The flight from Durban to Johannesburg is 1 hour. We are dropped off at the airport by Darryl and Julie and do our check in formalities. Glenda and I then go to the Bidvest Business Lounge that we both thankfully get free entry into with our banking packages. It’s a nice oasis with refreshments and light meals, WIFI and a bit of quiet. We walk in that morning and again are both desperately trying to avert eye contact with anyone and hoping we don’t see anyone we know. We both see Craig at the same time that he sees us. Craig is a mountain of a man and was Darren’s junior surf lifesaving coach 6 or 7 years before and we have always stayed in contact with him and his wife Sharon. He gets up and literally envelopes us in his huge arms and I think he mutters ‘So sorry’. We all cry, just as one, in the middle of the lounge. He releases us and we all nod at each other and wipe our tears. The expression ‘No words’ is one that is often used and is especially relevant at this time. He picks up his stuff and heads off to catch his flight I presume. Glennie and I put our overnight bags down and grab a cup of coffee and a few snacks to keep us going. We sit opposite each other and basically just stare at each other but not wanting to make too much eye contact as we don’t want to break down in a public place. We must look like death warmed up. We sit there for a while and are suddenly startled by someone talking to us. It is a man that has come out of the smoking lounge on his way to catch his plane. We have never set eyes on him before. He says ‘I don’t know what terrible stuff you two are going through but please know that it will get better and you will be fine’. I think we both try and answer him and tell him about Darren but most words don’t form and he gently squeezes both of our shoulders and smiles. ‘It will be ok. Good luck’. Then he is gone to catch his plane. Random acts of kindness cost nothing, but mean so much. Thank you Mr Smiling Caring Eyes Man. You did give us some fortitude.
The flight to Johannesburg must be so memorable that I actually remember a big fat zero. In OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg we have an hour or 2 lay over. Glenda’s folks and her niece Emrel stay not too far from there and we meet them in the Wimpy at the departures hall. There is not much conversation, just shaking of heads, deep despairing eyes and hugs and hand-holding. It does give Glennie and I some strength to face the hardest of the journey to Hoesdpruit where Darren was stationed and as far as we are aware that is where he is. Hoedspruit is about an hour flight from Johannesburg and is pretty much in the heart of the South African bushveld, safari and game lodges in and around the Kruger National Park. It is a small town, smaller than small actually, Darren used to love to tell us that it could take you 10 minutes to walk from one side of the CBD of Hoedspruit to the other side – and that was if you stopped at every shop along the way!!! Hahaha – he would tell us it could take 2 minutes without stopping. We nearly miss our flight and as we are sprinting to the gate we can hear our names being called over the loud hailer. It is a stress but we just sneak in and manage to board the smallest commercial airplane I have ever been on. 22 seats (I think that included the pilot). Once we are in the air we see the pilot out of his cockpit handing out our snacks and refreshments. No hostess… Glennie has a mock freak out and says he must rather fly and we will serve… hahaha. Coming into land at Hoesdspruit is pretty cool – we are quite low and I have seen some elephants and other wildlife in a few places on our approach. It is really wild country here – just as Darren loved it. I can’t help wondering whether he had walked or driven in some of the places we had just skimmed over in the air.
By the time we land I have had at least 4 missed calls and an SMS from ‘Ang’ asking me to call her. Glennie has the same. It’s not a number either of us have saved and ‘Ang’ could be just about anyone wanting anything. As I am walking off the airplane my mobile rings and it is the same number. I take the call ‘Hello Kevin. This is Angie – Trysten’s Mom. I am so sorry to hear about Darren and I know that you are about to arrive in Hoedspruit. I need to help you transport anything and everything of Darren’s possessions and his car. Kevin, I am also registered and allowed to bring your boy back to Durban….’
Darren was at school with very special lads, 3 of them having the same name, different spelling – Tristen, Trysten and Tristan. This specific Trysten was at primary school with Darren and spent a lot of time in the Finegan madhouse. When the boys went to high school 150 km inland I was the taxi most of the time. I had a job where I was on the road looking after a sales force and my territory included the town where the boarding school was, Mooiriver, which is Afrikaans for Pretty River which we all have to admit wasn’t pretty much, however the river shaped a lot of their adolescent adventures and escapades. Angie, Trysten’s Mom, was a single Mom running a business and trying to do everything on her own. I fetched and carried Trysten and a few other Durban based lads for 5 years in high school. We had huge amounts of laughs and deep meaningful conversations in those many hours on the road. The older they got the more they slept most of the 1 and a half hour trip and the louder the music got. Angie told me often that she would pay me back for petrol etc. Who knew that today as I was arriving in Hoedspruit to try and piece together Darren’s final hours she would fall out of the sky like an angel, not offering but insisting on helping, at no cost and no hassle.
