Emails from Scotland

These are the emails I sent out to family and friends in the first weeks after the death of my mother, Tessa Cousins, on the 31st May 2011.

Sent: Wednesday 01 June 2011 23:32
Subject: Dirk

I am still at the hospital waiting for Dirk to come out of theatre, 4 hours after they wheeled him off. It’s been a tough day but it’s nearly over. I can hardly believe I’ve only been in this hospital since 11 this morning – it feels completely familiar after these 12 hours, and the helpful, friendly staff all know me, offering condolences, shoulders to cry on, coffee, and blankets. Tomorrow Tess & Dirk’s friend Hillary will arrive from Edinburgh, and Dirk’s daughter Anna will arrive Friday, so there will be fresh energy and helping, supportive arms. My brother Jason was trying to arrange a visa today but I couldn’t get him all the required paperwork in time so he will try again on Friday morning. Clive has been amazing dealing with arranging accommodation, food, and dealing with two fairly unsettled little boys, leaving me to focus on being here for Dirk, fielding unending calls and messages, speaking to the police, arranging for their hire car to be collected, and various other unexpected little tasks – some more painful than others.

The reality is far from sinking in. Partly I’m not letting myself think too much too often about a world without my beloved mother in it, for all of us but so intensely for Dirk, because when I do my chest gets tight, my tears well up, and endless sobs wrack me. There will be a lifetime for mourning, for letting myself simply feel the pain and loss. Right now, in between the waves of sorrow and exhaustion, I feel like I need to hold strong and firm and calm. I keep holding on to the thought that Tessa died doing something she loved, with the man she adored, at a very joyous time in her life.

I have finally organised a phone in Dirk’s room. I may institute some sort of timed system as it will now be more difficult to take messages and ensure he gets enough rest – for now, please don’t call ’til tomorrow as he needs to recover.

Friday 3rd June 2011, 01:11

I’ve been hoping to write this all day, as I know people are desperate for news, but this is quite literally the first time I’ve even had a minute to begin. I hope to find time earlier in the day tomorrow, though no promises!

I’ve just left Dirk at the hospital, reading The Guardian and munching an oat cake. He is beginning to get some colour back in his cheeks again at last, and is looking far more comfortable. He was wheeled out of his room at 19:30 yesterday evening to be prepared for theatre, and wasn’t back in his room until 00:15. The surgeon was incredibly thorough and did a superb job. The operation was slightly more complicated than they had hoped, as part of the leg muscle has been detached from the bone. Dirk has a fairly clean break in his tibia, which has been pinned through the head of the bone. This means that he will not need to have a cast on, which was the alternative. This also means that Dirk was in a great deal more pain than he expected last night, but he will have greater mobility, and should heal better. There is also an open wound on the leg, which they cleaned thoroughly to avoid infection, but have left open (i.e. bandaged, not stitched) to be cleaned again tomorrow, then closed. We are not yet sure if this will be in the morning or afternoon, but they will unfortunately need to put him back under a general anaesthetic for this procedure.

Dirk is being absolutely amazing, and I feel so privileged to be here with him, sharing together this process of slowly, step-by-step, starting to realise and face what a world without Tessa is going to be like. He is processing primarily through talking, sharing his thoughts, feelings and tears. The extent of our loss is impossible to face in its entirety, but is revealed in heartbreaking realisations – the projects started which will now never be finished; the dinner parties they were planning to host together that will never be; all the things that we wish we could tell her, or ask for her advice about. Our conversations drift through diverse topics, from recreational drug use to the writings of Julian Barnes, but always come back around to our darling Tessa.

The messages and phone calls continue to stream in. There isn’t time to reply to them all, but they are welcomed and appreciated, so thank you all. Please try to only call between 10am – 1pm, and 4pm to 7pm, so that he can rest. Tomorrow, however, please only call in the morning, as his daughter Anna, and friends Brian and Zea, will be arriving in the afternoon and will want to spend some relaxed time with him. Please also note that the times I have given you are local times – South Africa is 1 hour ahead at the moment.

