By David O’Sullivan
When my 87-year old father lowered his oxygen mask as he lay in ICU at Linksfield Clinic, beckoned me closer and whispered: “your brother is the ringleader of a Gestapo plot to kidnap me”, I realised he was approaching the end of his life. He was having crazy dreams and hallucinating.
He had been battling ill-health for a number of years ever since my mother had passed away. He had shunned hip surgery because he couldn’t leave his dear wife for even one day. Now his hips had crumbled, and with his dodgy heart, no doctor would risk performing a hip replacement.
He couldn’t walk and was eventually confined to a sunny room at his old age home near Modderfontein, with his carers and nurses in attendance. After a bout of illness, he had to be admitted to intensive care where his daily blood tests confirmed that his body was collapsing.
During his last days at the Clinic he was able to talk to all of his children, his grandchildren and in-laws. We had a chance to say our goodbyes as he preferred it, without too much emotion.
He was known as Sully. His real name was Diarmid. His mother called him Derry. His brother called him Buddy. His friends called him Sully. Even my mother called him Sully. No one called him Diarmid. I was about 12 when I realised Sully was a nickname.
He went to Pretoria Boys High, which he didn’t enjoy because he was two years younger than most of his classmates and because the boys from the nearby Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool would beat them up. He always remembered his anguish hearing them celebrating as the Nats took power in 1948.
Aged just 16, he went to Rhodes University to study chemistry. He got a first class honours degree by the time he was 20, and became a lecturer as he studied for his doctorate. There are a number of staff photographs in the Rhodes Chemistry department foyer from that time with Sully posing ostentatiously in the back row wearing the filthiest lab coat.
He was poorly behaved despite his excellent grades. He loved his beer (a love that continued right up until his death). He loved telling the story of how he and a couple of mates decided to stay in residence in Matthews House at Rhodes during the July vacation. To pass the time, they dismantled a fellow student’s car and rebuilt it in his room. It was a monumental task just to see the look on the poor bloke’s face when he saw his car was missing from outside the residence only to find it parked next to his bed.
His father’s untimely death from a heart attack prompted Sully to chuck in his doctoral studies and write up his research project “Synthetic Ion Exchange Resins, incorporating Asymmetric Groups, as Resolving Agents”. It’s not a page turner. He got his Master’s degree in Chemistry and left for England to work for Imperial Chemical Industries. There he met a beautiful young woman named Joan Scott, married her and brought her to South Africa, fatefully landing on the same day as the Sharpeville Massacre, something my mother never forgot.
He joined AECI and worked there as a chemical engineer for over 30 years. There was a time when you could drive through Modderfontein and see some of the huge ammonia and fertilizer plants my father had designed. His biggest achievement was as project manager of AECI’s soda ash plant on Sua Pan in Botswana, working with a budget of R920 million in 1988. He loved his time in Botswana and his photo albums are filled with pictures of that wonderful time working in the Makgadikgadi. Sully loved nature and was a keen birder, and he designed the plant so that it would produce desalinated water which attracted a huge flock of flamingo and other wildlife. He would often take my mother to nearby Maun and together they would head off into the Okavango Delta. He never took my brother Gerald, sister Alex or me. Not even once. I couldn’t resist reminding him of this oversight one last time at his bedside.
Sully loved cooking. He discovered this passion only once I had left home, so my exposure to his culinary skills was annoyingly limited. He cooked as if he was in a laboratory. He had the most unusual cookbook – a huge text book filled with chemical formulae and molecular diagrams. He understood, for example, how sugar would behave when subjected to certain temperatures. He anticipated how yeast would react with different ingredients. Cooking for him was not dissimilar to conducting a scientific experiment. If he had the choice between a pipette and a measuring jug, he would have gone with the former. He would have been happy cooking over a Bunsen burner. Adding salt meant adding sodium chloride. For him it was a compound rather than a condiment.
His early cooking attempts tasted a bit like a scientific experiment. But quickly he realised that cooking was as much an art as a science and then his efforts in the kitchen were truly fantastic. He cooked the most spectacular curries, having first researched the molecular structures of his herbs and spices.
During that final conversation in the ICU I thanked him for giving me a wonderful life. We reminisced about how, when I was a little boy, he took me to watch cricket at the Wanderers and rugby at Ellis Park, instilling in me a life-long love of sport. He had a dry, esoteric sense of humour and I reminded him that he introduced me to Monty Python. “And the Goons”, he insisted.
Sully wasn’t an emotional man. He wasn’t terribly nostalgic either. When my mother’s engagement ring, which she had given to Jacqui, was stolen during a home invasion, he was utterly unperturbed. “It was a rather cheap ring, wasn’t it?” was his only comment on the matter. So saying goodbye wasn’t fraught with anguished tears.
He knew his life was ebbing away and his bony hand with its paper-thin skin grabbed my arm as he told me “my time is up, it’s time to go”. He was so completely prepared for death. A typical scientist who required empirical evidence for most things, he was an atheist (quite unlike my mother, who was a staunch Catholic). I told him he would get a fright to find St Peter IS at the Pearly Gates waiting for him. “And Mother Mary with a long list of my offences,” he replied and gave an amused grunt. I laughed and it seemed the perfect time to say goodbye. As he closed his eyes, I gave him a rare kiss on the forehead, which seemed to surprise him. I got up and left, knowing that he was content and I was content and there wasn’t anything more for us to say.
Diarmid John Montgomery O’Sullivan died peacefully in his sleep at 20h16 on Sunday, the 25th of October. It was almost as if he had project managed his final days. An engineer to the end.