Goodbye

When I was in my early teens, I watched my father walk off the edge of the world. One second he was there, with all of us, and then he was gone. We would have thought he had disappeared, gone from us forever, had it not been for the earth shattering cry of “Jesus H. Christ!” that accompanied his departure.

It is a testament to who the man was that, while we all found this unnerving, none of us found it even slightly surprising. My father marched to the beat of a different drummer.

You see, it wasn’t really the edge of the world. It was a two meter drop at the edge of the stoep (patio) at his place down in the bush, “Ntsiri”. It was a moment that encompassed my father perfectly. You see, most men would do this sort of thing after a heavy night out with their buddies. My Father was stone cold sober. It was nine in the morning. He was just too busy looking up at the trees to bother with the ground beneath his feet.

The edge of the world.

He was hurt. He was a big man, six foot four and over a hundred kilograms, and designed more for heavy moving than throwing himself off low cliffs, so his knees took a beating, but more than that, I think there was a small part of him that was hurt that the ground hadn’t risen up to meet his feet. It usually did.

He was born more than a decade and a half after his siblings, because his brother snuck off to fight in World War Two, and his parents feared he would not be coming back. He did. So my uncle and aunt were more like extra parents than siblings. He grew up on a farm. The wives of all the farm hands worked in the house, and they all adored him and fawned over him.

It was a childhood that made him all the things he was to us. The world belonged to him. In his own mind, he was bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter than anyone else he knew (no, he wasn’t a Cure fan, the words just fit). In his own mind, he knew that if he worked hard he could have whatever he wanted. In his own mind, he knew that people were interested by the (generally odd) things that interested him. In his own mind, he knew that he mattered. That what he said would be heard. That the people he liked would like him. And that the ground would rise up to meet his feet.

All of this makes him sound arrogant. And he was. But in the most charming way you could imagine. Because somehow he managed to pull it off.  You see, he usually was bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter than anyone else in the room. He worked like a dog, and got all of the things he wanted. He was interesting. He was heard. He was liked. He mattered. If the ground let him down every now and then, it was a small price to pay.

His childhood also made him into the most magnificent lunatic I have ever known. To have had everything he did valued so highly freed him from the bounds of self-consciousness and conventionality that hold the rest of us back. It made for a wonderful, unique childhood for his children.

In the game reserve, we were the family who drove casually past most of the animals, but screeched to a sudden halt to look at unusual plants while a queue of cars formed behind us, desperately scanning the bush for the lions or leopards they were sure we had seen. We were the family sneaking matchboxes full of rare seeds through customs. We were the family who cooked squid heads stuffed with desiccated mushrooms on the braai (barbeque) while everyone else had steak. We were the family who drove 500 km without opening the windows or turning on the aircon, so we could “test the car’s fuel consumption”.

He was useless at expressing emotion, yet somehow we all knew we were loved beyond the telling of it. Even when we were all adults, with lives of our own, all he wanted was for us all to be together.

He was given to strange passions, both temporary and permanent. His greatest loves were plants (and his garden), the bush, and my mother. The temporary ones were the fun ones though. For a while, as a child, I was pressed into service as his wood cutting partner. For some reason, he decided that the fires we made all had to be made up of uniformed sized blocks of wood. Every holiday for a couple of years started with me and him sawing logs into four inch lengths.

Then there was Jethro Tull. Every day for a year or so, he played “Locomotive Breath” on a loop as he drove us to school. He never tired of it. He only stopped when one of my sisters had a mini breakdown.

There was the “cleaning his glasses with methylated spirits” phase, which stopped when he could no longer open his tortured, bloodshot eyes.

There was the “braai (barbeque) out in the bush” phase, which stopped the second time our open bush vehicle was surrounded by lions sniffing out the lamb-fat soaked dishes in the back.

My children, at the edge of the world my father gave us.

There was the “ask for the food that the owner of the Chinese restaurant was feeding his own family” phase, which stopped when he realised that no-one else in his own family was eating the boiled jellyfish.

His health was always a source of great, and peculiar, entertainment for him. While he cheerfully smoked sixty unfiltered cigarettes a day, he decided that Hepatitis B was the greatest threat to his wellbeing. We all had to go off and get inoculated. Eventually, the cigarettes got the better of him, and he had a heart attack. He decided that this didn’t mean the end for him in terms of bacon, as long as he ate a single slice of toast smeared with lecithin every day.

Just recently, he found a sick bat in his garden. I had made the mistake of giving him a book about plagues. He decided he was going to die of rabies, and took himself of for another course of inoculations. He made my mother go for them too- you can’t be too careful.

