Andy Richardson: It is important to learn from others, to be our better selves
We said goodbye to my aunt on a Thursday.
She’d valiantly fought a cruel and indiscriminate illness for 15 months before bidding adieu. Dignity and strength, courage and humility, valour and perseverance; those had been her watchwords in the final chapter of her life.
A medium-sized church was full as 250 or so gathered to pay their respects. Another 60 or more queued outside, a mark both of her popularity and the work she’d done for the community during a life of public service.
Her four kids, my uncle’s three kids, and 11 or 12 grandchildren filled the front pews. Two vicars led a service celebrating her life. Her oldest son read a moving and magnificent eulogy that provided keen insight into a remarkable life. She’d have been proud of them all. She’d have marvelled in the articulate and perspicacious words of her oldest. She’d have been humbled that so many people loved her. And they did.
Her son was funny as well as insightful. He painted a picture of a woman whose life had been devoted to others. It had. She’d focused on those who couldn’t help themselves, providing love and support, empathy and understanding. She’d been society’s safety net, providing a safe haven for those in difficulty, irrespective of their background.
It was a fitting tribute to a former Bilston beauty queen whose larger-than-life personality had brought sunshine into the lives of those who’d known her. There were tears – if people can’t cry at a funeral, then when can they? – but moreover, the room was filled with happiness and gratitude for a life well-spent. She’d left the world a better place than when she’d come into it. She’d helped others less fortunate than herself. She’d been the glue that bound a huge, happy family and disparate community groups.
She was no saint, however. And her tolerance had been sorely tested when she’d met my uncle. For despite her generosity of spirit, he was from the wrong side of the Black Country divide. She was old gold. He was blue and white. And Wolves and West Brom should never ever mix. Happily, she gave a proud Baggie a chance and theirs became a brilliantly loving marriage, filled with humour and kindness. They were two soul mates who blazed a trail and brought happiness and stability to many. They were better angels for many.
There were two photographs on the order of service; one taken in relatively recent times and one from long ago. The recent image was of a woman with a radiant smile and eyes that blazed with happiness and mischief. The other was from her youth; it depicted a teen whose beauty was obvious. When the singing and readings were over, the undertakers formed a cortege and slowly made their way towards Wolverhampton, then onto her beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers for a final goodbye. Billy Wright would have been watching over her.
The day provided an opportunity for tributes and loving memories. It also gave people time for self-reflection. In the spaces between songs and readings, her friends considered their own lives and what they might do to live more fully, to mend fences, to heal wounds, to rise above fear, to be uncowed and unflinching. For life continues and it’s important to learn from others and be our better selves.
I’d last seen my aunt a week before her departure. Though she’d manifestly been poorly, her eyes sparkled as they always did. She was bigger than her illness, stronger and more resilient. Illness had not defeated her. She was strong and unvanquished.
During his eulogy, her son had spoken of his dismay that she’d become ill. He’d sought reason, asking ‘why you’? His mother had responded with characteristic grace and humility. ‘Why not?’ Someone has to be ill. Rather a person able to carry that weight than someone whom it might crush. That vignette encapsulated her qualities. There was no sense of entitlement nor room for feeling sorry. She’d still got fuel in the tank. Though she and her family knew what the outcome would be – the same as it is for us all – there was time only to live life to the fullest, to climb every mountain and follow every dream.
Beyond the respect and kind words of Barbara’s day, the loving tributes and generous eloquence, the quality that characterised the commemoration most fully was this: cheerfulness. People smiled. They were kept warm by their memories. It was as though the woman they loved was still there. The card-playing, speedway-watching, football-loving, heavenly-voiced singer who lived life for others and gave more than she took inspired a disparate congregation to come together. We were one.
Her son had told the congregation it was important to share memories. For in keeping memories alive, her family and friends were also keeping her alive. He was right. There is a light that never goes out.