Coral committal

2008-12-12 00:00

I walked towards the twisted thorn tree. A solitary walk. Dusk. In the far distance, to my one side, were Masaai cattle herded by troubled, rebellious tribesmen. Earlier that day mention had been made of leopard sightings, and in the previous year Simon Combes, the world famous wildlife painter, had been trampled to death on the farm by an old buffalo.

I didn’t care about dangers.

I was back at Soysambu, Lord and Lady Delamere’s 38 000-acre ranch in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. It was marvellous to be back, but this time my heart was heavy with grief.

Jenny had died at home in KwaZulu-Natal. My 16-year-old daughter was gone. She loved Kenya, and now she would never be able to visit again.

How to take the next breath?

No choice.

It had to be taken.

And the next.

And the next.

And the next.

Jen’s ashes had travelled with us to Kenya from Hilton. Her funeral service in Pietermaritzburg had held no pomp and ceremony — a couple of hymns, a poem and a eulogy written and read by Jen’s brother, Neil. The simplicity had perhaps removed the possibility of any insincerity, something Jen saw through very easily.

The church ceremony, jam-packed with troubled teenagers, had been followed by a celebration of her life in our misty Hilton garden. There, we had consciously created a forum to help these grieving teenagers to shift into a place of new possibility, as we all shared both happy and poignant memories of Jenny and laughed at the anecdotes we had always promised to tell one day at her 21st birthday party.

I was even then able to acknowledge that it had taken the crisis of losing a child to experience the authentic outpouring of unconditional love. Friends in KwaZulu-Natal had spontaneously taken over our responsibilities, as our family attempted to cope. Our fridge was filled with food on a daily basis and a steady flow of empathetic and caring visitors continued for weeks after the funeral.

Our children’s friends had also shifted with us into a place of deeper camaraderie, as we interacted and communicated at new levels of understanding.

And now Neil and I were in Kenya, waiting to find out where best to spread her ashes. We had no clue where that would be — whether in KwaZulu-Natal or Kenya. I had left them at our friend Juliet’s wattle and daub cottage on the farm while we visited various parts of Kenya.

Each night while we were away, Juliet had lit candles and gathered flamingo feathers from the shores of the farm’s Lake Elementeita and placed them next to Jen’s ash-filled casket and photo.

We had journeyed west to the emerald-green tea-growing hills of Kericho. Patches of Mau Forest at the edge of the tea plantations showed signs of resident elephant within this Jurassic forest.

We had travelled north to the isolated and exotic Island Camp at Baringo, a lake filled with hippo and crocodile, and then had continued south to the pelican and flamingo-filled shores of Lake Nakuru. These were breathtaking destinations which this time were almost unbearable to visit.

Now having returned to Soysambu, I was aware that the following day we would be travelling to the Kenyan coast and that we were still without a clue as to where best to set Jen “free”.

I made my way back to the house.

No electricity.

Hot bath water heated by a wood fire in a barrel outside the house.

In the middle of nowhere.

Feeling comfortable.

It was a full-moon night and we watched the moon rise as the confused flamingoes flew in front of its spotlight focus. In the near distance, zebra and hyena were audibly present. Haunting sounds under this gigantic white moon. We sat in the surreal light, each of us grieving in our own way.

So much pain to feel.

So impossible to put into words.

Silence.

The following day, we set off back to Nairobi to catch the overnight train to Mombasa. The train’s functionally clean compartments held fond memories for us. As we boarded, a similar journey we had made some years before sprang to mind. I recalled the excited squabbling as to who would sleep where. During that earlier journey, in the dining car everyone’s level of anticipation had been high as we peered out at the passing scenes while working through our three-course evening meal.

Once through the slums, that somnolent train had eased past the encroached savannah of the Nairobi Game Park and on to the stony Athi Plains, as the dusty sun had set over the Nairobi skyline behind us.

The train had lurched on through the night. The Ulu Hills — which on a clear day provide a picture-perfect view of Mount Kilimanjaro — had come and gone, and we had moved blindly through Tsavo National Park, where a century earlier men had been eaten by lions while this very railroad was being built.

By breakfast the following morning, the palm-treed coastal plains had led us through to a bright morning arrival at the unkempt Mombasa train station.

But now this more solemn train ride was delayed from start to finish. The usual 14-hour journey took 17 hours. A further car transfer took us across Mombasa Island and on to the Likoni Ferry at Kilindini port with an additional half-hour drive down the south coast to Sand Island near Tiwi Beach.

The previous year had seen us, as a full family, holidaying at Sand Island with friends — a trip Jen had fought not to join us on, but one which she had been glad she had been forced to make. We had had no idea it would be her last.

During that holiday we had watched her metamorphosis. The first day she had remained wrapped up in excessive clothing, had continued wearing her thick, heavy make-up and had stood fast in her determination not to join in the seaside frivolities.

By day three she was at the water’s edge, minus the make-up and wearing a sarong she had bargained for and bought from a vendor on the beach on a previous holiday.

On the following day, she had become relaxed and settled, wallowing in the sea, participating with everyone and enjoying herself without reserve.

That holiday had created a space for her in the last year of her life in Hilton, where she appeared to be more at ease with herself and more accepting of life.

But now we were back at Sand Island.

A year later.

Ali, the Giriama-Muslim cook, was with us again.

Same dogs.

Same cottage.

Same beach vendors.

Same colourful reef and sea.

Same beautiful tropical beach.

Always beautiful but now all filled with painful memories.

Finally the revelation came during morning meditation: Jen’s closest Pietermaritzburg friends might know where she would have wanted her ashes spread. Their sms replies arrived back thick and fast, confirming what she had “casually” mentioned to them over the last few months of her life.

“She talked about her ashes one day being spread at the Mombasa coast.”

“... in the sea in Kenya”.

“...at Sand Island”.

And so at last we found out where it was to happen. The information had come to us at the right place and appropriate time.

We would now be able to fulfil her last wishes.

We also then realised that this final ceremony would inextricably bind KwaZulu-Natal and the Kenyan coast to us as a family forever.

The tide table logged the next low tide at eight the following morning, which would leave the coral reef “high and dry”.

With Jen’s casket in hand and accompanied by Ali the cook, we set out on the short trip across to the outer edge of the reef, a journey which proved to be the hardest I had ever made.

We stood around awkwardly trying to decide how best to see the procedure through. Ali spontaneously held out his hands to link up with ours, and as we stood in triangular formation, he spoke a Muslim prayer in Kiswahili in tribute to Jenny.

It was time. I ached for it all to be different.

Jenny had died in Hilton.

She had been dead one month and 19 days.

It had been a quick death.

We had argued. She’d gone to her room in a rage. I had gone to find her.

I had found her — hanging with a broken neck.

And now I was sitting at the edge of a coral reef in Kenya, her ashes in my hand. The last physical connection I would ever have with her.

Time to let go.

Breathe.

Let go.

Another breath.

Release.

Another.

Just ashes.

No longer really Jen — and yet the only part of Jen still remaining.

I watched some of the “dust” float away on the wind and the other heavier particles sink into the water, as the waves took my lost daughter in their stride ...

… And she was finally gone.

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