Requiem for a Friend

A wonderful friend I’d known for decades died this year. This is for her, and her life partner.

August 31, 2021

FOR ALICE AND ROB, WITH LOVE AND THANKS

What’s on my mind this morning is that a dear long-time friend’s time is running out. She is in a coma and not expected to live more than 48 hours. Alice is 88.

She got gestational diabetes with her last child and has been managing this condition for decades, living life to the full regardless. In recent years, the diabetes has become more debilitating and she’s had spells of feeling very poorly. On the weekend, she decided she’d had enough and she stopped taking her diabetes medication. She is at home and surrounded by family. It is a peaceful way to go and it’s typical of Alice that she remains the author of her own life right until the end. We all love Alice.

I met her around the time I turned 30 and was agonising about how old this was. Meeting her soon set me right, and I’ve never bothered with “OMG-how-old-am-I” again. Here was a truly vibrant, thoughtful, wise, compassionate, creative, contrary, funny and beautiful older person who didn’t conform to any of the standard stereotypes of what older people are supposed to do – she was simply who she was. She wasn’t an age, she was Alice; and that was the first of many important things she taught me by example over the subsequent two decades.

Alice came with Rob – the two had just retired from farming in Kojonup and moved to town. I didn’t learn for a number of years that the reason for their retirement was that Rob randomly caught a virus that impaired his heart, so that even small exertions like walking up the stairs now caused him to run out of breath – and for an energetic person who’d always darted around like one of his sheepdogs, that must have been very difficult. You’d never have known talking to him at his house though – he was perpetually cheerful and ready to laugh, full of stories, reading detective books, pulling people’s legs – especially Alice’s. She’d come in with a bunch of flowers purchased at the florist’s, and he’d say, tongue firmly in his cheek, “How much money have you spent now, woman?” She’d reply, “Well, Rob, dear, you knew when you married me that I am high-maintenance. I’m keeping all the receipts to put in your coffin and you’ll be well-cushioned.”

Rob had a workshop under the house and made beautiful and quirky things from bits of old farm machinery and general scraps: Comical animals, candle holders, miscellaneous useful things. He made a wrought-iron gate as a present for one of his friends, and he taught me how to use an electric drill – a skill I’d missed out on because of notions of gender roles. One week later, Brett and I were building our farm shed from kit.

When we’d bought our smallholding, Rob gave us an old adze he’d used for decades to make post-and-rail fencing. We planted over 5,000 native trees and understorey plants with it over the next handful of years. When we look at our tree lines, we think of Rob, and of all the trees he and Alice had planted on their farm, albeit with the help of actual machinery!

The year after I met Brett, Rob got a new breadmaker from one of his grandchildren. I’d had many a slice of fresh spelt bread from his trusty old breadmaker at this point. He said to me, “I love my old breadmaker, there’s nothing wrong with it, but my grandkids are going to be sad if I don’t use the modern thing they gave me. Would you like my old breadmaker? You’re getting married, now you’ll have two people to eat bread and it will be worth it.” So I started baking my own bread – and that same year Rob and Alice signed the paperwork as official witnesses at our wedding, because who better was there to ask than those two, married longer than anyone else we knew and fabulous people.

14 years later, Rob’s beloved old breadmaker still makes our bread, and we get our flour from a farm just up the road from where he and Alice used to farm. We think of Rob each time the fragrance of baking bread fills our house, and when we tip a loaf of bread onto the cooling rack, and when we see guests enjoying a slice of freshly baked bread made from local wholemeal stoneground flour and extras like sunflower seeds, walnuts etc. Just like I used to enjoy that treat at his place, and from the same breadmaker.

We buried Rob a decade ago. He made it to his 80th birthday party in good spirits and soon afterwards was hospitalised with pneumonia, not for the first time. This time he had an embolism while there, and didn’t come out again. At his funeral, hundreds of people took turns putting eucalyptus leaves on his coffin – a coffin made from the same rough wood as is used for woolbales, and delivered to the chapel on the back of a farm ute, in line with his wishes. And then everybody rallied around Alice.

Alice missed Rob terribly and always carried a picture of him in her purse wherever she went. Nothing ever filled that specific void for her, and nothing ever can. She learnt to live with it, which is all you can do. There was consolation in her enormous extended family, in her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a vast proportion of whom are interesting people doing creative and worthwhile things. And of course she continued to have an ultra-active social life with oodles of friends, participating in all sorts of mental and physical stuff including Tai Chi and University of the Third Age (academic lectures for seniors).

