My cousin David was a quiet man. At family gatherings there was always a hug for me from him and a smile and a “how have you been?” But unlike his brothers, David wasn’t big on conversation and he was the kind of fellow who would be standing to one side, with a few other blokes, beer in hand, talking about whatever it is that blokes talk about. His brother Stan and I have loud, noisy conversations about just about anything, often challenging each others beliefs and politics and then laughing. His brother Richard is the absolute best fellow to have MC any family occasion and is an ebullient, outgoing man, with a razor sharp wit and a deep compassion for those around him. He played Father Christmas to his nieces for years. Even after the girls knew that it was really Uncle Richard under the beard they pretended that they didn’t because they loved his version of Santa so much. Amongst his more outgoing brothers, David was the quiet one.
In my family cousins become brothers and nephews are more like sons. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and the only girl of my generation. Whatever the reason, David and Richard and Stan are the cousins who should have been my brothers.
I haven’t seen as much of David over the last few years as either of us would have liked. Work commitments kept me in Australia and when I was in New Zealand David had moved away from the South where the rest of the family lives to just outside Christchurch and our visits didn’t often coincide. Instead, I relied on my mother, Stan and Richard as the family grapevine to keep David and I up to date with each other.
David liked things with engines. He rode his Very Fast Motorbike between Christchurch and the family farm. My first ride in a jet boat was with David at the wheel. I have never seen the banks of the Shotover River at quite so close range, nor have it pass by me so quickly. He spent a year working at the base in the Antarctic, fixing things and kitchen handing. His eye/hand coordination was a sight to behold. One Christmas David and Stan set up the clay pigeon machine at the farm and we took turns taking aim and firing. Whilst I was gloriously unsuccessful and can assure you that not a single clay pigeon came close to being harmed by me that day, David was shooting the tiny targets in the air two and three at a time. He played cricket for the local side, and when he took a year off and travelled overseas, he made a living playing county cricket in England. When he came home he had the opportunity to play professionally and become a prospective New Zealand Test player (my cousin the Black Cap!), but decided that he didn’t want the travelling lifestyle of a professional sportsman because it isn’t so conducive to having a family.
Instead he flew helicopters. It seemed a good combination for David – something with an engine that required really good eye/hand coordination. He did it well, his business grew. So did his family and he gave me more cousins in his sons and daughter.
Then the phone call came and I was flying to New Zealand, to David’s funeral. He’d been working one day, flying his chopper and spraying crops for a local farmer and something happened. David was dead, his chopper a mess on the ground.
Don’t do this.
Don’t try this at home.
If there is any way that you can avoid needing to have a funeral for your 48 year old cousin-who-is-like-a-brother then do it. Because the alternative is a truly terrible thing.
Mandy and John live a few doors down from us. They’re good neighbours and good folks. They began planning their wedding just over two years ago. That was before Mandy got her diagnosis. It’s no understatement to say that stage IV bowel cancer can mess up all sorts of plans and the wedding kept being put off. John and Mandy were waiting for the gap in cancer treatments that has never come.
Hold on you say – where do they fit in this story? Stick with me here. If you’ve made it this far, there’s only a few more paragraphs until it all comes together and makes sense.
Last weekend people from all over town, and across the region pulled together and pulled off a glorious wedding for Mandy and John. People who’d never met them and weren’t likely to, donated time and the myriad of things that come together to create a wedding celebration. There were a few points across the week when it looked like Mandy might not make it to Wedding Day, so Plan B was held quietly in waiting in the background: a celebrant, photographer, makeup and hair, and a wedding cake baker who each reckoned that with 45 minutes notice they could pull their part in a bedside ceremony together. But Mandy and John didn’t need Plan B; Mandy’s determination and the skill and care of the palliative care nurses and doctors got her home, and to her wedding, for the weekend.
Amongst all the memories and photos it’s John’s face while they were exchanging vows that stays with me. He was totally and absolutely beaming and looking at Mandy with so much love. “Well duh” you say – it’s a wedding, he’s the groom – he’s supposed to. That’s how the deal works. Well yes it is – but I think John would have been entitled to shed at least the odd tear or two. It would be understandable if there had been tears for a life about to be shortened, and a marriage that won’t be shared into old age. He never did. Instead he looked at his new wife with all the love that any one person can possibly have and let it shine through on her.
People talk about ‘being in the moment’ and there are memes all over Facebook telling us to live each moment, and my response is usually something along the lines of ‘yeah, yeah’ and to keep scrolling. But John and Mandy really were. They were each completely there. They weren’t thinking about what would come tomorrow and next week, or the random unfairness of terminal illness. They were with each other and living each moment.
After David died I realised that there was no point in waiting for the perfect time for anything. The perfect time might or might not come and even if it did come, there was no telling when that would be. I realised that if I didn’t do the things that were important to me now, when was I going to do them? And although we didn’t need to say it at David’s funeral, I didn’t want anyone saying at mine (a long time in the future!) “you know she was always going to get around to doing such-and-such and she just never found the time”. Mandy and John have shown me that being right there when I’m doing ‘it’ (what ever ‘it’ may be) can bring more joy and love and happiness than I’ve thought possible.
I’ve made changes to how I live and the work that I do – and now sometimes don’t do. I know my cousin-like-a-brother Stan has too. We’ve talked about it over a few scotches beside the fire and then laughed, because if David’s someplace where he can hear us, we’re pretty sure that he’s calling us a pair of wankers and laughing at us. Conversations about how one lives one’s life were never really David’s thing.
When the time comes, if I leave behind some small thing of me, that leaves friends or family or the neighbour down the street considering the ways in which they live their life, then I know I’ll have lived my life well. Just like David, and Mandy and John.