Amy-Leigh is a little 6-year old girl that was abducted by four men in front of her school, right next to her mother, in front of her horrified brother of 5. She was bundled into a Toyota Fortuner, and taken to an unknown location. She spent an agonizing 18 hours with these vile men. Thankfully she was dropped off close to the Police Station and was taken there by a couple who heard her frantic screams. I cannot even begin to imagine what these parents went through. I wrote this piece when Amy-Leigh was still missing, but what happened to her is a very real threat to every single little girl in South Africa, so I feel it is still relevant:
ODE TO AMY-LEIGH DE JAGER (Nicci Coertze)
“Little six-year old girls should be hopping and skipping to a parent’s car after a day filled with loving and learning at school. Little six-year old girls should leave sticky fingerprints on the family car’s window. Little six-year old girls should be fighting with their brothers and pretending they are Princess Sofia on the carpet in front of the TV. Little six-year old girls should be blowing bubbles in a soapy bath tonight. Little six-year old girls should try to feed their peas to their trusty dog, hiding underneath the table at dinnertime. Little six-year old girls should give their dads hugs and butterfly kisses and badly drawn pictures of a happy stick family. Little six-year old girls should be snuggling in their mother’s laps for one last story before bedtime. Little six-year old girls should fight to stay up a bit later and ask for water a hundred times before their tired eyelids force their eyes to close. Little six-year old girls should be safe in a warm, comfy bed in a house filled with love and giggles. Little six-year old girls should clutch their teddies and fall asleep to lullabies and love and soft light… They shouldn’t be scared and hurt and lonely and terrified of the dark night and quiver in fear in front of cruel strangers with dark thoughts and even darker hearts. They shouldn’t be ripped from their mother’s arms whilst their brother watches helplessly in silent horror at the nightmare unfolding right in front of his eyes. They shouldn’t be wondering if they will ever see their mommy and daddy and brother again. They shouldn’t be prayed for and cried over on a continent that has become a war zone. They shouldn’t be the reason that other six-year old girls are scared to leave their own rooms, let alone go to school tomorrow. They shouldn’t be petrified and hungry and tired and lost. They shouldn’t be the innocent, helpless victims of violent abductions in a country crippled with crime. Little six-year old girls should be safe and be free to be… Little six-year old girls.”
Just an ordinary Saturday morning. In an ordinary mall. In an ordinary clothing store stall. Trying on quite an ordinary (albeit darn expensive!) pair of jeans. And then a phone rings in the stall next to mine.
A lady’s voice answers curtly: “I’m really busy fitting clothes for the party next week, I can’t talk right now.” A few seconds silence. “Are you crazy? I am NOT coming to mom and dad’s right now I am BUSY.” It was clear that the recipient of the untimely phone call was not impressed with whoever it was on the other side.
“What do you mean you can’t tell me? Are you f**** kidding me? You better tell me what’s going on RIGHT NOW or I am ending this call. I. Am. Busy.” Her voice was high-pitched and it was obvious that she was very irritated.
I was done fitting the jeans and fully dressed and ready to go but I stood still, not opening the door but instead listening to the conversation. I couldn’t help myself, it was very clear that my neighbour was about to tell off the other person (I suspected it was either her sister or brother) in the next few seconds.
And then that sound. That heart wrenching, stomach churning, horrific, whaling sound that I have heard too many times these past few years. That sound.
The lady starts screaming, whaling, begging all at once: “Dead? What do you mean dead? Mom is dead? Mom is DEAD? Mom? DEAD? No, no, no, no!!!!”
I heard a thud and before I could help myself I yanked open my stall door and tried to open the one next to mine. But it was locked and the lady inside was quite obviously busy losing it. For a few panicky seconds I didn’t know what to do but then I start banging on the stall door: “Open this door, please open the door!” I was yelling at the top of my voice but the whaling was so loud I wasn’t sure if she heard me, so I just kept on banging.
By this time the racket has attracted a few bystanders, but everyone just stood there, staring. No one did anything. So I just kept on pounding on the door whilst the whaling continued. All of a sudden, the door opened and as I pushed myself inside the woman in front of me literally crumbled to the ground.
