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To 2020, and Beyond

I look back at the eight weeks or so following Ben’s 22nd birthday (October 16, 2019) as, without doubt, the most peaceful and positive time I have experienced since his death. During that period my belief and trust in the Beniverse was complete and unequivocal. And although the lens through which I viewed the world during those months may not have been quite rose-coloured, my glass was unquestionably half-full.

Through the last three weeks of December 2019 though my faith was badly shaken by a series of completely unanticipated events.

The first of these occurred on December 10, 2019. That day was the third anniversary of my father’s death, he having passed away in 2016 at the age of 87. My mother, Gwen, my sister, Diedre, and I were there together with Dad at Hornsby Hospital on that doleful day when he drew his final breath. Sad as it was ‑ and my father was a person I had loved and admired my whole life ‑ I am not ashamed to say there was also a sense of relief associated with his passing; the final year or two of his life had not been pleasant for him, or for those around him, as he battled with dementia, and other medical conditions.

I had planned to visit Mum on that significant anniversary with a view to hopefully spending some quality time talking with her about Dad, and reminiscing about their marriage of 64 years. Every now and then during our chats over the years I have teased her about the fact that I know I was a mistake – born, the youngest of four children, almost five and half years after my closest sibling, Diedre. Although I am certain she knows full well I am joking whenever I make this remark, Mum responds each time to my gentle ribbing in an earnest fashion, along these lines: “I always wanted to have four children – two boys and two girls. When you arrived you completed the set”. Only in more recent times have I finally come to fully appreciate what it means to a parent to have a family that feels complete.

Before I could set off for Mum’s place on that Tuesday however, I took a call from my elder sister Julie, who indicated she was heading to our mother’s home that day herself, and that in all likelihood she would be spending the next few weeks residing with, and keeping an eye on Mum. In light of that generous and very well-received offer I indicated to Julie that I would delay my own visit until the following day, to allow her the chance to unpack and settle in.

At around 10pm that Tuesday evening Mum suffered a severe stroke. Had Julie not been with her at that very moment ‑ having fortuitously arrived, travel bag in hand, only hours before ‑ and had she not secured the necessary medical assistance immediately, it is entirely possible Mum would not have survived the night.

When I saw her the next day at the SAN Hospital in Wahroonga, I still had serious doubts about whether Mum would be able to overcome the effects of that traumatic episode. At that point she was unable to hold herself in an upright position, even while sitting, and the impact of the stroke on her speech and cognitive function was also immediately apparent.

To Mum’s undying credit she has been able to fight her way back to excellent physical health over the 15 months since – adapting to new and unfamiliar surroundings with admirable fortitude, and tucking into a well-earned 90th birthday cake along the way. Although there seems no doubt now that her short-term memory, and her previously exceptional conversational skills, will never again be quite what they were, we remain full of admiration for the resilience she has shown.

Mum’s first roommate after her formal admission to the SAN was a lovely woman, only a couple of years younger than Gwen herself, named Anne. She was a chatty lady, and suggested at one point, whilst Diedre and I were both coincidentally on hand, that Mum would no doubt be looking forward to seeing her grandchildren again soon. Mum, who had not contributed significantly to our conversation with Anne to that point, responded immediately: “I’ve already lost two unfortunately”.

Mum’s speech being at that stage still rather slurred, Anne was unsure what she had heard. Diedre and I explained to her that we had each lost a child – Dee’s Daniel at 16, and my Ben at 21 – and that accordingly Mum had six grandchildren now, not eight as she once did. Anne’s response was as comforting as it was unexpected. She too had a lost a child – her daughter born, like me, in 1963, had died at the age of 16, as Daniel had.

Diedre and I had both already taken an immediate liking to Anne. She was the sort of caring and friendly person it is impossible not to warm to at first meeting. But now, in this austere and sterile environment ‑ one not conducive at all to the fast-tracking of friendships ‑ a bond of the most heartfelt kind had been instantly forged.

And this was a particularly significant time for Dee and I to be reminded of our shared loss – not that we ever forget it – as the following Saturday, December 14, was to be Daniel’s 27th birthday.

How different life seemed on that day at the SAN in mid-December 2019 than it had been on December 14, 2018 ‑ when Dee and I had spent Dan’s 26th birthday walking together along the banks of the Lane Cove River, sharing thoughts and memories of our favourite teenager; neither of us imagining for a moment that barely seven weeks later, following Ben’s death, we would be lamenting the establishment of an even stronger connection between us.

And what we did not, and could not have known was that on the afternoon that our friendship with Anne was being formed at the SAN, yet another family was being rocked by the death of a young person gone well before their time. Nicola, a girl from Ben’s social group who he had known well, particularly during the period that she was dating one of Ben’s best mates, had taken her own life on that very day.

Intelligent, funny, attractive and popular, Nicola’s fatal decision seemed as unfathomable to outsiders as my nephew Daniel’s death had been to everyone who knew him ten and a half years earlier. And it was a stark reminder to me that no matter how dark our own lives may become, whether as a consequence of the impact of external events, or the ongoing battle many fight with their own demons, there are always others around us who are facing greater challenges than our own.

Tragically, by the time I attended Nicola’s funeral on December 23, 2019, the shadow of death had paid our extended family yet another visit. David, the brother of my sister-in-law Fiona, finally lost his long brave fight with cancer on December 22, 2019. David’s death, like Nicola’s, and all the other heart-rending events of 2019, would cast a pall over the holiday period for my family and I that no amount of goodwill and Christmas cheer could possibly disperse.

Determined though I remained to approach the entree to the New Year along the path lit for me by the stars of the Beniverse, it’s safe to say my capacity for unchallenged optimism was being sorely tested as 2019 drew to a close.

Who could possibly have imagined then what 2020 would have in store - for all of us. But as a recently acquired hero of mine, Neale Daniher, often says: “Out of adversity springs opportunity”. What happens from there is up to us.

Isn’t that right Mum?

The still beautiful Gwen Cordner, on the occasion of her 90th birthday


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