In terms of the practicalities of dear Tess, her body was moved from Skye toInverness, where they conducted a post mortem today. I now have her death certificate – which seems crazily surreal, like a bad joke – and first thing tomorrow (after seeing Dirk) I need to go and register her death. I spoke to three funeral homes today, and met with one. We (us four siblings and Dirk) have collectively decided that Tess will be cremated, which will probably take place next Wednesday here inInverness, though I will pass on more information as it becomes clearer. Two memorial services – one for close family, and one for all who loved her – will probably be held in late June or early July inCape Town, which my sisters Elin and Tabby will be arranging. They will be in touch once dates and details become firmer.

I have so, so much more to say, but it is well after midnight and after two days on my feet I know I must try rest. I will write more tomorrow.

Sent: Friday 03 June 2011 23:23
Subject: InverTess

Today, the sun shone gloriously all day, followed by a beautiful sunset. After weeks of rain inScotland, this is a most welcome change in the weather. Dirk’s wonderful daughter Anna arrived, along with his long-standing friend Brian and his partner Zea, and Dirk’s nephew John. What is to be done right now but to continue to appreciate the good things in life, as Tessa would have done?

More good news is that Dirk now has a cell phone you can call him on, which will be much cheaper than the bedside phone (which we believe has been costing you all a fortune). Dirk is finding he is up fairly early in the mornings so feel free to call earlier than the 10am we originally thought sensible, and he is in fact feeling very relaxed about calls come in at any time (though I still feel he needs some rest, so not too late in the evenings please). Skyping with Dirk is unfortunately not an option as there is no wi fi in the hospital, and the rest of us can only access internet intermittently.

My day today started with a visit to Dirk, then rushing off to the Registrar’s office, escorted by a helpful policeman, to register Tessa’s death. I was dry-eyed and business-like most of the way through, until right at the end, after all the formalities, when I picked up the pen to sign the form, and broke down in tears. I had to go back again in the afternoon to get full copies of the certificate. I then had to go to the Funeral Director’s office to drop off paperwork and make final plans for Tess’s cremation, then back to the hospital to find that Dirk had gone back into surgery. This time it was for a fairly brief procedure to clean out the wound on his leg again, and finally stitch it closed. He was out by mid day. Tomorrow, Dirk will finally be able to start physiotherapy, and the (physical) healing can really begin, though it will be a couple of weeks before he can begin to put weight on the leg. We expect him to be handy on his crutches in no time! He really is looking SO much better, with his colour stronger and stronger (no more pale wraith), and body more comfortable and relaxed.

On the other hand, it has been a very emotionally difficult day, with the loss of his beloved Tess hitting him very hard in the early hours of the morning, when he was on his own. He was very weepy and shaky when I arrived at the hospital this morning, but seemed to grow stronger again as the day went on. It was truly wonderful to see him laughing with Anna this evening, in between the tears, and having her here will do him no end of good. The pain, when it does hit (which is fairly often), is still completely devastating, but Dirk spoke this evening about his pride at being able to really mourn and cry and feel the pain completely. This, as Shirley also mentioned in an email today, is something that Tessa has really helped him learn how to do, and he is really valuing that.

We have certainly been feeling love and support on multiple levels from all over the world. Messages continue to stream in, and I almost wish there was more I could ask of people as I feel the strong desire of you all to help in whatever way you possibly can. The SA Embassy surprised us all by calling on Wednesday to offer advice and support before it had crossed our minds to contact them. They haven’t been able to DO anything, but have provided some useful advice. The police, doctors, nurses, and every other person we have had contact with here have been incredibly supportive and really quite wonderful.

Jason had an appointment this morning to try again to sort out his UK visa, but the news is not great: he will not be able to pick it up until next Wednesday, and to be able to do that he will need to travel from Berlin, where he lives, to Dusseldorf to collect it, and travel to Scotland from there. We are all incredibly frustrated and indeed quite angry about this, but it seems that there is nothing more that can be done. In light of this, we have moved the cremation from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon at 14:30. Jason’s wife Andi will travel over tomorrow to be with us for the next week, to offer support to us all on both emotional and practical levels, and we are looking forward to her arrival. The last time I spoke to Jason today they were still trying to finalise all their flights and arrangements, but I understand she is trying to bring at least one of her sons, Laurin, with her if at all possible. This would be wonderful for my two sons (Tristan, 3 ½, and Rhys, 15 months), as the cousins have not yet met and will have a great time playing together I’m sure.

