Shaun Phillip Naylor
To the moon and back
Disclaimer: This blog post is a long one and I talk about death and loss and feelings. I hope you feel comfortable reading it and I hope that you might read it to the end. It was a cathartic and emotional process to write this out, but I feel a little bit lighter for doing so.
Recently I lost a dear friend of mine to that awful illness that touches us all. Cancer. My gorgeous friend Flynn. Flynn who’s real name is name Eryl. (not hard to see how how we came up with that nickname) How would I describe Flynn? I would say she was one of the most genuine people I have ever known. She was the kindest soul with the biggest heart. She was a complete geek and oh, So funny, and smart. Flynn didn’t deserve to go through the years long battle with the big C. But then again, who does? She faced every diagnosis and treatment head on, guns-a-blazing and with so much dignity and a positive outlook
Recently I was told that, in life we have our biological family and our ‘logical’ family; the people and friends who just understand us and love us through all the ups and downs. Flynn was definitely my logical big sister. She came into my life at a point when I needed her guidance. But of coarse I didn’t know that yet. I often describe Flynn as someone who changed the trajectory of my life and that I wouldn’t be who I am today without her friendship and council. Unfortunately as the years passed by we all knew that someday our beloved friend would no longer be with us.
I met Flynn 16 years ago when I was 18. I had just come out as gay and had started work in a local gay club called ‘Street-Life’ in my home town of Leicester. For the most part people were kind. However, I quickly learned about the pecking order and hierarchy of the club scene. I naturally gravitated toward Flynn, she was kind and nurturing to the new staff. We started to build a friendship and I always looked forward to seeing her. Flynn didn’t work there all that often and and was kind of interesting and aloof, and over the next few years my logical family took shape. We all spent so much time together and we always had so much fun. Myself, Flynn, Alexandra, Emma, Chris, and the one and only Jules. Through Jules we became friends with Michelle and her sister who is also named Emma and later Rachel. As the years came and went some of us have drifted apart and to this day (although we are all still in touch thanks to social media) I remain incredibly close with Jules, Michelle, Emma and Flynn.
some of my Logical family. Flynn, Me, Emma, Benny & Jules
Eventually I moved back to Australia. Over the years the distance and time differences have sometimes proven difficult. For a while there I even experienced ‘radio silence’ from Flynn, this was around the time that she was going through the thick of it with her cancer and she didn’t want to concern me. Sometimes, when I was having a rough time I would call her phone just to hear her voice on her voicemail. During those silent years I never held it against her, as it was her battle and she needed to do it her way.
Emma, Flynn and I, back in the day
In 2017 I got a call from Jules telling me that Flynn was in a bad way with her cancer and had been given a time frame to live. So obviously we got saving so we could make the trip over to spend some time with Flynn before the inevitable. By November we were on a plane to the UK. I was having so many feelings, I was sad and nervous about seeing Flynn. I hadn’t seen any pictures of her in a while and I didn’t know what to expect. I was also excited to catch up with family, both logical and biological and I was excited for Benny to experience the UK for the first time.
Once there we did the rounds with friends and family, we did a bit of sight seeing before heading to Wales with Jules to see Flynn. We arrived at the cottage first and when Flynn showed up she got the nickname ‘faker’. Other than a slight limp and her super short hair you would have never known anything was wrong. Once again Flynn was showing us all how to gracefully handle a bad hand dealt to you by life. That weekend will go down as one of the best in my whole life. We laughed, drank our favourite wine, we played games, ate great food and created new memories. My partner, Benny finally got to meet MY people. The whole trip was nothing short of perfect.
