So the last time I wrote anything here was about the birth of our little girl. An arrival, so sweet. So it’s fairly obvious why I haven’t posted again in a while. There have been many a fine Mental Blog Post, but none that actually made it past the 3am feed. Til now. This time, a departure.
It’s a funny thing about a name. Some names accrue the qualities of the people you’ve met with that name. Some names turn sweet or mean or soft or macho, according to who you’ve known with that name. I could give a number of examples. But for this piece, I’ve been thinking about the name Robert.
There are an abundance of Roberts in my life. One of my favourite photographs from our wedding has no fewer than three: my close-family Robs (my dazzling brother and my utterly lovely brother-in-law) and my longstanding friend Rob (who also officiated, wonderfully, our wedding ceremony). There are also the distant Robs: the older brothers of kids I was at school with; and a million years ago when I was a student there one in checked pants from somewhere in England, who declared (to my great alarm) his infatuation after half a bottle of red wine somewhere near the Spanish Steps in Rome. And from all the Roberts I’ve met, the name has accrued a singular quality: that of frankness. I’ve almost never met a Robert that didn’t look you in the eye and speak with sincerity. Some with a more brutal honesty; others with a gentler touch, but for me, the name has become a signifier of something very straight, very direct.
A few years ago, when I started working in publishing, I became acquainted with another Rob – Robert Hichens, an artist who lived in Muizenberg. Robert had piercing ice-blue eyes and fierce eyebrows and a crazy goatee, and he was hilarious, one of the most shoot-from-the-hip guys you’d meet.
Karen and I would regularly phone Rob up and give him impossibly overloaded briefs for impossibly tight deadlines. He would draw and draw and draw until our books were filled with his crisp bright pictures. Sometimes, when a deadline finished, we’d get together with Rob and his wife Jo for a celebratory supper. Ten years ago, when I got back from the Orange River, we all had dinner together. Rob and Jo were there with their three children – tiny Alistair, still a toddler, and the two girls, 9 and 11, at the sweet, bookish end of childhood, almost on the cusp of becoming teenagers. They looked at my crazy swimming pictures, and we talked seas and rivers. The last time we had dinner together, we talked children – the challenges of toddlers and teenagers.
About a week ago, Karen phoned with this news. Robert Hichens died. He had woken up in the morning complaining of chest pains. Jo drove him to Constantiaberg hospital. 45 minutes later, he was gone. The news sent me reeling. I could not stop thinking of Jo, of the children. Many people I know have faced deaths of loved ones lately – but the recurrent theme has been terminal illness. Death as a gradual tapering, death mingled with the bittersweet pain of conscious goodbyes. Death as relief from pain. Death as release from illness. Here, for the first time, I was confronted with death at its most unexpected and bewildering, death in the middle of life, with no warning, no explanation.
The truth is, I barely knew Robert and his family, and yet I felt I had a strong sense of them. Every time we spoke on the phone, usually work-related conversations, Robert and I would update each other with stories of our children. He told me about his amazing trip to Greece, where he spent several months with his wife and kids and the grandparents; about his dream to move to Greece; about his daughter’s debating achievements; about jamming and singing together with his kids and how it was one of the best times of his life. We commiserated about some of the challenges of freelancing. We shared our disbelief when one of his invoices to our UK publisher was paid in Indian rupees instead of rands. (You can check out the rand to rupee exchange rate to see why this was not something to celebrate.)
Last night, I went to a memorial celebration for Robert’s life. I had no idea what the protocols are for a memorial, but I pulled on my brightest lemon-yellow dress, bundled Molly into the car and drove to Rob’s brother’s house in Tokai where the gathering was taking place. A rambling old house, with extensive lawns in the front, and everywhere you looked, people – clusters of people drinking and chatting on picnic blankets, and under the trees, on the front porch. It was an extraordinary gathering – convivial and warm, sad and yet celebratory. Barefoot and summery, with clusters of teenagers and children and elderly folk, family and not-family and everything in between.
When the formalities began, utterly honest and utterly informal, I loved the way Joanne related curious, painful details of the past few months and days, her anecdotes about their relationship, her profound realisation that death forces us to give up our expectations of what a life is, particularly not how long or short it should be. I loved the way the daughters spoke, arms intertwined, through tears and laughter. I loved the way Louise declared that there are not many teenagers who can honestly say their dad is their best friend. No, there are surely not. I loved the way Jess declared her incredulity at the number of people there and said, ‘Thank you for coming, I won’t tell you what he said about you.’ I loved the way friends and family pieced together a kaleidoscope of memories of a man repeated described as wonderfully grumpy, passionate, brutally honest, talented, and thoroughly devoted to his family. A close friend recalled quotes from “the church of Robert” – gems of lucidity which sparkled through the tears of the children. The most extraordinary moment was Alistair’s karate kata. For what can an 11-year-old boy say in the face of this loss but to bow and kick and howl? Each tiny movement was magnificence, tribute.
Even as a peripheral acquaintance to this family, I felt a sense of privilege at having been present at this tremendously intimate, healing ritual of grief and celebration. And in my little place on the periphery, Rob’s death brought much reflection, and fierce truths driven in deep. There is no telling how far your ripples travel, where they go, what they do, when you arrive or depart this place. There’s no telling which is the day before you go. There’s no knowing which is the day that will take your beloved and turn him or her into a memory. It’s worth savouring this day, this moment, this kiss. Take care, speak your truth and love well. There is not much else.