365 Days

One year ago last night, my wife Connie died of ovarian cancer.

In many cultures, there’s almost a mandatory mourning period of a full year after the death of a loved one, and I now know why. It has to do with anniversaries: “Oh, last year this time we were celebrating something together. This year… I’m doing it alone.” Those add up, and they take a toll on you as that horrible year drags on. But with the merciful passage of time — and it’s true: time does heal the worst of wounds — those little aches, those pangs of shared memories, fade and lose their sting. This year, I’ll remember an occasion from last year and this time, it will involve just me. Not as painful.

I have spoken many times about how my friends all over the world rallied around me and helped me get away from this most personal tragedy, so I’m not going to repeat any of it other than to say that they collectively gave me a reason to carry on living: not that I was going to do something foolish like cap myself, of course, but they got me to do things that helped dull the pain of memory, kept me busy, and above all made me realize that I still have so many things to live for. The alternative was for me to sit in a one-room garret and stare at the walls — which my friends, as they told me in no uncertain terms, were not going to allow me to do. Instead, once I’d taken care of the soul-destroying minutiae of death, I sold the house, traveled, and did the sorts of things which reminded me of the things I hadn’t been able to do before, but could now do. I did those things, and I will do again.

It’s called living. Life goes on after death and now, one year after that most profound tragedy from which I thought I’d never recover, I’ve come out from my period of mourning with renewed purpose, renewed hope for the future, and a renewed determination to live my life to its absolute fullest. That feeling, that intention, is not something that happened suddenly, or just this morning; it’s been a gradual process which began at some point (I have no idea when) and grew stronger and stronger as the year went on.

Now it’s been three hundred and sixty-five days since Connie died, and if you’d told me then that I’d be feeling the way I do today, I’d not have believed you.

Now, at last, I think I’m healed (although of course there may well be the occasional twinge of pain — I’ve felt a few just writing this post). All I needed was to get through the horrible anniversary to put the seal on it, and thanks to the boundless support from my friends, my family and my Readers, I made it.

Now it’s time for adventure, time to live again.

And if you’ll all indulge me, I’m going to continue to chronicle some of those adventures on these very pages. That is the real reason why I started blogging again — there’s no point in having an adventure when you can’t share it with anyone — and it’s only when I wrote this post that I realized it. (And by the way: a huge round of applause for Tech Support BobbyK, without whom I’d be snarled in incomprehensible Gordian techno-knot,  and you wouldn’t be reading any of this.)

So stick around: I’m going to drink deeply of Life in the years to come, and you’re going to share it with me. Enjoy the journey, because I most certainly plan to.


In Memoriam:

Constance Mary (Carlton) du Toit
14 May 1958 – 3 February 2017

Solitude

My friend Doc Russia is a very intelligent man. When we got the final diagnosis of The Mrs.’s cancer — that it would be a question of months or even weeks, not years — Doc told me that he was not going to let me stay by myself “in some little apartment, looking at four walls” (his words).

So, true to his word, when the end finally came, he moved me into his guest room where I’ve been ever since — except for when I’ve been living with Mr. Free Market’s family and The Englishman’s family, that is.

Until now.

Now, of course, I’m staying in Cornwall in a lovely cottage owned by The Englishman, and for the first time since February this year, I’m completely on my own.

So how does it feel, this living by yourself thing?

Many people talk of how when they finally come to live on their own, whether after death of a spouse or divorce, that there’s a wonderful sense of relief — that being on one’s own means that all your time is your own, that you have freedom to do whatever you want, even that you find things exactly where you left them, and so on. Last night, for example, I felt a little tired so I went to bed at about 9pm instead of my usual midnight-ish bedtime. Big mistake. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to need less sleep — or, to be more precise, a measured amount of sleep: about six to seven hours — so going to bed at 9 meant waking up at, yes, you guessed it, 4am with absolutely no chance of going back to sleep. Shit.

After a while, though, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t need to go back to sleep. I had nowhere to go in the morning, no place to be, and nothing that absolutely needed my attention. It’s called retirement, and I’m retired. Furthermore, if I were to feel tired later in the day because of my early awakening, I could just take a damn nap because I had nowhere to go, no place to be, and nothing that absolutely needed my attention.

Having established all that, there was only one thing to do, of course: I fell asleep in seconds and woke up just after 9am.