One important thing we got clarity on today was the injuries that caused Tessa’s death. There were multiple injuries to her chest, pelvis and right leg, but none to her head. This brings some important closure I think.

Another thing I am sure you have all wanted to know more about is the timing of Dirk’s return. The surgeon said to me yesterday that they were very hopeful that they would be able to get him on his scheduled flight back to Cape Town next Friday, 10th June, but that I should speak to the airline to explain the circumstances, ask for some flexibility with travel dates, and arrange extra leg room as his leg will need to be elevated. In light of moving the cremation to Thursday, we have decided to move his flight fromLondontoSouth Africato Saturday, and Anna will change her flight too to travel with him. I am awaiting exact travel details, but presume that he will land inCape Townon Sunday the 12th June. I am sure all of those in SA are anxious to have him back home, to be able to spend time with him and help support him on every level.

We have managed to hire a house that sleeps 10 people from tomorrow for a week, to make a communal space where we can cook, hang out, and make something of a temporary home. We look forward to moving out of motels and hotels, and being able to eat decent food again! There is even a garden for the boys to play in. It is about a half an hour drive from the hospital, and we will move in tomorrow afternoon.

I’m not sure how many of you are on facebook, but for those who aren’t or who aren’t friends with myself or Tessa on there, I have posted some photographs of her, mostly from our holiday in Scotland, and right up until a few hours before the accident. I will continue to add more as I find time to go through all the pictures over the coming week.

I will leave you tonight with some heart-warming words from Shirley, Dirk’s niece: “When a person dies, their love remains behind, alive, in those they loved.”

Sent: Monday 06 June 2011, 00:41
Subject: Update

I didn’t get around to sending an update yesterday due to a number of reasons: firstly, and most significantly, my Blackberry decided it was a good day to crash and burn. I lost not only my easy email access and phone numbers, but all of my stored email addresses. Clive has now managed to set my emails up to come into his Outlook on his laptop, as we have internet access at the new house now, HOORAY! He also spent a long time tonight saving all my contacts from past emails, and creating a new mailing list for me – only for me to accidentally delete it again immediately. Yip, it really has been that sort of week. I can send my Blackberry off to get fixed once I’m back in London, and in the meantime have bought a cheap alternative handset, so I am back on the phone again at least (though I have no numbers, so I never know who is calling or smsing).

Tonight’s update is likely to jump all over the place, but let me begin with the most important, and best, news: Dirk will be discharged from hospital tomorrow. As Anna says, he’s a tough old bugger, and has surpassed the doctor’s expectations. He has been up and about on his crutches, looking increasingly spritely, and being very dutiful about drinking enough liquid. He still doesn’t have much appetite, but it trying to get a bit down as he knows he needs to. They have taken the bandages off his leg, so we could see the neat rows of staples (rather than stitches), and he has some small dressings on still. We aren’t sure yet exactly what time he will be discharged, but we are guessing it will be at some point during the afternoon. He will then come back to stay with us in the gorgeous big house we are renting for the week, which we are all loving, and he will then be able to Skype! Yay! He and Anna will probably fly from Inverness to London on Friday afternoon, and then leave for home on Saturday.

The other good news was that Andi and Laurin arrived last night, after a long journey fromBerlinwith a flight into Heathrow, then one out of Gatwick toInverness. The three boys have been getting to know each other – the cousins have never met before – and Andi has been great to have around. She was even brave enough to handle all three boys on her own while Clive took Anna and I into Inverness to pick up Tessa and Dirk’s belonging from their hire car (which Avis collected from the Isle of Skye, at no cost, and offered to drop the belongings anywhere that was convenient for us), and pick up a second hire car that Anna and I can both drive. Anna and I also managed a fair amount of shopping in the afternoon, largely to get things for Dirk, though we also managed some unexpectedly girlie shopping time, which was good bonding – it is incredibly how we have suddenly become a family in this week, and Anna, who I have never actually spent any time alone with before and don’t know very well, is suddenly like a sister. Isn’t it bizarre how life (and death) can work?

