On this day last week I went to a funeral for a 15 year old boy.
His name was Geoff. I loved that young man. I wasn’t the only one. He was an extraordinary human being. It was a heartbreaking moment three weeks ago when I received a phone call from a friend in tears telling me that Geoff had died that morning in a mustering accident. Writing is my balm so it is my natural inclination to use this method to record my own tribute of memories for him and my dear friend, Geoff’s mother, Allana.
The funeral was sad, yet it was positive. Even as I write this, that sentence sounds like a contradiction when you are talking about a funeral about a 15 year old boy. However as sad and as tragic as losing such a young life, this young man had such an assured faith in the message of salvation that I don’t think anyone who was at the funeral could have left without considering the positive components of the Christian faith, mostly that in death we can have certainty that as a believer that we will have eternity with our God.
Most people wouldn’t be arguing about the validity of heaven at a graveside. After all, even those who do not fully know embrace a faith do find a heavenly afterlife an appealing suggestion. But for it to be a certainty, to have a confident religious belief that makes both logical sense and for it to change your heart, to to have truly encountered the love of Jesus, you live life differently. You live it so differently that you make a difference in the world and in other people’s lives. Geoff, although young, had a full assurance of his faith and he lived his life differently to your typical teenage boy. He lived it remarkably, and that is why in our sadness, listening about the stories about that young man was such a positive experience.
Let me tell you my memories of Geoff.
Back in 2017 my eldest son, who was in year 5 at the time, made what I found to be an astonishing statement. “Mum, I’ve got a new friend that I’ve been sitting and talking to a lot at lunch time.” I might sound like a mean Mum saying that this was astonishing, but let’s just say I know my son. At that point in time he had his cousin who was his bestie since kindy (and before!) and his one best friend for the past 3 years, and they were always together like glue in what was and continues to be, a rock solid, meaningful friendship. But other children? They were in his orbit, but he didn’t talk about other children all that much.
But then he started talking about a new kid named Geoff. Geoff shared many of Jonty’s same loves: farms, the land, motorbikes and cattle. Jonty would come home chattering about the conversations he had with Geoff.
I can’t remember exactly the day I met Geoff, but I can remember meeting his mother Allana. I know I had met Geoff beforehand and had already verified my suspicions that he was a nice kid, the type of kid who was confident and had a beaming smile that made his eyes sparkle. To Jonty’s delight we changed swimming lesson days and suddenly we were sitting waiting for lessons and there was Geoff also. I was standing poolside one day when a lady approached me and introduced herself as Geoff’s mum and told me that their family were praying for me everyday. This was the year that I discovered that I had cancer. Geoff had heard about this at school and come home and told his family and they all started praying for us. A family they didn’t really know at all. I was so humbled, moved and grateful.
Allana told me how they drove past our house most days and every time Geoff would get excited and tell her that it was his friend Jonty’s house and could they pop in. Knowing Geoff so much better now, I could just hear how enthusiastic his pleas would have been to do this. I’m so glad that when I heard this I told her they should come over and invited them over for playdates. When they did, I fell in love with Geoff and his family a little bit more. His Dad, Darren was quieter than Geoff and Allana. But he was still easy to talk to and had depth as well as a sense of humour and an easy going nature. Alex got along with him really well. Geoff’s two younger brothers were adorable little fellows, also quieter than their big brother. I’d started getting to know them on swimming lesson days and they were soft and sensitive little fellows. Geoff’s little brother Tommy even though quiet could still be a little chatterbox but has a beautiful soft and kind heart and Callum is a shy, but happy and content, little fellow and would happily join in playing with my children.
One day we were waiting beside the carpark at school and Allana commented that we had a mutual friend that Darren used to hang out with their children during his homeschooling days. Knowing the ages of those children, I commented she must be way younger than me. She seriously replied, that she is not that young at all, she’s over 30. My mouth closed as then I tried to stifle a giggle as I informed her that I was over 40. Her eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened but thankfully making no comment on my elderly status! Despite the age difference our friendship blossomed during poolside chats and continued as our children played enthusiastically with one another in between swimming lessons and our families would visit one another’s houses and the kids would run around like wild things playing tag, finding wood to burn bonfires and generally doing things that active boys, and one active girl, do.
From those final years of primary school and beyond I have so many lovely memories of Geoff. Always, always those memories are accompanied by a contagious beaming smile and the enthusiastic sound of his voice. Geoff, spending his birthday money buying not only himself lollies for his birthday but also the other children. Geoff, playing hide and seek in the garden, possibly the only times I can remember him remaining quiet, in his excellent hiding spots, but being a very loud seeker! Geoff, having been unable to clear a high jump bar and knocked out early in a sports competition, but had positioned himself behind the mat and was cheering all the other students on. (No matter which house they were in, although he did cheer particularly loudly for Graham house.) Every time a child would clear the bar he would be in a wild state of elation, jumping, cheering, whooping with the enthusiasm of an Australian Olympic swimming coach. Celebrating the efforts of others. This is one of the clearest memories I have of Geoff the encourager. I keep hearing from other students that Geoff the encourager is a common and widespread theme.
