Wednesday, November 15, 2017

My best friend, Joanne du Toit, 15/11/1983 - 14/05/2017.

Dearest Jo, Joanne, Greenfaerie, Tigger, lil-green-tpot, my best friend in the whole wide world. You had the heart of a dragon and fire could not kill you, but cancer did. I'm writing this for me, in the hope that it will help me get through this day. I'm writing it for you, but you already know everything, or else you will when we meet again. And I'm writing it for all your friends, who were blindsided by the news of your death in a way I can only imagine, and who deserve better.

Jo and I weren't officially best friends the whole time we knew each other. We were in different years in primary school, and went to different high schools. Joanne's best friend in primary school was a little girl called Susan, whom I never remember meeting. Susan, you were the very first Very Best Friend that Jo ever had, as far as I know. She talked a lot about you, so much that I remember your name after all these years. And Tammy, I know we spent time in Mabula together with Jo once and I met you then.

And of course the Stellenbosch crowd. I always wanted to go with her to Stellenbosch and meet you guys, especially Mia and Ilse, because she was ALWAYS going on about you and what you'd been up to. I never even got to meet her boyfriend; she had a whole different life down there. She was so happy in Stellies. It was the true hometown of her heart. Sometimes, I think, part of me believes she's still there and will come back to visit me soon.

Never leave out Natalie of course, but Nats is my friend too and we have so many stories together; that's happening in a moment.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm not claiming to have been Jo's best friend. She had you guys, and she loved you all so, so much. But from my side? She was most definitely mine. I had so many best friends over my childhood. All of them drifted away, or emigrated, left somehow. Joanne was the one who stayed. After she moved back home, once we were adults, she was often the only person outside my family I'd see in weeks. She was the only person besides my husband, MJ, whose company I could handle for any extended period without getting annoyed. In fact I told her once, just after I'd got engaged to MJ,  that the way I knew he was the one was that he was the only other person in the world I was as comfortable around as I was with her. She never dropped me, never left me. Until she did.

But before it happened, I did get to tell her. I'd brought her some food and I was going home. We weren't talking about her dying. We never talked about her dying. But it was on my mind, and so I said "Hey Jo, I know you've got tons of other friends who love you, and I'm sure I'm not really yours, but you're my very best friend in the world." Then I walked away, down the road, before she could feel she had to say anything back.

So I'm not trying to claim Jo. She was my Jo, but I know she was also yours. I don't know why she chose to tell only me about her diagnosis. I think it was probably just because I was there, I was the person who could be there for her when her parents couldn't be, Lesley-down-the-road. So please let me tell you these stories without feeling like I'm trying to take anything away from you. I'm telling them because they're my stories with her, and I want to give them to you, the only thing I have to give.

Why didn't you tell me sooner? The day you let me know, you'd just moved into your new house, Natalie's old house, across the road from your parents. You invited me, formally on WhatsApp, to visit you there. I thought all the formality was for fun, you know? You, a real home-owner, inviting me for lunch for the first time in her very own house. You sat me down at this dining-room set you had in the living room just outside the kitchen. There was hardly anything in the house, but you'd already hung up some of my crappy childhood paintings on the walls.We were eating rolls with Woolworths pate on them, a rainbow of sundried tomato, cream cheese and pesto. I remember every bite. 

And you told me. "I have breast cancer." I took a deep breath, ready to say how sorry I was, but how breast cancer is so curable, that I'd be there for you any time to drive you to treatments and... and... "And I'm choosing to take the natural route." And everything stopped. I burst into tears. I said "You can't do that,you can't do that, you'll die!" And you burst into tears, saying "That's why I didn't want to tell anyone, I don't want pity, I don't want to be a burden, I need you to support me in my choice". You said you knew, just KNEW, that you were going to get better. I never said the word "die" to you again. 

