Grief is a strange thing

As many of you probably know, my best friend passed away last year in August after a short final fight with cancer. It was Helen’s fourth bought of cancer and she’d always said to me after the third bought that if she got it again she was certain that would be it for her. So, when she got the diagnosis of terminal cancer last Easter, I wasn’t surprised, and neither was she. I kept my shit together for her, because I knew that’s what she needed, and didn’t even cry when she told me. I held her and let her cry and tell me what she needed to tell me, what was so horribly difficult to tell me, and then sat with her while she told a bunch of other people, and raged inside at the way she had to comfort them when I felt she was the one who needed comfort.

Lady Helen enjoying a tea-worthy cocktail

But that was what she had me for. That’s what I had her for, too. We were soul-mate-friends, friends through every high and every low, and there were plenty of both through the almost 30 years that we were besties for.

I travelled up to Canberra a number of times in those last few months, to help her after a big operation and the start of her chemo, to just spend some time with her, to sort through all the things she wanted done after she was gone, to have those talks about death and what was coming that she couldn’t have with anyone else. I had plans to get up there nearly every month to see her for at least a couple of days a month. I went up for 2 days in April. Managed 2 weeks in May. Went up for a week with my youngest son at the start of July. Was planning a visit in August – well, she was going to visit me in Sydney when I was there for the RWA conference. We never made it that far.

She was told 12-18 months to begin with, but then things started going wrong and it was downgraded to 6-12 months, then, horrifyingly, because the bastard cancer had got in her cerebral spinal fluid, anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 months. She lasted 3 weeks after that diagnosis and passed away on Monday 6th August 2018.

The last time I spoke to her was on the Friday. I’d sent her a photo of the dedication to her in the book that was about to be published, (Dangerous Echoes, Book 1 of the Echo Springs Series) a book she had told me I’d be an idiot not to say yes to when asked by my publisher to do it. She’d received the text of me with the book and holding it open so she could see the dedication and was calling to say she’d got the photo and how thrilled she was and how she couldn’t wait to get the copy in her hands when I was due up to see her the following weekend. She stumbled over words and I knew things weren’t good, but she put a good face on it and only wanted to talk about the book and how thrilled she was to have been a part of its journey.

Dedication to Helen in Dangerous Echoes

She went downhill dramatically that night and the next call I got was her mum saying if I wanted to say goodbye, I had to get up there as she only had days left. I already knew something was wrong as we had spoken or texted when she wasn’t up to speaking, every day, and I hadn’t had the usual quick response to my text on the Saturday. So, I wasn’t surprised when I received that call from her mum on the Saturday night. I cried when I got off the phone and while crying, swung into organisation mode, thinking of all the things that needed to be done so the whole family could make the drive up the next day so we could say goodbye.

It was a desperate drive, one we made carefully, but all the time I just wanted it to be done with because I was so afraid she’d be gone before I got to see her. She was still alive, although too far gone to see my boys when we got there, so they said their goodbyes to her in whispers outside her room – she wouldn’t have wanted them to see their vivacious and loving Aunty Helen like that. My hubby and I got to go in – the only people allowed outside immediate family since she had her turn for the worse on the Friday night. But I guess that was because her family knew our bond was special and it was important for both of us that we got to have that final goodbye.

She was so taken over by pain meds and the cancer itself, that she couldn’t say goodbye back. But I know she knew I was there because when I walked into the room, and she made a noise of distress, her mother told her it was me and she calmed down immediately, rolled over to face me (she hadn’t moved much in the day before that apparently) and lifted her hand out to me. I took her hand in mine, rubbing my thumb over it as I always used to do to comfort her – hand, face, head, back, circles of comfort and love – and I kissed it and stroked her face and kissed her brow and told her I loved her and that she would always have that Helen sized piece of my heart that had been hers since the moment we met, but that it was time to let go. She made a noise and her lashes fluttered and she rolled back onto her side.

I keep thinking to myself I have that. I have that memory. Even though it is a horrible memory in many ways, I have the memory of her knowing it was me, of responding to me, and hopefully, my presence bringing her some kind of release, because she did let go the next morning and passed into the next place that is hers. That memory is comforting at times, but at others, it just isn’t enough. Her time here was not enough and I go through moments of great sadness and anger about that, something we spoke about when I visited her one of those times. When I told her I was so angry I wanted to punch the universe and scream and yell and swear at it for doing this to her, she just looked up at me and with tears in her eyes said, ‘I love you.’ And I wiped her tears away and told her I loved her too. That memory brings comfort as well. But it too at times is not enough. And it is those times when I feel her presence, a little electric thrill through me, a breathless moment of knowing, a hearing of her voice or her laugh or feeling a slight touch around me – always around me as she was a big hugger and used to always tuck her head under my chin and hug and hug and hug me until she’d had her fill.

