DrFumblefinger’s preamble: One of the greatest aspects of knowing Arthur C Clarke was the many wonderful people I met through my friendship with him. Among these was Sir Arthur’s personal secretary, Dottie Weerasooriya. Dotts was and has remained a friend over the years and for the first time in the accompanying article shares some of her private memories of Sir Arthur, including his final days (Dottie was at his bedside when Sir Arthur passed on). This is the first “guest post” on this website and I’m proud its such an interesting piece. Thanks, Dotts, for sharing it with us! ******************************************************************************
THE FINAL COUNT DOWN
(Dedicated to the memory of our beloved Sir Arthur C. Clarke,
with love and deepest respect)
by Dottie Weerasooriya, his personal secretary
As we commemorate the fifth year of Sir Arthur’s passing on 19 March, 2013, I have tried to capture a few of my memories of Sir Arthur. I have hitherto kept my thoughts locked in the recesses of my own heart. My colleagues and others have often suggested that I should share my reflections, so I have attempted to do it now in my own way!
At Sir Arthur’s Office at Barnes Place, we had a team informally referred to as “Team Arthur”. Nalaka, Sir Arthur’s Executive Secretary, was mostly involved with research into information, scientific matters and liaison work with media. Rohan was responsible for electronics, photography, video recording and some administrative work. I attended mostly to daily correspondence and routine secretarial work, and accompanied Sir Arthur to various ceremonies and functions. During the latter years it devolved on me to work in close liaison with Sir Arthur’s medical Consultants and these matters became a part of my work. We also had a back up Team of assistants who cared for Sir Arthur.
Since January 2008, Sir Arthur’s back ache, which had begun to cause some concern, necessitated frequent hospitalization. On Monday, 17 March, 2008, Sir Arthur developed respiratory and other problems. After consultations with our usual Consultant, we admitted him to the hospital he was accustomed to.
On Tuesday afternoon, 18 March, we received a message that Sir Arthur was refusing to take his medicine. I telephoned our Consultant to find out if I could visit Sir Arthur who was in the ICU. I was granted permission to enter the ICU and finally was able to persuade him to take his medicine, so the Doctor in charge permitted me to stay at his bedside. The hospital authorities usually allowed this when a patient’s condition was considered critical; later two other “Team Arthur” members joined me. As I recall this now, our vigil seemed long and full of worry. We had one consolation; even though Sir Arthur remained very quiet we were sure that he was conscious and quite aware of our presence. As I sat by his bed-side, my thoughts went back to the years I had spent with him; the experiences I had gained and the knowledge I gathered. .. My attempt here is to share some of these random thoughts as they occurred to me during this vigil.
Sir Arthur had a very affectionate nature – he had great fondness for everyone on his staff, considered them all his family and treated them as such. Every individual was important to him. He was a father-figure, very amiable and approachable. He was a guide, a teacher in many respects who encouraged us to think, ask questions, and to be eager to learn new things. He was a very sympathetic friend. I remembered instances of his concern when I lost two of my pet dogs, and how he consoled me. Sir Arthur loved animals and his pet Chihuahua, Pepsi, never left his side. He encouraged everyone to show kindness to animals. All the pets that had died at his Barnes Place home were buried in the garden. Each grave had a gravestone bearing the name of each pet, underneath which was his loving tribute to each animal. I remember how often Sir Arthur would tell us he wished he could be buried along beside the little graves of his beloved pets if only the law permitted it!
