I hadn't latched onto the idea of the 22nd being a Celebration rather than a Memorial until the very day itself. I had literally slept, eaten, drunk Memorial since the end of the exhibition in Glasgow.
A few notes to those of you who ever have the misfortune to be in the same position.
1. Don't order your photographs of your loved one online...
2. Don't order 18 packets of blu tack from Viking Direct - they lie! - They do not deliver within 3-5 days.
3. Do take liquid (or tablet form) Velerina. It won't chill you out completely but it may stop you climbing the walls.
4. You are actually allowed to enjoy yourself.
5. Do have....TEAMS!
Mum and I went up to Glasgow on the Wednesday and took some time out on the Thursday night to attend a peace vigil in Georges Square to think of those mothers and sisters devastated by loss but totally ignored by our country.
Then Friday came and it was all stations go. We had between 15 and 20 friends and family arriving in the afternoon for the initial TEAM MEETING.
Our Teams were:
Team Chairs (the definite winners...what? It wasn't a competition??), Team 12:00, Team Plan B, Team Technical Support, Team Sound System and many more. My Aunt Nella was the DJ and a mighty good one at that and four of my Boy-cousins were The Ushers.
So we all piled into my cousin Una's house with wine and tea and strawberries for our team meeting. As hideous as the situation was, it was actually fun! I was reminded of Timor, back in those first horrific days of our new life, how, despite the trauma, we enjoyed ourselves. A huge thanks to Ian and Olly Green for providing the innovative and often ridiculous ways of making us accomplish this task! Human survival is a splendid thing.
The next morning, my alarm went at half six after lying awake all night in that paralyzed and exhausted state of Worry. Cup of Kenco and I trudged up to mum and Bree and Laurie's hotel. Laurie drove us out of a gloriously sunlit Glasgow morning towards Strathallan and the closer we got to the drop zone, the closer the cloud came down to us. It was hard to differentiate the relief from the disappointment as Bree and I realized we were unlikely to jump. We did, however, pass a countryside show with Vintage Tractors.
I did my first tandem at the Strathallan dropzone with Robin when I was 18. We spent most of the day watching Star trek waiting to get up in the air. The dropzone is etched in my memory but unfortunately the route there was not! But arrive we did and carried the urn in its green Save the Earth shopping bag into the dropzone where Robin had spend so many of his weekends at university.
My eyes felt like holes in my head I was so tired and as more of the Watch the Skydive team arrived the more I was dreading both doing it or not doing it. Bree and I went in for the tandem brief. I was overcome as I walked into the hanger. Robin was everywhere. I can still feel us laughing as we gripped hands at 10,000 feet plummeting to earth, my golden brother breaking away to leave me and the instructor to waft down to earth as a dandelion clock on the wind. So silent. So free. So long ago.
As we left our briefing Bree and I knew we weren't going to do have the time to jump. The cloud was low and there were at least 10 other tandemers ahead of us. Kieran, who had been helping me organize this part of the event, explained that the cloud meant even the ashes wouldn't be what we had hoped. Because the cloud was so low, the plane had to fly at a height that would have been dangerous for us to be inside with the door open. Instead of mum, Bree and I going up in the plane and doing it ourselves, an experienced skydiver had to do it and we would all stay on the landing strip. We agreed - as long as I got to drive the buggy!
Kieran then came back with our next options. He could fly the plane so slowly it would be like it was hanging in the air, or he could fly past at 100 miles per hour. What a silly question.
One of Robin's skydiving buddies, Gerry, came with his son and told us of their base jumping antics and the time when he and Robin rescued a man, Tom Houlton who had crashed onto land. Robin and Gerry swam out to him and literally brought him back to life. Afterwards, Robin had said to Gerry "I think we need to reassess our base-jumping careers, Gerry." I had heard of this story before but never with the full details as Robin never was one to blow his own horn. It was such a delight to have Gerry a part of our group.
