‘Remember, remember, the 5th of November…’
Whether it’s gunpowder, treason and plot, whether it’s the saints of old, whether it’s members of the armed forces, or whether it’s simply those we have known and loved, early November in the UK is traditionally a time of remembrance. It’s the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is said to be at its thinnest. Hence the spectres of Halloween. It’s also a time of preparation for the darkness and frugality of the winter season (in a world without air travel and supermarkets) and for celebrating the awe and beauty of…
In an odd sort of back-to-front way, it’s also a time of new beginnings. However you look at it, what was is passing away. The long, carefree days of sunshine, growth and wellbeing that the summer brought us are fading into the darkness of winter. Those who celebrate the Pagan festival of Samhain often see this as a time for letting go.
This is all very interesting to me because it was at just this time of year when I caught the virus that was to make me seriously ill with ME. On 31st October 2001, I spent the day with my family on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea. That night I fell ill and nothing was ever going to be quite the same again.
Over the years since, this anniversary has faded in and out of consciousness. The first year it was particularly significant, marking the end of what had been the most difficult year of my life. I remember facing November very much in the spirit of a new beginning. I had hope that the coming year would not be as hard as the one I had just been through and a new confidence that, even if it was, I could now live through it. There was some fear of the approaching winter, because of the viral illnesses that so often come with it, but there was also a new sense of inner strength.
Three years later, I chose to celebrate the anniversary by doing something I’d not been able to do since falling ill. I went to see a film at the cinema. Since then, there have been years when I have marked it and years when I have not. Last year, for example, the day passed without my even noticing. On the whole, however, the movement from October to November has come to have far more significance for me than January 1st has ever had.
This year, for some reason that I feel unable to fully explain, I felt an overwhelming desire to go back to Burnham and say goodbye – goodbye to the Ros that once was. It’s not the first time I have felt this. Our church holds a memorial service at this time of year to remember those who have died. Two or three years into the ME, I remember having to fight the temptation to write my own name in the book of remembrance so that it could be read out during that service. It wouldn’t have been appropriate, of course. I knew that. But I so wanted to do it. If I could have held a funeral for my old self, I would have done. But I didn’t know how and there was no-one to help. On the rare occasions when I voiced such feelings to others, I was met with complete incomprehension: ‘But you’re still you. You haven’t become someone else…’ or ‘But this is not forever. You will get better…’
Well, 14 years on, it’s looking pretty much like forever to me. Even if my health were miraculously restored tomorrow, I wouldn’t be the same person that I was back then. My body has aged. My children have grown up and moved on. My life and my relationships have been changed irrevocably. In that sense, the losses have been very real for all of us. Of course, there have been gains, too. But the fact remains that I will never climb the mountains, build the sandcastles, watch the films, share the hugs, or do any of the countless other things with my children that perhaps we might otherwise have done, had I not been ill.
So, this year, I decided to do what (in face of such complete incomprehension from others) I had never quite dared to do before. I decided to go back to Burnham and say goodbye. Properly. Perhaps it was the fact of not having been so well that triggered the desire? Perhaps it was something much deeper? But one warm, sunny afternoon towards the end of October, I went.
I drove myself there – a route I haven’t driven for 14 years. I wasn’t even sure that I could do it safely. These days, I rarely drive more than 30 minutes from home and this journey was to take me 50 minutes each way. However, I felt relatively well – better than I’d felt for some weeks – and the inner prompting was so strong that backing out just didn’t seem like an option.
When I arrived, I drove down to the lighthouse end of the beach and parked on the sea front. I don’t remember much of that last fateful day, but I do remember that we walked out to the lighthouse and that I was carrying my youngest daughter because she had come down with a fever while we were out. We didn’t know it at the time, but I would never do this again.
This time, I walked down on to the sand and looked at the lighthouse for a few moments, remembering. Then I stooped down and wrote ‘Goodbye Ros’ in big letters in the sand. As I wrote, it occurred to me that the real meaning of those words is, ‘God bless you, Ros’ and that seemed like a fitting parting. I thought again of that last day on the beach in the autumn of 2001 and remembered how, that summer, I had run with a friend’s dog for a mile across a beach in Northern Ireland – running just for the sheer joy of being able to run.
Suddenly, to my complete surprise, I was sitting on the beach sobbing. Not with pain, but with joy. I was overwhelmed with it – a deep, deep thankfulness for all that those 37 years of good health had given me. It was a powerful moment. A liberating moment. A moment of pure grace. For 14 years, I had not been able to remember those days without pain. Indeed, I had learnt not to remember them for precisely that reason. Suddenly, I was remembering them with joy. It was a special moment. I had not come expecting such a gift.
After that, I wrote two more words in the sand: ‘Thank You’. Then I sat for a long time just looking out to sea. And then I wrote, ‘Welcome to all that I can now be’.
I used to think loss was something that one was supposed to get over. Why do we punish ourselves with that thought, I wonder? Anyone who has ever been there knows it’s not true. As I have discovered, learning to live with loss is learning to live with just that. Loss doesn’t go away. Rather, he’s like the most annoying of good friends. You know the kind of people I mean. The ones you get to know really well. The ones who think they can turn up on the doorstep quite unexpectedly – often when you least want them.
On Burnham beach, as on many other occasions in the past 14 years, I discovered that it’s only when I open the door, welcoming him in and even embracing him, that I find Grace, smiling broadly, sitting at my table, too. That’s why I needed to say goodbye.