Only a couple of months ago, on a trip to town, walking up York Street, we spied Alice in an eatery, sitting by the window, and went in to say hello. Bear hugs and lively chatter followed. And we laughed, all three of us, because it was always like that. With the best people, you will share your laughter and your tears, your joy and your sorrow, your successes and your failures, and each other’s books and music – and Alice is that type of person. She’s also the type of person you would bump into impromptu in town on many occasions, because she seemed to have a talent for being in several places at once.

I’m thinking of Alice, slipping away now, and how I’ll miss her, as I miss Rob. I’m thinking how grateful I am to have known both of them, and how they changed my life for the better in so many different ways, both by their friendship and by their example. I carry both of them in my heart and always will; they continue to affect how I see the world, and there will always be a bit of them present in the work I do and the choices I make, and particularly in consciously working on kindness, which both of them embodied so well.

Farewell, Alice. ♥

September 2, 2021

More about Rob and Alice, and why I wrote that piece above.

It was such a fantastic thing, knowing those two, that I just wanted to write about it, because I think stories like that are positive for a lot of people who read them. I love reading stories like this, and I’ll write them when my own experiences permit it.

It’s like telling their story also makes them alive to other people who never knew them. Back when Rob died, I wrote five pages in my paper journal and then, a few months later, gave a copy to Alice, who loved the word portrait of him and how he’d touched our lives. Because when you’ve lost someone, you treasure memories of wonderful aspects of a person others saw as well. And because you begin to realise that in some very real ways they are still there.

Alice was dying when I wrote that piece about her – she would totally have approved. I wanted to write it when she was still alive, and managed to do it – by a couple of hours, she died that morning. It’s therapy and honouring a life at the same time. Brett and the person who told him Alice was in a coma immediately talked about what a character she was. Have you ever seen Chocolat? She was a lot like Judi Dench’s character in that. Heart of gold, sharp as a whip, funny, unconventional.

It’s funny how getting older changes your view of death a bit, or has for me anyway. It’s no longer as tragic as when you’re younger, although it’s just as sad. But you see the ripple effect the person has had and how in many ways they’re going to live on through the positive influence they’ve had on other people – with persons like Alice, and anyone who’s loving and creative, really. It’s people like this all along the road who got me over a horrible family life as a child, and it began when I was very little. And because I know I’ve had a bit of a ripple effect myself, especially through teaching, it’s actually easier to accept that my time is going to end in the next 30 years, statistically. It’s not a panic to think of it. The ripples are amazing – the positive ripples you can leave on other people’s lives, and which they in turn then create in the people around them. Just this ongoing thing; and more profound than passing on DNA. And also the positive effect you can have on the planet by changing how you live, by planting trees etc etc.

I don’t get the whole “life is so tragic” thing, clearly. ? I don’t have enough space and time to look at all the beauty there is – and that’s OK. And that’s not to deny that there’s a lot of bad stuff as well, but you really can’t let that win – and a very practical way not to let it win is to create good ripples. Even just smiling genuinely at strangers (you’ll learn when to and when not to) can create a lot of positive repercussions you can’t all see. Acknowledging other people’s humanity, seeing them – for a minute, or for decades; it all counts.

Alice did things like this all the time – as did Rob. Is someone an asshole to you or others? Go out of your way to to three kind things for friends and strangers, each time that happens. Fantastic antidote – instantly lights up the darkness the asshole made. ✨

And be kind. I can’t remind myself enough. One of the things Alice set a fabulous example with. People don’t live forever, but it’s funny how character traits can be passed on like this, by people like her. ♥

You don’t have to be perfect – you never will be. You’ll still stuff up regularly, and some people are going to hate you whatever you do, but that doesn’t matter. If you consistently care about how you are to other people and to the planet, and act accordingly, it’s going to change things.

