I’ve been trying to write this post for a while but I keep abandoning my drafts and starting over. I haven’t a clue how to say anything meaningful without sounding trite. But let me try again. Jon died exactly a year ago. He died of alcoholism. I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I don’t know how to make people understand. Or to put it more honestly, I’m afraid that people won’t understand. Alcoholism defies understanding. Even though it’s all around us, it’s hard to see it for what it is.
Dear Jon, I wanted to do something to recognize your birthday. You would have been 47 today. Two years ago, on the Sunday before your birthday, you took me to the top of Northcliff Ridge at sunset. We gazed down on a sea of blooming jacarandas and watched the sun drop behind the ridge in a red-orange blaze of glory. That was a really happy day for us. So, this past Sunday I decided I would go back to Northcliff Ridge. I planned to sit up there at sunset, take photos, and reflect. It seemed like a good way to remember you.
Yesterday I put on a photo exhibition. In prison. No really, I did. These jail cells are adjacent to the atrium where my photos were displayed. Strange, but true. Constitution Hill is a National Heritage Site. The 120-year-old fort/prison on Constitution Hill — which is just down the road from Melville, in Braamfontein — has played a pivotal role in South African history, from the first Anglo-Boer War through the apartheid struggle and beyond. Many important historical figures were imprisoned and tortured there, as were thousands of others whose lives and stories have long been forgotten. It’s an eerie, beautiful place — a good place for displaying photos.
I recently sat in my therapist’s office, weaving my latest tale of woe. When I finished, she looked at me in that measured way that therapists do, and said: “How ready are you to really work on yourself?” My stomach seized up. I wanted to scream, “Not ready at all!” and run from the room. But I didn’t. I sat and thought for a moment. “I guess I’m ready.”
Tomorrow it will be two years since I moved to Joburg. It’s 7:41 on a Sunday morning. Even though it is technically still winter, I’m sitting on the deck in my pajamas, feeling not at all cold, sipping coffee in the sun and watching a pair of black collared barbets nibble the blooms on a cabbage tree. The Melville Cat is prowling the garden. Barbets in the cabbage tree. I’m really happy.
Jon died six months ago today. I started out writing one of my typical “grief posts”. I’ve developed a formula for those: wax lyrical about my grief process and what this day means to me; throw in a few dreamy lines about how much I miss Jon; illustrate my personal and spiritual growth; blah, blah, blah. Press “Publish”, sit back in my chair, and try to feel better about myself. I actually wrote half a post along these lines, then decided it was drivel and deleted it.
Yesterday I attended the Founders Day ceremony at St. Stithians College, a Joburg prep school. I was invited by a wonderful lady named Debbie, whose children go to St. Stithians. Before yesterday morning I only knew Debbie through her 2Summers comments, and on Facebook. Now Debbie is a friend. This is why I love blogging. Jon graduated (or “matriculated”, as they say here) from St. Stithians in 1984. He and I drove past the school many times but never visited together. Jon wasn’t the type of person to be nostalgic for his school days — adolescence was a difficult time for him. But I do know that he had some good times at St. Stithians and the years he spent there are part of who he was. I’m grateful to have had the chance to visit the school on such a special day.
Swaziland grabbed me a few years ago. It won’t let go. My first visit to the Swazi Kingdom, in 2008, was an emotional earthquake. I was blindsided by the realization that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. So I went back to the United States and spent the next 18 months trying to deny my discovery. I thought maybe I could keep this scary new person — who I called “Africa Heather” — under wraps, and live happily ever after as “U.S. Heather”. I was wrong. Two years after that first Swazi trip, I gave in to Africa Heather and started a new life.
Every couple of weeks, I open my blog and look at what I wrote exactly a year ago. It’s a good way to process what’s happened and put things in perspective. I’ve never been motivated to keep a journal, so thank goodness I discovered a motivation for blogging when I began this crazy journey. Otherwise a lot of important memories would be lost. When I got up this morning I looked back to see if I’d written anything a year ago today. I found this: A Blurry 2Summers Mystery is Revealed. It’s the post when Jon, who went by the pseudonym Joe back then, decided to reveal his face on 2Summers. Before that day, Jon had always blurred out his face in photos of him that appeared on my blog, earning him the nickname, “the Blur”.
I often find myself trying to explain what blogging means to me — how it’s helped me connect with people, both here in Joburg and around the world. It’s hard to convey though. The only people who truly understand are other bloggers. I have this blogging friend named Francis. I don’t know Francis personally; in fact, I hardly know anything about him. I know that he lives in Northern Ontario, about as far from Johannesburg as you can get. He suffers from serious health problems that keep him housebound most of the time. I know that Francis writes a blog called Niltsi’s Spirit, and I know that he is an artist. He writes stark, gut-wrenching poems and takes beautiful photographs. I know that Francis loves animals and nature, and his WordPress username is Spiral Dreamer. Other than that, Francis is a mystery to me.
A couple of hours ago I was sitting on my deck, looking out at the Melville Koppies. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, and a public holiday to boot. I felt like going for a walk on the koppies and taking pictures. Six months ago, I would have turned to Jon and said, “Let’s go for a walk on the koppies and take pictures.” And we would have gone right then, and it would have been lovely. But you see, this is one of the many reasons why it sucks when your boyfriend dies. Jon isn’t here anymore and I can’t just walk up onto the koppies alone. Much as I hate to admit it, walking alone on the koppies isn’t safe. I’m sure I could have found someone else to take a walk with. I didn’t feel like it though.
A few months ago I was invited to join a cooking club. The club is made up of women, mostly expats from different ethnic backgrounds. Each month a different person hosts the club and teaches the rest of the group how to make dishes from her own ethnic background. Actually there isn’t really that much teaching involved. We just hang out and talk while the food cooks. Today was my turn to host the cooking club. I decided to serve my favorite Tex-Mex dish: chili. My inspiration for the meal: a beaded chili pepper from the streets of Melville.