By­ron beach evokes the losses of 100 years ago

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UP FRONT - mary-rose maccoll mary-rosemac­

We ar­rived at The Pass at By­ron Bay for our af­ter­noon surf a few weeks ago and saw two am­bu­lances be­low us on the beach, just above the shore­line, their back doors open, a gur­ney on the sand nearby. Be­tween the am­bu­lances was a tight group of paramedics and divers sur­round­ing a body. I watched a para­medic on his knees pump­ing a frail chest in glo­ri­ous sun­shine. I told my son to wait; we wouldn’t go down the boat ramp to the sand yet. The day was per­fect, a light breeze, long lazy waves across a green sea, a bright blue sky with clouds you might stare at in an­other con­text, that glo­ri­ous sun. And in the cen­tre this des­per­ate bid to save a life. I wished the woman, for I was sure it was a woman, might live.

We re­turned to the car and saw the am­bu­lances come by slowly some min­utes later, flash­ing lights, no sirens, in no hurry now. A mid­dle-aged man was led up on foot, his dive suit flap­ping about his waist, tears on his face, va­cant eyes. Some­one was ask­ing him about chil­dren. He pointed. “Daugh­ter,” he said, “son,” as if the words made no sense to him right then. Stand­ing apart from him and from one an­other were a boy and girl, in dive suits too, each held tightly in place by a com­pas­sion­ate friend or stranger while they howled. You could hear in those howls there was no com­fort in what had hap­pened down on the beach. My son was si­lent for some mo­ments. Fi­nally, he said he didn’t want to surf af­ter all. Re­spect, he said. We waited a mo­ment and left.

Ev­ery­one in town had heard the sirens through the crowded hol­i­day streets that hot af­ter­noon. But, in the days that fol­lowed, there was no in­for­ma­tion; not in the news­pa­pers, not on so­cial me­dia, not in the cafe where lo­cals go. Some­one who knew some­one said a mother had died of a heart attack while div­ing and she’d left be­hind six chil­dren. I thought of­ten in the days that fol­lowed of the woman whose life had ended on the beach, the fam­ily whose lives had to go on now.

We come to­day to An­zac Day when we re­mem­ber not only those who died but those who went on. We go to the lo­cal ser­vice at Ithaca, in Bris­bane’s in­ner west – there are more peo­ple ev­ery year – and when I look at the long list of mostly young men up there on the me­mo­rial, young men whose moth­ers raised them and loved them and made them eat their veg­eta­bles and clean their shoes – the ap­ples of their moth­ers’ eyes, I’ll bet – when I look at the list ev­ery year, my thoughts turn to those moth­ers. Those moth­ers saw their sons, some of them as young as the boys’ brigade and scout mem­bers there at the ser­vice, off on the lark boys thought war might be back then. Those moth­ers’ lives went on with­out their sons, filled with a grief as end­less as the sea and a yearn­ing for boys whom age did not weary but also did not grace.

Hav­ing so re­cently watched a fam­ily in the shock of grief, I un­der­stood just a lit­tle of what it must have been like to see the post­man com­ing out to your house with the tele­gram the morn­ing you learned you’d lost some­one. The grief we wit­nessed above the beach, the re­al­i­sa­tion that here now, a dearly loved one had passed, mul­ti­plied by 60,000, the num­ber of Aus­tralians killed in World War I.

Although I’ve never been there, what we know as An­zac Cove is not un­like By­ron Bay to look at in pho­to­graphs: a scal­loped bay bounded by head­lands, a rocky beach, blue skies with smeared clouds, sun­shine. A scene we might de­light in if we didn’t know the tragic his­tory it is named for. We are a hun­dred years on from that ter­ri­ble dawn among ter­ri­ble dawns. They were dif­fer­ent times, I know. Times when loss was usual, times we now find harder to fathom as we go to the beach to surf, or wan­der up to a war me­mo­rial to re­mem­ber. Death re­minds us, lest we for­get.

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