I tried to catch her but I was too late. The stall was so small that my handbag caught on the handle and unceremoniously yanked me back. The next moment I was on my knees, next to her, trying to help her up. She was beautiful – a pretty redhead in her early thirties. She wasn’t whaling anymore. She was just sitting in the corner of the clothing stall, slumped against a pretty mirror crying and breathing very, very fast in between sobs. Too fast. I tried to take the cellphone from her but it was clenched in her hand and she wouldn’t let go. I could see the person who called was still on the line and I gently tried to prey the phone from her hands again. But she wouldn’t let go.
So I did what I do best, I just took her in my arms and held her, making soothing noises, trying to will her to breathe slower by talking slowly and softly. Her body was shaking and the raw, throaty sounds coming from deep within her soul shocked me to my core, like it always does. One never gets used to this. Never.
The next moment she breaks free from my arms, grabs her handbag and sunglasses and phone still in hand, runs out of the store like a wounded animal. Without thinking twice I run after her. She is running so fast that I am battling to keep up but at least I could see her a few metres in front of me. I then realize that she is not going to be able to just drive out of the parking mall. She would have to find her ticket, pay for it, find her car and then only manage to get out. So I ran as fast as I could until I was almost next to her and shouted to her that she must get in her car I will pay my ticket and give it to her. I wasn’t sure if she was going to understand what I was trying to do but the next moment she shouted . “Just hurry, please just hurry. I have to go. My mom. My mom. My MOM!!!”
I ran down the escalator with her, yanked my parking ticket from my handbag, paid the ticket and ran to the exit boom as fast as I could. She was already waiting there, hitting the steering wheel with her fists and crying and crying and crying, the mascara and tears streaming down her face. I asked her if I could please get in and drive her but she shouted, “Just open the boom, just open the god-damn boom!” So I put the paid ticket in the machine, the boom opened and the next moment she was gone, her little Yaris nearly taking out a pedestrian, tyres screeching as it disappeared around the corner.
I turned around, half expecting an audience but there was no one. I slowly walked back to the escalators. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. As I stepped off the escalator I asked a friendly cleaning lady nearby where the parking office was (of course it was halfway around the world!) and proceeded to walk there in stunned silence. I was nauseous, sad, upset and shaking but I kept my composure, explaining to the attendant that I lost my ticket, paid a penalty and got another ticket. It would just have been too much to try to explain to someone what happened. I left the shopping centre immediately, driving home in a haze.
To the pretty red-haired lady who lost her mom, I am so very sorry for your loss. I don’t know your name and I don’t know your story but I do know that you woke up this morning like all of us did, not thinking or expecting that your day would turn out to be one of total and utter devastation. You didn’t wake up knowing that the rest of your life will never be the same. You didn’t know. None of us ever knows. My heart aches for you.
No matter how ordinary life is, there is nothing ordinary about death…
Except for different room numbers, the two doors looked identical. If you could have peeked inside, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the stories apart. Except for their age difference and the gestational age of their pregnancies, they were just two mommies-to-be waiting to give birth. And they did give birth, almost simultaneously. Yet contrary to what the naked eye could see, the stories behind those two doors are so far apart it’s mind boggling.
You see, the one gave birth to life and the other to death. Behind Labour Room 1 in an upmarket suburban private hospital, a young woman was unsuccessfully trying to take deep breaths to ease the pain that threatened to overcome her young body. She was very obviously experiencing severe discomfort with each contraction and as I held her hand I could almost feel her pain. Annah* looked at me and asked “Is this going to get worse?” I had to be honest because this is the one thing I promise my clients from the second we meet: Honesty.
I looked at her and told her that yes; unfortunately it was going to get worse. Her big brown eyes followed me as I walked around the bed and straightened her IV line. I saw earlier that her brown eyes had little specs of flashing green in them and I thought to myself that she was such a beautiful young woman. She asked again in a strong, clear voice, “How much worse Nicci?” I took her hand and assured her that it was going to be painful but it doesn’t last forever and she will forget the pain. Her mom Lisa* just looked away. I couldn’t tell Annah that the pain of the memories never leaves you. It would have been cruel and something she couldn’t prevent anyway. So I just squeezed her hand.
