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When my brother died unexpectedly I’d packed hurriedly in a highly stressed state in a cold Christchurch April and was not prepared for the warm Australian weather.  It was a couple of days before I surfaced sufficiently to realise that when I went outside the temperature was 28 degrees.  The nights were a little chilly but during the day the sun shone, and I was sweltering in woollen clothes and boots.  Luckily, I had remembered to pack some deodorant.  It was amazing how cheering the warmth was.  At a time of bleak wintry emotions, it was as though mother nature was wrapping her arms around me and offering the comfort of her warmth.  My grief was, in a small way, being compensated for by these unexpected summer days.

There was a psychological warmth too, for despite my grief at my brother’s sudden death there was compensation in the fact that I was now meeting his small grandchildren for the first time.  Up until then the only people I had a close blood relationship to, apart from my own daughters, had been my brother and elderly mother.  I’d met my nephews and niece at intervals over the years, but the fact that they lived in a different country meant there’d been no real opportunity to get to know them.  Now we were thrown together at a time when emotions were running extremely high.  I was the only member of my generation there, and they welcomed me with open arms and open hearts.  As well as meeting two nephews’ partners for the first time there was the overwhelming joy of also meeting two small babies who were my brother’s grandchildren, and my own link to immortality.

Ruth with Bruce’s granddaughter April 1993

This joy, combined with the despair and anger I felt at the loss of my brother served to keep my mind in a state of confusion, which was not helped by the fact that I was constantly feeling overheated.

I soon realised that it was stupid to keep suffering in my unseasonal clothes, and I determined to buy something lighter, but that was not easy.  There were a thousand and one tasks and discussions that I was needed for, and with no transport of my own, and no knowledge of local shops, buying clothing in a hurry was not simple.  On a brief trip to the Town Centre to buy food for the funeral I explained to my nephew’s partner the kind of clothes I preferred – hippy-type was the easiest way to explain my taste – and I promised to choose something quickly if she would just point me in the right direction.  Thank goodness she understood and directed me to an Indian emporium – very suitable for buying clothes for an Indian summer – and I purchased a light shirt to wear to the funeral.  Footwear was not so easy as three shoe shops I asked for sandals had no summer stock at all, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend money on a pair of thongs I knew I would never wear again.  So, I sighed for my sandals far away in New Zealand and continued in my socks and boots.

It was two days after the funeral, when I finally found a shoe shop that still had summer stock and bought myself some sandals.  What bliss to let my toes wriggle free after being encased in boots for so long. 

I later heard on the radio that the temperatures for that week were the highest that had been experienced in Ballarat in April since recording began.  It seemed appropriate that in a week when I had experienced incredible highs and lows of emotion the very weather itself should reflect the fact that this was a special season.

The reason for my trip – a bummer
and I was not prepared for summer

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I’ve written before about my father’s death in 1954.  In the 1990s family deaths followed each other in quick succession.  First my father-in-law in 1991, then my much-loved sister-in-law in 1992.  I saw her death from cervical cancer as a casualty of The Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s Hospital.  A G.P. trained in the era of Professor Green failed to follow up on symptoms.

After her funeral I wrote a long letter to my brother Bruce in Australia sharing my feelings about her death and funeral, and the need to be prepared for such an occasion.  He responded that he didn’t care what kind of a funeral service he had as long as the hearse was capable of reaching 7,000 revs per minute from a standing start.  (My brother, a physics lecturer, was a keen amateur racing driver).

Bruce in his 1951 Singer 1500, racing at Rakaia 1957

One evening in April 1993 I received a fateful phone call.  It was my eldest nephew ringing to tell me my brother had died suddenly of a heart attack on Boronia Peak in Victoria’s Grampian Mountains.  Bruce had paid regular visits to Christchurch in the preceding few years and our relationship had become closer than ever before.  This news was a severe blow and hard to comprehend.  My immediate need was to go to Australia and be with his loved ones.  I booked a standby flight, arranged leave from work, and the next morning went to break the new to my aged mother – one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. 

After the tension of waiting at the airport for a standby flight I was on a plane headed for Melbourne.  Bruce’s partner (a close friend of mine from Christchurch) and his eldest son were at the airport to greet me and drive me to his home town of Ballarat, where I arrived just 24 hours after hearing the news of his death.  My nephews and niece were almost strangers, but in the emotionally charged situation we quickly got to know each other.  Plus, there were three members of the next generation, two of them only six months old.  Because the death was unexpected there needed to be a postmortem and while we waited for the body to be released, we planned the funeral.  As a ritual-maker this was a task I could assist with.  To my surprise his eldest son (aged 32) had never been to a funeral before.  His brother (30) had been to three during the previous year, all friends who had committed suicide.

Bruce’s archives yielded a copy of his letter to me outlining his instructions about the hearse.  When we read Bruce’s words the eldest son immediately said: “He means the Alfa” – Bruce’s treasured 1974 Alfa Romeo Spider 2000 sports car.  This son spent most of his waking hours for the next three days in a friend’s panel beating shop carefully building a frame to hold the coffin on top of the sports car.

All through this time I was getting up early in the morning to phone home and talk with Stephen and another close friend who both gave much-needed support.  Stephen offered to fly over to be with me but I declined, knowing his presence would disrupt the family dynamics even more.

He died quite unexpectedly
a bombshell for our family

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