I heard today that a friend from South Africa died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving all who knew her reeling and disoriented. Thoko was only 17 years old. I met her when she was 3 years old – a cheeky, tiny little girl who spoke hardly any English. At the time, her mum was really unwell and unable to look after her, so good friends of mine (Tom and Mandi) were caring for her full-time. A few weeks later, Mandi and I moved into a flat together – with Thoko, who now spoke English fluently. She was adorable, all who met her seemed to fall for her smile, charms and dance moves instantly.
Mandi and I became “mum” to Thoko. She slept on a little mat by my bed. I woke her up in the mornings, got her dressed, took her to nursery school, picked her up at the end of the day. Once I forgot to pick her up – and felt terrible for days. I managed to teach her to have a lie-in at the weekends! She was beautiful.
She celebrated her first ever Christmas with my family in South Africa – she didn’t know what Christmas was until the age of four. She kept telling everyone what we had bought them, prefixing this with “It’s a secret but…”. She made us all laugh. Once, in a restaurant, Thoko and I told the waiter it was Mandi’s birthday. He bought out a pudding with a candle in it and made everyone sing “Happy Birthday”. It wasn’t Mandi’s birthday at all – we just thought it would be funny if everyone sang to her!
I remember taking Thoko to see the animals at Tala wildlife park, we went many times. I especially remember our trip to Tala with my good friends form England Liza and Beki, and another trip with Suzi. Happy memories.
Thoko never went back to her mum’s. Tom and Mandi took her in, she also lived with her aunt for years. She was loved. Deeply. And now she has gone.
Last time I was in Durban, I could have seen Thoko but I didn’t. I thought there would be another time, many more chances. That makes me feel unutterably sad – for now it is too late. I can’t remake that decision. But I can learn from my assumption. Life is uncertain. Love and show love to those you love while you can.
I feel like death is all around me at the moment. I don’t know what this means. But I know it is excruciatingly sad. And mostly senseless. I do know, however, that it is making me reassess life. I am alive. I want to choose life. Not just survival, but life – in all its fulness. I want to live – because I can. I want to choose adventure and risk, embracing life – because I can. Not everyone can. But I can, right now, and I don’t want it to pass me by.
RIP Thoko. You were loved. Deeply. You will be missed. Always.