When you were a child, you lived with the innocence of a child. You laughed wholeheartedly like a child and you loved unashamedly like a child. But when that child dies, you must twist your body into the mould of an adult. You must let pain lead you, regrets make you, terror push you and you must lose the ways of a child in a split second. Soon, you begin to wonder whether you were born at all, or if you just suddenly existed, formed from the destruction of a moment.
For many of you, we’ve probably already met, but in case you’ve just followed the series and know nothing about me…I’m Shante, a Brit who moved to SA in 2010 to marry the love of her life. Together, we have a beautiful daughter, Rosie, who is turning two this May and is strong-willed, self-assured, and utterly breathtaking. Aside from taking photos (You can find me here), I also own my own Copywriting & Social Media Agency (Sweet Lemon Communications), built on 10 years of experience in writing, print, advertising and marketing.
I didn’t start off wanting to put myself into the series. I had no intention of being in front of the lens. Tam, our amazing stylist and concept developer, coaxed away my reluctance, suggesting that my story would also bring healing for others.
So here I am, letting go of the little pieces of armour that I have left, ready to tell you where it all begins…
Lights flash across the car windows highlighting smudged finger prints and smeared lip traces, and Mum explains for the third time that once we reach the Leisure Centre, she’ll pay for the swimming after she has gone to the bathroom.
I am annoyed with my brother, folding my arms across me in anger and refusing to look at him – it was only a few hours earlier that he had taken a compass and stabbed a hole in my brand-new school photo.
We reach the Leisure Centre, Mum heads to the bathroom whilst Jhordan and I stand in the foyer, uncertainty between us. I follow my feet towards the leaflet stand and Jhordan heads to the weighing machine that stands opposite – it is a heavy piece of machinery with a jutting out base to stand on and a huge circular face. It’s great for adventures, for pretending that the floor is a sea and the machine is the ship to sail upon.
Jhordan rotates his body on and off the base like he is performing a dance, a dance we have both done many times before. The sea begins to churn and the space between us suddenly grows; air falters, noises are silenced and in one sweep of arms and legs, the giant of metal and glass topples like corn in the wind – the defiance of its ruler is broken as underneath its ugly bulk he falls without sound. Crimson erupts from his face and head, each droplet flows into another, weaving a map of vermillion across the ebony floor.
Air blasts back into my nostrils, a man swirls around the conquered hero and Mum comes running, apparently screaming, to lift the demon from its final resting place.
20 years ago, on the 5th November, when I was 9, my 7-year-old brother, Jhordan, was crushed to death in front of me beneath a mountain of steel, bolts and glass.
There it is. In its most crude form. Ugly. Bare. The facts.
That day I met death.
He was not fearsome or terrifying, he was small, almost missable. He commanded no grand entrance, he merely stepped in as I forgot to breath, and gently and gracefully took my heart and replaced it with winter’s ice.
The girl who was so self-assured, so in control, suddenly found herself in a world that she no longer recognized, a world that she was viewing through raw eyes.
I couldn’t see anything but darkness, the futures I once dreamed of were embers and all I felt was this mantle of pity and sympathy from people that made my skin crawl. To combat this pain and uncertainty I buried myself behind a fortress of iron, locked away to prevent the pain from being felt. The walls I built were so high, the boxes I packed people away in were so tight, all so that I could be impenetrable.
The name of my brother was sent to the deepest recesses of my mind, never to be uttered, never to be heard.
I buried our childhood in a moment.
I wouldn’t let my mother touch me because it burned like fire and I pushed all family away, no one was to step in to my space for then my armor would falter.
Broken but unwilling to admit it, I began to live a lie that would crush my soul for decades…
I let men use me so that I could drown my fears of being alone, of not being enough.
I let darkness consume me.
I let my skin become the canvas for my pain.
I chose to hate the way I looked, to aim for the worldly view of enough and attack my health to fit in.
