I had a dream about a friend I’d not seen for eight years. I’d known him back when I was in high school, yet he’d been in a nursing home for the last ten years after an accident that left him physically unable to care for himself. He was only 19 at the time. We lost contact when I moved to Melbourne for Uni, and I suddenly decided it was time to re-establish the connection if possible. I don’t remember the actual dream, I just remember waking up thinking “I’ve got to get in touch with Lee again” and found it difficult to sleep for the rest of the night.
The next morning after a few phone calls, I managed to contact Lee’s grandparents, who had been his primary carers since his accident. I told them about my dream of Lee and they said they were really pleased to hear from me and would gladly welcome a visit. I was extremely happy I’d managed to contact them, especially after so many years, as there was something niggling at me and I felt it was really important I see him soon.
On Wednesday the 21st October 2009, I saw Lee again.
He had turned 30 earlier in the year, and he hadn’t changed much from what I remembered, although he was a little shyer at first, which was understandable considering how many years had passed. His grandparents remembered me, and they were all waiting at the front of the nursing home when I arrived. Lee was holding a rose – Lee loved his Nan’s roses and he used to give them to me when I’d visit him in hospital all those years before. Lee and his brother Danny were particularly special to me when I met them in 1998, as they were rough and tough and my protectors in a way, even if they didn’t realise it.
During my Year 12 at school, Lee’s first year in hospital, I used to drive to Melbourne almost every weekend to visit him in Royal Talbot. Back then he would talk to me and occasionally write letters and eat food, and he was still the same cheeky guy I’d known before his accident. That had all changed now.
I could see in his eyes that he recognised me, but this time he didn’t talk, and he was being fed through a tube in his stomach – it seemed as if the nursing home had sucked the life out of him. Ten years of living among older people dying all around you cannot be good for anyone, especially a young person. I hate that smell in a nursing home, like death waiting, and it’ll smother you if you breathe it in too long.
We stayed at the nursing home with Lee for about an hour, and I showed him pictures of me in uniforms from my various jobs, and my silver medal from my recent pistol shooting competition. I gave him a lava lamp as a belated birthday present, so he’d have something to look at and remember me until my next visit, which I’d promised would be at Christmas. He read what I’d written in the card, and kept looking between me and the lamp as I talked to him and his grandparents. His Nan and Pa invited me back to their house when we left the nursing home, and I stayed talking with them a couple more hours catching up on the last eight years.
That night I was in tears.
I hadn’t anticipated that just seeing Lee again would bring back so many emotions and memories, or that it would upset me so much to see him in that state. We had always suspected that one of Lee’s male nurses had abused him in the hospital, as he’d seemed to withdraw into himself afterwards and his progress post accident suddenly reversed and went downhill. I wondered what other invasions and embarrassments he’d suffered in the ten years he’d been in hospitals and nursing homes, and I cried for him and his inability to protect himself as he’d once done so effortlessly for me.
Getting ready to drive to Melbourne on Friday 23rd October 2009, I received a phone call at 8.12am from Lee’s Pa. He haltingly told me that Lee had died in bed that morning. The nurses had to turn Lee every two hours to avoid him getting bed sores, and they’d been in at 4am and he was fine, and when they went in at 6am they found he had died.
Pa wanted to tell me since I’d been to see Lee just two days before, and they felt he had been hanging onto life the last few years, and was waiting to see me before he died. Mum said my dream about Lee was probably connected with his wish to see me once more. I believed them. Lee and I had always had a special connection and I felt my dream was his way of telling me to come and visit him once more, because he couldn’t wait much longer.
Shocked, I wanted to spend the day with Lee’s grandparents and grieve with them. Throughout that day and the next few days Lee’s family members arrived and it was like being transported back in time. Most of the rest of his family didn’t even know I was back, but they all remembered me, and said they were glad I’d been to see him once more.
The days were long and tearful, and never having had a friend die before, I was new to the process. Flowers and cards arrived, phone calls and messages were delivered, and plans made for his funeral. I was asked to speak at the funeral, a task which I accepted with honour and seriousness. I felt a need to explain to Lee’s current carers who I was and why I was back, along with why Lee was so special to me. I imagine a eulogy would never be easy to write, and I wanted to write something that was heartfelt and true, while at the same time being something I could read in full to everyone at the funeral.
This was my eulogy for Lee:
“My name is Belinda and I’ve been a friend of Lee’s for eleven and a half years. I first met Lee when I was in year 11 at high school up in Bairnsdale.
Lee was a good looking guy. He was taller than me and he had beautiful big blue eyes with long eyelashes that would make any girl jealous. He had a smile that would light up his whole face when he saw you, and he always had a mischievous look in his eye.
Lee was cheeky and funny. He would always make me laugh and could keep me entertained for hours with stories of things he and Danny had gotten up to.
Lee was a good person. He was kind and loyal. He loved his Nan and Pa, his uncles Glenn and Tony, and most of all, his brother Danny. I’ve never met two brothers who had such a close bond as those boys.
Lee was stubborn and determined. If what he wanted didn’t come easily to him he’d find another way to get it.
I knew Lee was keen on me. And I didn’t think he was too bad either. He had the nickname ‘Stinky’, but I don’t know why because he always smelt damn good to me. Lee made me feel safe and protected, which was something I desperately needed at that time.
The night before Lee ended up in hospital we were with Danny at a friend’s house, and a Matchbox 20 song called ‘3AM’ came on. Lee and Danny got up and sung that song together, and it remains one of the most vivid and touching memories I have.
The last time I spoke to Lee was when he called me from a pay phone in Melbourne just before his accident. He was upset and I promised I’d see him soon and to look forward to Christmas which wasn’t far away.
When Lee was in hospital I’d sit with him for hours. He was physically unable to do some things, but he was the same person inside. His cognitive abilities were not affected.
He knew what was going on, who was who, and what was being said around him. I’d talk to him and occasionally he’d talk back to me. I’d write him letters and pester him to write me one in return. He did write me one letter, in August ’99, but being a boy I guess I couldn’t expect many more from him anyway
Mostly though we’d just sit together, as I found great comfort in just being with him. One day he slept through my whole visit, so I left him a letter and said I’d be back to visit the following week.
The year I moved to Melbourne to go to Uni was the same year Lee came up to Lakes. I kept in touch for a while, but I’m sad to admit I drifted away over the years. Although I didn’t get to see Lee, I thought about him often.
Until recently I was living in Sydney. It was exactly two weeks ago today that I woke up from a dream and knew that I had to come and see Lee. I got in touch with his Nan and Pa and with them I visited him last Wednesday. Lee was waiting at the door and was holding a rose when I arrived.
He was the same beautiful person I’d known and loved all those years ago. He looked at me with those big blue eyes and I knew he was glad I’d come back to see him. At the end of the visit I kissed him goodbye and told him I’d be back to see him again at Christmas.
Lee lived through more pain and suffering than many of us would have survived, because he was a fighter and he was tough. I think my dream was his way of telling me to hurry up and visit because he was ready to say goodbye.
I have to say goodbye to Lee today, but I will not forget him. He will always have a special place in my heart, and I will always miss him.”
‘Heart Cries Alone’ by Jimmy Barnes was the song played for Lee at his funeral. Listen to it here: