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  • Geoff Cordner

Birthday Wishes

I have written in the Introduction to this section of The Beniverse about my experience on the morning of Ben’s 22nd birthday - see I encourage you to read it, if you haven't already done so, as it provides some context for what occurred throughout that day (see below) and beyond.

In the lead-up to that first birthday following Ben’s death we had considered what might be an appropriate way to recognise the occasion, and had decided, after lengthy deliberation, that we would like to spread a portion of Ben’s ashes (which we had collected from Macquarie Park Cemetery during the week prior) at Mona Vale Beach at dawn on

October 16, 2019.

That beach had become a powerful symbol of hope and optimism for us over the intervening months – primarily because of the photograph of Ben taken there at sunrise a year or two before that his girlfriend, Laura, had gifted to us during that period. The photo had been my security blanket, and my beacon, in the weeks following Ben’s death. I would look at it many times every day ‑ to connect with Ben, to lift my spirits, and to keep my heart open. Something about it made me feel Ben was not gone from us forever. That, although we could no longer feel and touch him, he was in a place where the sun continued to rise, and shine on him, and where he could still look down on us with that beautiful heart‑lifting smile.

There was no official guest list for the day. We were confident those who were most able and determined to be there would be ‑ at what was, we fully understood, a problematic time and location for many, on a mid-week working day.

And so it proved. The group of 12 – consisting of Linda, myself, Tim, Audrey, Laura and her family, Ben’s close mate, Michael, and my sister, Diedre – was the perfect number with the benefit of hindsight.

So much was confirmed when, with no advance reservation, we headed to a nearby café for breakfast (after the high winds had all but put paid to our original plans) to discover the only table large enough to accommodate our group was ready and waiting, with not 12, but 13 seats; one for each of us, and one for the bag in which I was carrying Ben’s precious ashes. The synchronicity of the moment was further enhanced when I ordered meals for the group, and was handed an order marker for our table that seemed acutely appropriate – Number 21. My reaction to receiving that marker prompted a polite enquiry from the young woman taking the order. When I explained we were here today recognising my son’s birthday, and that he had died earlier in the year at the age of 21, she was as moved by the coincidence as we were.

Late in the afternoon, after all of our visitors had returned to their homes, and Linda and I were once again left to our own thoughts in our overnight accommodation near Mona Vale Surf Club, I decided to go for a walk to pick up a couple of additional items for dinner. At the nearby 7‑11 I spotted the ideal dessert; an oversized Orange Poppyseed muffin. Whereas most kids would request something gooey, probably containing lots of chocolate and/or cream, Ben’s preferred birthday cake had always been orange poppyseed. I had never seen that particular muffin in a 7-11 before, but on Ben’s birthday – well, perfect.

Then, on a spontaneous whim, I opted to return to our accommodation the long way, via the beachfront. In particular I wanted to re-visit the spot where Tim, Ben and I had swum and played together back in the summer of 2006‑07.

Ben and Tim had introduced a couple of modifications to the game of Overs and Unders that day which have lived on with me. That game normally involves one person in the group of participants, who are gathered together in the surf, shouting Over or Under as a wave approaches, compelling all of the other members to follow that instruction.

Tim’s modification to the game was Through: which meant we all needed to charge through the wave whilst, if possible, keeping our balance, and remaining on our feet. One might have expected Ben, as the youngest, and by far the smallest of our trio, to be intimidated by this addition. Far from it.

Instead Ben sought to introduce a fourth category to the game – Thrust. When the call of Thrust went up all of us were required to stand with our feet apart and arms akimbo. As the broken wave reached us we were then obliged to thrust our hips forward at it, holding our stance firmly as the wave passed.

Where did a 9-year old kid come up with that idea? Who can say? But it was as funny as. We must have looked ridiculous of course, the three of us thrusting away repeatedly at the incoming surf ‑ Thrust having quickly replaced Through as the new favourite call. But that was one of Ben’s great abilities. Turning a fun time into something hilarious and memorable, usually by pushing the boundaries, and thinking outside the box. He was doing it at the age of 9, and he was still doing it at 21.

As the white water of these wonderful recollections flowed over me, I reached the point where our game of OUTT had taken place all those years ago. Sitting on the sand at that exact spot in the late afternoon, on the largely deserted beach, was a woman accompanied by two young boys. As I watched them from a polite distance I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable similarity between these two and my own two sons.

Like Tim and Ben they looked to be about two years apart in age. The older one was about five or six years old ‑ taller, darker and more athletic, with just a hint of bossy. The younger one was fairer, and louder, and obviously a bit of a showman – pushing his bottom out behind himself, and swinging his hips, before running forward and launching off the sandy precipice the pair of them were perched at the top of.

Cheeky, fun-loving, and apparently fearless – so much like another young man I once knew that I could hardly believe it.

And yet, with all the emotions and memories that seeing these two young boys had drawn from me, there was something ethereal and spiritual about the minutes spent watching them. Almost like I was travelling back in time to a place where hurt and sorrow, and the hollowness of a life unfulfilled, had no place, no meaning, no currency.

And much as you might think that actually travelling back in time to those early days when the boys were small, and innocent ‑ with our lives full of optimistic expectation, and wholly devoid of grief ‑ would be my greatest dream, it’s not. Because the truth is I wouldn’t swap those 12 years between the summer of 06-07 and Australia Day 2019 for anything.

Seeing the young men Tim and Ben would develop into over that time, and the example Tim has continued to set to those around him in the 21 months since - about what courage and resilience mean when life deals you tough cards - has been, and will remain without doubt, one of the greatest joys of my life.


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