If some of you have read my fan fiction, you’d have noticed that I dedicate most of it to a woman called Arlene. So, on this day the 27th of June, I thought it appropriate to tell you a little more about her and perhaps, through that – a little bit more about myself.
I was a quiet child, forced into silence by my own thoughts, imaginations and the actions of others that had given me a very unique childhood. People had always deemed my silence to be a speech impairment and perhaps to an extent it was, but the truth was that I choose not to speak. I had precious little control over anything in my life and not giving people the words they sought was my way of trying to keep some sense of control over something I considered to be mine. My mother was always at a slight loss of what to do with me because she never wanted to force me into anything that would drive me deeper into my silence. Holidays were a real challenge because she had to work very long hours and couldn’t just send me off to friends like she did with my brother. In search of a solution, she came up with child holiday courses at our local zoo and hesitantly enrolled me into one. I was eight and her action that holiday changed my life.
I loved the idea of going to the zoo, of being around the animals and of learning about the world around me. I remember my first day and as excited as I was, I was also terrified. Would they force me to speak? Would I be expected to? Will I manage or will I be left behind as I always was? Those fears became unfounded as I met Arlene.
Arlene worked as the educational officer in the department which run the courses. In retrospect, she was short, with dark long hair already riddled with gray despite the fact that she was only 28, thick glasses and a smile that made you feel as if you are the most important person in her life. My mother had taken her aside when she dropped me off and explained to her that I might not interact with anybody. I had inwardly cringed, expecting the usual pity or puzzlement that I got from other people but Arlene laughed it off and said that it’s alright – she does all the talking away. She then took my hand and instead of taking me to the rest of the kids, took me to her office where she said I should help her carry her stuff.
I liked her immediately and although I didn’t say a word to her in the two days I did my course, I went home with my head filled with stories and wonders that she inspired. It was a turning point in my life and the first ammunition I had against the silence that ruled my life. Arlene never demanded anything of me, never placed me in a situation where I’d feel forced to answer and it wasn’t soon after my second course at the zoo that I started talking to her. She never made a fuss and acted as if I had been speaking to her ever since we met. Thinking back, I realized that I had felt a resonance in Arlene, a part of me and my life that I had always been looking for. She and the zoo became a safe haven to me and slowly but surely I started thriving. When I realized that my silence wasn’t an issue, I found my voice and started using it. When my mother saw the change, she recognized the value that Arlene had added into my life and asked her if it would be alright she dropped me off at the zoo if she had to work nearby. Arlene conceded and I became a part of the Education Office, spending my time in the corner of her office until I was almost old enough to become a part of the zoo’s volunteer children’s club.
Looking back, those were the happiest days of my life, a time in which I discovered myself, discovered other people and discovered the rich diversity which the world offered us. I worked there for many years until Arlene was offered another job at the local botanical garden. Things changed then and although I didn’t lose her, it became another turning point in my life, one which put me on a path to adulthood. Arlene leaving the zoo was a big shock to me, and I was petrified that I would lose her but my fears were unfounded as her exit provided a true door of friendship for us. We started spending our Saturdays together and, because our birthdays were quite close, we would celebrate them together even though she was twenty years older than I was. Even when Arlene eventually got married at a very late age and had a child of her own, I was never far from her life and she was never far from my thoughts.
And then, seven years ago today, my life changed and turned again, once again at her hand.
Arlene went on an educational trip to Namibia and involved in a freak accident where her driver had overturned their car on a sandy road. Her seatbelt broke and she was thrown out of the window against a tree where, by all’s believe, she died on impact.
My world, my safety, my voice was destroyed.
Her death, although it was not the first one that I’ve experienced in my life, left me with a pain so unbearable that for the better part of two weeks I hardly said a word even though I had long since left my days of silence behind me. As I sit here, it is still so real, so vast that I feel the only way to deal with it is to ignore it, to force it away and pretend that it never happened.
Mostly, that is what I do. I ignore it, ‘forget’ Arlene even though her hand in my life is still so visible in my speech patterns, my reading, my stories and my interests. But then, from this day onwards until the 31st of July which was her birthday, I allow myself to remember her, to feel the pain and emptiness of her death but also to remember all the joy that she had given me. The gift that she had given me of a life without fear, the love of teaching and the love of learning.
So, I will carry her with me in the next 33 days, I will carry her memory, her voice and her laughter with me. I will thank her for the gifts she had given me, mourn the loss of her, and hold the hope that I can one day mean as much to someone as she had meant to me.