After arriving around midday in Cape Town to spend a few days with my darling son, Brett, before he left for the UK to act in Hamlet, which had been chosen as the play to open the World Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Upon Avon, my mind was buzzing with all the things that we had to do together before and what I had to accomplish after he had left for the UK.
Brett's flat had been flooded from a burst pipe in the ceiling above and my intention was to sort and refresh his apartment so that it would perfect for him when he returned after his two year work permit trip to the UK. This was the Easter weekend, which also coincided with our Jewish Passover and Brett had been longing for some traditional food, especially his favourite - my chicken soup with Matzo dumplings in it. He was performing that afternoon in the opening of Hamlet, at the Baxter Theatre. He would be joining me straight afterwards for supper, and to spend the evening going through all his documents and show-reels, in preparation for his trip. With a song in my heart at the thought of seeing my gorgeous son so soon, I prepared a delicious dinner and was overjoyed when he called to say "Mom I’m on my way!".
There was always great excitement when Brett and I saw each other, even when it had only been days before when we had been together. We had this deep love and understanding of each other and were literally one soul. After hugs and kisses, we sat down to our dinner while I listened happily to his chatter about the success of his play and his cast mates and the wonderful learning experience it was, being directed by a person with the magnitude of Dame Janet Suzman. Towards the end of our meal Brett received a phone call from his friend, Richard Bloom - a fashion designer, who was at the fashion week. Richard was feeling miserable about an argument he had had with his partner, regarding dinner arrangements for that evening. Brett covered the phone and asked if I would mind as Richard had asked to join us as didn't want to be on his own. Although I knew that we had a lot to do together, I said "Of course,” set another place and loaded his plate when he arrived.
Richard had been invited with his partner to his boss' home for a dinner party, but his partner had not wanted to go, as he felt it was a last minute "fill-in" invitation ( hence the argument.) At about 11pm Richard asked Brett if he would pop over to Craig's house with him to have a coffee and a chat. Once again, Brett looked inquiringly at me and of course, I said yes. I gave them both hugs and kisses and that was the last time I ever saw or touched my child alive.
I had arranged to meet Brett at 11:00 am the following morning, which was Easter Sunday. Shortly after 10:00 am, I received a phone call from Nedbank Fraud Department to find out if I knew where to find my son. The police had contacted them to get details of his credit card, which was found in the possession of a suspected criminal. At this point I was not overly concerned, as Brett had previously had his credit card stolen. After trying his cell phone and home and not being able to reach him, I went ahead to the Winchester Hotel, where we had arranged to meet for brunch. When Brett had not arrived by 11:15 am, I grew cold all over. By 11:30 am, I had the sinking feeling that something dreadful had happened, perhaps realizing even then, that only death would stop Brett from meeting me.
I contacted the police, asking if they had any further information from the people they had arrested and then called Richard's partner, Bryan, to find out if Richard was home and knew of Brett's whereabouts. Bryan was equally disturbed. Richard had not returned home and Bryan rushed to the hotel to meet with me. It was already midday, but time had stood still. Bryan drove to Craig's home and saw Brett's Peugeot parked in the street, but not Richard's VW Polo. Bryan went to the Camps Bay Police Station and tried to get some sense out of what was happening, but just met with a dead end. The police stated they were unable to get anything out of the suspects, as they were still too drugged up on tik. By this time, word was out to the cast and to all Brett and Richard's friends and people all over the city were frantically searching for them.
By 2:30 pm, I knew I would have to share this information and my fear with my husband Peter, who had remained in Johannesburg. All he said was "Oh my God, I am coming to you" and dropped the phone. He, in turn, told my daughter Samantha, who was at the Rand Show with her fiancé. He had taken her there because she had woken up that morning inexplicably sad and weepy and was hoping to cheer her up. Brett and her were extremely close and shared a special bond. When Peter told her that he was leaving for Cape Town, she started to scream and sob, and told him that she feared Brett was gone.
She immediately went home and took over the situation by calling all the hospitals, the morgues and anyone else she thought she might get information from. The police were in constant touch with her and told her they were unable to trace where his last cell phone was made, as Vodacom could not supply this information without a court order. She was able to ascertain that the last call was made around midnight from the Athlone area. Many people had now gathered with me at the Camps Bay Police Station. A friend had gone to collect Peter from the airport and the Police Captain asked us to nominate a couple of people to remain, as contacts, at the station and for the rest of us to go home and wait for news. A cast member, Adrian and his father Stewart volunteered, as did Brett's agent, Sybil Sands.