I remember sitting one afternoon for a couple of hours in my dining room helping him write his final speech as primary boy house captain. He had excellent ideas and scriptures for what he wanted to communicate to the primary school but just needed some help with structure and grammar. He spoke about Phar Lap, how he never gave up and how his heart was so large and how that helped him be a winner. I think Geoff himself had a heart larger than Phar Lap’s. I also remember that afternoon Jonty being most disappointed when Allana came to pick up Geoff because in his opinion Geoff had spent far too long with me and he had things he wanted to show Geoff around the farm. Luckily for Jonty and Geoff, Allana and I never did a quick pick up. So they happily ran off while we both chatted, which is what Allana and I do best. During the Year 6 graduation I was so proud of the way my neice Corinne who was the girl’s primary school captain and Geoff presented their speeches. Up until that point, I had never heard year 6 students present speeches to such a high quality.
I have more memories of Geoff participating in public speaking when he enrolled in a Toastmasters course that my sister and I ran while Jonty and Geoff were in year 7. Unlike my own child, who was softly spoken and a bundle of nerves, (although he did improve), Geoff was confident and showed a natural speaking ability. He shone during impromptu speeches and as an MC. During the final celebratory meeting when all the parents were invited my sister and I decided to choose the little year 7 boy as Toastmaster (MC) of the evening’s proceedings, even though there were students represented from every year level up to year 12. Geoff’s easy going nature and his friendly manner made him the natural choice despite his age. He had the ability to connect with an audience and to put the upcoming speakers at ease.
Although Jonty had made friends with Geoff at school and for awhile there in the beginning it looked like he might join Jonty’s school bestie crowd, it turned out that they were closer friends outside school. Allana has always said how funny it is that they got to know each other at school yet it was outside of school when they would be best mates. She has said it several times over the years and I can remember once we were at their place and I looked over as she commented. There were the two boys sitting so close to one another they were practically one person, dirt smeared over their faces from being outside in the paddock, heads touching together as they were watching memes on Geoff’s phone and laughing. It was just one of those motherly heartwarming moments. Jonty was an avid handball player and couldn’t imagine lunchtimes without handball. Geoff was not a handball fanatic and so they remained friends but it took a few more years before Geoff found his own bestie, Harry.
Even though Geoff and Jonty didn’t always hang out at school, they would catch up when we were able to. The Bertrams had a busy social life being very involved in their local church and having a very strong extended family network. Whenever we could work out a time the whole family would be excited. If it was just Geoff coming, the younger kids would be as excited as any celebrity that might come our way. Geoff always found time for the little kids, sometimes it was to Jonty’s annoyance. I can remember him complaining bitterly once over how much the kids jumped over Geoff and that it was embarrassing. They would even be more excited if we were catching up with the whole family. I had bumped into Allana in the shopping centre on the Thursday before Geoff died. She had made a meal for us because I was doing radiation and feeling a bit fatigued. I told her that we would far prefer to eat it with them if they were free. She agreed to do that, and then hesitated and said that Darren was thinking of going out to a relative’s property that they loved. She said she wasn’t sure they were going to, so she’d get back to me. That night I mentioned that I’d seen Mrs. Bertram and maybe we would have dinner with them on Saturday. Jonty’s head shot up from his dinner and his face beamed with excitement. The kids started bouncing in anticipation. Then I reiterated the word “might” and said that they may go out to the farm. The kids became quite matter of factly resigned at that point and decided that the farm would be a far greater drawcard, especially for Geoff. Oh, how I wish that we had that dinner.
The family had made it to the farm, at Geoff’s insistence and enthusiasm, working very hard the day before to make it happen for the family, who had a busy week. The next morning they made their way to the farm and on the way Geoff had a jubilient moment singing loudly about the glorious day when God would lead him into the promised land. It was not long later that he was in his Heavenly Father’s hands.
Our house has heard a lot of memories about Geoff being told over the past few weeks. And also so many reflections indicating how inspirational Geoff’s life has been. The memories of Geoff may be bittersweet, but they make us happy. The day after the funeral Jonty commented how he feels happier just hearing so many stories of how great Geoff is. One of the things Jonty has been sad about is the fact that finally he had been starting to find more times to connect with Geoff at school. He’s also found the conversation has flown more freely. Once Jonty is on a roll he is incredibly eloquent. But he can also be a bit socially awkward. I can remember in primary school him coming home and declaring that he needed to head out to Grandad’s farm. I asked why and he replied, “Because I need some more stories to talk to Geoff about!” By the end of last year and into this year it seems Jonty is finally cementing the art of small talk. It really is a learned skill for some people! Even Geoff had noticed it and had commented about how it was getting easier to talk to Jonty to Allana. I will always be appreciative that Geoff was the type of fellow that could maintain a meaningful friendship that they both valued even though there were awkward moments.
They were always best together when there was something to do. There is an agricultural show called “Farm Fest” in our local area. Allana and I would always pull our kids out of school and take them for a day. Part of their agricultural education. We would always try to coordinate times to meet up. It only happened once, and even then we left Jonty with the Bertrams because we had to get some other kids to soccer training. It was Jonty’s happiest Farm Fest ever. He also brought home the most loot ever. Geoff was far more bold than Jonty and would approach vendors with confidence asking if there was anything they would give away. Jonty came home with a plethora of caps, rulers, stickers, pens, etc.