They say the British have a particularly wry sort of humour. Sir Arthur, who was also very witty, would often jest about little things and enjoy a hearty laugh. I will set down a few such incidents that took place in our Office. Sir Arthur usually came into his Office after breakfast. But often, within an hour, he would call me in and simply say, “I am dying of thirst”, and laugh. That meant he wanted to have another mug of tea! Sir Arthur so loved his tea, a cup of tea was not sufficient; he always drank his tea in a mug – and of course with plenty of sugar!! When somebody completed some task that had been assigned to him, he would good humouredly say, “Good! Now you can have yesterday off”. At times he would ask Rohan to check some equipment in the office and while he was in the process of checking Sir Arthur would say, “if it works don’t try to fix it!” Sometimes when people came to see him, he would change his reading glasses to his other glasses and in the process would jokingly tell them “wait till I get my glasses on, or I can’t hear you”! Sir Arthur’s fascination for dinosaurs is well known. He had a remote controlled T’Rex (‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’ ) that a friend had gifted him, and it sat on his desk. When he had visitors, Sir Arthur would quietly operate his ‘remote’ and the dinosaur would make its growling noises and jump around on his table, frightening his visitors. This would amuse him greatly, like a child who had played a prank.
Sir Arthur encouraged everyone to read as much as possible, and to ask questions. He was aware of my reading habit and often lent me books. I learnt of Sir Arthur’s particular love of poetry by accident. I remember this incident very well. We were talking of poets and poetry as we sometimes did, and he recited Tennyson’s, “The Charge of The Light Brigade”. Sir Arthur forgot the last few lines and asked me if I knew them. Luckily I did and I completed them for him. That pleased him very much. I believe poetry created a special bond between us. When he was in the hospital he often asked me to read to him from a magazine or a book that had been brought in with his mail. He wished to keep himself informed and be in touch.
Sir Arthur’s humanitarianism was inspirational. He was always kind to children and sympathetic to his fellow beings. Often when someone completed a job, he would tell whoever was making the payment to them to remember to ‘give him a little more money’ than was asked. His view was that it would not suffice to give just a little because it would benefit no one; he wanted to be generous. Sir Arthur was always appreciative and never failed to express his thanks for the smallest things that were done for him.
There is hardly anything left for me to say of Sir Arthur’s brilliant achievements over the years. I wish to emphasize his almost child-like simplicity; that supreme quality endeared him to all who met him even briefly. When he was seeing a doctor on appointment or even when he was hospitalized, he never failed to oblige some admirer who wished to have his autograph or even take a photograph with him. He would happily oblige them all.
Sir Arthur had been interviewed by Jeff Greenwald of Wired Magazine in 1993. He had been asked if he had put any thought into what he would want on his Epitaph, “Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve often quoted it: ‘He never grew up; but he never stopped growing.’” According to his wishes, these words were engraved on his tombstone. A visit to his tomb at Borella, Kanatte would show the inscription:
` Here lies Sir Arthur C Clarke……….
“He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.”
Returning now to Sir Arthur’s bedside in the ICU. We watched by him, and as Wednesday,19 March, dawned, around 1.30 a.m Sir Arthur took his last breath and winged his way peacefully to the wide spaces beyond…. His final countdown was complete, but it was one of the saddest and most devastating moments of my life. Looking back I realize what a great a privilege it was to have been by this great Icon’s side at that historical moment in time. Sir Arthur was no more! It’s a memory that will not be effaced as long as life and memory lasts.
Activities at his office and residence at Barnes Place came to a grinding halt at the news of his passing. His business partner, Hector Ekanayake and his family, Sir Arthur’s own staff, the staff of his Diving Company Underwater Safaris, just everybody was devastated and stunned into inactivity, almost into a stupor! We were aware that Sir Arthur had been ill for some time now, but nobody ever thought the end would come quite so soon – too soon for all of us. We all felt bereft and lonely with him gone; a sense of loss and grief that defied explanation!
Five years on, as we commemorate the fifth Anniversary after Sir Arthur’s passing, I would say to Sir Arthur, you will always be remembered by those close to you with much love, respect, gratitude, and admiration.
In conclusion I recall those words you often quoted when you were asked how you wished to be remembered; the words of Rudyard Kipling:
“If I have given you delight
By aught that I have done.
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon;
And, for the little, little span
The dead are borne in mind,
Seek not to questions other than
The books I leave behind.”
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)