Rudyard Kipling once said “the present is big with the future”. I suppose that also means that the past is big with the present. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the past, and I know this to be true. As it turns out. That’s not to say that I can’t imagine our future.
I can see us ten years from now, looking back on our incredible life together. Retired not expired. I’ll be pushing sixty, and you’ll be as timeless as always. Knowing you, we’ll be looking forward as much as I’ll be looking back. I can even imagine you doing something crazy like buying a campervan and suggesting we travel the continent and conquer the world. You’ve always been a big picture person.
“Adventure before dementia!” you will say. “We’re going on a SKI trip!”
“A SKI trip?” I’ll echo, alarmed.
“Yes!” you’ll say. “A trip to Spend the Kids’ Inheritance!”
You have always made me laugh. Every single day of our thirty-two years together, you have made me laugh. Sometimes I’ll be doing something random, like feeding the cats or doing the daily WORDLE, and I will find myself chuckling about something you said years ago. You are one of those rare people who can find humour in just about anything. Like the time you rolled our car when we were honeymooning in South Africa. Nobody could have predicted which direction that goat was going to run, not even the damn goat knew. And there we were, trapped in our upside-down car in the middle of the Karoo, waiting for someone to rescue us.
I was crying softly, as you turned to me and said, “Did the earth move for you, my darling?”
It was one of the many times I have cried and laughed at the same time with you. Remembering how you were bleeding upside down from the gash on your forehead makes it even funnier, in a macabre kind of way.
When we had finally been rescued and ambulanced to the hospital in Beaufort West, we laughed and cried again when the doctors discovered that I was pregnant.
“Why are YOU crying?” I asked, wiping away my own tears.
“I’m crying because every time I look at our baby I’m going to think about a goat!”
“No, Warren!” I said, suddenly serious.
You immediately started laughing. “Becky, I’m just kidding! KID-ding!”
Then you made bleaty goat noises while I was doubled over. Do you remember how we were reprimanded by the matron? There was to be no bleating or laughing in the emergency room!
Back home, five months of domestic bliss ensued in our baby bubble. You were mesmerised by the little human taking form inside my belly. Each morning you would bring me freshly squeezed orange juice in bed and sing a good morning song to our baby. On days when my morning sickness was particularly bad, you would sing like the puppets from Sesame Street to make me laugh.
She was born fourteen weeks early, tiny and frail and not expected to survive. We held our daughter for the two hours and fifty-two minutes that she lived. After the warmth had drained from her fragile body, you held me close while I keened from my empty core. Even when your own heart was as broken as mine, you held me while I cried and pushed you and said awful things.
As I sobbed on your shoulder you said: “Becky I am so sorry. I was really looking forward to raising our baby girl with you.”
“You don’t understand!” I wailed. “I want HER! It’s not about YOU, you selfish pig shit bastard!”
Many hours later, as I lay in a blur of chemical sedation, you held my hand between your strong warm hands. I remember feeling your pulse in my palm.
“Becky!” you said quietly. “I promise you that we will get through this together. I promise to stand by you no matter what life has in store for us.”
You squeezed my hand and added, “And I promise to not mind if you ever choose to call me a pig shit bastard again!”
“Oh, Warren. Did I actually say that?”
A very small smile tickled the corners of your mouth. “Yes!”
Weirdly, I let out a small giggle. It wasn’t much of a laugh, and it lasted less than three seconds before it became a sob. Yet, you made me laugh even on our worst day ever.
The next day we were sent home with empty arms and a tiny ink footprint on a square piece of blotting paper. A passport stamp proving that we had been on a brief journey of parenthood. Three days later we had a funeral and returned Jacqueline Rebecca Davies to baby Jesus. Thankfully there were not many people at the funeral, and we stood there, stoic on the outside, numb on the inside, holding each other’s hearts. In the car on the way home, you took a small hip flask from your jacket pocket and offered it to me. This was so unlike you.
I took the silver flask in my hand. “Whisky?”
You nodded. “For courage and strength.”
I took a substantial swig, for courage and strength. “Thank you, my love. You think of everything, even though you are going through so much yourself.”
“Actually, I brought it for your mother. She’s always nicer after she’s had a drink.”
Knowing this to be true, I burst out laughing. The driver eyed us, the grieving parents, in his rearview mirror.
The next six months were tough. There were iron-willed days when I only got out of bed for you. My grief was existential and introspective, while yours was more pragmatic. Yet between my journaling and thinking, and your keeping busy, we managed to stay connected enough to navigate married life. And still, you made me laugh every day in your indelible way.
Because you needed to keep busy, you applied for a fellowship in British Columbia. We packed up our home and moved to Vancouver. It turns out this was exactly what I needed. Our downtown apartment looked onto the harbour and I found solace in the soft rain, the white-tipped mountains and the lazy seals gliding through the grey water. I took daily walks along the sea wall near Stanley Park, watching time pass in the changing trees. As I walked, I took big gulps of fresh air and found my purpose again. I always stopped to pay homage to the gracious Inukshuck that stood tall and proud, looking to the horizon. He reminded me that we are all on a journey, and we always find our way home. I journaled about healing and painted insipid watercolour landscapes. When you came home at night, we’d reconnect over a glass of wine. You entertained me with stories about your day, while I showed you my paintings. Our hearts slowly mended, and the laughter became easier.
