Yesterday was the 200 anniversary commemorating the birth of Charles Darwin. The museum here in Melbourne put on a very nice cocktail dinner and I was lucky enough to secure a free ticket to the event. The dinner reflected the theme of evolution and we grazed our way through the evolutionary tree with such delights as primordial soup (which tasted a lot like seafood bisque), crocodile skewers, and 'dinosaur' drumettes. The dinner culminated in a huge chocolate fountain (which was meant to resemble the lava flow following the meteor impact that killed off the dinosaurs). It was hugely entertaining. Apart from the food, we also got to go to the imax theatre and watch a documentary on the dinosaurs of Patagonia. The doco was in 3D and, although memerizing, left me feeling a bit queezy. There was even a circus performance aimed at teaching evolution to 3 year olds. With a great deal of artistic licence (and a whole heap of acrobatics, dancing and singing), the audience learnt how fish evolved into lizards and then into birds.
The razzle and dazzle aside, I had the opportunity to speak to a colleague whom I deeply admire and respect. He was down in Melbourne to attend an associated conference. The colleague lost his son less than two years ago and we spent an hour talking about all the motions that follow on from the tragedy. The nice thing about the scientific community in which I work is that it's a relatively close knit group and the impact of the death resonated across the country. But suicide is a difficult issue to grapple with and more so when the reasons are not clear. The manner in which outsiders deal with the situation can also be varied and, at times, frustrating for the family and friends that are left behind. It was nice to know that the colleague had received my card and it was even nicer to know that the message meant something to him and his family. What do you write on a condolence card under such circumstances? I remembered going to the newsagent, picking out the card, and turning to google for advice. After mulling over the message for a long time, I wrote it. Minutes later I tore it up and went back to the newsagent and bought another blank card. The second time round, I wrote the message I wanted to write. I cant remember exactly what I wrote now but my colleague said that it was one of a handful that really spoke to the family. These were cards, according to him, written by people who had either gone through similar loss or otherwise showed evidence of having gone through some kind of struggle. It was not conscious at the time, but I guess my struggle was my sexuality. Mind you, when I was still trying to grapple with it, I never thought of suicide (though, at times, I was incredibly sad). What I did come to realise though (and I think this was what may have come through in my message) was that, for a long time, I had hoped my parents had understood me enough to simply know that aspect about me without having to deal with the task of actually sitting them down and telling them. But gradually, I began to realise that perhaps kids misunderstand their parents too and the failure to open up to them for fear of how they might react is a barrier that is formidable but not necessarily real. I shared this thought with my colleague. His eyes welled up and we gave each other a hug.