Learning How to Stand

By Neila Gross

Gross neila image

Photo from the author's personal collection, taken by Max Murray

I could smell the salt in the air and feel the sea breeze rip through my hair as I stepped onto the beach twenty minutes from my house. I looked at the waves that made resounding crashes as they broke and splashed onto the shore. My eyes squinted from the intensity of the sun-- yes, this was going to be a great day to surf. My quiet thoughts were interrupted, however, by the laughs and hoots of my friends who had invited themselves along with me. Shanko, my friend since junior high, came up from behind me and tugged on my ponytail.

"Do you need me to grab your board? How is your arm feeling?" I got uncomfortable at the mention of the subject about that accident, where I was dealt an injury that never healed right.

"I am fine. Just thinking."

He flashed me one of his signature smiles and yelled as he grabbed his board and dove into the ocean. I picked up my own board and examined it. Making sure the leash was attached to my leg and that there were no visible cracks on the beige exterior, I began walking towards the ocean. When my feet hit the water, I didn't feel the cold that normally makes me cringe but curled my toes in the sand and smiled as I hit the ocean with my board, thinking about a time not long ago. Lost in my thoughts, I paddled past my friends into a deeper portion of the ocean, a colder one. It was when I looked up and glimpsed the dazzling blues of the sparkling water and the sun slowly rising on a path it never left that I was transported to that same time not long ago.

***

I smelled the same salty air and heard the same crash of waves, but I was no longer in California. Instead, I was in Kommetjie, South Africa, where I took kids from the Primary school, a place I taught math and English, out to surf. Any kid could go, but generally I ended up with a group of eighteen rowdy ten-to-fifteen-year-old boys. I looked up as the sun beat down on me. My body was begging for me to get in the cool ocean as I wiped the sweat that was starting to bead on my forehead. These damned kids were making me carry all their boards. I felt the familiar beat of pain in my arm, crying out for me to stop. I puffed out a breath; I was almost to the beach. Finally reaching it, I dropped the boards and screeched out "WALK!" as my kids went hurtling past me into the water. My order did not have the intended effect, and I laughed as I watched Jabir trip and faceplant in the ocean. The laugh bubbled out of me until I remembered my parental duties for the day and went to go check on him.

"Why didn't you walk? Jy is dom!" The words "you are dumb" came out of my mouth in Afrikaans. He looked bewildered and asked where I had learned to say that.

"It's because I listen to you boys curse at me whenever I hand out a math test." His face flushed, and I winked at him, hoping I had taken his mind off his bruised ego from falling. This kid still had no idea I knew a fair amount of Afrikaans. He laughed with me until his eyes wandered over my shoulder. His beautiful brown eyes that had shone with light as I made him laugh, suddenly dimmed. The smile that made the skin next to his eyes crinkle, fell. I turned my head to glimpse what Jabir was looking at. When I saw her, it was if the sun had stopped shining and any happiness I had felt before was replaced with a mixture of love and fear.

"There she is." Jabir whispered, his lip wobbled and his hand dug into the sand. I turned back around and yelled to the kids to paddle out and begin surfing, that I would be out there to start the lesson soon. Jabir hesitated, the only boy to have seen her, but left when I gave him a stern look.

I must say, I did not want to go over there. I was scared. I was only seventeen. But I needed to turn around, even if I did not think I could. Looking over my shoulder, I glimpsed the frail shape of a person curled and rocking herself back and forth by my surfboard. There sat Amare, the only girl in the entire primary school that loved to surf and joined us every afternoon. At eleven years old, she was small for her age with a fiery temper.

Except, I had not felt that temper for over a week, as she had gone missing. She still had on the same outfit she wore every day, a blue long sleeve shirt that was ripped at the cuffs and spelled out "Princess" in silver on the front. Her hair was in a head wrap of a dull gray and strands were sticking out like she had been zapped. Her jeans were a faded blue, worn down so much that there were holes in the worst of places. Her shoes could hardly be classified as such, as the soles were barely there, and her two big toes stuck out. I took a deep breath and walked over, fearful of what I might hear.

"Hi," I whispered, and kneeled onto the sand. She did not lift her head. I reached out my hand and she flinched away, still not looking at me.

"Amare, my liefde, kyk vir my." Still, she did not raise her head. We sat there for half an hour. The boys did not dare come over towards us, for they knew that this was serious. I started softly humming a tune I had heard from a movie. Fearful that I would scare her away, I reached out a hand slowly and pushed a strand of her hair back into her headwrap. Her clenched palms unfurled into two shaking hands and I watched as she lifted her head and her eyes stared straight into mine. I have never seen such a hopeless expression or a broken spirit as hers was that day. I knew I could not cry, I had to be strong for her. She stared at me until I reached out a hand and carefully pulled her frail body to mine. A sob escaped her chapped lips -- from pain or sadness I don't know. Yet, as she laid on my lap and I curled myself around her, her sobs subsided and he facial expression became blank. I held on tight, holding on to her physically and mentally.

When she had stopped crying, Amare sat up and I tugged on her sleeve, asking silent permission to roll them up. When I did, I choked on my breath. Her arms were covered in bruises, the purples and greens blending together to create a sickening picture.