One morning we were out walking hand in hand along my sea wall. It was a cold, wet spring day, and the trees were every shade of green imaginable.
“Becky?” you said.
“Mmmm,” I mumbled.
“I feel like we’re living inside a cold, wet Brussels sprout.”
“A Brussels sprout, Warren?”
“Yes. How do you feel about moving somewhere drier and warmer? Like the Okanagan. Or California.”
I thought it was a great idea. In the end, we moved all the way to Spain. I loved Barcelona, and immersed myself in the colourful mosaics, magnificent architecture and effervescent spirit of the city, while you did a crash course in Spanish and taught at the university. Those were heady, happy sun-drenched days. During the week I explored the vibrant markets and drew inspiration from the sights, sounds and smells of Barcelona. I converted our spare room into a studio and painted flamboyant lifescapes in bold acrylics. At the weekends we would often drive to one of the smaller coastal towns and enjoy long, lazy sangria-filled lunches overlooking the Mediterranean.
I remember how happy you were the day I told you I was pregnant again. Your face lit up, as you took me in your arms and spun me around.
“If it is a girl we shall call her Maria,” you declared. “And if it is a boy, we shall call him Eduardo.”
“Spanish names?” I laughed.
Our care-free Catalonian life resulted in a textbook pregnancy, and our rainbow baby was born with a good pair of lungs. We named him Benjamin, a decidedly British name. He was perfect in every way, and we effortlessly transformed from being a couple to being a family. When Christopher arrived fifteen months later, the pace of our life escalated, and months passed in a blur of baby bottles and diapers. I managed to keep painting and writing, which brought sanity and structure to my world in the toddler years.
“So,” you announced one Sunday afternoon a few months later. “I have something to ask you.”
It was a warm day, and we were pushing the boys through Park Guell, listening to the buskers as we strolled. You pointed to a nearby bench, and we positioned the pushchairs so that the boys could watch the olive trees blowing in the warm breeze while we talked.
“I have been offered a curatorship in Paris.”
My heart dropped. “Oh?”
“It’s at the Louvre. It’s a really good opportunity. But …”
"But what?” I asked.
“Well, I just know how happy you are here in Barcelona.”
“I do love it here.”
“Honey, it’s a great life here for you and the boys. Your painting is going so well, and you are really making a name for yourself as a talented artist.”
You were right. I had started selling some of my paintings, and I had a small exhibition coming up in two weeks.
“But it’s the Louvre, Warren. It wouldn’t be fair to take that away from you,”
Over the next few days, we discussed whether it was feasible for you to commute during the week while the boys and I stayed in Barcelona. It wasn’t. Our life was to be lived together. Do you remember how I told you that art is universal and transferable? It would be a step back, but I could step it forward again once we were settled in our new home. I knew how much this opportunity meant to you.
Once again, we relocated. Paris was beautiful but lacked the charisma of Barcelona. You thrived in your new role at the Louvre, while the boys embraced the French culture and language at their playgroup, and later at kindergarten. Truth be told, I struggled to make friends with the cliquish community. It didn’t help that my French was so poor. I know this concerned you, as you would return each night and gently ask me how my day had been and make suggestions for the following day. I immersed myself in my painting and produced soulful glimpses of what I observed of Parisian life from my position on the periphery, using more muted colours than I had worked with in Barcelona.
I built up quite a collection of artworks and was invited to host my first Parisian exhibition. Do you remember opening night? You and I initially stood in the shadows and watched the reactions of people as they walked around my small exhibition. You told me how proud you were of me, not just of my work but also of how well I had embraced our new life. But, of course, none of that happened.
Today, I sit alone on my stoep in the dusty Karoo. I suppose I have developed a reputation for being “the reclusive Karoo painter”. People travel to my desert studio to buy my paintings and ask me where I get my inspiration from. I get it from the life we should have lived. I close my eyes against the glare and take a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh as the dry heat engulfs me. I can smell the fynbos.
I think back to the honeymoon car crash of twenty-four years ago, as I do every day. I am lying upside down, trapped in the wreckage with you. I call your name over and over again while I watch your life slowly bleed away.
In a ditch alongside a remote Karoo road in September 1998, I lost you. "We" became "I". Five months later, after an ambivalent pregnancy, I gave birth to our tiny daughter and held her until she left me to be with you. On long, lonely nights I whisper your name and grasp at the emptiness you left behind. I console myself with the life we should have lived - the places we would have gone to, the family we should have had. Sometimes I wonder whether you are watching me live my solitary life. Mostly I wonder whether you have imagined the same indelible life for us that I have.
I never left Africa.