Then I walked downstairs after doing my Morning Things (meds, etc.) and walking into the kitchen, to find everything exactly as I’d left it the evening before: tidy (I’m a tidy person by nature) but with stuff lying on the counter that I would need to make breakfast. I still needed a few things so I walked up to the little grocery store and bought them, and when I got back to the cottage I put everything away and made myself breakfast. Which is when yet another realization came to me: this will be the pattern of the rest of your life.

I also don’t have a car, which means I can’t spend my days driving around the countryside like a dervish, being too busy to think. Now I have to take my time, literally, and in that time, all I really have are my thoughts for company.

Let me get one thing absolutely clear, at this point: I don’t mind being by myself — or at least, I’ve never minded being by myself before. The problem is that when you’ve lived as close to someone as I lived with The Mrs. for over twenty years, you get used to being not alone; and when you love your companion, that constant companionship is not a burden, it’s addictive.

For the first time in my life I feel alone, and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

This won’t last, of course. At some point I’ll either get used to being on my own, or else a miracle will occur and I won’t be on my own anymore.

This post, by the way, is not a cry for help, nor is it a gloomy one. In ten days’s time, I’ll be driving along the Midi with one of my oldest friends, and after that, I’ll be spending Christmas and New Year in London with an even older one. My time in Cornwall is therefore just an interlude, but it may well prove to be the most important part of this sabbatical.

But Doc sure called this one right. At this point, having spent so much time in other people’s homes and having been so busy doing things like hunting, carousing, watching cricket and football and driving all over the place, the shock of February has pretty much worn off. Had I moved into an apartment back then and spent my days looking at the walls with a future that was going to be just that, I’m not sure I could have coped. No, let me tell the truth here; I would have fallen apart.

Instead, my friends, my wonderful, caring friends have given me the chance to recover, a time to heal and a time during which I could put my mind at rest.

Now I’m ready to move on, to face what the rest of my life may bring me, and I promise you all, I intend to live it to the full.

Remembrance Day

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, “In Flanders Field”

…and to update the sentiment:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
— Robert Laurence Binyon,  from “For The Fallen”

Not Myself

I’m not normally a melancholy person, and apart from the obvious reason, I really have no idea why I feel that way now: the house sale closes on Monday, Daughter got a new job (yay!), the other kids are doing fine, and I have two trips, one local and one international to look forward to in June.

Yet there it is: today feels like an “empty” day, I feel crappy and unmotivated, and I shouldn’t be.

It doesn’t help that Doc Russia is away for the next week or so, slaughtering dangerous game in his annual African safari (see below); this means that I’m denied my usual “beer, scantily-clad women, loud music and friendly company” remedy for whatever is bringing me down. I’d love to have a few cocktails, but I can’t and never could drink by myself. This is a new thing for me; in the past, I was perfectly happy to be all by myself, and was seldom if ever depressed. Now, I hate being without companionship, and I feel lonely without it. Fuck.

I think I’ll head down to the DFW range for most of the day, and give several of my guns a workout, followed by a thorough cleaning.

Normal blogging service should resume tomorrow. Sorry about that, but I don’t think I’m quite done dealing with this bloody bereavement thing yet.

My Friends, Part 2: The Brits

I have spoken before about how my American friends have saved my life in this, my time of mourning. Now I need to tell you about what my British friends have done for me; but before I do so, a little background is necessary.

We met Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson (their online nicknames) back in the late 1990s, enjoyed each others’ online company, and on our next trip to England, Connie and I met up with the “Sors” in Bath (yeah, I know: I was then and now too lazy to type out “Sorenson” in full). We spent a couple of wonderful days together and made a friendship that has lasted to this day. Every single time we flew to Britishland thereafter involved visiting with them, even if just for dinner or shopping. One trip even included a day of shooting clays at the Royal Berkshire Gun Club; and they in turn hooked up with us on a vacation at Disney World and later, a trip to Plano which involved the firing of thousands of rounds through various of my guns. (Yes, I turned a pair of hoplophobic Brits into gun nuts, and damn proud of it I am, too.) Both Sors have been regular visitors to my various websites over the years, and Mrs. Sor has been a constant, and very welcome commenter at this new incarnation of my online ramblings. Mr. Sor is also an enthusiastic not to say dedicated beer drinker, and so much of our time together on either side of the Atlantic has been spent in a blissful alcoholic haze. As is also the case with my other two Brit friends.

