It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Farewell to Ernie

On Wednesday 3rd July a crowd of family and friends gathered to bid farewell to my dad, Ernie. We were at the Llandudno Lifesaving Club on the beach in Llandudno, where my dad had lived for more than 50 years. Ernie died on Friday 28 June, aged 80, after a gradual deterioration compounded by his spinal injury, from a mountain biking accident, and the subsequent 15 years he spent in a wheelchair. This is what I and others said at the gathering:

It is right that we gather in this beautiful place, Llandudno, to remember our dad. Perhaps this is not the most practical choice of venue, with everyone squashing in, but I am confident it is the right one. Ern always said the only way he wanted to leave Llandudno was in a box. And he pretty much achieved that. Llandudno was Ernie's home and his community for more than 50 years. I couldn't imagine him living in Kronendal Retirement Village, where he reluctantly bought a house. I couldn't imagine him not living in Llandudno. And he couldn't either. I am so grateful that he was able to live out his days here, in the place he belonged.

This beautiful beach is inextricably linked with the picture I hold of my dad. He probably walked on this beach almost every single day of the first 35 years that he lived here, always with an assortment of dogs in tow. And when he lost access to walking on the beach 15 years ago, he continued to get as close as he could. He was a very familiar sight on his buggy, making his way along the gravel road behind us, still with the dogs in tow.

A death is a loss. And yet my experience of Ernie's death has not been primarily about loss. For us, his family, it felt like right timing. I think it is difficult for any of us to really appreciate how it was for Ern to loose his independence so completely, or just how well he actually bore up under those conditions, even as they worsened. When we were remembering things about Ern last night we thought of one of his old stock phrases: Right, we're off. It had connotations of his enthusiasm for action, but also meant - I'm ready and I'm going now, on my own, if no one else is. It feels like a long time since I've heard that phrase from Ern.

During the first of his two recent stints in hospital he was determined to attend the big Stephenson family saamtrek. I think, after that he was ready to go, he no longer needed to struggle on. Ern had had a very good innings. And so since his death I have found myself naturally drawn to experience and appreciate, not what I have lost, but what I have gained from being Ernie's son.

Ernie touched the many people in his life, and in particular his family and all who that encompassed and included, our family, my family. It is this that is Ernie's legacy.

So I think it is appropriate to hear what this family says about Ernie. And appropriate that we start with one of his grand children. Sebastian:

When I was about five, Ern had been in a wheelchair for about 10 years already. He made me a model fighter jet, even though he struggled to use his hands. I ran round and round the house with my new jet. I slipped in a puddle and broke the tail. Ern wasn't even mad, and he fixed it.

Ern loved birds. I think his best bird is a rock pigeon. He fed a pair of them on his deck every day.

Sometimes Ern would let Phoebe and me watch a video, as long as there was no sport on TV. One day when I wanted to switch on the TV Ern said, “Push the big button.” I did. Then he said, “Push any other button.” So I pushed a button. “No, not that button!” he yelled. Ern wasn't always so good at explaining what he meant.

We all know that Ern had a buggy. Sometimes Ern let Tom, Phoebe, Pie and me ride up and down the passage, and sometimes he even let us ride the big buggy on the road. He was very generous with his things.

Ern we are all going to miss you. You have been a great grampa to me. I will miss you a lot. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

One of the things that enabled Ern to stay on in Llandudno was the dedicated care that he received and so valued from Sylvia & Sam, from Susan, Sandra, Zelpha, Samantha, and Sarah. Tessa, Oney and I are indebted to all of you for what you gave to our dad. Thank you.

And many other friends and family helped him to stay here, including Peter and Selbi from ADT.

I would like to read some words from others, who were not able to be here today. Firstly someone from Ernie's wider Llandudno family - Shirley du Plessis:

We all loved Ernie and admired him so much for his fight against the results of his accident, his sense of humour and his warm interest in so many things. He will be much missed by us all, but at least there is the knowledge that he had a very good life.

Now Samantha, one of his granddaughters will pay her tribute to Ern:

During the Argus cycle race they close down the roads in Llandudno and the downhill skaters take advantage of this. So my friend told me to go and look at the skating website, I was a bit confused about why she told me to do so, until in amongst the photos of hard-core downhill skaters was one of my Ermie coming down the same hill in his buggie with comments like “good to see the seniors ripping up the tar” and “what a legend grampa” and for me this pretty much sums up how me and all my friends knew Ermie. He was never an effort to visit out of obligation, and a place where you had to make small talk. Instead he was just the perfect stop-off on the way to and from the beach and his doors were always open to me and any of my crazy friends, who he loved to meet.

So I just want to say thanks for always being around, for helping me with every school project and always having an abundance of sucker sticks, for putting up swings for us in your garden and even though, near the end, you couldn’t participate, for passing down your awesome lifestyle through the generations. I will miss you.

Amongst the strong associations I have of my dad and am grateful for, aspects that shaped our lives as his children are this place, Llandudno, its beauty, its beach, its community, the openness of our home to friends and family, and the extension of that to Sani our unique, shared holiday spot on the Langebaan Lagoon, my parents values of non-pretentiousness, mountains, Matroosberg, skiing and sailing.

