The cascade under Creekton Falls (which you can just see, behind). This beautiful forest is where those of us who love Bruce will always feel his special presence. This was his final choice. Isn’t it spectacular? Thanks to our friends who got themselves scratched and scarred and cut and bruised and exhausted for his sake.
Many of you have heard our sad news on the ABC or alternative media; others not. This is the story as we know it . (Sorry for the groupie bit, but I’m sure you understand).
I had a trip planned with our walking club, and Bruce was staying at home with carers. However, I told him that if he had his bag packed and in the car by that (Wednesday) night, I would cancel my trip, and take him down south on a waterfall bagging spree instead. The week before, he had failed to pack for a trip I’d planned, so I was not expecting anything different this week, but he surprised me by having everything in the car by 9.30 pm. I then had the job of cancelling out of my planned trip, and calling off the carers. Off we set.
On the first day, we visited three falls on Mt Wellington and stayed with a former student in Hobart. On the next, we visited two falls in the Geeveston area. Bruce chose Dover for our next night, so we booked in there late in the afternoon. This choice meant I could visit the Creekton Falls next day, a little bit further south.
Bruce and I have a “handicap system” when what I am doing is too hard for him, which happens quite often. We go to the same destination, I give him a few suggestions of where he can walk, and a time to return, and then I do my thing, faster, harder and further, while he does his. It has always worked in the past. This is what he had chosen to do this weekend. He was exactly where he wanted to be: in the wilderness, wild and free like a normal person.
I set out down the track, and looked around to see if there was anything to see. I had suggested Bruce should walk on the very nice dirt road and look at the forest, but he chose to come on my very clear track. I didn’t stop him. It only got difficult much, much further on, and he would turn around before that point. However, I saw that he had begun by following me. He was already about 150 mts behind me in two minutes. I gave him a resigned little wave and smile and he had the cheekiest look on his face: “Yep, I’m coming too, AND I’m eating my apple while I walk (also not allowed).” His smile was boyishly defiant. He was not going to submit to a pusillanimous life of protection. He had not a clue in the world why the rest of us kept trying to molly coddle him. It annoyed him, actually. He saw himself as being perfectly capable; just a little slower than some other (overly fast) people.
In the last month or two, he has been walking in thick snow in the Walls of Jerusalem, he has scrambled onto the plateau, up a very difficult rock scree above Meander Falls (only 4 of 14 of us made it to the top, and he was one of those). He loved a grand adventure, and loved being in nature. Today was no different. The track I was on was really beautiful. Why should he be denied this?
I never saw him again, and we have no idea what happened. We only know that he wasn’t there at our meeting time. I presumed he was either in his dream world, which can happen, or that he’d somehow managed to wander off the track. Given that he can just dream for a while without realising time is passing by, it was lucky I called the SES by 1pm, which gave them time for a thorough search before nightfall. I began to get worried that he’d choked on that apple doing two things at once, or that he’d fallen and bled to death. However, the thorough helicopter search ruled out that. Police searched every track and road in the area by car and foot, and searched from the sky using a helicopter that kept going until about 10.30. The ‘copter had an infrared warmth detector and stunningly strong lights, but nothing was found. I explored offtrack in all the places where perhaps someone could go off to the side, but to no avail. I went to bed that night devastated, convinced of his death. I phoned Kirsten at 6 a.m. to tell her I needed her and Lenie, both of whom had already offered to come down.
On day two, stunning masses joined us in the search. Bushwalkers from all my clubs (LWC, HWC, Pandani) were there in force. The orienteering community warmed my heart to melt point by being there in strong presence (we haven’t been Oing for quite a few years because of Bruce’s illness). And, of course the Grammar community came – the Headmaster, Stephen, and several others had driven through the night to be there for the 7.30 briefing. Any helper from Launceston, and there were many, had driven for 5 hours through the night, many leaving straight after work the night before, to be there. People cancelled work and other commitments, they went without sleep, they ripped their clothes and their bodies in the bush (one rescuer ended up in hospital). We called, we whistled, we yelled. The whole thing was done with military precision, and yet with incredible sensitivity to the girls’ and my feelings. The Policeman in charge would be directing operations one minute, and putting his arms around me for a cry the next. The girls also had many cries on his shoulders – and he was not the only one. The officers were almost all hugging us in between searching. They kept referring to us to enquire about Bruce’s likely behaviour, which is obviously a logical thing to do, but is sometimes ignored. Each new friend that arrived during the day (and friends were now arriving from interstate), was taken aside and filled in patiently on where things were at and why the next step was being taken.
