For the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking about what to write in my blog for the ten-year anniversary of Jon’s death. Jon died a decade ago tomorrow.
I don’t think about Jon’s death anywhere near as often as I used to. For the first couple of years I obsessed about it constantly and December 19th loomed in my mind for weeks in advance. I wrote an intense post about Jon on the one-year anniversary of his death, and I’m sure I referenced it in subsequent years, too. But the pain faded with time. There were years when I only thought briefly of Jon on December 19th, and more with a feeling of wistful nostalgia than grief.
I knew 2021 would be different though. I knew I wanted to commemorate Jon’s life on December 19th this year, in a way I haven’t done before. I wanted to recognize Jon’s accomplishments as a photojournalist — he was one of the best in South Africa, in his day — and the fact that he witnessed and documented some of the most important events in South Africa’s history.
A couple of months ago, while I was packing for my move to Brixton, I came across a few boxes of Jon’s photos and news clippings. Jon was a pack rat and I knew I didn’t want to drag all these boxes with me to yet another house. So I sat down one morning and did what I’d been avoiding for a decade: I went through everything in each of the boxes — every photo, every newspaper, every magazine — threw out all of the duplicates and seemingly unimportant items, and condensed everything into one box. That box now contains a mini history of South Africa in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.
Here’s a small sampling of what’s in the box:
So that’s what I thought this post would be about: Honoring Jon’s work as a photographer and his contribution to South African history. I finished writing about my grief long ago, I thought. This post doesn’t need to be about that, I thought.
I thought that right up until yesterday morning, when I pulled Jon’s box off the shelf again and rediscovered another picture.
This was the last photo ever taken of Jon and me, by my old friend and former Joburg blogger, Bing (a.k.a. Karen). Karen, if you happen to read this: Thank you again for taking this picture and having the foresight to print out multiple copies and give them to me.
Stumbling upon that photo yesterday morning planted a little grief seed inside me. By afternoon, without my really noticing, the grief seed had bloomed into a grief flower. By early evening I found myself curled up in bed with my boyfriend, Thorsten, fully clothed, crying into his shirt.
Thorsten just held me and let me cry for a while. “What are you feeling?” he finally asked. I thought for a long time, took a jagged breath, and said, “I really don’t know.”
And that’s the thing about Jon, and my relationship with Jon, and the circumstances of Jon’s death: Even ten years later, after years of therapy and writing and crying and discussing, I still have no idea how I feel about it all. Our relationship was really intense but also really short — less than two years, although we knew each other for four. Much of the time we spent together was painful — traumatic, in fact, especially the last few months — because of Jon’s alcoholism and my codependency. Jon’s death was sudden and left so many questions. Ten years later, “I don’t know” is the only answer I’ve got to most of those questions.
I’m sure a lot of you are wondering about the exact circumstances of Jon’s death. I always wonder how people died when the specific cause isn’t spelled out, even though I know it’s not polite to ask. The truth is, I’ve never tried to explain Jon’s death on the blog because it’s super complicated and horrific.
But it’s been ten years now so here’s a short explanation: Jon died in the back of a car, driven by friends who were trying to get him to a rehab center to save his life. He and I hadn’t spoken for several days at the time; as far as I know, Jon was totally alone in the days leading up to his death.
I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Jon before he died. Sometimes I blame myself for this and wonder what I could have done differently. But usually I just feel sad.
I did my best to explain all this to Thorsten yesterday, and I’m grateful to him for asking because it made me realize I should try to explain it on the blog, too. I’m also grateful to Thorsten for listening to me and doing his best to understand with absolutely no judgement, because Thorsten is the fucking best and I am so, so lucky to have him in my life. I’m certain Thorsten and Jon would have liked each other. I don’t know if Jon can see me now, but if he can I know he’s happy for me.
And by the way, I should mention that tomorrow is not only the tenth anniversary of Jon’s death. Tomorrow is also Thorsten’s 50th birthday. Super weird, right? I’ve been wondering what this means since the night Thorsten and I met last year, when I went straight home afterward and pulled up his Facebook profile and saw he was born on December 19th, 1971.
As a friend just said to me earlier today: It doesn’t have to mean anything. Not everything is a sign. But I like to think this coincidence is a little gift from Jon — a way to turn December 19th into a happy day as well as a sad one. And that’s exactly how I’m going to treat it (alone with Thorsten, because I’m still in isolation).
My thoughts go out to everyone else who is struggling with grief this holiday season. I’m with you.