Legend has it that my birth was traumatic. I nearly died, although the only lasting reminder is a small indentation where forceps barely missed my right eye. Between them, my godmother and my dad spent all night keeping me alive while my mum recovered from her own traumas.
Jean was probably my mum’s best and oldest friend. They’d been to school together in the North-East and, although Mum was now in Nottinghamshire and Jean in Oxfordshire, they were still close. In my childhood, she was a constant in pretty much the same way as my aunts and uncles. We didn’t see her and her husband, Barry, all the time, but there was a regularity to visits. Just like many visits with relatives aren’t all looked forward to, some were endured rather than enjoyed, but there was a warmth and familiarity to them.
When my parents split up, the first person who was there for my mum was Jean. In spite of the distance (this was 1973 and the roads weren’t as good then), the day after my dad left, Jean was at our house supporting Mum.
As adulthood came along and I went my own way, my connection with her drifted. It didn’t seem too much of an issue. After all, I didn’t choose for her to be my godmother. But there were occasional gatherings where we’d see each other.
When one of my sisters moved to the Isle of Wight, it seemed an ideal place to visit for holidays – and it is, by the way, even if you don’t get cheap accommodation. Jean lived en-route, so I did take the opportunity to call in with my own young family on a few occasions. Each time, we were greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread, which we ate with other treats in their back garden on sunny afternoons.
By my mid-thirties Jean and Barry had moved to Devon, which wasn’t a minor detour as I didn’t tend to go in that direction, so contact drifted again.
My parents’ divorce had affected me badly, though it took me a lot of years before I realised how much. I only began to come to terms with it when I became a parent myself, twenty years later. That being the case, the decision to split up with my children’s mum was very hard. In the weeks following that decision, I found myself sleeping at various houses while I sorted out somewhere new to live. I think I had three stints at my mum’s house.
On one of those occasions, I recall her answering the phone and, after a few minutes coming through to the room I was in. It was Jean, making one of her regular calls but, realising I was there, she wanted to speak to me.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but I know I was feeling guilty about it all and I felt I’d let my family down badly. So I suppose I said something along those lines, half-expecting to have her agree with me. She was an active church-goer and very strait-laced, so I thought I’d be judged, and probably felt like I deserved it. Instead, she made no comment at all about what I’d said, just told me: “We all love you, no matter what.”
On paper, the words seem trite, but spoken in a gentle but matter-of-fact way, the surprising news that I was loved triggered something in me. I had to hand the phone to my mum because I could barely speak. Tears were suddenly streaming down my face and my breathing was sharp and ragged as I tried to hold them back. It was a moment that’s stayed with me ever since, giving me encouragement and strength when I’ve needed it.
That was 2007. Thirteen years have passed and life has changed for me in so many ways since then. One of those changes was the sale of my business three years ago, providing me with the ability to take a break from work. I had many plans for that time, and one of those was to go on a few tours within the UK. Nothing fancy, but a chance to catch up on people I hadn’t seen for a while. The two bigger tours involved heading up into the north-west of England, where old friends were scattered about, and down to the south-west where I had family I hadn’t seen much of. But there were also others in the south-west to see, Jean and Barry included.
Of course, plans are one thing, but life has a way of throwing things at you that seem to take a higher priority, and none of those tours took place.
In the meantime, my mum told me her weekly phone calls with Jean were getting harder. Her memory was going; she was repeating herself; the reminiscences about the old days were the only glimpses of clarity. Things continued to deteriorate.
Thinking back on it now, I realise that phone call in 2007 was the last conversation I had with Jean. A conversation that meant so much, with a woman who fought to keep me alive almost fifty-seven years ago. Any conversation I could have had with her in the last couple of years would have had little, if any, meaning. Still, when I got the call from my mum that she’d died this week, I couldn’t help regretting that I never got around to those visits.
Is the moral of the story to get on and do the things you intend to before it’s too late? Maybe that’s what I should be taking from it, but I’m also a pragmatist. We only have so much time on this planet, and we’ll always have different things pulling at us. We can’t do everything. We can only do what we can.
So we won’t always get to spend time with the people we love and who’ve given us love and kindness. But we should honour them by sharing the gift of love and kindness with the people we can spend time with.