I met The Englishman through his blog, An Englishman’s Castle, and having several common interests (hanging liberals, shooting criminals, burning down government buildings along with their inhabitants, etc.), we struck up a very cordial online friendship. Then one year la famille du Toit went on an actual vacation (the first in years, as opposed to business trips with a few days tacked on), and for our sins we picked Portugal’s Algarve coast, about which I’d heard so much, and had seen many beautiful photos thereof in the distant past when I was involved with the advertising account for TAP, the Portuguese airline. Because neither The Mrs. nor I knew much about the place, we decided to play it safe (for once), and booked two weeks at the Club Med outside Albufeira. I won’t go into details, but it was a total disaster and we were miserable — to the point where The Mrs. and Daughter were actually prepared to leave the group and go somewhere else, like England or Scotland, all by themselves.

Of course that wasn’t an option. At a family meeting, all decided that we’d go over to Britain, but the cost of additional accommodation was quite beyond our budget (canceling our stay would entail getting no partial refund from the chiseling Club Med bastards), and we were waiting for a client check to clear before spending any more money. So in utter desperation, I called The Englishman and begged for a few days’ accommodation (which he’d once offered to us) so we could catch our breath and figure out what to do next. Please understand that we had never met in person before, yet when I told him that we were miserable and worse, surrounded by Frenchmen, his response was immediate: “Surrounded by Frenchmen? Oh dear no, no, no, we can’t have that: come on over and we’ll put you up for a couple of days.” So we left the Algarve and flew to England. We stayed at the Castle (actually, an old farmhouse), and fell in love with the place — yes, that’s where The Mrs. is going to be laid to rest — and in love with the Englishman Family. Then after a brief visit to Bath (just a few miles away) we went on with a new vacation plan — bidding a sad farewell to Mr. and Mrs. Englishman and their delightful children.

In parallel, I’d likewise met Mr. Free Market (Mr. FM) through his blog at Free Market Towers (actually, an ancient “cottage”) and discovered not only a similar affinity to those same interests as The Englishman, but a common deep and abiding love of firearms and shooting. Here’s the funny bit: although at the time he lived literally down the road from The Englishman, they’d never before met in person — which they soon remedied, and another friendship was established. Anyway, we met Mr. and Mrs. FM in person on a later trip and all got on like a house on fire — to the extent that our families have spent much time with each other on both sides of the Atlantic, the Free Markets coming over for Thanksgiving one year, several trips involving visits to sundry shooting ranges, stopovers at the Castle en route to other destinations, and what have you. And I should point out that along the way, my American friends Doc Russia and Combat Controller have become buddies with Mr. FM too, and have shared several adventures together (details to follow some other time).

So Mr. FM called me up a short while ago to see how I was doing and what my plans were. When I reminded him I was staying at Doc Russia’s house, his next words were:

“So what are you doing there? How do you spend your time?”
“Writing. Grieving. The occasional trips to the range and the pub with Doc, I suppose. But mostly just writing and grieving.”
“Ah. Well, the War Office [Mrs. FM] has just told me that your bed is made up and ready for your arrival.”
What?
“My dear boy, if all you’re going to be doing is moping, writing, drinking and shooting, then you may as well do some of that in England as in Texas.”
“But I can’t afford to fly over to the U.K.”
“Don’t worry about that. I have BA Miles to spare.”
“Mr. FM, seriously: I have little or no money, especially when it comes to Expensive Britain. All I could do is stand the occasional round of drinks.”
“Your money’s no good over here, old chap. Just leave everything to us.”
“But, but… I don’t want to abuse your hospitality. How long could I stay? ”
“As long as you like. A couple months or so should do it.”
“That seems like a hell of an imposition.”
“Dear heart, it isn’t at all. Frankly, I’m going to be out of the country quite a bit on business, and I’d feel better knowing that Mrs. FM won’t be all alone in the house while I’m gone. Also, we’re going on holiday for a week or two, and I’d definitely feel better if FM Towers wasn’t standing vacant during that time. So you’d actually be doing me a favor.”
“I don’t know what to say…”
“And you can go and visit The Englishman and your other friends while you’re here, of course. Just use the Range Rover. We’re also planning a hunting trip in Scotland and some high-bird grouse shooting later in the year, so you may as well join me for those.” Pause. “Oh, and as you know, Doc Russia and Combat Controller are coming over for the Scotland deer hunt too, so we can all get together and have a good time. There’s also Goodwood [Festival of Speed] and trips to Royal Berkeley and Bisley for some shooting, but we can work all that out later. I almost forgot: The Englishman wants us to do a tour of historic pubs in the West Country, so put that onto the schedule too.”
Then came the killer question which decided the whole thing.
“And Kim: exactly when were you thinking of interring Connie’s ashes in The Englishman’s Long Barrow, anyway?”