I hated myself. My parents. The brother who was born two years later to help us heal. The fact that I felt this way.
I boxed everyone in my life.
I cut ties with those who loved me.
I bled. I ran. I hid. I raged.
For so many years, I exhausted myself in my efforts to hold myself together in grip of iron and I gave up so much to do so. Because my brother and I were close, exceptionally so, it was as though the very essence of my soul had vanished with him. We did art classes together, ballet, gymnastics, swimming…and without him, I dropped out of everything because I couldn’t face showing up alone. Until I was 16, I couldn’t bear going anywhere without someone. I couldn’t even go to the shops without my mum.
My innocence was gone, the world was no longer safe for me, it was deliberately out to get me and I needed to be prepared for the absolute worse.
What else do you do when you’re a child and you witness the “loss” of your best friend? Man, I hate that word. I didn’t lose him. Death isn’t loss. To lose someone implies some sort of ambiguity. Death has no illusions. No doubt. No hesitation. It is final. A clear line drawn through potential years that will never be lived. My brother, an incredible budding artist, will never have his art shown. He will never get married. He will never see his niece. And I’m not sad for him, I fully believe he is in heaven, I am broken for the many moments when I could have done with his comfort, his jokes, the funny way he scrunched up his face and looked like a bat.
My parents had two other children after Jhordan’s death. Rohan was the son to heal and he brought out an animalistic pain that I don’t remember. I only know that in his infancy, my mum wouldn’t leave us in the same room together for fear I might harm him. There is one hazy memory I have of being in the bath with him and wondering if it was possible to drown someone and save them at the same time, such was my craving to prove myself worthy, to prove that I was not a complete failure as a big sister…that title was never worn again after Jhordan’s death – A big sister implies a fun, protective presence – whereas I had always been bossy before, now it was a dictatorship. Do it my way and then no one can ever get hurt. I lived in constant fear of losing another sibling.
Despite the way I acted towards them, my brother and sister are two of the most noble souls on the planet. Rohan has the most precious, understanding heart that is quite positively supernatural. I am forever thankful for his love for me.
One of the reasons for holding back from putting myself into this series was pity. I struggle so hard with people looking at me with “‘oh you poor girl” eyes. My pride has done me many wrongs and it still remains one of the driving forces in my emotional arsenal. Sometimes it can save, but many times, it can cut wounds so deep, they never fully heal.
I really do wear my pride well.
In my fortress, during the darkest days of my depression, my OCDs, the nights spent sleeping with a knife under my pillow & my panic attacks, I let silly thoughts inhabit my mind. I scared myself into believing that my friends would all leave me, my family would disappear and I would be left bereft.
I was consumed by self-loathing and a sense that everyone, everywhere, was going to pack up and leave if I didn’t keep them focused on me. Whilst I have taken a sledgehammer to many of these walls, my natural instinct is to destroy relationships with anyone who slightly hurts or angers me. In a matter of seconds, I can delete years of love and friendship to “protect myself”. I fight it every day. It’s exhausting. I fight my pride – I can be so terribly judgmental – and I fight to be giving, gentle and approachable. Though I will say, cross my loved ones and I will bring such wrath that even demons will quake.
In my worse days, I would spend hours planning my funeral, wondering about all the possible nice things people could say about me, and a final end to this race that no one else seemed to be running…just me, alone, and oh so tired. Counseling was tried, medication was administered, but the problem is, you need to acknowledge the issue and want to change otherwise it’s just a complete waste of time. Time that we don’t actually have the luxury of wasting.
Death is such a cruel entity, it steals from the living not just by taking a loved one, but by assaulting our senses and making us cower behind layers of grief, denial and anger.
Through the grace of my daughter’s birth, the most amazing God-given light forced out the shadows, stripping away the torment. The total surrender during labour and birth removed those heavy burdens that I had carried for so long…they literally melted away and the floodgates opened.
Her birth turned my entire being inside out. I could no longer hide my emotions. I could no longer not feel. It’s the strangest thing to tell you that I finally felt warmth.
