Silindile is 13 years old now. Every year of her life feels like a gift, proof that despite some inevitable loss and darkness, life and goodness and hope can (must) triumph.
This morning I went to the annual meeting to discuss Silindi’s progress as her sponsor, along with two other trustees, at the St. Vincent School for the Deaf. For the first time in years (perhaps ever), there was no crisis looming. I did not find myself rushing to the hospital, visiting a social worker, or sleuthing out the location of a shack in a new part of Soweto. Today things were calm, and I reflected.
“Crisis” is the mode that has defined much of my relationship to this little girl: keep her alive. Pray that she hasn’t been abused. Contain the panic that she isn’t learning to read fast enough. Try to get her mother to engage more, or differently. Wrestle with the guilt that for selfish reasons, I’m not here to check in every week like I used to.
I first met Silindile when she was attending the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Kliptown, Soweto. I was on the board and trying to find sponsorship for the most needy children. Those who live in the Freedom Charter Square informal settlement sleep in crowded shacks without heat, electricity, or running water. Children have lost parents to AIDS, alcoholism, and the kind of poverty that breaks spirits and families. Imagine, then, what it means for a kid to make the list of those who are the worst off.
The late Pam Mfaxa, the principal of the crèche and one of my closest friends, first brought her to my attention. The staff thought she might be developmentally disabled because she was often unresponsive and had behavioral issues. The way she looked then, you could see right away that whoever was taking care of her was also struggling.
Because she didn’t react when called, the first question was whether she might have problems with her hearing. I tried to build trust, visiting often, and soon she would run out to greet me when she saw my car pull up. I went to meet her mother, a young woman from rural KwaZulu Natal who spoke almost no English and whose second child had been treated for malnutrition. I had a few meetings and arranged to take the family to a specialized Wits University clinic so that Silindile could have her hearing tested. The test results showed that she is profoundly deaf in both ears.
Sometime around this part of the journey, I abandoned my principle that I wasn’t going to get involved with individuals when it came to charity. Living in a place full of need, I had adopted this basic framework to stay sane: because I couldn’t help everyone, I would direct my resources to organizations that helped many.
Silindile was barely four years old, but she reached through my defenses. She latched on and wouldn’t let go. I later learned about attachment disorders possibly caused by her mother’s post-traumatic stress, and I don’t want to be naïve or overly simplistic in describing what happened. Regardless, it changed my life. Smiling, holding my hand, hugging me, and giving me a sign name before she had any formal use of language, I couldn’t turn away from the feeling of being called by this innocent soul, and I no longer cared about frameworks.
So I took up the challenge and went to battle. I walked into the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank and insisted that they take her in. The alternatives were not places I would send my own daughter. At the time St. Vincent had a boarding facility (now closed), and the school had classes through 12th grade. I saw a future for her there, a sense of security, and a place where her mother would be supported as the hearing parent of a deaf child. There was no room for the coming year, I was told – and no funding for a disadvantaged child. No matter.
The following year she was enrolled. I bought Silindi’s mom her first alarm clock to help her get her daughter ready for the school bus every day. I pleaded with the driver to wait when she still wasn’t there on time. It was a delicate dance. I didn’t want to play the white savior or to alienate Silindile’s mother, yet sometimes both seemed inevitable. I questioned my own motivations frequently.
There were critics, including a minister I deeply respected, who called me out on perpetuating a broken system by sending one kid to a good school while failing to lobby for systematic change that could help many others. I never denied the validity of this argument, but I also couldn’t deny the feeling that I was compelled to do something. Instead of making it an intellectual debate, I just… did.
On the evening of her first day of school, I got a call from St. Vincent’s. Silindi had missed the bus home and was left behind. A staff member had put her to sleep but they couldn’t keep her overnight and were worried for her to wake up among strangers. In a panic, I drove to the school and a somewhat hilarious scene ensued. It was dark, the doors were locked, and it’s a school for the deaf.
