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IT’S NOT THE LAST WORD, IT’S THE NEXT ONE THAT HURTS: NOTES ON FRIENDSHIP AND TIME



I HAD IT WRONG about death: it isn’t the goodbye that gets you, it’s the hello.


When a very close friend unexpectedly died last week – unexpected in that perverse way of it happening all of a sudden after years of “preparing” for it to come any time now – the fact I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye seemed cruel and awful and the pile-on of sadness on top of sadness.


We’d spoken on the Monday and there was a continuing return of lightness and pleasure after weeks of struggle with the after-effects of the latest rounds of treatment. She was eating again and beginning to talk more comfortably. Her adored children, she said with some glee, had been planning meals to start fattening her up. A weekend socialising had tired but elevated her. A family visit in the week preceding had been such a pleasure.


A quick exchange of messages on Tuesday morning as usual seemed fine, was normal, though the absence of anything more that night or the next morning was unusual. And then Wednesday evening came the news she’d died earlier in the day. It was staggering, surely not possible …in a quite literal sense, no matter how much the logic of six years since the diagnosis had made it otherwise, it was inconceivable.


Thank god her family had been with her, I thought. But not yet. Not now. They had more to do and show her. She had more, much more, to say and do with them.


And, I thought selfishly, not without me saying something, anything, whatever it might be, in farewell. No. No.


In the days afterwards though, as the numbness wouldn’t shift even as conversations about her repeated (in gratitude, in comfort) and we could all see in print and online the wide net she had cast of influence and friendship and connection, something became obvious to me: goodbye was not what I was missing, was not what I was going to notice in the weeks and months and years ahead.


I picked up the book I’m reading on the early Persian empire and saw a section I wanted to bring up with her next time we spoke, have some of the connective history filled in by her greater knowledge of ancient history, with a deviation into her travels through the Peloponnese, possibly picking up ideas and lines she recalled from the idiosyncratic 19th and 20th century writers/travellers/historians she enjoyed. “Hello, you should read …. he’s brilliant on this” I could already hear her say.


Listening to an album of electronic music I was reviewing, I thought about how she’d always loved the way electronic music and its best composers had real, direct connections to a classical tradition, her beloved Bach in particular, and how she would say she could tell the members of The Presets had not just studied at the conservatorium but built their understanding there and it didn’t matter that the hot sweaty crowds – which on several occasions had included us – couldn’t see it, because that wasn’t the point: hello, it was in the marrow! And here I had another example to show her to prove her right (as if she had any doubt!) again.


And that led me to remember the last gig we went to a few weeks ago, Underworld, a band I’d introduced her to 10-12 years ago who became a shared passion and delivered some of the best concert experiences either of us had ever had. This time around, when I bought the tickets it was with a caveat from her that she couldn’t say with confidence that she’d be well enough to attend. Or if she did, that she’d make it through the whole show. That maybe I shouldn’t take the risk.


Yeah, right.


She made it, stayed, loved it. And I can see right now the huge smile of pleasure and wonder she sported for that whole show, and the energy she rode home with. Was buzzing with for days after. A friend shared a text she sent the next day saying “I was even dancing! Such freedom”.


And it would come up again for sure in coming months, and we’d plan another gig sometime, this time at … well, no.


Here’s the thing, the kick-in-the-guts thing: that routine we’d developed in recent years of checking in first and last thing? Sometimes long and detailed, sometimes done in a minute, sometimes hello how was the treatment that day, or sleep the night before (hilarious in its own way as I was a chronic insomniac, while she could sleep for Australia, even in the depths of this).


Other times, hi, the levels of fatigue are levelling, the cancer markers falling, I am loving my Italian detective book, did you love that Didion?


That’s not gonna happen.


The conversations over drinks or pre-show or over text and phone, talking through the state of the St George and Manly rugby league teams, what Willie and Anita had explored on the Empire podcast, and where I could read more if I wanted. Hello, what’s your father said now, aren’t our kids really good people, I saw the dinner you posted on Insta and of course it looked fab, you must be loving watching the rain, thrilling Swans game, that was one of the best ACO programs, there's a new Laura Marling album coming.


Hello, yes, that’s good advice but I think I’ll try it my way (watching her face half annoyed and half perplexed: the most obviously right thing to do was being ignored, foolish man! ah well, you’ll learn), this is my favourite Kylie song right at the moment, no I can’t believe they used that headline either. Hello …


Well, forget that. It’s clear now, evidence piling up a dozen times a day as a thought occurs, an idea that needs sharing rises, a question beckons.


Yeah, goodbye was bad, awful, but hello is endless.







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