Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.
I did not expect to be given a new name in 1984, when I attended a small dinner party held in honor of Bishop Desmond Tutu in Claremont, five months before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; two years before he became the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa; and six years before the political process to formally dismantle apartheid began. He was on campus to participate in a forum on leadership.
John Hick—an Englishman, Presbyterian minister, and world-renowned philosopher of religion—hosted the dinner party and invited me to attend the event. Except for Bishop Tutu, a South African graduate student, and me, everyone else at the dinner party was white.
At the beginning of the evening, everyone formed a large circle on the backyard patio and lawn, and then one-by-one we introduced ourselves. Bishop Tutu and the South African student stood next to each other. The student began, telling us his name. The name he said was British in origin rather than African (something like John or Richard or William). I can’t recall the precise name, but I can recall what I immediately did as soon as he told us his British name.
I interrupted the introduction process and said, “Please tell us your African name.” I knew he must have one because as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I had briefly dated a Nigerian student named Olayiwola, a Yoruba name meaning “wealth turns to wealth,” and “first son of a wealthy family.” He introduced himself to me as “Richard,” but when I heard his African friends call him “Li,” I wanted to know what was going on. So he told me about the colonial practice of the missionaries in his country.
“Please tell us your African name.”
The South African student smiled warmly, gracefully nodding his head toward me, and then gladly told us his African name, given to him by his parents. He then explained the origin of his British name. He had to let the missionaries of the boarding school he wanted to attend give him a “Christian” name.
The introductions proceeded. Half way around the circle, I introduced myself saying, “I am called Sue Booker, but that is not my name.”
The dinner party guests now wanted to know my African name and my country of origin.
“I was born in New Jersey,” I said. “I am American, and so are my parents. But I have always known that `Sue’ is not my real name.” I then pointed to a tree in the middle of the backyard saying, “See that tree over there? We could refer to that tree as `Sue’ if we wanted to. But that’s not its real name.” I paused, and then continued, “I have as much loyalty to the name `Sue’ as does that tree have to the name. So whenever I hear the word `Sue,’ I turn in the direction of its speaker because I know that I am being addressed, but `Sue’ is not my real name. I guess you could say I do not have a name.” After an awkward pause and nervous laughter, the introductions continued.
After the introductions, as we wove our way back into the house, Bishop Tutu remained by the patio door and gently touched my arm as I passed by. I stopped and turned. He smiled and then said to me, “I know your name.”
He smiled and then said to me, “I know your name.”
He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out paper and pen to write down the word as he pronounced it: Thandeka [tahn- DAY- ah-KAH]. The sound waves of this word coursed through my body like a million-voiced cantata in my own pitch and timbre. I was attuned to this song.
And then Bishop Tutu told me the word’s meaning: lovable.
Lovable? I was stunned. No one loved me, because I was despicable, shameful and deficient of anything worthy of care or positive affection from others. The only part of me that counted was my mind, which was the only part of me I knew.
But I immediately knew that “Thandeka” was indeed my name because it was in my own key. It intoned me. Moreover, a spiritual leader I held in the highest regard had just blessed me and I heard the universe say to me as it happened, “This gift is for you.”
And then Bishop Tutu told me the word’s meaning: lovable.
I peered into the Bishop’s eye’s trying to fathom what he saw in me. What prompted him to name me what I wasn’t? And why did this name feel so right to me? But the only image I saw in his eyes as I desperately tried to find me there – was his affirmation. He was aglow. This light pierced the midnight sky of my soul revealing something I could not yet believe – namely, that I was truly worthy of love. This thought made little sense to me, so I filed it away rather than dismiss it out of hand.
I sat next to Bishop Tutu at the dinner table, and we spent the rest of the evening talking together. We didn’t talk about me because my personal questions were voiceless. Instead, we talked about religion and politics. I was, after all, talking to a man whose every word against apartheid spoken abroad put him at risk of being interrogated, imprisoned, and martyred by the State upon his return. He showed me his South African passport. In the space designated for citizenship, the word “unknown” was written in.
Knowing that we had bonded deeply and that he would indeed always tell me the truth, toward the end of our conversation I asked him if he were using the South African Anglican Church for political purposes. “It was so corrupt in its support of the State-run system of apartheid,” I said. “Surely,” I continued almost in a whisper, “you must be using the church for political ends.”
His eyes saddened for a long moment as he glimpsed the shallowness of my vision of his work as a religious leader. And then he said, “You do not understand. The church is in the business of change. It’s a change agent.” He paused for a long moment and then continued. “And besides, it’s very easy to be cynical. It takes great courage to have hope.”
“The church is in the business of change. It’s a change agent … It’s very easy to be cynical. It takes great courage to have hope.”
