TW: This post deals with death, illness and grieving. If these are not themes you wish to engage in then I’d recommend you not read on.
Last night a friend of mine passed into that eternal sleep where we hope there will still be dreams. It was an ordinary death; it was not unexpected and unfolded step-by-step. Yet endings inevitably feel rushed in their arrival and it is both fair and unfair to call any death ordinary.
At least she was able to afford her loved ones the time to gather and be close by when the moment came. In the immediate echo of the news, I can hope that they managed to say what they needed to while she could still hear them. Perhaps she still can: proof the urgency to tell and be told is a needless naivety we humans have.
Questions of faith follow change.
Some time ago, she was diagnosed with an illness that had already lived in her quietly for some time. Uninvited, it had taken residence throughout much of her. I do not know how it began but this is not a detail to focus on. At the time of diagnosis, my recollection is that she was given a matter of months to live and advised to endure an invasive and destabilising course of treatments in the hope to be able extend this, perhaps even beat it. The chances were slim, but optimism must be part of all treatment and all around people tried to remain hopeful.
The details of the succeeding rollercoaster are unimportant. That she was still with us until yesterday is a true testament to her strength, courage and will power, and to the love of her family who wrapped around her like a protective cloak; unable to truly guard her but undoubtedly offering the walls and ladders to help her navigate the mazes of treatment and suffering that she must have faced throughout this time.
Two months ago I saw her for the last time. Before that it had been over a year and at that time I had expected that I was saying goodbye to her. Somehow, though I had been near again in between these visits, I could not bring myself to visit. My grief was already in motion and it didn’t feel right to interrupt it again with the hope that I had been wrong. But on this last visit I saw the best of her again, strong, smiling, witty and generous.
There is a perception with illness that the core of a person can be diluted: the loss before the loss. I did not experience this with her, though perhaps I saw her on a ‘good’ day. Regardless, I was grateful for the texture of this time, a long visit where I felt her quality of keen interest in who or what I was at that moment. A persistence to bring the conversation back to questions which cut through, a quality I treasure in her daughter who thankfully I count on being around for as long as I will be. A quality of wisdom and the container of a long life lived – two qualities I personally aspire to be able to offer in my later years.
That day we – me and my love amongst her and three quarters of her immediate family – sat on the brown leather sofas in the corner apartment that they had lived in for over 35 years. A home that pre-dated me by some way. I can only imagine how it would be to occupy a space as home for that long, particularly as I experience a period of life where the idea of home is not based in bricks, mortar or the lines of an address.
Walking in to this place, as I had first done six years before, is to walk into the un-selective support of a real home. Once you are invited passed the threshold, a home as this is cultivated to hold you. On my first visit, I was new to Glasgow and in need of an anchor point. In the months and years that followed she and her playful husband became two of those points as I navigated my whirl-winding twenties. Quiet supports who turned up unspectacularly to weird art performances, who brought us allotment veggies and who were willing to offer solace through communal activities like gardening, furniture rearranging or simple making of a brew.
Did I acknowledge their support enough? Do we ever? I can only hope they felt the love I have held for them both and the thanks that I hold as I live a life far removed from those early days when I was groping my way from the womb of being student. This is not about me and yet grief always is. If it were not, I would not feel the permission to write about it, for these words are reflections of my experience rather than assumptions of hers or those close to her.
Grief is at best an invitation self-reflection motivated by the sudden absence of someone whose impact on us we couldn’t wholly understand until they were gone. It can be harsh and sharp and debilitating, but whatever the experience that it gives in each visit – and be assured that there will be many such visits in a lifetime – grief invites a dedicated space to look back and assess our present moment and asks us to see what new awareness this brings. The lessons that will emerge from it – a promise to invest more in friendships or to take a risk we have been fearful to – may be learned this time or are part of longer learning, requiring the next grief or more acute forms of loss to become habits. Time will tell.
In truth, I do not anticipate feeling this grief as acutely as others. While she mattered to me she was not part of quotidian life. I was a visitor to her life and she to mine. Still, this morning I shed some tears, ugly, sniffling dedications to what she has meant. Gladness and sadness I wrote this morning. Gladness to have known her in some way. Sadness that the knowing will not find new chapters. Gladness that whatever suffering she felt is now passed. Sadness as a form of felt celebration, for all life precedes a death is extraordinary and hers was no exception.
Someone to aspire to.