Through it all he managed to remain positive and cheerful. Health was a hobby- you could choose the parts that interested you and ignore the rest.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, while pottering around in his garden, where he was happiest, he lay down and died. He hadn’t been ill, and the doctors tell us he would have felt no pain. He just lay down and stopped. I can’t think of a better way for him to go. In fact, he couldn’t have planned it better himself. Everything came together just as he would have wanted it- he died before my mother, as he wanted. He didn’t have to go off and get a hearing aid, as he wanted. He won the great life insurance lottery, as he wanted.

And he never had to get old. It is a gift that none of his family will remember him lying grey and wasted in a hospital bed- my last memory of my father will be the quixotic ride we took through the streets of Johannesburg, towing a broken Land Rover behind his Jeep on a short metal tow bar. We arrived home shot through with adrenaline (never tow a broken Land Rover through the streets of Johannesburg on a short metal tow bar. It’s not fun. (Actually it was great fun, but don’t do it anyway)), had a quick cup of coffee, and said our goodbyes. Forever.

There was no funeral. That’s not who we are. We didn’t even go to the cremation. I suppose someone will pick up his ashes later. Instead, we all got together that Sunday for a family lunch in his garden. It was just my mother, us children and our families, and one of my cousins. It was chaos. Collectively, there were 12 kids, most of them his direct descendants and none of them quiet and retiring. We raised a glass of wine to him while his legacy ran screaming and laughing round his lawn. It beat the hell out of organ music and tearful condolences.

There was a small ceremony. We asked all the children to write him a goodbye letter, which we planned to bury under three of the trees he had bought on his last plant buying expedition. I went off into a shady part of the garden and dug a hole, and the crowds moved in. All 23 of them, in a tiny little space, trampling plants and jostling for room, and started our little farewell.

I stopped for a second and looked around. All of the children were on their knees in the mud, putting their letters in the damp ground. One of the kids was shouting that she wasn’t going to put her lovely letter in the ground. Another was asking loudly if we were going to put granddad into the hole. One started filling the hole with flowers, leaving no space for the trees, while another complained that someone was throwing mud on them. Some of the adults were giving loud and conflicting advice on how to plant the trees. Some of us were laughing too loud, others crying. It was chaos. He would have loved it (except for the plant trampling part).

As we filed back out into the bright Highveld sun, I knew we were going to be fine. None of us is too much like any of the others, and no-one will ever be quite like my father, but together, we are bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter than anyone else we know. We matter, and if any of us ever walks off the edge of the world, the ground will rise up to meet our feet. Because someone made us that way.

Goodbye Dad. And thank you.

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67 thoughts on “Goodbye

  1. Susan Lower says:

    Thank you for sharing about your father with us. Your words are filled with love for a man that most of us have never met, but feel we have known.

  2. faures says:

    Such a beautiful post. Had me in tears.

  3. Beautiful commentary of a fantastic father. You have wonderful memories. I can definitely identify with him..fortunate to have had a father who passed on so much to you and your siblings.

  4. What a wonderful tribute, heartfelt and sincere. Loved this tender and caring piece.
    Muah!!!
    Sooz

  5. Lovely.
    Kaukab’s daughter

  6. javaj240 says:

    Beautiful!

  7. Bishop says:

    You touched my heart and in a way you have allowed your father’s life to touch me also! Thank you for sharing.

  8. seesugar says:

    I loved this post about your father. I love your father! Probably because he reminds me so much of my own father, and inspires me to write more about mine. I lost mine many years ago, but the time we had together was equally as hairy a ride as yours was with your dad. Cheers to you for having yours so much longer.
    Mine also said “Jesus H. Christ” when something untoward happened. Most famously in our family when the kneeler broke under his knees during my younger sisters Communion Service. Right there in the middle of the service, in church, he blurts out “Jesus H. Christ!” Humiliating then, best memory now.

    • 23thorns says:

      Ah, church. We didn’t go often enough to learn the rules. I remember watching my father trying to back slowly out of his pew mid-sermon. The little old lady next to him was trying to get him.
      All she was doing was trying to say the Peace.

  9. narf77 says:

    When we are children we don’t appreciate the eccentricities that make our relatives who they are…when they are gone it’s all we remember. Nothing like a brightly burning family to fuel flames that breed immortality

  10. Elisheba says:

    After reading this, I love your dad—what a blessing he was to you and you to him!

  11. marlies says:

    Justin you are so talented at voicing what surrounds you – laughed, coughed, laughed, tears – good for you.

  12. thoughtsfromanamericanwoman says:

    May your father’s legacy live on in his grandchildren…what a lovely tribute. Blessings – Patty

  13. Eloquent. Thank you for sharing. My condolences.
    He is lucky to have a son that shares in both the love of plants and desire to share that passion with others.
    Here’s to your Dad and the garden of life!

  14. lylekrahn says:

    Amazing tribute on so many levels. I love the confidence that the ground will rise up to meet your feet.

  15. artbyselina says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your dad!

