Epilogue

Friends and family offered Jack their condolences. He and Martha had been together for forty-one years and her passing wrenched Jack from the life of comfort and security that had developed over their time together. More than half of him had died along with his wife, when he had always assumed he would be the first to go. He was the older by two years and statistically, he knew, the life expectancy of the male was lower. Maybe, he thought, living with him had taken its toll on Martha, carrying her off earlier than either of them expected. 57 wasn’t old these days.

He stood at the back of the crematorium in a daze, which was how he had been for the last week, shaking hands with all the well-intentioned relatives and acquaintances. They meant well, but their platitudes rang hollow, not because they weren’t sincere but because that was how Jack felt: hollow. Their words and gestures rattled around the empty space inside him without touching the sides, and then faded away into nothingness. ‘Good of you to come,’ he responded, the same to everyone; automatic pilot. ‘Yes, thank you. Good of you to come,’ until Alice, his sister-in-law, reached the front of the line. Where had she been when Martha had been in the hospice? he found himself thinking. Maybe she wasn’t his sister-in-law, he thought, giving her the benefit of the doubt – she’d been married to Martha’s brother George – but all the same, she was family. She should’ve put in an appearance.

‘God bless you,’ said Alice.

‘Thank you. Good of …’ He stopped, looking down at the little woman in black whose hand he held. She looked awkwardly over her shoulder to those in the line behind her who looked down at their shoes or out of the window.

‘God bless you?’ said Jack. ‘For Pete’s sake, Alice, it was a humanist service. God wasn’t invited. Martha was quite specific about that.’ And suddenly there was something there inside him after all, an echo of the past, another abandonment.

‘I thought…’ began Alice, ‘I only meant…’

‘Yes, I know what you meant,’ said Jack, ‘and I thank you for it, but not in the way you think.’ He finally let go of her hand and she moved off quickly, coughing nervously.

‘My condolences,’ said the next embarrassed mourner, shuffling forward and offering his hand. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ said Jack, his inner strength growing by the second. ‘Martha and I had a good life together. Well, I know I did. But you know something? This isn’t just the aftermath of something that happened once. I am not a footnote to… some previous life.

The man – a distant uncle perhaps – looked aghast.

‘And neither are you,’ said Jack. ‘Neither is anybody.’ His voice rose uncomfortably as he took to addressing all of those who milled around or waited in line. ‘So don’t come and join me for the funeral tea at Greystones, because I won’t be there. I’ll be out discovering what comes next. And that’s what you should be doing too. So get out there… and live!’

There were tuts and gasps all round and Alice spluttered, ‘Well, really!’ but Jack didn’t hear any it. He was already on his way out, jumping into his nephew’s SAAB and giving him directions for the Outrageous night club.

Lessons from Life 12: Purpose

A few years ago I got into a ‘discussion’ with a Catholic priest who had said on his blog that there is no purpose in life without God (meaning of course his own particular brand of that particular fantasy.) I argued the opposite: that while some people found purpose wasting their lives worshipping and serving an imaginary being, others found purpose in a wide range of far more worthwhile concerns and activities.

Purpose need not be cosmic in scale nor equate with big, ambitious projects, like saving the world or other people’s souls. A purpose can be modest and parochial; it has only to be meaningful to you. I pointed out to my deluded correspondent that he, like everyone else, frequently had purposes other than a delusional pursuit of God: short term purposes like visiting the store, supporting a sports team, cultivating a garden, writing a blog…

Several scientific studies in recent years have come to the conclusion that having a purpose in life increases one’s chances of living longer. There is a clear correlation between the two. This doesn’t mean adopting a random, makeshift purpose is going to increase your chances of living longer; the purpose needs to be worked out for its own sake, and to be genuine and heartfelt. The potential to live longer is a bonus (good genes and a healthy lifestyle play their part too, of course.)

As for me, as you weren’t asking, my purpose is to enjoy life and to help others, as far as I’m able, to enjoy theirs; to enjoy my relationship with Dennis (having taken so long to be my true self!); to care for my children and grandchildren; to be with friends; and simply to be, here and now. Whether these will help me live to a ripe old age or not, I really don’t care. They give my life meaning and make it feel worthwhile, and that’s all that matters. No God necessary.

What I learnt in Sunday School

I was expelled from Sunday School when I was 8.

My parents had moved from one side of town to the other and I had likewise changed Sunday Schools. Neither my mum nor dad was a church-goer. I suspect I was packed off to Sunday School each week to give them both an hour’s break from at least one of their offspring.

I quite liked my original Sunday School. It was run by two ladies who seemed positively ancient, Victorian refugees in the Swinging Sixties (not that there was much swinging in the northern English town in which I lived.) They had us sing a lot of songs about Jesus and we stuck pictures of him in an exercise book. These two activities were acceptable in my sight, not because of their Jesus content but because I rather liked singing and sticking things in books.

The new Sunday School had none of these moderately pleasurable activities. Instead, it focused, week after week, on hammering home to little groups of 7 and 8 year olds that Jesus had died for them on a cross and had then come back to life. This, an earnest young woman or frightening older man would tell us, was for real. Now, while I watched Doctor Who on TV (the original) and read Superman comics, I was under no illusion that these were in any way real. I knew they weren’t, and I also knew that the equally far-fetched Jesus story was also made-up. And it wasn’t anywhere near as good.

Despite what the earnest young woman and the older man told us, my undeveloped 8 year old brain just couldn’t accept the weird story of a man who came back to life to save me from something they were calling ‘sin’. Sin, they explained, was all the bad things I’d done that upset God. Now, if I was honest, I did occasionally do things that upset my mum – I once peed up against the wall in the back lane and that upset her a lot – but I couldn’t really see how anything I did could upset God so much he’d need to send his son to die on a cross ‘in my place’. None of it made any sense.

I took to asking the earnest young woman questions about it, not out of a need to know, as I recall, but out of mischief; I seemed to know intuitively that she wouldn’t know the answers. Why did God get upset? How did Jesus dying make him happy again? What had it anything to do with me when it all such a long time ago? (I knew it was a very long time ago because we’d learnt all about the Romans in real school.) 

Sometimes the young woman would ignore my questions. Other times she would attempt an answer, but these made so little sense that I took to behaving very badly, disrupting the little group whenever I could with silly horse play. She retaliated, eventually, by bringing in the frightening older man to tell me off. To no avail. I still couldn’t take any of it seriously, and continued to play up.

Before long, my parents received a letter in the post, informing them it would be better if I didn’t attend Sunday School any more. They seemed disappointed – they’d be losing their hour’s peace – but not particularly surprised.

The point of my telling this story is that I wish I had listened to my 8 year old self. He seemed to know instinctively that all this Jesus talk – this Christian ideology – was nonsensical. I didn’t listen, however, and ended up, after joining a particularly evangelical YMCA in my teens, falling for it hook, line and sinker. I seem to remember that a sexy young American evangelist played a part in my conversion. (Plus, he had stickers! See above.)

Evangelicalism consumed my life from that point on, influencing crucial life choices and leading me to suppress who I really was. It would take me thirty years to break the chains and escape.