The smallest of things

Sometimes it is the smallest of things that can change your day. A smile from a stranger makes your lips turn upwards in return. Thank you for noticing me.  A photo received of your niece’s little bare bum in the backyard can make you laugh. Where are her pants? Did she chuck them off?  

And a single, small tweet about the sudden death of a former university classmate can leave you devastated.

Harriet was.  

Social media had been my main way of keeping up with Harriet’s achievements: her first book, her awards and her interviews. Now, it informs me of her finiteness. It has put a full stop on her life. It reminds me our last conversation was a photo I sent: of her book sitting on my lap on the tram.

But now there will be no more of this. No more sporadic online conversations. No more of these small things.

We weren’t close, I think to myself, so why am I so upset?

It was bowel cancer.

She was only thirty.

It was aggressive.

The word ‘potential’ repeats over and over in my head. But still I don’t feel like I am allowed to be grieving.

Because how do we process the deep impact an individual has on another person’s life? These seemingly meaningless interactions. These tiny moments now amplified and carefully gathered together to try and make sense.

There we are in a tutorial, engrossed in Harriet’s Bikram yoga story or listening to her describe the Australian bush like it was a familiar friend. There she was: her physical presence: tall, tan, unassuming, a beauty. Her potential, silent but a shadow. We all knew she was one to watch, she was going places. For a few years while at university, I knew her and she shared her brain with me.

Like many of my friends and family, I don’t worship a god.  The meaning and purpose of a life is the largest of question marks I do not understand. But like many other writers, and maybe even Harriet, I take solace from literature that seems to understand that the smallest of things do matter.

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a while, we die.” Charlotte’s Web.

And then, you move on. You don’t forget, because your heart won’t, but your cheeks are dry and you laugh, again and again at your nieces and their little smiles from your iPhone screen.

You write some words for Harriet. The ones written above and you click save and think about what you will do about then. You move on.

I turn 29 and the day after there is a small thing, a few sentences. A Facebook post. My friend Natalie’s face in black and white. A hashtag #rip.

My immediate thought is, is this a joke? Followed by, who jokes like that? 

“You would’ve been 31 yesterday.” Her sister wrote.

But no, she’s doing her PHD in Sydney. The smart blonde, changing the world with her theories into workplace communications. I see her posts all the time across the social media posts. Her digital presence reminds me she is alive, breathing, witty, philosophising. Brilliant.

She died in her sleep. Her heart just stopped. They don’t know why. I read these things in the palm of my hand.

I’m in Apollo Bay and I go and sit with the resident cockatoo here who is apparently 93 years old according to the hippy owner with grey dreads. The day is overcast and bright. The bird tries to talk to me as I cry.

“Hello! Hello! I’m Cocky-dooley!”

In the car home, a lady on the community radio talks about herbal remedies to help with hot flushes during menopause. I think, Natalie would find this hilarious. The absurdity of life. She was big into existentialism, and posted things like, “Birth and death and the stuff that happens in between,” and a sign above in a car park, “Pay before exist.” (I pay therefore I exist).

Years ago she wrote a story about Hanson for my blog, about being a shameless lifelong Hanson fan. When I get home I find it in my inbox and send it to her sister, who thanks me. I then spend hours reading back over all online interactions. Our digitally preserved friendship.

 We hadn’t spoken in years, not since she left Melbourne and proudly declared that Sydney was way better. But there was a time where we messaged each other frequently. She called me dude and we chatted about freelancing. Our last online conversation was about potato salad.

We met through Gumtree. My love for trivia, and the lack of finding enough committed friends, led me to forming a group of random people together on a Tuesday night in Richmond.

Despite general fears of online safety, nobody was an axe-murderer. Natalie was a Masters student and worked for local government in communications.

Sometimes our friendship went beyond questions about pop culture and geographical locations. We drank neon coloured shots at the club that blasted Justin Bieber. She drove me to Albury on her way home to Canberra. We made a lot of plans to go to talks and meditation and yoga which often fell through. We went to the art gallery and drank beer and talked about changing the world through words.

 All of these moments are now ear marked, carefully examined, questioned.

I didn’t even know.

I didn’t even know she had died in August.

She went for a run that day. She was healthy. She was thirty. Like Rose in the Titanic, she died in her sleep. And I think she would’ve liked that. And laughed a lot at that idea.

She lives on, of course she does. Writers, they never die, because of the words they churn out in print or online. She wrote a thesis about living and dying which will be published next year.

I don’t know how to end this. I don’t know how to wrap it up into some nice neat conclusion, because this story doesn’t work like that.

Often when faced with death we become hyperbolic, in our grief we exaggerate, the deceased become glorified.

Harriet was humble and quiet, and for that I don’t feel like I really knew her well. But I knew her words. I read them on the tram and on the couch and lying out on the prickly grass.

Natalie was daring and clever. She wrote about internal workplace communications, about poetry, retweeted Bukowski and even though I couldn’t understand why, loved Contikki.

All of this mattered, and matters. All of these small things.

Vale Harriet McKnight and Natalie Hardwicke

Harriet McKnight’s book is called Rainbirds. You can buy it here. Or donate to Bowel Cancer Australia.

Natalie Hardwicke’s book will be published later this year. She will receive her PHD posthumously.