“1 New Message” – by Nonkululeko Nxumalo
Today is his birthday. Well, at least it would’ve been.
She searches for her cell phone through the rubble in her bag and, after what feels like endless probing, she finally feels the rough texture of its cover. She takes it out of the bag and scrolls to his number. She never deleted it from her phone. What difference would it make in any case? The number is engraved in her mind. She types in a message:
Hey, Dad. It’s been three years and the pain of losing you remains fresh. I am not ready to let go, as letting go is too painful, but at the same time, I don’t know how to make it stop hurting. Everyone is back to normal now, except me. I am at odds with my own grieving heart, which is at peace one minute and then I lose it the next. I still cry myself to sleep some nights because I am overwhelmed with emptiness. I miss you so much, Daddy.
On the bright side, Mom and Rico are having another baby and we’re all excited that it’s a boy this time. Jasmin is all grown up and very close with her dad. Watching her and Rico reminds me of our relationship. I wish you were still here.
I bought my first car last month; you would’ve been so proud. My friends and I are going on a road trip for my birthday next weekend. Birthdays are so hard without you, and I miss us celebrating them together. Happy birthday. I love you!
Seated on a battered wooden bench, with the cell phone still in her hand, she closes her eyes and slips into a mildly meditative state as she breathes in the ocean air and feels the cold breeze fighting against her skin. Tears roll down her icy cheeks. She has always loved the salty smell of the sea and the sound of its restlessness. How she yearns to record at least an hour of peace.
Bzzzt! Her cell phone buzzes. It’s probably her mom wanting to find out if she’s surviving the day. She checks her phone, 1 new message: Dad. Dad? Is someone playing a joke on her?
She feels her body burning up as she wipes away her falling tears. Her heart starts racing as she gasps for some air. She presses on the screen to open the text. Her hands are trembling and her fragile mind struggles to comprehend this occurrence. She reads the text…
Hey, Baby Girl. I’m sorry if seeing a text from “Dad” startled you. I’m not your dad, I’m just a man who seems to have been given a recycled number. I got this number a few months before your first text. It scared me initially, but after reading it, I realised that it was just a grieving girl pouring her heart out to her father. I am really sorry for your loss.
She calmly brings her scattered thoughts into submission. Like a chanting mantra, she assures herself over and over that it’s not her dad. “See, it’s not him. It’s not him. It couldn’t possibly be him.” She continues reading…
Your first text came during a very dark time in my life and I didn’t know how I was going to pull through. I had lost my daughter a few years prior and for a long time I was stuck in my own misery. Your text gave me hope and made me realise that I wasn’t the only person in this world going through such pain, even if it felt that way.
She feels a sense of empathy and the thought of not being alone comforts her.
My daughter would’ve been around your age now. I know that because you mentioned your mom and Rico throwing you a surprise 21st birthday party two years ago in your second text.
“It was Rico’s idea,” she says to herself. She hasn’t always been the easiest step-daughter, but Rico chose nevertheless to love her like his own. She begins to appreciate the splashes of colour her family enkindled during those difficult days.
I didn’t reply to your previous texts because I felt that you were still fragile and I didn’t want to frighten you. Today I decided to reply just to tell you how tough and incredible you are. Your dad would’ve been so proud of the woman you have grown into and would’ve hated to see you so tormented. It’s okay to feel the grief every now and then, but don’t get stuck there. I think of my daughter now and I smile at the amazing memories. Look to the wonderful times you shared and hold on to that, not the suffering. You are stronger than your pain, never forget that!
P.S. Congrats on your first car and I hope you and your friends have an incredible road trip. Happy birthday in advance. From the old man whose life you saved. Thank you for that.
The words ‘you are stronger than your pain’ resonate in her soul. She alternates between turmoil and amity, finding herself moved by the words of a nameless, faceless man. She thinks of those long conversations with her dad and his loud, spluttering laughter that in turn made her giggle till her ribs hurt. Before replying to the text, she sits there for some time, taking in the alluring sound of the ocean with her heart savoured in gratitude. After that moment of serenity, she types in a reply…
My deepest condolences for your loss. Your words have lifted my spirit in ways you will never know. Thank you!
And with that, she slowly rises from the bench, grabs her bag and walks back to her car parked at the far end of the road.
This flash fiction piece was first published in Auroras & Blossoms Creative Literary Journal– Vol 2 on 5 April 2021.