Before little Aaron was too sick to climb out of bed, he got up one night and came slowly down the stairs. It was late and my mum and dad, and my sister and her husband, were sitting around the kitchen table talking in low voices.
Suddenly Aaron was at my sister’s side. He gave them all a bit of a start. Something was bothering him and he needed to get it off his chest. With his skinny little arm draped over my sister’s shoulder he said, ”Mum, when I die, and when you are a grandma like Noni [he always called my mother Noni, a derivative of Joan], when you’re old, you’re only going to have photos to remember me,” he said, softly. There was a gentle hint of questioning in his voice, but really, it was a statement.
At the time, Aaron knew he was going to die. He knew more than we did.
Although the prognosis was not good at all, none of us were able to talk about him dying. But he could. He was seven years old and all grown up. Riddled with cancer, his little body was hurting badly. But he never, ever, spoke about that. He’d been through the tummy tumour stage; its removal; his remission; and his relapse. We all desperately wanted to have hope. Indeed, we insisted on hope.
But he knew he was going. And that was that. Right then, on that night, he wanted to express his concern about what is lasting, and what is left ”when I die”.
He didn’t want it to be just photos.
My family’s grief and loss over Aaron is indescribable. There are not words. But I can tell you, it changed us all. The day when his school released hundreds of balloons into the air and we watched them fly away, and the moment when his little sister tried to crawl into the hearse to be with him, and I had to pull her out by the legs, these are all moments etched on to our souls.
Moments and memories that have reshaped us and are now part of our make-up.
And that’s the thing about death and dying, isn’t it? It’s not about the photos. It’s about the humanity. It’s about how utterly, terribly alive we are made to feel around death. And it’s about how that death reminds us loudly and anxiously about the need to live well and live fully. The value of honouring those who die, and those who are long dead, can never be underestimated in what it does for the spirit of the living.
Sitting through the memorial service for the much-loved journalist Matt Price on Thursday, I was overwhelmed again by the impact of death. Not just the incredible sadness and sense of loss – that’s a given; but about the extraordinary ability of the dead to make the rest of us so aware of the value and purpose of being alive.
Much has been said about Matt, and I can’t add to that, other than to say – it’s true; he really did make everyone feel that they somehow mattered, even those he barely knew. And the force of that sort of magic doesn’t die. Matt’s memorial, and the hundreds of messages that have been posted online about him, and the thousands of words that have been written in memory of him, have had a powerful effect in stirring the juices of life.
Sitting up in the front row at the service in The Great Hall at Parliament House, next to Joe Hockey, was a bloke I didn’t recognise. He had bare arms and a lot of tattoos, and I just knew he wasn’t from around here. Hockey must have thought the same, so he turned to the guy and said to him, ”Are you a mate of Matt’s?” The guy told Hockey that he had never met Matt.
He’d flown to Canberra from South Australia for the day ”because I really wanted to be here”.
Death has a knack for uniting us. And it reminds us of what is important. Matt’s closing line in an email to his innumerable mates when he was first diagnosed with that terrible thing was ”hug the ones you love”. Of the many beautiful and funny things said about Matt on Thursday, one that resonates powerfully was a message from his dear friend Annabel Crabb, of The Sydney Morning Herald, who said to those many people who felt bereaved, and yet didn’t know Matt personally, ”Don’t feel silly for feeling so upset about Matt’s death; you are not alone. And you are certainly not wrong about the person he was.”
I guess Tattoo Man knew that, which is why he made the journey. He wanted to share and be part of the celebration of life. I reckon Matt would have loved that story.
That’s the thing about death. It’s not about the photos. It’s about the life-affirming stuff. The death of a loved one – or an admired one – enriches us all and wakes us up. There is tremendous power in the life left behind. I’m sure Aaron knew that. I think he just wanted to make sure we all did too.