(Karen and Nicci, taken a while back at The Kitchen)
Once, while working at a small, ever-so-slightly-dysfunctional company, the tea lady, Patricia, came around asking for donations of money towards a funeral. Cathy, Michelle and I expressed our concern, 'Oh dear. who died? Are you all ok?' But Patricia assured us that no one close to her had died. 'But who are you collecting for then?' Cathy enquired puzzled. 'The girl upstairs, she has a sister who knows someone who has died, this is for her funeral.' Patricia explained patiently. 'Hmm,' said Michelle, 'So you're collecting money for a funeral, a funeral of someone you don't know, on behalf of someone you barely know. How bizarre.' Exasperated Patricia turned on her, and said, 'Michelle! It's not a bazaar, it's a funeral!'
Well, Nicci's wake was more like a bazaar than a funeral. The way she would have wanted it. Of course there were tears and much sadness, but mostly it was a wonderful party where all her friends could gather and talk about her. And where we could listen to the Final Playlist that she had compiled with her friend Evert. Nicci was the ultimate social hostess. An invitation from her guaranteed great food, lots of wine, fabulous people from all walks of life, interesting conversations, and stylish table settings. Sometimes we ate in her garden, sometimes in her wide corridor, but always at a table with plenty of laughter. And so we gathered, kissed old friends hallo, consoled acquaintances, met friends that she had spoken of often, but who we never yet had the chance to meet because her life was cut short before we had the privilege. There was almost a strange sense of euphoria in the air. I think that we had grieved alongside Nicci while she was dealing with the prospect of death. And now, suddenly, here we were at this wake that she had planned for us, a wake perfectly executed by Cathy and Renee, and it almost felt as if she would arrive at any moment resplendent in clashing colours and prints and magenta satin heels, holding a glass of bubbly.
I wandered into the kitchen , because that's what you did at a Nicci-party, while she chatted and laughed and peered into her much-loved Le Creuset pots, you'd rest a hip against a counter and have a quick catch-up. And of course she wasn't there. But Karen Dudley was. Karen, the foodie friend, in whose cafe, The Kitchen, in Woodstock Nicci and I had spent such happy mornings. Karen had catered for Nicci's 39th birthday party (the one with the stripper and my chocolate mousse!) and it was only right that she would prepare the feast for Nicci's send-off. It was right that Karen, whom Nicci admired and held in such affection would, alongside her amazing team, of women in the kitchen and men at the bar, would make the food that Nicci wanted us to eat. For some reason, the tomato is the thing that I remember Nicci liking. She loved the sweet, slightly tangy bite of a tomato bredie, she made a divine panna cotta with a tomato confit. And for her wake Karen made what she calls a Moroccan bredie, all about melting tomatoey favours, with a lot of ginger and cardamom and coriander. She told me that while making the food, she and her team, who knew Nicci, were so conscious of her. The food we ate was prepared with love, and I think that is why it comforted us. As food is meant to do in times of grief.
Nicci encouraged me to write this blog, told her friends to read it, and writing about her has helped me deal with my loss, I have been told that it has helped others as well. I am glad for that. I am also intensely aware that she has sent others my way, people who wanted to share their memories of her, and who generously and kindly offered me comfort. I also know while I may grieve, I may not wallow in my misery. Nicci would have called me on that.
So indulge me one last time and allow me share the toast I proposed to her:
The last time I spoke to Nicci, I told her that hers was a life that would not go unnoticed.
What I failed to tell her was that the way in which she lived shamed me.--
That I realize that I have taken too much for granted. That I have been careless with my blessings. That I have not valued life in the way that it should be valued. Every single minute. Of every single day.
Because that's what she did. Nicci LOVED life. She was the most vibrantly ALIVE person I have ever known. When I think of her, I see colour, I hear laughter. I feel joy.
Nicci never lost her appetite for life, towards the end, she still craved the taste of limoncello, still wanted to see the spring flowers one more time. Still danced to 80s music. Still hooted with laughter. Still wore red. Still yearned to travel. Still loved the smell of citrus blossoms. Still delighted in the presence of her two children Nina and Andre.
Nicci chose to be happy. She fought bravely with her grief, battled her anger, but sadness was not an emotion she indulged. It seemed to me that she valued happiness above all else, and battled against anything that would rob her of her joy.
About a month ago, we were driving in the car, when Nicci told me she needed to be home by 2pm to see her shrink. 'Why?' I asked her, 'Because I need to figure out why I'm so sad', she said. In disbelief I screamed at her, 'I can bloody tell you why you are sad, it's because you have bloody leukemia, and you are bloody dying! And then, shocked, we began to laugh at the absurd cruelty of it all, and then the laughter turned to crying, and then we laughed again.
And when we'd calmed down, she turned to me and said, 'Ah today's going to be good day.'
And it was. Because Nicci could will a good day.
And I believe that that is her legacy to us, to those she loved, that we should live the way Nicci loved to live, with excitement, and generosity, and hope and joy. We need to breathe great big greedy gulps of air. To turn our faces towards the sun. And to embrace the life she so loved. Because after all the joy, and love, and colour and laughter she brought into our lives, we owe her that much.
L'chaim. To life. To Nicci.