Many years ago, when I was working as General Secretary for the Christian Council of Lesotho, there was a knock on the door and into my office walked two hippies. You could tell they were hippies, because of his shoes and her sandals. You could tell they were hippies, because she had her hair braided in a particular kind of way and wore a particular kind of dress. He had a particular kind of haircut and he carried himself in a non-macho kind of way.
They introduced themselves as Justin McCarthy and Amanda Heddon. They were newly arrived, back from New Zealand and they wanted to start a leather working outfit in Lesotho.
They explained that they would use local shrubs to extract tannins and they would use local leather and would teach Basotho how to do what they did and make what they made. They wanted to know if I was interested in partnership at all. I was more than interested. To what extent I could help, if at all, I can’t remember. And we kept up contact after that.
I remember being so utterly impressed with them. They were so purposeful. They had no airs and no graces. They seemed to be such good and honest and likable people. Over the many years that I continued to know them, I found out that they were, just plainly and simply, all that they appeared to be.
After a while, frustrated by the lack of interest of Basotho in their project, they decided to relocate to Curry’s Post, in Kwazulu-Natal and start afresh. And it was there that they set up the now hugely popular and internationally known “Groundcover” brand. Justin told me gleefully how he had seen a wood-and-iron house advertised in the press, on day and how he had bought it. And how it arrived in bits and pieces and how he had to fit it all together, like a Jigsaw puzzle.
I visited them both often in their wonderful house overlooking a green and peaceful valley. I would walk sometimes with him to their dam. He once stripped naked and jumped in, mid-sentence, just because he felt like it. Their children seemed to grow up carefree, integrated and wholesome. Their business thrived and the quality and attractiveness of their goods became renowned throughout the country.
It was, of course, deeply shocking to hear of Justin’s death some days ago. He was killed, entirely unnecessarily. He was on his mountain bike and a car overtook another on a blind rise. We have not been particularly close, for many years, but I know that if last week I had walked unannounced into their kitchen, it would feel as warm and as friendly as it always did.
On a long drive that I have just done, with nothing but spectacular scenery to keep me company, my thoughts wandered back over the many years I have known them. And about Justin himself and the gentle and lovely person he was and the fact that he is now dead.
Death is always so damn final. It is that full-stop at the end of a saga. It brings a silence. It does not allow for argument or negotiation. It says “that is the end of that”. And all you are left with, if you are lucky, is memory.
And what is sad, is not so much that death happens. What is new is that when I next walk into that kitchen, Justin won’t be there. That is just the way it is. His voice is now silent. We can only remember him now. We can only bring him into our living through piecing together the bits and pieces of residue and shadow that we have left. There will be echoes of him. But he will not be there. Not ever, and not again.
Some people fear death terribly. Like a child sometimes fears the dark, or being on their own. There is that terror of abandonment, that inner scream of utter loneliness.
But why should it be so? Why should death not be as basic as birth? As individually unnoticeable as passing from one age to another? And why should it not be so, no matter how it happens?
Unlike me, my father was a man of very few words. On his deathbed, he looked at my distraught sister and said, “Everybody has to die”. I have always marvelled at the simplicity and profundity of those words. Because in the end, we can spend our whole lives fearing that, or we can just get on with the business of living in the best way we can.
The real and difficult question for me has always been not “Is there life after death?” There is a real sense in which that is a useless question. A question with very little content. The really important question is, “Is there life before death?”