And so too, with the passing of Reg Strauss, we have seen the end of an era. Reg died on Tuesday afternoon, 19th July 2016. He is fondly remembered by all those he leaves behind.
Perhaps, it is that little frown he gets, when he is concentrating on the computer
Or that boyish grin that stretches across his face
Silently missioning in his room, he’s busy unscrewing bottles and measuring fluids
An alchemist of the night
No, actually often
Staring into the screen of his phone as if it holds some hidden clue
I sit on his couch
Getting high on this charm that seems to ooze
Out of him
Oh god! I hope I am not getting Sharon, Chunky, Shirley, Claire disease!
It seems to be very infectious
Or at least he is…
The moody 5 year old who is at times quite devious, slipping
Past me on the stairs, trying to be invisible
Sweetly, he asks me if I can use another computer
Playing with my ponytail as he passes me in the passage
He is quite scary when he is mad
I have to try very hard not to want to fix it
There is something vulnerable about this little tough guy
That makes me want to rush out and save him
(As if I could!)
I laugh at the idea of him in pyjamas
I worry if he eats
My heart feels sore when I hear he is saving money for the dentist
He knows much by way of pain
Later, recounting the story of David, I cry for the first time
He makes sharing my sore bits easy
Suddenly excited, he flaps his arms
His camp mannerisms seem so incongruous with the bad boy image he projects
I come to realise this “Marky Mark” wears his heart on his sleeve
Chunky doesn’t think he will stay here long
A story I am beginning to know so well
I haven’t had enough time with him
In retrospect, no one actually has
That day we spent together walking in the park
All talked out after hours of catch-up
Still dressed as though we had just left the club
Are etched so clearly in my mind
I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about it
It’s all I have left of him now…
Warm fuzz and photographs
I spend the night waiting for him to walk in the door
But he doesn’t
The reality of this hangs over all of us
I will be honest; it is terrible here without him
A massive hole
An empty space
I have no idea how they will fill it
Or for how long they will hold it together
Feels like trouble coming — a big gust of change blowing through the house
I meet him as an old man in a chair
A small blanket covering his legs
Our conversation is brief
He apologises for not being able to get up and say goodbye properly
And then we leave a little while later
My boyfriend’s uncle
The old man in the chair
Today, it’s a few weeks later
Everyone is out doing shopping when we arrive
A hospice notice is tacked to the cabinet near the front door
It hangs in mid-air, where it can’t be missed
It feels like an announcement
This is no ordinary family lunch
Perhaps even the last one.
The dining room table is decorated with cutlery, plates, eats and cakes
I realise we are not the only ones who have come through these doors doing the last respects march
The old man in the chair has been replaced by the metal frame of a hospital bed
A crumpled form lying beneath its sheets
Its unexpected and I’m unprepared
I enter with Grant and we sidle up to the bed to say our hellos when
Quite suddenly this man who I hardly know
Who I only met for a few minutes takes both my hands in his and grasps them tightly
“Hello Rowena,” he says “its so nice to see you”
I have to fight to hold back the tears
He is half the size he was before
His skin is pulled tightly around his skeletal structure
Comforted now only by the bones that lie beneath
But still he holds my hands
Complaining about medicine schedules, bring the next round of pills and ooh yes, don’t forget the morphine
And so, I’m having my hand held by Uncle Binks in a room surrounded by memories and old furniture when suddenly my head is reeling with questions it needs to ask
Or rather answers it must have in order to understand
What does it feel like to be hanging on?
To be waiting to die?
Why doesn’t the body just give up?
I am struck by how the living are so poorly equipped to deal with death
I realise, I too one day, will be a sibling like his brother next to me watching life loosening its grip on one of my sisters
All I want to do is get out my camera and somehow document what’s happening because it’s all so raw and so real
Funnily enough, Uncle Binks has a few tricks up his sleeve
He perks up a bit and sips his medicines
And despite the hollow colour of his cheeks, his hair is curly and alive. Full of energy!
