What would you be doing today, if you knew that tomorrow was the last day of your life?

 

My cousin Andrew Janisch was walking home from work on Friday the 29th of July, when out of the blue his heart decided it was time to stop. His time just suddenly ran out. The last grain in the hour glass fell and his life ended at 45.  Or perhaps, I believe, an Angel stepped out from behind a pole near the flower sellers on Adderley street (which is where it happened) and said, “Come, I’ll take you home.”  And he went because for some inexplicable reason, it was his time.

When we were children, we played together in the school holidays. He and his brothers would come on a steam train from the city to the Bethesda Road Station- the now defunct small siding in the Karoo where we would pick them up in the farm truck and they would spend weeks, riding horses, bikes, catching crabs in the river, herding sheep, climbing mountains, reading and singing songs together- Andrew and his brother Chris on guitar, brother Mike singing along angelically.  Time seemed endless then, but we made the most of it. We did not have any digital gadgets to fritter our time away with in those days. We did not even have electricity on the farm. Only a generator at night until we all went to bed. When the last light was switched off , the thumping of the generator slurred to a stop and silence would fall, as quiet as the mountains and as dark as black velvet. Only the stars twinkled in their ancient majesty and the odd owl hooted plaintively.

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After a successful haul down by the river, we posed by the Christmas tree with our loot.  Andrew is teasing me and I am drawing back with an expression of mock horror as the crab wriggles in mid air.

Andrew was not one to waste time. He was a great achiever. He got straight A’s for matric -I seem to remember, got a scholarship to university, and studied something practical like electrical engineering although he preferred playing guitar. He graduated, got a job, married his true love at a young age and had two beautiful children and then decided to focus on his music. For a few years while his children were little, he worked as a guitar teacher and managed to record and perform his original songs with a band as well as solo.

Listening to his music now, the music he left behind….is profound:   He felt things. His music was his hearts expression. He saw the big picture, and he described it poetically. For example this song “Eclipse” from the album “Heart” seems quite prophetic:

“Waiting on the mountain, together but alone /we watch the gold horizon reflecting on our own

a change too small to notice, a glimpse of something new/ a chance to fix the broken, it all slips by too soon

And I see the end is coming, I just don’t know how soon/ we all go down together, with the eclipsing of the moon/ all the mothers and their daughters will realize the truth/ and reattach the broken strands connecting me to you.

The planets will be dancing, big swingers in the sky/ the moon and sun will set as one, old ghosts will pass us by/ a momentary flicker, a dawning of the truth/ a time to mourn, a time to see the aging of our youth.

Break out the finest whiskey, bring on the finest band/ let us all rejoice both girls and boys and give ourselves a hand/ the product of our histories is here and here alone/ bring out the feast , red wine and meat and sink just like a stone.

And I see the end is coming, I just don’t know how soon/ we’ll all go down together, with the eclipsing of the moon/ all mothers and their daughters, will realize the truth/ and reattach the broken strands connecting me to you.

He was not afraid to talk about things he saw and felt but kept it light and jovial, knowing the heavy stuff was hard to digest. Humour opens the heart. Fear closes it. He was not afraid to channel his truth because he kept his vessel open and true, like a well tuned guitar.

His album “Hand Made” (2000) with his band Woodshed was followed by solo album “Moved to Change” (2002) which was listed with the greats as one of the Albums of the year, and enjoyed much radio play. This was followed by “Heart” a few years ago.

His wife Dee said that he had a vague idea that he might die before his 29th birthday. Every birthday he would sigh a sigh of relief and gratitude that he had made another year. Perhaps that is why he lived his life with such purpose, or that is how it seems to me.

