My beautiful friend Julie joined me this week in an activity I’ve previously done only with my son or by myself.
Something magic happens when two families connect at every level — wives, husbands, children, values, and interests. I read a recent post by ‘Wandering Sheila’ and instantly thought of Julie and her family, with whom my family of three shared so much in Australia.
I could write a book about our two families’ interactions, but for this post suffice it to say everything began when, within a few days of our moving to Sydney, my son returned from primary school and said, ‘I have a new friend. His name is Martin. He and his family just got back from a trip to Finland.’ Thus began a priceless friendship.
I loved watching Martin and his older sister interact; their closeness reminded me of mine with my brother when we were kids. Among our families’ seemingly endless shared interests were the boys’ baseball (my son the pitcher, Martin the shortstop, the dads involved in coaching and umpiring); family bushwalks, beach outings, and countless barbeques; a passion for travel and reading (our best Aussie book recommendations came from Julie and her husband); special holiday meals; and parents who loved spending time with their children and getting together as a family. The two dads were both experts at DIY, did a lot of the family cooking, and could talk at length on subjects ranging from the local real estate market to international politics. Julie and I could talk at length about anything.
In November 2002, with virtually no warning, Gary was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable gastric cancer. Julie and her family were with us at the hospital in the last weeks of Gary’s life. On the afternoon before Gary died, Martin spent time visiting him, then walked into the hallway and wept in his mother’s arms. He went home and made a pizza for his father to bring back to the hospital that evening for me, my son, and my stepson. Gary died late that same night.
In the months that followed, Julie regularly visited me on a Sunday afternoon. She would bring her knitting along and sit with me, letting me ramble on or be silent — a supportive, companionable presence.
In July 2005, two years after Gary’s death, Julie came over on one of those Sunday afternoons. Early Monday morning, she left an unusually short ‘call me’ message on my answering machine, but I’d already left for work and didn’t check it when I returned late that night. Tuesday morning, she rang again when I was in the shower. I noticed the blinking light as I was leaving and played back both messages, the second one a distraught, ‘Please call me.’ With rising fear I rang their home. Another close friend answered and I knew instantly something was terribly wrong. ‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Some of the boys went fishing on Sunday, from the cliffs at Middle Head,’ she said. Martin grew up near those steep rocks, had played there all his life, and knew it well. Sunday had been a beautiful, clear day.
‘There was an accident. A fall,’ said the friend. Her voice cracked and she paused to breathe. ‘Martin died.’
In the terrible aftermath of that tragedy, I did what I could to comfort my friends and their daughter — which, as I knew from my brother Rob’s death — was sadly very little. My son had his 20th birthday and returned to university in the US, a courageous young man who had lost his father and then one of his closest friends in the space of less than two years.
Often, after a long work day, I visited Julie, her husband, and daughter, and sat with them at their kitchen table, all of us mourning and morose. I remember vividly one night when their daughter was out and I left Julie sitting between her husband and her brother. I drove home to my lonely house, weeping with sadness and frustration at the finality of death and the desperate, hopeless knowledge that in what seemed like the blink of an eye, two happy families were gone forever.
Time passed, as it does. Days, weeks, and months turned into years. Julie’s daughter, with her degree in archaeology, worked for a time in Western Australia and is now in London. My son finished university and settled in Washington, DC. I was blessed to meet and then marry Clive, and we moved to the UK. Julie and her husband, still in Sydney, are in that pre-retirement transition stage, talking about what’s next with work, travel, and life in general. The only thing that’s stayed the same over the years is that after the two deaths, nothing for either family was ever the same.
As with most priceless friends, when Julie and I meet – usually over long lunches of champagne and dim sum — time and distance melt away and we pick up right where we left off. I adore my life in Felixstowe, but through no fault of our wonderful friends there, they never knew Gary — so it’s lovely for me to spend time with someone who knew him well, as Julie did. I knew Martin well, too, and we talk freely of them both — no holding back, no ‘you should be over it now’, no reservations.
This week, on a sunny autumn day in Sydney, we were just two women, standing and looking out to sea at Shelly Beach. Maybe others wondered why the women were scattering red rose petals into the water. Then they sat on a bench — sharing their history, marvelling at how they’d survived, remembering those they loved. A passing observer might have noted them turning their faces into the Australian sunshine, chatting and smiling, just enjoying a simple afternoon together.
I’m thankful every day for my blessings, which include my son and family and my wonderful second husband Clive. I give thanks to God and the Universe for my beautiful friend Julie, for her son Martin, for my first husband Gary, for Julie’s husband and daughter, and for two families who connected and had so many happy times together.
In love and remembrance.