ONE IN A MILLION
Rescued by social workers from his destitute mother as a baby, Nathan had an uncertain start to life. But fate intervened and the temporary foster family he was placed with became his permanent home.
Nathan Swartz (18) was born in Cape Town to his destitute parents who were homeless at the time.
“My mother was an alcoholic and my father… I don’t know much about him. At the time of my birth, my mother and father were not together. My mother was from Westlake. At six months of age, I was put in an orphanage. The social workers took me away from my mother because she was living in a church hall, where she was getting food, but she was not capable of caring for me.”
Nathan has pieced together the first few months of his life talking to social workers who kept his records. He was told that from the time he was removed from his mother’s care, he moved between two different orphanages before being placed in foster care with a family in Wynberg at the tender age of just eight months old.
“I ended up in a home with foster parents, Mr and Mrs Luke. They stay in Wynberg. They are my parents and I am still staying with them. They used to take foster children in until social workers found placements for them with family members. Mrs Luke, my mom as I call her now, used to work in child services. I came along and to quote her, they all fell in love with me. Basically, they are the only people I know as parents.”
Mr and Mrs Luke adopted Nathan soon after he arrived and he became another member of their family.
“They had two older children who are my two big brothers. The eldest is now 32 years old and he is a graphic designer who owns a design studio, and the other is 30 years old and is a chef, currently living in Qatar. I grew up knowing them as my two big brothers, like any normal family. Even though I look different to them they took me as one of their own. They never treated me differently.”
But Nathan’s early years were marked by illness. Nathan was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which he says his mother also had.
“The doctors predicted that I wouldn’t live past a few months, because of how sick I was. I was underdeveloped and had a very weak immune system, but my parents never gave up on me. They went to different specialists trying to get help for me. I used to be in and out of hospitals as a child. My mother always says in a joking way that a lot of my healing had to do with prayer – they prayed a lot. They spent a lot of money nursing me to good health.”
Growing up, Nathan became curious about his origins.
“I began asking questions and slowly they let me know. They didn’t tell me everything at a young age. I was about six years old when I started asking innocent questions. Mainly because if I looked at myself, and I looked at my parents, I could see I looked different. It was more of a feeling because my earliest memory was in my home and I knew nothing before that.
“When I was nine years old, I knew I had a mother and a father somewhere out there, but surprisingly that didn’t affect me in a negative way. I guess I was more worried about my video games and PlayStation to comprehend what I was told. For my tenth birthday, I got a picture of my birth mother. I still have it today, the picture of my real mother. I also found out that she had passed away when I was a baby.”
But the more questions Nathan asked as he grew older, the less satisfied he was with the answers he received.
“The older I was, the more questions I asked. My mother says it was an identity crisis. I sat with the social worker because I wanted to see if there were any family members of mine around. I mean, you can’t just be born with no family. She did her best to look and she found out that I have an older brother, Daniel. He was living in Cape Town, in a foster home in Ottery. After a while, he ran away from the foster home and disappeared so there is no contact. I never met him, to this day. It would have been nice to meet my biological brother and to see if we look the same. He was 21years old at the time and I was 11 years old.”
Nathan felt that there were gaps in his story and he struggled to make sense of it all.
“Nothing made sense to me. The more answers I got, the more questions I had. That made me become depressed in a way and very angry. I would fight with my parents and we would argue a lot. I would disobey their rules and I became a very rebellious teenager.
“My thoughts at the time were, ‘Why am I here? What could I possibly have been put on this planet for?’ I didn’t know where I came from – the way you would know if you had parents, for example. It really affected me. I would see people with biological parents and I would question why I was different.”
His teenage years were a dark period for Nathan.
“I would leave home at 10 AM and come back at 9 PM at night, without even bothering to tell my parents. I was told my curfew was 5 PM, so that was one way to rebel against them. My state of mind at the time was that I just hated everyone. I thought that nothing was going right for me in my life, so why was I born? I was born with a head shape that is not round, so I was bullied at school about that. I would get into a lot of fights at school. I hated my life. My parents are very religious and my biggest act of rebellion was digging into Satanism. My introduction to it was heavy metal music, my favourite bands encouraged Satanism. I was not worshipping, but I would draw symbols in my room and I would cut myself. I didn’t have a lot of friends, they all thought I was different and a weird kid who wore black. When I was 14, I started talking to girls, but no girls would talk back to me. I was basically an outcast, especially in my class. I only had two friends and they were family friends. We would hang out, kicking a ball around. I also started smoking cigarettes at 14, which was very bad for me since I am an asthmatic. I would get frequent asthma attacks. Now that I think about it, it was another form of self-harm.”
Academically, Nathan was managing to keep up.
“When my parents were looking for schools for me they were looking for special schools but these didn’t take me in because my IQ level was high enough to function in a normal school. I definitely struggled academically with ADHD and concentrating in class, but I would take ADHD medication that would help me focus. I was smart at school, which was contradictory to what the doctors anticipated. I was good at creative writing and drawing, not necessarily at mathematics.”
However, Nathan’s personal life was in turmoil.
