Taking a break from Retro Friday today. I wrote the bulk of this post a few years ago now, but for some reason decided not to hit publish. I'm not sure why. Today, I've decided to share it with you.
Seven years ago, I met someone - a young girl who had just moved to Tasmania. It was a briefer-than-brief encounter really. The university research centre I worked for at the time was running an open day at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I was told to expect her at some point during the day, as she was the first recipient of the honours scholarship that the Centre offered. She was wearing all black, which was offset by her gentle, gingery hair. I gave her her name badge. Her name was Genevieve Ryan.
Sitting in on one of the lectures later that afternoon, I noticed how enthusiastic and excited Genevieve was when an idea for her honours research project was suggested to her. Every part of her seemed to be vibrantly alive.
But I barely gave it, and her, another thought until four days later, when I arrived at work on Monday morning. My boss called me into her office, looking grave. She told me that the day after our open day at TMAG, which was February 17th, Genevieve had died. She had been bushwalking at Mt Wellington, Newtown Falls to be precise, and had slipped on the rocks of the waterfall there and died instantly. It had taken two days to find her, apparently. I remember being shocked, utterly shocked.
I remember my boss saying to me, "it just proves that Mt Wellington really is a wilderness. It isn't just a place you go for a picnic. It's a dangerous place."
I remember having to send an email to all the members of the Centre to tell them the sad news, and agonising over the wording of it.
I remember a slightly dazed barefoot girl, one of Genevieve's housemates, coming into the office to make sure we'd heard the news.
It was just so strange. And sad. Unbelievably sad. She was just 20 years old.
Six months later, I left Tasmania to live in Melbourne. My own life underwent radical changes, leaving me only with the tools to begin another one. I left Australia indefinitely soon after.
In November 2007, I returned to Hobart briefly for my sister's wedding, which inevitably led to many catch-ups with old friends. While waiting for some in the Afterword cafe, the eatery attached to the wonderful and deservedly popular Fuller's Bookshop in the centre of the town, I browsed the shelves and found a book compiled by Elizabeth Ryan, Genevieve's mother. Regards...some girl with words is part biography, part compliation of Genevieve's writings and philosophies, but most of all I think it is a moving and beautiful tribute to someone who was so tremendously loved and still mourned by her family.
I bought it and read it in one sitting, on the Melbourne to Hong Kong flight as I made my way home to London a week later.
It is a beautifully written book. Emotional, thoughtful, deliciously detailed and pulsing with a yearning to share her daughter's words with the world, for her message to still have a chance to reach people. And the collection of Genevieve's writings is quite stirring - fresh and interesting, and throbbing with the possibility of what more she could have done. I have wanted to write to Elizabeth Ryan ever since I read the book, to tell her basically what I've written in this post today.
My family's structure is identical to Genevieve's - I am one of four sisters, but I am the eldest whereas Genevieve was the youngest in her family. Even two of her sisters have the same names as two of mine. Maybe that's one of the reasons her story reverberated with me so strongly. I simply cannot contemplate how my own family would survive losing one of us. I can't even go there.
I strangely thought of Genevieve while I was in Amsterdam in 2008, about nine months after I read the book. As far as I know she never travelled overseas, and I wondered what she would have thought of that lovely city, with the innate attitude of tolerance in the air, the mellow atmosphere, the friendliness. I think she would have liked it. I would have liked to have taken her to Puccini for to-die-for chocolates, or to Cafe Latei with its strange cacophony of seventies travel posters, kitsch plates and cups and excellent Melbourne-evocative coffee.
I hope the Ryan family's pain has lessened with the years, although I'm sure this time of year is never easy for them. If anything the passing of the years must be very difficult for her parents and sisters, thinking how much she would have accomplished by now, had she lived, and all the momentous family occasions that no doubt have happened and will continue to happen - birthdays, weddings, births of grandchildren/nieces/nephews - where there will always be an absence, despite the joy these events bring and the knowledge that life, in all its unfathomable and mysterious ways, must go on.
It's funny how I didn't know her, and she didn't know me, and yet those brief seconds where she was alive and breathing in front of me have stayed with me all these years. And yet, if she hadn't passed away, no doubt those vague memories would have been long forgotten about. I find it fascinating how death, particularly tragic death, makes us cling to things and remember them when they are beyond reliving.
I have marked every 17th February since then as a kind of day of gratitude, to put it simply. A day where I celebrate the fact I am alive, and those that I love are alive, because Genevieve's story has taught me to be grateful for that very fact. No matter how much we are loved or how much talent and potential we have, our lives are all equally fragile, able to be snatched away within a split second.
That's why we must enjoy life, even if it means one more red wine than you should, or staying out late to listen to live music on a Sunday night even if you need to be up early the next day. Dance like a maniac. Shun the norm, and dare to express yourself. Write the poems and letters you would if you knew they'd never see the light of day. Do things you're afraid to do, they are so character building. Be truthful, to yourself and others. Fill your life with beautiful things. Never hesitate to tell someone you love them. Be interested in people and the world, stories are found everywhere. And never, ever, ever, think that it's too late to do something you want to do. Just do it while you have the chance.
"Being 'liberal' has limits, limits which I plan not to adhere to. I love people who stand by a cause, even if this cause is not the whole truth. There are others to stand for other strands of truth. I prefer to stand for one than sit limply while we all tiptoe round....I think there is a place for stamping the foot down, a place for resistance - otherwise why write or say anything?....Fire might burn - but it makes things grow too."
- Genevieve Ryan, May 2004