I watch him and find comfort in his ability to laugh at himself
He notices a cupboard that was next to him is missing
He could have sworn it was there a few days ago
He tells me stories of crabs in the house and shopping with his wife until I am laughing out load
By now the gang has arrived bringing with them the noise of lives that are just beginning
I am touched by the generosity of a family I am just starting to get to know
They let me take photos of what remains of their little family and give me a box of old photos so that I may immortalise all they have left
On our way out, I sneak into the lounge to say goodbye
Uncle Binks is curled up on his side
In front of him the wall is decorated with beautiful old black and white photographs
All the lives that have come before him
Outside I hear the chatter of all those that will come after
It’s safe and warm in there with him and I think to myself that this is how I’d like to go one day
Surrounded by people that love me in the faint afterglow of the afternoon sun
Perhaps its because we are standing in the dark
That it’s easier to talk
Or to hide
We’re both drunk and stumbling, standing on a wooden walkway
Your mum just keeps repeating the same thing over and over
– I can’t believe he’s dead
Accepting where you’ve gone has come surprisingly easily to me
I have no other choice
I have to find a way out of this mess because my heart is still beating
I am still stuck here in this place where I have to feel
Your mum keeps asking me if I loved you
The question always takes me aback
As though how I answer will ultimately determine the truth
That what I say might give me away
The words themselves mean nothing really
They just waft out my mouth
And when I say them, I am left feeling so empty
I am left wondering what really proves ones love.
How do we know for sure, that what we profess is love, is really love at all?
Is real love the ability to be vulnerable?
Is it a stubborn refusal to let your memory go?
Is it dreaming about you?
I think this proves your love more than mine, as you have not forgotten to visit me whilst I sleep
Instead, I am taken back to Graaf- Reniet
Lying in bed next to you in that funny brown and white room
And suddenly a little voice, my voice, spurred on by a fear deep inside of me asks you
– Do you love me?
Knowing our days were numbered
Much later, you confide in me that my silly question broke your heart
– Of course I do
Hugging me tight, just like you do now in my dreams
And then my tears, hot and urgent
Spilling out, trying to find the place where I suspected your heart lay
And afterwards you thinking
– I’ll miss her when she’s gone
From your perspective, I suppose I am gone
Yet, we all sit here thinking you are
Grief, I am learning, is selfish and blind
It’s a blue mosquito net that looks down on me from where you should be
In a room that’s hot and sticky.
It battles to explain to others where you are and resorts to theories I would even roll my eyes at were they offered to me
Later, I am standing on a beach at midnight taking pictures in the dark
Crabs scuttle past my feet, letting me know they are there in the shadows
They remind me of you now
So after everything, all I have is knowing that you are still here with me
Even if I can’t see you
Perhaps that’s what real love is –
It requires no outside approval, display or proof
My baby sister has this wonderful habit of leaving doodles or letters she has written to me in any one of my hundreds of notebooks that are littered about my room. Quite often, her words lie there, undiscovered, waiting for me to stumble upon them. It makes me think of unwrapping a present I wasn’t expecting, but without the pressure of the person who is giving the gift looking back at me saying
“DO YOU LIKE IT?”
Instead, I get to read her words in private and it really is so much more of a gift, because they’re just for me. And somehow, the timing of when they are discovered is always a little uncanny.
For example – I have just returned from 10 days in Tofo, Mozambique. Anthony’s family and I decided to go and cry our tears on the beach together, to heal, celebrate, laugh and begin moving on. As it is with most “in laws,” Anthony’s mother and I have never really been on good terms. In fact, he often told me she would have liked my heart in a box!
So with his sudden departure from our lives, and this massive hole he left behind, I suppose it makes sense that we would hold on to each other. It’s all we have left.
Funnily enough, we’re quite similar. Perhaps too similar… which is why, with only 12 hours notice, 3 hours of sleep and a lot of strings pulled, I found myself on the Vamos de Durban bound for Maputo.
