Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saying Goodbye in my Small Dusty Town

Today marks eleven months since my return to number eleven in the small dusty town by the mine hole I consider home.

In many respects the months have drifted through my consciousness without much remark.  Well, except for the fact that I find myself attending more funerals here than anywhere else I have lived in the last three decades.

I marked this reality a few weeks ago when my childhood friend Marcellus, who is an Anglican priest and a school principal, sent me a "happy birthday" text that read in part: "It seems we are now at that age where we see each other at funerals."

Just a few days before his text we saw each other during a Methodist funeral service for a mutual friend's mother.  He left the service early so we did not get to chat.

I replied to Marcellus by saying that we should work on seeing each other outside of funerals too.

I thought about the text and its context today while I sat in a cold New Apostolic church where a funeral service was being conducted for Johnny K., a family friend I have known all my life.

Marcellus was not there but there were a few aged faces in the congregation I recognized or at least I thought I did.

Before the service began a woman in the pew directly in front of me turned to greet and said: "Are you not the writer who appeared at the Kimberley Book Festival a few months ago?"

Ah the notoriety of inconsequential fame in my small dusty town by the hole.  Or is that infamy?

As the choir worked their way through prescribed hymns my mind drifted through layers of childhood admiration I had for Johnny K.

He was a bigger-than-life character who was one of the first bikers to own the legendary Honda CB750k in our small town.

1976 Honda CB750K (Credit)

Johnny K. was also a karate instructor in a backyard/garage dojo during a time when official dojos in our small town were for whites only.  Before I turned ten he would pick me up four times a week and drive me to karate classes across town.

Our dojo was run unofficially and defiantly so.  We were all white belts and stayed white belts forever but we practiced karate or a version of what went for karate in our hood.

Johnny K. seemed to practice the hardest.  I still remember when he hit a punching bag with his bare knuckles until he left blood on the green canvas.

I stood watching him in awe sucking in my young gut and vowing one day to be just like him.

On our way back home from the dojo he would spit out of the car window in that way that cocky athletes sometimes do.  It is a marking ritual, no?

Johhny K. was close to my dad and mom.  A few years younger than either of them he was a constant in our home during his single years until he got married in his mid-thirties.

One year before I reached my teens Johnny K. borrowed my dad's brand new Mercedes to go to a funeral.  A couple of hours later he called to tell my dad that his green Mercedes was rear-ended in the funeral procession to the graveyard by an irate man called Derek P.

My dad did not make a fuss and the car was fixed and sold in the ensuing months no thanks to Derek P. who refused to take responsibility for causing the accident despite a lengthy legal battle.

About four years ago I ran into Derek P. at a funeral for my childhood friend Bryan.  He was standing outside of the Baptist church before the service when our eyes met.

"Are you not Derek P.," I asked knowing exactly who he was.  "Yes I am but I don't know you," he replied looking somewhat unsettled so I introduced myself.

We exchanged pleasantries and the moment passed without a hint that he even knew I was the son of the man whose green Mercedes he nearly totaled four decades ago.

Today, somewhere in the middle of the service I saw Derek P. standing alongside Johnny K's casket with his hands folded in from of him.  He had white gloves on like most funeral undertakers do at Christian services.

I smiled thinking through the irony of having Derek P. as the funeral undertaker at Johnny K's funeral.  I could not stop myself from wondering if he even remembered the accident as he gazed down on the casket.

In the closing moments of the service the priest remembered Johnny K. and his karate days.  He also made mention of the CB750k motorcycle that will forever be a part of Johnny K's memory.

The priest added: "I was just a small boy when I used to admire Uncle Johnny's big motorbike.  No-one in Kimberley had one like it.  He was the first.  Little did I know in those far off days that I would stand here doing this service today for Uncle Johnny.  But then is it not so that most of us do not always think that in the course of living we are also dying."

My existential head latched onto the last comment as I paid mind to the loved ones who will struggle to make sense out of the universal absurdity of life balanced by death.

Immediately after the service I bumped into one of Johnny K's lifelong friends.  Ivan and Johnny K. go back to the days of karate training.  Ivan works as a maintenance manager at the museum where I have spent the last 11 months writing and editing and thinking about the balance between leaving and returning to this small casket of a town.

When I arrived at the museum I did not know that Ivan was there until one sunny afternoon when he called out across the museum parking lot while performing a few karate moves: "Do you remember me Ridi?"

He brought a big 'ol smile to my grill but today the vibe was different.  His face was drawn and his eyes dark as he held onto the gate at the entrance of the church.

"If this was just another Saturday morning Johnny K. would have been at my place drinking coffee.  I am gonna miss that big man," Ivan said as his wife solemnly nodded her head.

"I am also gonna miss him even though it has been more than three years since I last saw him," I said.

At that moment it occurred to me that the last time I saw him he was standing in the living room of our family home, the same place he frequented all those many years ago.

He walked over too me and hugged me warmly and said: "Please accept my deepest condolences on your father's passing Ridi."

And so that inevitable and absurd balance.  It persists no matter what.

May Johnny K. rest in peace until that day.



Kweli said...

The thread goes right through this post, right through everyone in it.

It reminds me of a line from Zakes Mda's "Ways of Drying": our ways of living are also our ways of dying.

So when you return here to the Beast you will (re-)see that no one dies here. We hide death and sanitize it. We have that clothing store called Forever 21 and we are throwing money into cryogenics. Ah, the Beast.

Ridwan said...

Hi Kweli:

You are absolutely right.

Death is a constant everywhere but nowhere is it hidden from view like in the US.

There is a distinct irony in the fact that the US is responsible for so many deaths yet it is unable to live with its own.

Perhaps the anxiety of dying as expressed by the unhinged quest to fake life is the American way.

Trust you are well boet.