At first it sounded like a cellphone ring, coming from the green municipal bin outside Checkers on Main Road, Somerset West, as Cedric Titus walked by.
He stopped, uncertain at first, and then looked inside the small circular opening, and saw only a plastic bag. And then it moved.
Cedric forced the lid off the bin, and plucked out the little bundle, and tore open the two bags. “The first thing I saw was the tiniest hand, and then a face, and I shouted ‘Its a baby’,” he told me.
In a series of decidedly fortunate events, I happened to be driving by that very moment, to drop off a passenger, Precious, at Somerset Oaks, a block away. Precious, looking out of my car window, said: “That man just pulled a baby out of the rubbish bin”.
I stopped, leapt out of my car with a racing heart, and urgently, “Is she alive?”
As if to answer for herself, her eyes opened, just a little, and her fingers curled around Cedric’s finger, as he held her close. Within seconds, others gathered around, expressing shock and consternation, disbelief and offers of help.
“I’ve got her,” said Cedric, and indeed he had. This big, gentle man, arms covered in tattoos, skulls on his T-shirt incongruously the backdrop for this fragile little being, was exuding an energy of protection like a warrior, cast into this unexpected role of rescuer.
Someone said they had called the police, so instantly I called Sandy Immelman, from Helderberg Baby Saver, and told her: “There’s a live baby here, it looks close to newborn, please come,” and she said calmly “I’m on my way, and I’ll call the ambulance”.
I’d gotten to know Sandy through her wonderful work with Masikhule, a Helderberg NGO devoted towards empowering women and children, and also because of her role with Helderberg Baby Saver, which had been launched in the area a couple of years ago, as a safe option for babies to be left when mothers faced dire circumstances, and may be considering abandoning, or ending the life of, their infant.
The irony? The Helderberg Baby Saver was less than a block away, a facility with a chute connected to a 24-hour manned monitor, which alerts volunteers to pick up castaways, with no fear of reprisal for whomever (man, woman or child), perhaps faced a terrible choice.
Back to the drama unfolding on this busy, noisy street corner.
Inconceivable, I thought, that the tiny wail had been heard, miraculous. Kristy Spies, one of the first passersby, said: “I’m still nursing my own child, so I have milk; shall I put her to my breast?”
Another quick call to Sandy, who was en route, confirmed that “no, not advisable if she seems otherwise okay”. Kristy then felt the baby’s fontanel, and said she didn’t seem dehydrated, and that her colour was good.
It was a surreal stage for this human drama, and as we waited for the experts and authorities in these matters, we all talked.
Cedric said: “It crossed my mind that people may think I’m a bin picker, but I didn’t care, and just forced the lid off.
“Then when I’d torn off the two plastic bags, I thought I may have to resuscitate her, and was worried because she was so incredibly delicate.”
Later on Friday evening, when we spoke more at length, he told me a bit more about himself, which only reinforced my sense that there were forces at work here, beyond our ken, that it was this good man who walked by, quite spontaneously, and who was attuned sufficiently to the slight sounds, that alerted him to her grave distress.
“I once revived a man, who had drowned, and was lying face down on the beach, so I had an idea of what to do now, should it be necessary. But then I saw she was breathing okay. I’ve never held anything this small before,” he said in a voice still awed, humbled, hours later.
At the time, we all offered to take turns at holding her, but he refused to relinquish her, and when the police arrived, he climbed into the patrol van on the front seat between them, holding her close, now wrapped in my shawl (the towel he found around her was damp, and she had a little white babygrow on).
The ambulance met them all at the Somerset West police station, and took Cedric and the baby up to Helderberg Hospital.
“I loved that everyone was waiting for us when we arrived, and surrounded us, saying ‘Is that the child?’ in great excitement, practically ignoring all the other patients,” he laughed.
The paramedic told him that the baby was less than three days old, given the state of her umbilical cord. Cedric added, in a more hushed tone: “The paramedic said she could only have been in the bags for a couple of minutes, and would have suffocated very soon.”
At the hospital they said “you’re the child’s oupa now,” and the social worker told him “You’re the Friday the 13th biker angel hero,” he told me.
Biking is Cedric’s passion, and he was undeterred by once breaking his leg, and later breaking his back, and returned to the saddle when he recovered.
“I was born with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck seven times, and once my aunt, a hospital matron, had to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when I severely burned as a child,” he said, so this is clearly a man who has little fear, an abundance of courage, and powerful determination.
“It had also crossed my mind that it may have been a bomb in the bin. I was working as a porter at Christian Barnard Hospital when the Planet Hollywood bomb detonated, and saw the two Canadian children who were brought in on a gurney, so badly injured,” he recalled.
But something overrode that initial fear, and providentially, he opened the bin on this sweltering Friday October 13, and a little girl was given a second chance at life.
“I told the social worker, who listed her name as ‘Baby October’ that they should call her Suzi, because of my love of bikes,” he shared.
“And if it wasn’t for Danie Olivier’s big heart to consider me for a post here at DMS and to take a chance on me, I wouldn’t have been there for Little Suzi.
“And I thanked him for that, when he thanked me for saving Suzi’s life,” he added.
Cedric also told me about his mother, who lives with him. She suffered a stroke, and he cares for her. “Mom had a very rough night on Thursday, and I almost felt too tired for work, but went in anyway. I’m so, so glad I did.”
Later on Friday evening, when we chatted again on the phone, he said he was still shaking, and the best thing was to go for a ride on his bike to the ocean.
“So many emotions were running through me: nervouness, stress, concern, confusion. I knew, when that bag moved, ‘This is real’, and the awesome responsibility.
“Mother Karma works in strange ways one, leading to another for the good of others in the end,” he told me. We ended our conversation with Cedric sharing his favourite poem, by classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa:
Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
And on Saturday morning, when I walked to the nearby greenbelt with my dogs, and watched the first rays illuminate the peaks of the Helderberg Mountain, I found myself filled with such a sense of grace, and started sing (to the surprise of Mr Murphy and Phoebe), “Here comes the sun, little darling (‘Suzi’), here comes the sun…”
Who knows what possible circumstances prevailed: pain, regret, indifference, agony, duress, or who was responsible for this terrible, sad act. That is for the authorities to try and establish.
All I do know, is that I give great, heartfelt thanks for a guy called Cedric. And then I then trotted out a happy version of “Wake up, little Suzi” – hey, baby girl, your life has just begun…
Bolander will be running a series of articles on highlighting Helderberg Baby Saver and related NGOs in the basin. Anyone who wants to make a contribution of baby supplies, can call Monique at 082 775 0683, and for questions or information relating to abandonment, call Wandisa at 079 063 4144.