THE GREEN DIARY : My Brother David

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.

Greyville, Durban.

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.

Doc’s first Passport issued in 1965 where incredibly at ”Special peculiarities” is written LIMPS.

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.

The Times, Tuesday 27th September, 2022.

37 Replies to “THE GREEN DIARY : My Brother David”

  1. The beautiful and moving story, Peter. I knew nothing about this brother of yours and – as you write – there were many wonderful sides to him that you didn’t know about either. Thank you for writing this tribute and lots of love to you and the family. RIP David.

  2. Dear Pete, I sit here in floods of tears, reading your loving tribute and story of David so eloquently and sensitely told.
    As I remember David when we met, he was indeed a kind and gentle man, quiet but alert and with a listening ear.
    So sorry my dear friend, I send you all my love and sympathy. How wonderful you found he had a community of friends who obviously loved and cared about him.
    He will remain in the hearts of those that new him, may he rest in peace.
    Much love Jimbilini xx

  3. Such sad news Pete but you have written so beautifully about Doc. Your words wash with joy and sorrow, happiness and horror. Love to you xx

  4. It sounds for him as a private man a perfect way to die. Also wonderful you could go and see he had made friends who cared about him. See you both on The Green. We are back from Zugg and now in Trento Northern Italy. Very impressed. Hope you can let go of the shock. Best Anne & Peter. Nos. 5.

  5. Dearest Peter,
    My deepest condolences on your very sad loss. Your latest, beautifully expressed blog brought a lump to my throat – especially sharing the discovery with you how just how loved and appreciated David was – thereby contradicting your belief that he was a loner with no friends. As you say, we think we know the people closest to us – but we really don’t.
    As you also say, we’re living in a really wretched time right now. The whole world is “opgefokked” , hay? And with no end in sight. Thank God I’m in the latter stages of what has been a privileged and fully sustained life. I spend most of my time at the cottage where I’d love to see you both when you return to Blighty. Please give me a call and let’s fix up a weekend. It’s been far too long. There’s a lot of catching up to do!
    Love to you both,

  6. Dearest Peter,
    What a heartbreaking journey for you and Tony. I read the announcement of David’s death in The Times last Tuesday, and was wondering how you and your other siblings were coping with all the ‘business’ of death, the tying-up-of-loose-ends, sorting property and possessions etc all whilst grieving your loss.
    How fortunate that, just in time, you found out about the Wake at Tina’s Hotel so that you could meet his friends and find out more about his life in Kloof.
    We all have aspects of our lives that others do not necessarily know even if they think they know us well.
    Had you been aware that he had been bullied at Michaelhouse?
    Poor chap, it seems probable that his disabilities from polio made him feel unable to form any long term relationship; however he knew that you, Sally and Michael all loved him and enjoyed his company – and that will have been a source of comfort to him.

    I am aghast that you had an open coffin viewing.
    Try to erase the mental picture you formed at that moment and replace it with memories of happy times you enjoyed together.

    Death comes to us all eventually, and I can’t decide whether when sudden and unexpected it is worse or better for those left behind.
    It must have been a helluva shock for you, and I am so glad you had dear Tony with you and able to support you.
    Sending you much love, Jo x

  7. I am so sorry to read this news today.
    Your tribute is indeed poignant ….. beyond endurance.
    I remember the young David as he was in the 1970 passport photo although I did see him at MHS in 2019. This is so unexpected and my thoughts are with you.
    Please give my condolences to Michael and Sally.
    Travel home safely.

  8. Deep condolences to you and your family. David is blessed in the memory of those who knew him, some later than others, but never too late to discover even more. Blessed also in his brother with such an exceptional gift to tell his story so movingly by ranging around the earthly context of his life as well as its spiritual depths. Amen.

  9. Extremely moving and beautifully written eulogy, Peter.

    Your brother was taken too young. We never knew him although we would have had that original MSC cruise taken place .


