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  • Clare Backhouse

In my end is my beginning

This is such a mysterious time of year. So dark, so dank, and yet those sudden clear days where the sky seems to have been washed clean and it glows translucent, wan yet bright, pale golden.

December may be the last month of the calendar year, but it is the first month of the church’s calendar, the season of Advent. People celebrate how God became incarnate: a new hope.

Thus we are now at the end of the year, but also at the beginning.

On the last month of this last church year, with perfect timing, my father left his earthly life: on the 20th of November, aged 90 years old, at 10 o’clock in the morning precisely.

As if he were standing aside to usher us into the new, strange year without him.

He died very peacefully. I was walking to his room as he died and hugged his body as it gradually lost heat. I have never cried that way. I thought I would be sick.

How can it be, I wonder now – we who knew so clearly that he was on his way towards his end – how could we feel so shocked, so bereft, so incredibly sad?

There are probably many wise things said about grief and I have read almost none of them. I can’t somehow. Or not yet.

I just know that for me, it’s as if you were walking on a seaside path and find it breaking off down a cliff. The nausea, that you nearly fell from a great height. The ground was not there where you thought it would be.

A kind friend said she hoped my faith helped me at this time. Faith, as theologians tell me, is not understanding, necessarily, but following; ‘being with’.

Maybe being with Jesus has given me freedom in grief. I don’t fear the cliff edge, even if it shocks me every time. Things don’t have to be OK, because He is there.

I am grateful that my father was excited to meet his Maker. Death was not a fear for him. He hated saying that people ‘passed away’, as he hated all euphemisms. No, they died! And death isn’t the end!

The Will required his remains to go to scientific research. Despite the flurry of furious phonecalls and bureaucracy required, it was surprisingly satisfying to have this wish of his fulfilled.

It means my father’s body is now kept in a good strong freezer at the University of Leicester, to be investigated for Alzheimer’s research, and then returned for burial in – wait for it – 2021. An odd thing to imagine.

At moments I have wanted to go and be with his body, as if it would feel lonely. But then I suddenly think of it like the sweepings after a haircut. The real person exists, but has left.

I have been reflecting on how much my work is straining against death. It tries to enhance life, to strengthen people.

After his stroke seven years ago, I tried so hard to improve my father’s physical life. I intervened in his diet, I brought him supplements. But, try as I might, I could never really reform my father’s nutrition.

In any case, I actually think he lived on love.

No one could understand Daddy’s conversation for much more than one sentence at a time. But he recognised people and loved them.

Family and friends would enter his room, and his whole being lit up. The old twinkle would come into his eyes and he would make jokes we couldn’t understand but still found funny. We sang hymns together, and he’d beam with joy and cry at the same time. We prayed, and peace would settle.

We made sure that at least one member of the family or close friend visited him every day.

His church made a visiting rota.

We always thanked my father’s visitors. But their faces would light up, and they’d talk about how uplifted they felt after visiting him, what happy times they had had. I remain amazed at how much connection can be enjoyed with someone whose vocabulary one cannot generally understand.

In recent days I have noticed myself paying more attention to my clients’ sources of love, their sense of joy, how they recover peace each day.

Of course, we’re now more informed than ever about the importance of love, joy and peace for our health. Cortisol markers, digestion tests, inflammation markers, all register their impact.

But did we really need clinical markers to tell us that these things are important? Surely, we already know we need love, we know we need joy, and we know we need peace. They aren’t ideal luxuries, but realities we live on each day, experiences that are sown, nurtured and patiently grown in relationship with God and others.

Whether in sickness or health, my father showed me love, joy and peace, and grew these qualities in our family, by his daily example.

And I am thankful.

This is such a mysterious time of my life. So dark, so dank, and yet those sudden clear days where the sky seems to have been washed clean and it glows translucent, wan yet bright, pale golden.

For Stephen Finch, 7 March 1929 - 20 November 2019.

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