Monday, August 6, 2018

On Life, Love and Loss - A Reality Check

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

As writers our job is to create emotions and reactions to those emotions, be it a love story or a murder mystery or whatever. Sometimes we get so used to playing God, creating and manipulating those emotions and reactions in the way we want, that when real emotions from real situations hit us we are blindsided and overwhelmed.

2018 has not been a good year. As you probably know, this spring my long-time, beloved cover artist Dawn Charles was found dead in her apartment. While devastating, her passing was a grief but not really surprising. Her health had been iffy for years, and sometimes it seemed she spent as much time in the hospital as out. Still, we did about 20 book covers together, emailed or chatted on the phone at least once a fortnight - and more often than not a couple of times a week. Though we never met in person, she was closer and more dear to me than a lot of people with whom I share DNA.

Then last week I received the shattering news that Dr. Dirk Huyge had died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Curator of the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels and Director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab, Dirk and I had met online when I was casting about for help on information on the Elkab necropolis for THE EGYPTIAN FILE. We became friends, and after a while he thought that I do a book about the dig house at Elkab, which is widely believed to be haunted by the ghost of its builder, Somers Clarke. I thought he was joking, but as time progressed he suggested that The Husband and I come to stay for a while in the dig house - a thing that civilians never get to do.

I wanted to, I really really wanted to, but we had been traveling a lot and The Husband was on one of his periodic 'we're spending too much and we have to cut down on expenses' kicks. I don't give up easily, though, so after telling Dirk I would see I sat and thought for several hours. marshalling every argument I could think of about why this would be a good thing. By the time The Husband came home I had a huge and cogent presentation ready. He walked in the door and I started in - 'Darling, Dirk has asked us to come stay at the dig house and I think...'

That was the end of it. He looked at me and said, 'Sounds great. When do we go?'

Now it is a long and expensive way from Dallas to Luxor to Elkab, especially for less than a week, so The Husband I decided to make a real holiday of it. We contacted Jane Akshar, who rents luxurious holiday flats on the west bank of Luxor for what to American eyes is a ridiculously low rent, and arranged to stay with her. I met Jane online at the same time I met Dirk, and she too has become a dear and beloved friend (as well as a gifted and creative webmistress for my website) as well as my go-to reference about the minutiae of being in Egypt.

Dirk invited us in the middle of January; on March 15th we boarded the plane for Egypt. We didn't get to stay as long as we liked at the dig house (don't know how long that would be - I'd like to be there still) but the house is not all that large when a full dig crew is in residence, and we had to be sandwiched in between the visits of our dear friend Salima Ikram and a film crew from the BBC. And in order for us (non-professionals in the field of Egyptology) to come to the dig at all Dirk had to work his way through several layers of mind-boggling Egyptian bureaucracy to get us permission to stay. The Egyptians are very protective of their antiquities, and as a consequence very few civilians get to see archaeology from a dig house perspective.

When the day came for us to leave Luxor for Elkab, we had agreed to call Dirk on the way to the train station and he would come get us, as we would never be able to find the dig house on our own. He was right about that; to reach the dig house involved a long drive through a road-less wasteland populated with a few mean little huts, a couple of dead cattle and two enormous cemeteries.

But that was to come. We called Dirk from the pre-arranged spot on the road, and just as we pulled into the train station a big old and sort of battered Land Rover pulled in beside us. Out of it stepped a tall, ruggedly handsome man of a mature age (think an older Indiana Jones type) who started walking toward me. 'Susan?' he asked. 'Dirk?' I replied. Then he swept me into an extravagant, MGM type of embrace.

Now make no mistake and don't misconstrue this story - Dirk was married to a lovely woman whom he absolutely adored. I am more happily married than most to the most wonderful man in the world - and he was standing not ten feet away from us. But... that enthusiastic hug in the dusty parking lot of a small-town train station in Egypt is STILL one of the most romantic moments in my lifetime, and I will always remember it fondly.

Our stay at Elkab was magical and much much too short. The crew was welcoming, helpful and a great deal of fun. After we went home Dirk and I stayed in contact by email - not as much as perhaps we should have been, but then we had no idea that time was so short. We had begun to play with the idea of doing a mystery with him as the sleuth - but only after he retired. We had talked about it when A KILLING AT EL KAB was in the inception stages, but I didn't want to risk casting any kind of a shadow on his excellent reputation as an archaeologist and a scholar... but I did want him in the book. So, he became the only 'real' person featured in the book, but only in two quick appearances. Now the Dirk-as-sleuth idea in a future book is permanently retired, as I couldn't do it without him.

One final, bittersweet note. On Sunday I received a sweet email from Dirk's wife, telling me how much he enjoyed A KILLING AT EL KAB and asking permission to use my description of him in the book at his memorial service. I don't mind telling you that made me weep, and of course I gave my permission. Her request is a lovely tribute to both of us.

We always think we will do whatever-it-is tomorrow, but sometimes it is brought forcibly on us that we are never guaranteed a tomorrow. So - embrace your friends, tell you family that you love them, do what is important to you today. Sometimes there is no tomorrow.

RIP, Dawn Charles.
RIP, Dr. Dirk Huyge.

The world is poorer for your absence.


  1. Susan, so sorry to hear about the loss of your two good friends, Dirk and Dawn. My husband and I lost a dear friend a couple months ago. When something like that happens, it does make you realize how important it is to not put off telling those around us how much they mean to us. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lovely post, Susan. A reminder that the world is wide and the opportunities for friendship are limitless if we remain open to them. I'm so sorry you lost two of your treasured connection, but glad you have them in your life.

  3. What a nice tribute to two people. You are so right, Susan, about not putting off a call, a visit, a letter. I've lost too many friends and relatives over the last twenty-four months. How I wish I'd taken time for that last visit or call.

  4. I'm so sorry for both losses. Every death diminishes us, as the poet said. Each added something irreplaceable to your lives, but you have memories to treasure!

  5. Susan, I feel great sympathy. Mortality sucks. We lost several beloved family members this year and I understand how you feel.

  6. Susan, What an eloquent piece about your loss. I'm so sorry but also envious that you had such an incredible experience with Dirk. I'm sure his wife would love to see this piece. Thank you for the reminder that life is so short and the unexpected can happen any time.

  7. So sorry for your loss, Susan. I loved the story of going to Egypt and meeting that remarkable man. What a great memory you have of that dear friend.

  8. Thank you for sharing the story of Dirk with us. I was swept right into the tale, and I hope you can continue to use the research and ideas that the two of you played with!