Peter, my husband, arrived as I got to the flat. We just fell into each other's arms. Dorothy Anne Gould, a well known actress and friend of Brett's, who was also in the play, refused to leave us and sat vigil, while we shut our eyes during the night, on and off, waiting for news. In the early hours of Monday 17th April Stewart Collins was beside himself with worry and agitation and asked to go into the cells with his son, where the suspects were being held. He then promised them anything they would want, in return for information of the whereabouts of Brett and Richard. One young man asked if they would buy his mother a car and then took them and the police to the open ground, the traffic circle interchange, where Brett and Richard's bodies were found naked, bound and shot execution style through the heads. The police first informed Samantha, who then contacted Peter and paramedics, the CSO (Jewish Community Security Group, who had been called in to assist) and a psychologist were called together to come and break the news to me. All I remember is screams coming out from the depth of my soul and a feeling of utter darkness and disbelief. So much of what followed is a blur. Samantha and Paul arriving, police, the press, friends and relatives ... all a big blur.
According to the police the murders took place in the early hours of the morning of Sunday 16th April. Jewish Law states that a person must be buried within 24 hours after their passing. This was another blow for us, as it was not possible. Post mortems and forensics had to be done and we were only able to bury Brett on the 21st April, at his exact age of 28.5 years.
While still in Cape Town, I had been advised by all concerned not to see Brett's body, but I knew I had to and after his body had been prepared by the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial Society, I was able to hold his hand and kiss him goodbye before they sealed the coffin. I could not ever forget the beauty of his face as he lay there, the quiet stillness… his head covered and his body wrapped in the traditional tallis. My son had stopped shining.
Part 2 - The Aftermath
It hurts so much, flying back on SAA to Johannesburg, with my boy's coffin in the hold and sitting in the cabin and seeing everybody's newspapers opened in front of me, people reading and looking at the gruesome pictures of the bodies lying at the crime scene. My life seems to have just shattered around me; Peter and I were in a state of numbness, shock and total disbelief that this was happening.
We arrived home to find the house full of close family and friends and lots of comforting arms to hug and hold us. This continued, thankfully, before and after the horrendous funeral. A funeral so full of emotion and grief, from the 1000+ people who attended. I just recall hanging on to Peter, walking behind the coffin and us commenting on the butterfly, who flew above us and whose shadow we could see on the brick pathway. I so wanted it to be my Brett. What agony it was to see my daughter Sam's raw pain. One of the worst memories is of not being able to change things for her in any way. Nothing could console her or us. Nothing.
A moment of real comfort came some days later, when we were sitting around the table during our seven compulsory days of mourning (Shiva) and a stranger, who I immediately recognized, came in and held her arms open to me. It was Sharon Matthews, whose daughter Leigh had been kidnapped and murdered, as Brett had, and no words needed to pass between us. I knew she understood. Incredibly, others who had lost children came to offer comfort too and it seemed easier to relate to them even as strangers, knowing they also had suffered and understood this unique kind of pain.
I didn't leave my home for thirty days and felt extremely nervous when it came to the time where I had to face a trip to the shops. I recall breaking down and sobbing hysterically in the local supermarket and being carefully assisted and cared for by the management, who continued to help me in the forthcoming months. It was so hard to see people eating at restaurants, laughing, going about their normal routines. How come they didn't know and feel that life was so different, that my boy was gone, that there was so much pain, hurt and anger and they couldn't feel it or see it?...
We all started seeing a wonderful grief therapist. She did help us to openly communicate our feelings to each other, instead of hiding them and trying to protect one another from further grief. She helped us to understand that we all expressed our grief in different forms but that we were all feeling the same horrific emotions. We heard that in so many instances, this lack of understanding of each other can cause families, especially marriages, to be ripped apart. We were blessed however that the three of us became even more tightly bonded and united.
