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  • Geoff Cordner

Below the Surface

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

On 28 September 2019, before the emergence of the Beniverse, I was feeling particularly morose, having regressed from the feeling of positivity and optimism that had initially followed my reunion with a very old cricketing buddy the previous weekend. I had convinced myself I needed to get outside and do some serious exercise; an activity that generally has a very beneficial effect on my mood. After consideration I decided to go paddling on the Parramatta River, and around Homebush Bay; something I had not done for some weeks.

In due course I launched my wave ski from the little beach near Meadowbank wharf, as I usually do, returning about 75 minutes later feeling weary, and still a little down in the mouth. I had been thinking about Ben for pretty much the entire time I had been paddling, trying unsuccessfully to find a point of connection with him.

Normally when I get back to Meadowbank I can’t wait to return home immediately, as I am usually tired, hungry, and (as goes with the territory at my age) desperate for a wee. But on this particular day something compelled me to remain near the wharf longer than I ordinarily would.

As I cast my eyes around me they were drawn to a man about 20 metres away, aged in his late 30s or early 40s, fishing with a young boy, presumably his son. But in truth it was the boy I could not stop looking at. He was about four or five years old, with short blond hair, glasses and a cap. As I watched him shadowing his Dad’s every move, with utter fascination, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the character, named Eggbert as I recall, who featured in a couple of cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn that I remember watching as a child. And of course, he is such a cute little fair-haired kid that I can’t also help but be reminded of my own beautiful blond son when he was a similar age.

As I watch them the Dad catches a small fish, and hoists it high in triumph. “Have a look at that Ben”, he says proudly. My heart melts to hear him say that name, of all names, and to see the loving interactions between the two. But I simultaneously experience an excruciating sense of loss.

After recovering myself, and watching a short while longer, I feel compelled to approach, without really knowing what I am going to do or say, or why. At that moment the Dad re‑casts his line into the water, while the boy has returned to the bucket a few metres away, where the little fish is now familiarising itself with its new surroundings.

“Hi there”, I say. “Did I just hear you call your boy Ben?” “Yes, that’s Ben”, the man responds, in as friendly a tone as one could possibly expect from a father who has just been asked to field questions about his young son from a stranger.

The tears well in my eyes. “I’m sorry”. I feel compelled to explain. “My son Ben died earlier this year. He was blond, and wore glasses, just like your Ben”.

I can barely get these words out before the sobs come, the kind of sobs that make my upper body shudder, and over which I have absolutely no control. I am regretful that I have burdened this man and his boy with my grief, but I am powerless to stop the emotional avalanche that has now been set in train. I suddenly realise I have not cried for some weeks; these emotions have obviously been building for quite a while, just searching for an opportunity to express themselves.

As I begin to compose myself the man, who has gazed upon me with nothing but empathy and understanding during my breakdown, reacts in the most wonderful way. He calls his Ben over to meet me, and we exchange pleasantries. Ben is a little shy, and awkward, but endearingly so. I am smitten – even moreso than I already was.

The man, whose name is Chris, and I then talk for five minutes or so about his situation. He is in the Defence Force, based in Brisbane, but his wife and Ben are still living in Sydney, at Rydalmere further down the river. He tells me his wife is pregnant with their second child, and that the family will be reuniting in Brisbane early next year. It turns out she is of Polish heritage, and they had chosen Ben as the name for their first child because it is spelt and pronounced the same way in both Polish and English.

He asks me a number of questions about my Ben, and he listens well, and without judgment, as I reply, and then begin to cry again ‑ slightly more composed this time, but still presenting a potentially uncomfortable situation for Chris and his son. But Chris does not make me feel embarrassed or guilty about what is happening. He is clearly moved by my story, and my grief, and he seems to intuitively understand that being able to share these things with him is helpful and emotionally cathartic for me, even though it is literally bringing me to tears.

When I finally excuse myself, after thanking him for his understanding, and offering him a hug - which he accepts, and magnanimously returns - I make my way back to my car. I sit on the back tray with the rear door up looking at the water, looking at Chris and Ben, looking at the sky, and I cry longer and harder than I have at any time since Ben died. It hurts so much to know that I will never spend an intimate joyful moment with my Ben like the one I have witnessed between Chris and his Ben today.

And yet I somehow feel lighter, and incredibly grateful for what has just occurred. Chris is yet another in the now long long list of people who have played their part in moving me through the darkest period of my life. And although I am far from out the other side of that darkness, I feel just a little closer to the light than I was an hour and a half ago.


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