Remembering Helen

Today marks the 3rd year anniversary since my beloved friend, Helen Mardi Petrou, passed away in 2018 after a long battle against multiple cancers across her life. She’d fought on and off for almost thirty years – pretty much the length of time we were best friends – but the bastard cancer finally got her.

Before she passed, she asked me to remember her with happy tears, so rather than railing over the loss I still feel so deeply in my soul and heart – a wound that 3 years has done nothing to lessen – I write these yearly blogs in an effort to keep to my word, remembering her for the fun-loving, deep-thinking, socially-conscious, kind and giving person that she was. I was so lucky to have had her in my life and count her my best friend.

Today, rather than regale you with stories of her mad antics (of which there were many), I want to share with you something that had become an important part of Helen’s life: her activism against domestic violence. Something that seems particularly – and sadly – horrifyingly relevant in these uncertain times.

Me and Helen at her High Tea – exhausted but happy.

As a paramedic for almost twenty-five years, Helen saw her fair share of violence of every kind, but none disturbed her as much as domestic violence. She became involved more fully after Canberra mother, Tara Costigan, was brutally murdered by her partner despite Tara trying to get a domestic violence order against him (I won’t name him – he doesn’t deserve to have his name remembered). The horrifying story affected Canberrans in a big way, Helen included in this.

As was Helen’s way, she mulled over what she could do to try to help women in the same plight as Tara, but everything she thought of, to her, seemed to small.

Then in 2017 (the year before she died), 2 years after Tara’s murder, she came up with an idea:

Helen and her friend Sharon who travelled from Sydney for the event.

The Idea

She wanted to hold an afternoon tea to raise money for The Tara Costigan Foundation, a charity organisation Tara’s family started to try to help women in domestic violence situations find a safe place to live and with plans to advocate for them with police and the court system – which had let Tara down so tragically as it has done with so many others.

Helen contacted them and told them what she was doing – I think they were touched and a little stunned given they were such a new foundation at the time – and she secured a few of Tara’s family to attend the event. Then off she went with months of planning.

In pure only-Helen-could-do-it fashion, she secured donations from her local Bendigo Bank, and from local food and drinks suppliers – she did not want to use a single dollar of the money raised to pay for anything on the day. She also funded it a little herself and roped in many friends to help cook up a feast worthy of the best High Teas anywhere in Australia.

She called me after she’d made the decision earlier in the year and told me that I had to make a booking to come up for at least 3 days at the end of October to help her put it all together. She literally gave me no choice – bad luck if I had anything else on – not that I did. When Helen called, I usually answered. At the time, I did not really know about Tara, the horrible story not being as big in Melbourne as it was in Canberra, but I was always fully behind anything Helen wanted to do, and when I found out her reasoning, I jumped on in. Some people questioned the idea of holding a High Tea to raise money for domestic violence, but Helen argued that if you could hold them to raise money for cancer research, then why not other things as well – especially as they seemed to work. I think too, it was her way of dragging the idea of domestic violence out of the shadow and into the light of day to be spoken of and fought against even during the loveliest of events and times. It is always there, so why not make everyone see it?

An Organiser Beyond Compare

I knew my friend was an organiser beyond compare and it wasn’t her first time working for a charity . One time when I flew up to see her on her birthday weekend, she didn’t meet me at the airport as she usually did – instead her mum had been roped in to pick me up at the airport and drop me off at the Canberra Hospital where Helen was busy cooking up a feast – along with other paramedics she’d roped in – for the families staying at Ronald MacDonald House. I was put to work as soon as I arrived and we didn’t get home until after everyone was fed, leftovers packaged up and given out and the entire place cleaned top-to-tail to her exacting standards. She was a hard task-master, my friend, but given she worked harder than anyone else, always with a smile on her face and words of kindness on her lips and in her heart, nobody minded at all.

Put to Work

And that was exactly what it was like when I arrived that late October. I finished a long day at work on the Thursday before her Sunday event and travelled directly to the airport. Helen picked me up and rather than taking me to her home to chat and rest up as we would usually do, she whisked me around to the various stores she needed to pick things up from so we could get started cooking first thing Friday morning. She had a to-do list the length of her arm to get through and we were going to get through it!

