I have finished two bottles of Tsingtao beer, turned on a CD of Stephan Grapelli and George Shearing, and danced around the living room with the lights out so people passing on the street couldn’t see me. I am dancing, mourning, over my beloved friend Louis, who died of a massive heart attack in August, in Zimbabwe. I just learned of it today, and I am heartbroken. This is why dance was invented, I think. I wish I were in a pre-Halloween coven in the woods where witches and their acolytes danced until they dropped.
Here’s what I thought of that man:
It has been a couple of weeks of losses. First Mamma Sala’s passing, and now Louis’s. Two remarkable people who influenced my life profoundly. Mamma Sala taught me how to be a mother, and Louis taught me, well, how to get what you want. How to make judgments unaffected by emotion, how to put your head down and persevere in spite of every indication of impossibility, not in a foolish way, but in an intentional, well-planned, dispassionate, realistic way that could not end in anything less than success, because every truly impossible impasse could be recognized and avoided, and every path forward taken with intention. He woke up every morning and asked, “What do I have to do today,” thought about it while luxuriating in a hot bath, and then went out and did it. Nothing stopped him; not his diabetes, not Zimbabwe’s disaster, not pining for things he could never have.
He was a “late lamb,” the unexpected sibling to four brothers and sisters much older than he — stoic Afrikaaners who spoke Afrikaans in their homes and were not above joining the Bruderbond, a not-so-secret society of Afrikaans (think apartheid) oriented men who made sure that their members succeeded. When he was 17, the brilliant star of his high school class, his uncle offered him membership in the Bruderbond. “We will see to it that you have everything you need in life — a good university education, a home, and work for the rest of your life.” Louis would have none of it. “Why would I join a group of men who believe things that I don’t believe in?” he asked. His uncle never spoke to him again.
He married the daughter of an English-oriented family in Zimbabwe, wealthy farmers, and prime movers behind the accession of Robert Mugabe when colonialism imploded into war. Mugabe recognized the debt he owed to Louis’s father-in-law, by desisting from claiming his farm until 2005, when he was thrown off it virtually overnight, and is now not even allowed on the property, which is descending to ruin. Louis missed the Afrikaans language, and the Afrikaans humor and culture as he was sucked into English Only.
Louis’s appreciation of the ladies did not diminish despite his marriage.He and his wife had five children, carried on for a while after the last one was born, then separated, but in a most amazing way. She stayed on the family estate, which Louis had built in Harare with government insurance money after their farm in the country was “mortared to the ground” by rebels in the mid-70’s (It was just good fortune that nobody was home at the time.). For the rest of his life Louis kept the promise which he had made to himself to take care of her and of the children, and of the estate. He and his wife kept the family together, discussing every event in their lives, sharing holidays and vacations, and their mountain home in Nyanga. I wonder if the children appreciate the effort which this took, how deep their parents’ love of them was to overcome the obstacles to such solidity. I admire both of them for doing this.
When things went bad in Zimbabwe, as they cyclically do, Louis would just start another business. People who have never been to Africa (I only have spent a month there, but I think I got the point) might have difficulty understanding how desperate challenges are thrown in your face at every turn, and things which appear heroic over here are quite everyday there. Material things are not accessible enough to be the measure of happiness. Reliability of staff of all kinds must be replaced with flexibility, self-reliance, and determination. Danger must be accurately assessed all the time. There are always ways to stay out of trouble, but you have to be on your toes. Loss must be incorporated into your head and heart. Intelligence is invaluable, and Louis had more of that, on both the practical and theoretical levels, than any man I have ever known.
Since Louis was the late lamb, he was left alone early. He said his father was “a rock.” His father was a person he could turn to with the knowledge that the advice and reaction you would get were solid and well considered, and he didn’t go back on his word. Whatever part of Louis he could give you you knew would be there, and in the form it was offered. He was a rock.
He was so intent on the work at hand that he ignored himself. He wasn’t even aware of how good looking he was. I think he knew how smart he was, but to him his intelligence was only as good as its last accomplishment. His devotion to his family, and his love of his friends were to him like the shirt on his back, unanalyzed.
Compared to the risks and uncertainties of the life Louis led, starting a career as a writer seemed quite simple to me. Wake up every morning. Figure out what you have to do that day. And do it. Nothing is impossible then. Not in Zimbabwe. Not in the world of publishing. If you see a dead end, back out. If you see a road ahead, no matter how faint a trail, take it. Don’t be intimidated into promising, to yourself or to others, more than you can deliver, then do what you say you will do. It’s very simple.
My friend Suzanne said recently, when talking of our advancing ages, “We’ve got some hard times coming up.” I try to take every blow and pack it into my heart with intention. The only thing to learn, really, is to value the good things, not tolerate the bad — not tolerate mistreatment or pusallinimity of spirit, or bad intentions — and glory in the good down to ever smaller units. With every sadness and loss, I can see the Good down to an ever-smaller dimension. Loss is stitched so closely to its brilliant underside.
If immortality does in fact consist of the memories and inspiration that a person leaves behind, then there is no chance that Louis will die in my part of the world.