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May 14, 2021

A thank you note to a dead friend

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Mandy Nolan

I often go about my life and forget I am going to die. I forget about impermanence. I get caught up in the struggle of maintaining a mortgage, a career, a family. Stuff that feels permanent but of course isn’t.

I forget that people leave. Unannounced and suddenly. Sometimes announced, but slowly. It still feels sudden.

Nothing feels as real and as permanent as death. It’s the eternity that sits beyond the fragile veil of life. It’s the real forever.

A death is always a shock.  It is an idea, something you’ve forgotten about, and then suddenly it’s real. That person, like a tooth is gone.

I often think of grief like a lost tooth, that thing that no one else can see, but you can’t stop running your tongue over to find the absence.

Over the last few weeks people I have held in high regard have gone. Good people that left early. My friend’s lovely husband, the best friend of a best friend (a woman I much admired), the maverick genius of our Mungo, and Adrian.

Adrian was one of the people I credit with nurturing my self-belief. He was my first year drama lecturer at University. When I met him he was handsome and energetic and talented and it was impossible not to fall a little bit in love. He was gay, but it was the 80’s. Straight girls spent a lot of time falling in love with gay men back then.

A breath of fresh air

After growing up with blokey boys and old men who grunted hello, gay men were a breath of fresh air. As an attractive young woman used to the inappropriate attention of older men, having Adrian’s focus and attention was a gift.

It wasn’t because of my femaleness. It was because he saw something in me as a student. He believed in my ability and my intelligence. He often drew me aside after class, when I’d had a project handed back, to look me fiercely in the eyes and tell me how brilliant what I’d done was. It’s very hard to hear. It’s amazing how often we want praise or acknowledgement, but when it comes it is hard to receive. It creates enormous discomfort.

On reflection I realise that’s because of a lack of belief. In my years teaching people I am aware how important it is to really speak to people about what they have. About what I see in them. It’s something Adrian did a lot when he taught me. Because he believed in me, I worked harder, I didn’t want to disappoint him. I wanted to impress him. And in doing that I started to navigate the space where I would end up spending my life: performance. Not exactly as I was taught over the three or more years I took classes with him. I evolved into something else.

A relationship quite remarkable and intense

When I left university I lost contact with Adrian. It was a teacher/student relationship – something that can be quite remarkable and intense. And then it finishes. A kind of death in itself. I never saw him again until about seven years ago. I had heard he was teaching at UNE – I left him a message that I was doing a show and I’d leave tickets for him. I didn’t actually expect him to turn up. I would be one of thousands of his ex-students.

But he showed up. I was so touched. He was on a walking stick, his body bent. The vibrant sparkle of his youth was gone. But his kindness remained. All through my show I found myself searching for his face; was he laughing? Did he still think I was good? I realised that afterwards, I was uninterested in the love of the 400, I just wanted to know that Adrian liked my show.

He did.

A fragile connection that survived decades

Afterwards we sat in the bar and chatted. He told me of his life, his partner, and that he had a degenerative illness that would eventually kill him. I was so glad I had reached out. This fragile connection that had survived the decades – not so much a friendship, but a teacher/student relationship that had seeded an enduring love on my part.

I offered to drive him home, but he opted to walk. I watched him slowly limp away on his stick. I felt a little pang of sorrow. I realised how unwell he was and what an effort it was to go out – and he’d made it to come see me.

We had a few phone calls, some emails, the next time I was in Armidale I arranged to spend the afternoon drinking tea and chatting with Adrian and his partner. His lovely partner laughed and said ‘You know Adrian has kept a card you made him’. There on the table was a giant collage I’d made him on behalf of the cast after he’d directed a show. It was well over thirty years old, the edges were tattered, the images faded. But he’d kept it. And he’d thought to get it out to show me. I felt a wave of emotion at the time.

An enduring love

I realised how important our connections are. How many different forms they take. He was a man who never had children, but had a deep love and care for the young people in his life that he taught. He had an enduring love for and interest in me. I was profoundly humbled.

The other day a mutual friend contacted me to buy Adrian one of my books for Christmas. I had previously sent him my other books. His partner told me he had read them to him aloud in bed. I loved the idea of two gay men reading my very hetero mumsy writing snuggled up together. I wrote him a note and posted his book. But his illness progressed more suddenly and he died. His partner said the book arrived on the afternoon of his death. He said. ‘I would have loved to read this one aloud to Adrian too’.  So goodbye my generous teacher.

Goodbye to my dead friends. And Thank You.

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  1. Just gotta love how the best comedy experts often display what’s truly valuable in life, well beyond the stage.

    Only a few days ago, I reached out to see if my humurous electronics teacher back in 1988, was still alive.
    He was a crazy smoker in his 60’s, so, likely he’s not with us; I’m yet to get a reply.
    But his teaching style was so demonstrative and engaging.

    Nice to have a spontaneous search for someone, albeit too late..

  2. OMG Mandy your words & heartfelt sentiments are so very touching, my eyes are watering. This is the thing about life as my beloved Mother used to say “as you get older times speeds up ” unquote Then you often have regrets that the people you love, that have moved away & you lose contact with them , but remember they are worth a visit even when its inconvenient.This has happened to me several times & now as I get older I try and make that effort.I have felt very guilty in the past for not going that one step further , for friends that have moved away or that have changed their ph numbers. TIME IS FLEETING , AS YOU SO RIGHTY ARTICULATE WE ARE NOT HERE FOREVER. We are only passing through, a concept I never acknowledged or thought about when I was young. Ummmm a bit of the Peter Pan syndrome.Thank You for sharing your most honest emotions.

  3. Thanks Mandy. Lovely heartfelt sentiment on life. Very poignant for me as I lost my soul mate ( 4 legged) on Christmas Eve. Love YOU & miss YOU immensely…You were one of my BEST teachers. xx

  4. I had a guitar teacher when I was 12 which I still have contact with. It’s like my musical umbilical cord is still somehow attached. His love, encouragement and belief sustained my musical path from that tender age. I cherish this man.

  5. I think life is about Connectiveness and not about age, gender, beauty or the Days of our lives !! Obviously you shared a connection with your teacher that endured a lifetime until death do us part … people come into our lives often to move us into a different chapter in our lives or to light that desire that sometime we keep hidden… your story connected me to all those people in my life that were, are dear to me that I may never see again and reminds me to nurture the connections in my life that are important. 🙏

  6. My daughter took one of your classes, Mandy. I feel like we’re now family even though we have never met <3 Curious insight, as I'm a retired school teacher.
    Thank you for nurturing the talent in my baby. Yes, it does take a village…
    Teachers, educators, sometimes don't realize just how important they are.
    You are owned. You are loved <3


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