  10. Dear Bulgy,
    What a very sad time for you and shocking in the way that David’s Iife was cut short just at the point when you were about to enjoy a happy reunion with your other brother.
    My thoughts are with you and Peaklet at what must be an unbearably painful time for you.
    Much love,
    Flempots xxx ❤️

  11. Beautifully written Pete. It helped me to know him a little. I loved the spontaneous wake anecdote and the scattering of ashes under the Plane trees. I’m sure he did too.
    Much love, Jane

  12. So Sad Peter – It’s very brave of you to share this experience, however, I am pleased to learn more about your family, even in these circumstances. You and Tony are in our thoughts, and we hope to see you soon. Much love – Douglas & Jubilee

  13. Oh Peter; how terribly, terribly sad; I’m so sorry for you all but how amazing that you managed to find and get to his local and to meet all his friends; I can only imagine how wonderful but heartbreaking it must have been. Thank goodness you were all together.My sympathy, thoughts and prayers are with you all xxxxxx

  14. Oh, Peter, how sad. Thank god for your brother’s life and thank you for your honest and kind descriptions of how you experienced his death. He was blessed in having brothers and sisters like you.

  15. Thanks Peter – I remember David fondly as I do the road and the tree where you sprinkled his ashes. Peace Road – an appropriate name. So pleased that you could hear all the stories from his friends at Tina’s.

  16. Dear Peter,
    Sending hugs to you and condolences to your family. You have shared such a moving tribute to your brother, an intimate journey this time and makes me feel grateful to read you. Safe journey back to both you and Tony. Lots of love,

  17. Oh Peter. So sad to hear this, but what a beautiful and touching account. Condolences and thoughts to both you and Tony.

  18. Dearest Peter, such a sad story and situation. Sending our deepest condolences and love to you and your family, Eileen and Angelo

  19. Dear Pete
    So sorry to hear of this sad news but thanks for your honest and loving eulogy for David. I grieve with you for all the loneliness in the world and send love and strength.

  20. Pedro,
    What a poignant tribute to David. How fitting that his final resting place should be under the plane trees which I remember so well. My thoughts to you all.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely email, dear Peter & Jenny. I am sorry to have taken a while to get back to you but things have been rather sad and stressed.

      I got back to England a week ago and am rather hunkering down a little now. Tony got back a week before me and flies to Canada tomorrow to be with the family there for a few days.

      You read my little memoir to Brother David and there is nothing much to add to that so I’ll not yatter away but wish you much love and many thanks,

      P xx

  21. Dear Peter

    I was at Michaelhouse with David – we were in the same year – and subsequently saw him at the school on a number of Old Boys Days – while he might have been bullied (I was in West and coping with my own issues, as it were) he was a very loyal Old Boy.

    We all go our separate ways, as did David and myself. But I was saddened to read of his death, and then today on reading your blog deeply moved by your beautiful eulogy. I have lived a not dissimilar life (not married no partner) and understand what you were saying. I only hope cometh the hour I will be seen to have had as such good folks as those from Tina’s Hotel.

    May he rest in peace.

    Yours very sincerely

    Peter Whiting

    PS You may remember my sister Jill from Musgrove & Watson tour 1969-70 of Europe! She is in Cape Town and happily married for 48 years.

  22. Dear Peter, Michael & Sally
    I, like Peter Whiting was at MHS with Dave and remeber him very fondly. While he may not have had the physical capabilities to compete at sport, he was, nonetheless a very enthusiastic sport lover and loved to disect matches in detail post-event. I also saw Dave on a number of Old Boys Days before we moved to Australia and he was always a pleasure to be around. I have kept in touch with Peter Whiting all these years and we have reflected on what a harsh environment Michaelhouse could be for boys who were not “mainstream” and how there were many who were bullied as a result.
    I found your blog about Dave to be wonderfully moving. Thank you for celebrating his life so eloquently!!
    Michael & my brother Charlie were of an age and he was at school a couple of years behind you, Peter.

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