Twelve-year-old Craig Brown is a high-achiever at one of the country’s top schools. He is smart, popular and adored by his family – an exuberant boy who dreams of going ‘straight to the big time’ as a high-flying lawyer.
Then a series of inexplicable events turns Craig’s world inside out: he develops academic problems and is accused of being a bully.
There’s vomiting, migraines and facial paralysis. An MRI scan reveals that a cancerous tumour, the size of a golf ball is slowly colonising Craig’s bright young brain. Now his parents must confront a grim reality: that their child’s high school years will be spent fighting for his life.
Told through the eyes of his mother, Sue Brown, this transformative tale charts Craig’s extraordinary battle, Brown’s personal struggles, and, above all, a mother’s heroic ability to face the unthinkable. Told with courage, humour and heart, this life-affirming memoir reveals that there is indeed a light that shines in the very darkest of places
‘Little man,’ I said, ‘tell me that it is only a bad dream, this affair of the snake, and the meeting place, and the star …’
– The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Craig clatters, two steps at a time, down the wide wooden staircase of our big Victorian home. Slowing only briefly to take the corners, and all dressed in his khaki school uniform, punctuated by the dark-and-light blue stripes of the Bishops Preparatory School tie. His hastily tucked in shirt tails are already escaping from underneath his navy pullover.
The ten-to-eight chapel bell peals out across the clear, cold outside.
Craig hops on one leg while pulling up the other long grey sock, stubbornly slipping down.
‘Quick Mom, I’m going to be late!’ his gravelly voice urges. He has shoved his homework folder and piano file into his outsized navy backpack: its transparent little window still reads, ‘Craig Brown, 6A.’ I breathe in his warm-from-bed boy smell, relishing that round, earnest face so close to me again.
The two of us half walk, half jog, to his nonstop, excited chatter.
Looking right and left as we cross Stone Pine Avenue, then onto the dew-wet grass of the rugby fields, the mown cuttings clogging the soles of our shoes. The sun is just lighting up the top of Table Mountain, where some first-light mist clings.
I feel anxious as we near the classroom buildings. How will Craig’s now-teenaged friends react to finding him in their midst again? How can I possibly explain to the teachers that we were wrong in believing the worst – that our son was terminally ill two years ago, when suddenly here he stands, still just the same age … still twelve years old?
Then I remember we have an appointment with his neuro- surgeon in the afternoon. He will hopefully be able to clear up all my confusion, I’m sure. I imagine him ordering new brain scans that will show what actually became of those rampant tumours – too many to count – on those last nightmare scans … after which we stopped looking.
In this subterranean dream dawn, I find great comfort in this conceived proximity to my son. The dream’s perplexities cause me to struggle up, through heavy layers of sleep, to perforate the surface of a common new day.
Our two cats are heat-seeking dead weights against me, resistant to being shifted as I adjust to my bearings to the inside of this smaller house, where we moved after Craig died. From where we no longer have to hear his school chapel bells toll each morning, a trumpet practice in the afternoon, or the bounce of tennis balls in the evening.
Soon Neil’s radio alarm will sound, and he will leave for his day’s work as a fund manager. I will wake our daughter, and drive her through the winding, tree-lined roads of Wynberg to
Springfield Convent School in Cape Town’s southern suburbs.
Where this achingly beautiful autumn morning will speak of the magnificent world still awaiting her.
And I will say, ‘Goodbye, love you,’ to her closing car door, with that longing to hover, to intercept all the heartache that life must still bring her way. That maternal need-to-protect so magnified (if that was ever possible) by my helpless observance of her brother’s brave reckoning with his own, impending death.
Craig’s absence in the car is a real, raw presence on the drive home, so I turn on the radio for some distraction. Owl City’s Adam Young, Craig’s favourite artist, is singing a new hit which
he will never hear, about a shooting star shining. It hurts more than the quiet, so I snap it off, and tears smart.
At home Craig’s little dog ‘Russell’, named after the Jack Russell part of his mix, waits impatiently for a walk, which keeps me from seeking escape in a little more sleep. The city hums at the foot of Table Mountain as it gears up for the day’s routine and, when Russell and I return, our Virginia creeper is glowing with its own, scarlet light. And there are brightly painted pansy faces in the blue pot at the door. A friend pops in for tea, and I am reminded that my son was indeed greatly loved, and is still missed by countless others, too – that I am not alone.
My head tells me that all of our days are numbered; that we will all be where he is, one day. In an eternal form – impossible to comprehend, even dream, this side of death – where the pain
of loss does not exist. But it is hope enough for a welling up of great thankfulness for this child, with whom I was entrusted for his thirteen years.