For some time now, spending time with my father has been a tricky point to consider in many ways. How does one explain that his wife doesn’t allow the family any contact except under a court order? Well – if you refer to previous blogs, there is not so much an explanation but an outline of some of the difficulties we have faced. Armed with such a court order from earlier this year, though, I thought we might have a better chance than ever of getting to see my Dad this Christmas/New Year and we might even be able to get a few people together to celebrate his 80th Birthday. So, with many a finger crossed, we all booked our travel and a place to stay in Johannesburg. We started the planning process in August, which included the process of contacting attorneys to agree on contact times/locations etc.
Come December 26th – 3 days to the party – we still hadn’t heard anything from the other attorneys and we were getting worried. All the attorneys’ offices could well be closed for an extended holiday, so the lack of response was worrying. Still – what was even more worrying was the call we got from my sister saying that she and my niece had been refused boarding! South Africa’s immigration laws had changed since they last travelled and my sister could not now travel alone with her daughter without a signed, certified, original affidavit (not just any old letter) from her father. It being Boxing Day, there was no way they were going to be able to resolve that on the day, so they had to steel themselves for a trudge back home and see what they could do the following day. Meanwhile, Jonas, Ant and I flew out frustrated that there was nothing we could have done to help.
I can only just outline here the obstacles that had to be overcome the following day – my niece’s Dad was enjoying his family Christmas and had to drive back into central London to find a working solicitor, following which he then drove them to Heathrow, only for them to have to be put on standby (luckily, there was no charge – BA recognises the issues that documentation can cause!), so all they could do was wait and fret. Meanwhile, in South Africa, my attorneys had received contact from Mrs Khoza’s (my father’s wife – I do not refer to her as having any closer relationship than that – I have my reasons) attorneys stating that they were not actually instructed by her to act other than to respond to the initial court order. They tried to absolve themselves completely of all responsibility and stated that they had no contact details to act further. This meant that we would have to return to court – with the earliest date possible now being Saturday 30th. So, we decided to delay the party by a day in order to give the attorneys a chance. So far – no luck on any count. No father, no sister, delays and stresses at what seemed like every turn. But we did still have options! When my sister phoned to let us know she was finally through security and heading to the boarding gate at speed, I burst into tears – it wasn’t just the stress of their hellish day but I finally saw a little light on the horizon… We still had options!
28th December is my Aunt Nqa’s birthday but we only had time to send a quick message to her on the day and in the meantime, other family members were gathering in Jo’burg and we settled into our temporary home but we still had nothing formal from the attorneys. Time was not on our side and finally, the attorneys suggested that we should try one last visit to Mrs Khoza’s house to try and make direct contact. So, the next day, we headed out to see what we could do at the house. Initially, there was no response, although we could hear a TV or radio in the house and occasional movements around the place. We continued to wait and try making contact until eventually we spotted someone at a downstairs window. We tried one last shout at the tops of our voices and were amazed when it seemed we had finally got through. Mrs Khoza brought my father to the gate. It opened and my father stepped through. It shut and was locked immediately. Despite several attempts to engage her, she just walked straight back into the house. But – my oh my – there in front of us stood my Dad. He greeted us all so warmly – but it was so unexpected… when should we return him? What about his medication? Wouldn’t he need more than just the clothes he was standing in (in South Africa, you are expected – it may even be a legal requirement – to carry a valid ID card)? But we also couldn’t leave everyone standing outside the house, so we returned to our rented home and there reunited my Dad with his brother and other family members. Dad was lovely – although slow to engage at first and we realised quickly that we were in a tricky situation when he admitted that he didn’t know his wife’s phone number to call her. So, we’d have to go back to the house and by this time, the attorneys had arrived to discuss next steps – how long would he be staying with us, what medication did he have and when did he need it next, etc? There were still so many questions that needed to be answered, so we went back to try and engage with Mrs Khoza more formally (ie with the help of the attorneys). However, we were frustrated once more – with no response. The attorneys then decided to involve the police and try to get her attention using the sirens and uniformed officers’ assistance. Still no response. Eventually, we gave up and left a letter with our contact details and a request to liaise more formally about my father’s visit with us.
