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by Dylan Muhlenberg / 16.07.2010

It’s a strange thing death. One minute you’re dropping punch lines courtesy Michael Jackson, the next you’re crumpled in a church pew crying with your friends. I’d never had to deal with death before; I still have all four of my grandparents and our family pets were always “going to live on the farm” once they’d reached their autumn years. So it caught me like a knee to the nuts when I heard that my friend Dusty had been found dead in his car.

The stormy Sunday afternoon on the Sea Point Promenade got a whole lot greyer. I felt sick. Embarrassingly wiping away the tears, I cupped my hands to cover my mewling mien, only taking off this makeshift mask to answer a further flurry of calls. All of them started the same way: “Have you heard the bad news?… I have some bad news… Bad news… I’m so sorry…”

It took several days before the cause of Dusty’s death was made known – heart attack. But Dusty was 25-years old, and a darker undercurrent kept pulling our thoughts towards the realisation that a good time has a high price.

As one of the eight who’d left Gonubie to make a life for himself in Cape Town, Dusty was part of a band of brothers who found solace in one another when the closest family member was 1000 kms away. Always marching to his own drum, Dusty then moved back home to the Kei, where he used his fluent Xhosa to sell commodities. He was doing really well, too. Driving a SUV, buying new guitars, enjoying his fishing boat and weekends away with his new girlfriend, Billy Jean.

And then it all stopped with his early demise, and Dusty would ride no more waves, catch no more fish, make no more music… His dynamic personality becoming more and more diluted until a painful memory would become just another story that we’d tell.

So we arranged flights back home for the funeral, talking about the good times and trying to figure out the bad. Everyone felt guilty. I was in touch with Dusty just a week before he checked out. I needed some guitar information and so instead of getting into a lengthy telephone conversation (Dusty loved a chat) I sent him an email. He mailed back, sounded upbeat, and I left it at that. He wasn’t around the last December holiday, and we didn’t see each other after Cabbage’s wedding either, incidents that only helped to fuel the question-mark making machine in my mind. Missed connections. Good intent sullied by our being too caught up in our own lives.

And now Dusty is dead, and I’ll never get to talk to him again.

Outside of the funeral I didn’t know whom to greet first. The greatest loss is to be devoid of sincere friendship, and it’s occasions like this that we’re able to measure the imprint that someone has had. Dusty was always a popularity contest winner. A born entertainer who loved an audience. He would’ve been pleased by the turnout at his funeral. Friends had flown in from Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, London and even the Cayman Islands to pay their final respects to a man who we all loved, but had never said these words to.

Bart summed it up succinctly when he bum rushed the stage and grabbed the mic from the pastor’s hand, making an impromptu speech that started with: “I knew that this place wouldn’t be big enough.” The pastor’s face dropped. “This place.” We weren’t bothered, we didn’t like him from the start, using the tragedy of our friend’s death as an opportunity to try and scare us into converting into Christians. The pastor said that he didn’t know if Dusty’s life was right with God. That he wanted to offer the people sitting in his church the opportunity to make sure that theirs was. We audibly sucked our teeth, clicked our tongues and uttered “fucking cunt” into our laps.

There’s a saying that I used to bandy about when I was a charismatic Christian – “Don’t let the hearse take you to church” – and next time I’ll adhere to this advice. Not even a funeral will get me into that place. Instead I’ll go straight to the wake.

People get philosophical. He’s in a better place they say, for the sake of saying, their voices lacking conviction. But I think that it’s better to be practical about these things. Instead of mourning the death of the dead, we should celebrate the life that they lived. Let us not dance with ghosts. Ashes to ashes, Dusty is dust. Gone, yes, but never forgotten.

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