Today is my bestie’s birthday. It’s been 4 years since the last Helen’s birthday I got to share with her – her 48th. Her birthday was always a big celebration time – she made certain of it – most often spanning over the week of her birthday and not just on her birth day.
After she moved to Canberra, it became the time I would go up to visit her and spend 4-5 days with her doing all the things she wanted to do (even gardening, which as anyone who knows me knows, I hate to do. But somehow, Helen always ended up making me get out in the garden with her and helping her dig and plant and weed and trim and chop and make it something that almost resembled fun).
Her 48th birthday was no different – except, this time I was staying for 2 weeks to help her through the party then the big appointments with her oncologist and the start of her treatment.
I arrived a few days before to help with the celebration plans – plans that were going ahead despite the fact she’d only just had a hip replacement because the cancer had got into her hip bone and weakened it to the point it broke. She was walking though and her spirits were lifted and despite the fact she’d been given a terminal diagnosis, she was hopeful that she would get the 12-18mths the doctors had given her. It became very apparent to me – as it was to certain others – that she wasn’t going to get that long, but I didn’t let her know I felt that as a horrible truth deep inside me. She wanted fun and laughter and as much normality as she could have, and I was going to give her that.
Her birthday itself was a wonderful celebration that carried from the morning and into the night. It was filled with cooking and cleaning and preparations to make it the perfect birthday party – and it was. It was also a wonderful celebration of a life well-lived and a woman who was well-loved by everyone in her life.
Memories of that night simultaneously make me want to laugh and cry; the event, while happy and uplifting, had an incredibly sad undertow that at times pulled people under – because they, like me, must have felt, this was likely to be the last birthday she ever had even though we all desperately didn’t want it to be true.
I managed to quickly smother my sadness in smiles for Helen – as most others did too – because she wanted a joyful event and we were going to give that to her.
It was tough though.
She didn’t want speeches, because she was worried they wouldn’t be the usual fun, jokey birthday speeches, but turn into something more suited to a funeral. But there was a need for things to be said about her and how wonderful she was and how treasured she was by all of us. And there were people who obviously longed to say something. After she was asked to speak – she pretty much just thanked everyone for being there and making it a wonderful occasion and said words of love for her two girls, her family and friends – I could see others wanted to say something, but didn’t seem to think they could step forward. So, I stepped forward and told a little funny story (I actually can’t even remember what it was now, but it got laughs, which made Helen happy) and that seemed to make others feel they could step up and say some things.
Normally, nobody would have gone against what Helen had said she wanted – no speeches – but this was everyone’s last chance at a celebration like this to make certain she knew how loved she was (even if she lived to her next birthday, she would be in the last stages, so another celebration like this seemed unlikely). And while it brought down the mood a bit, because some people got very teary – the very thing Helen didn’t want – most kept it birthday-oriented and it was still a lovely thing to bear witness to, and something Helen needed to hear.
Afterwards, Helen gave me a hug and thanked me for not listening to her and making the impromptu speeches happen. Not only was it important for her to hear those things, it was important for her girls to hear them too. Then, and now, it is important for them to hear that their mother lived a full life outside of being their mum; that she brought love and laughter and friendship and joy to the lives of so many people; that she wasn’t perfect – many of the stories that are funniest are about when she lost her shit over something, despite the fact she always prided herself on keeping her cool – and made mistakes, but she always picked herself up and kept on and tried to learn from the mistakes, but inevitably, sometimes still failing. For only in the fullness of hearing other people’s memories, can she truly be kept alive in the minds of those who loved her most.
My job for the night was to make certain everyone had fun and that when people got sad, to make them laugh – Helen had actually said I must do this. And I think I did it pretty well, because when the speeches started to get a little maudlin, I made with the quips and made people laugh.
My other job that night was to save Helen from her most Helen-est self. Her inclination was to run around and be the hostest-with-the-mostest and make sure people were having a good time with drinks and food aplenty, and she had to be slowed down from doing that, because she asked me not to let her run out of puff too early in the night. So for a great deal of the time, I sat her in a chair with wheels and wheeled her around – we made a funny game out of it – and it mostly worked.
