February 5, 2009, Posted by Cat in News

anna katherine donald


When Dad rang with the news last Sunday I was surprised. Anna was in a coma, not expected to survive the day. My first thoughts were for myself as, I’m ashamed to say, they always are. Why had I journeyed to see her so few times? We’d had a year as she hopped in and out of treatment. What could possibly have been more important? Writing? Like the world isn’t choked with words already. There’d only been one Anna and so few remaining hours on her clock.

Our last voice contact had been distressing. She couldn’t stop coughing and I’d been cautioned by the fact that her mother had not made friendly chitchat with me when she’d picked up the phone. What would it take for one of the smiling neighbourhood mothers of my childhood to offer such a frigid tone? Only one terrible thing. I got off the phone quickly and thought about her every day after that. I emailed a sombre missive of my own and was relieved to eventually get a chirpy reply from Anna. When you come up next, she said… anytime was my answer. Name a date and I’ll be there, but there was to be no other time.

Thing is, Anna didn’t believe she was going to die and the force of her conviction was so strong I believed her too, despite science, medicine, logic and reality, four elements I am generally well grounded in. She was going to be the one in a million. The faery magic, the angel’s kiss. There was always going to be a next time, but when next time came, it was a funeral service, not tea and cake and gossip about the past and future and all the hollow spaces inbetween.

Anna read some of my stories. She asked my advice about graphic design courses and computers. When we talked about our childhood she was harsher in assessment of our friends than me. Oh, come on, X was only twelve, I’d say, but the truth was I agreed with her. I was trying to be mature and diplomatic but she didn’t bother with that crap. She talked a million miles an hour, words cascading like champagne. She laughed a lot, at her own foibles, ridiculous concepts, long lost loves, my stupid jokes. She was joyous company – she made it easy for me. She was fun to be with. Not like a woman with months to live.

So who was Anna to me? One of my bosom buddies? Nope. I’d barely seen her in 20 years when we first got back in touch at my sister’s wedding. She’d repeated at school, ending up in a year alongside Rachael. They were buddies, both bookish types, bound for careers in medicine and academia while I, always a creature of the pack, felt most at home in crowded places, never with any real career to speak of.

Anna was as much a piece of my own primordial rock as I was a piece of hers. Slung forth from the same set of suburbs, our parents kitchens and backyards. Her adult life remains a mystery to me; a sequence of stories, postcards from a view I never glimpsed. We sat together on her lounge as our childhood selves moulded into adult form, laughing at the ridiculousness of such a thing, of what we have become. Because the secret is, we haven’t become anything. We’ve just learned how to fake the game.

I cried when I first heard she was dying of cancer. And that was a gift because I wonder about such things. What would it take to make me cry when something wasn’t all about me? Well, now I know. A sledgehammer to the primordial rock, that’s what.

St James Anglican, Sydney’s oldest church lies in the heart of the CBD. I was guided to the service by the tolling of bells. Hot and sticky enough in the sunlight, even worse within the church’s cavernous heart. Hundreds of mourners in sombre tones. Hard to find my parents amidst the crowd. I knew I was a goner when the choir started up. How had I ever thought I wouldn’t need a tissue? My chest felt constricted, my head full of air. The church of her baptism, her marriage and now the placement of her coffin centre stage: surely this sequence had run its course too quickly?

When listed, Anna’s 42 years worth of achievements make my own life seem like a series of random, pointless incidents. Things I did to pass the time while she was out there forging a better world. See, there I go, talking about myself again. Anna always did that when we chatted; brought the conversation back to me. What was I doing? What did I think of it? One of the few who could out talk me – a quirk she was well famous for, I learned today.

Rhodes scholar, doctor, teacher at Harvard, businesswoman, writer, world traveller… I forget the rest, and there was a lot more. She had her share of battles and she went out fighting, leaving her mark on so many. There were people sobbing all around me – I don’t know how her family held it together throughout the service. I couldn’t even read the hymns. My eyes were blurred with tears.

An austere service, ritualistic, strong in tradition and certainty. Anna is with Jesus now. We don’t have to worry. I’m not sure of Anna’s faith, perhaps Christian, with other elements intertwined. The last book she’d recommended to me was the Tibetan Book of the Dead and no, I still haven’t read it. Anna believed in miracles. Not the guardian angel kind, the miracle where there’s a cure for cancer only the world hasn’t stumbled upon it yet. She was brave, going out of her way to ease others through the trauma of her situation. Always positive, like another round of chemo was a nuisance rather than a horror show.

After the service, juice and sandwiches in the crypt. Her father, as jovial as I remembered. Her mother, a shock of white hair. Her brother Tom utterly unrecognisable from the pensive eight-year-old of the mid 80s. Anna’s  husband, tortured eyes that said it all. Clea’s Mum and Ruth’s dad. Kerry, another chip off the primordial childhood rock, with broad smiles and laughter at all the stupid things we used to do together. Her family home got bulldozed. My parents still live in ours. I told my parents I loved them when we kissed goodbye because we never say it.

