Today marks the last of the firsts.
The year after someone you love dies is full of firsts and I have been through them all except this one – the day my best friend of 30 years, Helen Mardi Petrou, passed away, taken by that arsehole cancer. It’s a sad day, because she, like so many others, was taken way too soon and she is missed terribly by those who loved her dearly and anyone whose life she touched – which were many.
She was my best friend and part of my family, my boys’ Aunty Helen and their godmother. Our friendship lasted her moving from Melbourne to Sydney, then back to Melbourne then to Canberra which is where she stayed. It was strengthened by regular calls, visits and holidays together and the ups and downs of life where we shared everything – our marriages, our careers, the births of our children, her fights with cancer, mine with debilitating migraines, her divorce, my conversion to Judaism, her falling in love with a woman when she’d always been with men (to her, love was most definitely love – a lesson so many could learn from one as wise as she – and something that didn’t surprise me at all because love was everything to her and if anyone didn’t like it, they could go jump, a sentiment I agreed with wholeheartedly), my pursuit of writing and getting published and all the rejections I went through, her break-up after her second child, my first child’s learning and behavioural issues and the operations he went through – I could go on and on. We were so close that she laughingly called my hubby her ‘Clayton’s Husband’ because of all the time they spent together because of me.
However, despite my sadness today, I do not want to write a sad tribute to her. ‘Happy tears,’ is what she told everyone after getting the dreadful news her time with us was coming to an end. ‘I only want happy tears.’ In fact, she wanted no tears at all, but she knew that was an impossible request, so she wanted those tears that would naturally be shed, turned into happy memories and laughter, of which there were plenty.
Her life might have ended in pain and a loss of ability to do all the things she loved to do, but right up to the very end, she was concerned about her gorgeous girls, her family and her friends and how they were doing, and always tried to be her brightest self, somehow able to find the fun and laughter that was always so important to her, despite the horrible pain.
So today, I want to share one of our stories, a story that she loved to tell of how we met and became best friends.
I was eighteen and had started a BA at university. The university year was about a month in, the status quo of tutorials set – the talkers (me – quelle surprise!) and non-talkers, where we sat and who would always volunteer opinions – and in my drama tutorial I was particularly used to being the discussion ‘queen’ and ‘held court’ in the seat nearest the window.
I walked in one day expecting to take my usual seat and came to an abrupt stop. There was someone sitting in my seat – yes I sound very Goldilocks and the 3 Bears! Except, it wasn’t Goldilocks. It was a tiny someone with masses of dark curly hair around her heart-shaped face, huge brown eyes staring out of even bigger dark-rimmed glasses. Despite her tiny stature, there was something about her that shouted, ‘big’ – and it wasn’t her hair!
We immediately eyed each other off – me with a wariness about this pixie-like person sitting in my seat and her with a wariness about this ‘Amazonian Faery Queen’ (a direct quote from her – which, when I heard it, prompted me to suggest she needed a new prescription in her glasses) who had just walked into the room.
The tutor began the discussion of the day’s topic and I opened my mouth, prepared once again to be the only one to express my view, and suddenly, this full, projected voice, rang out, saying exactly what I was about to say, stealing my thunder and my ‘role’ in the class. I stared at her. She stared back. I disagreed with what she said – even though I agreed with it – just to see what she would do. She laughed – a wicked giggle – as if she knew what I was up to, and then the discussion was on, held up mostly by Helen, the tutor and me.
During the discussion, I looked at her often, a thought racing through my head, an instinctual idea I couldn’t shake. This person, this forceful, opinionated, loud little pixie with the wicked laughter and the massive hair and eyes, was either going to be my best friend or my worst enemy. I couldn’t shake the idea, and so it was, after the class, rather than leaving straight away like I usually did, I hung around a bit, almost as if I was waiting for her
After she’d chatted to the tutor – she was a late admission and had lots to catch up with – she bounced up to me and said, ‘My name’s Helen. That was fun. Shall we go have coffee and talk some more?’
Anyone who’s met Helen knows you don’t say no to her. It’s almost impossible to do. And I couldn’t do it. I said yes.
I can’t remember how long we chatted, what we drank or what we talked about, but I do remember knowing that after we parted to go to our next classes, I knew I’d made a friend that day, a friend I had a feeling was going to be significant in my life. And she was. She was the once in a lifetime friend, the kind of friend many people never have, and I was so lucky she was in my life, even if only for half of the time she was meant to be in it.
Years later, when we were discussing the day we met, we discovered we’d had the same thought – ‘This girl is either going to be my best friend or my worst enemy.’ It was why she’d asked me to have coffee, so she could decide which it would be – although she was pretty certain it was veering toward friend and not enemy. This shared experience was pretty typical of the bonds that tied us together and kept our friendship alive and vibrant and essential through all the changes in our lives.
Our shared interests at uni bonded us, but the friendship was completely cemented when she got diagnosed with her first round of cancer. Her family mostly lived interstate, and despite the fact they visited, were unable to help her through her treatments in the way she constantly needed. Added to that, her boyfriend at the time was working full-time to support them and also was struggling to give her the emotional and physical support she so desperately needed. So my mum and I stepped up, taking her to appointments and making her meals and looking after her through the tough times.
Not long after she got through her treatment, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. We were both told we needed to get away and detox and relax, so we ditched our jobs in Melbourne for 8 weeks and drove to Queensland to have a holiday up there, lazing around doing nothing much unless we felt like it and snort-laughing way too much over the silliest things.
On the way home we visited my extended family in Sydney so she could meet my Nan and Pop – two very important people in my life – and then stopped in Canberra so I could meet her mum and some of the Greek side of her family. I’d already met some of her family – her Dad, brother and Aunty Mardi – so meeting her mum was the finishing touch on rounding out my understanding of the essence of Helen. She was the perfect blend of her half Greek, half Australian-Irish heritage. Loud and opinionated and a go getter who was good at most things she put her hand to with a love and loyalty to family that was essential to her very soul, mixed with an irreverence and a black sense of humour that showed in the laugh lines on her face and the wicked chuckle that made it impossible not to laugh with her.
In essence, she never changed from that pixie-like girl I met that first day, that loud, opinionated (in the best way), funny, fun-loving person who threw herself into things with so much energy it was always astonishing to me where the hell it came from. She was the planet that so many people orbited around, drawn to her light and intelligence and laughter like the earth is to the sun.
Now she is gone, you would think my life would be a little bit darker, but it’s not, because I have so many wonderful memories of her that light the darker times, the first of which is that day in the tutorial when she made herself so very known, and more recently her smiling up at me as she lay her sore head in my lap so I could massage it to help with the pain, and asking me how I was doing. I spoke of my grief and my rage that this could happen to someone so good, so essential to everyone who knew her. She touched my face as I blinked back tears, then pulled me down so she could kiss me, leaving her ubiquitous lipstick kiss-mark on my cheek and pulled me into a hug – she was always such a fierce hugger – and said, ‘Promise me happy tears, my love. Happy tears.’
So, my beloved Helen, I give to you my happy tears alongside my happy memories, just as you asked.
Miss you for eternity.
Love for ever and always.
Your bestest bestie in all the world,