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 on the sand. 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 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 without 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. It might be 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 café 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 of the woman whose life had ended on the beach, the family whose lives had to go on now. And then we came to Anzac Day when in Australia we remember not only those who died but those who went on. We go to the local service at Ithaca – 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 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, a grief as endless as the sea, always yearning for boys whom age not only 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, Australians killed in World War I.
Although I’ve never been there, Anzac Cove is not unlike Byron Bay to look at in photographs, a scallop 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.