The Greatest Gift He Left Me
Updated: Jul 22
On 11 April this year, 10 days before my birthday, while chatting with my dad on WhatsApp, he sent a message asking, “Is it true that Phumlani is late? I cannot get hold of his father”. This is how I first heard of the death of my childhood friend—the child of my father’s friend. “No what???”, was my reply because I could not believe what my father was trying to confirm. The story of his passing made sense. Phumalni had long been public about his mental health struggles with anxiety and depression. However, I wasn’t quite ready to believe it.
Shock and denial; the first stage of grieving
In my mind (and denial), Phumlani was chilling somewhere. Safe. Oblivious to the stress his silence was causing. I wanted to believe that, similar to when we were young adults in our early 20s and his family thought he was missing, he would resurface. I called him, expecting him to be as embarrassed about the drama as he had been those years ago when I teased him about his disappearing act.
That didn’t happen. He didn’t pick up my phone call. I got confirmation of his death a few minutes later.
When it starts to feel real
The following day, shock and denial began to wear off. An acclaimed author and multidisciplinary artist, news of Phumlani’s death made headlines. Social media posts were plentiful. The guy I grew up with, who had a childhood crush on me for 12 years (according to him) was a pretty big deal. Reading tributes to him and news articles about him started to make his suicide real. There was no denial anymore. That was when I shed my first tears, briefly.
The one-week countdown to my birthday was not as jovial as usual. I was dealing with a number of first-time experiences. I was grieving a friend for the first time. I was grieving a young person for the first time. I was mourning during covid for the first time. Watching the memorial service online did not cut it for me. My closure is in funerals and seeing the dead body. This pandemic has changed how we mourn.
One thing that really resonated with me while watching Phumlani’s memorial service was that more than one speaker touched on feelings of regret. Regrets for their own reasons. I was touched deeply because I knew that could have easily been me. I could have also been living with regret that I am sure is difficult to shake off and forgive oneself for.
The gift of an apology
A few years ago, Phumlani and I were not in a good place. Beyond cold yet civil greetings when we happened to bump into each other, things were not good. He had hurt me. I was disappointed. Then one day, after over a year, when my sister and I were living together, she had told me that she had seen Phumlani the previous night. In their conversation, he told my sister that he had fucked up and didn’t know what to do. “Talk to her”, was my sister’s advice and truthfully, I believe he approached my sister knowing very well that she would relay the conversation to me. Well played on his part.
A few months after that, I got a message from him on Facebook Messenger. I got an apology from Phumlani. No bullshit. No excuses. Just an apology where he admitted to his wrongdoing/s that ultimately led to the demise of our decades-long friendship. I accepted his apology, gracefully. He hit every point on the nail without any prompting from me. More than anything, I appreciated him giving me the apology I knew I deserved.
During this time of lockdown and its restrictions, I recognise my fortune in being able to attend Phumlani’s funeral. It warmed my heart when my dad told me that both he and my stepmom volunteered to give up their seats for me as I was “the one who needs to say goodbye”.
Saying goodbye is never easy. The pain that Phumlani’s family was carrying was evident. Waiting in front of the hearse, I hugged his father—who I last saw at the book launch of Phumlani’s last novel—after my dad gave him an embrace. “Thandi”(a nickname not to be used by just anyone), he turned to me. “Hi Uncle Vusi, I’m so sorry”, I said with my arms around his shoulders.
My tears began to run uninhibited at that point. Watching, quietly, next to my father, the coffin with the body of a person I had known since 1999 being carried into his parents’ house. His home.
The last time I saw Phumlani was when I interviewed him for an article. We were good. He was still the same guy to me—still so full of shit. As complicated as our friendship had been over the years, his passing was close. Above everything, I have an even deeper appreciation for the apology he left me with. He left me with the gift of no regret.