Growing old is measured in losses, some agonising, some simply remarked and some just casually passing.
This morning in my quiet time I thought back to 1994 — 25 years ago.
In 1979 when I came from York to live in Hastings, this town on the foot of England, I was married to Rog and carrying our first child. Straight away I sought out our local branch of the National Childbirth Trust — a radical organisation back then, that transformed the practice of childbirth. The Hastings branch was just beginning. I became its treasurer and made friends with Carole, who was expecting her second baby and training as a breastfeeding counsellor. Then, the years went on.
In 1994 —fifteen years later —I was still firm friends with Carole. We had passed the age of babies and the youngest of my five children was seven years old. I had made many friends in Hastings and was training for ministry. Some of my special Hastings friends were Kay, Freddie, Steve, Charles and Chris. I met up with these friends often; we ate together, shared our hearts together, went deep. I was also training for ordained ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course in London, an Anglican foundation that trained Methodists too. Formation for ministry is powerful and transformative; it digs down to the roots of your soul. I made some special friends on that course, whom I loved with all my heart — Giles and Paul and Michael. They and I spent weekends together in their home or in mine, they got to know my children and my husband Rog. They were so dear to me. I also loved dearly the principal of the course, Martin Baddeley, and he too came to visit this town by the sea, to offer training to our Local Preachers, whose tutor I was back then. And so my London friends and my Hastings friends and my family wove into one fabric of love. Meanwhile, up in Liverpool, Tom Cullinan was living a beautiful discipleship of faithfulness and loving care of the earth, which taught me so much at that time and meant so much to me. I loved him.
Perhaps my dearest and deepest friends were Giles and Kay. My thoughts about baptism had evolved over the years and, while my first four children were baptised in infancy, I left my youngest child to make that decision herself. In 1994 she decided to be baptised; Giles and Kay were her godparents. That's a special relationship, isn't it? One you imagine will last for ever. Giles's involvement with my life even extended to my family of origin — he bought my father's racy little MG car. My father loved his cars.
It was a time so vivid with life and hope and purpose. Relationships that went so deep. A sense of mission and dedication. I was working in hospice chaplaincy and prison ministry and preacher training. I spent a lot of time with people dying and in bereavement, and took many, many funerals — weddings too. I preached twice most Sundays. I was writing books and raising a family. So much going on.
Now here we are in 2019, twenty-five years later. My father died at the age of 82, a sudden and merciful death — a main blood vessel to his heart split. I gave the address at his funeral. My friend Kay died of cancer a few years ago; I took her funeral, as was her wish. Tom is dead. Freddie is in his eighties now, and we keep tenuously in touch — a card at Christmas. It's the same with Chris. I saw Steve for the first time in years just recently — we bumped into each other at the opticians. He is still as kind and loveable as he ever was. We had lunch together and promised to keep in touch. But . . . maybe . . .
My husband Rog left me for someone else. We are still friends and our paths cross occasionally. I don't know if Michael is alive or dead. He drank more alcohol than he ate food, and always did live close to the edge. Giles and Paul I never see, though I look them up on the internet sometimes, to see how their lives and ministry are evolving. My youngest child lives far away now. I don't have the money to visit her, nor she me. We keep in touch online, and we love one another. Martin Baddeley is dead, and I have no idea where Charles is.
I married again, and my second husband Bernard died in 2004. I took his funeral.
I've written twenty or so books (lost count), ceased to be a Methodist minister, no longer take funerals, married Tony in 2006 — then my publisher of twenty years — and I'm writing what I think will be my last book.
But Carole, who was my friend before my children were born, before I trained for ministry or ever wrote a book, is still my friend. When we meet every now and then, it's as though time has stood still. We see each other's soul in the same way we always did, you know? We recognise one another.
So much changes. You lose what you thought you would keep forever. One of the things lost is the sense of self — few of us arrive at old age feeling proud of ourselves. Certainly not me. The sense of one's mediocrity settles in at some point in middle age, and takes root. The main thing I feel these days is gratitude. For every day my body doesn't hurt, I have a home that's safe and dry, I have food in the fridge and enough money to buy it, I can pay my bills and pick up clothes cheap on eBay — I am so grateful. I think of people who make shift in tents and hostels and refugee camps, people who are raped and starve, whose legs are blown off by land mines, people who are overtaken by diabetes and cancer, by Alzheimers and auto-immune conditions, the scourges of our time — and oh, my God, I am grateful. I live so quietly, I barely disturb the air; but here at the heart of my life the ember of gratitude burns and keeps me warm. I am blessed. I know I am blessed.
Time passes. What abides? So little, but some things do.