When I’d picked myself off the floor and could speak again, I looked at the calendar and made the travel arrangements with Mr. FM. Circumstances permitting and catastrophes aside, I’ll be leaving for Britain in late June. And wow, it looks like I’ll be getting to do Bucket List Entry #2 a lot sooner than I thought.

So there you have it: I now have yet another reason to live — just one in a long line of reasons to live, all made possible through the unbelievable generosity and kindness of friends.

I don’t know what I did to deserve all this, but to quote the silly Rogers & Hammerstein song: “Somewhere in my youth, or childhood… I must have done something good.”

And for the first time since I whispered good-bye to Connie on that dreadful day in February, I absolutely know I’m going to survive this thing, and it’s all thanks to my friends. Amazing.

Clouds Lifting

I never thought I’d be saying this, and especially so soon after Connie’s death, but I’m starting to deal with the world again and I don’t feel like I’m just going through the motions. Of course, I’m suspicious of this new feeling, but a couple of things make me think I’m starting to turn the corner.

Firstly, I was finally able to walk away from the old house in Plano — if I don’t want to, I don’t ever have to see it again. (Here’s an example of my disconnect: the painter asked me what color I wanted the outside gutters and drainpipes painted. I waved my hand around to encompass the whole street and said, “Use whatever color fits the neighborhood. I don’t care, it’s not my house anymore.”) I will go back, of course, just to make sure the reno went as planned, but I don’t have to — all the work is nearly done, next week the “stagers” come in to make the place look decent, and then the agent will list it. Basically, what happens next will happen, and there’s not much I can do to affect the outcome. After the burden of emptying the place out and the scourging of my soul that went with that activity, the house is no longer Connie’s and mine: it is somebody else’s house now, the market just hasn’t decided whose, yet.

Secondly, I’m dealing with being alone again better than I thought I would. Doc’s been on an extended shift at the ER, which left me pretty much by myself for the past two days. I have to admit that the first few hours were a little nerve-wracking; but amazingly, I settled into the routine of solo living without too much anguish. Mostly, I napped — good grief, I had no idea I could sleep so much, my body must have decided that it was time to make up for all those sleepless nights over the past two or three years — and I even started making plans for the near future.

Once the house is sold, I’ll probably be able to start working again — “working” being whatever I can find that will pay me enough to keep me afloat. (There’s a book to finish — one scene yet to write — and there might be a YouTube Kim channel in the future, but I can’t work out those details just yet.) I wish I could start doing that now, but I need the sale of the house to close that particular chapter of my life so I have to be available in case there’s an emergency. (One story to share: the flooring people are using the leftover tiles from our big flooring project from back in 2004 to fix up the master bathroom. I measured, re-measured and made the flooring contractor measure the space as well, just to ensure that we could agree that there was enough stock on hand. When we’d finished I said to him, “Just know this: if I get a call right after Lowe’s closes, telling me there isn’t enough tile to finish the job, there will be gunfire. Use the stock frugally.” There were wide-open, fearful eyes looking back at me. I think he got the message.)

Finally, and I hate to do this more than anything I can think of: I need a little more money to get this job done — new turf in the front, fixing the sprinkler system up and so on — so if you all can go to the well for me just one more time and drop whatever you can spare into my GoFundMe appeal, I will be grateful beyond words. The minute the house is sold, whatever it’s sold for and even if it sells for a loss, I plan to close the appeal for good because I can’t stand begging for money anymore.

Enough, already. Once this is done, it will be time to get on with my life, on my own terms and on my own two feet. I know exactly how Scarlett O’Hara felt, because AGIMW, I am never going to beg for money again.

And one more time: thank you all from the bottom of my heart for making this possible. I would not have survived this catastrophe, this loss, this upending of my life, without the financial generosity and just as importantly, the moral support I’ve received from all of you. My gratitude is profound, and eternal because at long last, I feel that I’m going to make it.

I can even listen to that beautiful song now without dissolving into a pool of tears.