What I couldn’t escape was her need to comfort those people who showed their upset and how much doing so tired her. Despite the fact that she was the one who was dying, despite the fact that it was her who would miss out on her kids growing up, on sharing things with friends and family that she’d always looked forward to (we had plans for up to and including our 90’s!) and despite the fact that if anyone had the right to wail about the lack of fairness of this world – why did she keep getting cancer? Why was she the one marked for such an early departure from life? – she mostly kept that to herself and spent all of her time making others feel better. Which exhausted her. And made me so very angry.
I wanted to punch those people for not keeping their shit together and falling apart so that she felt the need to comfort them and use up her meagre reserves of energy in doing so. I wasn’t the only one – a few of her close friends expressed the same feelings to me over the next few months and after she died.
Most people at her party did manage to keep their shit together – although there were a few people who just didn’t, and it cost her to see it and need to comfort them – but she did manage to get through a great deal of the night until she got a look on her face that told me she was done and that was when I hustled her to bed, and with the help of a few others urged everyone to wrap up and leave – because while they were there, she would never rest as she needed.
It was a beautiful night though and I’m so glad she got to have it.
People breaking down in front of her and her comforting them became a regular part of her life after that: when she met someone she hadn’t seen and told them and they burst into tears; or she met someone who knew but hadn’t seen her since finding out and burst into tears on seeing her; or she was just talking to someone who’d known for a while and they would get all maudlin and burst into tears. She would comfort, I would seethe and pull her away as quickly as I could – but the consequence was always the same. She’d have used up her energy on dealing with their emotion and the emotion it caused her to suppress to comfort them, and I’d have to take her home so she could rest and deal with the massive headache it nearly always brought on. And it worried me so much when I wasn’t there.
I told her that she really just needed to walk away – tell people she couldn’t handle their sadness or whatever – when someone started getting chin-wobbly and teary, but of course, she couldn’t do that. It wasn’t in her. She was a people person, always concerned with the feelings and lives of others – she would remember things about what was going on in a person’s life that most people just wouldn’t and always, always ask about how they were going and be there to chat and listen (she should actually have been a psychologist rather than a paramedic). So, it was an impossible ask. But still, I couldn’t help being protective of her. I had always been protective of her, right from when we’d first met – although why I felt that need I have no idea. Despite her diminutive size, she had a spine of steel and could take on anything.
Possibly the protective thing went into overdrive when so early in our friendship she had her first bout with cancer. Given she was pretty much without family in Melbourne and her partner at the time struggled to cope with the diagnosis (but also had to work more to make up for her not being able to work through her treatment), I ended up being the one who took her to many of her appointments and treatments and when I couldn’t do it, my mum stepped in and helped out. I cooked meals for her to try and make her eat, and helped clean her house and make sure washing was done. And all while I was (unknowingly) dealing with CFS – something she told me off about roundly when I got the diagnosis and despite the fact she was still reeling from the consequences of her radiation therapy, she wanted to do what she could to help me. See – ever-caring people-person! An unstoppable force.
I realise now that my internal fury was pointless. Nothing could stop people from reacting in the way they did. Even though I wish they could see it as I saw it, the fact of her dying was grief and sorrow wrapped in a punch that most people could not fight against. And don’t get me wrong, I did show Helen my grief and anger – I didn’t want her to think I didn’t feel those things – but it was done with her, to allow her to pour out her feelings and express all the ugly, sad, horrible thoughts and feelings she kept from most everyone in her life. We cried together and hugged; there were many nights when I visited, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, when she spoke of her fury and grief at all that was being stolen from her, and she sobbed in my lap as I stroked her hair and I let my tears flow too. And as it always did, when we did things together, it made things better.
I am glad I could give her that, although there is still a fury inside me that I ultimately couldn’t make things better. With all the love inside me for my dearest friend, and all the will in the world, I could not make her stay. I could not give her more life than she had.
But I can remember the life she did get to have. I can remember her and talk to her and hold her in my heart and speak the truth of her impact on my life.
I have many dear friends who I truly treasure, but there was only one Helen and there will never be anyone like her in my life again. Not because I don’t want there to be, but just because there was nobody like her. She was truly an original. And I feel so blessed to have called her my best friend and have been a part of her life and heart.
On this day, the day of her 52nd Birthday, I wish for all who knew her to take a moment to remember the wonder of Helen, to bring to mind a memory of the very Helenest of Heleny things, and to smile as she wanted when people remember her, and to know that they were blessed to have known the bright light that was Helen Mardie Petrou.
I love you my dearest girl. I miss you always.
Tomato hoppy frog.