Christine Barker, Sydney, 9 May 2004

Christine’s endless capacity to bounce back and join in was an inspiration to us. Every race we paddled in was for Christine. If we were a little over exuberant when we won – that was why. If she was not there when we raced, we immediately rang Christine to tell her how we had gone. Whenever we won a trophy, it spent a few days in Christine’s house.

We join Dragons Abreast for a range of personal and public reasons – to get fit, to find and give support, to raise breast cancer awareness, to have fun. Underneath we know what each other has been through, the fears and pain, and the hope of life going on. We also know that our death, or the death of one of our members from breast cancer is possible. How does the team cope when someone among us dies? It is confronting to see someone die of the disease you have had or are living with. It must be hard to be dying of a disease that many of those around you are surviving.

Sydney Dragons Abreast lost one of our members, Christine Barker, to breast cancer on 9 May 2004. When she became ill again, her husband Peter had a word that was easier for all of us to hear and to speak. That word was ‘journey’, and this is Christine’s journey, and ours.

Christine first had breast cancer in 2001. She joined Sydney Dragons Abreast when it started in February of 2003. In July 2003 she discovered that her cancer had returned, so she went back on chemotherapy and radiotherapy. When training started again in September, unwell as she was, Christine was there. At the Masters Games in Canberra, while she was having chemotherapy, and was tired and sick, Christine competed in a race. Even at Chinese New Year at Darling Harbour, when her balance was affected by the metastases on her brain, and she needed a stick to walk, Christine, wearing her special flower-garlanded hat, got into a boat and insisted on paddling up to the group for the Flowers on the Water ceremony.

Christine’s endless capacity to bounce back and join in was an inspiration to us. Every race we paddled in was for Christine. If we were a little over exuberant when we won – that was why. If she was not there when we raced, we immediately rang Christine to tell her how we had gone. Whenever we won a trophy, it spent a few days in Christine’s house.

As she got progressively more ill, Christine was cared for at home by her husband and son. Soon the palliative care staff came daily. Some of us telephoned and went to visit whenever we could. We took flowers, or food, or music. Christine was always pleased to see us and to hear the latest gossip. Eventually, when Christine needed someone to be around all the time, Peter drew up a roster of people to help care for her while the family rested, and some of the team members offered to be on it. Sometimes we massaged her feet and arms, or helped bathe her. When we knew her journey was nearly over, we said goodbye.

When Christine died, Margot, our team captain offered support for those who wanted to talk. Michelle and people from other teams sent us messages of love and support. The Canberra team had a minute’s silence for Christine. These are the things that Dragons Abreast is about.

Many of us attended Christine’s funeral, or celebration of Christine’s life, as Peter called it, at the Balmain Sailing Club. At Peter’s request, we brought our paddles and wore something pink. Christine’s casket, lovingly decorated in decoupage by Peter, lay near a window overlooking the sun sparkling on Sydney Harbour. By the wall was a table covered in Christine’s special things – her flowery hat, her rashie, her riding hat, her paddle. There were few flowers, as Peter wanted money to go to Dragons Abreast instead. Some of the team members played flutes and sang during the service. Members of Peter and Christine’s family, and their friends, read poems and talked about Christine, and Peter made a lovely speech. Dragons Abreast, and its special place in Peter and Christine’s lives, was mentioned often. Later, many people came up to us to thank us for our support, and to tell us how terrific we, from Dragons Abreast, are.

At the end of the celebration, pall bearers, some of them women, carried Christine down to the jetty and onto a boat through a Dragons Abreast Guard of Honour. A beautiful duet from La Traviata, Christine’s favourite opera, played over the loud speaker. Four of us got into two smaller boats and spread flower petals on the water in front of the boat carrying Christine across the water. The other team members, and family and friends, stood at the waters edge and threw more flower petals into the water.

In memory of Christine, and as an important part of grieving for her, and in a way, for what has happened to our own lives, the team will have its own Flowers on the Water. Christine’s paddle, with an engraved plaque on it, will travel in our boat with us whenever we train or compete.

No one wants to face the end of their own or anyone else’s life. Few of us talk about it or are prepared for it. Being alongside of Christine for this journey has shown that with people around who love and care for you, who value you as a person, who visit and talk to you even when you can barely respond, who stay by your side, it is possible to face the even the hardest challenges. A joke, a kind word, a gentle touch – they are everything.

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