Annah was a young woman from a happy home with a great family and awesome siblings. At the end of the previous year, she just finished university and she was celebrating the New Year and the beginning of new things with her friends. Unfortunately, as it often happens, she drank too much alcohol. What happened is still a blur to her, but she fell pregnant right when she was supposed to start her new life. To her it was devastating news. But the news was not as devastating as the terrible news they got from Annah’s gynaecologist when she was around 20 weeks along. The pills Annah was taking for a chronic condition causes severe birth defects, deformities, paralysis and even brain damage. A medical termination had to be done as the doctor explained to Lisa that the viability of the pregnancy is virtually zero. According to the doctor it was a lot beter to terminate at 22 weeks than to lose a baby at 38 weeks. So a medical termination was booked.
I spoke to Lisa over the phone for the first time. “Lisa, it’s Nicci, I function as a bereavement doula and I was told that you want to make use of my services?” It is with relief in her voice that she confirmed that they needed my services. She also told me straight away that she suffered three miscarriages – all three between 20 and 24 weeks of gestation. Her first miscarriage was at 24 weeks, but they didn’t show her the baby or allowed her to hold the baby and she later learned that the baby was incinerated as medical waste – something that devastated her and still haunts her up to this day. I could hear the pain in her voice. I made it very clear that this will most definitely not happen if it is her daughter’s wish to see her child and to bury her child.
After I explained to her how the process worked, she asked me to please come immediately, they were about to break Annah’s water. I ran to get my camera and then I rushed to hospital. As fate would have it I couldn’t find parking anywhere and I ended up parking a block away from the hospital! At long last I reported at the nurse’s station and I was taken to the Labour Rooms. It was when I came around the corner that I saw the two identical doors…
Lisa is a beautiful woman in her early fifties and she looks much too young to be a grandmother. The first thing I noticed when I saw her was the utter sadness in her eyes. It was very obvious that not only was she in pain for her daughter’s sake but this medical termination scratched open old wounds. But after we talked a while I realized that although she was sad I could also see the shimmer of a tenacious woman with hope for the future. When I was first introduced to Annah she seemed a bit hostile but within five minutes we were chatting like we knew each other for ages. After a while she told me that she was pregnant with a little boy she was going to name *Zach. I was so relieved that we clicked. It is extremely difficult to assist someone who doesn’t want you there! In fact, it’s virtually impossible. It is also very important to always put your client’s needs before everyone else’s – in this case even her own mother’s.
Annah starting talking about Zach’s funeral – she said she wanted a particular casket and elaborated on exactly what she wants. The moment I saw that Lisa was about to say something (that I knew was going to be perceived as negative) I motioned to her to keep quiet. We both listened as Annah told us about Zach’s name, his casket and a few other details about saying goodbye to him. She seemed content that we were just nodding and agreeing with her but I could see that it was very difficult for Lisa not to say something…
Annah was complaining about her contractions again and I demonstrated to her how to breathe to make things a little bit easier for her. But I could see that the contractions were becoming very uncomfortable. I left the room to give Lisa and Annah a moment alone and as I was waiting in the corridor I couldn’t help to hear the familiar sound of a baby’s heartbeat in the womb over the ultrasound machine’s system from the other room. The nurse was telling the mom in Afrikaans ‘Dit is nou amper tyd’ (It is almost time now) and I could hear them laugh and make jokes about the impending birth of the woman’s baby. There was a lot of laughter indeed. The contrast to Annah’s situation was so stark it made me catch my breath for a second and I had to concentrate very hard to not let the sadness overcome me.
After a while Lisa came out and we went around the corner to have a quick private conversation regarding the situation but after five minutes she received a frantic phone call: Annah was in full-blown labour! I was astonished that this poor child went from 3cm dilation to full dilation within a matter of not even 20 minutes. We both ran to the room. We were there just in time. The doctor arrived as we got there and the next moment Annah’s agonizing screams could be heard echoing down the labour ward’s corridors. Between her pauses to take a gulp of air, I could hear a mini commotion next door as well. Unbelievably both women were giving birth at the same time. Oh the irony! The next moment Annah was screaming so loud my ears were ringing and with a soft popping sound little Zach was born. But contrary to the celebrations and exuberant exclamations next door of a healthy baby boy that had just been born, the tears were streaming down Annah’s face and Lisa was barely coping herself. If pain was a picture, I saw it in that delivery room.
The nurse delivered the placenta after the doctor cut the umbilical cord (and subsequently left straight away) and was gently busy cleaning Annah up. Lisa was standing with little Zach wrapped in a soft white towel blanket that was embroided with a pretty white silk bow that I gave to her shortly after the birth. I moved close to her trying to cover the baby up whilst the nurse was busy with Annah when I almost jolted in shock. The baby moved! This tiny little creature was still moving for some reason. I tried to stay calm but I was in so much shock I nearly fainted. Without thinking twice I closed the curtain with one quick pull and motioned to the nurse to come to us. Lisa was in an absolute state – she was crying and shaking, muttering under her breath “He’s moving Nicci, he is still moving. He is alive! Oh God help us!” The nurse rushed over and patiently explained to me and Lisa in a hushed voice that unfortunately this happens sometimes.
Apparently some babies moved for over an hour since they were born, struggling to take their first gulp of air that was sadly never going to happen – even at only 22 weeks of gestation! I was so traumatized and upset; I cannot even fathom how poor Lisa must have felt. Even the nurse was as white as a sheet! My heart went out to both of them. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was not the reason for the gynaecologist’s hasty exit? Did she realize that this baby was fighting to stay alive and couldn’t deal with the fact? Or was she just in the routine of popping in during a medical termination, do the delivery and pop out again? Whatever her reasons, it just didn’t seem right to me…
We decided to keep Zach with us behind the curtain until he stopped moving – we knew it would terribly upset Annah. If we were so distressed I can’t even imagine what Annah would do! But after a while Annah was demanding to hold her baby and we couldn’t postpone the moment any longer. Lisa took the baby boy to his young mommy and I quickly grabbed my camera to snap a few photos. I managed to hide it from them, but I was shaking so much I could hardly take a photo. That baby moving underneath my fingers is something I will never ever forget for as long as I live.
Lisa gently handed the little boy over to his mom and I could see a thousand thoughts running through Annah’s head as she took him from his grandma. “He’s beautiful. He’s so tiny. Look at his perfect little nose. He is so, so beautiful,” Annah softly murmured. I could feel the pesky lump in my throat returning to torture me again and I swallowed very hard to keep my composure. Not long after that, Lisa took the baby from her daughter – obviously fearing that he was going to move again. Unfortunately it seemed that her worst nightmare was going to come true…
Annah insisted to hold him again and almost snatched Zach from her mother’s arms. The next moment she became deathly pale. “Mom, I’m sure I felt the baby move?” Annah looked at Lisa with questions in her eyes and had a horrified expression on her face. I looked at Lisa and saw that she was speechless, and before she could say anything that could upset Annah and possibly haunt her for the rest of her life; I gently took the baby from her and explained that it was only his little muscles still contracting after death and not because he is ‘alive’. She seemed satisfied with my explanation and stroked her baby’s head with her forefinger, without saying anything. I sighed an inaudible sigh of relief. Thank God for small mercies!