When we flew home to Australia the days of ‘Radio silence’ were long gone. We all shared regular updates and group chats. About 12 months passed by when I got a message from Flynn. She said her prognosis wasn’t looking good but she will be fighting as she still had so much to do. She loved to prove the doctors wrong. I was just hoping that she would see Christmas. Flynn loved Christmas and so do I. Thankfully she did get to see Christmas. The messages and updates kept coming and she did a great job of playing down her symptoms to me. Back in Australia we spent Christmas at the creek. I took a picture of Benny floating around the creek on an inflatable flamingo. I sent it with a simple Merry Christmas message and Flynn sent one back. This was the last communication that would ever happen between the two of us, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Over the next days I knew something was wrong because she hadn’t responded to my messages. On new year’s eve I had a break down. I had the thought that Flynn might not get to see another new year begin. I started to cry, then I began to sob. the tears were coming so hard and fast that I couldn’t catch my breath. Here I am on New year’s eve crying into Benny chest, trying to verbalise all of my feelings to him between sobs. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t stop the tears, I couldn’t breath, I felt like I was being suffocated by my own sadness. A few weeks prior, Benny (who had lost his brother years earlier) tried to tell me that he was concerned for me and what was coming. He described it as a wave coming at me and there was nothing he or anyone could do or say to prepare me for it. It must be such a helpless feeling knowing the kind of wave of emotions which are about to hit a loved one and also knowing that they have no choice but to go through it.
In the past I have had to say goodbye to pets and like everyone else I have lost grandparents. I remember when we had to have our family dog Milla ‘put to sleep’. That was a sad day. I went to work and came home on my lunch break expecting her to be there so I could say my goodbye. Unfortunately my stepdad Brian had already taken her to the vet, I was too late. I called my mum and I remember saying (holding back the tears) to make sure that Brian remembered to bring her collar home.
When my grandfather Ken had a heart attack (he recovered) and again years later when he passed away, I remember really hoping that I had made him proud in some way. I am the first, and currently the only grandchild who identifies as gay and for years I was encouraged not to let my grandparents know as they were from a different generation and may not understand. Later when they eventually found out, my granddad made a very inappropriate yet very funny remark that made me think he might be okay with me being gay, or at least comfortable enough to make a joke, and that was enough for me. I loved my granddad so much. Still to this day I find myself hoping he is proud of the man I have become. From a very young age we learn that pets and grandparents won’t always be there and we are lucky to have them in our lives. We kind of mentally prepare ourselves for their departure. hoping that knowing might somehow ease the loss.
When Benny warned me that losing Flynn was going to be different, I didn’t understand what he meant. So on New year’s eve when I couldn’t catch my breath, when the tears refused to stop, he had perfectly and unexpectedly captured the emotion of it all. It is like a wave, it’s like being lost at sea, at night, in a storm. You are being pulled under, you get dragged down by the emotional waves of sadness. It forces you under, you struggle to resurface from under your tears. You gasp for breath as the next wave pounds you back under, but you continue to try and fight it. Eventually I gave into it and I rode the wave of sadness until the tears began to pass, at least for that night.
On the 2nd of January I went back to work and at about 11 o’clock I was telling my friend and colleague Tennille that i felt something was wrong with Flynn. That a part of me was expecting a phone call to tell me the worst. I just knew deep inside myself that it was coming. The next morning I went about my routine, put on music whilst I was getting ready for work. Halfway through my bathroom performance of ‘make your own kind of music’ my phone rang. There was my friend Jules’ beautiful face smiling up at me as my phone vibrated on the bench. I looked at it with dread. Jules and I usually converse through messages so I knew exactly what was coming. I sat down on the end of my couch, took a breath and picked up the call. “Hello, my love.” “Hi, pal“. “Is this the call I think it is?” “yes buddy, Flynn passed away.” How I felt after the call still perplexes me.
Jules is the biggest sweetheart and I am her number one fan. I am so proud of her for keeping her shit together on that call. I don’t think I could have done it. The sweetest part was when she asked me where Benny was and I told her he was already at work. She got a bit mad at herself for ‘not doing it right’ and not making sure I had someone with me for support and that I wasn’t alone. Jules, I had you on the other end of that phone, I wasn’t alone, babe. We spoke for a short time, I asked questions, she answered what she could. We told each other that we love one another and we ended the call.
