Joshua’s father and stepmother lived across the road from us. Like us, they were renovators, people who liked to tinker and do up old homes. They were about 3/4 of the way through their substantial renovation and had been in the street for around 2 and a half years when we arrived. They were excited to meet us when we moved in, and once discovered we had many common interests we became firm and fast friends.
Like me, Mrs Neighbour was a devoted foodie masquerading as a teacher. She was five or so years older than me, had taught most of adult life and was studying guidance counseling at Uni, working in that role in a region close by. She had met and married Mr Neighbour around 10 years before we met them. He was another 10 or so years older than her and had a son, Joshua. They raised Joshua together until just a few weeks before we met them, when Josh chose to move to Sydney to be closer to his biological mother. Filled with charm and charisma like his father, Josh worked in film and media, and quickly established strong career in Sydney, flying back for visits, full of stories of a life filled with promise.
The three of them were wonderful together, close and funny and good to be with.
We established a very close friendship and did many things together, with Mr Neighbour seeing himself as a ‘young surrogate grandfather’ to my boy. He was a funny man, – very trendy, always with current fashions and top ten music which cracked me up. We often went out for breakfast, sharing our love of good food, starting the day together with laughs that often bled into long weekends as we returned home to hammer, saw and demolish; and cook, eat and laugh. We had great input into each others renovations. At one point we had purchased 2 sets of silky oak french doors at auction which were keyed alike. They took one set and us the other. To this day, our key still opens the french doors of that house, and that key opens the set we installed. We were like family and shared respectful boundaries.
Joshua and Mr Neighbour were into extreme sports. Anything fast or adrenaline pumping had them hooked. And once a year Joshua, his dad and a group of men headed over to New Zealand where they took part in heli-skiing. To heli-ski is to jump from a helicopter at a certain height which gives the feel and thrill of a jump, land on a steep surface and continue the ski down the slope. It is very fast, very expensive and very dangerous.
That year, the snowfall had been great. It was a perfect trip and some great runs on the slopes and mountains had been had. On this particular day, the sky was the clearest, deepest blue – the kind of blue that you can only get in that breath-taking cold that fresh crisp snow on a sunny still day can yield. And whilst the sun was shining and the air was still, the threat of wind and strong snow falls were predicted for later that day.
Like so many days, so many times, so many people before them, Mr N and Joshua prepared to take yet another jump from the helicopter. It was to be the last run for the week, and for their trip. Mr N prepared himself first of the two, but last of the group. A tap on the shoulder and out of the chopper he went, experiencing that great thrill of delight and rush of adrenaline as he landed and searched suitable tracking. He could hear Joshua’s whoop of excitement as he came down several meters behind him. A quick look over his shoulder and he could see his son’s face under the beanie and balaclava, only just hearing his voice calling to his dad that all was OK as the wind whipped away the words… and then all of a sudden he could not see his boy at all.
The sun was still shining. The sky was still that glorious blue. The stillness, the silence that had been so glorious just minutes before was now eerie and mind numbing.
Joshua had vanished.
And as they were the last of the team to jump the line, there was no one around, anywhere.
Joshua had fallen through the snow into a chasm. The new, soft fresh snow had covered a death trap in pretty white fluff. White fluff that belied a long shelf of ice covered rock before stepping down into a long deep chasm into the earth. And 500 meters below that snow lay Josh on a bed of ice. With only the headlamp that all heli-skiers carry, Mr N shone the light down and reassured his son. His emergency kit contained a rope and supplies for such an event – an event heli-skiers are trained to deal with but never expect – but the rope was short by just meters. Meters.
I can only imagine the hours that followed. When Mr N retold the story it cames in moments and portions, the happenings fragmented into memory synapses. There is only so much a parent can want to remember of such an event. It appears that he had to complete the ski down the mountain to alert the officials. By the time the rescue team were dropped from a chopper, hours had passed. Miraculously, Joshua was still alive.
They slipped water and thermal warming supplies down via rope, but were hampered by the now falling snow and increasing winds. Rescue officials would not lower a harness without a tether that would sustain a possible avalanche, so again, hours passed before another chopper, equipped correctly, arrived. By that time, the winds were fierce and the snow was thick and Mr N was no longer able to stay at the glacier without risk to himself.
He had to be forcibly removed.
He called down to his son and said he would see him soon.
And as the chopper carried him away from the glacier, the mountain shook and the world caved in…
Joshua’s body lies, encased in ice, on that glacier to this day.
In spirit, he is joined by other snow and ice sports people. Mountain climbers, heli-skiers, trekkers. Whilst nature can keep the snow and ice and mountains at the temperature they are, Joshua remains 24 and beautiful. Every year, new snow falls and new ice is formed. The sky in winter is still that glorious, deep blue that comes with breathtaking cold. The snow falls are pure as white that blinds. Heli-skiers jump and glide and whoop to the thrill and although some may have a fleeting thought of danger and death, they are probably not even aware that they share the air with Joshua’s spirit as he glides and swoops and whoops forever.
As for my neighbours? The media circus followed them home and stalked our street for days until a new news story took it’s place. They were left with their home and memories, memories that nothing can erase. In Sydney, a massive memorial service was held. Joshua’s parents were presented with a wonderful, majestic tree which they were allowed to bring back to Brisbane. A tribute from The Australaisian heli-ski team, and all of Josh’s mates.
The tree lived in a pot for several months. The neighbours paid tradespeople to whip the house into completion. And the day they sold the house, she brought the tree over to me. She asked me to plant the tree in my yard as a memorial to Joshua, in a place where we had shared such good times as a family. And as we packed them up for their move to a new State to begin a new life, she reminded me to always care for the Joshua Tree.
I couldn’t bring the Joshua Tree with me when I moved.
I’m sorry, and I know you understand. But I can tell it’s story, and I promise you I will.