A green-haired boy on a bicycle barreled past me with a huge grin plastered to his face. He was literally flying down the long driveway of the condo development. Puzzled, I drove my moped around the corner. Immediately I saw a blue-haired lady, in a bright yellow sundress that contrasted well with her hair. I heard her yell, “Derek, come back ’ere you little bugger!”
I took a second look at the address I’d been given. Yep, that’s the one. I slowly climbed off my bike, and removed my helmet. I ran my fingers through my short red hair to get rid of the dreaded “helmet head”, but also to play for extra time. Then I stuck out my hand.
“Hi, I’m Corinne. I’m your babysitter.” I said confidently, although on the inside I was feeling far from poised. What have I got myself into?
“Cath, pleased to meet you. ’ave you met me son, Derek?”
“Uh, green haired boy?” I stuttered, trying not to stare at hers.
“That’s right. He insisted, ’cos I ’ad mine coloured. I used food colouring on his. Mine was an accident.”
“Ah.” What else could I say?
Cathie sure had a challenge raising a six-year-old all by herself. After I joined her church, a mutual friend mentioned that Cath needed a babysitter so she could go for a night out — something she rarely did. I gladly offered my services because I needed the money. I had just finished high school and was on Christmas holidays before starting college in January.
Derek roared back up the driveway, skidded to a halt in front of me and flashed me the hugest smile I’ve ever seen! He had the bluest eyes, which were ringed by dirt smudges. His knees were scraped up, and I just knew if I looked at his fingernails, they’d be black! He was frankly, the cutest looking kid I’ve ever met.
So started a friendship that continues to this day. I needed a place to live near the college, and Cathie needed a babysitter. It was a no-brainer to put the two together, and before long, my moped was jostled in next to her VW Golf.
We discovered a mutual love of books, puzzles and tea. We also found differences in each other. I am extremely boisterous; Cath is more reserved; I am a procrastinator, for her there is no time like the present. She’s a research scientist; I barely passed elementary school science!
During those two brief years I lived with Cathie, she taught me a lot. She taught me why I believe what I do, that Christianity is intellectually credible, and scientifically sound. She taught me to love Jesus from more than just my emotions.
In turn, I taught her patience with Derek, who was admittedly, a handful. I showed her how to have fun with him and nurture his enquiring mind.
And Derek — well, Derek taught me to see things through the eyes of a child. He showed me forgiveness when I blew it, and he showed me, despite his rough and tumble demeanor, a sweet tenderness. He’s the reason I wanted to have a son
At the end of those two years, I was offered an on-campus apartment of my own, and Cathie, who had not dated since I’d known her, met Gordon, a widower with two little girls.
I moved into my own digs, and a few months later, watched in awe as Gordon and Cathie declared “I Do”. Now I had a whole new family to befriend!
Gordon welcomed me as his wife’s confidant, and never minded that I spent inordinate amounts of time at the house. I spent hours with Derek and the two girls, played in the pool, hung out and watched videos, just like another member of the family.
Derek started into the terrible teens, but he and I remained friends. I would hear a rat-tat-tat at my door after school. When I opened the door, Derek flashed me his famous smile. His blue eyes twinkled as he ran past me to the kitchen. We would sit and talk — about school, his step-dad, whom he loved, but with whom he’d a few run-ins and his “horrible sisters”!
Other times it would be Cath at the door. “Hi Corinne, got time for a quick cuppa?” Cathie’s “quick cuppa” lengthened into hours as we laughed, and chatted. We drank gallons of tea oblivious to time, until my phone rang and a plaintive voice on the other side of the line would say, “Can I have my wife back now, please?”
Upheaval in my life came in the way of a huge move. Prospects for single, white females in South Africa were dismal, the cost of living had soared, but my income had not. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to the United States came up and I jumped at the chance!
I spent my last day in Africa with Cathie and her family. We sat next to the pool and watched the kids frolic. A beautiful, hot spring sun reflected off the water, and we dabbled our toes in the water every so often to cool them off. Derek, who was all of 14, refused to get in the pool, and hung around with us. A ring of laughter interspersed the silence, and then one of us would say, “Do you remember…” and the laughter would sound out again.