A golden glow completely enveloped his face as he said these last words, and I felt an enormous peace that filled me with joy.
“Thank you,” I finally said.
After the dinner party ended, I drove to my parents’ home, just a few blocks away. Erma B. was still up, reading on the couch in the living room. “Mom,” I said, “Bishop Desmond Tutu has just given me a new name – Thandeka. And the diminutive is Thandi.”
Erma B. responded immediately saying: “Hello, Thandi.” And this is the name she called me for the remaining 13 months of her life.
She did, however, ask me why I had changed my name. I told her that I never liked the name “Sue” and reminded her that in the third grade I gave myself a different name “Elaine” – for which she chastised me when my report card came home with that name on it. “And besides,” I said, “a few years ago when I asked why you had named me Sue, you told me that you wanted something `short and petite,’ when you found out that you now had a little girl.” Mom was 5’5”. I was almost 5’9” and for most of my life was decidedly overweight. Mom was petite.
“Oh no,” she quickly interjected, “that’s not what I meant. Your father and I wanted a short, petite name. Many of your relatives suggested long, complicated names. We chose something short and succinct.”
I knew she wasn’t lying, but I also knew she wasn’t disclosing the truth. She had, after all, raised me using a punishing regime of condemnation and denial: Cerberus moves.
The disheartening memories of the harsh and demeaning ways my mother raised me as “Sue,” her unwanted child, now flooded my mind, and I started to sweat and hyperventilate. Drowning in this sea of emotions and struggling to cast them aside as I went under, I quickly hugged my best friend goodbye and fled into a sleepless night. B. B. King’s blues lyrics came to mind: “Nobody loves me but my mother and she could be lyin’, too.”
I did not know how to keep Erma B., my best friend, separated from the woman I grew up with. Her cancer taught me to stop trying to separate the two. They were, after all, parts of the same person. And both of those persons, thanks to Cerberus, were also a part of me.
Mom’s lung cancer returned in 1984 (she had undergone an operation in 1978 to remove a tumor), but she did not show any signs of being ill again until the spring of 1985. Dad had been a chain smoker for the first two decades of their marriage and I wondered if she might have been collateral damage from his own nicotine war.
Her doctor, amazed by her physical state for the first few months, said, “Anyone else with this much cancer in her body would be dead, but you aren’t even showing external physical signs of being sick.”
Mom immediately responded: “I do not have time to be sick.”
In truth, Mom thought she had done something wrong and that’s why she had cancer. She believed that health was based on “right attitude.” So when the cancer spread to her lymph system in April of 1985 and she had to move into Pilgrim Place’s medical health care center in July, she believed that her quickly declining health was her own fault.
Pilgrim Place residents lined up in the hallway and waited patiently for the chance to visit Mom. The men’s Glee Club serenaded her. A woman whom Mom had encouraged to start free form dancing performed special dances for her. Others brought their guitars and sang to her. Her bridge club chums came for cards. She had to stop the visits an hour before I arrived to make certain she had enough energy left for me.
During this period of her physical decline as she witnessed and could not ignore the abounding affection for her from her fellow “Pilgrims,” she said to me, “I am very grateful for my illness. Otherwise I would never have known how much people care for me. I hope you will learn this lesson with me so that you discover it in health rather than through illness.”
“I am very grateful for my illness. Otherwise I would never have known how much people care for me.”
Mom and I would sit together silently for hours. I would brush her hair, bring new artwork for her room from her home, and I would wash her soiled clothes. I gave her a small white teddy bear with arms outstretched and a red banner draped about its shoulder and waist with the words “I love you this much” printed on it. Then I began to write letters and send greeting cards through the mail addressed to “Mr. Bear in care of Erma Barbour Booker.” When I arrived in her room and Mr. Bear was not tucked safely in her arms but instead was absentmindedly standing on his head in the middle of the bed, I knew that the day had been a rough one for her and asked if Mr. Bear was acting up again? We would laugh. She then mentioned how difficult the day had been for him without going into any of the details.
When she was rushed to the hospital for the final time, I settled into the large bedside chair believing that she would not survive the night. Mom slowly turned toward me and said weakly, “You can go home now.”
“I am home,” I whispered. “You are my home.”
I did not abandon her with a quick hug to cast aside bad memories and then make my escape into a sleepless night. Instead I remained ever so gently present with Erma B. and with the woman who raised me. They were both there in that room, and I could not stay with one without staying with the other.
“I am home,” I whispered. “You are my home.”
“Oh, I see,” they both said together. And as they closed her eyes, Erma Beatrice Barbour Booker smiled.
I closed my eyes and sank into the darkness, listening to each breath of her life as a homecoming lullaby.
I rocked back and forth going deeper into the night, breathing my way home.
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