Some words from Jenny Viotti, long time family friend from the old Sani days:

I have such special memories of both your Father and your Mother - how they introduced us to you all at your shack on Rietbay, how you children all learnt to sail together, the Easter Regattas, etc., and much, much more! Those were very special times. ‘Uncle Burn’, as my children called him, was someone very special in all our lives. It was a tragic moment when such an active man should lose the use of his legs so young. How bravely he lived the rest of his life.

And from the De Graafs in New Zealand, Erika a very dear god daughter of Ern's, and her husband Pete:

As a family we have such fond memories of holidays spent in Llandudno. Ern and Ange were always so full of life and keen to be in on any activity - lunch on the deck , building sandcastles on the beach and beer shandies at sunset after walks to Sandy Bay (with numerous dogs in tow). And later on, after his accident, Ern was always keen to hear about our adventures, never feeling sorry for himself – just excited for us.

It is the end of an era for us all. You’ve lost an amazing father and grandfather, I have lost a much-loved Uncle and Godfather and Pete has lost a good friend.

And then from someone who probably best illustrates the openness of Ern and Angie's home: PD, the son of friends from England, who came to stay for a week or two and ended up staying in our home for 10 years. PD and his wife Lily in Australia:

Ernie was unique in every way and a very special person - he was my boss and our best man. Ernie had a wonderful sense of humour - he was a no-nonsense person and was often the instigator of all sorts of projects, a great motivator to get family and friends together. He loved his outdoors and his independence and we all know how difficult the last 15 years will have been for him and, despite what he endured, he still always remained the Ernie we all knew. We will all really miss you Uncle Trouble!

On Sunday afternoon, Tessa and Dave with Mico, and Sandra, Sebastian, Pheobe and I with Alex sailed into this bay. And that we could do so, was thanks in many ways to Ern and to Sani and it felt like a fitting tribute to some of what he has made possible for us. But it felt strange not to be able to phone him so that he could look out at us from his deck.

And then from the person who carries forward the Lanz family name, Ernest John or EJ, will read his father Brian's tribute to Ernie:

(EJ told us that his father was so determined that the family name go forward, that he was going to be named Ernest John regardless of whether he was born a boy or a girl!)

"Jokkie" as I knew him was always the brave, adventurous Uncle who did things like riding motorbikes, skiing, hiking, sailing, climbing mountains etc. I'm not sure whether I admired him or thought he was a bit overboard. Nevertheless life around him was always exciting. Except for skiing, I remember doing all of those things with him at various times over the years.

More recently we were on opposite sides of the Currie Cup Rugby spectrum. He was a staunch STORMERS and WP supporter and I was a SHARK. But we would support each other's teams against the BULLS. I will miss the weekly telephone calls to discuss the weekend's rugby.

And, if there is a Heaven, I'm sure Ernie is busy hiking from one side to the other on perfectly GOOD LEGS with Angie and their numerous dogs in tow!


I think we would be doing Ernie's memory a dis-service if we only said sweet things about him and did not acknowledge that he could also be a hell of a difficult bugger. He was not known for excess patience. But these aspects were very much part of the character that he was, and he carried them with a certain grace. It was the difficult bugger in him that motivated a joke between Sandra and Ernie. Sandra told him, when she and I got married, that she was marrying me on condition that I did not turn out like him. Well Sandra its probably too late now, but, judging by what has been said of him today, you could have done a hell of a lot worse!

The last tribute to be read out is from the only grand child who ever got to cash in her 'Olifants points' from Ernie. Oney will read Lauren's tribute:

On the 21st of June I flew half away across the globe. I arrived in a city atop a mountain. I arrived in a place were no one spoke English and dried lama can be bought on the street corner. But it was on the 28th of June that the world I knew changed. Suddenly I live in a world without you in it. You have been a constant all my life. You have been one of the greatest influences in my life. I am scared for what losing you means to my understanding of self, for you are inextricably linked with my growing up, my outlook on life, and with who I am. I will miss you so much.

But that is just my own selfish take on things. I know wherever you are you are light on your feet, and God knows that's something you've waited a long time for, so you'll be pleased to know I've poured myself a whiskey and soda, and I'm toasting to that.

PS. On Thursday I cycled down the infamous death road in Bolivia, one of the coolest things I've ever done; thanks for teaching me to ride a bike.

We will be adding a second plaque to Angie's Bench, up the road here. And it will now no longer be just Angie's bench – it will be Ernie and Angie's Bench.

Apparently on one of his last days, in the hospital when Ern was struggling to talk he had said something that seemed to be – Angie is waiting for me. Someone who knows him very well commented that if he had been more himself he would more likely have said: Shit man Angela, can't you see I'm coming!

That bench in its stunning location, has become a very special place to me and to Tessa and to Oney, and many others, strangers included, like to pause on it a while. If you don't yet know the bench I encourage you to visit it. I try to every time I am in Llandudno. I love to sit there looking out across this beach, looking back at the house we grew up in, thinking. From that vantage we will inevitably think about what we have lost. But much more importantly we will think about all that we have gained.

Thank you Ern for what you have given me, for what you have given all of us. Farewell.

After the tribute we made our way down to the beach to cast flowers into the sea for Ernie.

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