I was pretty gob-smacked to say the least and quite frankly we hadn’t actually given transport of anything any thought. I asked Ang for a bit of time to see what was needed and promised to call her back as soon as I had any sort of idea. The airport terminal at Hoedspruit is possibly smaller than most 3 bedroomed houses in South African suburbia and it felt like we were the only locals as all we could hear was foreign tour groups. We luckily managed to meet Shane from Protrack and he loaded us into his Landcruiser and took us to a wildlife housing estate where they were putting us up for the night. ‘Mr and Mrs Finegan, there has been some new evidence and revelations today about the circumstances of Darren’s accident. Let’s wait until we are inside and in a place where we can have a quiet chat’. The 15 minute drive seems like an eternity. ‘The driver of the Landcruiser has told us that he and Darren were on a presence patrol on the tar road that leads to the Orpen Gate of Kruger National Park (KNP). In the last 4 or so weeks the fences between KNP, Timbavati Private Reserve and Thornybush Private Reserve have been taken down to allow free flow of wildlife. This means that they were effectively patrolling the western border of the KNP. The presence patrol is more a show of force to poachers and a deterrent. On Sunday though, on patrol they came across a poaching dog (an Afrikanus) and Darren took aim and shot it dead. They are really hard to shoot and they are hardy, so Darren was naturally very pumped up that he shot it first time. They carried on their patrol and Darren remained on the back of the vehicle after shooting the dog. The sunset was awesome and they were pumped – shouting about being the saviours of the Western Realm, and generally being boisterous young men. Darren should never have been on the back of the Landcruiser as it against Protrack rules for safety. The driver admits that he was also driving a bit recklessly and weaving a bit. He says he never saw Darren fall, but heard him hit the ground with a sickening thud. I am sorry Mr and Mrs Finegan but Darren died on impact and as I have told you before the doctor says there would have been zero pain’…
Darren, oh, Darren, what have you done? Why? You were doing so well. Why act like a stupid dick and do this to yourself???? That’s why you didn’t look at me in the dreams I have had about you in the last couple of nights. You know you were silly. Glennie and I have collapsed again, this time on an unfamiliar couch in a beautiful bushveld setting, ironically in a place that Darren loved so much. Shane has left us alone for a while but has come back into the house. He has a few kitbags and says that these are Darren’s possessions from the HQ at Thornybush where he was stationed. I ask him to put it down and we will have to go through it later. It is about 3pm I guess and he asks if we can drop him at Protrack HQ which is about 5km away and then we can use the Landcruiser for the evening. Tomorrow we will all go together to the morgue in Phalaborwa, which is about 100km away. Darren is there. On the way to HQ I ask Shane if we can perhaps have a drink with Darren’s Protrack colleagues. He is agreeable and suggests a small memorial including braai (BBQ) and bonfire at the training grounds of Protrack where Darren trained, and where we attended his passing out parade 10 months before. We drop him off at HQ and agree to meet at the training grounds around 18h00.
Back to our accommodation. Glenda is exhausted and heads off for a nap. I decide to go through Darren’s kitbags. I am trying to be as practical as I can. Everything smells earthy and dusty and distinctly Darren. There are clothes that look so familiar. Some of his school stuff that he loved so much, Protrack stuff, some camo fatigues, a pair of boots, his berets (one being his black one he earned for passing basic training and the purple one he got on appointment to Thornybush APU). There are T-shirts and a few jerseys that he wore all the time and we have so many memories of. There is also a heap of clothes that hold no emotional attachment at all. A lot of these are in good condition and I decide to try and get them to a charity here in Hoedspruit. I have taken out a plastic shopping bag from the side of the one kitbag. It feels like it has clothes in it but is tied shut. As I open the bag all I smell is the ratchet smell of dirty stinky socks as only my son Darren could brew. Man, these socks could have completed a 25km route march all by themselves, they were so stiff and dirty!!!!!!!! Hahahahaha – this is so Darren. I decide to seal the bag again and put it straight into the outside trash to minimize the stench. Darren was a whole bunch of lovely and crazy but his feet were terrible and I must admit he got that from me. My mother-in-law once kicked me out of her house because my feet smelled so badly… hahahaha. Its ok Ma, still love you and I deserved it.