See the crazy white lady throw rocks at the window! See the crazy white lady jump up and down waving frantically! See someone finally come to the door, and watch as the crazy white lady dissolves into tears, feeling like a failure, scared for a little girl who isn’t hers, scared she can never make this work. See the crazy white lady enfold the little girl in her arms and carry her to the car with a rubber sheet in case the little girl wets the bed. See the conversation as she explains to her white South African partner that she has brought home a small black child from the township who is now sleeping in the guest bedroom, and that he has to hide in the morning in case she gets scared of him when she wakes up.
Eric peeked into the room that night and stood there for a while, watching a vulnerable fellow human being sleep. When he turned around, something had come over his face – a fierce softness. He was not, generally speaking, a soft man, at least on the outside. He had been to war, exchanged gunfire while working as a bodyguard, and once legendarily gnawed through a man’s collarbone to win a fight. He had only stopped carrying his Beretta everywhere when we started to date.
It is only now that I fully understand how important what happened that night was, and how it helped define what love feels like to me. We had argued about the way I went over the top sometimes with my work and volunteering. When it came right down to it, though, in that moment, he didn’t just tolerate my compulsion to act. He cared just as much as I did, in his own way. He was in.
When I got a full scholarship to attend graduate school at Princeton, we established a trust for Silindile because I wanted to more formally fundraise and make sure there was a structure for her continuing education. Eric stayed in South Africa to be present for his own daughters (he was older than me and had been married before). The distance strained our relationship.
We wrote long letters wrestling with how we could make it all work, and how to support his kids while also having at least one of our own. Maybe supporting Silindile seemed like a less complicated form of nurturing that we could do together. We fought, with each other and for each other. His voice on the telephone was my alarm clock almost every morning and he told me I was beautiful even when I hadn’t slept more than four hours in two days.
And then, he died.
He made a small human error on a high-performance parachute landing, and he was gone.
See the crazy white lady get the call on a Sunday morning. See her crumble to the floor and pound it until her fist swells. See her pull it together for the family, for her dead life partner. Life, interrupted. Life, gone from the dead lover behind mortuary glass. Love, suspended, a formless, directionless emotion with nowhere to go.
About a month later, I waited for a phone call from a Johannesburg radio station, Highveld Stereo. I thought I was doing an interview about Silindile in the context of charitable giving during the holidays. I was a wreck but I was trying hard to put one foot in front of the other. Once I was on the line, I got blindsided. One of our friends had written a letter to the station. Granting a Christmas Wish as part of an annual tradition, a representative from the multinational Aon told me that the company would pay for Silindile’s schooling until she graduated, in Eric’s memory. I found myself sobbing openly, my vulnerability pouring out through the radios of people driving to work that morning.
The supportive network I tried to build for Silindile and her mom and brother became part of my life and healing in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of the St. Vincent’s teachers and staff are like part of my family. Skydivers and friends all over the world donated to the trust. Everyone who touched Silindile’s life holds a piece of my personal history that sometimes feels slippery and often distant, especially in the life I’ve built in the US. I never realized as I was working for her future that I was also constructing a virtual village of my own.
Becoming a professional skydiver hasn’t distanced me from death. On the contrary, I have continued to bear witness to small human errors that take my friends away. The trade off is that skydiving pulled me out of my darkest grief through the physical act of opening my parachute in freefall, over and over and over again, saving my own life. Sometimes, when I fly, I feel that Eric is alongside. For the most part, these “visits” are short now. I had to stop holding on in some ways in order to survive, and to make space for change. But the love that we shared for Silindile remains and grows.
Supporting her brings me back. Back to Joburg. Back to the power of transformative love and high-risk investments in other human beings. A little girl whose growth was stunted from poverty is now, finally, within the height and weight range for her age group. I believe that she will someday leave school with a fighting chance to lead a life of peace and independence. There are still issues of housing and safety as she enters her teenage years, and I am still afraid of something terrible happening because I couldn’t prevent it. But that’s life, and I choose it every day.