I STILL look for her everywhere. And in the most incongruent of places. When I’m travelling overseas, but mostly in the local shopping centre, where she’d most likely be. Except she isn’t. One year ago I lost my counsellor, confidante and dear friend, Sue Cameron. She died unexpectedly, at the age of 76, passing away quietly from pneumonia. It was a month before I discovered she had died. And on that grey, old Saturday I howled. Fat, serious tears rolling down my face, my body shacking with the grief and injustice of it all. And then I wrote and I wrote, vowing not to let her death undo me. She’d be so cranky at that. And so I haven’t.
I think of her often. On the good days and the bad. On rare grim days I repeat the mantra she told me so often: “Turn it on it’s head, darl.” And I glance at a photo of her I keep above my keyboard in which she wears the same Mona Lisa smile she used to give me when I sought her advice on life’s big issues. It’s a no-nonsense kind of look, with an unwritten caption which I imagine reads: “You know it’s all going to work out, don’t you?” The photo arrived by surprise in the mail, sent to me by her partner Keith, 84. He sent it with a note which read: “Sue gave me the photo and I know she liked you a lot, so here is the original. May God bless you and thank you for your regard for my wonderful Suzie”. I view him from a distance from time-to-time in the local shopping centre. He looks so much older now. His tall frame a bit more hunched. No more handsome hat tilt when he passes by. But he’s surviving. Like the rest of us.
Journalist and author Susan Wyndham has just published a book My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent. Wyndham, whose mother died two years ago, has cobbled together an anthology of stories by 14 Australian authors who examine the concept of surviving the deaths of our parents. Some of the nation’s best penmen and women have contributed to this tome, including Thomas Keneally, Helen Garner and David Marr. In her review of the book in the Weekend Australian newspaper, Rosemary Neill refers to our parents as “those who have known us the longest”. I have never lost a parent, but have many friends who have. For me, the passing of Sue Cameron was the closest to this kind of grief I have endured. While not knowing me the longest – although we had been together through 12 turbulent and terrific years of counselling – she was the person who knew me best. And so it was a lonely landscape I faced the day she died. Like losing your anchor in the middle of the ocean and searching desperately for a paddle to get you back to shore.
Apart from the grief which never really leaves – you learn to grow around it – I’ve been fascinated at how my rational mind can know someone has died, but my emotional mind still looks for her. In Saturday’s Courier-Mail there’s a story about a new coffee shop concept called The Death Café where people gather to talk about the concept of death. This pop up concept is not about grief counselling, but more so that people can freely discuss one of life’s most taboo subjects. Attendees can be anyone from those simply curious about what happens after life, to those who have experienced death in their circle or who are facing a terminal illness. It’s run by grief educator Beth O’Brien and funeral director Neil Davis. “Death Café is…an unusual event trying to change how uncomfortable society is about death and replacing it with relaxes discussion and cake,” O’Brien says.
In her review of My Mother, My Father, Neil writes: “For many people, the death of a parent is a reckoning: a catalyst for evaluating a life lived well, or a little outrageously.” These days, I choose to live my life well. Sure, I still have my outrageous moments, chase bad boys, drink champagne with my friends, but I try to temper these with striving to be a better version of me. In the past year I have taken up yoga in the mornings, gone to several health retreats and really participated – bringing home the wisdom learnt and incorporating it into my life. I attend weekly meditation classes, swim or walk in the afternoons. I eat better, drink less. Recently, on my birthday, a friend sent me an email. It read: “I’ve really noticed a change in you over the last couple of months. You seem happier, calmer. It’s a subtle change, but I’m not imaging it. The ‘real’ you is breaking out for all the world to see and love.”
Wherever she’s reading this from, I just know Sue Cameron would be chuffed.