Helen was determined the place she was going would be next to ours, a place where she could play the only role she wanted next if death was her only way forward – the role of Guardian Angel for her girls, her family and those she loved the most, like me and my boys. And I feel her often, especially when I am feeling most down. She always said she wanted people to cry happy tears, and mostly, that is what I try to do. I try to fill my mind with all the happy, funny, snort worthy times I had with her, all the sharing times, the times I sat and listened to her woes and made her laugh and feel better, the times she did the same for me, the going out times, the dressing up times, the being daggy times, the crying over movie times, the singing songs out loud to our hearts content in the car as we drove places times, the holiday adventure/shenanigans times, the tomato-hoppy-frog times. She had a laugh on her that I can still feel in my soul and I drag that out in the dark times when I am my most down and listen to the joy of it. But always, always, there’s that sense of loss, the voice whispering in my mind that no matter the memories or how much I can hear/visualise/bring them to life in my mind, there will be no more.

Then something happens that makes me think that she is there and she is sharing memories with me and making funny things happen to make me smile. Like what happened yesterday.

I’ve been having bad migraine and headache problems for a while now, but they’re often worse in the heat of summer, and this summer has been no exception. After having a 2 day migraine last weekend, this week has been a series of headaches and feeling ill from them, but just having to get up and get on with things kind of a week and by Friday, I was exhausted. But Friday, I had to go to a Justice of the Peace and get documentation signed so that probate on Helen’s will can progress as I’m the executor of her will. I thought I was okay with this. I felt okay about it when I received the documents from her solicitor in the mail and driving to the JOP. But sitting there, signing those documents, seeing her funny, loopy, generous signature at the bottom of her will, made everything seem so final, in a way it hasn’t felt before. And I got back in the car, my head pounding, the breath a hot, hard, squeeze in my chest, tears stinging in my eyes, and drove home, desperate to feel her there in some way.

I put on The Greatest Showman the last movie we saw together and one we both loved and sang to every time I visited her, and sang out loud, trying to hear her sing with me. There was an echo, but it wasn’t enough. When I got home, I just couldn’t make myself do anything and gave into the pain in my head I’d been fighting all week, and just lay on the couch, eating things I shouldn’t and binge watching Netflix. When my hubby called later to see how I was feeling, I almost cried on the phone with him when I told him how hard signing those documents turned out to be, which is not something I do very often. I have cried, don’t get me wrong, but I have tried very much to do as Helen wished, and turn them into happy tears as much as I can.

I woke up on Saturday, still feeling down. I had to get up and feed and inject our diabetic dog and eat something myself as I still had a headache and needed to take some pain killers. I decided to make myself scrambled eggs. Hubby said he wanted some too. So, I began to crack the 4 eggs into the bowl. Job done, I turned to get some salt and pepper and when I turned back, noticed that one of the eggs had broken in such a way that with the way the other eggs were in the bowl, it looked like a happy face. And right at that moment, I heard Helen’s snort laugh very loud in my head and her voice saying, Eggstraordinary!

Eggstraordinarily Happy Face Eggs

I couldn’t help but smile and then laughed and then suddenly, I was feeling better. She was there with me. If she hadn’t had a hand in creating that happy face in the eggs, she was certainly enjoying the eggstraordinary eggsemplariness of it all. And it reminded me that grief, like anything else in life is a journey. A strange, up and down, topsy turvy, raging, crying, depressing then funny journey, that sadly, we all must take at some time. I wish I didn’t have to take it on behalf of my bestie so soon – she was only 48! – but given it has happened and there is nothing anyone can do about that, I’m making the best of it that I can and trying very hard to have not only happy tears, but happy, snorty, tomato-hoppy-frog laughter and smiles as well when I feel her still with me and even when I don’t. I let the grief comes when it comes, but I’m always reminded in some eggstraordinary way, that life is truly worth living and there is always a sunny side up to even the saddest, hardest of times.

I love you Helen. I’m so glad you were a part of my life on this plane and so glad you are still a part of it now, playing the next role in your soul’s life of Guardian Angel Helen. You play it well, my friend. You play it well. Thanks for the egg-cracking yolk! I needed it. Snort. 🙂

3 Comments on “Grief is a strange thing”

  1. Ugh, sorry Leisl. I had a heart and hug emoji’s but obviously too much for the comments so it turned them into ?? instead.

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