Had Anthony still been here he would have been most proud of me. Firstly, I managed to fit all my clothes into one small bag. Secondly, I am taking public transport all the way to our destination. And oh yes, the hotel room on the first night has no en suite bathroom. I failed to do any of these things whilst Anthony was alive, and as the bus pulls out from the Pavillion Hotel in downtown Durban at 6:36am, I feel like shouting out to the world
– Eat, pray, love. Here we come!
(For some reason this feels apt despite me not having read neither the book nor watching the film)
After what feels like a forever, we arrive in Maputo. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to a place full of relics of a past gone by – ornate statues, tumbled down buildings, overgrown gardens in between skyscrapers with MCEL logos towering overhead. Maputo always reminds me of South America – but a black version. Perhaps its because Mozambique was colonised by the Portuguese and South America by the Spanish and the French. They are not too dissimilar.
I take another risk and order a local dish, food I don’t know. Generally, I never order food I don’t eat, which I suppose is silly because how then do you know that you don’t eat something you don’t know. A green soupy bowl of mush arrives at the table and I begin to panic. Matapa, a local dish, made of wild spinach and crab lands up being one of the best things I have ever eaten. Being brave is beginning to pay off.
We spend the night at Fatima’s Nest- a local backpackers on Mao Tse Tung Avenue. A small hippy-styled backpackers that seems to attract people from just about everywhere. Brigette and I get drunk, lounging on couches, smoking cigarettes and drinking the local tequila – Paradise. It reminds me of fuel with lemon afterwards. We stumble to bed sometime after 2am and I spend a few minutes under my blue mosquito net writing to Anthony as I watch Brigette next to me, on her back, clothes still on, snoring, finally content that sleep has enveloped her. Sleep is heaven for sore people. You can’t feel anything there.
A bad dream wrenches me from sleep just in time to get all of us onto the shuttle Fatima’s runs daily from Maputo to Tofo. At 5:36am we pull away from Fatima’s with almost 26 people on board a small yellow bus. We are packed like sardines inside, our luggage packed on top of each other, along the walkway making getting out of the bus rather interesting and reminiscent of a mine field.
We drive for hours. Hours and hours through city, vegetation, swamp and eventually palms. Occasionally, the bus stops to collect or drop other passengers – locals travelling at half the price the tourists are paying. A couple in front of me must still be in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. They ‘suck face’ and stare longingly into each other’s eyes until I feel nauseous and can’t look anymore – the cynic in me finding it all too sickenly sweet.
Eventually after I can’t take the heat, the plastic seats sticking to the back of my legs and being so uncomfortable, Tofo begins to take shape in front of me. From the outset, it really does not look very impressive or different from any other coastal town in Mozambique. And to be honest, it took me quite a while to figure out what exactly Tofo has that nowhere else does.
The sea reminds me of Ponto d’Ouro, the restaurants, shops and bars remind me of Ponto Mamaoli. The beach is idyllic and wide like any other place in Mozambique. Instead, after much deliberation and probing, I realise Tofo’s secret is the people who live there. The expats from the Netherlands, France, UK, South Africa, Canada and America make Tofo into one of the most cosmopolitan, progressive and unique destinations on the east coast. Perhaps its because all these people are from somewhere else that they are more tolerant, accepting, welcoming and eager than other communities. They are humble in some ways because they know what life is like without Tofo. I find myself wondering why they all came here in the first place. But then Vincent, owner of Blend coffee shop reminds me that he never goes on holiday anymore because one does not need to when they live in Tofo. Vincent, a once upon owner of gourmet burger restaurants in Amsterdam has relocated almost his entire family to Tofo. It’s hard to imagine him in Amsterdam as he saws wood behind his shop, brown, barefoot and unshaven.
As most Europeans would do, we spend the first 3 days getting sunburnt. Now, finally, red and in pain we are officially on holiday. We spend hours in the ocean that somehow in Mozambique is always just the right temperature. Young local boys selling bracelets and reed mats are frequent visitors. They are most persistent and very good practise for those of us with weak boundaries. Learning to say ‘no thank you’ becomes quite challenging, as they are quite persuasive and not easily deterred. In the end, not having any cash on me I land up swapping my towel for four bracelets.
