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  • Geoff Cordner

An Abundance of Love

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

On Monday, 16 December 2019 I flew to Melbourne for a surprise visit with my brother and his family. That day was my nephew, Nick’s 33rd birthday, and his immediate family (excluding his younger brother Jack, who now lives in Berlin), plus some close friends

would be gathering for dinner.

I knew this because my former sister-in-law (my brother’s ex-wife, Louise) was hosting the dinner, and she had told me about it during a telephone conversation some weeks earlier, when she called me to see how I was coping in the wake of Ben’s death. A day after receiving her invitation to be part of the celebrations I rang Louise back, and told her I would love to come, but asked if she could please keep my decision a secret from the other guests. She was delighted to be part of the conspiracy!

On my flight down to Melbourne I had brought with me for reading material the Good Weekend supplement from the previous Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald. That particular weekend the liftout included contributions from ten successful Australian authors. I couldn’t seem to find anywhere an explanation of the brief that had been given to these contributors, but it was noteworthy to me that, even though many of them specialise in works of fiction, the articles they had written all appeared to be based on personal experiences. And as I worked my way through each piece I could not help but feel this eclectic selection had been compiled with me specifically in mind.

Now an aeroplane is not the ideal place to be emotional, so to my fellow travellers on that flight I apologise belatedly if my regular intakes of breath, and almost constant teary sniffles, were a source of distraction.

Michael Mohammad Ahmad’s contribution focussed on the effect the Christchurch massacre of 15 March 2019 had had upon his life as a practising Muslim, and upon his relationship with his three-year-old son, Kahlil. The realisation that we, as parents, cannot guarantee our children’s safety, no matter how hard we try, is a stark and confronting one. But the line that hit me the hardest, ironically, wasn’t about Michael’s fear for his son; it was Kahlil’s fear of losing his father: “Dadda will you stay with me forever?”

Reading this line threw me instantly back to a dinner table conversation with Ben, and others, in January 2019, only a matter of days before Ben’s death. Having just heard or thought of an emotive song that I loved, I had mentioned to those in attendance that it was another to add to the collection of tunes to be played, in due course, at my funeral. I then reviewed aloud the other songs on that list. Ben’s expression was pained as he looked at me and said, “Can we not?” His face said it all. This was not a subject he wanted to contemplate, let alone discuss.

That second or two as we locked eyes was, I now realise, as poignant a moment as a parent and child can share. The moment my son considered the possibility that one day I would no longer be in his life. In the cruellest of all possible twists of fate it would be I, less than a fortnight later, who would find myself choosing music for Ben’s funeral – not just idly, for the purpose of conversation, but for real.

I have written elsewhere at length about Ben’s 21st birthday party. For most of my adult life, up until that night (October 20 2018), I had championed a little saying in my own mind: “Happiness is always believing that now is the best time of your life”.

But in the weeks after Ben’s birthday party I knew with certainty I had never known a happier moment than when Ben, Tim, Linda and I stood together arm-in-arm that night, having all just spoken publicly about our feelings for one another. The love I had for my family at that instant, and the gratitude I felt for what life had gifted to me, will live with me forever.

Charlotte Wood’s description in “Ebb & Flow” of her appreciation, as it was actually happening, that this is the happiest moment of my life reminded me, of course, of my own moment; but it also left me despairing at the indisputable reality that no moment in my life from this point forward can ever possibly be as happy again.

Kristina Olsson’s story was a complex one that took me some time to digest, especially in my heightened emotional state. Kristina’s son, Dane, had fathered a child, unknowingly, many years before, whilst still a teenager. When the story begins Dane has been in communication with his daughter, now 21 years of age, with a view to establishing regular contact with her. Dane has immediately committed himself to playing an ongoing role in his daughter’s life, and is sharing his decision with his mother for the first time. He bemoans the lost years: “I didn’t know she existed Mum … I’ve missed out on her. Twenty-one years of her. It’s not fair”.

It strikes me we are like a photograph and its negative, Dane and I. He laments the loss of his daughter, Tahlia, for those 21 years. For me it is everything else that has been lost. The metaphor seems even more apt, in some macabre way, when I discover, upon further reading, that Tahlia’s partner, and rock, is a young man named Ben.

But no matter how hard it is to read of Dane’s newfound joy, measured against my own loss, I know with complete and utter certainty, and remind myself every day, that I would not give up those 21 precious years spent with Ben to avoid the pain his death has delivered.

There are many things that can test a couple’s commitment to one another. Differing views about money management, contrasting parenting strategies, the work/life balance, disputes with the extended family, and incidents of infidelity are just some of the challenges that Linda and I seem to have been able to avoid for our first 27 years of married life.

Of course some, perhaps all of these are things that can be talked through, if they do happen to arise, and, with reasoned discussion, possibly resolved. But the loss of a child is a different kind of problem altogether. No amount of dialogue or compromise can change the unalterable, or overcome the seemingly insurmountable. Because this is a problem that has no solution.