Rob, me, Alice the day Brett and I got married; 3rd of February 2008.
Brett took this photo at their house when we picked them up to witness the paperwork and have lunch with us – which was a separate event from the shindig we had with friends in the evening. Alice had surprised me with a jasmine tiara she made from her own garden – it was perfect. The photo caught Rob at an unrepresentative moment – his smile would light up the room.
Alice also signed our wall, for significant contributions to our house – in her case indirectly – Alice and I had an unofficial trip out to this block after Brett and I had seen it with an estate agent back in 2010. You can’t get a feel for a piece of land sitting in a jeep with an estate agent in your ears, so she and I came back to have a walk and get a proper sense of the place. I’d asked Alice to come as an independent set of eyes and ears – and also because she’d farmed for decades, so her opinion was really worth having. Just like when I went to buy moss green sofas in 2006 and fell in love with bright purple ones instead and asked her to come look in case I was about to do something stupid…but she thought they were brilliant and she always gave her honest opinion rather than what you want to hear, so I got the purple sofas, and re-painted my rental at the time to avoid colour clashes. We still have them; in the living room of our farmhouse!

September 20, 2021

FAREWELLING ALICE

Today was Alice’s funeral. There was a bit of a delay in when it was held, so her grandson from Melbourne could attend – currently that’s a two-week quarantine coming into Western Australia, which has so far been outbreak-free. It was good to see him again. He still wears pointy shoes and still has glorious hair, and the aura of an arty person working in a museum, which is what he does. Indeed, he designed the lovely booklet commemorating Alice, which Brett (longtime graphic designer) praised thoroughly.

We’ve neither of us been to many funerals, not having extended family in Australia and not quite being at the age where your friends start dying regularly. Brett has only been to two – to Rob’s ten years ago (Alice’s husband), and to Alice’s today. I’ve been to four; my step-grandfather’s when I was very little (I remember my grandmother crying and his waxen appearance in the candlelit open casket), and the funeral of the mother of a 12-year-old boy I was teaching, when she died in a traffic accident; before Rob and Alice.

We parked up the road and walked in because we knew the official car park at Amity Rose would be overflowing. The large chapel was three-quarters full; many people had turned out to farewell Alice. A favourite poem was read, which spoke volumes about Alice’s values.

Granddaughter Kate did the eulogy, filled with anecdotes that made the people assembled laugh: The things she called certain politicians, things she had said to Rob, how she accidentally served him up scraps that had been kept for the dog once by leaving out the wrong freezer container for him, and he actually ate it – all the more remarkable because she was an excellent cook. The courtship of young Alice and Rob, and how he proposed on the third date. Farm life and three children, and voraciously reading books all her life, and listening to international radio. Bottling the fruit, making magic in the kitchen, children with happy memories. Alice’s glamorous streak which meant she and all her kids looked fabulous even working in a sheep pen. And indeed I remembered when she came with me in 2010 to help me appraise the farm block we now live on; there was no gate yet and she and I clambered through the barbed wire fence, Alice in her finery as usual, complete with handbag, deftly getting through the fence without tearing or scratching any of her outfit.

Stories of books and clothing being passed on routinely from Alice to others – so true; often, just as you were leaving, she’d say, “I’ve got a little something I was thinking I’d like you to have.” Usually it was books; there’s several on my coffee table now about French cafés, the Scandinavian countryside, women’s huts and hideaways, etc; plenty more on the shelves, and it was always something about the subject or the story that had made her think it would fit something in your life, and that’s always how it was for me.

I also have three scarves Alice gave me over the years, that she’d worn herself before passing them on to me and part of the loveliness was that you’d wear the scarf and it would smell of her and you’d feel as if she was hugging you in absentia. Two of them are particularly snuggly material; one a soft grey, one cherry red, long and elegant and wonderful to wear in winter. The third is lighter, very colourful and exotic.

There was no question what to wear to her funeral today, for me: The jacket I had on last time I saw her, a couple of months ago. She’d moved to a unit complex for seniors and I thought I’d go see her. We sat in the sun with a new friend and neighbour of hers – Kate, in her eulogy today, told us the two of them had bought a trolley full of wine and then took it back home together; at one stage, to cross the road, one of them pulling at the front, one pushing at the back and the cars stopping for them – and I’d met this exact new friend that day, and Alice had been very taken with my jacket, which is a stripey hippie number with a pixie hood with a long dangly tail that’s been like a second skin from the moment I first tried it on. The day I last saw her, I had teamed the jacket with screamingly loud matching patchwork pants I’d originally bought as a joke but which kind of grew on me – they look like they are made from the curtains in an opium den. That’s also exactly the kind of thing that appeals to Alice, and she was very happy to see me so colourful.