  16. Dawn says:

    You are blessed with beautiful memories – thank you for sharing the memories of your Dad with us.

  17. What a touching warm and beautiful tribute…moved thank you for sharing.
    My Pop (dad) is 85… I feel with your words.

  18. Oh, my dear…
    Having lost my father in May of this year at the age of 94 (him, not me) this really struck home. Thanks.

  19. Joanna says:

    I am sorry for your loss, when our parents walk off the edge of the world everything changes. Beautiful tribute.

  20. artsifrtsy says:

    What a wonderful memoir – I found myself thinking of my Pop while reading it. Sounds like he was a treasure.

  21. What a beautiful tribute to your father. Thank you for sharing.

  22. This is a lovely, heartwarming tribute. Could that we all be in the places we love most when our time comes. My pick would be while gardening as well.

  23. lazygoddess says:

    What a great tribute. Sorry for your loss.

  24. oldsalt1942 says:

    I think this post would have brought a smile to his lips. It brought a tear to my eye half a planet away.

  25. luggagelady says:

    Heartbreaking and tear-rendering — yet inspiring…makes me want to call my dad. The way you honor the many cherished memories, your father will always be close in your heart. XO

  26. reluctantwritergirl says:

    such a great goodbye. it gave me goosebumps! i am so sorry for your loss. it sounds like your father made such an impact on your life that he will continue to be with you for the rest of yours. i love that you didn’t have a funeral and that instead you remembered him in the way he would have liked. i pray that you and your family have peace in his absence.

  27. Eye Dios Mio says:

    what a lovely tribute, thank you for sharing this. Your description of him makes me wish I could have met him, he sounds like a wonderful man.

  28. You are a gifted writer and your family is both unique and strong.
    I enjoyed the uniqueness of every character as if this was a movie. You are so unique that conventionality does not matter much. I find consolation in the fact that unity makes you all one big and strong family. Even though you will miss him, his legacy lives on.

  29. Carolyn says:

    Fabulous way to remember someone near and dear!

  30. A great tribute to the man you so loved. Just remember “Wealth is not measured by the amount of worldly goods you amass while you are here, but by how long and how fondly you are remembered after you’re gone.” – Me. Your father was truly a very wealthy man.

  31. Nil says:

    A lovely tribute worthy of the man you describe. He is living on in you and his whole family…

  32. I have been sitting here remembering someone special … I saw that you’d been there.

    I came to your blog and sat here in amazement… and knowing I’d be following your blog.

    I love your style of writing, it is ‘bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter’. It is so ‘real’… like my writing… your words are so meaningful.

    I’m glad you visited my wordpress blog (I hope you will visit my primary blog with photos at happycolorsandgrannygee.blogspot.com and follow there).

    The reason I’m glad is because I ‘feel’ I have found a special place to come to. Granny Gee/Gloria

  33. This was very moving and such a beautiful tribute to your father. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  34. Words fail me, but they clearly didn’t fail you. A lovely epitaph!

  35. Sending you warm thoughts of comfort on your loss. Your father was an amazing man. Thank you for sharing his life.

  36. harpersfarm says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father. Beautifully written.

  37. Nylabluesmum says:

    What an absolutely glowing tribute to a very unique man!! I can see so much of your Father in you!!! He was a great man & you are following in his footsteps in your own way!!!!
    As we say in Judaism: MAY HIS MEMORY BE FOR A BLESSING!!
    Thank you for sharing your lovely Father with us!!!!

  38. A special eulogy, exceptionally written.

  39. Observations of a Perpetual Motorcyclist says:

    Wonderful words and beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing this.

  40. Deepest condolences on your loss. Your ceremony reminds me very much of when my Papa passed. Although the ceremony was a formal graveside one, my 3 uncles were all at their best, carrying on like pork chops and making quips. It seemed fitting, that irreverence.
    Thank you for sharing your father with us all. I feel like I nearly knew him, a testament to your writing.

  41. zen city says:

    that was truly beautiful.
    keep sharing the love!
    namaste,
    laurie

  42. Sue says:

    I read this with tears in my eyes and happy memories in my mind…

  43. kelloggs77 says:

    Once again, your words impress me…and so did your dad. My condolences.

  44. You were blessed to have experienced a unique, wonderful childhood with an incredible father. You wrote a lovely goodbye.

  45. meesha says:

    That’s a beautiful tribute to your dad.

  46. lahgitana says:

    How beautiful. In very few paragraphs you showed me the person he was. Your description of the crowd around the letter-hole made me grin with tears in my eyes.

    I AM sorry you don’t have him around anymore. A bigger-than-life loss.

    Best, Laurel

  47. Amy says:

    I’m half way around the world crying over the death of a man I never met. You’ve written such a beautiful tribute to your father! God bless you and your family.

  48. One of the most lovely blog posts I’ve ever read.

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