My step dad died on Sunday.
He’d been unwell for a while. I think my mum chose not to tell me how much his health had deteriorated after leaving the UK so I wouldn’t worry. He didn’t recover after an emergency surgery. My sister kept in touch via text during his last two days.
I was a difficult teenager when Mum took me to meet Ray in the early weeks of their courtship. I have a terrible memory, but I do remember the feel of that day. I felt the energy of two people having just discovered each other. Mum and Ray nervously moving around me. He had a long beard then. He carved wood into beautiful, smooth, fluid shapes. I focused on his sculptures to ignore the flirtation between mum and him.
It wasn’t long before they married and Ray became a loved and central presence in our lives. He was wise and daft and loved to drink whisky and eat. He loved to talk and opine. He would describe far away places, long ago times, engineering, politics, sports and ideas from the middle out, from the outside in, from round and about.
The tightest hug
I visited them both before leaving to travel the world with my family. I paid extra attention to Ray’s talk that morning and I’m so happy I gave him the tightest hug when I said goodbye. I told him I loved him. Even then, I wondered if I’d see him again.
Mum gently chided me, ‘He’s not going to pop his clogs whilst you’re gone, silly thing!’
The morning that he died…
I was at a Methodist church service in a township just outside downtown Cape Town. Without knowing the heartache at home, without knowing that my mum, my sister and my step-brother were saying their final goodbyes before Ray’s life support was turned off, I was struggling to hold back my tears.
I was overcome with emotion.
A small gospel choir was leading the vacillating chords of praise, sung in the native Xhosa language. The whole congregation was on its feet and singing with joyous fervour. People swayed their hips, held their hands up to the sky and stamped their feet in time with the drum. ‘This,’ I thought. ‘this is what this trip is about.’ Educating ourselves about other ways of living. Other ways of thinking.
I’m not religious, but I do have a degree in religion.
At times I pan the Christian church. I lambaste religious ideologies and practices. But that morning I was overcome with hope. We are all just trying to be the best of ourselves. Trying to hang on to our better selves.
My mum has always been quiet in her Christian faith. She’ll be happy knowing I was at church when Ray died.
Later that afternoon, as we wondered along the waterfront in Cape Town, Thomas held my hand. ‘Where do people go when they die?’ I asked him. Because, in the Southern Hemisphere, so far from home and the people I love, I had begun to comfort myself that Ray would be looking down on me there telling me to ‘just enjoy yerself’.
With all the wisdom of a 10 year old, Thomas replied, ‘somewhere peaceful, Mum’.
Somewhere peaceful, Mum.
I’ll return home to Devon from Bali for the funeral.