From this point on, the Gawe family went into full problem-solving mode. We had to organise clothes (at least for overnight but maybe longer if we didn’t hear from Mrs Khoza), medication and maybe more depending on how long he stayed with us. The attorneys suggested we not try to make contact again but, having managed to sort out his medication at the hospital, he asked to return to the house and we reluctantly took him there. With bated breath, we tried one last time to get a response at the gate but to no avail and we returned to the house with my father and settled in for the night. By this time, Dad was settling into the whole idea and had already started to tease and joke and return to a little of his old self. We weren’t sure how the morning would be for him, but we were so grateful when – in the morning – he seemed to improve again and took everything in his stride, particularly as some old friends started to arrive for his unofficial Birthday braai. It was a wonderful day, with some amazingly typical Jo’burg weather – glorious sunshine at times followed by thunder and hail in the evening. The house was perfect, though – the braai was on long enough to cook up enough food for an army and there was plenty of space to accommodate everyone inside. Dad worked the room like an old pro and seemed not to tire at all.
By contrast, Sunday (New Year’s Eve) was a day of codas – we had to say goodbye to everyone at some point – with the hardest being my son, sister and niece, whose time with Dad/Grandpa was so very limited. This was also the day that we finally heard from Mrs Khoza – although not directly. Contact came via a phone call from Norwood Police station. At this point, although we had been witnessed in our attempts to make contact, we’d had no confirmation that our note had been received, so we were at least now able to confirm that she was able to contact us, although she refused to do so directly and actually told the police that she wanted us to stay away from her home from now on. Although she knew that the court order had stipulated that both parties would appoint attorneys, she insisted that our attorneys should be the ones to liaise with her. This then meant that the earliest we would be able to make contact would be Wednesday 3rd January, when my attorneys returned to work. There was not much to do, then, other than to entertain Dad and try to put him in touch with a few of his old friends. Oh – and see in the New Year when I gave up and encouraged him to bed finally at 1.30am.
We had a couple of uneventful days, watching Dad getting more and more confident, lively and mischievous by the day. He was keen to return to his home – if just to pick up a few belongings – but he wanted to stay with us as long as we were in the country, so we were at least reassured that we were not trying to keep him against his will but realised as time went by that he was more confused about the lack of contact from his wife. We had to ensure, therefore, that we were doing everything we reasonably could to put him in touch with her, although our attorneys advised that we shouldn’t try to get access to the house without an agreement in place. Instead, they did as she asked and requested a meeting to discuss more formal arrangements. Our worst case scenario was that Mrs Khoza would not respond and would not engage again but would not make any further contact (resulting in some sort of de facto but unconfirmed rejection), but we hoped that some reasonable accommodation could be made such that he would at least retain contact on a regular basis with the family. In the end, we were right to plan for the worst, as Mrs Khoza has still (almost a week later) not contacted anyone. The impact on my Dad was palpable initially – he was clearly upset at her lack of response – and the next few days meant rushing around to try and get him a temporary ID, a flight down to his brother’s home and some other basics. We managed a lovely lunch at Marble in Jo’burg on his actual birthday but he was quite subdued having to go to the airport the next day.
Since then, we have maintained contact for the first time in over 6 years – we have a phone number for him which I will maintain, his brother is taking care of his health needs and setting up much-needed appointments, and we can hear that he is again quickly returning to his singsong self, remembering old nicknames for me (no – I’m not telling here) and enjoying some of our old joke formats: “Hey Nomtha, Vuyo is not as stupid as I look,” he says. “No, Dad,” I respond, “… she couldn’t be…”. We still don’t know what will happen from now on – this phase of things is going to be in flux for a while for all of us, and while we can rejoice at his return, I can see that it is with some sadness for him that it appears to be at the expense of his marriage. Much as we may feel he made a mistake, I have always tried to acknowledge his commitment to the marriage, and so I hope that he is able to make peace with whatever happens next. I have heard of so many other tales where new wives have prevented the old family from maintaining contact – particularly in South Africa – but not one where there was any reunion with the former wife’s family. But for now, we Gawes (and others) are all enjoying having my Dad back as part of the family.