Sunday, 24 January 2016
A lesson from a dying stranger
Twenty minutes. That's all it took. To know I'd never forget her. To know that her words will dance seductively in my head for years to come, and that perhaps, some of the best, most spontaneous, courageous or ridiculous decisions I'm yet to make will be somewhat part of her legacy. An accidental, precious, damn-fucking-important gift from an almost total stranger.
I met her in the summer of last year, at work.
'You need to talk to this amazing woman.' They said, 'And you need to share her story.' And so I did. And I will always feel heart-achingly, wide-smiling privileged to have done so.
Her story isn't by any means remarkable. She is living, and she will die. Before her time, just like so many unfortunate others. Terminal cancer. A painful, heartbreaking, completely unfair but all too common narrative in which the existence of a fierce, beautiful, laugh-as-loud-as-a-foghorn woman will be stripped, leaving yet another innocent child without the warm arms of their mother.
Her remarkableness isn't in her cancer story: not in those bastard, multiplying cells that are actively plotting her cruel demise. Her remarkableness lays in that farcical foghorn laugh, in those warm arms. It's in her innate charm and wit and wisdom, and in her irresistible, infectious love of life, all of which burst out of her soul like sunbeams, creating a presence that humbles everyone she meets. Her remarkableness is in her two-fingers-to-the-doctors desire to clamber up, bruised and breathless, onto a 20ft rooftop and yell from the depths of her shrinking lungs: to touch lives with the world-changing knowledge of what it is to have one.
'I'm devastated, of course I am,' she said, her eyes moving across the room, resting on the sorry, half-smile of her youngest. The weight of love.
'But I can honestly say that I have lived a life I've loved. Every day, for the past twenty years at least, has been lived for me, not for anyone else but me, and I don't think anything could be more comforting than that. I've done so much stuff: seen everything I wanted to see, done everything I dreamed about, kissed every devil who took my fancy, felt every feeling you could possibly conjure up! And you couldn't have bloody stopped me! Imagine if you ended up in my position... And you didn't have that.'
I listened with intent. I hoarded her words, every last one of them.
Societal expectations are completely irrelevant in the pursuit of a fulfilled life. You don't have to go to university. You don't have to get married by thirty. You don't have to buy a house. You don't have to force a beautiful, tiny human out of your vagina, or shovel thousands of pounds or six unsailed seas into the safeguarding of a future that you cannot be certain exists. You'll grow up in a world that makes you think you've failed terribly if you seek to do anything that strays from this culturally fetishised path, but you really don't have to do anything if you don't think it's going to make you happy.
'And your happiness is the greatest success you could ever achieve, darlin'. There's nothing naive or irresponsible about focussing on that. In fact, it's the most wise and empowering thing you could possibly do.'
Not many people have said these words to me with such conviction. Not many people implicitly believe them. But she did. She does.
And she knows. Better than anyone else I've met. I'm more than willing to trust her.