During my latest visit to South Africa, I reunited with my friend Martie who was my roommate at Helpmekaar, a performing arts High school for girls in Johannesburg. We reminisced over our time there and proudly reminded each other that even the New York Times once proclaimed our school as the best in the country.
The requirements for university were a science and three languages. English, Afrikaans, and German were my languages and Math instead of straight science or biology. For the life of me I don’t know how I ever passed math with my failing eye sight.
Martie came to my aid with the three languages. She helped me matriculate by reading all our prescribed literature aloud to me. Martie read to me Macbeth, the Merchant of Venice, Othello from our English syllabus and many other scripts in Afrikaans and German. Some works I’ve remembered, others have flown the coop of my memory. However, I’ll never forget how we sat together in the branches of the mulberry tree after school with our books.
The mulberry tree grew in the garden of Fredora, an old mansion that housed the boarding girls of our school. I listened intently to Martie’s rich alto voice and concentrated to keep the information in my mind for the upcoming written and oral exams. Martie had the habit to twist the hair of her bangs with the fingers of one hand as she read. From time to time I interrupted with a question. She patiently re-read a passage and patiently spelled words I was unsure of. We discussed the play plots, the characters, the settings, and guessed at the questions we might get during the exam.
One never knows during the carefree high school years where one’s paths would lead. We set goals and hoped to reach them. My goal was to pursue a career in theatre arts and Martie’s a career in voice and music. during my visit in January 2010 we reflected on where our life paths led us from the mulberry tree reading till now.
Martie said “you prepared me for my future. Helping you when you were losing your sight taught me perseverance, patients, and endurance.”
“Because of you“, I responded gratefully, ”I graduated from High school and went to the University of Pretoria to study theatre arts. Thanks to you reading aloud to me and to Professor Botha who believed in me I reached my goal.”
Later on in my career I became totally blind. Though blind today and after all those years, I still perform either as a keynote speaker, story teller or actress in one of a variety of my own one woman shows.
After graduating from university Martie also pursued her career of teaching music, voice and directed choirs and operettas. She got married to Dirk Uys and started a family. They have four children. Martie’s life changed when her youngest daughter Ellim at the age of seventeen had a brain injury during an horse riding accident and became wheelchair-bound. Martie’s other three children grew up and followed their own dreams but Ellim is at home with Martie and Dirk in their farmhouse adapted for the wheel chair.
During our visit Martie handed me a jar of preserves she had made from apricots she picked from her trees on her farm near Bethlehem in the Drakensberg.
“Something to remember me by there in America,” She said.
How could I ever forget her? The one who was patiently reading and spelling to me while I was silently losing my sight due to Retinitis Pigmentosa. How could I ever thank her enough as we sat there in a court yard of a South African restaurant. We sat side by side under a tree like so many years ago. We were together as if the more than forty years didn’t pass like the blink of an eye. I lifted my glass of wine in salute to her.
Daily in rain or thunder, in sunshine and starlight Ellim is always dependant on Martie’s hands. Martie’s hands that massaged the useless legs, the injured spine. Those same hands cooked the apricot jam and brought it to this place to give to me. Those hands that have to lift her daughter of nearly 30 years of age from her wheel chair into a bath, onto a toilet seat or into bed. Those hands who picked her daughter up for dead but persisted with rehabilitation when others thought it was in vain. Martie’s hands guided Ellim’s, taught Ellim to re-learn and regain the use of her hands. Ellim can knit and sew today.
“Walk away” they told Martie and dirk at the hospital after the accident. “Forget you had her, she’ll never recover and if so she’ll be a vegetable.”
The hospital personnel didn’t know my friend like I did. Martie stayed at Ellim’s bedside for months and sang and talked to her while she was in a coma. When Ellim finally came out of the coma she couldn’t speak. Martie brought a flute to the hospital and held it to Ellim’s lips and thus embarked on restoring Ellims speech. Her knowledge of voice production as a voice coach served her well. She encouraged Ellim to breathe out through the flute. This was a slow and difficult process. Hour after hour, day after day week after week Martie encouraged exhaling through the flute. Eventually Ellim produced a small sound in the flute with her out coming breath. This was the first positive sign the diaphragm and muscles in Ellim’s lungs and throat were strengthening. By using this technique Martie eventually coached Ellim to turn sound into words. It was an uphill battle and long and drawn out process to reawake the speech faculties of the brain as well, but today Ellim can speak.
I took the apricot preserves from Martie’s hands with so much admiration and respect . I know when I’ll eat it in Nashville I won’t share it with anyone for it is precious, almost holy. When I eat it will be on special bread in celebration of my friend Martie’s hands.