I then told Annah that it was time for me to photography her little boy. I took a few photos of especially his tiny little hands and feet at the bottom of the hospital bed on a white towel. It was when I gently took his miniature, perfectly formed foot in mine that I felt a tremor from his leg again. It was so upsetting I felt like vomiting and I could feel the blood drain from my face. Lisa saw something was wrong and distracted Annah by giving her a sip of water. I knew I just had to keep my composure and without blinking an eye, I kept on pressing the shutter without even focusing on what I was doing. When I was finished taking photos (I deliberately took quite a while to do this, hoping the baby will finally stop moving, which he did,) I wrapped the baby and gave him to his grandma. Lisa took little Zach from me and gently rocked him. It was heartbreaking to watch…
The nurse motioned me outside and when I closed the door behind me she asked me when I was going to go to the police station to have the affidavit completed. We have to complete an affidavit, basically stating that we are taking a placenta out of hospital – you just fail to mention that the baby is part of the parcel! I told her that the commissioner of oaths was actually coming to the hospital herself – there was no need for anyone to go to a police station. She looked unsure of herself and then she asked me where the ‘casket’ was. I told her it was in my car but if she wanted to see it I will go and fetch it. She indicated that this was indeed what she wanted so I quickly ran to my car to get it. Our caskets are beautiful little woven baskets that look like a Moses basket and not like a casket at all, so luckily I didn’t upset anyone with it.
My interaction with the nurse just made me realize again that the healthcare professionals in this country were ‘flying blind’ so to speak when it came to these situations. How on earth can one expect a nurse to know the laws and to handle the situation if a specialist doesn’t even have a clue? It also made me think of how terrible it must be for these nurses to put a perfectly formed little body in a red plastic bag labelled as ‘medical waste’. What does that do to one’s psyche? How you do you cope as a human being with ‘throwing away’ another human being? It must be so absolutely devastating and difficult for nursing personnel to deal with the situation! I had an epiphany right there and then: We weren’t only fighting the good fight for parents and for unborn babies. We were also fighting for this nurse who has to live with her own conscience and memories after disposing of a body like it’s an amputated limb or used needles that one need to get rid of! Interestingly enough both the doctor and the hospital flatly refused to issue a death certificate…
When I got back Annah was sleeping and the nurse had taken the baby to the cooling facilities in the meantime. Lisa’s eyes were red from crying but she was calm and asked me a few questions which I patiently answered. Luckily Sonja Smith (a funeral director and also the commissioner of oaths) showed up and we finalized the paperwork and chatted a bit about Zach’s funeral. Annah has woken up in the meantime and knew exactly what she wanted for the funeral – I was impressed with how composed she was. I had to fill out a report for the hospital stating that I take full responsibility for the ‘remains’, I will dispose of it lawfully and the necessary paperwork (affidavit) had been done. Whilst I was doing this, Sonja went with the nurse to fetch little Zach. The nurse asked the grandmother to stay with me. Sonja was shocked to see where they kept little Zach: A small little ‘box fridge’ standing next to a cleaning mop and bucket used to clean the hospital floors! No dignity at all. It was obvious why the nurse didn’t want Lisa to accompany her to fetch the baby!
After finalizing the paperwork, we put little Zach in a carry cot and after saying goodbye to Lisa and Annah, we left. Neither one of them wanted to see the baby again, they both confirmed that they had said their goodbyes and that they didn’t want to see him again. In these situations we are absolutely led by what our clients want and we respect and carry out their wishes as far as humanly possible. Little Zach was snugly tucked into a comfy carrycot, covered with his embroided towel-blanket. He looked so peaceful at last.
When we got to Sonja’s car, she carefully placed the carrycot on her car’s seat and fastened the seatbelt. Just before she closed the door I asked her to give me a moment to say goodbye. I gently touched Zach’s little forehead and whispered goodbye. This is always the toughest part of my job: Saying goodbye to a tiny little human being. I was thinking that those two rooms were going to haunt me for a long time – and I so wished that both rooms had the same outcome: A beautiful, lively little newborn baby boy. But we don’t always get what we wish for and that is precisely why I do what I do. Because the outcome can be so sad, someone needs to comfort the people going through this excruciating pain. Someone needs to answer questions, hold hands and utter soothing words to aching souls. Someone has to hide the fact that a medically terminated fetus was fighting to live from an already traumatized young mother. Someone just needs to be there…
I am honoured to say that that day, I was that someone.
*Not their real names
(Please note that the above is a true event that happened to me, Nicci Coertze, personally. Except for Annah and her mom, it is not someone else’s story to tell.)