It has been a busy time for Dirk with visitors, but he managed to get some good time with everyone (except Andi, who will spend time with him tomorrow), all important in different ways. I didn’t see much of him yesterday, which I found surprisingly difficult, but I got a good few hours with him this afternoon, which was wonderful. Somehow the busyness of the past days has meant that the reality of Tessa’s death has been feeling further and further away, but looking through some amazing climbing photos with Dirk, and listening to some special songs with him, really gave me some valuable time to feel and cry and laugh. He glows with pride and love when showing me some of the climbs Tessa led, and it was wonderful seeing again just how much they did together, and how incredibly happy they were. Dirk has some wonderful pictures and I know we will find ways to share them with all of you. Anna unfortunately didn’t manage much time with him today, due to all the other visitors who needed to fit in time before leaving (Brian, Zea and Dirk’s nephew John all left this afternoon), which was difficult for her, but she will get some more solid time with him in the morning.

We are slowly getting clearer on our plans for the cremation on Thursday, and have been talking about what music will be played. Dirk has been listening to music on his laptop, which Anna brought with her, and his niece Shirley has been trying to source a cellist to play. It seems there will be more people there than we had originally thought, though many people are still trying to finalize their travel plans, and we are desperately hoping that Jason’s visa will come through in time. We are also now planning a ‘wake’ for that evening, which simply feels like the natural thing to do as we have this amazing big house to be in, and people will be traveling from all over. Much whiskey will be drunk, music played, photos looked at, stories told, and tears shed.

We had a tough task this evening – we had to sort through Tessa and Dirk’s belongings, partly to separate their things out as best we could, and partly to find clothes to put on our beautiful Tessa. Many tears, much wrenching of the heart, but I was so glad to have Anna, Andi and Clive with me.

Last night we had a small birthday celebration, as it was my birthday yesterday, and John’s a few days before. Anna and Zea organized two cakes, and Zea and Brian put together a feast for us all. Birthday cake

It was an emotionally difficult day, with the thought of how good Tessa was a making birthdays special for us all leading to me sobbing on Clive’s shoulder in the middle of the supermarket, but I kept reflecting on how lucky I was to have been given birth to by such an incredible woman. I also had my hair cut (for those of you who don’t know me, I have had long hair since I was 9 years old, and it has always somehow been an important part of my identity; possibly partly because it was so BIG!), which feels very strange, but appropriate too – I always said I would cut it when there was a very dramatic or important change in my life that I wanted to reflect physically. I thought that might be finishing school, getting married, or having children, but each of those events have passed me by without my feeling the time was right. On Tuesday, I knew immediately the time had finally come.


Good night, good night, and may it be a dreamless one…

Sent: Monday 06 June 2011, 20:51
Subject: Dirk is out of hospital

I am thrilled to be able to inform you that Dirk has been discharged, and Anna brought him back ‘home’ this evening at about 18:30.

Dirk arriving from hospital
Dirk’s arrival

We are staying in a rented holiday house a 30 – 40 minute drive (depending on the driver) from Inverness, in a little village called Nethy Bridge. The house has a big dining room table that seats 10 comfortably, and a fireplace that has a roaring fire in it, lit by Clive, warming the living room. While I sit here writing, Dirk is reading ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ to Laurin and Tristan, Rhys is running around the room, Anna is writing emails, Andi is enjoying to the story from across the room, and Clive is cooking a roast beef dinner in the kitchen (there are delicious smells wafting through to us).

Dirk reading
Dirk reading to Laurin, Tristan and Rhys

One thing to warn you all is that the cell phone / mobile reception here is very intermittent, so if you can’t get through please leave a voicemail and try again either later or on another phone.