News travels fast in Tofo and we come to hear of a foam party being hosted by one of the lodges on the weekend. The last time I went to one of those, I was in high school at the beginning of the rave scene in South Africa. I don’t need extra encouragement – I’m in!
I find myself in a car with four rather boisterous, and did I mention gorgeous men, destined for foam heaven. Unfortunately, the foam party lands up being a bit of a let down. A small marquee generates foam that we all dive into for 5 minutes, emerging like Santa Clauses covered in snow. Something seems to give inside of me and I follow the others from the foam tent to the swimming pool. We jump in with our clothes still on. My dress wafts up around my hips and I find myself being pinned against the edge of the swimming pool by one of my charming companions from earlier. I can’t remember having this much fun since I was in high school. There’s something totally adolescent and rebellious about it all. Dare I say it, exciting!
The next morning my new friends climb a coconut tree, barefoot, careful not to slip on their way up. The bark from the palm tree is incredibly rough and leaves agitated cuts along their arms. Judging from their roasties, the art of climbing these trees takes some time to perfect. We drink coconut and mango smoothies for breakfast in between chuffing on Pall Mall cigarettes. A local brand that much to my snobbish horror, I am beginning to enjoy.
The market in the village offers an array of equally interesting and horrific smells from the ripe hot stench of fish to freshly baked pow. There is even a soft serve machine selling ice cream. It seems oddly out of place in this vibrant multicoloured market full of local produce and bottles of Laurentinos – the local beer. Yet, the soft serve place is quite popular. Numerous GP number plated 4x4s pulling up alongside it as though it’s the local drive through.
Away from the crazy parties and dancing at a local club, Dino’s, where its not unusual to find locals joining in with the music on bongo drums as everyone gyrates into the night, I spend time walking along the coastline. There is something strangely comforting about the constant ebb and flow of the ocean. The continual back and forth is almost meditative. There seems to be some security in its predictable and unrelenting movement that’s soothing for a broken heart. I spend a great deal of time walking alongside the waves, talking to Anthony in my head, and when I am alone, even out aloud. Otherwise, I walk along in silence. Me and the crabs…
As it is with most holidays, ours begins to draw to a close and I begin to panic, feeling it all slipping through my fingers. The thought of leaving the rat race, the mad crazy rush of life that when compared to life in Tofo seems almost idiotic. There is something to be said for being uncontactable. I wonder if my therapist would think I was running away. Then, I wonder, does it matter?
Some days there is no power and the Internet is slow. The heat, sun and tide appear to be the only constants. Some little part of me wants to take the plunge. To do it. Move to Tofo. And then that little other part says
– Oh really Rowena, will you manage?
Thankfully the holiday was not without a little drama, some romance, loads of adventure and I even got a bit of growing up chucked in there too. So today, when I open my little notebook next to my bed, a familiar scribble greets me
– The individual
The responsibility of learning and growing lies within the individual itself – we foster our own development and the chief resource at our disposal for this daunting task is – an interest. In here, lies the drive and enthusiasm to do, to be, to live.
To carry on…
May 20 babies are reminded, constantly, to observe themselves living. It is not something we do naturally because we usually are so into what we’re doing (what we like to do, we like to do a lot!) that we can loose focus and stop asking the question
– What does what I do say about me?
We hopefully meet people on the way that remind us, hurt us, love us, and force us to really look in that abstract mirror –
Georgie and his guitar who’s not afraid to sing, Vincent and his “little brother” who play like children disappearing in the foam of a soap-sudded sea. Lauren who’s pregnant and glowing next to Eric who bites if you stroke too hard, Rosetta who reminds me that there is still time for anything and Rowan with his ducklings on the beach teaching them how to swim.
All these characters and more somehow shook me out of a deep slumber, opened my eyes, in between smells of Dettol and sunscreen, chlorine and salt. For the first time in ages, my head is full of daydreams and fantasies, whirlwinds of ideas and distant places. So who knows, with the right amount of luck and just the right timing, anything could happen.
And as my baby sister writes at the end of her note
-You got it winnie!