I said "Don't you ever leave me. You could never be a burden, never. The only thing you could do to hurt me would be to go and leave me alone." You said "I won't be going anywhere, onkruid vergaan nie, fire cannot kill a dragon. This is my fire, and I will make it through, I will be ok." And I said "Yes, I know. You'll be ok." But I meant it in a different way from you. I meant that I believed, and I still believe, that whether we live or die we're all, ultimately, going to be ok, that God will take care of us. That we will live again, somehow. 

I never openly argued with you about it again. But from that day I was plotting a campaign to get you to hospital and treatment. Now I believe that on the day you told me it was already too late. It must have already been in your spine by then. But I can't help wondering, what if you'd told me sooner? What if I'd gone with you to the Drakensberg that year, instead of staying home to work and look after MJ? Would you have told me then? If I'd been a better friend, would you have told me in time for me to save you?

I knew my Jo since before she could walk. My mom's first memory of her is from when we'd just moved into the house we still live in now. I was two when that happened, so it was probably the same year. Her mother was walking past our garden with Joanne in a pram. That's when we first met. Here's a photo of us at someone's third birthday party (she's the one on the left). Mine? Hers? I have no idea. We were born in the same year, me in April, her, well, you know. I'm 34. She should have been 34 too now. But she isn't. She won't be. I've overtaken her today and every year to come she will still be 33. We were going to be crazy old ladies together.

We were neighbours. Joanne-up-the-road. Joanne-and-Gerard. Joanne-and-Gerard would come down to swim with me in our pool. We'd all climb over the gate at the side of the house, or slip through it, and go swim. We had a game, we called it Adam and Eve.

Here's how to play Adam and Eve: Be children in a hot climate. Run down the road barefoot to the house of your friend who has a swimming pool and an inflatable rubber dinghy which you turn upside down. When you're "on", your home is under the boat. From under the boat yell "Adam!" The other players have to yell "Eve!" You can swim away from the boat underwater, or take it with you, but you have to catch them without coming up for air away from the boat. When Sharon, my Official Very Best Friend from school, played with us too, she wanted to call our game Marco Polo, as the rest of the world does. But that wasn't its name.

Later on, when we were a bit older and big brothers didn't hang out with their little sisters and their weird friends any more, it wasn't so much Joanne-and-Gerard as Joanne-and-Natalie. Nats lived over the road from Jo, and no matter what friend/enemy configurations the neighbourhood kids got ourselves into, Joanne-and-Natalie were inseparable. I was the third musketeer, and together we were the Dolphin Club. I drew us all matching little certificates. I painted dolphins on Jo's bedroom walls too, a mother and baby bottlenose on one wall and a killer whale on the other. They're still there. I wonder when they'll be painted over.

The three of us would have sleepovers on the couches in Jo's parents' billiard room, because there wasn't room for all of us in her bedroom. We'd stay up till that hour of the morning when "do you think when I see green it's the same colour as what you see as green?" is a brand new and profound question. We planned to start a band, probably for all of one evening. We sang along with Hanson into hairbrushes. Later when we were older, we'd call in to Tuks FM and ask the DJs to play our requests. We made a mixtape of our favourite songs, heaven alone knows what they were back then, and I drew a cover of us all riding racehorses across a turntable, with "Joanne, Natalie and Lesley go DJ" underneath.

I do know the favourite songs she came back with from Stellenbosch. They meant things to her at those times, things I wasn't part of. Give them a listen for her and, if you were part of those times with her, remember.

OK Jo, I'm not gonna try and lie to you, that second one hurts like hell right now. I guess that's how these things work, songs acquire new meanings as time goes by. After you had gone, I found solace in songs by my favourite band. Did I ever tell you they were my favourites? Linkin Park. They wrote one song, it was called One More Light, it came out just afterwards. Like, days afterwards. That song was you to me. So many things in it were yours, from the chair you sat me down in to tell me the news, to our "brilliant" 2AM philosophical conversations, to my fear that if I'd just seen something, noticed something, earlier, things could have been different. I listened to it over and over again, and it soothed me. I was even doing ok for a while. 

But just two months afterwards, the lead singer killed himself. He did it on his friend's birthday, the friend he'd been singing your song for just days after he died, just days after you died. 