I’m carrying the weight of her passing like a stone inside my chest. It’s already changed me although I’ve yet to fathom how. Anna left behind so much more than she took with her. Far more luminous than the sum of her many parts.

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13 Comments

February 5, 2009 9:11 am

karenmiller

She sounds like an extraordinary woman. Sorrow to you, sorrow to all who knew and loved her. May she rest, if that’s what she wants, or run around organising the afterlife, if that’s more her style.

February 05 2009 10:23 am

mynxii

I don't think I could speak better than this.


Also, thank you for sharing... I always think it important to share experiences of people like this. I am always honoured to share in this.

February 5, 2009 9:49 am

markdeniz

Excellent post, thank you.

Sleep well Anna

February 5, 2009 10:16 am

murasaki_1966

“Love is not changed by death And nothing is lost And all in the end is harvest”. Edith Sitwell.

“Say not in grief that she is gone, but in thankfulness that she was” – Hebrew prayer.

Good night, sweet queen and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

February 5, 2009 11:14 am

Anonymous

Anna

Hi Cat, dad rang me but took a while before he could speak…I keep seeing her ruing me teasing me laughing.I could barely speak 3 weeks back, I found myself overcome with grief then, expecting to speak with a carer and this coherent creature answered…her buoyancy colliding with my own fear of death-hers/mine.

Ive been feeling so awe inspired that she could arrive here and accomplish everything she set out to do…she knew it too. She had already done it all time to go…I take great comfort in that Cat! Shes onto it elsewhere…flat out “getting it” and thinking how can I teach, care for, protect and befriend others here!

I salute you Anna you bloody did it with bells on babe!Woohoooo!
In half a life, bloody over achievers!XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXRuth

February 5, 2009 11:37 am

kateorman

I’m so sorry.

February 5, 2009 1:30 pm

tallaudrey

Sorry, love. :-(*hugs*

February 5, 2009 1:35 pm

robynv

Anna

The last time I saw Anna must have been 25 years ago, when we finished high school – 1984. Like you, Cat, I certainly wasn’t ‘best buddies’ with Anna, but I remember her with a lot of affection. She could out talk anyone, that I remember with a smile, and I remember her infectious grin and her enthusiasm for … everything, for life I guess. The photo from the order of service is the Anna I remember. Looking at her smile reminds me of all that.
People aren’t supposed to die at our age. It’s not right and it’s not fair. I find it hard to believe.
Hearing about Anna’s death and remembering the Anna I knew in my teens affirms a couple of things for me. The first is to seize the day, just like she did. Live fully and completely. And love, fully and completely. And to be me, completely and uncompromisingly.
Goodbye Anna. May the road rise up to meet you and the wind be at your back.

February 6, 2009 2:07 am

amandapillar

*hugs*

February 6, 2009 9:39 am

Anonymous

Hi Possom!

I’m really feeling Anna’s loss in waves today,thinking of you Cat.I hear some reproach for yourself in your reflection and Im feeling that its so true that she was so compassionate that it was easy to share things with her-even as she was so unwell she was so good to talk with.I deliberately didnt ring just to not use up her energies…but I really have lost a fab friend. And that’s a selfish loss that I grieve.

I’m thinking alot how Anna lived so fully just as Robyn mentioned above.I’m thinking about how she lived so alive whilst dying- Ive died a few times whilst still living so I recognise her as an awesome teacher about living being alive going for it on all fronts. Living with conviction and walking her talk talking as she might!She really believed in life Cat. She really believed in herself too.And she had spiritual belief.The courage to place belief alongside public scientific scrutiny. Incredibly rare courage. She gave her body to medical science even and especially whilst dying.Emotionally, mentally, but that whole episode of too much chemo was horrifying and to use her case for documentation just so generous, but of course she did!
http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2008/12/12/anna-donald-blogging-again/

love love love Ruth

February 07 2009 03:37 am

Cat

Re: Hi Possom!


Thanks for the link, Ruth. I'd been following her blog but had missed that post. Rare courage indeed. XXXXX

February 20, 2009 10:35 pm

Anonymous

Anna

Many memories from Bank Street come back to me, keep popping up.
. A Ghost party @ No 9 when the girls (from the Dem.) were about 7-9 yrs, pandemonium and an absolute scream, probably still embedded in the walls there.
. One sunny Sat. morning Anna, Ruth & Eve set up a table/stall in Blues Point Rd. near the Chemist shop, selling things they had made, art/craft; maybe it was just before Mother’s Day, a year or two after the ghost party.
. Sometimes I met Anna on the way to school as I walked to work, up Lord St. One such Aug. morning in Mount St. the bottle-brushes were so red, the sky was so blue, the girl was so happy, start of a perfect day, never forgotten.

Anthony

February 20 2009 22:39 pm

Cat

Re: Anna


Thanks for sharing these memories, Anthony. I can picture the streets, the bottle brushes and the blue sky, but I can't recall if I was at the ghost party or not!

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