I put down my phone and I took a deep breathe in. I held it in. I don’t remember letting it go. My mind was silent, I was still. I felt as though I could hear everything so clearly. Every little tweet coming from the birds outside my window. I could hear the wind rustling through the leaves of the neighbours palm trees. the creak coming from the ceiling fan as it spun around on it’s fastest setting. I could hear neighbours kids two streets back. I still don’t know if I was incredibly distant or really in the moment. The silence in my soul was making the background noise deafening. I could feel my eyes welling up with tears as I just sat there, I could feel them reaching the brim, ready to fall. But they never fell, they just stayed there never quite managing to roll out. I got up and I walked over to the back door, I opened it and took one step outside. there was a warm morning breeze. Here I was looking at this brand new day, which was also Flynn’s very last. I felt like a stranger in my own body. As random as it sounds, I couldn’t help but flashback to the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Buffy’s mother dies. I remember standing there in my doorway thinking how perfectly they had managed to capture the first moments of a loss on television. Then I got mad at myself for thinking about a T.V show when I should have been thinking of my friend. It was by far one of the strangest emotional moments I have experienced.
I went back inside and sat down, I took another moment for myself before picking up my phone and calling Benny and then my mum. I sent a text message to Emma as Jules had told me that Michelle was telling Em the news. I called work and took the day off to process, but truth be told, I don’t really remember too much of that day. I was in a bit of a daze, it just didn’t feel real. I did make my way to a local tattoo parlour and had Flynn’s name tattooed onto my arm, next to the compass to Neverland from Peter Pan which I had done after we came back from the UK trip. The next few days were spent messaging back and forth with my logical family and reaching out to Flynn’s fiance, Gray. I couldn’t make it to the funeral and that was eating me up inside. Gray insisted that Flynn would understand and that I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. I shared with him some of my feelings and memories about Flynn, which he worked into her eulogy. This gave me some piece of mind and allowed me to feel a part of the service.
Because of the time difference between the UK and Australia, when Flynn’s funeral was taking place it was close to midnight for me. Benny had gone to bed but I wanted to stay awake for a while longer. I went outside to look at the stars. Flynn loved the stars, (I have four tattoos dedicated to Flynn, three of which contain stars.) I sat on the ground and started speaking to Flynn in her new home, up with the stars.
Since we lost Flynn it has been so tough for me and all who knew her. She was such an inspiration to all of us and she touched a lot of lives. I find myself full of anger as I chart these unfamiliar waters of loss. I am resentful that the universe took my friend away. She fought so damn hard. Every time she managed to pick herself up the universe pushed her back down, and she would just get right back up again. Flynn didn’t deserve this, that’s not how things are supposed to work. She fought every single day, she was supposed to win. She deserved to win. She deserved to have beaten the cancer, to have gotten married to Gray in a beautiful ceremony, where we all would have seen her glowing with love on that day. Flynn deserved to grow old in the home of her dreams where we could go and hang out and talk about all the memories we had created with each other over the years. I am angry! I don’t understand how she can just be ‘gone’. Where did she go? I find myself asking that question a lot. Every time I look up at the stars I ask ‘Where are you Flynnie? are you up there?’
There is so much that we don’t understand about loss, about grief, about life and death. But what I do know is that Benny got it right. Grief is like a wave. You’re standing on the shore and it is coming for you, sometimes you can see it, but you can never stop it. The best you can do is try to stay afloat and hope to ride it out. But it is unpredictable. I am still on my wave and I am trying to forgive the universe for taking Flynn, but I don’t know if I will ever truly be able to. For now, I will join the ranks of people who continue to live with a loss, as we watch the waves approaching others, who will eventually get past the breaking waves and into the calmer water on the other side. Where we sit and wait for that next wave.
making memories with Flynn and Emma
the last thing I would like to do is share with you all a message we received from Flynn in her final months. It shows how brave she was right up until the end. Our Wonder Woman.
“So, for me now it is just a matter of time. They can’t say how long so I’m taking everyday as it comes and enjoying everything. I am going with a big smile on my face after doing all the things I wanted. I hate telling the people I love this, but I did promise. I think my wings came in early and I have a few jobs to do where you guys can’t go right now” – Eryl (Flynn) Roberts.
We love you Flynnie, all the way to the moon and back!