After that I don't think I felt much at all for another two months, but I remember the day I decided to try and listen to your song again (except now it was both-of-yours). All the grief, anger, everything came crashing in again. Now it was for you and for him - the person whose voice had helped me deal with my loss had succumbed to his own, so very similar - and the two things together were too much to bear. Since then I've been anything but all right, and today has been getting bigger and scarier in my mind every day. Writing this to you is how I'm coping, part of how I'm making sure that I'll be ok. 

And I'll be ok, I promise. I need to help take care of your parents, after all. I don't really know how they're doing, Jo. They're skinny, as they've always been, and they don't talk about you much. The other day I asked your mom what your favourite band had been. I was afraid I'd find another part of your life I'd missed out on, but when she said "Die Heuwels Fantasties" I was happy (well, as happy as I could be at the time). They're one of the many, many good things in my life that you introduced me to. A photo of us from that concert, arms around each other's shoulders, is my avatar on most of my social media now.

Some other great things that Joanne taught me about: The best way to eat bread (hot, straight from the bag in her mother's car on the way home from school). That the bullseye on an archery target is gold. How to tell a yellowbilled kite, in flight, from any other bird of prey. How to infuse a watermelon with vodka. She tried to introduce me to oysters, too, but that didn't stick. Pimm's cups. Sushi. I'd never really given it a chance until she persuaded me to. 

We went out for sushi more than we did anything else, as adults. We'd go shopping, then sit at the conveyor belt and wait for something interesting-looking to come past. Our number one absolute favourite sushi in the world, though, she didn't teach me, we discovered it together. It took us several Tuesdays to get up the courage to try the strange-looking confections with the cherries on the top. They looked so wrong, yet so good. Eventually we grabbed a plate. I'll try one and you try one. Eventually our favourite sushi chef started sneaking us three on a plate when no one was looking instead of two. 

That branch of Cape Town Fish Market doesn't exist any more, and neither does the Greatest Sushi in the World. We always planned to try making it at home, but we never did. 

Here's how to do it: Take one tofu pouch and fill with sushi rice mix. Spread liberally with Kewpie mayo. On top of this add: one wedge of avo, one cooked prawn tail, and one maraschino or glace cherry. You could replace the prawn tail with a good blob of salmon instead, but don't, I repeat don't, mess with the cherry. The cherry makes it. Best served with a Pidgey sitting on the plate. 

Yes, she also introduced me to Pokemon Go. Not that I ever played it, with my potato phone at the time. But it was a new world and a sublime experience going with her to all the right spots, listening to her explaining how it all worked, and watching over her shoulder as she spotted the little virtual creatures in our own augmented reality. I've never played Pokemon Go, but I love it, because of her. I remember her trying to show me how to unlock her phone. Her mother asked me, afterwards, if I could. But I can't. I never could. It's so easy! she'd say, executing some sort of esoteric Norse rune over the wolf's face that was her background. I'd try to copy her and fail, and try, and laugh, and never could get it right. A while after, my husband got a new phone and started to show me how to work it. He was so scared when I screamed, a scream that turned into a wail and once I'd reassured him that he hadn't somehow hurt me I just sobbed in his arms.

You said you'd never leave me. You promised you'd be OK. I tried so hard; on the surface I never contradicted you but every step, every action, every word was calculated with a single aim: how do I get you to a hospital and help, or at least make you tell more people, without angering you into pushing me away? It was always "when you get better". When you get better we'll go here, we'll do that. While on one level I was desperately trying to manipulate you into getting treatment, and on another I knew that it was probably too late, that it had been all along. Did you really believe you were getting better? Were you in such denial? Or did you think you were being kind to us, hiding it from us, that somehow we didn't know? The closest it came was the time you joked about haunting me. If you were wrong, you said, you'd come back and haunt me so I could smack you over the head for being stupid. I'd hug you instead, and then probably smack you as well, but you never came back.

