21 is a significant number. I turned 21 in our first year of marriage. Zhané was born on the 21st. Today Neil and I celebrate 21 years of marriage…
Let me take you back to a time when I was still single, living on my own in a flat in Cape Town. I started my first job at the age of 18, was whisked away to perform parliamentary duty in South Africa’s first democratic government in 1994. I virtually had no friends or family around. During those long lonely days I envisioned the type of partner I wanted to spend forever with. He was beautiful, kind-hearted, a stickler for fairness, a balanced individual and most importantly, a music lover. I dreamed of meeting him, called upon the universe countless times for him to emerge so we could fall into a sea of love.
Despite all my wishing and hoping it took roughly a year and a half for Neil to appear. Of all places in the same hometown as my family, a few houses away from where I’d stayed. I’d seen him before when I was in high school, but he was seeing another and was unavailable. This time around he was single and was friends with my sister.
I’d returned to Cape Town after a short stint in Pretoria, unable to get him off my mind. I begged my sister for his number. She was hesitant, she felt he was a ‘player’ and didn’t want me to get hurt. I, of course would hear nothing of it – I had a strong sense he was the one I was waiting for and had to risk it.
I called him at work, said I was a secret admirer and wanted to get to know him better. He seemed rather taken aback not knowing who I was, but played along. He said to call in the evening when he had more time to talk, so I did. That call was the beginning of our love story. We chatted for hours, sharing likes, views, general outlook on life. What snagged me was he’s vast knowledge of music, especially artists I listened to, Karen White, Michael Bolton, Anita Baker… he spoke my language.
He had no idea I was living in Cape Town, he thought I was a girl from Pretoria and I went along with it. It was exhilarating playing someone else, being led by my heart. We continued to converse over the phone for a few nights, although he was becoming anxious to meet. I kept on making excuses, saying it wasn’t the right time. It seemed too hard to come clean that we lived in different provinces and the chances of us getting together were slim.
I didn’t realise that Neil had somehow figured who I was, where I stayed and I was the one being played! Since everything was out in the open, I gave him my number to call that evening and he promised he would. But he didn’t call, I waited and waited at the phone and it never rang. I was angry, thoughts were racing in my mind he’d disliked what I’d done and didn’t want anything to do with me. Were the feelings I developed misguided, were all those talks we shared in vain? I cried myself to sleep. I called in sick to work the next day, the air of disappointment stifling me, my heart crying in pain.
I had to fly to Pretoria for work purposes over the weekend and knew I’d spot him and didn’t know to survive that. He saw me standing outside my Mom’s house on the Saturday, glanced at me but didn’t wave or stop. Disheartened by what could have been drove me slightly insane.
Then on Sunday evening while watching Carte Blanche, the doorbell rang. My sister answered it, saying it was for me. Not in the mood for company but wondering who it could be, I walked into the front garden. I was taken aback to see Neil. He was breath-taking in real life, warm hazel eyes reflected by the light, a smile as bright as the sun and I lost a few heartbeats.
I forgot why I was angry, enamoured that he had finally found his way to me. I desperately wanted to be alone with him, there was so much to say, yet it was the end of the weekend and we didn’t know how to confront what had happened between us. Nervously I glanced at him, talking about trivial things, yet my head was bursting with thoughts, butterflies threatening to escape.
I struck up the courage and asked if we could go out the next night to talk things through. He agreed and said he’d fetch me after work. I couldn’t sleep that night – I dreamt of him, of all the things I wanted to say, feelings I couldn’t contain, an overwhelming love that couldn’t be denied.
I changed five times that night, finally settling on a skirt, jersey and boots to combat the July weather. Neil arrived in a just showered look, a heady fragrance of cologne curling around me as I was escorted to a baby blue Toyota. It felt surreal to be alone with him, something I’ve craved for so long. Our destination, a restaurant called Lady Chatterley’s.
It was an upmarket establishment, quiet and cosy, soft music setting the tone for romance. I felt like a princess sitting beside him, the flame of the candle dancing seductively at our table. Drinks were ordered and a main meal decided upon. Just when we were getting comfortable in each other’s company, a woman appeared, greeted Neil warmly with a peck on the cheek. I knew who she was… she lived a street away from us and seemed to have some connection to him. The uncertainty of whether they were more than friends entered my mind and I thought the worst.
Our dinner arrived and I’d lost my appetite. Neil enquired whether I was okay… and it all came out! Why didn’t he call when he said he would, how could he have left me hanging without some form of explanation? Was he involved with this woman and if so why did he bother to go out with me?
He said that he’d taken my number and written it on a piece of paper. When he left for home he looked for it but couldn’t find it. He felt bad that he hadn’t called and knew I’d be upset. He was glad I’d come to Pretoria but couldn’t strike the nerve to come sooner to explain. As for the woman, they were just friends. He searched my eyes, confessing sincerely, “You don’t know how much you mean to me,” and I melted.
