Today I went to a funeral. She was a neighbour and I thought of her as a friend, although as with all my neighbours out here, I didn't see her very often. I somehow thought that our friendship would develop with time. If I had pictured our friendship in the future, I may have seen cups of tea, or sitting out on the new paving with a bottle of wine, and talks of dogs, and country life, and gardens. I actually would have counted this gradually unfolding friendship as a current pleasure. The anticipation, the hopefulness of it.
She died very unexpectedly. She had gone into hospital for some routine operation or other, and died of complications. She was one year older than me, so of course, the comparisons loom - was it a health problem that I might develop? Maybe something I already have and don't know about! Only 66! Not even 70 yet! Is it possible that life could end so soon, so suddenly, no preparations made, so much left unfinished, no goodbyes? Yes.
The funeral was at the Gungahlin Crematorium, where almost all Canberra people go in the end. My father lay in just the same place as my neighbour, on that little raised stage, eighteen years ago now. My little grandson's Dad did too. And so did all the people who I knew through my work who died of HIV complications. The routines vary little. An hour roughly, of music, and flowers, and tears, and meetings of strangers, and speeches that struggle to express the inexpressible. -
And always, discovering so much about the person who has died that you never knew. My neighbour was an Oxford graduate with a degree in old English Literature! She was a great reader, and her house is apparently stuffed with books that she would never throw away. We could have talked of this, we could have lent each other books. We could have talked of the old England that has gone into the past. I wondered if she had read Jim Grace's 'Harvest' - almost no one in my life who I could talk to about the powerful impact of that book, but there she was at the top of the valley in her hidden house full of books - I could have talked to her about it, if I'd known, if I'd known her better.
Lots of other Valley residents were there. In their dark suits, and polished shoes, and soft blouses and dresses, they didn't appear at all awkward or out of place, like the rural Australian stereotype of country people at a funeral, but only as if they all just briefly showed another aspect of their lives. The speeches some of them made too, reflected much broader lives than the ones I see in the fire shed and the paddock. Many of them are University graduates, after all, and most of them, like us and like our neighbour, have not been born to a country life but have chosen it.
Her body lay in the coffin centre stage. Her-soon-to-be burned-to-ashes-body, no longer of use to her, the 'her' indeed vanished as soon as her heart took its last beat. A few family members went up to it when the celebrant invited them to, 'to say last words or pay a tribute'. Her son wept, but did not linger. His fingers traced shaky, hesitant lines on the wooden surface where her face was close beneath, then retreated as if repelled. I remember that monstrous realisation, that dawns so quickly after death, that once the person has gone, the body no longer means anything.
We stood around chatting afterwards, about grandchildren, and utes, and the rain. A dear friend from over the river who is facing a hip operation shortly told me vehemently that she had no intention of sharing the fate of our departed neighbour - she would get over her op and move on, and her hand swept the trees and the sky, 'for years' she said. I like to think there's something in that - the power of the mind to determine your longevity.
So we all drove away to our busy lives, with our plans, and our visions of the future, trying perhaps a bit harder to remember that really we only have today, this moment. Now.