When Hayley was scared and about to start the serious chemotherapy, but was acting tough, I went down to Newcastle for a visit. It was winter, and as Nath would say, “As cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss.” But Nathan wasn’t with us. He was back with the kids in the humid faux-winter that is Noosa. John was working his skinny-whippet arse to the bone in the calm of before, so it was just us.
We mostly stayed inside; by then Hayls was bald and probably feeling the cold more than she would ever let on, and at home we had heat packs that Kay had sewn, either for Hayley, or for Ricki before her. At home we had thick socks, and cups of tea, and heaters, and the oven. Always the oven. We were cooking a slow roasted bit of cow, and when I say we, I mean Hayls, because we all know I don’t give a shit about cooking, and I definitely wouldn’t dare offer to cook a meal for my mate, cancer or not. Every time she told me to go and check on dinner, or DO things, I quietly shat myself, but I did it anyway because I can be tough when I need to, and I know she hated having to tell me in detail what she wanted done. Decribing how she wanted the sourdough soaked and squished into dumplings, telling me the amounts of wine and herbs and things to add to the meat, watching from her spot on the couch as I cut up the veggies. She would have given most anything to be the one doing the work.
Whilst we waited for dinner to cook, we talked about things, old and new. We laughed at all we had done together so far, and of things yet to hatch. Swimming through pregnancies, eating at organic cafes, jump dancing, drinking beer, family holidays in tents with leaches and open fires, and others with sticky tropical beaches. We looked at PET scans on the computer and decided that the white hot cancer was definitely receding, definitely.
Olive and I danced together in the lounge room. We spun around and jumped to test my pelvic floor to Michael Franti. “Aunty Ricki loved Michael Franti” we were told, and I wondered if we should turn him off lest he was a bad omen. And then to Rhys Muldoon and the Poo Song. We danced and whirled, not because I wanted to- I don’t even like dancing- but because Hayley was puffy and achy-sore, and our dancing made her eyes shine. I can be tough when I need to.
Eventually we sat down to dinner and the meat fell from the bone and the sauce was like nothing I’ve ever tasted and the dumplings were perfect, and I knew this was a good meal. A meal of friendship and fear and hope and love. We drank our cherry beers and I wondered if I would ever have a meal as good as this. Because it was the meal of before.
When Hayley had been gone six longshort months we were invited to a dinner in Sydney with a man she had worked for back in those days of endless adrenalin and boundless fun in London, back in the days before the grey shadow of cancer attached itself to her soles.
We were all in the dining room, waiting for Jamie Oliver to arrive, and the energy in the room was strange and it was nervous. For some of us, the last time we had set eyes on each other was at Hayley’s funeral, and for all of us, the last time we were together was that long long day. We were a gang, a group of people tied at the hearts by the light of our friend, united in our sadness and with each of us stuck in our memories of the one who would have put us all at ease with a twinkling tease. What are a group of mourners called? A sorrow? We were trying to be bright and smart and funny, but we were, in the end, a sorrow.
He stepped into the room, this man who had made this night happen, but was somehow an outsider, he had a sadness, but he was not in our sorrow. At least not yet. I wanted to like him, and I thought I would, but he was an interloper in this party of his own design.
He stepped into the room, this man who had barely met any of us, and walked over to Little Olive. He bent down to her level, and gently introduced himself, and befriended her with his eyes and his lisp, and in that moment I loved him in a way that made my heart almost rupture, because I knew that this man, on this night, had made a memory for Olive that she would carry with her forever. A night when so many of the people who loved her Mum hard, and her Mum loved right back, were gathered together, in laughter and fun, the tears buried deep this time.
Eventually we sat down for our meal and it was delicious and plentiful and cooked to perfection. We sipped our flowing beer and although I knew that this was supposed to be a good meal, a meal of friendships and love and commemoration, every single part that I liked just reminded me of something I didn’t. Every delicious bite reminded me of a bite that Hayls wouldn’t have. Every laugh was one not shared with her. Every bit of light, reminded me of the shadow.
I know this was supposed to be a good meal, but it wasn’t, not really, because it was the meal of after.
…From The Ashers xxx