We head off to the Protrack training grounds and as we arrive it is pretty dark already. Standing waiting for us as we park is one of Darren’s fellow rangers. He has the box and the invoice for Darren’s camera, as they were due to drive the one hour or so to Nelspruit Makro to hand it in as the shutter had jammed and the camera was still under warranty. The plan had been to go next week when they were both off. I have the camera. As he leaves another figure steps out of the shadows and into the very dim light we are in. The young man is shivering and shaking and in total despair. ‘Hi Mr and Mrs Finegan, I am Dave and am so sorry for what I have done to Darren. I don’t know what to say, please forgive me…..’ This is Darren’s Sergeant and they were together on the ill-fated patrol. We are pretty much taken aback and sort of weren’t expecting to see him. It’s not like we didn’t want to, but hadn’t really given it any thought. Until now. ‘Dave, from what I have heard you were both acting like reckless assholes and one of you is dead. We cannot possibly blame you for Darren’s death and in all reality Darren is responsible mostly for his own death’. The three of us are just standing sobbing at each other. I grab Dave and give him a hug and hold him. Glenda is drawn in. All I can feel is this young man trembling and shaking so badly. Again we reassure him that we are not blaming him but he will have to live with this for a while. What he won’t have to live with is our resentment. He has enough to deal with.
We leave Dave in the ‘car park’ as it were and walk into the Boma. Shane is there to greet us and introduce us to some Rangers. Not sure how many there are but they are all in uniform. There is also the admin staff from Protrack and then Nicky who works for Thornybush and was one of Darren’s mates prior to him joining Protrack. Small world, we learn. We are approached and greeted at various stages of the evening by a handful of young men who tell us how Darren impacted their lives – the funny stories on patrol, the always helpful, always listening and engaging and the deep meaningful conversations under the spectacular stars and into the sunrise. Nicky tells us how Darren used to sneak around the back of the kitchen and she would get ice and the occasional food smuggled to them. We meet ‘Chappy’ who is a very large man and the brother of one of our famous Sharks/Springbok players Marcel Coetzee. Chappy tells us that he first met Darren in George a few years back when he was playing rugby there. Darren and his mates convinced him to come and have one drink with them post match and they would let him go back to his team mates. What could go wrong? Well they only dropped him back at the hotel the next morning on their way to lectures… hahaha. He said every time he heard Darren shout ‘Chappy’ thereafter his liver started to pain, as he knew it would be a rough one. Fast forward 2 years later and he thought he had recognized the one young recruit, but when he knew Darren, he had a huge mop of hair, and on training they were shaved. One day Darren saw him and shouted ‘Chappy’ and they rekindled their friendship. Chappy was part of the task team and told us that night that Darren had been approved to join them in 2 months’ time. This decision was taken 2 weeks before his death. It would have quadrupled his salary and had much better prospects. Damn – the unfulfilled potential of a great young man.
We got a very passionate and emotional eulogy from Sergeant Wilhelm who was (and is) the drill Sergeant, and who took Darren and his group through the extremely tough training for them to be able to patrol through a Big 5 reserve on foot and track and engage armed poachers, almost by themselves. Darren left his mark there, not only as the most positive person, but the clown in some respects that made light of situations, started songs and led the war-cry every time. He also won the final day hike and long run (the run alone was 25 km) and all Serg Wilhelm could remember was how proud he was when he saw the red cross-trainers come around the last corner in first place. Glenda and I left that very inspiring gathering seeing big grown ass men twice my size and men that fought hand to hand combat with the best of them, standing weeping unashamedly about our Son, Darren Michael Finegan. Again such mixed emotions – pride of his legacy and absolute desolation at his passing way, way, too young. We make it back to our accommodation and collapse into bed, with messages of condolences still pouring in.
Glennie has received a link from a friend L’eanne about grief. It resonates and goes something like this (I have posted the link further on if you need the exact words) – A man posts on an online forum and asks the question as to whether he will ever get over losing his brother. An older man responds and says he may never get over it but he will get through it. He says picture yourself in a rough ocean, your ship has just sunk/being torpedoed and has sunk. The ship is your loved one and has gone. There is some debris floating and you may hang onto it to keep yourself afloat. The waves are 10 meters tall and are hitting you every 10 seconds. Every time a wave hits you it feels like you can’t breathe and are struggling for air. You manage to cough and splutter and breathe a bit and then the next wave hits and then the next etc. You honestly feel like you cannot survive but you do. At some stage the waves get further apart and you have more time to breathe but they keep coming. At some stage they become a few minutes apart and then a few hours. In time you think you have got ‘over it’ but you get caught with freak waves – triggered by a smell, a song, an anniversary date etc. That one wave can knock you and the next minute you are back in the high seas struggling to breathe again. https://wokesloth.com/old-man-advice-about-dealing-with-death-anthony-bourdain-kate-spade/distributor/
Tomorrow is going to be tough. Tomorrow, we tell ourselves, is the day we say goodbye to the physical body of our Son. We lie to ourselves and convince ourselves that it is just the physical body and we will be alright. The waves of grief keep coming.