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.
Grief is sneaky. Many hugs.
I knew Jon. We both worked at the Sunday Times. I met you at his memorial service and spoke to you briefly then. All his former colleagues were very troubled by his death. I reread the ST obit that you linked here. I see there was an inquest. I still feel sad at his passing. It must be very hard for you. Lots of love
Thanks so much, Gillian. I really appreciate that. I’m sorry for your loss, too.
Isn’t it wonderful how if someone you love departs the stage left, the “gods” replace or re-cast someone else to fill that void…
Yep. Sometimes we have to wait a while but it was worth the wait in this case.
I LOVED this post, Heather! The newspaper covers, learning more about Jon, even his death, and then this bonus nugget: Karen aka Bing appeared. As you know, I was good friends with her too. Such a blast from the past!
Hi Sine, it’s so nice to hear from you. I’m really glad you liked the post and I hope you’re doing well.
Grief is so difficult and it is always comforting to think that they are still taking an interest in what we are up to. I’m sure Jon would have approved whole heartily of Thorsten.
He definitely would 🙂
Hi, Heather – this is a lovely post. I am so glad you found someone again to make you happy. As another person who suffers with bipolar disorder, I have lots of sympathy for Jon and you, also – it’s not just hard for those with the mental illness. Anyway, I hope you and Thorsten have many wonderful years together !
Thanks so much, Kate. I really appreciate that!
From your heart and touching a nerve for all who has lost love. Take care and bring many more joy with your writing and pictures.
Thanks Elvira 🙂
Somehow this grey ‘cold’ December day / week we are having is fitting; it provokes memory and emotion … so glad you are not alone. Hug.
Thanks Margaret! You’re right about the weather. This cold is pretty insane for December!
Hi Heather. I am so so sorry for your tragic loss. It was such a heartwarming and sad read. But this is a beautiful tribute to Jon and I am sure he is very happy that you have found Thornston. Happy 50’th birthday to your Thornston for tomorrow and it is an uncanny coincidence the date his birthday falls under. Wishing you and Thornston and Trixie a wonderful happy Christmas.
Thanks so much, Maureen! I’ve really appreciated all your comments this year.
Such a beautiful and honest post. I’m really happy for you and Thorsten. ❤️
Such a beautiful & poignant read. So proud of your journey too <3 I held it together till the date part where the goosebumps came, plus I shed a few happy tears before being compelled to comment. That date coincidence is an incredible gift and sign. All the absolute best for the next 10 and onwards …
Thanks so much, Jeannette 🙂
Heather -such an odd confluence of dates. I am so glad you wrote this. I am so sorry for the grief you felt but am so glad you now have Thorsten in your life- not as a replacement for Jon but as a partner and co-traveler in life. It is such a gift that he understands and supports your memories and sadness. But if not for South Africa……
Thorsten is truly a gift!
Stay strong Heather. Have a Merry Christmas! Dean & Mary
Thanks Dean and Mary!
Just when we thought it was looking safe down the road, you’ve gone and made us all cry! I’m sending a virtual hug to you both, from my isolation ward.
Thanks so much David. I hope you’re holding up okay.
Today is a grief day for me too. I married my soulmate Chris on this day. Yesterday it was 30 months or 915 days he died in a freak paragliding accident. I miss him very day, all day. And it is hell to see my kids hurting for their dad. I am glad you found happiness again, grief changes you. It will never be the same, but different – not better, not worse – just different. But love never dies, only people do. Lots of strength today, Heather.
Oh Bianca, I’m so terribly sorry. That is truly tragic and heartbreaking! My heart goes out to you and your family. I agree with everything you’ve said, of course. I hope you’re able to do something special for yourself today.
So brave to write about this, and with such grace. That final photograph is everything. xx
Thanks Kim. I hope you’re doing well 🙂
As the Afrikaans saying goes: “Hy was gestuur,” – Thorsten was sent to you, I believe, because you deserve someone wonderful! Beautiful writing as always, Heather.
Thanks Leizl. xxxxx
Hi Heather. It’s Liam from Egpaf! It’s been so long. I hope you are well. So I’m on FB today and see a post of yours of your partner’s bday. I click on it bc I was just curious since I either haven’t seen you post in a while or I’m just not in FB these days (most likely the latter). And then I click on 2summers bc I wanted to see what you’ve been up to. And then I see your post about Jon. Wow. 10 years. I still think of those days when I met Jon. When we all met Jon. So I think it’s no coincidence that the universe took my to your blog today of all days. And how it’s your partners 50th bday. I like to think these are signs of something. Don’t ask me of what, but I personally find them comforting. I get signs from my mom and grandmother all the time. Anyway…I just wanted to share. And say hi! And hope you’re on the mend with the ‘rona. Cheers my friend! -Liam
Aw, Liam! It’s so nice to hear from you. I actually think about you frequently and out crazy times in TZ and Swazi. I hope you’re doing well. I miss you. xxx
I worked closely with Jon for well over 10 yrs, and saw him the last time shortly before he died – he was in Cape Town and came to say hello and for the first time mentioned his struggles. He was hands down the best photographer of animals – domestic and wild (he called the dogs we cared for at our township rescue projects “dodgy dogs” LOL). Those pictures are still used by IFAW. But it wasn’t just animals, he had a way with photographing people – particularly the marginalised, or those in trouble. Maybe he recognised something of himself in them. Wishing you well and RIP Jon.
Hi Christina, wow you have summed up Jon’s work so perfectly. I’ve always said he could capture people’s souls – he captured animals’ souls, too. I’ve never thought about it exactly as you put it here but you’re totally right. Thanks so much for your comment.
Dear Heather, Jereon and I send you our love and many warm hugs while you grieve and celebrate. Thank you for sharing your emotions with us and for the amazing newspaper clippings!
Hi Soulafa, thank you to much for this. I miss you guys a lot ❤️
Thanks for sharing Heather – that last photo is powerful. I hope you are well friend!
Hey! I am well, thanks, hope you are too. Looking forward to reading your recent post – it’s in the queue for me today 🙂
I knew Jon at school (I chatted online briefly with you after he died), and I still think of him occasionally. I wish I’d known him as an adult. Thank you for posting this.
Thank you, Graeme. I wish I’d known him as a school kid! 🙂
He was baby-faced, very quick-witted and smart, and quirky in a good way. He treated us younger grades kindly, unlike many of the older boys.
Sounds like Jon.