"Who did this to you?" I asked. She looked away, refusing to make eye contact. But I already knew who it was. Earlier in the year Amare's mother had died, leaving her and her two younger siblings subject to the mercy of an angry father. She tugged at the fabric of her shirt, suddenly self-conscious of the secret she had just divulged to me. I put my hand to her cheek, as she flinched away, I gently turned her chin towards me.

"You are not supposed to be treated like this. Fathers are supposed to love their daughters. You listen to me when I say this- I am here for you. I love you and I will do what I can to make this right." My voice cracking, I ran my hand down her cheek. A tear pearled out of her eye and for the first time, she spoke.

"Jy weet wie dit is. Ek weet jy weet. As hy my vader is, waarom raak hy my dan. As hy my pa is, hoekom slaan hy my dan. Oor en oor. Hy gryp my en hy verkrag my en hy slaan my. Hy gaan vir my suster en broer, maar ek moet doen wat ek kan om hulle te beskerm. Ek moet myself oortuig sodat hulle veilig kan wees. My liggaam seer en my gedagtes maak seer. Nei, hoekom gebeur dit met my?" She sobbed then and said a sentence that will stay with me for the rest of my life, "Ek wens ek was dood."

The words, "I wish I was dead" reverberated through my mind. Dead, as in no longer alive. Dead. My heart stopped. My brave, frail girl was being put through unspeakable horrors. I could not give her wisdom, I was just a child. Yet, I had to say something, something to make my Amare believe her life was not over. I needed to say something that would make her believe that life is filled with joy and pain, and it comes at you with hard times and tough choices but there is the power of love. That love and hate are beasts and the one that grows is the one you feed. That her father who rapes her over, and over again will one day stop. I expelled a shaking breath, and breathed in one that smelled of salt, sea, and the scorching heat.

"You are strong. You must keep being strong, because it is the only thing you can do." The words came out before I could stop them. "Life, my dear, is worth living. Do not let him take that from you." She looked at me with a blank expression, but she was sitting up, shoulders back as if in that moment, she was being filled with the will to keep going. I continued, "Now, the elder in your tribe once told me the ocean makes everything better. I would have to agree. Would you like to surf or swim with me?" I poked her belly, trying to get a smile, laugh or something other than the broken spirit I was looking at.

"I am embarrassed of what I look like. I do not want them to see me swak" She said referring to the boys. "Swak," the term in Afrikaans for weak. I had once thought that I was weak. That my injuries defined my life and the accident was going to consume me for the rest of my days. Looking at her in the eyes I spoke softly

"Amare, have you ever looked at my arm?" She nodded looking down at the jagged red lines painted across a part of my body that would never function correctly again. The result of an injury that is mine to keep secret. "Now look into my eyes." I said, "My mama once told me that what happens to us in our lives does not define us. It is what we make of what happens that defines who we are." I pressed my finger to her heart. "This always beats the same, no matter the bruises. I have been through a different pain but pain all the same. You and I are alike in that sense. We are fighters. When we are pushed down, it may take a while, but we always stand up." I gave her a secret smile, one that made my nose crinkle, and my eyes shine with love. It was a type of smile I have only given few in my life and said, "Will you stand up for me today?"

That day, the bravest girl I know changed into the extra shirt and shorts I had brought in my pack and although she limped as she walked to the ocean, and fell once she reached it, the boys and I helped her onto her board. I watched as she paddled harder than I have ever seen her paddle. I watched her stand, and smile. I heard her laugh and scream in triumph, as she had caught the biggest wave of the day.

"Alright boys, enough horsing around! I want to see you all catch waves like I taught you to!" I yelled at the rest of them. They screeched as one boy ran into another trying to find the right wave.

Two months later, a day before I left to go back to the States, Amare came up to me and said, "Nei, teacha and suster remember me. For I will always remember that you were the one that taught me that we are each given something in this life, and pain does not define us. It is when we stand up that shows us who we are here." She poked a finger at my chest. She laughed, a joyous sound that tugged on my heartstrings.

"Of course, my liefde," my love, as I had once said to her on the beach. Going home I walked towards the shack I lived in and smelled the salt in the air and heard the waves crashing on the shore.

***

I was back in California, staring at the beautiful sea before me, and a wave that was about to crash on my head. Cursing, I attempted to duck dive but did not make it in time. My board was ripped from underneath me and my brace was pulled off my arm. The rushing water wrenched at it from all angles causing agony to course through me. I screamed out in pain, but I was still underwater. Hands were there, pulling me up, up towards the shining sun. Gasping for breath, I was panting while I flopped on Shanko's board like a dead fish.

"What is wrong with you? Why did you let the wave crest over you like that? You could've gotten seriously hurt," he chastised me. Ignoring him, I pulled my arm out of the water. My bones were sticking out of place, and it was bent at an unnatural angle. I grunted as I pushed them back and a tear streaked out of my eyes. This injury will never leave me, and for as much suffering I had gone through to try to fix it, I knew I will have to carry it for the rest of my life.

I remembered Amare then and slid off Shanko's board. He watched me with concerned eyes as I swam towards my own board with one arm. I know I looked silly, it was almost embarrassing. Putting the leash back on my foot, I paddled back out. Then, the horn sounded for the biggest wave of the day. I turned around and smiled. Paddling as fast as my one arm could move, the wave swelled underneath me. I yelled out in triumph as I stayed ahead of it and slowly, I stood.