We wrapped up dinner and headed for a movie. I insisted on paying, much to his surprise. We watched “Blank Man” starring the Wayan Brothers. I don’t recall a thing about it, all I thought was how close I was sitting to him. He appeared bored with the movie. My hand grazed his and he intertwined his fingers between mine. The heat of our touch firing every nerve-ending. I gazed at him in the dark movie house and that’s when it happened, our first kiss – languid, enticing, exploring the depths of our infatuation.
Stepping out of the cinema hand in hand, our relationship had evolved to the next level. I knew I was deeply in love with Neil and could sense the feeling was mutual. He drove us to a park in our hometown where we made out until the wee hours of the morning. We didn’t want to return home, the thought of being separated from someone you’ve waited your entire life for, seemed daunting.
Neil and I met every day in my short stay in Pretoria. The more we got to know each other, it became apparent how compatible we were. He even predicted on one of our dates that “he’d marry me,” something that sounded wonderful to imagine, but in reality didn’t fit my plans of attaining the career I dreamed of.
Having to return to Cape Town tore my heart. We were so new in our relationship, couldn’t bare being apart, yet alone provinces away. But we had no choice, we had to accept our circumstances, counting down the days when we could be together again.
A plan was initiated for Neil to fly to Cape Town for a weekend. I was bubbling with excitement as it was the first time he’d be visiting, sharing my flat. I spring-cleaned, even went so far as to prepare a home-cooked meal. Sadly, I burnt the steak, the potatoes were hard and the mushroom sauce watery! I was running out of time as the lift to the airport arrived and I was frazzled.
Neil looked dashing as ever waiting for me. He gave me the biggest smile and folded me in a warm hug. Cape Town seemed to glow when he arrived. I showed him around the parliamentary village I lived in, making our way to my humble abode consisting of one bedroom, bathroom and a tiny kitchen. He was impressed, especially with the candlelit dinner I had ready for us. He ate the overcooked steak, didn’t let on how awful it was, rather complimenting me on it! After dinner, we slow danced to the sounds of Karen White. We spent the night together… excelling all my expectations, bringing us closer, sealing our love.
The weekend was unforgettable. We shared it with mutual friends, clubbing, driving along the peninsula, taking long walks on the beach. We wanted it to last forever, yet couldn’t stop the hands of time before he had to return to Pretoria. I was left distraught, reliving the blissful moments spent together.
Our courtship ran for three months when I fell pregnant with Zhané in Pretoria. Neil didn’t disappear when he heard the news; in fact he didn’t leave my side. I may not have been ready for motherhood, for the responsibility it held, not to mention how we were going to break the news to our families. But he encouraged me every step of the way, said a child was a blessing, that he was ready for marriage and had faith that God would provide. He was wise beyond 25, owned a heart of a saint and I was blessed to have found a gold mine.
On the 13th of December 1995, on a hot summer’s afternoon, in a pink and lilac sari, I said “I do” to Neil in a small wedding at my Mom’s house. It was one of the happiest moments I’ve lived, the commencement of a commitment to love, honour and cherish each other for the rest of our lives.
As Neil forecasted, God took care of us. He was transferred to Cape Town where we settled to married life in my flat. He was a wonderful partner – kind, caring, sharing all the household responsibilities, never voicing a complaint. When Zhané came along, he got up in the middle of the night to change and feed her despite having to go to work in the morning. Since we had no support structure in Cape Town, we had to learn to depend on ourselves even when things became tough.
When Lakeisha came along, we were better established to welcome her into the world. Through it all, Neil was the foundation of our home, guiding and protecting us. He was an incredible father, treating the girls like princesses, affording unlimited patience and an ocean of love. They looked up to him and still hold the most respect for him.
Like many married couples we went through highs and immense lows. I was battling my own demons and fell into the clutches of alcohol addiction. Not only did Neil step in and take care of the girls, he had to take care of me too. Not once did he berate me for not being a good mother and wife, instead loved me even more. When I eventually reached my rock-bottom and sort help through a support group, he continued to hold my hand, wiped away tears, listened to my fears, believed in me when I didn’t.
Our story isn’t a fairy tale. We aren’t a perfect couple. We curse, argue, feel like throttling each other when we don’t agree. But through it all, we find middle ground to sort our differences. We’ve never given up on each other, never stopped believing in our love, never stopped building a better relationship to armour us against the stresses of life.
I can’t discredit the hand of God in bringing us together. He steered me to Neil, knew he was the one destined to walk this path with me. God provided when we had a child on the way, gave us the strength to raise two children on our own, aided us when we moved into our first home, through the turmoil of addiction, into the light of changing our lifestyle through spirituality and exercise.
Each year we’re blessed together I reminisce how far we’ve come, how much we’ve conquered, the depths of our love, the beauty of our marriage. We go out of way to make it extraordinary, to celebrate in style, renewing our commitment to one another. May our story continue to be written in paragraphs of hope, pages of memories, chapters of love, reaching a promise of reuniting on the other side <3