So out we went, Bree and I in the buggy. Following us: Our family: Nella, Ruth, Emily, Bill, Jen, Bert, Sam, Joe, Lee, Anne, Laurie; Robin's friends from JIS: Peter, Nat, Adam, Clay, Tristan, Shehriyar traipsing out to the centre of the landing strip. As we stood and waited for the plane to take off I felt that my soul would burst. The enormity of what was happening was too much to take in. For the first time, my brother's death was real to me.
He isn't coming back.
The plane took off, zoomed up and around us and then along above the landing strip and a puff of dark ash broke out of the back of the plane and hung in the air for a moment.
I first saw Robin's ashes back in Timor. I had been having a jet-lag afternoon sleep when he arrived in the urn and mum brought him into our room and left him by my bed. When I woke I saw the bag and knew what it was. I opened the bolts and saw inside a knotted plastic bag. You know when spices like cumin or turmeric get slightly stuck together and you can't resist the urge to break the clusters apart with your fingernail through the plastic? I instinctively tried to do that. But then I realized the clusters must have been bone.
Standing under the low cloud in Strathallan, it seemed fitting that there should be no one place totally synonymous with Robin. He was part of the sea, the sky, the land now ... and a tiny little bit of him inside the miniature urn around my neck. They say that to Live is to Let Go. I guess I'm working on living then.
So, all stations go back to Glasgow to set up the celebration. On the journey back I could barely move. How would I make it through the day? So paralyzed with exhaustion and fear. But I jumped out on Great Western Road and the adrenalin kicked in (with a little help from Red Bull - ick!)
Blu Tack crisis, starvation and exhaustion, sofas or benches (what a dilemma) aside, everything worked like clockwork. The Glasgow University Union Reading Room was perfect. It was intimate and warm. Big and airy. It was so fitting that Robin's goodbye to the UK should be held at Robin's university.
The night before I had drifted in and out of troubled sleep filled with white blooms and Robin's big hair of his teenage days. My dear cousin Una ran out to get us white blooms which the ladies pinned in their hair - a small reminder of East Timor.
At 2.45 DJ Nella hit the play button on the MacDonald sisters, my handsome cousins started to "ush" and the room filled. We held off kick-off until half three as there was a Rangers Game affecting the Glasgow traffic and several people were racing to get to us including Roddy who ferried/drove-foot-down all the way from Stornoway that day to remember Robin and John who looked like he hadn't bothered with the bus and decided to run all the way from Skye.
Over 100 people came. Friends, family, colleagues (and an MSP who remained incognito).
Mum welcomed everyone. She is so gracious and so beautiful. The nationalities represented and the distances traveled of the people gathered that day to remember Robin reminded her of the famous words of John Donne
"No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind"
She then introduced her brother Bill.
Bill read a chronology of Robin's life. Watching my mother's brother be so moved by the tragedy that has come to our family, I thought of the complexity and depth of a relationship between siblings. I am sure it is a different experience for all; but it is a relationship unlike any other and to be cherished.
After Robin's Timor Funeral, mum came back to the UK to see my London performance of Lord of the Flies. Our dear family friend, Meryl, who couldn't be with us at the Celebration, told mum she had watched mum walk into the room with her brother and her sister on either side. Meryl said if anything like this ever happens to her, she would want her brother and sister right where Nella and Bill had been.
Towards the end of the chronology, Bill talked of Robin's annual visits to his ancestral home in Lewis and introduced a recording of his cousin Kathleen MacDonald singing 'Nuair bhios mi leam fhein. There is something about the Gaelic that strikes a chord in those who listen whether they understand the words or not. I could hear my cousins Una and Jen catching their breaths as their lungs collapsed with sobs, but mum and I just held each other, the tears running silent and salty.
