You read the headline. It speaks of the death of someone about your age, from a neighbourhood you know well. Your heart sinks. There’s a good chance it’s one of your extended mob. Someone you used to run into at the pub or at a gig every now and again – if not someone you know even more closely. This is the reality of growing up in a place like Launceston.
I’m still 4000 kilometres from home, and to find out that Theressa Roberts died on a back road in Longford, on a Monday night, in the dark, her body struck by a big machine...it brings a grim type of grief, one that is cold and empty and aloof. I am almost without feelings.
It’s like this. Today I am in a tropical place, warm and bright green and noisy with birds; I cannot conceive of the Tasmanian winter, I cannot picture damp and foggy Longford. There is a thick curtain between the season I’m in, and the one passing in Tasmania right now. Likewise, I am alive, and I can’t imagine any of my friends no longer in this same arena. But it is so: Theressa Roberts has died, and the barrier that is cast between the seasons of life and of death is a heavy one indeed. Theressa is irretrievable.
I went to high-school with Tress. When, as a teenager, I was taking unimaginative portraits of friends for my photography class, I asked her to lie down on a grassy knoll in South Launnie and scattered my mum’s cassette tapes around her head like a wonky halo.
I am embarrassed by how juvenile and unoriginal an artist I was, but perhaps it’s for the best. As C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay on grief, “A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.” Photographs can serve as markers for our memories, but too many of them, or the act of making an icon of one image, can cause us to forget the intricate presence beyond the frame. A death reminds us that a photograph is awfully insufficient.
I knew a young woman who was bursting with music, and earnest spirituality. She was also a bit loopy, and I think she’d grin at the thought of me saying this. Her speech was quick and went in directions I did not expect. She was very candid with me, more so than I ever am with anyone. She was warmer than me. She worried about her body’s form, but I believe that she had a keener sense of the innate strength and beauty of women, including herself. She was proud to be Filipina.
I know that in many traditions, the names of the dead are ritually unspoken. In the anglo-antipodean culture, we grow to speak of those who’ve died in a mumble, a whisper, apologetically stammered. Follow whichever tradition you like, but for me, it is useful to speak about those who’ve wandered off beyond our reach. This way, their complex personalities continue to exist, and are kneaded into our lives.
The site of her death, the verge of that narrow country road, is probably already marked with bouquets of flowers. We can count this as traditional practice – it is recent, but nevertheless it is now a tradition and an event in the ritual of road deaths. But bouquets wither, and those who feel immediate searing pain of loss will notice it lengthen and change texture as the years go by. How do we absorb this grief? It is mysterious, but it is so, and it must be.
My bias is place, and my memory is geographical. In years from now, I will recall the points in which Theressa’s life intersected with my own: the canteen porch at Kings Meadows High School, a scratched table in the Gunners Arms, her home in Evandale, that lawn in South Launceston.
The tragic patch of Woolmers Lane in Longford will also become a point of reference for me too. I will drive through it from time to time, the smell of hay and animals on the air, clouds bunching up in the western mountains. It will remind me to sing, to invent, to consider the existence of the spirit, to be a bit loopy, to be proud, to be warm, to love. To use my car with caution. To be aware of the brevity of our days in these beautiful landscapes, to cherish every human body as awfully beautiful and vulnerable.
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