Overdosing on community spirit

WHERE NOW? Life after the death of a loved one does not always go as planned.

A Writer’s send-off.

THE morning of Mum’s death dawned like a new world, or at least a world in which the gloss that Pat Burge put on things was now gone.

Our home, which had been a hospice bustling with carers and visitors, became, almost overnight, a wasteland. Jen and I now lived in a museum, dedicated to our Mother.

It was to be open barely three months – I was booked on a flight to England to take up my one-year directing course, and Jen was to move around the corner to live with friends who’d generously agreed to Mum’s request to accommodate her.

The night before her funeral, one of our school teachers telephoned, as the light of the day was disappearing. Shocked that Jen and I were home alone, he decided to come over, indignant that we were facing that evening by ourselves. It was a generous action of support that prefaced a series of shocks that the world now held for us.

Because the gloss that Mum put on things had softened the realities of money and the shortcomings of people, and it was fading fast.

Money hit me across the face when I went to the school which had been an integral part of our lives for a decade, to get Mum’s funeral program photocopied. Naively, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission, and subsequently got the kind man who completed the job for us in trouble.

Remembering Mum’s upfront approach, I duly arrived at the Bursar’s office to ensure that the photocopying staff member was only acting on my request. Perhaps this man didn’t realise the hundreds of voluntary hours Pat Burge had given to the school?

With an awkward curtness, he informed me that the copying would have to be paid for. I looked him in the eye, and said: “Fine … send me the bill,” before politely excusing myself. It never came.

It is understandable that people rarely know what to do for the grieving, but amongst our community there were a few risk-takers who broke through their own grief to help us.

Sometimes it’s just the small things – the couple who told me to call, even in the small hours of the morning, if we needed them, and who arrived within 15 minutes when we did; the friend who sat with us and folded those funeral programs, not trying to ‘fix’ anything, but joining us in our quiet grief; and the florist who created glorious bouquets for Mum’s funeral at cost.

A common theme emerged amongst those that went into action for us – these were people who’d been touched by death and loss, and understood that there was almost nothing to say, but plenty to be done.

Another family friend really pulled out the stops for me in particular. Knowing that I didn’t really have enough money to get through the whole year of my course, since I’d been running our ‘home hospice’ for two months and not been able to work, Mary rallied our community to a fundraiser.

DINNER THEATRE The Clarendon Guest House Katoomba, donated for one night to raise funds for a local theatre practitioner.

Our local dinner theatre hosted the event, local chefs fed everyone sumptuously, and almost 100 people came along for a night to raise money for me.

It was quite overwhelming for a young man who really knew himself very little, and who still avoided the spotlight if he could. The issue of having enough money had been a burning little secret for me. The course notes underlined that nobody was going to have time to work during the year – it was going to be intensive.

My community certainly ensured I didn’t have to work for money that year. They gave me the chance to tilt at a dream, and I became determined to eventually find a way to pay them back for their generosity.

But the event also gave people a focus for their grief at losing one of their foundations. I recognised this right in the midst of proceedings, as a ‘celebrity auction’ added to the funds raised – people were having fun, letting off steam, and sending off one of their own in the best way they knew how.

Considering the way that year went, for Jen in particular, I would have given all the money back in exchange for just staying at home and keeping the home fires burning for another 12 months. I think we all needed that.

But things didn’t go that way. I packed-away the museum and said my goodbyes, staving off the inevitable moment when Jen was moved out of her home.

Turns out Mum had asked some of her friends to ensure I got on the plane, so I was assisted in leaving my sister in the hands of our community, and used my one way ticket to London. Our family was scattered to the four winds across two hemispheres. Nobody discussed how any of us were going to cope, we just went through with it.

On the other side of the departure gate, a wall of loneliness hit me. The numbing reality of being on my own, really on my own, for the first time ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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