Kathleen Noonan
Kathleen Noonan

The most human, powerful, humbling thing I’ve ever seen

In one of the newsrooms I worked in overseas, there was a journalist, in his 50s, big bugger, over six foot (183cm), shoulders like a steer.

He was pretty quiet for a journo, and this reticence gave the impression much was going on below the surface. His great trait was to supply a shoulder to cry on. Not figuratively. An actual shoulder.

He was the bloke who went to funerals when a staff member had lost someone. He was the best person to send to cover a tragic story, to turn up on the doorstep.

We called him Fred because he looked a little like Fred Flintstone, that kind, broad face. He appeared a rock in a sea of turmoil.

He would just show up and men and women crumpled against him. He'd wrap an arm around them, soothe them like children: "Ssshh." No fancy words.

I asked him once about his reputation. "Listen, you just show up and be there. It's not that hard."

Yet, Fred, we human beings make it hard and often just don't do it when someone is sick, in hospital, in trouble, in palliative care, or at a funeral.

Sometimes, I've been a welcher. Haven't shown up when I should have.

Told myself and others some excuse, too busy, caught up in work. Told myself, listen, I wasn't really that close to the person. I'd be out of place there.

I was thinking about me, not them. Thing is, welching feels completely justified at the time.

It lets you off the hook and spares you the emotional heft of showing up and bearing witness to someone else's deep emotions, but it often will be followed by a lifetime of regret. Believe me, don't be a welcher.

When the irreplaceable, irrepressible conductor Richard Gill died recently, in the hours before his death, a musical flash mob turned up and played his favourite The Dam Busters March in the street outside his Sydney home.

The footage was deeply moving. We all should be heralded out of this world with such beauty.

Now, the musicians could have Facetimed a performance, or his family could have simply played those songs from Spotify. No. What we witnessed was our great need for human gathering and ritual.

There is something powerful about another human being showing up for you - in flesh and bones.

The flash mob footage reminded me of the elephant herds in Kruger National Park, South Africa. As one of their own dies, they gather close.

A ranger told me how herd members press together, console each other and trumpet their grief and love. Just like that mob.

A while ago, I sat in a suburban church on a cracking sunny day at the funeral of a builder, who had helped us turn a rundown house into well-crafted deeply loved family home.

As I write I'm surrounded by his work - deep sash windows, crafted timber trims - that's all from his strong tan hands. He was in his 80s.

Plenty of people knew him better and longer but it didn't matter. Sitting in the pews, it felt utterly right to take a day off work and turn up.

Years earlier I had read something by Deirdre Sullivan for the National Public Radio This I Believe series that drilled into my bones like weevils in wheat.

Always go to the funeral, her father had instructed her when he dropped her off, aged 16, at the funeral service of her fifth-grade teacher. "It meant having to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it …

I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy … In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic.

Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.''

Later her own father died. "His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the work week. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church.

The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3pm on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral."

Strangely, the other time we need to show up for people - and often welch - is when they have great success.

Often, that is a time friends stay away, choked with envy perhaps. I reckon the universe throws these challenges at us so we have to grapple with our gnarly egos.

Does it get easier as we get older and supposedly wiser? Don't think so. My "goodly'' muscle needs exercising all the bloody time. Wrestle on, readers. Show up. Do it for yourself.


We come out of listening to author Anne Summers speak at the Griffith Lecture and the bloke beside me says, "I like to think I'm reasonably enlightened but I'd never thought of some of that stuff before".

Ursula K. Le Guin: "We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains."

Summers' memoir just out, Unfettered and Alive (Allen & Unwin), is an engrossing read, about our history, politics and journalism as much as her extraordinary eclectic career. That wonderful title, Unfettered and Alive, is a Joni Mitchell line.


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