The rescue helicopter circles overhead, lapping the North-West Coast of Tasmania in search of a missing vessel and its three occupants. The helicopter is instantly recognisable, a bird of red and yellow framed against the bright blue eastern sky, reflecting the sun in the west. I have seen that helicopter and written about its movements dozens of times in the last three years while reporting for The Advocate.
This is the first time I’ve known the person it searched for.
By 9.30 Tuesday morning I had known for about two hours there was a marine search and rescue operation underway off Wynyard, but I knew no one with a boat in which to get lost. And perhaps I hadn’t yet really woken up after my long weekend. And then Tasmania Police named Bree in a media release I received via email during our office’s morning news conference and I yelped and ran out of the office to call her.
The call went straight to voicemail, and the Facebook messages I have sent to her remain on ‘sent’. Not delivered, not received and certainly, sadly, surreally not read. As I wrote that I went back and looked at my phone and was again saddened to see the indicator was a small circle with a tick inside. That message has gone out into the ether and is yet to find its intended recipient.
How many of those little undelivered ticks and texts there must be floating around in cyberspace right now for Bree and her two mates? How many times has her name been said today? How many people now know her name and what she looks like? How many now have hopes and expectations for this woman they had never before considered?
And how do I temper my grief and confusion against the many people who knew her better? And the many more who did not know her at all? I did not know her well, but a decade ago I knew her a little.
A few months ago her name popped up on the local North-West Tasmania Buy and Sell Facebook page, which was odd because that’s where I live and not where she lived. Or so I thought. Turns out she had recently moved to Burnie with her Mum, and she was just as amused and surprised to see me commenting on her post as I was to see her posting it. It had probably been ten years since we had last seen each other, likely partying and drinking together at a university bar on the Sunshine Coast.
And it had been a little over a year since I posted a birthday message on her wall for the year 2020.
“Oh man. Australia closed the bars on your birthday. That is brutal,” I wrote.
“Yah & I lost my job at one of said bars on the same day,” she responded, with a laughing emoji.
So for her name to appear on a Burnie buy and sell page of all places was, to put it mildly, a bit of a shock.
So we caught up over Messenger and made plans to grab a beer one night soon when our schedules lined up. And then we did the same thing again a few weeks later. And then I went back to Queensland. And we made the same plans again when I returned. And then she moved to Wynyard for a new job at a pub and I said I would stick my head in when I had the chance, when I was in Wynyard. And then in August she said let’s make a plan for September and actually stick to it, hey?
And now it is months later and I haven’t seen my friend in ten years and she is lost at sea and I fear I may never see her again.
Do I deserve this grief? And by that I mean, am I good enough for it? Were we close enough for me to have been so dazed and confused by seeing her name on that police press release? Should I leave the real grief to those who have more immediate memories of her and more tangible reasons to be unreservedly emotional? Should I be more stoic? I was never good at that. And I doubt I am going to start now.
But still I wrestle with this feeling of inadequacy and guilt. Guilt because I should have tried harder to see my old friend, although I know logically that would not have prevented her going out on a boat on Monday. And inadequacy because maybe I can’t offer anything more useful. Even my work as a journalist, which I often defend as an essential service during an emergency or tragedy of this magnitude, feels wholly inadequate in the context.
I labour under no delusion that I am writing this because I think it may help find her, but only in service to myself. I write for catharsis and perspective. To arrange my thoughts and, ideally, to understand them. I can’t remember exactly when but if you go back in my blog far enough I am sure you will find me saying the same thing in some other combination of words.
Recently I have been poorly managing a number of things which I may have understood and handled better had I written them down in this blog. But I did not, and I have regrets. And today has already been awash with regret. I do not want to add another layer of poor emotional wellbeing to that particular onion.
As I finish writing this it approaches 30 hours since the last confirmed contact with someone on board the missing boat. I do not know whether that contact was with Bree or one of her two mates. But the sun is still up on day two of the search and the rescue helicopter continues to circle above the Bass Strait, in view from the pub Bree should be working at tonight. Her colleagues embrace at the start of a shift and put on a brave face, ready to greet the patrons of what will apparently be an unusually busy Tuesday night.
Down at the wharf across the road from the pub Bree’s mum and the families of the two blokes continue to watch the Bass Strait, waiting for anything they may recognise to appear on the horizon.
I’ve not spoken to them and I won’t, not for personal nor professional reasons. Because I have sat here watching the water with them for the last few hours. Because I have now used over 1000 words attempting to understand these feelings and I could spend thousands more. Because I have spent the day hoping for a police media release to deliver us good news, and I have relived memories with Bree going back more than a decade.
Because they deserve to observe their optimism in peace and I still feel I am not good enough for this grief.