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Group Hugs Are Underrated

(Though it may at first appear to be, this is not another story about cricket. It's a story about finding a way to do what needs to be done, even when we aren't really sure what that is)

On 28 January 2019, less than 48 hours after Ben's death, Linda and I made the difficult decision to attend the one-day cricket match being played on that day between North Ryde RSL and Norton Oakes – the latter being the affiliated, and much-loved Cricket Club, hailing from Sheffield in the UK, that North Ryde had agreed to host for a period of three weeks (from Australia Day 2019 onwards).

I think, looking back, that we both felt a perverse sense of guilt and responsibility for the pall that had been cast over the tour, and certainly for the fact that we had had to tell our great English friends, the Davidsons, we could no longer accommodate them at our home whilst they were in Sydney; something we had been eagerly looking forward to doing since they had done the same for us during North Ryde’s tour of the UK in July 2016.

And I feel sure that part of our rationale for attending that first match of the tour was our concern that the longer we left it without seeing the Norton Oakes contingent, the harder and harder it would become to do so.

The match was already in progress when we arrived, and we greeted all of the touring party, who were spread around the ground at various vantage points, in separate groups of three or four. They were all understandably shell-shocked by the news of Ben’s death, and uncertain how to deal with the situation, as we were. What would ordinarily have been loud and warm greetings, punctuated with plenty of humour and banter, were subdued and awkward, and generally short-lived. It was no-one’s fault. That’s just how things are in circumstances such as those in which we found ourselves.

But no matter how challenging those exchanges may have seemed at the time, I see now how valuable they were. Because looking into the eyes, and sharing the embrace of someone who genuinely cares for us is surely one of life's most enriching experiences.

After an hour or two we took our leave; Linda driving home, and my brother, Ian ‑ who had flown to Sydney from his home in Melbourne immediately after hearing of Ben’s death ‑ offering to join me as I sought to clear my head with a walk. During that return journey Ian and I broached some important practical questions about the issues that would require consideration by our family from this point forward in order to make sure Ben’s passing was recognised and honoured in a fitting way: counsel for which I remain enormously grateful.

As we got close to home I made a spontaneous decision to stop in at the house of close friends of ours ‑ whose son Bill had been with Ben throughout Australia Day 2019, and who was, on this public holiday Monday, hosting a get-together of Ben’s friends. I felt a strong compulsion to speak with as many of them as I could, having seen only a handful since departing the scene of Ben’s accident to go to North Shore Hospital on Saturday evening.

My unplanned visit turned out to be a far more stirring experience than I could ever have anticipated.

After farewelling Ian at the front gate I made my way, with more than a little apprehension, through the familiar house to the back yard, where a crowd of at least 30 or 40 was gathered. It seemed there was less noise and general revelry than would normally have been the case with this group, and I quickly got the impression much less alcohol had been consumed than would ordinarily have been expected on a public holiday in the middle of summer.

As I emerged onto the rear deck I could sense voices being lowered and, in some cases, conversations being terminated altogether, as virtually all eyes turned towards me. It felt very much as if a speech was expected. If I am being honest, when I walked through the front door seconds earlier I don't believe that was at all what I had intended to do. But in that moment, as the weight of hushed expectation became almost instantly overwhelming, I suddenly knew with complete certainty that this was an opportunity I would regret not taking forever if I let it pass.

There was so much emotion associated with that period of our lives, it’s hard to recall now exactly what was said over the next couple of minutes. What I hope I was able to impress upon all of those present ‑ many of whom we regard as our own friends, not just friends of Ben’s ‑ was that we do not hold any of them accountable or blameworthy for Ben’s death. The accident, as far as we are concerned, was the result of an error of judgment on Ben’s part; an error with fatal and devastating consequences, yes, but his error alone. And, just as importantly, I hoped they understood that we wanted them all to continue to be a part of our lives into the future, just as they would have been if Ben were still alive.

As is usually the case, I probably spoke for longer than I needed to, and when I stopped there was silence. It was as if time stood still. For a second or two I wasn’t sure how my words had been received. Then one of Ben’s close mates moved towards me, opened his arms, and hugged me long and hard. And as he did that one or two more followed; then a handful more joined in; then more, and more, until finally we found ourselves, all of us, locked in one giant embrace.

I don’t mind admitting that tears flowed from me, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one.

The group hug seemed to last a long time – minutes even ‑ although almost certainly only seconds had passed. But by the time it reached its natural conclusion I knew for sure that any ice that may have existed had been broken, and that this was a moment that would define my relationship with this amazing group of 20-somethings for a long time to come.

And judging by the number of close friendships that have stood the test of time, and tragic circumstance, since that day ‑ or have, in some cases, been strengthened over that period – I feel confident it is a moment that has lived on with many of them too.


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