My Peter, my best friend, was my life support system and three months after Brett's death, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was the light that kept me going. We had all had random thoughts of wanting to die and join Brett, feeling our lives would be intolerable without him. I especially had wanted to die. My surgeon said the cancer had been triggered through my grief… Well, it was now my choice, I could die if I wanted to or I could choose not to subscribe to becoming a victim.
Through various spiritual awakenings my choice was to survive, to honour, recognize and try to celebrate Brett's life and to have the strength to guide my family towards a livable future. A livable and bearable future. Sammie was engaged, about to be married and start a new life and I had to do everything in my power to ensure she had this chance. With her and Peter's love and support, I had my surgery, radiation, etc. and managed to get through it calmly and successfully, with a positive attitude.
Peter never left my side and saw to my every need, trying so valiantly to give all his strength to me. I recall how my plastic surgeon told me he was now more concerned with my husband's health and well being than with mine, as he’d seen how hard this whole ordeal was for Peter.
Peter was a healthy guy, never smoked or drank, loved his walking, swimming and going to the gym every day. It was nine months after Brett's passing that we were persuaded to join friends for a light supper at Hyde Park. I was weepy that morning and Peter suggested that I go to the hairdresser, which always cheered me up. He said that he would be home early, going to gym at five, instead of the usual seven pm, so that we could meet our friends at six thirty pm. He called to see how I was doing during the morning and thankfully, once more, we told each other "I love you".
Just after five pm, I received a call from the Sandton gym to say Peter had collapsed in the pool and they were trying to resuscitate him. I frantically called the friends we were to see to fetch me but as I put the phone down it rang again - I was told that Peter had gone. They had been unable to revive him. I was taken, in a complete state of shock, to the gym by the paramedics. I saw Peter in his swimming costume, lying on the floor in the office, covered with a towel. All I remember is lying next to him and pummeling him on the chest, screaming at him to wake up, wake up, not to leave me. The Rabbi and friends encircled me with their love and comfort. I didn't know if I could survive this second blow. Samantha and Paul were in Australia and I had the dreadful task of having to call her in the wee hours of the morning to tell her her beloved Daddy had gone to join Brett.
My darling daughter, at age 32, had lost virtually all her nuclear family. First her grandfather; then my only sister, who was like a second Mom to her died at age 56 from lung cancer; then my Mom, her Gran; followed by her brother and now her father. She had also, in the interim, dealt with a divorce from her first husband and had to face the horror of her Mom having cancer. It was just the knowledge that I had to be strong enough to get Sam through this unexpected and mind-blowing tragedy that kept me going. The adrenalin was pumping so hard, I felt as if I was an award winning actress performing on a stage. This wasn't me. It wasn’t my life, but it was all happening. Together, Sam and I again went through the dreaded passage of funeral and mourning, surrounded once more by loving family and friends, who were also all reeling from shock.
I guess I know now that it was the sincere and heartfelt support of every person known and unknown to us, who gave of their unconditional understanding, sympathy and their strength that got us through this. It was their combined energy that got us through. The beautiful letters, emails, phone calls, messages, people bringing meals, giving unselfishly of their time. It all helped so much.
This was January 2007. Samantha's wedding had been planned for May, and in accordance with Jewish ritual, we do not postpone a wedding. This was so hard for both of us, the thought of planning what should be such a joyful occasion, with Pete and Brett not part of it. There were also other hurdles to face - the court case of the murderers, and the unveiling of Peter's tombstone, both of which were inevitable and inescapable from. The unveiling, in consultation with our Rabbi, we did before the wedding so that Sam would not have to have that dreaded wound opening ceremony hanging over her. We both felt better when we knew the tombstones were up, for both Peter and Brett, and we prayed they would both be healed and at peace.
The media hype around Brett and Richard's murders was enormous right from the beginning and it intensified with the legal proceedings. At least I was able to shield Samantha from the trauma of dealing with the press and the trial, handling it myself, with the help of a brilliant prosecution team from Cape Town, who regularly came to Johannesburg to consult with me. Brett was an internationally known and recognized actor, having acted in many local and international films, documentaries, adverts and being a part of the MTV Crazy Monkeys. The murder had been well publicized in the UK, because of Hamlet and it's Opening there without Brett. Channel 4 Television in London, together with Sir Antony Sher and director John Blair, produced an amazing documentary called "Murder Most Foul", which, for one and a half hours, gave an accurate and complete account of what had occurred. It was widely screened in the UK and was bought by MNet here in South Africa and flighted under the Carte Blanche banner.
