It was past 3am in the early hours of September 2004. My cell phone rang. I awoke with a start – instantly gripped by fear. There could only be one reason why I’d be getting a phone call at this hour: bad news. Something terrible had happened… again.
I picked up my phone. My mother’s smiling photo was flashing on the screen. My heart sank.
“Mom?” I whispered.
“They’re back…” she was all she managed to say.
I instantly whipped into action… I needed to get to my mother’s home – immediately.
I threw on my gown… inside-out – it didn’t matter, squashed my feet into my shoes whilst simultaneously running down the stairs… grabbed my car keys… ran outside, only to discover that I had been parked in by two of my housemates. I frantically woke them: “Please move your car! My mom just phoned… it’s happening again!”.
I also phoned my fiancé, Nick, and breathlessly barked out the news. He told me he was leaving his house immediately and would meet me at Mom’s.
My housemate, Rogan, whose car was closest to the gate agreed to drive me to my mother’s house. We sped through the streets… making it to Fisherman’s Village in less than 20 minutes. Nick was already there… as were two of Mom’s friends.
She was visibly shaken. One of her friends brought her a hot drink as she told us what had happened: they had brazenly returned – and this time, she had got a good look at one of them – the team leader. She described him in detail. He had a shaved head and a tattoo on one of his biceps. She had seen this as she looked down on him from her first storey bedroom window – as he was trying to break into to her front door – directly below. She told us she’d easily be able to identify him – and his tattoo (if the time ever came).
The “they” in this story: a gang of armed criminals. They had brazenly returned to the scene of the crime – not even a week after they had shot my mother’s housemate dead – while his 14 year old son slept in another room, only metres away. Johan had taken them by surprise as they were trying to rob the house. The shots (5 in total) had woken my mother. She had locked herself in her bedroom and had hidden behind her bed – first phoning the police… then phoning me.
That had been a week earlier… the first 3am phone call that had brought The Fear into my life (where it remained, comfortably ensconced, for many years following).
It was the first time I had seen a dead body. Johan was slumped on his bedroom floor with his back up against the side of his single bed. It looked as though he had dozed off for a nap – were it not for all the blood that had seeped into the carpet around him…. and the violent splatters on his dresser and on the wall. I was one of the first at the crime scene.
Johan’s youngest son – unbelievably – had slept through everything. I was there when he woke up. He had ambled, tousle-haired, still in his pyjamas – right past his father’s bedroom, where I stood, rooted to the spot – like a statue. He was wondering why there were all these strangers at the house – so early in the morning. My mother had gently broken the news – and he had come barrelling back, full-speed towards his father’s bedroom – where I stood rooted in the entrance, facing him. He stopped directly in front of me and glanced over my shoulder – catching a glimpse of his father’s lifeless legs. He looked me in the eye. Then, with a heart wrenching, howl from the depths of his soul, he lifted his fist and punched the frame of the door, to the right of my shoulder – breaking his hand in the process.
“You must go where it’s safe!”
This was the advice dispersed by many of Mom’s family and friends – after the spate of robberies at Fisherman’s Village in 2004. Many well-meaning friends urged her to sell up the property… give up her Big Dream… and move elsewhere – where it was “safe”. Indeed, there were many occasions when I wished for the same – and especially after Johan was murdered. Having her live on that property – on her own – in an area notorious for criminal gangs (one bloody-thirsty gang in particular) – gave me countless sleepless nights.
I slept with my cell phone by my bed. And every time it rang – and especially if it rang anytime after 7pm at night, The Fear would remind me of it’s presence and I would feel that sickening feeling of panic – rising, like a tidal wave and sweeping over my body.
Months later, life moved on.
My mother is a stubborn woman and had flatly refused to give up her dream – or sell Fisherman’s Village. Since nobody could persuade her to move, a couple of generous friends had sponsored an expensive security system. This didn’t do much to ease my fears.
On one occasion, about 2 month’s after Johan’s death, I received a cell phone call from Mom at 10pm (immediately a cause for panic). When I answered the call, all I heard were muffled sounds… muffled voices… and then… “click”… the line went dead.
“It’s from Mom! It’s happening again!”.
