It has been a decade since my life partner Eric "tonto" Stephenson died skydiving at our home dropzone, the Johannesburg Skydiving Club. Ten is just a number, but I am especially conscious now of the turning of time, of the ways in which the world beautifully, insistently, painfully, and necessarily changes after loss.
Eric was a passionate AFF instructor and mentor. He was also blunt and opinionated; the opposite of a diplomat. He didn't mince words to please others, a character trait I still admire even though it got him into trouble. When it came to safety he was usually about 12 steps ahead of everyone else, so his impatient style ruffled feathers and even lost him some friends during his tenure as Chief Instructor at JSC. Yet in some ways because you always knew where you stood with him, he was equally respected, revered, and loved by those who found his mentorship and friendship life-changing. He taught me how to wingsuit, which changed the course of my life more than I ever imagined.
In 2008 I worked with friends at JSC to establish the annual tonto Boogie, a skydiving and charity event to celebrate what he cared about most: the way freefall could awaken new friendships and define new paths; and the joy of giving one's gifts where they are most needed along those roads. The boogie became a pilgrimage and a homecoming, a time to remember and to carry on his gifts to me and others. Every year after the boogie, I personally distributed the charitable contributions from skydivers and their families.
A small informal settlement in Soweto became part of Eric's life when he entered mine. I have written about how I came to Kliptown, and how I sometimes brought Kliptown home. I think it's fair to say that most people he worked with didn't know he volunteered his time when he wasn't at the dropzone to teach the staff of the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Crèche how to use fire extinguishers. He brought food donations there on his own, and forged a lifelong friendship with Pam Mfaxa, the founder and Principal of the preschool who came to know and appreciate Eric's heart. She spoke, movingly, at his funeral. People from the community hired transport to be at JSC for his memorial (held under a tent at the dropzone). They also came to look after me like family in the weeks following.
Eric once told me that he believed real manhood was in the ability to nurture. While he was blunt, he was also kind. While he was fierce and strong, he dedicated himself to using that strength to help the most vulnerable people he knew. He was a champion of women's empowerment. He saw those affected by poverty, especially children, in a way most choose not to. It's still an unusual point of view. Ubuntu.
Pam was also a special, unique human being. She came from rural Swaziland and founded a creche in the middle of the one of the poorest parts of Soweto during apartheid. Like Eric, she was strong-willed, but also a gifted nurturer. With her skill set, she could have moved into a more lucrative job, but despite her own financial struggles she glowed with the conviction of a person doing the work she was undoubtedly called to do. She passed away suddenly, possibly of a heart attack, in January 2014. That year, the tonto Boogie raised a record 11,000 rand (around $1100, which goes a long way) for the Pastoral Centre in Kliptown.
Driving into Soweto year after year after the tonto Boogie is a ritual and a year-end boost for the Pastoral Centre. I developed a habit of joy through sharing the generosity of skydivers and bringing together two communities that were bridged by both Eric and Pam during their lives.
In 2017, the pilgrimage has changed but the ritual remains. Most members of the Johannesburg Skydiving Club have never met the man known in jumping circles as tonto. The boogie goes on, but it has become a different affair, disconnected from the past as perhaps it must eventually become. For the first time this year, I did not attend, although I was nearby. The charity focus has shifted to make a donation to places closer to the dropzone. Trying to figure out exactly where or make a visit to see what the need looks like there turned out to be more complicated and unwelcome than I expected. Sometimes circumstances push you to let go, and often that happens when the time is right.
Today I went to Kliptown, not alone but with Jeannie, a more recent skydiving friend who never knew tonto but is touched by his memory. Together, we drove through a rapidly developing Soweto, now replete in some places with luxury malls and pristine gas stations, towards people and places that remain part of the fabric of my life; where what I have given continues to flow in the form of love, understanding, friendship, compassion, and memory.
The land across the train tracks from Freedom Charter Square is still filled with shacks where people contend with overcrowding, a lack of running water and plumbing, and grinding poverty. A new generation of children graduates from the Pastoral Centre. A new Principal carries on Pam's work.
Yet, change is visible even in the middle of the informal settlement. One of the boys who graduated from the creche years ago is now leading a successful youth program right next door. He was a finalist for the CNN Hero of the Year award, and his work is reshaping not only Kliptown but also the way people all over the world perceive and engage with the problems facing South Africa now. The creche has a new playground in the back where once there were dangerously dilapidated skeletons of broken swingsets. With the rains, the garden has flourished.
Peter, the handyman and proud gardner, helped us to unload the car full of food and baby clothing. Some of it was donated by a few friends from JSC who wanted to continue the tradition. Some was from me.
Best of all, the ritual of the year-end donation continues. In 2017, I make the offering thanks to friends and family who contributed in celebration of another change: my wedding to Andy, the husband who was well worth waiting ten years for.