This went on for another two days. At the end of day three, Kirsten, Lenie and I were called aside to discuss what should happen the next day. Medical experts from far and wide were consulted (and they consulted national doyens in demented psychology, and in PD) in every aspect of how long a man in his condition, with his weight and height and health could be expected to live. We were reaching the end point of Bruce’s possible time. They said that if he hadn’t been found by the end of the morrow, and if we agreed, they would switch the kind of search they were doing to be “searching for a deceased person”. By this stage, we also felt that he couldn’t be alive by the end of day four. We doubted he could be alive as we spoke. You can’t wander out of the huge search area we had covered if you lack your dopamine and you have PD. Chris (officer) explained to me that he had probably died of hypothermia or a heart attack. These are both incredibly kind ways to go. We agreed to one final day of searching and to call it off by the end of day 5. We were also grateful for the sense we had that, had we insisted on further searching, they would have tried somehow to humour us, stupid as that would have actually been. They were incredibly sensitive to our wants.
I write this, telling you of an event that still seems like some kind of story I’ve read. Intellectually, and probably emotionally (we have all been wrung through a giant wringer), I know that Bruce is gone. It is not that I can’t believe the logic or that I want further searching, but some part of me is still in denial. It is expecting Bruce to wander in any second with that cheeky smile of his and look triumphant at fooling everyone for so long. He sure did that! As Kirsten said, he has gone out with flare. As I added, not with a whimper, but a bang.
I am struggling with the fact that I am not going to have my soulmate and best friend of just off fifty years by my side to share observations with, to have a chuckle with over something stupid, to read titbits out of books with, or share my joys and sorrows and insecurities with. But if I stop being so selfish and think of him rather than me, I have to admit that he has left this life’s party before it became too late. The next few years would not have been kind to Bruce. And he has gone in the most beautiful forest you could ever imagine. It soothes us girls to think of him there. It will always be Brucey Forest to us and, I suspect, to all who joined us in trying to find him before it was too late.
And so it was that we came to day 6. Time to give up and go home. The previous day had already switched in its focus of search. The group that was left was small: we three girls, Lena’s fiancé, Bruce’s two brothers who had come down from Sydney, and also some very special former students who were part of our adopted, extended family, and who had flown in from Sydney (2), Nowra and Melbourne. Tessa (dog) was utterly exhausted, as she had been working ten times harder than us all, but she, too, came to the lake to say farewell to dada. (I have since been sent a picture of the lake from above. I can’t believe it. This lake has the shape of a heart!!!)
We walked that track for the fortieth time and sat in the rain to stare and think. At my request, we all sang Amazing Grace, and at Kirsten’s, Dona Nobis Pacem. Daniel (former student) shared with us two of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems (Pied Beauty and The Windhover) that he felt reflected exactly the Bruce he knew and loved (he chose perfectly). We exchanged a few funny stories about this man we all loved so dearly, this gentle, patient, generous giant who has touched so many lives and taught so many people to fly. Then the boys left us, and we girls had our own time saying farewell. The girls yelled “Bye dada”; I shared with them the words of the song I had been singing constantly to him as I searched: “If I needed you, would you come to me, would you come to me to relieve my pain? And if you needed me, I would come to you, I would swim the shores to relieve your pain.” If Bruce had been lying somewhere, able to hear but not respond, those words would let him know I was still searching. He already knew the extent of my love for him. There was no need for some “last minute” declaration.
One of the songs we will sing at his memorial service reflects our family’s attitude to life. The final stanza goes like this:
“It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance,
It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance,
It’s the one who won’t be taken who never learns to give,
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.”
Pandani Bushwalkers and I said that together at the end of day two. The girls and I sang it together here at the lake.
Bruce was not afraid to live, with a capital L. He courageously fought Parkinson’s from the moment he knew he had it and never let it stop him living. He could have lived longer wrapped in cotton wool, sitting on a couch and watching tele, but that would have been breathing, not living. Bruce chose to live and has gone down fighting. That’s the way to go, my darling.
We have had hundreds and hundreds of beautiful tributes from people who tell us that Bruce was the best teacher they ever had, that he made them what they are, that he influenced the whole shape of the rest of their lives, of how inspiring, kind and generous he was. Of course, the bushwalking and orienteering communities have also been fabulous. There will be a memorial service where we will farewell this beloved man on 3rd November. It will be in the afternoon, as friends from far-away places will be flying in, and this will give them the morning in which to do so.