For the first time in 23 years, I celebrate The Husband’s birthday without him. He didn’t “do” birthdays. I did. That photograph, I took of him in 2016 and used it for the invitation to celebrate his 70th birthday. Seven years ago.
Exactly a month ago, on 5 June, I said goodbye to him forever. I left him knowing that while I was gone he was likely to breathe his last breath. He hadn’t been breathing without help for 37 days. He had been living – if you could call it that – his worst nightmare.
I had been home an hour when they called to say his time was close. A quarter of an hour later he left.
Six days later, the village – I mean the village – said goodbye. It was an old fashioned wake at the local – where he had intended having his first beer when he came out of hospital. It was not to be.
My first conversation with Tom was over a pot of potatoes. No, I wasn’t cooking. He was. He had his rear end in the air and I heard a frustrated expletive from behind a cupboard. Cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he was managing very dodgy electrics to cook the perfect roast potatoes. I was just passing through the kitchen. He hadn’t seen me when I asked in even more colourful language, whether the potatoes were ruined. He was more than startled.
He never let me – or anyone – forget that conversation, especially the bits that followed: a highly intellectual discussion about the meaning – and use – of the swear words for sodomy and fornication. I subsequently discovered that he was a little nonplussed when he worked out that I was also that very annoying woman who kept on wailing, “I’ve lost my drink…”
It was a party – Tom never forgot the date: Saturday 30 October, 1999. A housewarming of friends and who had been former neighbours of both of ours, at different times in our respective lives. It was also that evening, that we danced together for the first time. Not really together, although that’s what he’d have liked. Because I fled. He was too interested.
As I think back on that evening, and it feels like yesterday, not the nearly quarter of a century that it is. Our meeting and what unfolded was – is – the Tom we know and love:
– Happy to help where he was needed
– Quick with a quiet riposte
– Always ready to hit the dance floor
He worked hard over the next few months.
Just as he always remembered the date we met, he never forgot the date when, the following February, our “together” journey really began. I didn’t make it easy for him. Another long term relationship, let alone a marriage, was not in my life plan. Then. He accepted that, and me, with all my foibles, and set about courting me. Yes, that’s an old fashioned word, but it best describes how he gently held me as I grieved my mother, and set about earning my trust just by listening and doing. Thinking and caring. Just being himself.
Tom was not my other half. He was a whole vibrant, strong, healthy person. The hardest part of the last 37 days of his life was that for most of it, he was robbed of his independence, agency, and autonomy.
People laughed when I referred to the co-management, but that was how we did things – we discussed and reached an agreement. Or tried because we didn’t always agree. There were times – a lot – when we didn’t agree – mostly on work issues. When the other knocked heads, we just picked up each other’s pieces and carried on.
Most people know Tom as a man of few words. He was – unless he knew you well. Then, he was hard to shut up. He told stories and one of our Sunday Supper guests one evening exclaimed that she hadn’t known that he was such a raconteur – her word. I’ve never forgotten. I know there are so many of you here today who will miss Tom’s stories. I, and others, asked him to write them down. He never did.
There’s one story he never told at a dinner party, but which we discussed. Often. It epitomises the man who loved people and had the capacity to talk to anyone – and build bridges. The specific details are not important, but here are the broad brush strokes:
Either shortly before or after independence in Zimbabwe and although back on the farm, he was still part of the police and some cattle had been stolen. Everybody knew where they were, and with whom. Things were still tense but protocols had been set in place for this kind of engagement. Tom volunteered to lead the group and negotiate for the cattle. One of the conditions for the expedition was that nobody was to be armed. It bothered everyone else. Not Tom. He was simply going to meet with people to have a conversation.
When the two groups ultimately met, they all recognised each other from having been on opposite sides. Individuals in their respective forces who had been counterparts and enemies. What ensued was a long and engaging conversation about hostile contacts. There was one, in particular, and during which, the two men discovered that by some slight of hand or crack of stick, the one had not assassinated the other. They discussed “who” (and what) the other had been during hostilities and that they had known “of”, and encountered each other for years. With no hard feelings, and much mutual respect they shook hands, and Tom returned to the farm with the cattle.
His gift with people explains why, during the hostilities leading up to Zimbabwe’s independence, their homestead was never attacked despite their cook, who lived in the compound, being a senior political leader.
Tom had a wicked sense of humour and given half a chance, full of mischief. He was an adventurous and mischievous child. One of my favourite stories is of the mice he wasn’t supposed to have had. His mother discovered them because when he’d taken them to school – on his bicycle, inside his shirt and in his blazer – they ate bits out of his school uniform. He graphically described how on a winter’s morning, he took them to school to sell. I know it’s impossible, but in my mind’s eye, created an abiding image of a little boy, peddling to school with a mission of mice clinging to the handlebars of his bike.
Then there was the time he and three of his mates built boats and raced them in the nearby stream. They waterproofed them with bitumen they encouraged to ooze from the edge of the tar road… They did it often because, between regattas, they stored boats by sinking them in the stream…
Then, there’s his telling – with all the actions and appropriate animal sounds – of when he tried to encourage an errant herd of cattle back into their camp. In the dead of a night with no moon. Such were his storytelling skills that listeners hung on every word, and when he eventually explained that the glowing eyes and warm snuffly snorts were coming from a herd of wild buffalo, everybody would be crying with laughter.
He loved a party, and to dance. Often, at his insistence, we’d be the first up and dancing. And the last.
Please dance for Tom. With Tom in your heart. At least one more time.
Until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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