At the end of the day, Cathie walked me to the front door of her home. Jacaranda trees were dropping the last of their purple blossoms, and the smell of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow blooms filled the air. We stood in the doorway, reluctant to say goodbye. For two people who could talk a hind leg off a donkey, we were strangely silent, neither one sure what to say.
We hugged long and hard, laughed at the sudden tears that came to our eyes and knew, somehow, it would be all right. Although I’d be moving 6,000 miles away, our friendship would remain true.
Cathie is a deplorable letter writer! For the first five years, I wrote to her, and if I got a response once a year, I was lucky! Instead, I got phone calls. In the middle of the afternoon, the phone would ring. Rushing to answer, I’d hear, “Hiya Corinne, wotcha up to?” She always said the same thing, “I got your letter, wrote one back, and it’s been sitting in me ’andbag for six months.” That’s Cath — can’t change her, and I wouldn’t want to.
Thank God for email though! Once she got her account set up, we wrote busily for hours regaling each other with all the latest news. Now, generally every Friday I’ll get an email from Cathie. Her emails are chatty, giving details of the family, “Gordon’s business is going ok. I’m so busy at work I can scream, oh, and by the way, I decided to take an Archeology Degree!”
The first weekend of September (2003), I wanted to phone Cathie. There was an urgency in my heart. But she had just moved, and had no forwarding number. I had a cell phone number, but the wrong area code. Frantically I tracked down the right one, and finally spoke to Bronwyn, Gordon’s eldest daughter.
“Hi Bronnie, it’s Corinne. How are you?”
“Oh, Corinne, nice to hear from you. We’re doing fine.” I could hear the surprise in her voice. I normally only call at Christmas and for birthdays.
“Is Cath there?”
“No, she went out with my Dad and my husband, Renier.”
“ Are you sure everything’s all right? Is Cath ok? How’s your Dad doing?” I must have sounded insistent and probably a little nuts.
“Ja, everything is ok.”
“ Well, all right then, let Cath know I called. I love you all. Bye.”
I put the phone down thinking how foolish I sounded, but feeling compelled to pray for Cath and the family. It was late afternoon my time, and mid-evening theirs. I knew I wouldn’t hear from Cathie, especially since the rates are so high.
Monday morning I opened my email programme and saw Cathie’s name in the “From” line. “Great,” I thought, “Bronnie must’ve told her I called.” But as I read, it was with a growing disbelief: “Derek has been involved in a hit and run and was taken to hospital in a serious condition. He never regained consciousness and died 2 hours later from internal injuries.”
What? This couldn’t be true! This is my Derek, my towhead, my blighter who kept me laughing with his antics and keen observations. Derek couldn’t be dead, he’s too young, only 25. Derek has not married, he has barely lived, how can he be dead?
I immediately phoned Cathie, dang the cost!
“Corinne, it’s true.” I heard her say.
“Cath, I’m sorry. I wish I were there.” I cried.
“I know, Corinne, I understand. But now I know why you were trying to talk to me on Saturday. He was killed about three hours later.”
We spoke some more, about the funeral, family, and coping. I felt so helpless, so far away from my best friend. But I know the Friend who has brought us together, the Best Friend of them all, Jesus, is with her.
I have been gone from South Africa too long. I am planning a trip there next year, and Cathie has already told me I am staying with her, no questions. We talked the other day about Derek, and what heaven is like for him. In the midst of the chat, Cath said, “All I know is we’d better ’ave mansions right next to each other, with connecting doors, so we can ’ave our tea together.” I giggled as I imagined that.
When I put the phone down, I realized it doesn’t matter how far apart we live from one another; although I cannot physically share every crisis their family experiences, neither she mine, our friendship is rooted in Jesus.
Distance may limit us physically, but spiritually we’re as close as we ever were. And one day we will see each other forever. When we do, I can imagine us sitting on the front porch, drinking our tea with Derek, who will flash that wonderful smile eternally.
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