Apartheid. Sharpeville. June 16. The Nkomati Accord. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had learnt about them at school. I had sat quietly with my mind on more exciting things whenever when my mother and father tried to discuss them with me. They had sounded like things that happened to other people, and I believed they belonged in the past.

But they mattered to me now! And listening to my adoptive parents and my aunt speaking, I listened with both ears. The events are talked about differently now, almost as if it will make it easier to forget the reality of what happened, what happened to actual flesh and blood people. Mothers and fathers, like mine.

“That was a traumatic time for all of us, Mpho. Your mother, our big sister, was our hero. Our parents were too old to look after a young child and she could not take you with her when she went. She always meant to come back for you, when liberation came. It was a time of spies and secrecy. She left for work like she did every morning and she never returned. And all over, black men and women were ‘disappearing’. Our cries served only to make the chorus of grief louder. The more we cried, the more terrible things happened. She went to fight so you could grow up without fear.”

But still, although I felt much less angry, it wasn’t enough to enable me to forgive my parents for their betrayal. Why had they not just brought me up with the truth?

I was not the only one in pain. Mama lay in bed for three days and eventually I feared that I was going to lose her the way I had lost my real mother. My father nursed her. She did not speak to us, but she kept talking to her dead sister: my biological mother.

My aunt comforted me, said it was as if she had gone searching for her sister. It pained me to see her like that. Seeing her pain helped me to slowly come to terms with the fact that she had been trying to do what was best for all of us. I began to realise again how much I loved her. And of course, she had been unable to have children of her own. I was her only, beloved child.

I thought of the time I had got lost in a swirl of people at the local shopping centre. Mama told me how she had raced around the mall searching for me, thinking she had lost me. I remember too, when I fell and broke my leg climbing the big tree in our yard. It was Mama who had rushed to pick me up and she was the one who had driven like a race-car driver to get me to the hospital. It was she who sat with me and coaxed me to eat when my throat hurt so much I could not keep any food down and I knew she was doing it because she loved me so … and I loved her too.

And now I was making her ill with worry. I knew I had to stop and think differently. In the moment that I made that decision, I felt lighter and I smiled. I began to think that maybe, maybe I would be able to forgive completely. I think I will – in time.

I am grateful to my parents now – both my biological mother and adoptive parents. I could have grown up differently. I understand how privileged I am. There is so much to be grateful for and so much I have taken for granted.

The pictures from the spring ball are out and as I look at them I feel like the person who is smiling and dancing is someone I no longer know. It is an uncomfortable feeling.

It feels longer than one month since a stranger brought a letter to my home – a letter with contents that turned my world upside down. Since then I have been like a cockroach scavenging for morsels in a home that never has leftovers. The stranger who brought the letter has become a living link to my mother. I have made a new friend. And I have lost one.

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Tell us what you think: Can an aunt or adoptive mother love a child as much as its biological mother?