I feel the need to write today, I haven’t been creative, at all, during the pandemic and, today, I’m feeling the need to be grounded. It may be a little rough, but it is what it is. It’s July 9th.
I’m sitting on the sofa next to my 15-year-old Jack Russel and King Charles Spaniel cross ‘pup’. Shall we call him ‘King Jack’? His name is actually Pepé. He was born in France, lived with us in Switzerland for four years, then in Banff for another four years and, finally, Toronto for six and a half years. He’s put up with a lot and he’s given us a lot. We’ve begun the conversation about the right time to put him down — quality of life and all that gut-wrenching stuff. I’m thinking I should probably write about that, about him…
So that I can sit next to Pepé, I pull a book from the shelf to support my computer. My fingers land on a large hard cover with the title, ‘The Miracle of a Freed Nation’. What was an obvious choice in size and steadiness to prop my computer becomes an unexpected writing prompt. Other book options, within arm’s reach included: a signed copy of ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood; Ansel Adam’s autobiography; ‘The Lives of Lee Miller’; and Andrea Diefenbach’s, ‘AIDS in Odessa’. Either one of those would have taken me in interesting directions, helped me draw on times in my life to express myself. But today I chose this. And, today is July 9th so why wouldn’t I expect such a coincidence (but I’ll get to that later).
Published by South Africa’s Sunday Times, ‘The Miracle of a Freed Nation’ is a book I bought in Johannesburg, 26 years ago. It chronicles, through press clippings, the country’s journey to democracy from F. W. de Klerk’s historic speech to parliament, in 1990 (that began the process of South African ‘reconciliation’) to images of newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, opening parliament, in 1994. Somewhere within the pages of this book, I was caught in another photographer’s ‘cross-hairs.’ The photo was taken in the ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana during an uprising, prior to the country’s first democratic elections. I’m standing with a group of journalists with my own camera directed at wounded right-wing extremists stranded with their car in the middle of a road. I had been one of the first on scene after shots were fired and had stood, camera raised, as one of the armed men slowly backed out of the vehicle, and laid down next to the driver, now dead beside the car. A third individual emerged from the back seat, also wounded, and fell to the ground with arms raised, asking for help. The photo in the book was taken minutes, if not seconds, before the men on the other side of my lens were executed in front of us.
That last sentence, I realize, probably needs more attention, but I’m moving on. I’m moving with the prompt of the book itself, taking a step back and outside of its pages to consider that time in my life. What it meant to me.
South Africa is where I met the person who was to become my husband — almost to the day, 25 years ago. He was/is Swiss. We weren’t inseparable from the start. I thought he was interesting. He was young; not my type. He grew on me. Then there was eventual geographical separation and longing which may or may not have been more for the person I was in South Africa than for him.
Our wedding was on July 9th, almost to the day, four years later, in a storybook castle in the highlands of Scotland. We divorced twelve years later. It took time, but the significance of that date, eventually began to fade. The anniversary loosened its grip and eventually began to pass without me noticing. Then as quickly as a hand reaching for a book that anchors me to a time and place, July 9th announced it wasn’t done with me yet.
Absurdly, the date was assigned to me by a doctor for my first chemotherapy treatment, the first of six. The cancer was aggressive, it was also in the lymph. I felt I was literally being told to not forget the toxicity of this day as bright pink chemicals were shot in my arm; as I resonated with the side effects that were inevitably going to take me over.
Five years later, on July 9th, I’m thinking about fairy-tale castles and chemo. One, for sure, was overkill, making up for lack of true connection to what was growing underneath. The other, probably was too. Five years later, I’m officially saying good-bye to July 9th. I realize you will always come around, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but I won’t be thinking of you.