Phyllis Pollock, 1940-2012: A Fearless Explorer of Africa Travels to New, Mysterious, Uncharted Territory.
"Don't forget the basket. It's in the other room."
That's what Phyllis, my wife of 18 years and mother of my two sons Greg and Jon, said to me as I and my wife Barbara were leaving her home in Middletown, Conn. a few weeks ago.
"Oh, thank you," I said. "Can't forget that." I went into the room and got the basket and we took it home with us where it now has a special place in my home office. This is the basket, hand-made by an African craftsman, that Greg, as an infant, rode in all over East Africa where he was born.
Phyllis knew how important the basket was to me and she wanted to make sure I got it. On oxygen and in and out of the hospital with multiple health issues, she must have had a premonition. The next time I saw Phyllis, barely two weeks later, she was in critical care at Hartford Hospital fighting for her life.
Barbara and I rushed there. Greg got permission for me to see her. Barbara insisted that I go in alone. Greg ushered me into her room where she was hooked up to a ventilator and a maze of tubes and wires. Greg drew back to give me a private moment with his mother.
Emergency staff, rushing around doing everything they could, said I could have a minute and no more. Phyllis could not speak but, said the hospital staff, she could hear and was fully aware. Hearing is the last thing that goes.
What do you say to the woman you met in college? Who was the girlfriend you never had time to take anywhere because you were always working in a supermarket deli or as the switchboard operator in the student union, or studying, or playing ice hockey on the Merrimack College team, and had no money?
Who, when you didn't sneak enough food at the deli, let you eat on her college meal ticket? Who when you ate on her dime, just nibbled, saying she wasn't hungry? Who was always there for you all during college and who never seemed to mind that you were a nobody with no family, no money, no anything?
Who was your wife for 18 years, the mother of your two sons, your friend for 50 years, who had shared the greatest adventure of your life -- nearly three years in Africa? And who, amazingly, after we were married and I said I wanted to go to Africa through Teachers for East Africa of Columbia Teacher's College (TEA), said yes instantly as if I had just asked her to go across the street?
I leaned forward and whispered in Phyllis' ear. What I mumbled fell far short of the moment. As I said it, I was thinking she deserved so much better. But her eyes and a little hand movement told me that she heard me. She knew I was there, that I had come to be with her.
On January 3rd, Phyllis died. But she did not take her last breath until Jon and Greg were both at her bedside after an early-morning call from her doctor saying she was failing. Both had driven a few hours to get there. She died shortly after they arrived. She had waited for them.
Now Africa -- which brings us back to Greg's basket and the great adventure of Phyllis' life and mine. I have no doubt that as Phyllis lay there in the hospital, she replayed those days when she and I were young and ran off to Africa together, crazily had a baby there, and explored. This is the cover of a little Creative Memories book I did with my niece Linda.
Greg is the baby gawking out of the basket. He rode that basket all over East Africa. This is the basket that Phyllis made sure I took with me the last time Barbara and I visited her. While the basket looks exactly the same today, that little African adventurer in it is now all grown up. Greg, in the photo below holding his mode of transportation as a baby, even has gray hair!
We didn't play it safe using travel guides or keeping to the usual tourist trails. We just drove, with Greg in the back seat in his basket. We would round a bend and see a lion. On a boat trip down the Nile, I got a shot of an alligator close enough to touch. Same thing happened in a game reserve with a racing elephant. To Phyllis, it was all perfectly normal.
Here are scenes of the wild Africa that Phyllis knew:
Here we are in our VW on the road to snow-cappedMount Kilimanjaro, seen in the distance. (Today the snow is all but gone.) Phyllis took this photo. Greg is in his basket in the back seat, sitting up and watching mom and her camera. Sometimes a monkey would jump on the car and surprise us, as below.
Below is Phyllis very much at home in Africa. She is playing with Greg on the beach in Mombasa. We drove the length of Kenya to get there. In the next photo, she takes a solo walk on the beautiful Indian Ocean beach. Then she attends a diplomatic function in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
Here is Greg in the tiny clinic in Kisumu, Kenya, where he was recovering from malaria, a deadly disease that ravages Africans then and now. Greg was lucky. The same British doctor who brought him into the world on April 10, 1964 gave him the precious quinine -- in very short supply -- that saved his life. His name was Dr. Ian Maxwell.
A couple of years later in Maidugeri, Nigeria, Greg came down with another deadly disease, dengue fever. There was no Dr. Ian Maxwell there. When a local doctor told us that Greg had "growing pains," we knew better. He was severely dehydrated. Phyllis and Greg got on the next plane for the U.S. where his life was saved -- again.
After Africa, of course, life went on for Phyllis. We settled in Middletown, Conn. where I worked in educational publishing and we welcomed a new son into the world, Jonathan. Following are some photos of that family life.
Phyllis is the grandmother of two, Aidan and Nathaniel. In this photo, she is holding Nathaniel as an infant. She loved seeing her grandsons and doting on them. So of course they always looked forward to seeing their "Nana." The two boys know their Nana is now gone and miss her very much.
Gone does not mean forgotten. Through Greg, Jon, Aidan, Nathaniel, and many others, Phyllis' memory lives on. For her, this is a new journey, as Africa was, into a mysterious, uncharted world -- and, as she did in Africa, she will make it her home.
So, Phyllis, love and peace until we meet again ...