“At its core, life is not about things, it is about relationships. It is the hands we go on holding in our hearts at the end that define the kind of life we have led. Our relationships determine the quality of life as we have know it. They show us the face of God on Earth. They are, too, what batter our hearts into the feelings of life.”
Joan Chittister ‘The Gift of Years’
As I get older more and more of my relationships disappear along with family and friends. Life is changing and so am I, whether I want to or not, and decisions have to be made about how I fill the gaps, how I move forward without the support of those who were familiar, those I knew I could count on. Forging new relationships and trust is a risky business – so much easier to withdraw or stagnate, to live in the past polishing the memories of what was, what used to be. Is this what I spent all those years for, to sit in the dark waiting for someone to call, or did I prepare myself to be brave, to use this time to fully come into being?
In my mother’s and grandmother’s days there were very few elderly people who died alone and whose bodies were not found for days, weeks or months even. We lived in close communities and everyone looked out for the elderly who had no family. I can remember when I was quite young being sent to sit with Mr and Mrs Clarke, who lived two houses down our lane, to keep them company for a while, or to run messages for them. Neighbours called in daily to chat with them and people shared whatever surplus they had from their allotments. Relationships then were closeknit, too closeknit at times, but no-one was neglected, not even the crabby old folk who chased help away. There were also rituals that reinforced the bonds – births, deaths and marriages – and these were the times when stories were told that celebrated the shared histories of the folk present.
But times change, the extended family lifestyle has given way to nuclear ways of living and fewer families actually live geographically near each other. When I was young I saw my cousins at least every weekend; since we moved away when I was ten I haven’t seen them other than at weddings or funerals. At funerals the deceased lay in the family home and the living celebrated with stories in the kitchen over cups of tea, ham sandwiches and sausage rolls. These were the moments when we learned who we were, where we came from, who our parents were. We learnt about the family scandals and shame, the glorious successes, humorous anecdotes, losses and survivals during the wars, overcoming hardships and what we needed to be grateful for. These stories provided us with the foundations of identity and belonging which, no matter how far I have travelled or how long it is since I’ve seen other family members, still remain true. And yet…
I am so much more than my past. Everything I have learnt along the way has forged and tempered me into what I am today. The past is powerful, but so am I. I have learnt that I can survive, that I don’t die from betrayals or heartaches, that I have the skills to make new friends, create a new life, try new things. The stories of my life sustain me in troubled times but there are new stories to create, new listeners to tell them to, new relationships to develop. I still hold the hands in my heart of everyone I have ever loved and they will be with me right to the end. But there is still room for more, and by the end I hope the kind of life I have led and the quality of it will be seen to be exceptional.