A Rotten Year – (Not for CO)

It has been a pretty rotten year. I don’t normally talk in specific terms about my personal life but please grant me this small indulgence.

Things happen to us: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as far as this platform is concerned I don’t like to let emotions interfere with what I believe should be, objective debate. However, sometimes personal events can themselves become the subject of debate, not just for their own sake, but for the consequences they have, especially in changing a person’s broader outlook on life.

When I consider what is going on in the world, including global meltdown, both physical and financial, as well as the numerous wars and conflicts that are taking place and then compare it all to my microcosm of life, I find it very difficult to take anything that anybody says as being of any consequence.

In short, there have been a number of deaths this year, five in particular, that have really messed with my head.

1) About 18 months ago, an older friend, but not that old, David, announced that he had pancreatic cancer. He was in his early 70s and one of the most wonderful men I have known. Although I only met him and his wife about 5 years earlier, he had become a good friend. Highly intelligent and well educated, he was multi-talented and successfully retired. Although a native of this country, he lived for the most part in Buckinghamshire, but for 4 months of the year he stayed here in the Cape. David was one of those people who make you believe that everything you have to say is interesting and important while at the same time is himself, fascinating and entertaining.

In December, he called me up to say that he was coming here with his entire family for Christmas and New Year. He did not need to spell it out, but it was clear that he wanted to come home to die. Over the next couple of weeks, I spent a lot of time with him and watched him deteriorate. At all times he remained cheerful, considerate and dignified even when he was in great pain and needed to be lifted into a chair or his bed. He died in early January.

2) A couple of years ago, an old school friend tried to get together a database of all the boys from our year at school. After numerous emails exchanges from around the world, a spread sheet was produced listing all the living, dead and those few who were untraceable. There was a depressingly high number of departed which I know shocked most of us. Then, in March this year, I learned that one, Frank, who it emerged was living in Joburg had developed rectal cancer. I was travelling to Harare and so I went to visit him. Though it was the first time in about 20 years that I had seen him we had been good friends at school. It was shocking experience. For some reason, perhaps because he could no afford otherwise, he had opted for homeopathy.

Rectal cancer has to be one of the most unpleasant of all forms of that wretched disease. Without adequate pain relief or proper nursing facilities, not to mention the loss of dignity, he must have been in agony and huge discomfort. We chatted together about old times and he expressed his optimism for a recovery, though it was clear to me that he would not last a month; nor did he. I said goodbye and learned that he had died three weeks later.

3) On Friday 29th of April, I was attending a party to celebrate the Royal Wedding. As it was drawing to a close, I received a call from my brother who was up inScotland. He had rung to ask if I had heard the news about my youngest sister. I had not. He told me that she had suffered a heart attack the day before and while the initial prognosis had been positive it now turned out that her brain had stopped functioning and that without life support, she would be dead within a few days. Hoping that I would be able to at least say goodbye to her, I bought a ticket to London, but she died on the Monday morning before I could get there.

She was only just 50. A beautiful woman, the mother of 4 wonderful children, the wife of a loving husband, the co-proprietor of a successful business, a popular friend and a much loved sister, her death was a tremendous shock and a great sadness to all of us. There was no reason whatsoever to suspect that she might suffer such an attack. She did not smoke, she was slim, fit and took regular exercise. I cannot recall her ever being ill at all.

She was a very principled woman who raised her children to always think about others. Her catch phrase with them was, ‘It is not always about you!’ Having lost her own mother when she was 7, she had always been aware of the risk of that happening to her children and so she had deliberately told them about things that she had never been able to ask. She was modest too and was surprisingly insecure about whether her friends and family actually liked her or just pretended to do so for some perverse reason. She would have been amazed and thrilled by the turn out at her funeral. Close to 600 people descended on the church in the little town on the Wiltshire Gloucestershire border. People came from as far afield as India, the US and Zambia.

4) At the funeral was my cousin, my sister’s closest friend and confidant. Another wonderful, happy person who was completely self-effacing and utterly considerate. She had been suffering from cancer for 7 years and there had been many points at which she had been expected to die. It had been a while since I had last seen her and I was shocked by her appearance. She wept her way through the service. Whereas she, herself a mother of 5, had years to prepare her family for her departure, my sister had had no warning at all. She died two months ago.

5) Late on Tuesday night last week, actually it was Wednesday morning at 12.30 am, I was awoken by a phone call from my elder sister in London. Still half asleep, but able to read her name on the screen, my first reaction was, ‘who has died?’ But I let her speak. She tired to ease me in gently, but then it came out that my oldest friend and closest childhood playmate had died a few hours earlier, having suffered a heart attack. After lunch, his wife had gone out for a walk and he had gone to his desk and fallen asleep. His invalid mother, who aged 80 is suffering from cancer and was living with them, had gone to see if he was alright and had found him dead at his desk.

