Last week on Thursday the 22nd September I was to have met my brother, David, in London. We were to fly to Los Angeles to connect with a Princess cruise across the Pacific to New Zealand to visit our other brother, Michael and his family, not seen for seven years.
This was a journey I would have shared with you, dear Friends, as I always do. It was long in the planning and much anticipated by us both.
But last week on that same day, Brother David died and a new and very sad journey has been undertaken to KwaZulu-Natal instead. He was 65.
Tony and I flew out to Durban last Sunday the 25th coinciding with the arrival of Brother Michael and Janine after a gruelling 38 hour flight from Auckland.
It has been a great shock to us all.
You think that in life you know someone well, especially a brother, but in death you find out how little you really do.
David was a private man; he was a bachelor who, though he wanted so badly to share his life, never found anyone to do so. He was lonely and to a certain extent a recluse and our family shared in wishing him happiness and fulfilment but were saddened that this never happened.
During this horrible week dealing with the bureaucracy of illness and death, we have uncovered some of the life of our brother we never knew. He seemed to have few friends; we agonised over what to do to celebrate his life? Would we have a wake? If so, who would come? His Will indicated the simplest of funerals, no services, no church and no medical prolongations that would lend indignity and pain to what turned out to be a horrible end, gasping for air after a long struggle with emphysema.
He chose cremation and the Funeral Company, Doves, performed this rite, slotting in a “viewing” at 12.30pm last Tuesday the 27th., in the absence of a chapel service.
It was ghastly.
Even accessing the Doves facility on the east side of the Greyville race- and golf-course had a grotesque, Kafkaesque quality. Everything in South Africa is behind bars, electric fences, coded entry pads; nailed down against theft, vandalism, corruption and death. We drew up outside the facility before an iron gate barring entrance to the dedicated car park on the roof. It took a phone-call and a visit to the front desk to get this opened remotely before would could park – the only two cars on site. The gate slid shut, effectively imprisoning us. It was impossible to gain entry to the premises through the small, revolving gate without biometric recognition, a thumb print, and eventually a phone call had to be placed to central office in Johannesburg who in turn alerted the front desk in Durban as to our predicament.
Someone came and let us in to what I can only describe as a broken down, empty factory, reminiscent of SingSing. We were eventually ushered into the “viewing” room, a small, bare, unadorned, scruffy space in corporation colours where David was perched on a plinth in a cheap, deal coffin.
I have never witnessed an open coffin before and I never want to again. I do not know why we agreed this awful procedure. He was ice-cold, not defrosted, the coffin still perspiring. Sister Sally said that at least he looked more peaceful than when she had last seen him struggling for air, ashen faced, thin, exhausted, pipes protruding, and had whispered in her ear, “Please put my shoes on and take me home”.
We were ushered out and returned through the complicated security to our cars and let out through the sliding gate to the humid heat of a dirty Durban street.
Then an extraordinary coincidence occurred. My niece, Caitlin, messaged Michael from New Zealand. A friend had texted her from Durban to say that she had seen in an Instagram that Tina’s Hotel were arranging a farewell get-together for David that very evening. We knew nothing of this at all and this underlined the disconnect between the various parts in David’s life.
Tina’s is a small hotel in Kloof where David or ‘Doc’ as we have always known him, always came for drinks. It was his watering place. We’d known he went there but had no idea how often, for how many years or how many friends he had there.
We went along to what turned out to be a most moving and revelatory wake. About thirty people, none of whom we knew, attended; the manager of the bar, Rachel, was a sweet person who knew Doc well. She gave a spontaneous eulogy. She explained that for years David would attend at Tina’s, he had a reserved stool at the bar, his own beer mug and shot glass kept behind the bar, a heater specially installed on the wall behind, for he felt the cold; he would sit there quietly on his own, pen in hand, with the newspaper, the crossword or sudoku on the go. Windhoek was his tipple and he always ended the visit with a shot of Zambucco. Everyone liked him. She described him as a gentle man and a gentleman, with a sense of humour and a kindliness. Everyone there agreed with these sentiments. They agreed he was a private, sensitive man who had let on that he had been much bullied by life, that he had loathed boarding school where his physical disability had been much mocked, that he had extraordinary knowledge about many things.