More great news today is that Jason’s visa has finally been approved, and he will be able to pick it up on Wednesday, and be with us. It’s been so hard having him so close, in Berlin, but not able to be with us. It’s such a huge relief.

The delicious-smelling food is now cooked and on the table, along with a few bottles of wine to toast Dirk’s arrival, and Tessa, so goodbye for now; a short email from me tonight.

I’m going to leave you with one of the songs Dirk played yesterday on his laptop, from one of his favourite artists, Greg Brown. Turn the volume up, lay on the floor, close your eyes, enjoy the amazing lyrics, and weep…

Sent: Wednesday 08 June 2011, 00:35
Subject: Tuesday’s news

The cell phone reception at the house is becoming an increasing problem, as we are often finding ourselves unable to make or receive any calls. The phone with the best reception seems to be Clive’s; if Clive is here he will pass you over to Dirk. I’m also finding I’m unable to pick up voicemails, or they are taking a couple of days to come through, so if you can’t reach me please can you send me a text message / sms (and add your name, as I’ve lost all my numbers).

So, Anna and I saw Tessa this morning. We chose lovely clothes for her, that were very ‘Tessa’ and she wore often, and she looked beautiful. You could hardly see any sign of the accident on her, apart from a few scratches on her hands. Her face looked different – like a wax-work, with exaggerated features – but they respected our wishes not to have her ‘made up’, and she really looked overall like our lovely Tess. We didn’t stay with her long, just long enough to hold her hand a while, say goodbye, shed some tears, and for me to leave a goodbye poem with her, along with a kiss on the forehead.  Jason and Andi will go and see her on Thursday morning. I found poems for Tess flooding out of me last night and today, but the one I’d like to share with you tonight is the lightest of them:


My hair

Is far easier than mourning

My mother.

My hair will grow back.


We have had a lovely evening, and have started to talk more seriously about the details of the cremation ceremony on Thursday. I think it’s going to a lovely, tearful, celebratory event, and I will send you photos and a full summing up after the event. I know you will all be thinking of us, and we will ensure you are there in spirit by reading out a selection of your heart-felt message, some in the afternoon, and some during the wake that evening.

Dirk is getting increasingly mobile on his crutches, and really is looking better and better. He is managing to get up and down the flight of stairs to the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs, and had a shower this evening, with some assistance from Andi. We are hearing more laughter from him, though we never go long without a few tears and smiles for Tess. We got to see x-rays of Dirk’s leg, with its impressive pin running all the way down it.

Dirk (and Tessa’s) friend Peter Nelson arrived with us at lunch time today, and Shirley arrived this evening. Tomorrow Vusi, Ian Tomlinson and my brother Jason arrive, and Peter will leave. Things continue to be busy and bustling! Peter brought the quote below with him, which Dirk read out to us earlier this evening. It felt incredibly appropriate today, so I thought I’d share it with you all:

Peace my heart…. (Rabindranath Tagore, on the Amara Kabba memorial website)

Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet. Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain into songs. Let the flight through the sky end in the

Folding of the wings over the nest. Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower

Of the night. Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way.


I am being shipped off to bed, as everyone is telling me I’m looking too exhausted (I feel like a 10 year old again!), so I’m sorry to make this update so brief.

Sent: Thursday 09 June 2011, 01:24
Subject: Fireside evening

Tonight, we sit warmed by the fire yet again, feeling loving and close. As Dirk said this evening, this is not a ‘doom and gloom’ house – we mourn Tessa, and often feel her loss powerfully and painfully, but we are also enjoying being together, and there is laughter as well as tears. Dirk read out his now almost completed story of what happened on the mountain in Skye, and we wept together again. Tomorrow, we will say our goodbyes to our beloved Tess. I won’t email tomorrow, as we will move from the cremation ceremony, to afternoon tea, to dinner, and stay up late sharing, crying, loving, reminiscing. On Friday I will try to make the time for one final email, then Anna and Dirk will be making their way to London, and then on home to SA. If I don’t manage it, I will do that final email on Sunday, as we will be travelling all day on Saturday (a 3 hour drive toEdinburgh, followed by a 4 ½ hour train journey toLondon).

