If I could grant Owen Baptiste one last wish, it would be to experience the outpouring of love and admiration that came in the way of countless tributes from those he had trained, nurtured and bouffed over the years.
Doctors said he died of complications due to diabetes. My friends, Owen died of a broken heart. I happen to know this because of the time we spent together long after we had both left the newsrooms of T&T.
Life took Owen to China for 12 years. And, by sheer co-incidence, it took me there as well. Owen upped and left Trinidad to teach English at a university in Guangzhou, south China. I was in Beijing because my US diplomat husband was assigned to the American Embassy there. Over the three years I lived in Beijing, Owen and Rhona visited me twice. During each visit, Owen and I would wonder how we ended up halfway across the world on the same piece of land. What was stranger yet was how we both loved this strange land of Tai Chi and congee.
“As if our navel strings buried here,” he used to say. Years later, I would tell Owen that it was harder for me to leave Beijing after three years than it was for me to leave Trinidad after 34 years. Neither he nor I could figure out exactly what it was about China that had charmed our soul. He would laugh when I would say “if you live a good life on this earth, when you die you get to go to China”. But it was specifically Lhasa, Tibet, that did it for Owen. He said Lhasa was a piece of heaven on earth, and that he would find his way back there one day, one way or another. I had never been to Lhasa and couldn’t visit because of Chinese restrictions on the travel of American diplomats (and their spouses) to Tibet.
In Owen’s visits to Beijing, he spoke lovingly of his academic community at the Guangzhou University. The students were bright and keen, the university administration was accommodating and the only irritation was having to hop a train to Hong Kong once per year to renew his work permit.
Owen was the happiest I had ever seen him. He was doing three things he loved: teaching, doing research for a book, and writing. Owen’s other happy times were when he had a ruler, pencil and lined newsprint (which we call a dummy in newspaper speak) and he was designing a page. Like during the attempted coup of 1990,
In about his eighth year in China, Owen said he had no idea when he would return to Trinidad. But he did, four years later. At the time, I was living in Seoul, South Korea. As soon as I returned to the US, Owen and Rhona came on two occasions to spend a couple of weeks with me at my northern Virginia home.
After two years of being back in Trinidad, Owen’s happy demeanour was over-shadowed by the heartbreak he felt at returning to the land of his birth. We spent many hours on my deck that autumn talking about why returning to Trinidad was so difficult after living many years abroad. I can only remember snatches of the conversation but it was all about being, or at least feeling, irrelevant among the journalistic community.
He said industry people knew he was back, but no one bothered to call. No one bothered to visit. No one sought his journalistic counsel or even tried to bounce an idea off him. He was hurt by how easily he had become unneeded and unrecognised. At the time I told him he was exaggerating. He shook his head and related how a close newspaper colleague had a brief conversation with Rhona and himself one day, and then blithely ended the conversation by saying “see you around”. In spite of the tough exterior, I realised how easily his feelings were hurt. Writers are indeed sensitive people.
But why would they ignore you like that? I asked, giving him the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know, darling,” he said. “It must have to do with me being gone for so long. Some Trinidadians are like that with people who go and live abroad for some time, and then come back.” But Owen did not appear to wallow for long, “That is how life is; you get used to it.” My sense is he never got used to it.
Over the years we continued to speak by telephone. Our birthdays were one day apart—May 27, his; May 28, mine. Wherever in the world we happened to be, we called each other on our special days. Except this year. We were both ailing. He, with his diabetes and attendant problems, and I with a multiple myeloma diagnosis that required a bone marrow transplant.
When we did speak again sometime last June, it was brief.
“You have to take care of yourself, darling. And your three men.” I told him I loved him and that we would speak again soon. We never did.
One night last July, while heating some Thai food for dinner, the phone rang and the person at the other end delivered the tragic news of the passing of Owen’s first-born son, Marc. I felt as if I was punched in the stomach. A devastated Owen could not say a personal goodbye to Marc because of Covid-19.
I remember calling Owen’s apartment in T&T and speaking at length to Rhona. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to Owen. What would I say? Anything at all seemed too trite. I decided to wait until he was over the heartbreak. I could almost hear Owen saying: “Over the heartbreak? That would never happen. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.”
A little over a week ago, a close friend, a journalist, sent me a three-word message: Owen has died. There was that stomach punch again. I sat for ages staring into space. So many things have been left unsaid, undone. What about the return trip to Lhasa? What about feeling the absence of love from the journalistic community he honed and moulded over the years? What about his promise to come sit on my deck in the fall and write his latest book?
When the heartfelt tributes started pouring in, I wished I could be the Ghost of Christmas Future and show Owen that he was wrong. That he had touched many lives, that he was a master craftsman in the eyes of many, and that most of all he was not irrelevant. But that’s human nature. We ignore people until they die. Once hit with the finality of death, we remember what they meant to us.
My only consolation now is that Owen is sitting atop the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa with pencil and ruler in hand, drawing lines on the clouds and writing his final headline: IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE.