IT’S a grey, old Saturday, in every sense of the word when I find out about the death of a dear friend. Worse, she’s been dead a month, and I’ve only just discovered the news. We first met 12 years ago, when, encouraged by my general practitioner and following a lifetime of panic attacks and anxiety, I finally succumbed to the idea of a therapist.
She was 64 back then, full of life, huge of heart, and big on no nonsense. I’m sure if there exists the ideal counsellor/patient relationship, we came pretty close, both of us passionate women not afraid to stand up for our beliefs. We debated, argued, laughed and cried. I’m certain there were plenty of times we crossed the line between patient and therapist, but we always found our way back. That’s what made it real. Plausible. She knew I was a no bullshit kind of girl.
A former nurse, she’d been married three times and had children and grandchildren of which she was extremely proud. She knew about life, love and loss. Some days we simply spoke about politics, travel and the parlous state of the world. Others, we delved deep, and she pushed me until it hurt. We lanced more than our fair share of life’s boils.
When I lost my job, she opened a bottle of champagne. And then rang me at home to make sure that one glass didn’t push me over the limit. She struggled with technology, often asking me questions at the end of a session about sending or saving emails. Showed me photos of her grandkids. Worried about her weight.
She had a library full of self-help books, my favourite of which has always been Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway. I still have her copy today. I tucked it into my suitcase on the day of my wedding, afraid, again, of my own self. Plagued by self doubt and anxiety.
Our real test came when the love of my life woke up one morning after 22 years and decided he suddenly no longer loved me. She was among the first people I rang. She cried down the line with me, prayed for me during those dark, terrible months, and called me every day to see that I was OK. My friends and I secretly referred to her as The Incredible Shrinking Woman. She was so incredible, I had friends begging me for her number.
She rode the heady years when I fell off the rails, fuelled by grief, bad boys and booze. She tolerated my antics because she knew they were a necessary part of my journey. She held my hand when my anxiety finally succumbed to deep depression. And she smiled knowingly when I eventually emerged from my stupor: “You’re entering the age of the wise woman,” she told me not so long ago.
We swapped small gifts and secrets. Our friendship blooming under the guise of therapy. Increasingly, over the years, I came to view her as a tribal elder. That missing link in our supposedly civilised society. This woman had lived and she was imparting her knowledge on me. It was an amazing gift and privilege.
“I’m always here if you need me darl,” she’d say.
And she was. When I lived overseas for a year, she was only a Skype call or an email away. She’d always return a phone call, so it was with mounting concern this week when she failed to return several of my messages. I’d last seen her on September 1. The first day of Spring. We’d had another enjoyable session which ended in her usual bear hug and words of encouragement. I’d just bought a new car and she rushed out like a proud parent to see it, waving and smiling at me as I drove off.
I was meant to meet her again on October 1, but she cancelled as she had pneumonia, telling me, “I’ll give you a call when the doctor gives me the all clear.” I was only mildly worried. She’d suffered from chest problems for years. And then I went overseas for work.
I returned this week and thought it was far time I’d heard from her. I called her phone number today, but it was disconnected. So I drove to her house and a sign on her door confirmed my worst fears. I rang her partner, Keith, 84, who told me she had died last month, October 5, when pneumonia had turned into an infection which had attacked her body. She was 76 years old.
On this grey Saturday I don’t know where to shove my grief. There’s guilt and bewilderment at her passing which occurred without me knowing. A little dollop of anger. Shouldn’t the universe have sent me a sign? How can we be so connected to someone, only to have them pass quietly from our lives? Selfishly, I want to shake my fist at the world: “But I wasn’t fixed yet!”
Instead, today, I clutch at the only thing I know. I write. She would have liked that. “Turn it on its head, darl,” she’d tell me often. She would have told me to “just sit with your grief”. She’d smile at my frustration at the world being beyond my control. She’d be cranky as all get out if I let her passing consume and unravel me. We’d come too far for that.
And so, Sue Cameron, I bid you a fond farewell. You may be gone, but you will never, ever be forgotten.