"Miracles come in moments. Be ready and willing."
The French-born, passionate writer Anais Nin noted that: "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." I've felt oddly diminished recently by unexpected animosity from a neighbour; staggering how pettiness can seem to impact on every area of daily life. It's made me shrink a little back into myself in the past month or so: my willingness to trust has wilted; the usually bright sleeve I wear my heart and soul on is held a bit closer to my side.
The upset prompted a visit to Portsmouth last Thursday; my sister was window-shopping and I wanted to take her to the Catholic cathedral of St John the Baptist. While we were there, my sister and I silently wrote prayer requests for a lovely lady called Jane, who'd become critically ill after battling a debilitating condition for more than a decade. Jane has been a friend to my family for most of my adult life: married to my brother-in-law's best friend, she seamlessly became my sister's closest confidante; she was also extremely kind to my mother when her own health and enthusiasm were failing.
In more recent years, I've come to know Jane better myself and often felt she was a natural ally and a font of stoic humour and warmth. She's always been a lively and tireless woman. Never knowingly unacessorised, her effortless elegance belied the hands-on occupations and long hours she worked to help make her family tick. With a voice perfectly pitched somewhere between Joanna Lumley and Sue Lawley, she delivered one-liners and venomless sarcasm with the widest grin. Her smile made me more comfortable with my own rather large gob. Jane has always reminded me of a bouncy but slightly concerned Head Girl: she seemed ready for anything, wanting to grab the day by the collar.
She probably wasn't ready for an infection in her big heart, in the prime of life, but until relatively recently she's soldiered on, swishing her shawl around her impatiently and cheerfully correcting my table etiquette.
Last autumn, Jane was present with her husband Brian as my sister's mother-in-law's ashes were interred; by now, she was in a wheelchair, which she clearly objected to but endured to get from A to B. My brother-in-law was trying to keep things together as he said a few words about his mother. Jane suddenly interrupted him very emotionally: "Tell her you love her Gordon; tell her you'll miss her everyday!" I hadn't seen Jane for a while and there was a passion and urgency I hadn't appreciated before: something had changed. I'd written a poem for Evelyn, which I read quickly. As we all turned to leave the cemetery, Jane asked me to write something for her when the time came. Upset, I told her I would, but that would be a long way off. She said quietly that no, it wouldn't be long at all.
A little less than a year on and I'm having to write that poem.
As my sister and I sat eating garlic bread at Portsmouth harbour, her mobile started up. Having been hospitalised with acute heart failure, the medical team had agreed with Jane that there was nothing more they could reasonably do. She had been transported home to be with the family she adored; all but palliative medication would be withdrawn. Anxious to clarify what was happening, I spoke to Jane's son Chris. He told me his mother was "ready"; she had assured them of that much. I realised immediately that Jane being ready was infinitely more significant and compelling than any professional prognosis of days or hours. Two days later, Jane died at home and in her sleep.
While I was travelling back from Portsmouth to Brighton, I channel-hopped on my radio headphones as the signalled bounced through train tunnels and over rural tracks. I kept catching one of my favourite David Gray songs from station to station. I'd introduced my mother to Mr Gray's music; "The one with the wobbly head", as Mum preferred to call him. She became so fond of "Babylon" that I later included it on the CD of music for her wake.
The song seemed quite prophetic to me as I travelled home last week. Not particularly concentrating on any biblical reference to mighty things falling away unexpectedly, I've always liked the imagery of the song's verses, with life's traffic lights changing from green to red and eventually on to green again. It made me think of Jane's readiness to embrace life, snags and all; to make perfectly sweetened and superbly served lemonade when you've had over-ripe lemons lobbed at you. My mother shared the same kind of resilience; although my dear Mum wasn't quite the domestic goddess: she would more probably lob the lemons back and ask for a half of Guinness.
When people are quite prepared to endure pain or even death, their readiness is seen as undeniable courage, Certainly Jane was brave to her last breath; I hope this provides some comfort and support for her devoted family. But more than this, something that was always the essence of Jane and so very evident last year at Evelyn's ceremony; Jane realised the importance of being ready for life and love. If you hope to embrace life, open your arms wide enough. If you have a mouth made for smiling, go ahead and grin. If you love someone, tell them; don't wait until the end of days for it to be The Right Time. Make that call, send that card, write that poem, swish that shawl. Live and love unconditionally for as long as you can and you will find yourself ready.
I haven't finished Jane's poem yet and I still haven't mastered the Downton Abbey way to hold my dinner knife, but I will, I promise.
"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
A smiling Jane, may she rest well and peacefully.
(Photo: Gigi, album)
"There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
The readiness is all."
"Babylon" David Gray (acoustic version)
"Only wish that you were here,
You know I've seen it so clear;
I've been afraid
To show you how I really feel
Admit to some of those mistakes I've made.
And If you want it come and get it
For crying out loud;
The love that I was giving you was
Never in doubt.
Let go your heart, let go your head
And feel it Now."