But what we can do, and hopefully have done, is re-commit to one another, and to the inherent value, and values of our relationship, and remind ourselves that the greatest achievements of our lives, individually and collectively, past and future, are the fruits of that relationship. And one of them still needs us.

Another important ingredient in our survival as a couple is our ability to continue to enjoy shared activities. Which is why Graeme Simsion’s tale of the journey with his partner on the Chemin d’Assise gets me just a little bit excited.

Following our successful 5-day trek through the Tasmanian wilderness in November 2018 Linda had aspired to take on something bigger, and perhaps even more challenging. I am not quite as bullish about my capabilities - I am a few years older after all, with a history of knee and back issues ‑ but I am willing to try. So the Way of St Francis, commencing in France, and concluding in Italy, just might have to go on the Bucket List. A trip to savour in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary maybe? Hang on, I’ve just googled it, and it’s 1,500 km long!

And, if that doesn’t put me off, Ceridwen Dovey’s account of her trip to the Red Centre with her husband to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary just might. (Coincidentally Linda and I had chosen to make our own first visit to the Red Centre in celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary). Ceridwen and her husband ultimately avoided disaster in their battle with some of the harshest conditions on the globe, more by good luck than good management she concedes, but her closing words resonate with me particularly strongly, given what has happened to Linda and I over the past 11 months: “Yet even as it was happening, I was aware it was a … gruesome but potent way of renewing our vows to be partners in life … "

Chloe Hooper’s is the third travelogue-type contribution amongst the ten. Her story of a first overseas trip shared with her two young sons, which is to include time in both Paris and Rome, engenders nostalgic thoughts of our own family journey to Europe in 2012, when Tim was 17 and Ben just short of his 15th birthday. Our time spent in Istanbul, Anzac Cove (where both my grandfathers had been sent as members of the Allied Imperial Force in 1915), Santorini (for my cousin Sally’s 60th birthday celebrations), Rome, Paris, and the battlefields of France near Villers‑Bretonneux, were treasured moments at the time, but even moreso now we know for sure such a journey can never be repeated.

Of the four remaining stories, three are tales of a lost family member. Which only serves to emphasise how life-shaping such events are. These gifted authors, given an apparent blank canvas on which to express themselves to an audience comprising many with whom they may never previously have connected, have chosen as their subject matter the things that mean the most. Family, love, death and pain.

Tony Birch’s loss was his younger brother, Wayne. What has eaten away at Birch for most of his life is the guilt he feels for a betrayal of his brother’s trust almost 50 years before. His efforts to make amends, albeit a token gesture all this time later, as he himself admits, is moving nevertheless.

J P Pomare’s loss – ie the death of a parent – was more in keeping with the natural order of things than ours, but had come at a young enough age that the consequences had been life‑defining. As the author describes it: “Losing a parent as a child is a gut punch that leaves you winded for years, but we each dealt with it silently”.

Like so many lessons in life, a healthier way to have managed the fall-out of that tragedy has become more obvious with hindsight. I hope fervently, as I read of J P’s ongoing battle, that the measures I have taken, and continue to take, to address my own loss will prove to have been the right ones in the fullness of time.

Of all the stories I read on that flight to Melbourne ‑ and every single one of them makes an impact – the one that strikes me at the core is Tora June Winch’s tribute to her dead brother, Billy. For the very simple reason that her view of Billy reminds me so strongly of the way I remember my amazing Ben.

The author quotes from Seneca the Younger, whose 2,000-year-old wisdom can still take the breath away: “We are not given a short life, but we make it short. We are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if lived well”. Billy and Ben both seem to have learned this lesson before the rest of us.

Billy’s last words to his sister were “Live life to the fullest”. Ben, if given the chance, would I think almost certainly have said something similar. But we didn’t need to hear the words to know, because his kaleidoscopic life said it all for him.

As all of these thoughts and emotions rush through my head and heart I realise that what I am doing right at this moment would have made Ben proud. A spontaneous decision to join family I see, due to the tyranny of distance, much less often than I would like, to let them know by my actions, rather than my words, that they mean the world to me. Carpe diem.

The night is a great success, and the surprise total. Which leads me to Bri Lee’s story, the only one of the ten from that edition of Good Weekend I have not yet mentioned. It discusses the trials and tribulations of moving house, and is far more upbeat than most, but the life lessons expressed are no less powerful for that.

As I sit around the dining table with my nephew, his girlfriend, his best friend, his best friend’s Dad, his stepsisters, their partners, his parents, and their new partners, sharing laughter and stories and friendship, I reflect on Bri Lee’s words again: “I was born into an abundance of love … I am only ever a single message or phone call away from someone whom I care about, and who cares about me”.

Good fortune, it seems, can take many forms.


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