In the past year, just over a year, three people I loved dearly have departed this life. My father in July 2016. My friend of 25 years, Ann Darwin, in January 2017. And my friend of 41 years, Tricia Giles, in July 2017.
All of them left us too soon. Although my father was 88, he was fit and healthy until a skin cancer claimed him. Ann was 69 and Tricia was just 60. Cancer took them all.
So thinking about dying and living well has been much in my thoughts for a while. I didn’t realise quite how much until John said to me one night, quite crossly, “You always do this when someone dies!”
“Do what?” I asked, surprised.
“You go on about how we need to be doing more with our lives, as if we’re not doing anything when actually we are!” he said.
He had a point. Since we retired, our lives are slower, we have time to enjoy things we like, to plant and smell the roses and have coffee with friends, but neither of us sits around doing nothing, we are always occupied and going places.
But still, I think a lot about how to live better, how to make the most of my time, what’s really important. These things have different meanings for all of us, but lately I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from Dad, Ann and Tricia and how I might put their wisdom to best use in my own life.
Of course I learned many things from all three of them but there are particular things I think about now.
My father taught me the importance of a simple, honest life.
It’s how he lived his life. He was a farmer. He liked growing things. Even after he retired from sugar cane farming when he was 80, he tended his fruit trees and his garden and he loved mowing his vast lawns on his ride-on mower. He lived simply, worked hard, ate sparingly, looked after his family and contributed to his community.
When we were small, he was the chair of the school P&C and always turned up to help at school working bees, fetes and other occasions. He coached and refereed community basketball. He organised the indoor bowls club he and Mum played with for years. He and Mum organised local dances and for 25 years they taught high school students to dance. He was always on some community committee including the local Leukaemia Foundation branch and the Seniors club.
He didn’t hanker after more possessions or experiences or wider horizons. He was happy tilling his little patch of earth and keeping it and its inhabitants healthy and happy.
In his garden, which one of his grandsons now tends for Mum, are many different plants. One, a simple low-growing plant with bright yellow daisy-like flowers we call “Grandad’s daisies” because he was particularly fond of them.
During the six months before his passing, when he was unwell and we knew his time was near, John commented to me one day that it was sad that Dad had such a short time, only eight years, to relax and enjoy life after he retired.
I thought about that and said, “No. He lived his life the way he wanted. He liked farming and was his own boss for 60 years, he did what he wanted and he was happy, he always enjoyed life. He just enjoyed it differently after he retired.”
Ann taught me the importance of forgiveness and a good laugh.
Ann was involved in many deaf community organisations and gave a lot to her community for decades. We worked together within Deaf Australia, advocating for deaf people’s rights.
She was devoted to her family and often talked about them. A hard task master, family was the only acceptable reason for non-attendance at an event or failure to complete a task on time.
Advocacy can be adversarial, friends can behave like enemies and enemies can sometimes be our friend. Many people made our work difficult and sometimes people hurt us. Ann often said, to me and others, “Put it behind you, move on, think positive.”
Often after a hard day’s work, we’d sit on my back deck or at her kitchen table, with a glass of red wine, talk things over and put things into perspective. And we’d laugh, Ann had a wonderfully dry sense of humour.
Ann and her husband Barry retired a few months apart when they turned 65. They did some travelling, spent a lot of time with family, especially their two young grandsons, and continued to be involved in the deaf community.
Her passing was unexpected and shocked a great many people. She lived in Melbourne and after I retired from Deaf Australia we talked on Skype from time to time but I hadn’t talked with her for a while. This bothered me a lot. She knew I loved her, I had no regrets there, but it had been too long since I’d last talked with her. I thought a lot about that and how important it is to keep in contact with people we love. But I also knew that Ann would have said, “Life is busy. I know you think of me.” Forgiveness matters.
Tricia taught me the importance of being practical and using our time well.
For her this meant doing what we want rather than what others might want, and spending time with those most important to us. Of them all, Tricia was the one most prepared for her passing. When her cancer was diagnosed almost four years ago, she knew her chances of surviving were not good.
She retired from work. She figured she had enough money to live on for three to five years and she didn’t love her job so much that she wanted to spend possibly her last years doing it.
One day I asked her, “What will you do if you’re still here in five years?”
“I’ll have to get another job!” she said, laughing.
Tricia loved the freedom of being retired. She spent a lot of time in her garden. A few years before, she’d had the pool filled in and created a beautiful native garden. She did her research and was very knowledgeable about natives, especially grevilleas.
She did some sporadic travelling, to Bali and within Australia.
She had about two years of remission. When her cancer returned and she knew it was terminal, she set about putting her affairs in order. She did some things she wanted to do for people she loved. She spent as much time as she could with the people most important to her, especially her two children and her siblings. They were wonderful and made it possible for her to die at home as she wanted.
She spent some time alone too, reflecting. She didn’t live very differently to how she’d always lived, but she lived her last years exceptionally well, focussing on what meant most to her.
Living well means different things to us all. This is what I think about a lot. What does living well mean for me? What am I here to do; what have I not yet done that I must? If I knew I had only a short time left, how would I live my life? What would I do differently?
The answer I keep coming back to is simple. I wouldn’t change anything much. I’d do a bit more travel. I’d do a lot more writing. Spend more time with people I love. Tend my garden. Knit. Eat less. Be kind to people.
I like my life. I feel I’ve lived it well. Not everything has happened as I would have liked it to, not everything I wanted from life has been mine, there has been a lot of anguish and a lot of struggle. But it has been a good life, rich in people and experiences. I feel very fortunate.
Death and grief are things we don’t talk about much in our society. We should talk about them more. For over a year now I’ve been talking about them often with people around me, people who loved Dad and Ann and Tricia too.
We talk about how much we miss them. We reminisce about things we did with them. We talk about things happening in our lives and we ask and tell each other: “What would Dad do?” “Ann would say to smile and let it go.” “What would Tricia say?” We wonder where they might be now. We talk about what we believe about the afterlife or lack of it. We tell funny stories about things that happened with them and we laugh sometimes until we cry.
A very special thing that has come from Tricia’s passing is that I have gained a new friend. Jude and I have known each other a long time, but not well. For me, she was always Tricia’s friend. Likewise for her, I was always Tricia’s friend. Now, helping each other with our grief at losing her, we are becoming good friends and it’s like a wonderful gift from Tricia. Just last week, talking about our mutual much loved friend, Jude and I agreed that what we feel is a lot like feeling homesick.
All of us are grieving something or someone. Some don’t talk about it; instead their grief comes out in strange ways, behaviour that is perplexing for others around them.
But for those of us who do talk about it, for me anyway, there is something enriching about grief. It makes us think about what’s important, what we like about our lives and ourselves and what we want to change.
For me most of all it is about being grateful. Grateful for everything I have, and grateful that I had everything I’ve lost.