Late last year they had started riding their motorbikes around the property we lived together. They loved the increased sense of freedom and adventure. As a mother, I loved how responsible they were together. Having fun, but riding safely within their ability levels. (That was Jonty’s own words of assurance to me.)
In July, it was Jonty’s 15th birthday. A few weeks later it was Geoff’s. Jonty wanted to have a small group of mates over and camp down the back paddock.(He has extended his friendship net over the years!) It was so important to him that Geoff was there. Geoff with all his family and church commitments had missed a few of Jonty’s parties and Jonty had never quite got over the disappointment that he didn’t get to show Geoff his favourite farm out West during his 13th party. I checked the dates with Allana and then went ahead and luckily it lined up for his other friends as well. I always feel honoured when parents trust their children with me, so I had been messaging the mothers throughout the evening and sending photos. At one point I had said about how responsible all the young men were and I’m just so proud of the group of guys Jonty hangs out with. They were all so polite, they looked out for each other and were patient with the younger children. I did mention that Geoff was by far the loudest. I could almost see Allana rolling her eyes as she typed back, “He always is!” But everyone laughed the loudest when Geoff was around also.
One of the greatest gifts Jonty and Geoff gave me when they became friends was that I too gained a beautiful friend. Despite the age gap I have always got on so easily with Allana. We just get one another. Even if it’s that we get how hard it is to keep a house tidy! And oh my goodness, how we can talk. And yet at the end when we have to leave, I feel regret that there’s far more to say! When I received my diagnosis that the cancer was no longer in remission I had lunch with Allana a few weeks afterwards. She said that she had cried for a full week thinking about that diagnosis. In fact Darren had to take her aside and remind her that even though she’s sad for her friend she has three beautiful boys of her own and they need her too! I’ve thought a lot about that advice Darren has given over the past three weeks. (Even now as I need to take my glasses off while I type because the tears are fogging them up.) It is my turn to cry with and for her. With Darren’s wisdom echoing in my head I’ve cried my tears and still carried on caring for the family and trying to keep up with life. Even writing this blog has taken so much longer than I have wanted. I started with “Today I went to a funeral” “Today”, changed to “yesterday” which changed to “this week” until it is what you read above. I wanted to lock myself in a room and pour my heart out through my fingers, but the word, “Mum” kept interrupting me. If anything the past weeks have taught me is that it is a blessing to have your children every minute of the day because as wearying as the fighting and interruptions are, the unconditional love and joy of family togetherness is far greater.
My heart aches for the level of pain that Darren and Allana are experiencing along with Geoff’s little brothers. I am also in complete admiration for the way they have honoured their son’s memory and been an incredible witness of how much hope we have in God despite being in the midst of the darkest tragedy. Almost every time that I text or speak to Allana she says, “God has been so kind…” and then will tell a story of kindness that happened to her that day. It is a time when many parents facing similar circumstances might understandably raise their fists in their air and yell, “Why?” Yet Allana tells stories of how God has been beside them through every moment. Their faith in their God is inspirational. (I know I keep using that word, but the thesaurus has no suitable substitute.) They have illustrated that a sweet trust in God brings far more peace than raging and blaming God. (Although God still loves people through their rage and blame if that is what happens when they grieve.)
I know I will never miss Geoff as much as his family will. But I miss him incredibly. I also miss him on behalf of my boy. Last Sunday Jonty was talking to his grandfather and arranged to go to a bull auction with him. He was jumping around excitedly when he suddenly doubled over and groaned. I didn’t know what happened and how he had experienced such sudden pain. When he straightened up he said, “I just realised that I can’t tell Geoff about this tomorrow.” They had always shared a love of cattle. When Jonty got his first cow he was so proud to print a picture of her and trot off to school with it to show Geoff. At his 15th party, he was very proud to show Geoff a picture of her calves. Every time, Geoff examined the photos in detail, asked a bunch of questioned and always shared his trademark enthusiasm. I cry at the thought that Geoff isn’t looking out for Jonty anymore. I got a text from Allana early last year saying that Geoff was worried Jonty was being bullied. He wasn’t. Well, the kid was mean, but it was nothing Jonty couldn’t shrug off. His response was, “That kid bullies everyone Mum, including the teachers.” But it made me feel good knowing that Geoff was the type of friend looking out for a slightly, (even though he is getting better), awkward friend.
I knew that Jonty and Geoff had a friendship that was going to last the years. I grieve the thought that they won’t be getting their licenses around the same time, graduating, getting jobs, going out to one another’s farms (because they both would have been doing something on the land) and examining each others crops, cows or whatever industry they were involved in. I’m sad they won’t be at each other’s weddings or thanking God and rejoicing at baby dedications when their children were born. I know Geoff is in a better place. But, oh my. It hurts that he’s not on earth with us anymore.
Thank you for living 15 amazing years Geoff and for sharing them with us.