On friends

I’m sure we all have friends hovering on the periphery of our consciousness. Friends who have been important in a particular stage of our life but with whom we may have lost touch. Even so, we think about them often and know that if we were to meet up, we would pick up just where we left off all those years ago.  Julia was one of those friends.  We were at University together in Durham, mainstays of the diving club.  Every weekend we all piled into the university minibus and headed off up the old A1 to St Abbs where we dived off the shore, either at Petticowick or outside the Harbour.  Petticowick was a slog; a steep, grassy slope down with the gear and, of course, back up at the end of the dive. 

My first dive in Britain was at Petticowick, after learning to dive during a gap year in Jamaica.  I vividly remember my introduction to the cold, greenish murk of a November kelp forest, shivering in a too big borrowed wetsuit with a piece of orange canvas that purported to be a life jacket around my neck.  “Wasn’t that wonderful!” proclaimed my buddy, Tim, later of Eden Project fame, as we staggered out of the water. “Drifting down through the kelp, in that beautiful clear water!” He clearly hadn’t been on the same dive as me.  Still, I perservered and learned to like, if not love, kelp forests.  The following year Julia and Chas arrived in Durham and joined me in the diving club while I switched subjects and joined them in Zoology lectures.  We became firm friends within a wider group of divers, biologists, college mates, and were involved in organising expeditions with a Joint Services diving club.  Then came finals and we went our separate ways to research posts around the country:  I headed for Glasgow (what a mistake that proved to be!) and ultimately to the natural history side of science, Chas to Lowestoft and fisheries, Julia to Bristol and a career in the science of fish vision.

Those few years were an intense period of living, and we lived them to the full.  They marked a shared growing up between leaving home and setting out into the world. They established the direction of our future paths.  And yet, looking back, I see how little we knew of each other outside our university lives.  I find myself writing all this now as I have had it in mind for a few years to get back in touch with Julia again. I knew she had moved to Australia but we had barely been in touch since my wedding, over twenty years ago. So now, with a family  trip to Australia in the early stages of planning, it seemed to be time to meet up again.  Tragically, I’ve left it too late, just a few weeks too late.  Julia died of cancer at the beginning of February this year, leaving a partner and two teenage children, about the same age as my own.  

It’s strange how, after all these years, I can still hear the sound of Julia’s voice in my head.  She was a generous, softly spoken person, self-contained with a sort of inner grace that I have come across in few other people.  She was a very good friend although it is so long since our paths last crossed.   I have found the news of her death very upsetting for a whole mixture of reasons.  It was so recent – if only I had been in touch a couple of years back when I last made a half-hearted attempt to find her.  Her death reflects my own experience of cancer in a way that I hardly dare think about.  Her children are so close in age to my own and they must be devastated by the loss of their mother.  And she is the third of my relatively small cohort of female diving marine biologists to die of cancer.

Dale, who I worked with sporadically over many years, died of breast cancer just before Christmas.  Nettie, who I shared an office with in the stable yard at OPRU, died a few years ago of a particularly nasty cancer of the smooth muscle.  And now Julia.  A mutual friend has a photograph of Nettie, Dale and Julia together on a survey on Skomer in the 1980s;  all three are gone but I think of them all with fondness and remember the laughs we shared and the many good times we spent together exploring the coast.

And I think of other peripheral friends, important friends I’ve lost touch with but keep in mind, and I have resolved not to leave it too late to speak to them again. 

8 thoughts on “On friends

  1. So sorry to hear about your friend. And you’re right. There are people I should get in touch with NOW. Not next week, not tomorrow, but now. Thankyou for reminding me.

  2. That’s a sad thing to discover. I’m sorry.

    You have a salutary lesson for us all, not to procrastinate when it comes to friends.

  3. well, you and I have gotten in touch again and, although not a part of your diving clan, I’m still a part of previous chapters in both our lives 🙂 and am incredibly happy to be reconnected with you…Christine, there’s something especially poignant about losing colleagues… somehow its more US. When I lost my BFF and fellow botany grad student Lani to non-hodgkins lymphoma, we were both 40, and I was living on the ends of the earth in Largs,she on the ends of the earth in Volcano,HI (how could we be farther apart?)it was definitely a reality check on my own mortality, and a huge regret that I couldnt be with her. Its been almost 19 yrs, I still think about her, almost as often as i think about my mom (20 yrs ago), but if these milestones teach us anything its about living each day, and doing a little something good each day (aka make someone else happy!) and taking absolutely nothing at all, ever, for granted. And what is most remarkable about these sadnesses is that somehow they make us stronger, better able to “shoulder the load”…its the gift those that are ahead of us “in line” leave with us. Love to you from a galpal from just one of your many chapters, and looking forward to more :-)xxK

  4. PM and Iota, thank you. And yes, just pick up the phone and do it.

    Kris, It’s so good to be in touch again! Our time in Millport was another of those very intense periods. And about that – Largs, the end of the earth? What does that make Millport? I remember your mother’s illness and you having to dash back to the States. It must have been a much harder time for you than I appreciated at the time.

  5. yes, this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about too recently, with a friend of mine diagnosed with a brain tumour & my bro-in-law, who has non-hodgkins lymphoma, has survived 5 yrs so far, but that was the prognosis the drs gave him. I agree very much with yr friend Kris’s sentiments.

  6. So sad to hear about your friend!

    However busy I am, if friends phone, e-mail or stop to chat I try to stop and take the time for them! This was a hard lesson learnt 20 years ago… I was late home from work one evening and didn’t stop to chat to my BF, who lived next door at the time – this was a girl that I had grown up with over 12 years! My words to her were, I’m late home, sorry, I’ll speak to you tomorrow! I never got the chance.. she was killed in a car crash that night!

    A lesson for us all perhaps!

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