Flowers blooming in a garden always make me happy, especially when they poke up unexpectedly like new friends you don’t realise you need until you meet them.
The Swan River daisy seeds sown this week will bring me more joy than most, though, because of the friendship they represent.
Sometimes it seems as though the universe pushes me into the path of certain people with an intensity that’s hard to ignore.
In recent years I’ve come to recognise the signs and tune in to that distinct feeling that a certain person should be in my life. I try to make it happen because I’ve learned there’s usually a serendipitous reason behind it.
One of the first people I recall being cosmically shoved my way is my dear friend Damien; although my radar was not particularly well-calibrated back then.
We first met as fresh-faced 16-year-olds selected by our respective schools to attend an educational conference in Canberra: The Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Trust for Young Australians. This tongue twister of a program exposed a handful of aspiring journalists, lawyers and politicians to the workings of the nation’s capital, where we met prime ministers, judges and various movers and shakers of the day. Most of our group became pretty tight knit over the week, but I recall being drawn to Damien’s sense of the ridiculous and our mutual bemusement over the kids who took everything so seriously, treating each experience as a job interview or networking opportunity. Which I suppose it kind of was, come to think of it.
Anyway, once the week ended we didn’t really stay in touch. Then, two years later, at some orientation event for my journalism course at RMIT, there’s Damien enrolled in the same degree. At uni we became fast friends, spending the next three years laughing at the ultra-serious and ridiculing each other’s hit and miss attempts at romance with other people. But in addition to his mischievously intelligent sense of humour, Damien also taught me much about a positive attitude and not sweating the small stuff to an extent that I do not imagine I will ever match.
Because my friend lives with cystic fibrosis and in those days was tied to a schedule of careful diet, medication, physio and periodic hospital “tune ups” to keep him on track. When he had to spend time in hospital, I’d take his assignments to him at the Royal Children’s and spend hours talking to him about nothing and everything; delivering uni goss’ and hanging out in the ward’s rec room with his CF mates.
Although every conversation was punctuated by coughs and raspy laughter, we didn’t talk about CF much. What little I knew was enough to frighten me and make me treasure my friend even more. I knew it was a common, life-threatening genetic condition affecting his lungs and pancreas. I knew that thick, sticky mucous clogged his air passages, causing infection and long-term damage. I also knew that many people living with CF at that time did not live beyond 40.
But Damien seemed to be doing everything right. He moved from the city to coastal towns where the air would be cleaner. I recall visiting him in Port Fairy with my husband and newborn baby and marvelling at the vegie garden/jungle he had created. I’ll admit feeling a bit envious as he and his then partner traipsed through the yard collecting ingredients for the meal they cooked us from a library copy of Gourmet Traveller. I really should point out that Damien was hipster cool at least 20 years before it became a thing.
Life goes on and we are each absorbed by the priorities of our own bubble. And so it was with Damien and I as our contacts became less frequent. He moved to the Byron region of NSW and we chatted intermittently, when towards the end of 2014 there came a Facebook message that took my own breath away.
Damien’s health had deteriorated to such an extent that he needed a double lung transplant to survive. He was 39. He had fallen in love with an old friend and they planned to marry.
After spending months building his strength for the major surgery, he was finally accepted onto the waiting list. Three days later, Damien turned 40.
Later that same month, he received the call from Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane and went in for the life-changing operation. His many friends waited for news and we were all soon relieved to hear the surgery had gone well. Damien was up walking the day after the operation, joking about the possibility of having Shirley Bassey’s lungs and making plans for his forthcoming wedding.
On the first anniversary of his transplant this year he wrote:
“On this night last year I got the call to go into hospital for a new beginning. Tonight I’m thinking about a family who also probably got a call to come into hospital to say goodbye and make a difficult decision. I owe them my life and hope they are coping okay tonight. And to the one whose breath now sustains me: deepest gratitude, dearest stranger. X.
PS: For those wondering, I am so fit and well it is kind of embarrassing. Played my first social game of footy today for 27 years!”
Damien and his fiancee visited me a couple of months back, and it was incredible to see how well he looked. That omnipresent cough had disappeared, but the mischievous laugh remained bright as ever.
When he and Sarah married in May, the thankyou notes were embedded with Swan River Daisy seeds. And so I look forward to seeing those daisies bloom as they will serve as a precious reminder of my friend Damien. Of all he has been through and of the new life he now can enjoy thanks to the immeasurable gift of a stranger.
To learn more about registering as an Australian organ donor, visit http://www.donatelife.gov.au/discover/facts-and-statistics
Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.”
– Luther Burbank