I had been in touch with him on Skype a week earlier and he had seemed in good spirits. We had had the kind of exchange that only two friends who know each really well can have.

These were our final words to each other:

” Me: Very good. Anyway, I have a new box of cereal that I am very keen to read, so I must rush. Toodle Pip.

He: Fucking good excuse, Toodle Pip.”

His funeral is in Oxfordshire today.

After all those deaths, I have been asking myself, does anything really matter? We plan and scheme and work and strive and pontificate and criticise and express our opinions as if we count for something and that ultimately we will make a difference. We don’t and we won’t. People are still going to suffer and die no matter what we do, but for others, life will go on.

Please do not get me wrong, I am not looking for sympathy. Rather I am just trying to express my cynicism towards human nature.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!


12 thoughts on “A Rotten Year – (Not for CO)”

  1. Bearsy :

    “Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die.”

    Indeed, Bearsy.

    Increasingly, though, I am finding that I am able to detach myself from life’s persecutions and rather than worry about what has or will go wrong, I just strive to enjoy the moment. It’s almost like the alcoholic’s mantra; ‘don’t think about tomorrow, just be happy (stay dry) today.’ All my planning goes to crap anyway.

  2. A rotten year indeed. Are we ever conditioned for such losses? Perhaps we don’t do too much about it. We don’t shout and wail, but make a few quips and get on with it. Like a gambler, we can suffer a losing streak, but what in life is a winning streak? People don’t start coming alive again do they.

    Sipu I wish you a better turn of events in 2012.

  3. Sipu,

    Thats a pig of a year in anyones book, but thank you for reminding me that no matter how crappy you think your situation is, there is always someone within spitting distance who has it far worse. Your tale of outrageous misfortune has reminded me that there are far worse things happening than the things I have been fixating on of late.

    I sincerely hope you are due a clear spell after that lot chum, I reckon the carpe diem quote is the best one to take away.

  4. Thank you all for your comments and your good wishes.

    I agree carpe diem is the watchword, though at the same time I do not think it means one must achieve great things. So many people want to run their own companies, accumulate great wealth, achieve fame and political power etc. I have come to realise that just smelling the roses, metaphorically speaking, is pretty damn good. There are a few things I find more enjoyable than going for a hard walk up the back of Table Mountain in the early evening, enjoying the stunning views and the exercise, coming back and having a shower, followed by a good stiff drink. One can do that every day and it is equally enjoyable each time.

    Society tries to make us feel guilty for not achieving more or acquiring more. I think it is important to recognise that most of what we have is pretty good. We really do not need as much as we sometimes think.

  5. Sipu, you and I have clashed now and then about details like religion and racism (!) but may I sign up to your #7? I agree whole-heartedly with your philosophy, if the word does it justice. Thank you.

  6. Sipu
    I think we all DO make a difference, just by being here. I don’t mean that we should strive for great world changing things but interacting with each other and this website is a good example, can change the way we act and think. The first thing that struck after reading your blog was that you have been privileged to know some pretty nice and decent people who have made an impact on your life, so they have made a difference to you as I’m sure you have to them.
    Sure we all make plans for the life ahead and, like yourself, I have lost some people very close to me, some expected, elederly relatives and such and the pain of loss is just as strong, and others have either been a bolt out of the blue or slowly to an inevitable end. We mourn and raill against the unfairness of those struck down when young, I lost my best mate last year at age 55 through cancer and I still see or hear things and think, ‘must tell Frank, he would like this,’ only Frank wont, he’s gone and it still hurts but I remember him and his ways, by knowing him I am a better man and If we our lives to the good we can make a difference.

  7. Thanks OMG. You are right I have been fortunate with my friends. I think part of the problem that I have had has been the disintegration of my country. Family and friends are scattered the world over. People come into one’s life and then go. One gets used to their going and become immune to loss. Sometimes I feel guilty at my lack of grief. I am not a great believer in the ‘it is better to have loved and lost…’ malarky. I do not try to love or be loved, I just try to avoid hurting people. In the real world, that is. In cyberspace I can be a bastard. 🙂

  8. Try as I might, Sipu, and I do try, it is sometimes difficult to be objective, I do find it hard to read about your “rotten year” without sympathising, although I know this is not why you wrote this post.

    I’m with you on the achieving business though; what does it mean? We all here, I would guess, have relatively comfortable lives, and we do tend to become wound up in the minutiae.

    I think as we grow older, we do end up losing people we are close to, and it does make us question our own mortality, which sometimes is not a comfortable thought, although we know we are not immortal!

    You cannot change the past, but I do think you are right, we should try to avoid hurting people, and try not to take for granted those who are still around, and remember with fondness those who are not, but did enrich our lives.

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