I could talk about my brother with my family, without feeling as though I was betraying myself. And yes, over time, his death, and my maturity had mellowed my stone heart, but not to such a huge extent as Rosie’s birth. I found myself unable to contain my tears, and I didn’t want to. The more I opened up, the more I loved those around me because I was giving them space to be themselves, instead of insisting that they walked on eggshells in my presence.
It took 20 years to appreciate myself, and for some, that time will take even longer.
There are still fears when it comes to parenting; I need to know that I can rescue, that I can meet death and stand firm. I need to be more than anyone believes of me. But mostly, I need to save. I need to know that I will not fail my daughter. I am constantly battling a deep-rooted panic that I feel when I think of her safety, or when I think of the possibility of her facing the sames things I did.
My main concern is that I must be enough this time. I mustn’t ever let her down.
As I’m raising my daughter, I want her to fully appreciate and know her own worth, to celebrate her self-assurity in a world that demands submission. I want her to know that she is a pearl, each incident will make her brighter, stronger, and will bring out her shine…as long as she has the strength to stand firm in who she is; a pearl won’t form outside of its shell, likewise, we’ll never reach our full potential if we keep running from ourselves.
I think we’re all trying so hard to survive that to do so, we bury our feelings so deep that we become detached from actually living. We squash ourselves into a mould so tight, we forget to breathe. Every day we set ourselves up for the greatest show on earth…the show where no one ever sees that we’re hurting. And it is so tiring. You’re tired just reading this. But we fear that if we let our mask slip, just once, that people won’t like what they see – we fear being judged for the very person that we are.
We relinquish our crowns for the sackcloths of the world. But we were made to bloom.
I am just so grateful to now be able to acknowledge that my fiery, determined self can be, and is, good. That loving others is not a weakness. And, I am thankful that I can see the beauty that was born from a tragedy, and the empathy and determination it has given me.
By allowing myself to be soft and inviting, I am encouraging peace, I’m encouraging my own frailty…which isn’t as awful as my younger self would believe.
The Concept, from Tam:
Shante speaks so beautifully about how becoming a mother really motivated her to embrace and overcome her challenges, sharing who she really is, allowing others in and allowing herself to be vulnerable. She also speaks so openly about her brother’s death, a horrific tragedy, witnessed by her when she was only a child herself. With these images we really wanted to honour her brother’s memory, but also a childhood lost, not just her brother’s, but her own by using vintage toys and books, and having Shante bury them – we tried to allude to not only the heartbreak and tragedy of the death of a loved one, but the death of childhood itself and of course the burying of that which is painful, suppressing those memories and feelings as a way to protect herself.
We also wanted to bring in the symbolism of the seemingly impenetrable wall, standing tall and protecting that which is tender and vulnerable within, keeping it hidden – and that is how the concept for the “Secret Garden” filled with both “Roses and Thorns” was born.
We were very fortunate to be welcomed into the beautiful garden at Langverwagt in Kuilsriver for Shante’s shoot, and it was the perfect setting, filled with the most beautiful blooms (a metaphor for the blossoming that took place during motherhood, where Shante gave herself permission to open up and let others in), the loveliest buildings, structures and old stone walls, gated areas, and tangled canopies. There was also an abundance of the most incredibly ivy – a plant which is not only evergreen, but resilient too, and often seen climbing tall walls, breaking through the toughest foundations and structures – another reference to the walls built to protect, but also to Shante’s determination to break down these walls to allow people in, her tenacity.
The flowers that Coral provided featured lavender in them – she didn’t know this, but they were Jhordan’s favorite flower.
This shoot wouldn’t have been possible without:
Photography: Brett Hutton – my love, my best friend, thank you for stepping into unfamiliar territory and taking such bloody good photos.
Floral arrangements and flower crown: Epanouir Floral Studio
Makeup & Hair: Polished Artistry