I can’t believe it’s over a year since you died. I think about you often.
This morning, I read a beautiful letter. It was written by my friend Chris Russell, following the tragic death of his almost-one-year-old nephew Tommy. I read it in his book Ten Letters – and was particularly struck by these introductory words:
“As a way of dealing with grief, a friend of mine who is a psychologist suggested I write a letter to Tommy, expressing my thoughts and feelings”.
And so, as I read his letter (with tears in my eyes – for it is extraordinarily beautiful), I decided that I would write to you. One year on.
You see, JJ, I don’t feel like I have properly said goodbye yet. I couldn’t come to your funeral in South Africa. And I didn’t see you for over two years before then. I wanted to – so much. I wanted to visit you when you came off the streets and went into rehab – I was so proud of you and delighted that you were choosing a new way of life. And when the honeymoon period ended, and you ended up in prison – I really wanted to visit you there. I could have come actually, for I was visiting Durban when you were locked up – but I was advised not to, advised that it would be traumatising.
I really regret not coming then. Of course it would have been traumatic – but not seeing you, not taking that opportunity, has been worse. For I am left with the “what ifs” and an abiding sense of regret.
I didn’t – and this is probably my deepest regret – see you when you were dying. Oh – I wanted to come. Wanted to jump on a plane and visit you in hospital, and afterwards, when you were staying with your sister. But we didn’t have any money, we were totally broke at that point. So I didn’t come. I am sorry.
I wanted to see you with your brand new baby daughter, Thokzile – born only a few weeks before you died.
JJ, can you believe that I still haven’t met her? And she is over one year old now. I am hoping to remedy that very soon. She is a sign of hope, and – in her little body – I feel as though you live on. I want her to have a totally different life from you. And I plan to do all I can to make sure that happens! I am going to ask some of my friends to help me – to help me make sure that she goes to school, has a safe home and always knows – every single day – that she is loved.
You would be so proud of Thokzile’s mum (your girlfriend Thabsile), she is doing really well and working on the LIV village. Thokzile goes to the baby home each day so that Thabsile can work. They are both doing so well – and that makes me really happy. I think that, if you could see it, you would be really happy too.
So, if I had seen you one more time, this is what I would have said to you, JJ:
“Don’t give up. Please don’t think that you have to live on the streets forever. That is not your destiny. Life away from the streets is hard (and not many people understand that). People usually think it is easy, and therefore better, but I know that the community you had there was so strong. They were your family, I get that now. But – and this is a big but – in the long run, you would have found a new family, a new community. Tich and Joan were always there for you – and they wanted to help you find a new life. Mike too, and myself. We all wanted you to truly thrive, not just survive. So choose life JJ, choose life.”
JJ, I tried to help you choose life and I feel like I failed. I am sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. At all. I thought I was helping but in the end, I just let you down, like so many others.
Do you know how utterly charming you were? Do you really get that? I still miss you, and smile when I remember your charm. Calling me “mama Becca”. Feeding me stories (how you loved your stories!) about this, that and the other… I was so sucked in. And then I felt like a fool, for a while. For believing everything you said when your very survival depended on your ability to win over people like me (those with soft hearts who always believe the best in people – the suckers!). And yet, now, I don’t regret it – for, and this is my hope, maybe you knew you were loved. That someone believed in you. And that there was someone you could call in a crisis.
Oh my goodness, do you remember the time you and Nicky got stabbed? Do you know how squeamish I am? How much I hate hospitals? And there I was, the only white girl in the whole hospital, sitting with you both in A&E for a whole day. No wonder people gave me weird looks – you looked so rough with that gash on your face, and there I was acting like your mum, as though it was totally normal. But inside I felt so sick, I hate hospitals so much. And then you asked me to stay in the cubicle with you while they injected you and sewed your face up – I felt as though I was going to faint, but I managed to hold it together! The thing I loved about that awful day was this – I think that, by the end of it, you and Nicky knew I was on your side. And that was all I wanted really.
JJ, this is turning into a really long letter! I guess there is so much that was left unsaid. And I haven’t known how to say goodbye, being so far away. I have had a thought though – I want to “create” something in honour of your short life, so that you will never be forgotten. And not only you but all the other kids who die on the streets in Durban too. What do you think we should do? I like the idea of a public memorial – a public space, a public art project – so that the community of Durban can no longer pretend that kids like you never existed. Do you think that would work? Maybe I could write about your life too? You lived a thousand lives in your two decades here on earth and I want everyone to know how amazing you were – how you embraced life in spite of all you suffered, how you loved even though you knew so much rejection, how you taught some of us so much about living.
I miss you JJ. I wish you were still with us.
But I know you are in a better place now. And you left your mark here in this world – you will never be forgotten.