What I should have told my dying friend

By Shannon Molloy

Clare Atkinson
Clare Atkinson passed away on June 22 from a rare form of cancer. Her friend, journalist Shannon Molloy, had so much he wanted to tell her.

The last time I saw my friend Clare was two weeks ago in a hospice in Melbourne.

For a place where people come to die, it was an unnecessarily sad old building with no warmth, no comfort. Just beige walls and dull furnishings.

Terms like “palliative care” weren’t hidden away here — but instead, displayed on signs with arrows pointing the way to the sick and dying. There, among the mostly elderly patients, lay my 31-year-old dear mate.

Physically, she was a shell of her former self. Cancer had ravaged her body in 18 short months and left behind a confronting sight where vibrancy and a constantly burning energy once resided. Her stomach and legs were horrifically swollen, overrun with fluid as her organs slowly shut down.

But inside, her old spirit still glimmered.

“How are you?” I clumsily asked as I walked in. The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted them. How did I think she was?

“Well, I’ve been better,” she laughed gently. “Not sure if you can tell.”

I sat and held her hand, gently patting the bony and frail limb that once gripped a pen that wrote stunningly insightful words, and held a microphone that powerfully conveyed compelling pieces, here and abroad, for radio and television. Her remarkable but brief career in journalism seemed a million years ago in that moment, as she slipped in and out of consciousness and struggled to speak.

Like so many of the times I’d spent with her after her diagnosis, words failed me. I said nothing of the consequences at this meeting — the final one I would have with her, as it turned out. Just words to fill the silence, a forced smile painted on my face.

What was there to say anyhow?

Clare Atkinson, with the writer Shannon Molloy, had an inspiring love of life.
Clare Atkinson, with the writer Shannon Molloy, had an inspiring love of life.

I know now. I should’ve said that she’d been a wonderful friend for the past 11 years, from the moment we were introduced at uni and set about reviving our student association together — a task from which a cherished and close friendship was born.

I should’ve said that I’d always admire her and, truth be told, that I envied her; that I was proud of all she’d achieved — more in a third of life than most of us could dream in a whole lifetime.

Perhaps I could’ve told her that she’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, with not an ounce of malice in her bones.

I might’ve asked if she was frightened. She didn’t seem it, but I would be. I’d be angry too — furious at how unfair the situation was, that she was just getting started. Why was now the time she had to face this awful, daunting thing?

I should’ve told her that I’d rather selfishly become determined to live a better life than I had before, for her, I suppose. To be more adventurous, to take risks, to love, to be a good person, to be less concerned with the small and trivial things, to stop stuffing around… all of the things she had been, even before her own mortality presented itself at 29.

I should’ve shared all the many fond, happy memories I have of our antics — most of which flooded my mind the moment I stepped away from that small, depressing hospice room.

There was the night of drunken deep and meaningful chat about our futures at an end-of-year uni social.

There was the early morning SOS call after a fight with an ex-boyfriend, when I collected her from a darkened street and took her to McDonald’s for sundaes and a long whinge about stupid boys.

There were emails back and forth after she moved to Germany for work. There were excited Facebook chats when she later came home and met the charming man who’d become her husband.

There was a night — now quite funny — when we danced wildly inside a club while our unlucky friend was hit by a taxi outside. She was fine, just a bit bruised. And now, whenever we hear an ambulance siren, we announce that her cab home has arrived. Well, we did.

And of course, there was that day in early December 2014 when she dropped a bomb. She had cancer, it was terminal and it was very rare and very aggressive.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else, and so I left it at that and let her speak.

On reflection, I said nothing of real consequence at any stage. I couldn’t. My role was to remain the funny one, I reasoned, to be her brief light of relief from the heavy burden of the rest of her new existence.

I told jokes, brought her old photos, suggested podcasts and books, shared funny stories about diva celebrities I’d encountered through work and generally tried to keep the mood up. In reality, I was scared to confront this thing that was stealing my friend away from me, from her family, from her adoring partner, from the rest of her mates.

I was terrified that if I was to drop my guard that I might cry, and I might never stop. And that would be selfish in light of her struggle. And so I kept the cancer chat light, treating it like a deadly elephant in the corner of the room, and tried to make her smile instead.

There was a day a few months ago though, when I went to see her and she was in a reflective mood. We spoke for several hours about the old days, about the years since, about life, and she said something that still rings in my head.

“If I could go back to the beginning of my life and choose not to have the cancer, but to miss out on everything I’ve done, in exchange for something far duller, I wouldn’t do it,” she told me.

“Because as shit as this is, I’ve had an amazing life. It’ll be over too soon but I’m pretty happy with it.”

In a rare and unfiltered moment, I was as candid as I could be without losing it.

“You did real good,” I said. And she had.

She lived how we all should live — fiercely, bravely, enthusiastically and like her life depended on it — long before it actually did.

And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that a place we all hope to be when our time’s up?

Clare Atkinson died late in the night on Wednesday June 22, peacefully and surrounded by her loved ones.

It was just days after she was able to return home from the hospice to her lovely, bright bedroom, with views out over the city.

Clare Atkinson on her wedding day with husband Lewis Rowland-Coman.
Clare Atkinson on her wedding day with husband Lewis Rowland-Coman.

You can donate to the Clare Atkinson Memorial Fund, supporting the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s research into cancer of the unknown primary (CUP).

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