back home that energise her and bring her to life. The school psychologist says she’s mourning her brother and sisters.

Shingwedzi - Kruger National Park - With Michelle
Shingwedzi – Kruger National Park – With Michelle

In her Art class, Shirley paints a huge, sad face – her face. She makes the eyes green so that they swim in pain. She paints huge cracks in the face. And she fills some of the cracks with a chaotic jangle of musical notes to document her anguish.

Shirley paints a huge sad face

I’m very sad to see Shirley so extremely unhappy. But I’m not surprised. Even before we left Pretoria, I was worried sick about how she would manage the move. Almost every week, I end up holding her close as she lies sobbing in my arms. I do what mothers do – pour out love and care unreservedly. But she needs a professional counsellor. Tragically, not one of us realises that.

 Her heart is awash with pain. And her thoughts are very dark:

“I can’t do this. I can’t see a single thing to live for. All I do is flounder in pain.”


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