Sue At Lookout - South Coast Road Trip, Western Australia

So I’d said to Brett, who had been lamenting the absence of black formal wear from his wardrobe for this occasion, “Don’t worry about that! She’d not want you to wear black because of her funeral, she loved colours. Above all, she’d just want you to be you.” Alas though, I personally couldn’t wear my opium den pants because I’ve worn holes into them already and the one thing you’d definitely not want to happen at a funeral is for the seat of your pants to split, which is always a risk with well-worn pants. Therefore I settled for their more subdued fraternal twin.

And the necklace she’d given me many years ago. Alice was like that. She said, “I saw this and knew it was right for you, here it is.” Charcoal grey transparent beads cut into intricate polyhedrons, finished with similar beads in solid cherry red, two each side with a silvery metal bipyramid spacer between each pair; another cherry red polyhedron and another silver bipyramid suspended from the catch, and then a three-dimensional silver heart pendant nearly an inch across. I’d never seen anything like it; it was lovely and I’ve worn it often when there’s occasion to dress up; it’s something timeless you can wear at age 30 or age 80.

Brett was resplendent in light grey pants, charcoal shirt and dark fitted corduroy jacket – the same jacket he wore at our wedding, the paperwork of which Rob and Alice were the official witnesses on. Alice would have smiled on us, and most of all because we came in holding hands, sat down holding hands, lined up to put flowers on her casket holding hands, and left holding hands – without even thinking about it; it’s just one of those automatic things when something emotional is going on. Her granddaughter mentioned in the eulogy that it’s a wonderful feeling growing up with grandparents who are still obviously in love with each other. Alice knew I’d had a difficult childhood and would have crossed her fingers and toes hoping our relationship would work out like that. She saw the early bumps in the road, but thankfully she also lived to see us get past them; when Brett puts his arms around me I feel like a ship in a safe harbour, and this is not a feeling I ever had in previous relationships, or growing up.

Sharp Point, Torndirrup National Park, February 3, 2008

Listening to Kate’s eulogy and stories today, I was laughing and crying, and very struck by how she said many of the same things I thought and wrote the night Alice was dying, about what she was like and why we all loved her so much.

I laughed and cried again when they did a slide show of her life, from childhood through to last month and everything in-between. You can be simultaneously raw because you’re missing a person and are sorry they don’t live anymore, and grateful for their life and for the time they had, and all the many ways they made the world a better place and touched your own life in ways that continue to make ripples through all your interactions in this world, and you can laugh because of the funny and good-crazy things they said and did that are always going to stay with you.

I miss Alice. I miss Rob. I miss knocking on their door on Serpentine Road, hugging them, bantering, making tea together, talking about books and life around their table or on the sunny balcony outside, admiring their photographs all over the house of family past and present, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren all well-loved and all knowing it. In all my adult life I’ve never missed anyone like I miss those two. I miss bringing buckets of Arum lilies to their place in the winter, as I used to when we still lived in town, down the road from an Arum infestation – Arums are a declared weed here and Alice loved lilies, so I was doing an environmental good turn at the same time as I was flooding her house with white lilies. Which is funny when you think about it, since my name is Hebrew for “white lily” and I never thought that fitted, but in this instance it was prophetic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go past an Arum lily again for as long as I live without wishing I could go give it to Alice.

Today, Alice’s children had brought baskets of eucalyptus leaves and wildflowers for us to put on her casket. It was a wickerwork casket with an enormous bouquet of wildflowers already perched on top, around which we placed things we had picked from the baskets. I ended up choosing a banksia flower, but what would really have fitted symbolically is a small bird’s nest. We have some at home, as they occasionally get blown out of hedges in storms, and because I didn’t have one with me, I might have to make some art out of one in memory of her. Because Alice taught me so much about home, about nurturing – more than anyone else I’ve ever known.

Her wickerwork casket looked friendly, just as she always did when you met her. When they carried it out, I was thinking, “Light as a feather!” – because of that team bonding game where you get eight students to pick up a friend off the floor using only one hand each slid beneath the friend, which always amazes them. And how did our Alice choose to be conveyed hence? In a little glass-sided carriage towed by a Harley Davidson motorbike, and we all applauded her when they began to move. Then Popcorn started to play loudly over the speakers, and we laughed and laughed. Just as she would have wanted us to. Wonderful human being, who will for a long time be speaking from beyond the grave, like she did today, without needing to be a ghost in order to do it. ♥

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