When we finally got back to her house, I was set to work cleaning what her mother hadn’t already cleaned, and after organising who was doing what the next day, we all fell into bed.

We were up at the crack of dawn first thing Friday morning, doing more cleaning and prepping then headed off to pick up more donations of food and drink and the various platters, glassware, cuttlery, serviettes etc etc etc that were needed for the big event.

When we finally got back to her house after hours of running around, I was given recipes to follow because food needed to be cooked in preparation for the big day. I have never done so much cooking in the space of 3 days, following her exacting standards – if it wasn’t right it didn’t get a pass. She could give Gordon Ramsey a run for her money (without the horrible swearing – although, she could swear just as well as him). I decorated tiny biscuits and made deserts and prepped ingredients for things she was making. We worked solidly for 3 days, cleaning, cooking, running around to pick things up, from 7am until after midnight each day.

She had also roped a friend who was a landscaper to come in and finish off the bits of the garden she hadn’t quite got to so that guests would have lovely areas in the garden she so loved to walk around in drinking their Veuve, eating their treats and raising money for a truly worthy cause.

The Big Day Arrives

Then, on the Sunday, more friends arrived early, some with exquisite treats she’d roped them into making, some just to help out. She directed them all, her mum included – who worked like a Trojan, hardly stopping. Through it all, Helen hardly broke a sweat and never lost her cool even though some things inevitably did not go to plan. Then somehow, on time for the first guest to arrive, she was standing at the door, a glass of Veuve in her hand, a huge smile on her face, looking so pretty in her gorgeous new High Tea frock she’d bought for the occasion (on sale, of course!) welcoming everyone as if she hadn’t just put in a gruelling 3 days work and more.

I was exhausted, but her energy and enthusiasm drove me along with her, and quite frankly, it just made me smile with pride to watch her go. So generous. So kind. Such a big heart in her. My friend. I felt so lucky to know her right then and there. Everyone was important. She spent time with everyone who arrived – friends and people she’d never met before – welcoming them into her home and making certain they understood just how important, not only the money they helped raised was, but the support for the fight against domestic violence.

Helen had advertised the event far and wide, charging an entry fee as a way to raise the money she was after as well as encouraging people to make donations on the day. I knew she’d have a good turnout – but it was amazing. I can’t remember how much she ended up raising, but it was in the thousands, and Tara’s family members who came along, when they gave a little speech during the afternoon, were blown away by everything Helen had done – as were we all – and the amount she helped raise, as well as the donations that came in separately from extra generous guests.

After the success of the event, Helen immediately began to plan for another one to outstrip it in 2018. She never got to hold the event, passing away a few months before it was planned to go ahead, but those of us who attended the first one count ourselves so lucky to have been a part of it with her.

Unfortunately, the Tara Costigan Foundation has folded due to financial issues, but their aim to fight domestic violence and support the victims of it, is one that must never be forgotten. What happened to Tara should never happen again, although, in the years since her death, it unfortunately has, with reports that due to the Covid lockdowns more domestic violence is occurring than ever before. Helen would have been truly saddened by this and I feel her with me now, urging me to write this and give a little voice in some way to the victims who so need all of our help.

Donate Today

I am not like Helen – I do not have the skills or energy to organise an event like hers – but I can write this in memory of her and her passion, and I can urge people to donate to Mission Australia or Friends with Dignity, both organisations that help victims of domestic violence with counselling, advocacy and helping them to find a safe place to live.

If you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is, you can contact https://www.1800respect.org.au/ to seek help and guidance.

On Your Behalf

Helen – I know you are up there looking on and are smiling at the fact I haven’t forgotten what was important to you. I can’t make a donation to The Tara Costigan Foundation, but I can, on your behalf, make a donation to Friends with Dignity, which I have just done.

I am remembering you on this day with happy tears and with the hope that this blog in remembrance of you and your passion, will have a knock-on effect and encourage others to donate today so as to help others in need.

I love you, my dearest friend.

Tomato Hoppy Frog. xxxx

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