Walking amongst the dead

Waverley Cemetery. Photo: Sunny Grace.

I love cemeteries. Always have. My friend Genevieve (rest her soul) and I used to picnic in them as teenagers in Adelaide. Not on the graves. We were always very respectful of those and would find a nice grassy spot to dream about the future. She wanted to be the next Greta Garbo and I the next Lauren Bacall. 

This morning I walked through the Waverley Cemetery to get a bit of exercise and perspective after spending two nights with my youngest son at the Prince of Wales Hospital. We went to emergency on Friday where we waited five hours. It was so busy, and no one could really say why. Backlog after Covid? Reactions or overreactions to the vaccine? Whatever the reason it took some time before he was diagnosed with septic arthritis of the knee and had surgery the following day to flush the infection. 

Choosing to walk through a cemetery after spending so much time in a hospital may sound morbid but it makes me less anxious about life. All these lives lived. Lives long and short that have since ended. A reminder that we all die. You know what they say … death and taxes. While I spend too much time worrying about taxes, I don’t spend much time worrying about death. 

I find it peaceful walking through Waverley Cemetery with its prime position looking over the sea to the horizon. Defiant against the surrounding development of mansions along the coast. Even my favourite little Bronte deco cliffside property has been renovated into some architect’s goal of honouring its origins yet failing. Meanwhile the statues of crumbling angels reaching to the heavens in the cemetery speak to a simpler time. The graves themselves are a timeline of a city and its inhabitants. Reading the headstones, I form a narrative in my mind of possible lives earlier lived, George, adored father and husband. I wonder if this is true. Was he really adored?  Do we love those who leave us a little more after they die? 

The headstones are also a reminder of how recently Australia was colonised with gravestones only dating back to the 1800s. Compare this to Père Lachaise in Paris, where graves date back to 1142. When I first went to Paris in my twenties, I wandered through its ancient paths in awe of the history, the beauty and the peace. Although unlike Waverley cemetery which is mostly populated by joggers in activewear keeping the body beautiful, Pere Lachaise is full of pilgrims who go to kiss the grave of Oscar Wilde, smoke a joint with Jim Morrison and have a private salon with my favourite, Colette.  

Back in the hospital after my walk, we have been told my son has a rare infection and will need six weeks of intravenous antibiotics, followed by six months of tablets and then his knee reconstruction will need to be redone. He is eighteen years old. He was about to fly the coop and was looking forward to it but looks like he will be under my wing for a little bit longer. 

In his ward there are three older patients. Being the bowerbird I am, I listen in on their conversations for bits and pieces to add to characters or stories. An older gentleman visiting his sister in the bed opposite comes to my son’s bedside and reveals that he is eighty-five yearsold. He gives my son some advice for when he is better, to never take life for granted and don’t waste energy of trivial things. My son smiles and nods through his Endone haze and I hope he remembers these words. Although my has son has never been one to complain and has a high pain threshold, this is going to take some patience. For both of us. 

In the meantime, I must remember to also walk amongst the living and listen to their advice. We have much to learn from one another. 

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.