We knew none of this. The evident respect and affection in which he was held was very moving indeed. That he had loathed his time at Michaelhouse was news to us though we knew that his disability had always figured largely in his life, forming much of his personality.
His disability precluded much of the obligatory sporting activities at school but he was an enthusiastic member of the Michaelhouse Venture Club which arranged weekend expeditions to the Drakensberg and other places in the Natal Midlands and was run and often led by his Housemaster, whom he liked very much, Hugo Leggatt. Longer more complex expeditions were mounted during school holidays and Doc very much enjoyed these too. He grew to love the Midlands and the Midland Meander was one of his favourite routes when his breathing difficulties forced him to rely on his car. When we started clearing his home we discovered that his new BMW bought exactly two years ago had clocked up 93,000 kilometres during the pandemic – many of these on solo trips visiting and revisiting the wilder, higher places in KwaZuluNatal.
He loved travel. Cruising worked well for him because of his health issues. He visited, usually alone, many places in Europe, often along rivers, and seemed happy with his own company although I joined him enthusiastically on a successful cruise round the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal – which excited and impressed us both very much – up the west coast of Mexico, Baja and San Diego. We very much enjoyed each other’s company and loved the whole experience; it was good to be so close.
It was a similar plan we hatched together now, though this time to New Zealand, to visit family, which was aborted the day before he died.
Doc caught polio from his Godfather at his Christening six weeks after his birth. He had a pronounced limp and a weakened left side, had always had balance issues and could fall easily. This lead to many scrapes. Mum was a physiotherapist and worked on Doc during his childhood so that at least he never had to wear callipers. But the scars from this disease had a lasting effect.
The staff at Tina’s all came up to speak with us and all his friends too. Here at least was a genuine wake filled with affection which by sheer luck and a message from New Zealand we stumbled across and found a side to our brother we hardly knew and could celebrate.
We decided that there would be no further service and that we’d scatter his ashes when they were “ready for collection” at a site to be chosen.
In the meantime it has been a week of packing up a life, rationalising belongings, visiting lawyers, making claims to insurance companies. Uncovering little projects Doc was working on, discovering other characters in the great drama that is Life. We have laughed too and reminisced well. There have been many tears for this was a life cut short and Doc was very much loved by us all.
Today we scattered his ashes.
When our family moved to Natal from Cape Town in 1957 and Doc was only four months old, my father found a beautiful house in Kloof on the edge of the escarpment with views to the south east towards Durban. Our parents made a garden out of the large tropical grounds and outside the wall planted six London Plane trees, saplings, carefully transferred from the nursery to the garden in the little Fiat Topolino they owned, with its canvas roof down.
These beautiful trees have flourished and grown tall in the sixty five years since then and it was along this shaded line that we sprinkled Doc’s ashes today. He loved our home there where he felt happiest and safest – at 53 Peace Road, Kloof.
Dear Friends this has been our latest journey then. So unexpected and unwanted. Many of you did not know Doc but many did and I thank you for you all for your kind thoughts and condolences at this sad time.
This is a new era. The Queen has died, a madman is running Russia and in England we have a nutty Prime Minister with idiotic policies presiding over a broken down Britain. The seas are rising and everywhere there is anger and protest, cruelty and greed.
And My Brother David has died. I am glad on two counts, that he did not die on our cruise and that he does not need to see any more of the mess that the world is in.
Tony and I are returning to Blighty this week on separate days.
Thank you all for listening.
Dearest Brother Doc, Rest In Peace. With love from your boeties Peed & Miggy and Sister Sal.