Jason has arrived safely, along with Vusi (who ended up inEdinburghinstead of Inverness this morning, but made his way toAberdeen, met up with Jay and has elder son Jakob, and then onwards together to join us inNethyBridge. He’s never going to live that one down!). Clive made us a superb steak and red wine pie for dinner – it was supposed to be steak and Guinness, but Clive forgot to put Guinness on the shopping list for Anna and Shirley this morning, and the compromise was delicious. We toasted Tessa and togetherness yet again, and Dirk reflected that he always liked to think that Tess was the happiest woman in the world, but if she had been there with us she would have been the most contented too, seeing us all together, and feeling so incredibly close.

Dirk continues to get faster on his crutches, managing some of the steps up to the bedrooms two at a time. I know I keep saying that he looks better every day, but I am by no means exaggerating. I am appreciating the overwhelming feeling of closeness with him, and Anna, as it starts to feel too soon that they will be gone. I will miss them both a great deal. It has been such an amazingly precious and loving time, it quite overwhelms me. Andi and I went for a walk with the boys this afternoon, along by the river, through the woods, to gather some wild flowers for a wreath for Tessa. Some rain, some midge attacks, but lovely. We didn’t get a lot of time to talk, but it was great to have at least a little bit of time together.

We have received lovely emails from three of the climbers who were on the mountain with Tessa and Dirk last Tuesday, and helped them. They have all been absolutely amazing, and their warmth, caring and openness have been incredible.

We are all feeling the importance of really being HERE, together. Tomorrow is going to very busy and emotional, and Friday is going to be hectic with packing and dropping everyone at the airport. All the phone calls and messages for Dirk have been wonderful, but I’m afraid he won’t have much space (or particular desire) for contact from home over the next couple of days. They will be back inCape Townon Sunday (though exhausted), so unless there is anything really urgent, please can you wait until Monday, when he will be contactable on his usual numbers. He will also probably slowly start to sort through his emails next week, but there is a large amount to get through (some of which will be difficult), so please be patient.

Sent: Saturday 11 June 2011, 00:34
Subject: Friday’s news and a hello from Nessie

Just a very brief note from me tonight, because it is well after midnight yet again, and we all have a very early start in the morning.

I will send a full report on the memorial as soon as possible, and more information on Sunday. For now, let it suffice to say that it was as positive an event as is possible in the circumstances. Beautiful words, beautiful wild flowers picked by Andi, the kids, Brian and Vusi and woven into a wreath by Anna, lovely music (including a quirky and brilliant Cellist, organised by Shirley), and many, many a tear. It was such a relief to sob and sob and sob until I could barely breathe.

Hillary and Rick, Brian Yule, Vusi, and Shirley all left this morning, to make their ways back to their respective homes via various trains, planes and automobiles. Dirk and Anna arrived safely inLondonto stay overnight with Brian and Zea, and will fly back toCape Townas planned tomorrow. Jay, Andi & the boys will leave early tomorrow morning, as will Clive & I with our boys. We had our first relaxed space since last week Tuesday this afternoon, after everyone else had left, taking a drive down Loch Ness toUrquhartCastle. The sun actually shone for a change, and the boys had a fantastic time (as did we).

Good night, good night dear friends.


3 thoughts on “Emails from Scotland

  1. Thank you Laurel for the fact that you kept writing about this in the way you have. One day i hope we’ll hear your reflections on other parts of your life.

  2. Hi Laurel,

    I confess, I have not read this full post yet. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and also followed the link to Facebook. Now I’m compelled to write to you of your mother’s photos: What. A. Beautiful. Woman.

    I know you don’t need to hear it from a stranger – but, the pictures say so much – she appears so loving, adventurous, brave, strong, joyful, creative, thoughtful. Your blog has extended into the world all of these wonderful qualities. I’m inspired. Because of you and your mother, I have a new vision of a life well lived.

    Thank you, sincerely.

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