This subject is not small, quiet or pretty. It’s become alarmingly apparent that the middle years of life are, for too many people, so tough to navigate that they look for a quick way out. I’m no counsellor, but if you’re struggling right now I urge you to ask for help. Talk to someone. Connect. Connect. Connect. Be kind to yourself. And please hold on. Wait for the storm to pass.
Here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago in memory of a friend.
He liked to walk the beach just as the sun wiped the sleep from its eyes. The roar of the waves washed over him while he searched the sand for treasures. Iron, glass, wood, tile; he picked them up and brought them home. He displayed them in an open box, a cube with many compartments that sat on the table like a work of art, the simplicity of its pale wood as beautiful as the objects it held. He arranged his newfound knick-knacks then made coffee loudly, waking up the rest of us—we who had missed the sunrise and kept our feet warm in bed while his had felt the cool, wet sand.
He was filled with enthusiasm on those mornings, so keen to share what he had found: sun-bleached wood, salt-corroded metal and opaque glass all worn smooth by the tide. Hung over and grumbling we indulged him, examining each object without really seeing it. His certainty that they had come from the wreck of the Walter Hood was infectious. Yes, we nodded, they must have done. I always meant to look into that shipwreck, to find out what had happened.
We met at the beach house for long weekends. We were cheery in our drinking; we barbecued to excess. We swam and walked and talked. He was charming, clever, grumpy, funny. He was perceptive and interested. He had travelled far and lived many lives and had the wicked grin to prove it. He could speak Xhosa, his tongue clicking softly as his lips formed the words. He created an enchanted garden that he cherished, and he could name the plants in everyone else’s. In that small seaside community all the neighbours loved him.
But over the years the gaps between beach house weekends widened as life slowly and quietly changed us all. Children came, unemployment struck, relationships faltered. We were together less and less. He sold his beach house and left his garden to move back to the city. I was planning a visit. How I wish now that I had gone sooner.
When the phone call came, I heard the words but could not accept their meaning. The caller was crying. I made her say the words again then I too began to cry. “Taken his own life,” she said. Four words to convey the unfathomable. Four words that rippled around the world and capsized all of us who knew him.
At the wake his sisters came from half a world away to meet his friends for the first time. One sister was brittle, the other soft. Each was devastated in her own way. In the bright blue eyes of his youngest sister I saw tears sparkle like sunlight on wave tops.
“Are you staying long?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “My daughter’s getting married. I came right after the kitchen tea and before the rehearsal dinner.”
The inconvenience of death.
We who had loved him hugged and cried. We told stories and laughed in the recollecting. We asked why and found no answer.
“He was so happy at Christmas,” someone said.
“He was learning Spanish. He was planning a trip,” someone said.
“He was lonely,” someone said.
“He hated his job,” someone said.
“He was always melodramatic,” his oldest sister said sadly and looked away.
The sisters had made a memory room full of old bits and bobs for us to take home. I wanted a treasure from the Walter Hood, a piece of glass that the sea had worried smooth, something to hold in my hand and rub my thumb over, something to hold up to the light. But the familiar wooden box was not there.
“Where are the Walter Hood treasures?”
“He put them all back in the sea,” someone said.
We should have known then. Perhaps we should have known.
At the bottom of a cupboard was a large old leather-bound book with metal hinges.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s the family Bible,” said his oldest sister.
The weight of it—it took both hands to pick up. I opened it and read the names written in the front. The first was from the 1800s.
“Take it if you want it,” said his oldest sister.
“Don’t you want it?”
“No,” she said. “It means nothing to me. I don’t like old things. I don’t want it in my house.”
I went to check with the other sister.
“Oh,” she said, “please take it. I can’t take it home with me and it’s wrong to throw away a Bible.”
“I’ll send it to you.”
“No,” she said. “I’m so glad you want it. It means a lot to me that it’s going to one of his friends.”
He would have loved it for its history and its ancestral story. I wonder if he ever read it.
At home I hefted the great book onto the table. From its foxed and brittle pages I learned the history of the man who had compiled it, a Scottish preacher whose explanation of its mysteries was so popular that it stayed in print for more than a hundred years. This edition, I discovered, was from 1870.
Then, finally, I began to research the Walter Hood. It too originated in Scotland. It set a record for the fastest London to Sydney voyage and was known to almost everyone who lived in the colony. When it became caught in a storm near the beach house, it was carrying beer, wine, iron bars, tiles and theatrical costumes. He would have loved the incongruous flourish of that last item of cargo. As the storm began to destroy the ship, some sailors swam for shore. Those who could not swim clung on to the wreck. In their torment they killed the captain’s dog and ate it raw. Three days later they were rescued, desperate but alive. The year was 1870.
It both comforts and astounds me that the ship and the book originated in the same place and went out across the world to different countries yet ended up together. As the Walter Hood broke up off the beach, the family Bible sailed on another ship, on another ocean, to South Africa, to be bought by a family who would hand it down through the generations to a man who ended up on a beach in Australia collecting treasures from the wrecked ship.
Some time after the wake a friend compiled a photomontage, set to music, of happy times at the beach. At the end the music faded and a familiar voice said, “Like stars against the black sky, these are points in time and they are linked. They are infinite.” He knew that great truth, yet when the storm came he could not hold on, could not cling to the wreckage for one more day.
Love and loss, hope and despair, joy and pain—these are the threads that bind us together, invisible yet enduring. We think we are alone, apart. We are wrong. No matter how shipwrecked our lives, we are all treasures, precious to someone.
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