“I basically didn’t like myself. I kept getting made fun of. I started smoking weed and drinking alcohol, which was terrible for me since I was a FAS baby. My family didn’t know how to react and how to control me. I would get hidings and it didn’t matter – I would go out and do the same thing again. I met with a lot of psychologists and therapists but none of them really helped. They would just ask me, ‘How are you feeling?’ and what I thought about this or that, but it never really helped me. In a sense, I didn’t want to receive help. I just wanted to be destructive towards myself and to everyone around me. Every single night I would cut myself, I still have the scars.”
His first relationship did not help matters.
“I was 15 years old when I got my first girlfriend. I thought she was the love of my life, I thought, ‘Oh wow!’ I felt she was there for me whenever everyone else was against me. We talked for many hours and shared deep things, we developed a close bond because she also had problems. In a sense, we helped each other. In the same year we broke up and that was a devastating blow to me. Then one day my mommy walked in on me cutting in my room. She told my father and he said I was worshipping the devil. My parents were just angry. We kept getting into arguments. I would wake up in the morning and there would be an argument about making my bed, and then an argument about playing my heavy metal music too loud and then I would just turn up the volume because I didn’t care. My brothers were trying to get to the root of why I was acting out but I wouldn’t tell them everything because at that point in my life I didn’t trust anyone. I was smoking more and I was drinking more. I eventually made friends with the wrong set of people and did the wrong things. Basically, what I mean by that is we used to sell marijuana. There were times we would just pick random fights with people. We were catching on nonsense. I would disappear days on end. I got caught by the police, smoking weed on the corner a few times. To teach me a lesson they would take me to the cells and show me the cells and they would say, ‘If you keep living the life you are living this is eventually where you will end up.’ And afterwards, they would take me home.”
But after years of strife, Nathan’s parents decided on tough love.
“When I was 17 years old, my parents sent me to Percy Bartley House in Woodstock for children with behavioural problems. There were also children who didn’t have parents there. In a way, it was also a foster care home. My parents just couldn’t control me, and they felt that it would help to send me to this place. I was surrounded by children like me but some much worse behaved than me. Some were gangsters or wanted to be gangsters. So, I was basically put in a place where I got a big reality check. In my first month, I was scared. I went from a house where I had a TV, my own bedroom, and a warm plate of food every night to basically staying in a room shared with four or five other kids, sometimes even more. They would switch us between rooms, depending on our behaviour.”
Despite it being very different from his comfortable home, Nathan still rebelled.
“I soon adapted and had the attitude that no one could teach me anything. I continued to rebel and I began hanging out with the gangsters.
“Some of the boys would go out to work, others would kick balls around and others would catch on nonsense. I went with the troublemakers, it’s not something I am proud of. We used to stand on the corner and ask for money and from that money go buy weed and cigarettes and do the same thing over and over. As time went on, some of the boys in the group got deeper into gangsterism and that’s when I started to steer clear, as I didn’t want to get into trouble. If you were caught, the police would come and fetch you from the home and you would get sent to a juvenile detention centre.
“My decision was partially influenced by a new friendship I developed in the home. A friendship that helped me to get over this whole phase I was going through and which made me appreciate life more. Bongani was in matric and I was in Grade 11. He became my mentor. Because he was the eldest there, he would always talk to us about changing our life decisions and encouraging us to do the right things. He had an incredible life story (https://www.lifechoices.co.za/30-stories/bongani-siziba). He was a positive role model in my life. We would study together, and he would help me with my school work. I really thank him for that. Every time I got into trouble and got sent to the office, Bongani would be there to remind me of the person that I am.
One day I awoke from the whole nightmare, it was the day after Christmas and we went to the beach with all the children. During this time, I started missing my parents. Afterwards, I apologized for the pain I had caused and we actually reconciled. I came to the realization that I was put on this earth for a reason, even though I don’t know what that reason is, yet.”
After spending a little over a year at the home, Nathan returned to his family.
“I’ve learned so much and seen both sides of the spectrum. I know my story is far from being the worst. There are people out there who are really struggling and some of them can’t help their situation at all. I would like to be an example to them, just like Bongani was for me. I want to encourage and tell people that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, what matters is where you are going in life.
“I managed to pass Grade 11 and when I got into matric I felt it was time to act like an adult. I stopped smoking weed and drinking. Matric was not easy and I almost failed. But my entire family did not give up on me. They kept encouraging me and my sister-in-law gave me extra classes. I was surprised at how well I did in my final exams. After Matric I joined a coding academy in order to further my studies.
“I am not a perfect person and I still have problems that I am working through. However, my new outlook on life makes me more grateful. And each time I feel down, I remind myself that the chances of any person being born are one in a million. I am one in a million, I must have a reason to be here.”
COVID-19 has presented a few new challenges to Nathan.
“I have to be more concerned about my health, obviously because of my asthma, so I can’t do the things that I used to do. The coding course moved online, so I am trying to cope with this new way of learning.
“I am also a part-time employee at Pick n Pay, I’m a cashier. It makes me feel proud because these are tough times for everybody but someone needs to do the job. The Manager asked me if I wanted to work at the start of COVID-19 because many people took off, but I said I wanted to work. I know it’s a big health risk but I follow the health and safety rules to the tee. What are the options? if we don’t work then people don’t get food. A lot of customers thank us and our managers also thank us. I think for me this has taught me that as human beings, we have to stand together. If each of us does our small part, we will get through this.”
Nathan Swartz is a Life Choices Academy student.