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!