Bill then introduced my cousin Una. She told the story of Robin's first blizzard. Her walking with her back to the wind and snow, covered up but for her eyes for sheer necessity (sight!) and Robin, walking headlong into the wind, jacket off, ripped t-shirt, arms spread open experiencing his first blizzard. Robin. Our cousin and brother and son and nephew and friend. Facing life head-on.
Then Peter De Jonge from JIS days, who had Robin as his best man at his wedding to lovely Nat. Pete read a Spike Milligan poem about a Kangaroo. He ended with Milligan's words which just sum it all up. "If life is a game of cards, somebody's cheating."
And then my best friend Em. Sister of Robin's best friend Olly, daughter and son of our bestest bestest bestest friends, Ruth and Ian Green. Em did a PowerPoint presentation on waste management.
I jest. Em gave a lovely power point presentation on the connection between the Toads and The Greens and 3 key places - Kotok, Sambolo and Oxford. She had photos of the various places. She told the story of a helicopter searching Robin out on the meadow in Oxford after an incident with fireworks and the helicopter hovering over Robin who was hiding, and saying through the loud speaker "Robin, come out of the bush." She told it brilliantly. Em finished with a photo of Robin reading his book upside down through binoculars. Olly featured in lots of the photos.
Em then introduced Galuh who had worked with Robin for the Truth and Friendship and Reconciliation (have I got it right?) Commission for East Timor. Galuh is Indonesian and talked us through the Islamic tradition of marking certain days after somebody's passing. She remembered her work with Robin and his dedication to such a difficult and delicate task. She finished by asking Robin on the 100th(ish) day to go free.
I then read my father's eulogy. I hadn't anticipated this task to be so difficult.
I include it here:
Ten years ago when I headed the AusAID projects in
East Timor, Robin would visit me. Then he was known as
my son. Since then, when I visit East Timor, I am
known as Robin’s father. And that makes me immensely
Robin lived life to the full. In his 29 years, he did
more, achieved more, and gave more than a thousand
people. He was totally focused on everything he did.
He became so obsessed about issues and projects that
he was oblivious to “normal” demands. This “living on
the edge” philosophy lead to his death. I am told
there was no trauma. Death was a simple transition
from consciousness to sleep.
Robin was no ordinary person. He was a man of
conviction. He was a man of passionate ideals. He was
a man who had little time for the frivolous. He was
moody. Angry. Quiet. He was direct. Explosive. And he
was loving. Thoughtful. And focused on what mattered.
He and Ally were very close. At times, they both
exploded. I remember a confrontation they had at
Tacitolu in Indonesian days when Allison became
emotional over the treatment of a sloth she saw in
terrible conditions at an exhibition. Robin was
infuriated at the expanding atrocities of the time.
They yelled at each other. Both were right in their
passions. But being confrontational was Robin’s
character, and if the issue you were concerned with
was not worthy of his agenda, the bulldozer in him
took over and – on this occasion - faced the opposing
bulldozer in Allison. That admirable quality they got
from Noreen. The concensus building they got from me.
His insights and knowledge were formidable. Pity help
you if you expressed some half baked comment on an
issue. I valued his opinion. I would seek it often.
His modus operandi was to respond dramatically with a
full frontal attack, then calm down and explain in the
minutest detail why he thought I was a moron, a galoot
or an imbecile.
His nicknames for those he loved were inspired by his
love of extreme humour Ally was Snot. Noreen was
Boot. Bree was fish. Me? I’ve already listed some.
How can we cope with the enormity of his death. Let me
use Robin’s words when describing his photography.
“I am interested in what is momentary and fleeting. I
am constantly chasing gesture and physical exchange,
and trying to find ways to chronicle the day to day
interactions between people that enable a society to
function. I am trying to learn how to use photography
to record significant themes by looking at seemingly
insignificant actions. I am excited by photographs and
endlessly interested in my own work despite repeated
failures. Over and over I will try something and fail,
creating sketches, ideas that are works in progress.
