I wrote a poem as a tribute to a local Maleny man who died recently, someone I counted as a friend. His name was Col, and he was known to locals and tourists alike as being a very friendly, delightfully eccentric old fellow who seemed to be on a good-natured mission to encourage everyone he met.
When the news came through that he had died it was a shock; and when I found out it wasn’t by natural causes, that was a really big shock. Col – this kind, quirky local character – had been taken from us; and it seemed very, very unfair.
‘Magic Col’ was often to be seen in Maple Street, the main street of Maleny, walking up and down saying hello to everyone he encountered. Locals, tourists, shop keepers, buskers – he had a kind word for everyone. He really enjoyed being positive and was very generous with his attention. Some people would get a word or two, others he’d talk to for ages, but everyone got his big smile and the twinkle in his eye.
There was a memorial service for him a fortnight after he died. There was over 200 people there, and it struck me then just how many people’s lives he had touched. Many people addressed the crowd to tell how Col had helped them when they were down, how “he lifted me up”. One man said “he knew how to turn any negative into a positive.” Amongst the mourners there was tears, hugs and lots of stories about ‘Magic’ as we grieved and said goodbye to the ‘Maleny Angel’.
He had looked the part of a Maleny angel. He had a big bushy grey beard, and he was usually dressed in an old t-shirt, boardshorts and a battered baseball cap. He had the weathered look of someone who’d been around. Whenever Kerry and I would bump into him he’d tell us how wonderful it was to see us: “Look at you two beautiful people!” with a huge smile. He’d encourage us to keep on being ourselves and then he’d say a phrase that he used a lot: “remember to smile and stay beautiful, people!”.
He seemed to be on a mission to joyfully encourage the whole world to ‘smile and stay beautiful’. Another Col phrase was ‘keep shining your light’. These words never seem contrived or pretentious, because he said them in such a joyful, sincere way; I always left our meetings with him smiling. I didn’t know much about him at all apart from his name, but I had the impression that he’d faced some struggles in his life and that out of that struggle had come this enthusiasm for living and encouraging people to “remember to smile and stay beautiful”. At the memorial I heard that many years ago he had suffered a massive aneurysm and had spent 7 months recovering in hospital. A few people said it was that near death experience that had given him his unique enthusiasm for life.
I first heard about Col’s death on social media and there was a lot of shock, and a lot of grief. There was bewilderment that such a loving person could have ended his life in such a way; it seemed especially wrong. The other thing coming through on those threads was a lot of anger, which is natural given the circumstances. When I read that anger directed at the other person involved I could feel myself becoming angry in response, my sadness starting to curdle into resentment and blame.
Mindfulness was my friend that day, because I allowed myself to feel that anger, and recognised it as part of my grief. But I also encouraged myself not to get stuck in that anger, which was what I felt was happening in some of the comments. I had the sense of people’s grief and loss starting to morph into hate.
If we’re not mindful about that sort of thing it can take on a life of it’s own, particularly on the internet. So the self care in that moment was to be aware of the anger, accept it was there and by doing that not let it become anything more than grief expessing itself. When the moment of anger had passed, I realised that being stuck in that anger would be the exact opposite of what Col was about. His response to someone stuck in anger or depression would be to help lift them out. “Remember to smile, beautiful!” he’d probably say.
So for my own sake, and for the sake of other people grieving the loss of a friend, I put all that into a poem to help myself and the community process the grief and the anger.
It’s important to be aware of the stories that we tell ourselves. I know from my own experience how easy it is to get into the habit of telling stories about how bad things are. If you tell yourself those stories enough pretty soon the whole world looks awful. I’ve lived with depression most of my life, so I speak with some experience here.
If I get stuck in those stories about unfair and awful things then soon the world starts to look like an awful place full of unfair people, and I can spiral down into depression.
Magic Col was about doing the exact opposite of that; he was about telling stories that lift us up. Stories that remind us we can choose what we do or say, and by choosing mindfully – by ‘remembering to smile and stay beautiful’ – we are being kind to ourselves and making things better for ourselves and the people around us.
In death, as in life, Col’s message is a catalyst for hope. So remember to smile, and stay beautiful, people.
Here’s me talking on ABC Sunshine Coast Radio to Sheridan Stewart about Col, and how the community responded to his death. I recite the poem at the end: