Johannesburg - On Monday this week a small group of friends and family of celebrated actress and cultural worker Florence Masebe met at Bellagio restaurant in Johannesburg’s Illovo for breakfast. They were there to launch a book of poems that, she says, saved her life after the death of her baby son Prince Masakona Matsila – “his royal naughtiness” – on her birthday on 14 November 2015.
“It felt like labour, but in reverse,” she writes in the introduction to her raw and tender book, The Heart Knows, which documents the lowest point in her life. “My son died in the swimming pool of my Johannesburg home. The one minute I was reading the newspaper and getting ready to go to work. Within half an hour, I would be sitting with emergency medical services as they declared a time of death for the one thing that had been the source of my greatest joy for 18 months.”
Masebe is still slowly making her way to the light.
“Everyone was worried I wouldn’t pitch for the book launch,” she says. “I was worried too. It’s been like this for two years. I take my hat off to every woman who has lost a child and gets up and keeps going.”
She didn’t want a big public event. “I was scared it would be a cheap thrill if it was used as a public relations exercise. But I want the book to be out there for people to get something out of it. Apart from friends and family, there was also a group of women invited who, ever since I lost my son, kept reaching out to me to share their own loss.”
The book is dedicated to her 22-year-old daughter, the only other person in the house when the tragedy happened.
“I’ve lived every moment since that day trying to make my daughter understand there’s nothing she could’ve done or I could’ve done to prevent it,” says Masebe.
The power of writing
We talk about the power of writing to cope with loss.
“There is something about the gift of words,” she says poetically. “They chase you when you’re running away from your demons, they find you when you’re in your darkest corner and not knowing what to do. In my case, words came to save me. I would’ve gone mad if I hadn’t written through the pain.
“My sister’s a doctor and she says that she cannot think of any medication that she could prescribe that could make me feel better than the writing. She’d ask how I’m doing and I’d send a whole poem. She said, ‘I hope you realise that if you share these poems you’re going to help others.’ She has many patients who have lost loved ones.”
Masebe would wake up at night and her loved ones, who realised writing poems helped, had left several notebooks next to her bed.
“The first six came out in my mother tongue Tshivenda. My English was gone. Those were the most cruel and heartfelt of the poems. My compass was gone. I had lost my mind and my sense of self. I thought that if I named every day I would find some order, some direction.”
The poems in the book are simply titled “Mourning” and the number of the day after the tragedy.
“Forget everything you know about grief. You can be okay on day 19 but not on day 74. So in the book the days are not in order.”
The original Tshivenda poems were lost, though, when Masebe moved and her new home was flooded. “One day, in the garden, I saw this notebook lying there. I wondered which one it was. It turned out to be the Tshivenda poems and all the pages were dry. I just gave it to my publisher and said there’s a reason they must be published.”
Other coping methods
She says that what helped, apart from the writing, was prayer, candles and meditation.
“I reached a point where I was tired of people praying for me. You know, there’s a way of praying where people’s prayers are almost more for themselves or for the demon that must be cast out because your child is gone. I said to my sister, ‘Please tell people not to walk in with hymns and prayers’. The normal me would feel bad for saying something like that. So instead of praying I would light a candle and then another. I became the candle lady. The grocery list was full of candles. And I kept the candles and they held me through it all. As long as a candle was burning there was hope. They were able to take away the darkness.”
On Thursday, Masebe was in Polokwane for another intimate book launch. “At each of the events there were people who brought out such raw emotions. It’s hard to create these circles of meaning, having to relive your pain and watch others also relive theirs. In Polokwane the guests were mostly complete strangers. They started telling stories of their own loss. I sit there and cry.”
In this way the book, she says, has taken on a life of its own as an object of healing for other grieving mothers. Proceeds from the book go to the newly established Masakona Foundation, created to fund village projects for children, nutritional support for mothers, bundles of baby goods and literacy programmes.
“The book has helped me realise I must keep standing,” says Masebe. “I just hope for anybody who gets the book, don’t be selfish with it. Share it with someone who needs it.”
The Heart Knows can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org