Here are some other things we didn't always agree on. Spiders. She hated them. Hated them more than anyone else I know apart from MJ. My dad was never the biggest fan of the large ones either, so I've always been the dedicated spider catcher in the family. You know how everyone knows where they were on 9/11 when the Twin Towers came down? Me, I was at Joanne's house, trying  frantically, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to extract a brown widow from her bathroom. 

Also, sleep schedules. She was the kind of person who, when she woke up, couldn't get back to sleep. This was always incomprehensible to me. Sleep is about my favourite thing, and I'm sure it annoyed her sometimes how late I'd always get up. She used to wake up in the middle of the night to listen to international cricket matches on the radio. Cricket was one of her very favourite things. On Twitter just about everything she said was about cricket. Here's a selfie she managed to get with Temba Bavuma.

She loved @guerillacricket, and met such great people on Twitter. One of them, Katy, even came to visit her here in South Africa. The three of us went to the Pretoria Zoo together, and I finally saw an okapi, something that was on my bucket list. It was one of the best days of my life. Here's Katy and Jo with a friendly leopard. (Please note Joanne's top: it says "I'm a unicorn and don't date humans.")

Some more things about Jo. She was so brave, always. Stubborn, with it. She was a Targaryen, definitely. And a Gryffindor. One time I went with her to the Drakensberg we went ziplining. I loved it but was nervous before each one, you could see it on my face. She had no fear whatsoever. That was about the happiest I've ever seen her.

I'll never forget those Drakensberg trips. The sound of the Piet-My-Vrou could always be heard there at that time, so that particular birdcall will always mean Joanne to me. It was there that she taught me how to braai snoek (smear with apricot jam, baste with garlic-lemon-butter) and make Melktertjies. Here's how to make Melktertjies. Grab a bottle of vodka. A tin of condensed milk and a tin of evaporated milk. Shake it all together until it's thoroughly mixed. Pour in shotglasses and shake over a dash of cinnamon. Enjoy, preferably while completely owning your friends in a drinking game. 

A couple of times in her last few weeks we'd order huge amounts of pizza, grab some booze and have a party playing Drinking 30 Seconds on her bed. With only the three of us we'd go round in circles, changing direction each round to make it fair. She won every time. Every. Single. Round. Right up to the end. 

I don't know how to say goodbye to you Jo. And I don't know how to end this post, either. I want to talk about your little Luna pup, how she brightened your last months, how privileged I feel that I went with you to get her, just as years before you came with me to get my Kaori dog. How your nephews Aiden and Cole were the loves of your life. How just before you gave me the news, you were talking about how you wanted to retrain in early childhood education and become a preschool teacher. How proud I was of you when you got your driver's licence, and how happy you were with your little car. How you loved books and TV series, how we won the pub quiz every time, just the two of us against teams of 6 or 8, how you gave me Panados at 3AM because I'd given myself a headache hiking all day, how you bought me two leopard frog plecos because I absolutely needed all of the four they had in the pet shop but I didn't have the money. I've still got those fish, and they still belong to you. As does the necklace you "permanently lent" me, and that I'm permanently wearing now. I don't know when I'm going to take it off. 

I'm sorry that we never got to go to Zanzibar with Natalie. I'm sorry that we never got to update your dragon tattoo with the new wings and Elvish writing. I'm sorry that I'll never get to design the green faerie wings you wanted one day. And I'm sorry that I couldn't save you. I can't do anything more for you now, but I promise I will give your parents hugs whenever I see them. I'm gonna be around to give your parents hugs, and to feed Luna and Emma when they go away, and to give them scratches from you and tell them that they're very, very good dogs. And I will see you again one day, I truly believe it, but - with God's help - not today. 

Here's one more song for all Joanne's friends. I'm sure you know how much she loved Supernatural, and whenever this song came on when we were in the car we would just go bos. Here it is for her, and for all of you.

Goodbye my precious friend. I will love you forever, Jo, and I will miss you for the rest of my life. 

Edit: I just realised I never actually posted a Heuwels song. This is a sad one so please only listen to it if you're sure your hearts can handle it. Happy birthday and fly free in heaven my Greenfaerie.

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