Special to Peace Arch News
My first life ended on March 12, 1998. Friends and family wept, brought flowers, farewell cards and touching tributes to me.
It had all the makings of a funeral. I was oblivious of this fact, for I had stars in my eyes and an airplane ticket to Canada.
My second life started on March 13, 1998. It was a Friday. There was no welcoming party or celebration at Vancouver International Airport – I was oblivious of this, too.
Like a newborn child who enters this world with too much bright light, noise and cold, I was overwhelmed, but determined to live, grow and flourish in this exciting new place.
I immigrated to Canada with my husband and our four children to Pincher Creek, Alta. It was a gentle way of entering this country – the small community embraced us. I saw the Northern Lights, we visited Waterton Lake Park, saw grizzly bears and went to the Calgary Stampede.
The brief four months there were almost like a holiday in Canada.
In September 1998, reality hit us. We lived in Merritt.
Our older son and daughter, Christiaan, 16, and Roelien, 15, were in secondary school, and our younger son and daughter, Sefie, 11, and Lindi, 10, in elementary. My husband worked at a medical clinic and I stayed home.
The five years of living in Merritt were hell. The children were struggling, my husband had to rewrite four major medical exams – the same ones the Canadian medical students write to end their studies.
The people of Merritt also welcomed us as a family and tried their best to help us adjust, but we had come from a large city in South Africa and it was so hard to live in a town where fog sunk into the valley for most of the winter and the temperature was -16.
For me, it was more than small town and weather. I could not work. Our arrangement with Immigrations Canada gave my husband a temporary workers visa until he finished all the exams and until the College of Physicians and Surgeons granted him a permanent medical licence.
It would take five years. I came on a visitor’s visa, as did the children.
My children were immensely unhappy, each in their own way. They had lost their language (we still speak Afrikaans at home), the South African sun, grandparents, friends, ocean December holidays. Their extracurricular activities had ended. They had gained a mother who wanted to go back to South Africa every day and a father who worked night and day in an under-serviced medical community.
Skip forward a few years. We moved to White Rock, where I was certified as a math teacher. We had landed immigrant status and a house with an ocean view. The two older children were at university and Sefie and Lindi were in Grades 8 and 10 two blocks from home.
Christiaan could not adjust in Canada. He returned to South Africa. Roelien followed him after six months.
I wept at the airport on both occasions, as I would do at a funeral. I knew that my children were going home – to South Africa. They would not return. I had lost two children.
We became Canadian citizens in 2004. It was a highlight of my second life.
But, I was still in daily contact with my two South African children, my mother, sister, friends and other family. Disaster or joy struck almost daily. It is complicated and exhausting to simultaneously live in two countries.
I longed for my lost children. Christiaan had married and I have a grandson, Johan. I still wanted to go home.
The problem is that after 15 years in Canada, we, as the immigrants to this land, cannot go home anymore: Home is not there anymore. We changed.
For my entire second life, I lived as an adopted child would. I had lost my motherland and hated this new parent, Canada, for that fact. An adopted child lives with the gap of life before I got here.
I wanted to make a list of who I am/was. Desperately. It would read: I am Audrey, the eldest daughter of Rhoda and Wilkie Painter of Krugersdorp. My grandma, Olga, was a seamstress and grandpa worked in the gold mines of South Africa. I did ballet. I…
I rushed to find our memory boxes – containers filled with the small mementos of my first life. I took a hammer, 100-plus copper nails, found an empty wall and banged in the first nail.
One by one, I hung my first life in my Canadian home. Piece by piece.
I wept at times, smiled more often and kept finding things to add to The Immigrant’s Wall.
“I will bring people over here,” I declared. “I’ll tell them who I used to be.”
• • •
Friedrich Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo: “And so I tell myself my life.”
On this last day of 2013, I sat on the stairs looking at The Immigrant’s Wall and I told myself my first life. I read the farewell letters from 1998 and touched grandma Olga’s crocheted tea doily. My daughter’s ballet shoes and baby shoes hang here. My sons have toy cars, a first watch and gymnastics/sports medals. The two flags of my complicated motherland are pasted side by side.
I will not share The Immigrant’s Wall with too many people.
You see, neighbour Trina, Mary from tennis, friend Heather and teaching colleagues know nothing about the concept of first life. They know me as Audrey from Canada, and they all like me for who I am. Now.
Nietzsche writes: How should I not be grateful to my whole life?
I end with these exact words. I am grateful for my whole life: I have been one of the privileged humans on this earth. I had a fascinating first life in South Africa and an amazing second life in a country called Canada.
My body, heart and soul live here now.
I can go for a short visit to The Immigrant’s Wall whenever I wish to.
• • •
*In April 2013, my daughter Roelien returned to Canada after being away for nine years and nine months (mothers count). Miraculously. I knew she was here to stay. We are overjoyed.
Audrey Nolte is a writer and she lives in White Rock. She is married to Seef Nolte and they have four adult children.