[OPINION] What regret cannot undo

If you dropped me blindfolded anywhere in New York City, I could probably find my way to the Queens neighbourhood of Richmond Hill. Ok, that's an exaggeration, but I'm pretty confident I could. As part of the Masters' Program I was enrolled in at the time, we'd each been ordered to choose a specific community as our beat. Mine was home to mostly immigrants from Guyana. Aside from being an hour-or-so subway ride from Manhattan, I felt a kinship with these transplanted families. Although they spoke with Caribbean accents they understood and loved cricket. It was a welcome link to home.

It was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that I met Gopaul Sewnarine and his family. Trudging up and down cracked sidewalks, I was supposed to be reporting on the immediate impact of the World Trade Centre attacks. It was the Thursday after that unexpected, chaotic, history-making Tuesday. I felt out of place, like I was intruding. I'd only arrived in New York a month before. When I opened my mouth to ask questions people stared. They found the South African accent harsher and flatter than the Australian twang (I was told).

And then I saw children playing in a small, fenced-off front yard. I noticed their running and shrieks because it was already dark. The lights in the home behind them were on. I stood still for a while, unsure of myself and weighed up the odds. If I knocked I'd be intruding on a family wake or special meeting. These were increasingly common all over the city. Since the attacks, missing posters and notices of special gatherings and prayer services had mushroomed, flapping from most lamp posts, fire hydrants, subway walls and shop windows. No-one thought of removing these yet; these public glimpses of grief were still too fresh.

But someone had spotted me. He was walking towards me with his hand outstretched - short grey stubble and an open face. I thought he was in his late 40s or early 50s. He introduced himself and asked if I was alright. I faltered. Of course I was, yes. Then I explained, awkwardly, why I was staring at his home. He picked up on my accent and asked what I thought about Hansie Cronje.

I'll never forget that. When I reminisce about my studies and everything else that burned that period into my memory, I'm always moved by Gopaul's true warmth. In what I only realised afterwards must have been a time of searing pain and anxiety, he had the wherewithal and generosity to make me feel at ease. I was a complete stranger.

I spent the next six months documenting the impact of 9/11 on this one particular family. Our half-hour documentary chronicled a family's struggle to obtain custody of Gopaul's 5-year-old niece, Victoria. Her mother Sita, who was Gopaul's sister, was in the South Tower when it collapsed. She'd worked for Fiduciary Trust Company International as a disaster recovery agent. Sita was never married to Victoria's father.

According to Gopaul, he'd never shown much interest in the child.

The little girl had just lost her mother. But in a tragic twist she'd be inheriting more than one million US dollars, as result of various insurance policies Sita had taken out when Victoria was born. Sita's death resulted in an awkward battle between her siblings (led by Gopaul) and Victoria's biological father. Everyone wanted custody. Sita's relatives claimed he was doing so because there was money involved.

Filming the story meant spending a lot of time with Gopaul and his family. We taped Sita's funeral and the wake. We taped interviews with all her immediate family members and co-workers. We spoke to child psychologists. And we spent time with Victoria when she was visiting her uncle. Her father had refused to be interviewed. Being the intrepid Columbia J-School students we were, we stalked him. We waited outside his office and door-stopped him. Our dogged determination failed to produce any results.

Gopaul gave us Sita's diary to photocopy. Entries over several years showed how frustrated she was by her ex-boyfriend's disinterest in his daughter. Gopaul also gave me a few precious photographs of Sita and Victoria together.

In my determination to produce what I wanted to be an unforgettable film, telling a moving story of the impact of 9/11, I became singularly focused. Our team of three trudged through snow, carrying camera equipment across several of the city's boroughs. Following long nights of editing, the documentary was finally completed.

Gopaul invited us to countless meals, family gatherings, a Christmas service and birthdays. He opened his home, sharing his life, memories and time. He trusted me implicitly.

And I proved undeserving in the most shameful way.

I lost the photographs - unique, tender images of a little girl and her mother. These were photographs Victoria could have - and should have - stared at today, age 23.

I somehow misplaced, discarded, and waylaid some of this family's most treasured possessions.

As I write this I squirm. Almost two decades have passed and I can barely utter the words. I wasn't careful enough with someone's heart.

If I imagine myself in Sita's position and my daughter in Victoria's place, I can barely breathe. Red spots flare on my cheeks and I feel nothing but utter shame and complete regret.

Every 9/11 is a reminder of my callous disregard for another's most treasured possession.

It's possibly also the most important and painful lesson I've ever learnt, as a journalist and a human being.

Tessa van Staden is CapeTalk programme manager.


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