This story is about friendship, a bond that knows no bounds.
Helen created the word ‘bestest’. It sums up our friendship perfectly. We met at the Lindenow district primary school sports day in 1962. Two shy sixth grade girls, from separate one-room schools, Fernbank and Woodglen. We exchanged names and found we would both attend Bairnsdale High School, more than 20 miles away, the following year. Several months later, I climbed on board Earles’ schoolbus as it pulled up at the end of my lane, and there was Helen, halfway along the aisle, beside a window, saving a seat for me. We sat side by side for the next five years.
So began our enduring friendship.
The following tribute was delivered at a service for Thanksgiving to God for the life of Helen Hammer, at Stratford, Victoria, Australia, January 13, 2016
Friends like Helen, as you each know, are a gift; a blessing; a treasure. Even (one of her favorite words) a miracle. Yet all these descriptions fail to capture her presence in my life. She stuck by me …with me … when I experienced longterm mental health challenges (Anorexia Nervosa, chronic anxiety and depression), and stood up for me when others walked away.
Helen showed me how to live. As teenagers Helen, ever stoic and positive, drew emotional, intense me out of my shell and encouraged me to engage socially. She was six months older, and already a wiz at making the most of the moment. At age 14 she said, ‘Come on June, let’s go to young farmers’, a rural organization for 14 to 25-year-olds. We joined the Glenaladale club and had much fun. We went on rabbit hunts, and to district dances in the Glen hall, the Fernbank and Calulu halls, and in the Sale Memorial hall.
Our paths diverged after secondary school. Helen became a teacher, I became a journalist.
Next year we will catch up…
Due to marriage, motherhood, full-time careers – for some years all we could manage was a Christmas card and letter, saying: ‘Next year we will catch up for sure’…
And in the mid-1990s, when in our mid-40s, we did.
Our friendship blossomed and accelerated with development of the Internet, its tools enabling instant communication even when far apart. The mobile phone allowed us to chat anywhere, any time. Often this was at 6am before daybreak, Helen walking briskly with dog rumble through the red gum forest above her house, a torch lighting her way, exercising dog and self, before starting her school day. No second wasted.
Our friendship fitted around the many demands in daily life. Sometimes we grabbed a day, met in Melbourne’s CBD, went shopping, bought hilarious outfits. Went to a show. Treasured times.
Helen always found something to be grateful for. She anchored and inspired me with her unfailing trust, loyalty, acceptance, dedication, solution-focused initiative, and fun. Always fun.
Outwardly, always impeccably-groomed, clothes in matching tones and colors, her poise elegant, serene. Her Sophia Loren eyes, her Cleopatra makeup. Divine.
Helen was my life coach. The strength of her belief in me encouraged me to believe in myself, helped me to heal.
Just as I reached recovery, Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Our friendship dynamics adjusted. Helen’s illness became the catalyst for a soul enriching and spiritually rewarding exploration of new terrain in the human experience. No pebble was left unturned in her quest to find answers.
Watching my “bestest friend” and most solid “anchor” pass away from a ravaging illness has been painful, but uplifting too.
Helen had steadfastly shown during my struggle that she understood more than most the need to stay committed, to our self and our journey, no matter what life throws at us. And now, she was tenaciously practising this commitment with her own self.
Her love radiated everywhere. Life. She loved it.
I said to Helen recently:
I will still talk to you, you know. I will still talk to you about everything.
And she said: that’s good, but I don’t know how I will be able to respond. I will have to find a way.
And I said: I will hear you, Helen, I will hear you.
Such is the power of an enduring friendship.
Of Daffodils, Renewal and Hope
Helen’s funeral was as beautiful as a funeral can be…family, friends and community did their best to present according to her script for she had organised her own farewell. Hundreds of people filled the church for the thanksgiving service, and overflowed outside. Everyone was doing their best to be happy, for we knew this was what Helen wanted, and to celebrate her life and legacy.
In keeping with Helen’s requests, 100 yellow balloons, filled with helium, added sunshine at the ‘wake’…the children loved the balloons and adults did, too… sitting on the chairs in the country hall, watching the screen portraying images of Helen’s life, with a yellow ribbon around their wrist and yellow balloon floating above.
Five hundred daffodil bulbs provided take-home mementoes that will grow as a reminder of continual self-renewal.
After a seven year ‘battle’ with ovarian cancer Helen is at rest, but she lives on in the memories of all fortunate to know her.
My next book, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders, due for release mid-2016 by Routledge, London, mid-year, will be dedicated to Helen. In this way her sunshine will radiate not only in Briagolong but around the world, for generations to come.
The dedication comprises a line from my tribute. It reads:
To Helen Hammer (1950-2016)
My best friend, who stuck by me …with me… when others walked away.
I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.