For the third time – we were high-speeding through the streets of Johannesburg, late at night. This time, with Nick and his business partner, Joel, who were at my house at the time of Mom’s cryptic call. We sped through red traffic lights, through stop streets – and upon arriving at Mom’s house – Joel and Nick scaled the palisade fence and charged towards her house – while I reversed the car and sped to the local police station to call for help. There had been no time for me to find my glasses – and so I drove, half-blind… almost crashed into the gate of the police station…. drove up their lawn, over a bush, ran into the reception area and gasped desperately: “Please, come immediately! My mother is being attacked again!”
And at that moment, my cell phone rang. It was Nick.
“False alarm, your mother is fine”, he said.
She had me on speed-dial and had mistakenly dialled my number on her cellphone while she was digging in her handbag, trying to find her glasses.
Life moved on. My mother’s work at Fisherman’s Village continued (it’s a place of healing and restoration for hurting, broken people). Thousands of people have been touched by my mother’s work there. A couple of years passed. Nick and I got married. We had Morgan. Then Joah. I launched Beautiful Life Project… but The Fear continued to haunt me.
And – perhaps – some may say that The Fear was justified. Because, in 2008, something terrible happened. Something that I still find so hard to write about… or even think about…
Something that every doomsayer would use as evidence to say: “See!?? I told you so!!!”
One night, in late 2008, I was making use of the cozy coffee shop at Fisherman’s Village to host a “Free-to-B-U” meeting for Beautiful Life Project. Fisherman’s Village had, for a number of years since Johan’s untimely death, been fully fenced with electric fencing and an automatic gate. After our meeting, and after everyone had left… I was about to drive my car out of the driveway when I remembered something.
“Mom!”, I said, as I rolled down the window of my car, “Do you still have Joah’s camping cot in the house?”
“Yes!” she said, “It’s in the lounge”.
“Okay – I’m just going to get it quickly – I need it for this weekend”.
I left the car running – and the gate open – and the two of us quickly went inside to fetch the cot.
Unbeknownst to me, while Mom and I were inside her house, 5 armed men had silently crept through the open gate and hid in the bushes of the garden.
We weren’t inside the house for more than 3 minutes. I loaded the camping cot in the boot of my car, gave my mother a hug, drove out the gate – and it shut behind me. Little did I know, that before I had even reached the end of her property…. before I had even reached the tar road… that the men had ambushed my mother as she walked back towards the house, gagged her, threatened her with guns – and ushered her back inside the house.
Back at home, I got into bed after checking on my sleeping children. Nick was staying up late to work on a deadline. I went to sleep easily and peacefully… but was woken at about 3am, not by a cell phone this time – but by Nick.
“Your mom is at the hospital. She and your sister are okay. They were tied up by robbers… Riana has been shot… but I don’t know any more news”.
Riana was the wife of my mother’s Property Manager, Abri. They were a young family and they lived at Fisherman’s Village together with their two little girls. When Nick told me that Riana had been shot – that terrible, sickening, all-encompassing fear grabbed hold of my heart again. I didn’t even know what to say or do. I stayed frozen in my bed as Nick quickly got dressed.
“I’m going to the hospital”, he said, “You stay here with the kids – I’ll phone you when I get there and I’ll let you know what’s going on”.
With that, he was out the door. I stayed frozen. Sitting bolt upright… in my bed… a million thoughts churning through my brain.
I tried phoning my mother – her cell phone had been switched off. My sister’s phone was off too.
It was just me – in the company of The Fear for the next couple of hours.
Eventually, Nick phoned me. He was at the hospital with my mother. She was on a drip being treated for shock. She wanted to talk to me, so Nick put her on the phone.
“Mom? What happened? Are you okay? Is Sue okay?”
“Sue and I are both fine”, she said – although “fine” would probably be the wrong word to use. They were both alive – both relatively unhurt – but they were definitely not “fine”.
“What about Riana? Is she okay? Nick said something about her being shot? Is she also at the hospital?”
“Oh… my darling…” (Mom sounded so…. tired…. so utterly at the end of herself)
“What?” (I could feel the bile rising in the back of my throat)
“Riana is dead. They killed her”.
In August 2008, 5 armed men had entered my mother’s property, Fisherman’s Village, a place of healing and restoration for broken and abused people. They had tied up my mother and sister with shoelaces, put pillow cases over their heads and threatened to shoot them. Then, they had proceeded to load all of the household possessions in to my mother’s car (which they were planning to escape in).
Things went horribly wrong, about 40 minutes later, when the Henning Family (Abri, Riana and their two little girls) had arrived home from a church meeting. Through a series of events (that I won’t go into detail about here) – the robbers were disturbed and Riana was shot dead as she tried to drive her girls to safety. Mercifully, the older daughter slept through it – and the youngest, still a baby, strapped in her car seat, was too young to understand what had just happened to her mother.
It was an unbelievable nightmare. One that still makes me wince whenever I recall it. My mother and my sister were especially traumatised… not to mention Abri. It was so unthinkable. So unnecessary. Who shoots a young mother – in front of her children? Who does that?
A couple of weeks later, the police managed to track down the gang responsible. One policeman visited my mother to tell her the news.
“We got them”, he said.
“The gang? Where are they now?”, she asked.
“Well… let’s just say that they’ll never bother you again”, he replied cryptically.
Mom never asked him what he meant.
And, indeed, ever since then – the Honeydew Valley has been remarkably absent of the violent crime that used to haunt the residents there.
How The Fear robs us.
After that awful night – my mother was inundated with phone calls and visits from friends and family alike. Most people were supportive and warm and unconditionally offered their support – but many other people told my mother how terribly irresponsible it was for her to continue forward with her Big Dream.
“Wake up! You have to sell this place and get out of here!”, many would say.
“If you don’t sell up and move, you’re going to be dead within a month”, others warned.
She was told, on countless occasions, to “come-to-her-senses”… to “stop-denying-the-truth”… to “wake up to reality”…
Some friends went as far as to disengage from her entirely.
“This is our promise to you”, one couple warned, “We will never visit you at this place again. If you want to see us, then you need to come to your senses and give up this crazy dream of yours. We only say this only because we love you”.
But, my mother would not be swayed.
“This is my dream”, she told me, “I have built Fisherman’s Village into what it is today – from nothing. Thousands of people have passed through our gates and have found help, hope, restoration and healing over the years. I am doing what I was designed to do. This is the work that makes me come alive – and there have been so many wonderful stories of hope, so many testimonies, so many beautiful things that have come from this centre. I will NOT allow criminals… or the FEAR of criminals… to deter me from this dream – or to make me give up everything that is important to me”.
Indeed, I now believe that the best way to ‘kill’ my mother… would be to confiscate her dream and her purpose. Confining her to a small, “safe” little environment somewhere… insisting that she sell “that dangerous place”… telling her to “be a normal grandmother” (bake cookies? knit booties? watch soapies?) – well, that would do a better job of ‘killing’ her than the guns of criminals.
She has always known this. And now, so do I.
And I – as her eldest daughter – had to find the strength to acknowledge that. And I had to ask myself the uncomfortable question: Was MY fear – perhaps – one of the biggest reasons why I might consider trying to persuade my mother to leave Fisherman’s Village? After all, it’s not fun being haunted by late night cell phone calls (which still happens to this day, mind you). It’s horrible to “What if?” myself to sleep at night. And worrying about my mother… and fearing for my mother’s safety is both distracting and draining.
But MY fears about my mother – are MY problem – not my mother’s problem. I will never expect my mother to live HER life in a manner that might nullify MY fears. It’s her life – not mine! And she has the right to live it in the way she chooses. God forbid that Mom would need to live her life, or base her decisions on whether it would help ME to sleep better at night. God forbid!
I wonder how many of us have allowed fear to rob us of something?
I wonder how often a fear of death… robs people from living a full and beautiful LIFE?
Sometimes, I think back to those times, when so many people were telling Mom: “Give up!” “Sell up!” “Run away from this awful place!”… “Come to your senses!”… “You need to be safe!” … “You need security!”…
And I wonder…. what would have happened if she had listened to those people?
Well – for a start – the following things would NOT have happened (I’ll let the photos do the talking):
I couldn’t be prouder of my mother – and of her absolute refusal to allow FEAR (whether her own fears – or the fears of those around her) to dictate how she lived her life. Today, Fisherman’s Village is thriving… every weekend, hundreds of people show up for my mom’s various courses. So many amazing, beautiful things have happened there – she could share hundreds of stories (she should actually write a book about them all!)
Imagine if she had listened to the doomsayers?
Perish the thought.
This blog is the first in a three-part series about fear. In my next post, I will talk more about MY experience with fear – and the decisions that helped me to life my very best life – in spite of fear (whether my own – or whether the fears of others).