May 22, 2024
Monica’s List

Helping my friend check items off her life’s list.

By Stephanie Fleming

Monica had a list of things to do before she died. I found it strange, since she was in her 20s. I have a list of things to do before I turn 40, which will probably become the list of things to do before I turn 50. Nonetheless, I was willing to help her tackle a few important items.

She was finishing a two-year job in American Samoa (an item on her list). She was working as an assistant public defender there, helping the poor. She loved to help people, though she tried hard to hide it. She’d try to maintain this gruff don’t-care-about-anyone exterior, but it never worked.

One day in April, not long before her 30th birthday, we met in Sydney, Australia. She was impatient to leave the city; it seemed Sydney was not on her list. She was used to the no-frills atmosphere of Samoa, and found the big city far too urbanized.

We rented a small car and began the long trek north. We were taking the scenic route to Cairns, where we planned to spend a day scuba diving (or snorkeling for me) the Great Barrier Reef, and then would try to spot the elusive duck-billed platypus.

Cairns is about 1,600 miles north of Sydney along the east coast — a long journey for anyone but two women on a mission.

Monica drove most of the time, believing that her week-long jaunt to New Zealand the year before had made her an expert at driving on the opposite side of the road, and maneuvering around the circles at just about every intersection.

She forged ahead through the treacherous, winding, roads, shifting gears and smoking cigarettes, complaining, in between puffs, that she had no clue where she was going. Many times, from my view over her left shoulder, I believed we would plummet to our deaths off the steep cliff that appeared to have no bottom, while Monica struggled to take one last drag.

“You should take a picture of this. Me, shifting and driving on the wrong side of the road,” she’d say. “I need proof of this.”

She put the cigarette back in her mouth and posed for my camera. Monica was always worried that people didn’t take her seriously enough.

After the click of the camera, she jerked the steering wheel to the right to keep us on the road. We managed to get to the Gold Coast, a city of high rises on the beach, infinite waterways and countless tourists. We stepped out of our tiny tin can into a hot and sticky tropical climate, leaving behind the jackets we wore in Sydney.

Just up a steep mountain road, we entered the rain forest. Small caves littered the terrain. We parked and ventured inside one. It was pitch black, even in the middle of the day. As our eyes adjusted,
a glow from the ceiling of the cave seeped through the darkness. There were hundreds of glow worms dangling above us.

I ducked, thinking they would fall on my head. It was as if someone had taken a box of glow sticks and thrown them up in the air.

Something zoomed past my head.


A puff of air hit my earlobe as the creature zipped by. I ducked again.

“Bats,” I heard someone say.

I skulked back toward the entrance. I reached the light just outside the cave and felt the rush of freedom come over me as I finally stood up straight.

The next day, we flew three hours to Cairns, scorching sunshine following us. Across the street from The Cairns Youth Hostel, we waded into a swimming lagoon, where a sign warned children against pretending to drown. The actual beach was a cluster of black muck that appeared to have washed in from an oil refinery.  The crystal clear lagoon provided a refuge for tourists who came to the shore for
a dip in the sea. Nearby, a pier full of bars, restaurants and shops stretched out past the soiled sand and into deep blue waters, where we watched boats returning from excursions to various parts of the
Great Barrier Reef. We were just a short ship ride away from marking an item off Monica’s list.

Our first morning in Cairns was Monica’s birthday. A local tour guide named Rick, whom Monica befriended on a smoke break, directed us to Haba Dive Adventures, an adventure company leading
daily excursions to the remarkable reef. A group of young handsome men greeted us at the boat.

“Don’t get too excited,” Monica warned me, “Rick said they’re all Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Saddened but somehow feeling safer, I boarded the boat. A basket at the entrance contained individual packets of Dramamine. The boat boys warned us to take a packet if we thought we would experience any motion sickness. “I won’t need any, I told them. “I never get seasick.”

Packed with bathing suit-clad voyageurs, the boat left the dock and headed for Opal Key. The strong winds left us confined to our seats with white knuckled grips on the railings. As the boat fought through the gusts, we were tossed about and thrown through the waves. My stomach began to churn. Where is that basket? Is it too late to take the medicine?

I lowered my head and prayed for the nausea to pass. It didn’t. I stood up and looked for one of the¬†Witnesses. We found the Dramamine scattered on the floor, and he picked one up and handed it to me.

I staggered over to a long bench and curled up in a ball, waiting for relief. Thirty minutes later, Monica woke me with the news that we had made it to the reef. She was putting on her dive suit.

“Time to go,” she screamed, as though the boat was being invaded by pirates.

The scuba divers were partitioned off into a group for special instruction. They were waiting for Monica. She hopped over to join them, struggling to put on her flippers. I sat up and looked around. No land in sight. I felt my stomach flip flop, but the nausea was gone. And then so was Monica; with a loud splash, she’d leapt into the water flippers first.

Long fingers of red coral danced by a large rock on the bottom of the sea. I had read on Wikipedia that there are over four hundred species of corals found at the great reef. I felt like I was seeing them all
at once. One piece resembled the human brain. Just beyond that was a patch of long strands of blue, purple and yellow corals, swaying with the waves. Nearby, I spotted a coral that looked like several clam shells sewn together. A long thin green fish glided by, barely distinguishable from a piece of sea grass. I drifted along in awe.

Finally I peered up out of the water and realized I was alone, far from the boat and the other snorkelers. I began to swim frantically towards the boat, remembering the movie I had seen about the tourists who were inadvertently left by their boat captain to be eaten by sharks.

I made it back to the rest of the snorkel group near the boat. I had been in the water for an hour and a half. “Fifteen more minutes until we leave, the Jehovah’s Witness in charge told us.

I returned my mask to the water to search the reef for Monica. The divers were beginning to surface and climb aboard. Of course, we had to wait for Monica.

She smiled all the way back to the dock.

Next we headed for the mountains. We were searching for a cabin called “On the Wallaby,” where, according to Rick the tour guide, we could see a duck-billed platypus.

Monica couldn’t wait.

“I have to see a platypus. It may not make sense to anyone else, but it is a must for me. And no, I have no good reason why, so don’t even ask,” she headed me off.

We stopped at every body of water along the way, searching for signs of a platypus. We sneaked to the shore from every direction, hiding behind trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature.

Night fell. Back at the cabin, we were greeted by a tall young man with long blond curls. “I’m probably the only one who can still find a platypus,” he bragged. “They are getting harder and harder to find, and sometimes days go by without a sighting.” Monica’s face began to show worry. “There is one almost certain way,” he continued. “You have to go to this lake just before dawn, and sit and wait until one swims by.”

“I’m there,” Monica declared. He gave her directions to the lake and wished her luck. Spotting a duck-billed platypus had become a popular quest in this area, and Blondie led a group of people every
day on a canoe trip with the purpose of locating one. Monica took his directions and we went to our room, with its bunk beds, wood floors and vaulted ceilings.

I awoke at 10 the next morning, with a pounding headache, courtesy of our effort to try beers from every region in Australia at the local pub the night before. We were leaving Cairns that evening. Sadly, I realized Monica would not get to see the platypus.

Just then the door swung open, and in bounced Monica, her jacket zipped up to her chin, her backpack slung over her right shoulder. Her smile was unmistakable. She’d checked off another item on her list.

I didn’t know then how important it was for her to meet this goal, and neither did she. The image of Monica proudly bursting in that morning, in her zipped-up jacket, is seared into my memory. A year afterward, she suddenly passed away.

I hold on tightly to the memories of that trip. And I’ve developed an appreciation for checking items off the list.

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