My old friend Patrick Purcell is a wonderful man with a lovely Solomon Islands wife …
… a bunch of children and grandchildren, and even more friends. I’ve known him for thirty years and more. I last saw him when I was in the Solomons a couple years ago. We caught up on old times, and he gave me some honey from his beehives … and two days ago I found out that he is on his death bed with only days to live, watched over and comforted by his family and my long time friend and brother, Mike Hemmer. Mike, thanks so much for being there for Pat during this difficult time.
Here’s a picture of Patrick in better days, a can of SolBrew on the table, white hair glowing, surrounded by the usual variety of reprobates, in-laws and outlaws that he collected around him. I’m not in the picture, but I’m definitely included in the first category above.
Upon hearing of his terminal illness, I thought about something I’d written twenty years ago when I was living in the Solomon Islands, regarding people who die too soon … and in my long life, I’ve never had a friend who died too late.
So to Jully and the family, my deepest condolences, and thanks for all the love, support, and well-deserved abuse you’ve given Pat over the years. Here are my reflections on death, in tribute to Pat. Sleep well, old friend. Ya done good, bro’ … ya done very, very good.
Of Sharks and Men
In Fiji, there is an ancient god named Dakuwanga, the Shark God. Even today, it’s hard to find out much about Dakuwanga — when I mention his name in Fiji, conversation slows to a crawl, and then people look away and speak loudly of other, much more important matters than some nearly forgotten pagan deity …
I went to an art exhibit in Fiji a few days ago, and I ran into some old friends. I asked them about Mike Loxton, a long time amigo of mine. Mike was living in Viani Bay, on the island of Vanua Levu. Viani Bay is a lovely green hidden valley that lies a few miles across from the island of Taveuni. Every weekday, Mike got into his skiff and crossed to Taveuni, where he worked. Because there is no dock at the hotel where he usually landed, he would beach the skiff, offload his gear, take the skiff little ways offshore, drop the anchor, and wade in to the beach. I used to scuba dive with Mike, we were good friends.
On December 14, 2000, he followed his usual routine. Thinking his usual thoughts, dreaming his usual dreams, reflecting perhaps on the day’s work to come or on the days gone by, he offloaded his gear, took his skiff out and anchored it, jumped into the shimmering sea, and was immediately struck and killed by a tiger shark. Startled by his abrupt entrance into the ocean, the shark had turned and bit his leg, a single bite that severed his femoral artery. He bled out before he could make the few yards to the shore.
And so, dear friends, reflecting on his passing I write you with a simple purpose, which is to thank each one of you, individually, for your contribution to my life. Some people say that everything worthwhile they learned in kindergarten; but for me, everything worthwhile in my life I have learned from my friends. For this I am immensely grateful; but in my recurring delusions of immortality, in my fantasy that there will always be one more day to clean up my loose ends, I rarely acknowledge your gift.
So I thank all of you, deeply and profoundly, for all that I have learned from you. Mike Loxton sleeps his dreamless sleep in the soft, silent, verdant soil at the head of Viani Bay, while you and I are in the midst of life. I am in the Solomon Islands now, on a hilltop where lightning is flashing and a warm, torrential tropical rainstorm is stirring life on the land below and the sea around.
And in the midst of this thunderstorm of life-giving rain, I am thinking of Mike’s death, and of my friends, and I am forcefully reminded of Dakuwanga, that most ancient of gods, who does not ever sleep but is always cruising slowly through the uncharted oceans of this existence, hidden behind a curtain of moving water, waiting with perfect patience for his preordained opportunity to deliver one single final, fatal bite …
For a wonderful father, husband, brother, grandfather, and friend to all even including the bees, Pat Purcell.