My friend Richard and I first met when we were part of the group of new assistants at L’Arche Kent at the end of the 1980s, a group which included L’Arche UK’s first ever Korean, Yim Soon, the woman who was to become my wife. Richard was a member of the music group at our wedding, which also had in it Lucy Winkett of St James’ Piccadilly.
When coming away from my regular visit to one of our Irish Chaplaincy Seniors I was reflecting on how uplifted I felt and how it had to do, in part, by how much we had laughed during the visit. This particular lady is only in her 70s but has fairly advanced dementia, and her sister moved over from Ireland to stay in the 1-bedroom flat as a live-in carer. It’s a challenging situation but we always regale one another with funny stories, and we hoot with laughter.
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At the end of January I was in Portsmouth for a friend’s birthday celebrations. It’s a place I know well having lived and worked there for eighteen years before moving to London. On the Sunday after the party I took a stroll along Southsea promenade, which was crowded with people of all ages enjoying the winter sunshine.
By coincidence the weekend of the party coincided with the anniversary of my Dad’s death some twenty six years ago. As a family we had dedicated a bench in his memory at Southsea, and so I sat for a time on the bench dedicated to my late Dad, facing the sea, and remembering.
As well as my Dad, I was also thinking of our Irish Seniors who have passed away in recent times. It has been a tough couple of months in the Seniors Project. Since the end of November four of our older clients have died. Patsy, Ellen, Johnny and Julia were well known to us. All were housebound and we visited them regularly, supporting them in a variety of ways. Their passing was made all the more poignant as they all happened so close together.
I reflected that our Seniors were unique individuals with a life story special to them alone. It was a privilege to share the last part of their earthly story with them including their hopes and their fears. Some talked openly about their deaths and shared their questions of what lay beyond. They also asked would we attend their funerals.
Patsy particularly asked would we arrange her funeral and ensure she was buried back in Ireland next to her parents. Just before Christmas, aged eighty one, she was laid to rest next to her Mum and Dad in Longwood Cemetery in County Meath.
With Ellen who so enjoyed our visits to her home and being able to sing and pray with us, there was a special time in hospital during her final illness, on one of our last visits, praying the old prayers from her youth in Cork and singing “Away in a Manger”.
A fellow Liverpool football fan like me, Dubliner Johnny had a dementia for many years and was cared for at home by his wife and family. A fan of rock and roll music, especially Buddy Holly and Billy Fury, we would sing and play these songs to him, and hear the memories of his wife Margaret and how they had met in the London Irish Centre over fifty years ago.
Julia, nearly ninety when she died, and housebound for some ten years before, spoke often of how she valued our visits, phone calls and cards. She always said please come again-and we always did.
And what about my Dad whose name was Ray. A gentle and humble man with a kind word for all he met, he died in 1993, not long after his retirement, far too soon for us who loved him. But isn’t anyone’s passing far too soon for those who love them?
Dad has a simple inscription on the plaque on his bench. It finishes with the words “Beyond the east the sunrise”. This is the opening line from a poem by Gerald Gould, which talks of life as a journey that never ends, and constantly seeking what lies beyond the horizon.
We are on the threshold of mystery as we contemplate the journey from this life into eternity, but seated on Dad’s bench thinking of him, Patsy, Ellen, Johnny and Julia, I believe that they have all found the sunrise they were hoping and striving for.