Andrew and Dee watched the Al Gore documentary “The Inconvenient Truth,” when it came out and it set off a career change for Andrew. He decided he would not just sit by and watch Climate Change devastate the planet. He wanted to do what he could to make a difference. So he followed his passion and applied for a job at Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) using his degree as an electrical engineer. He quickly became a very valuable asset in the process of helping promote renewable energy projects and initiatives in South Africa.   He then crossed into the Government sector and worked for two years at the City of Cape Town where he was a central part of a team working towards adapting the City of Cape Town for a future that would help reduce the effects of global warming as much as possible.  According to the leader of the Energy and Climate Change team,  Sarah Ward, he provided insight and backing to the Cape Town 2040 vision and action plan and was specifically requested to be part of a small reference group advising the National Treasury on the transformation of the electricity sector particularly in regard to meeting city needs. Sarah said that the fact that his presence was specifically requested in this group seemed to surprise him, (as he had such a modest view of himself.)   He had been busy looking into models  for sustainable electrification of poorer households, which would create a high level of service within a manageable budget for the city.  According to Sarah, who worked with him for the last 10 years of his life, both at SEA and in the city town-planning office, Andrew played a central role in making Cape Town a leader in the use of solar water heaters and photo-voltaic as a sustainable energy saving solution.

He did not neglect his art. He was now able to combine it skillfully into his work, wherever he could to make light and add a song and a dance to the work as a way of taking things onto another level, adding interest, keeping things lively, sharing a gift, he did. According to Sarah Ward-“Andrew had an amazing ability to seem calm and casual under great pressure, using music to create spaces of genius, for example Sarah kept a guitar in her office and Andrew played it guitar while discussing intense strategy and project planning, this opened up new spaces in our thinking and outlook. How do you replace someone like that?” She said tearfully at his memorial service.   Here he is playing is  Get your Piece of the Sun -a song he wrote to help promote solar water heaters, it was recorded with popular Cape Town band “Hot Water.”  (The name of the band could not have been incidental.)

At his memorial service, Sarah told us why his loss was so significant to the team.  “He was a bridge builder, he brought clarity and much needed sanity in difficult areas.  A good listener, carefully listening before sharing his thoughts. I always felt that  having Andrew in the room changed the conversation for the better.  He also had a real ability to make complex things understandable and made sure he communicated with everyone he was speaking to.” She explained.

On Monday,  his team at The city of Cape Town planted a Coral Tree in the Biodiversity Park near Green point Stadium in his name. One day the tree will grow large and be filled with orange and red flowers and people will gather beneath it and play guitar.

In the mean time his wife Dee and his children Julian and Erin will continue their lives. His physical absence will probably hurt a lot. Like lava flowing from the heart of a volcano is how I imagine it- like the heart of the earth broken open, bleeding hot, thick tears. I feel it with them, a sudden death like this is like a natural disaster, it is traumatic.

But there is a bigger plan, a broader pattern we cannot see yet. He will continue to live through his work and through his children who will always remember the strong values he imparted to them through being as truly present to them and true to himself as he was. (And by filling the world with Love his whole life through.) He always made family his priority.

My deepest sadness in mourning him is the time lost for “connecting the strands from me to you.” He was a humble, modest soul, yet one who did not squander his existence in any way, least of all on social media. It is easy to be distracted and to forget to really connect with the people who mean a lot to you these days. In this digital age we live in, it is so easy to waste ones time browsing social media and the like and never really meet and have conversations with actual humans who really have something to say and who you really care about. One hears about ones connections through e-mails and Facebook and it creates the false sense of having access to those connections out there. The need to connect is what keeps one scrolling, but it is not fulfilling. Unless you make the effort to actually call on them and ask them how they really are, you might as well be on another planet.   I spontaneously dropped by on Andrew and family a few months ago because we were in the area and I had a need to connect. We had a conversation in the garden. I am so glad I took the risk and whistled at their door because that was the last time I saw him.

The shock of his passing has sent all his family and friends and associates reeling because it is so totally unexpected and he was such a dependable constant presence in the prime of his life. The lesson I have learned is never to take anyone for granted ever. For example, I have come to value my partner infinitely more because at any moment, like Andrew, he could just slip off this mortal coil and then it would be too late to say I love you.

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3 thoughts on “What would you be doing today, if you knew that tomorrow was the last day of your life?

  1. Dear Helena, I’m rereading this as I prepare a piece about Andrew for the memorial Cape Argus ride we are planning with family and friends… so thoughtfully and beautifully written, so inspiring – thank you! We have signed up to ride with the charity called BEN. I can give you more details if you’re interested. Regards, Charles (Dee’s brother)

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