As many know who follow this blog, my best friend of 30 years, Helen Petrou, passed away last year in August, after a brief, final fight with cancer. As anyone knows who has gone through a significant loss, the year following a loved one’s death is full of horrible firsts, firsts that bring their own fresh round of welling sadness and rising sense of loss.
I have been through some big firsts. I got through my youngest son’s Barmitzvah without her there. I got through Christmas without all the calls before hand chatting about all the decoration, sending photos of our respective trees, the present buying and cooking madness, the call from her on Christmas morning to wish me happy birthday, her original and slightly silly birthday present arriving that always made me laugh, and the Christmas present which for most of the years we have known each other, was the next in the Raymond E. Feist books. I would buy one for her and she would buy one for me and we would write in them and sign them to each other, a record of our friendship and love, and then enjoy chatting about it after we’d read it. His last one I had to buy for myself and it’s the first one I have without a message scrawled from her in her big loopy writing, and right now, I can’t bring myself to read it.
I got through January without her usual visit and mad shopping spree and feast of good food and yummy drinks (lately, very often cocktails at Eau de Vie).
The next first was her birthday.
This was always going to be super tough one, especially as, for nearly the entire time I’ve known her, she has lived somewhere other than Melbourne. The first 3 years we knew each other, she was here in Melbourne, and we always did something together for her birthday. When she moved up to Sydney, we promised to never lose contact, and I started the trend that would become a yearly event, of flying to where she was to spend her the weekend closest to her birthday with her. I would usually go up on a Thursday and come back on the Sunday night or Monday morning – and so started the trend of her having a birth week rather than a birth day. She lived up in Sydney for about 4 years and then moved back down to Melbourne for a few years, and we continued the trend of doing something on her birthday here, but making the days around it special too.
When she moved up to Canberra, I flew to her, continuing the birth-week celebrations trend. It was a yearly event we both looked forward to and it was one I never missed (except for when she went OS for her 45th and I couldn’t join her on that trip because of family health issues and my oldest son’s Barmitvah happening then – although, I went up to spend a week with her in June instead, taking my youngest with me, and we had a most excellent post birthday, birth-week.) The flying to Canberra for her birthday/week has happened every year for 20 years.
So, this year, it felt so strange not to be booking tickets in February/March and organising what was going on with the kids – who was picking them up from school and looking after them and taking them to their after school activities. It’s the first year I haven’t been thinking for months about the best gift to give her, taking into consideration what was going on in her life and what sort of gift she most needed from me. It’s the first year for so very long that I haven’t got on a plane and been greeted at the other end with the most ferocious hug and a lipstick print on my cheek that I wasn’t allowed to wash off until the next day when I got another one. I’ve been feeling empty and raw and constantly like I’ve forgotten to do something, even though I know I haven’t.
I did promise her though that I wouldn’t spend her birthday weekend all miserable and at loose ends, but that I’d do some of the things we always loved doing and remember her while doing them with a smile and a laugh. So this is what I did:
Friday I went and had my nails done in the colour that was our favourite and the one we had done together last year – The Blood of my Enemies (you must always come up with a gruesome or funny or rude name for your nail polish colour!) I then went and had something naughty for lunch – because, ‘if you can’t have something naughty on my birthday weekend,’ she used to say, ‘then when can you?’.
That night I had a drink like we always did on the Friday night of her birthday weekend – lately her favourite was spiced rum, ginger beer and fresh squeezed limes – and cheers-ed her and thought of all the fun times we had while drinking and eating all the bad for us food we could on the Friday night of her birthday weekend.
Saturday I cooked some yummy pasta and went to have a catch up with some friends – writing friends, ones that I could have lots of laughs with but also serious discussions about all sorts of things too. We met at 12 and didn’t finish until 6pm and drank sparkling and ate too much and I know Helen was right there with me.
Sunday morning I had to work, but after that we went out and had dumplings and Peking Duck and an eggplant dish she always loved and lots of tea and finished it with deep fried icecream and custard buns, which I hate but she always ate if she had room when we went out with my hubby who loves them too.
I made myself have a little bite for Helen, but it just reminded me how yuck they are and pulled a face and I heard her laughing at me.
The boys enjoyed them though.
And now I am sitting here, surrounded by my heatbags, about to watch a movie with my hubby, drinking her favourite drink again and feeling like I have done my best to honour her wish and spend her birthday weekend doing things she loved and remembering her and honouring her with my smiles and laughter rather than the tears she so hated to see on those she loved the most.
I have also had texts from some of her closest friends in Canberra that I have stayed in contact with, and they are doing similar things today, things she loved, and remembering her with their love and laughter. I have sent texts to her family and spoke to her brother on Thursday last week and wished them all a fun Helen’s-birthday-weekend. We also booked to go out with her brother, Greg, to Eau de Vie and have some of her favourite cocktails at the place she fell in love with when we introduced it to her about five years ago. So, that will finish up her birthday week celebrations nicely.
So, cheers to you, my beautiful friend. I remembered you just like you asked me to this weekend without a tear. There is sadness as I told you there would be, but mostly, there’s been wonderful feelings of happiness over the memories of fun times and love and laughter I have shared with you over every Birthday weekend we were lucky enough to share together.
I love you, dearest, darlingest most Helen of Helens. Tomato Hoppy Frog, beautiful girl.