Occasionally, eventually these ideas work and come out
as photographs that have some sophistication and are
able to communicate something beyond the superficial.”
Robin’s life was a work in progress. He leaves us but
he leaves a legacy. He certainly achieved something
beyond the superficial – his contribution to many
issues, including Timor, had an impact that will
remain, as will his memory.
Obrigado barak, Robin.
We miss you.
I then introduced the one and only Bree. She read a poem so intimate and moving it challenged us all to accept and understand Robin's passing. and then she sang. I still hear her singing and her words because I too know Robin will stop me from falling towards the bottom. For the first time I really saw the woman who my brother fell in love with. And through her words, I saw the man that she had fallen in love with - my brother. A different man from the one I knew. Not completely different, but different.
And then Jamie O'Neil. This may be a new name for many of you. I met Jamie at the Positive Action in Housing memorial for Robin on the 23rd of June at Robin's permanent exhibition in their offices. I was so struck by Jamie's promise and strength and how Robin's photograph of Saida Vucaj's bedroom after she had been deported had inspired Jamie to do what he could to help the asylum seekers of Glasgow. Jamie's contribution to the day was magical. So natural and so unassuming. He is a young lad with a bright, bright future. I know many people in the room thought the same and though he never mentioned him to me, I am certain Robin agreed.
And then it was me. I asked everyone to join me in a moment's silence. I held Robin's mini urn. I only wear him when I need him and I have only needed him twice. And both times I feel a heat and energy.
The last time I saw my brother I told him of the fear and pain that I had always felt in the centre of my solar plexus. I had always known there wasn't enough time. And when I said goodbye to him from Prague I knew I would never see him again. I mourned for him that night not knowing that that was what I was doing. I spoke to him many times but when I heard he was missing I knew the time had come. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. My worst fear had come to pass. And that feeling, that empty pain in the centre of my chest was gone. And when I wear the necklace, which my dear, dear friend Laura gave me, it hangs right where the emptiness used to be. And in its place is warmth and strength.
I broke the silence with Malaika. The Swahili lullaby my mother used to sing to Robin and I over and over again to get us to sleep. I lost the words at one point and mum came in. I looked at her as she mouthed the words. There might have been a hundred people watching or none.
My strong, beautiful, wise, heart-broken mum. I am so lucky. She gave me the strength to finish the song and the catharsis was engulfing.
And then my wonderful cousin Jen gave me a huge hug and invited everyone to tea, coffee and the bar! She was great. So funny and so fantastic. What a family!
And then the party.
Em articulated exactly why the whole day was so perfect: it felt like Robin would have walked in at any moment.
There were photographs of Robin from a baby to a man. Funny and touching stories with each image. His black and white photography and a selection of his more recent work.
I had managed to get a hold of Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick and the phenomenal Eoghan and I did a short air guitar rendition in memory of our Timor "Ferarri" driven by the one and only Ian Green and the Greens and I were transported back to trips out to Sambolo with The Keys to Your Ferarri playing on the car stereo.
Noreen raised the first toast to Robin and talked of how she had come to be his very good friend when he first came to Kingsway. He wasn't a drinker but we all were that night and later on Clay from JIS days who had flown out from the States to be with us that weekend also raised his glass.
The room was filled with talk and laughter.
I worried that I hadn't talked about Robin much. But then, I think that was the case with most people. It was a joyous reunion and also a chance to meet people everyone had heard of but not met.
And, as Em said, every now and then, you would turn and expect to see Robin sitting on a ledge or at the top of the stairs, smiling his crinkly smile down at you, his camera hanging round his neck.
I have only mentioned a few of the people who came but the turnout was tremendous and the surprises never-ending. I am currently compiling a contact list for those who wish to be contacted or to remain in contact with those they met. If you would like to be on this list, please let me know.
If you have any photographs of the day, please let me know and I will post them. And please, please, feel free to add your comments.
We have all lost Robin, but we have gained each other