On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to my Aunt. The Tuesday and Wednesday left me reeling in astonishment and wonder.

I stayed with dad. Always a risk. Dad is eighty-six, his world shrunken by dementia and Covid-19. He didn’t understand why I had travelled for the funeral. I tried to explain. He grunted, but I wasn’t sure if that was out of reluctant approval, or I still don’t get it. To me, it didn’t matter and dad has probably already forgotten.

We had circular conversations, that still carried on when I phoned him this morning. The tragedy of dementia. And yet there were moments of memories as sharp as if they were yesterday rather than eighty years ago. And optimism for the future; yes, at eighty-six. He remembered that at three-years-old, he was in hospital with a chest infection, and how his mum came to the hospital to tell him that there had been an accident and his dad had died; and the length of their garden.

And then that moment when he owned up, with very sad eyes, to missing mum, so much. And wondering whether he will recognise her when he leaves this life. “I would really love to see Heather…” And then his eyes lit up, sparkling with hope and expectation; a big smile spread across his whole face. “… But I can’t wait to see the Lord.” My own eyes well up with tears as I write. I have never met anybody so ready to take that final journey. I will cherish that moment. And then, as we said goodnight to each other, with a sense of mischief in his eyes, “I’m trusting we will see each other in the morning!” We laughed, but Dad was being serious.

When I said goodbye to dad, as I left to attend the funeral, I realised something. I don’t ever remember having my dad all to myself for that length of time. Nobody’s fault. Just the realities of life. We both told the other that we had enjoyed a great time together. I suspect dad has forgotten. But that memory will stay with me for a very long time.

Rewind to Tuesday afternoon. Eltham High Street. Costa. Barry, my cousin, had offered to meet up. Something we had never done before. Barry is still the spitting image of his dad – the clothes he wears, the way he talks and laughs, the way his personality filled the room, even in Costa. In the past, I would have felt intimidated, but not anymore. Probably an age thing – put in before Barry makes some joke of the ten years gap we enjoy.

The old me would have had a metaphorical crowbar hidden behind my back, to be used to prise open a big enough gap to shove God into the conversation. And as the conversation would have gone, I would have become more and more anxious, and even more determined to find the opportunity to shove my faith down Barry’s throat. But those days are gone. And because they are gone, I was able to enjoy the moment, the coffee, the man and the conversation.

And then to my shock, almost the first question, “So, have you had some kind of epiphany?” “You what?” No crowbar needed. I talked briefly about the hills of Northumbria in the freezing cold of February 2008, the circumstances that led up to it, and what happened. I could have talked for hours, but the conversation moved on.

I discovered that Aunty Joan, belonged to a Nordic walking group for years. I had no idea. We talked about the pain of broken relationships and the voids that are left when people die, or walk away. And we talked about Barry’s new career venture. A city banker for as long as I can remember, redundant, and now training to be a paramedic. There is so much more to this man than I had realised.

11.30 am. Falcon wood crematorium. As people gathered outside, there was a group of about twenty women, all dressed in purple hoodie’s – the Nordic walking group! It made me smile, and I heard Joan laugh! I met Barry’s three kids, all adults. They didn’t even know who I was. A sad indictment. In my very limited experience, funerals without faith (as far as I know), can be very depressing affairs. Not this one. There were plenty of occasions for smiles and sniggers along the way.

Both Barry and Julie said something, carefully scripted. Barry struggled, tears of sadness threatening to engulf his speech. He made it through to the end. And I know it sounds strange, but I was proud of him.

And I enjoyed the gathering at the pub, not just because of the food. I was able to relax and be myself, not feeling out of place. Barry, as expected, the larger than life character filled the room. Of course, he did. He had been trained well.

It was only as I reflected, driving home, that I realised something. Joan’s funeral and things written in the book of remembrance painted a picture of a woman, who loved life and family and friends, as best she could. She was a good friend, a leader, and somebody that anybody could turn to for advice and help. Pause. More tears.

And then I realised something else. The distortion of faith that I was brought up with, categorised people in two camps – in or out. In meant that you agreed, down to the last full stop, with a position of faith that has become for me quite ugly and distorted. And if you didn’t? I’ll leave you to work that out. The result of it all is that relationships, within family, within church, can very easily become toxic and broken. Whatever I thought I knew of Joan was only part of the story. And I will leave it there.

I had a text conversation with Barry the next day. The pivotal one simply said, Paul, hope you understand that a conversation last night (in Costa) was a huge support to me today. Thank you. Keep walking on the beach, it is good for you and us.

Partly in honour of my sorely missed Aunt Joan, and partly to stop me from tripping over while walking! I’m thinking of getting a pair of Nordic sticks for Christmas. Photographs to follow in due course!

And in the meantime, I want to do love, grace, kindness, beauty, wonder and mystery. Being myself. Nothing to prove or earn. Just being myself.

Goodbye Joan.

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