During one of my numerous unavoidable trips to Cape Town, I was asked by the then MEC for Education to give a talk on the effects of such a life shattering crime on the family to the students of a large school in the Cape Flats, near the murder scene. This meant I had to face my demons and I knew that if I didn't find the courage to do so, I would forever live in fear and harbour hatred of the coloured people as a collective for the murder of my son. This turned out to be a very spiritual and rewarding experience for me and I will always think with fondness of the good times I spent with the children of that High School and the wonderful young people that I met, who are so desperately trying to find a way to better their lives.
We managed to get through, with the help of Brett's wonderful friends, the ordeal of packing Brett's belongings up and sending the cartons through to Johannesburg, where many to this day remain unopened in my home. I am only able to do it slowly - at times when I feel the need to. It hurts so, so much.
The trial was concluded in 2007, with a plea bargain. When the murderers are eventually released from jail they will still have a life ahead of them, but Peter and Brett are gone. Samantha and I remain emotionally disabled people and hundreds of others will never forget the loss and the pain that they endured through these murders.
I am now blessed to have two beautiful grandsons, who dance in my heart, a loving, caring daughter and a great son-in-law. Where I used to take things minute by minute, then hour by hour, then day by day, I now just take each day as it comes, being thankful for all the little good things that I may see or enjoy - even a pretty flower. I try to live according to what Brett used to say to me: "Mom, stop always worrying about what has happened and what could happen, because you are missing out on what is happening".
The sun rises each morning, life is going on again. There are happy moments, funny moments, exciting moments, but still the feeling of emptiness, which I have grown accustomed to and now take for granted and deal with it. I make a determined effort to include good, positive, happy thoughts every day and continually picture lovely visions of my lost family members instead of the sad ones. I do feel Brett and Peter are always around me. I talk to them often and include them in all that I do. But I have let go. I have accepted. But I know how wonderful it is to be able to talk openly and freely about them, to family, friends and strangers, without breaking down. What used to distress me was after their passing people would be nervous around me and treat me as this strange, fragile being, being super careful not to mention either name, when all I wanted was to be treated normally, be able to talk about my loss openly and honestly. The worst was to have someone gently pat you and say "I understand how you feel". How could they? People always mean well and often innocent remarks can throw you off balance and hurt deeply. The best approach is to simply tell people it's OK to talk about it. I am the same person, just hurting deeply. Please don't treat me differently.
One day, during the mourning period, a couple arrived, a pharmacist from Dischem and her husband, to offer their condolences. The Dad shook hands with Peter and I, saying "Welcome to the Worst Club in the World". He explained that his daughter had recently died of leukemia and that they felt and understood our loss, bewilderment and pain. Wow. Within a couple of months people were astounded about the way I was able to hold my head up and continue to live. I was soon asked by religious leaders, friends or the press to please contact someone they knew who had lost a child and wasn’t coping. I knew how much benefit Sharon's initial visit had offered me in the early days, as well as the visits from others who had lost children. People had been so giving. I knew it was time for me to unconditionally give back.
With my own grief still so fresh I wasn't sure how I would cope in being able to assist someone else, but all it took was one look at a Mom's face, who was going through what I did months previously, to know that I could do this. It's a remarkable feeling when someone says to you, with pleading in their eyes, "Please tell me how you have done it. How are you still standing?"…. And you are able to answer truthfully and honestly, even though you are entering a dark place with someone else.
It is spiritually rewarding to see the positive effect your visit has. When you arrive you are met with tears and a broken soul, and when you leave a couple of hours later, mostly they walk to the door with you, smiling a little and feeling stronger, knowing they are not alone. In its own peculiar way, this gave me added strength, knowing there was a positive emerging out of my dreadful situation… that I was able to be of help to someone else, in their enormous pain. It also felt that I was paying a tribute to Brett's memory. In a later blog, I will explain different ways one can perpetuate and enhance the memories of beloved lost children.
And so began The Worst Club in the World ...
WHAT WILL MATTER
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin colour will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built,
not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched,
empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew,
but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories of those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn't happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
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