As human beings we are programmed not to understand our own mortality. Few of us believe it to be true; most of us shy away from thinking about it for more than a few moments at any one time. Whenever I am privileged to be part of someone’s final journey I am reminded that I too will have to take this path, and yet somehow the knowledge does not penetrate too deeply for very long. As is traditional in Judaism, we have a powerful focus on life, on what we do in this world. In Pirkei Avot (4:21) Rabbi Jacob (2nd Century CE) describes this world as “a corridor to the world beyond.” We prepare ourselves in this world so as to be in good order to appear before God.
What does the preparation look like? One theme I have come to recognize is that what we do in this world is hugely important, yet it doesn’t always look important. As I write the funeral eulogy for people I see that sometimes a quietly lived life, loving others and caring for them has had extraordinary impact on a small corner of the world. Sometimes working at a particular profession has a powerful long lasting effect – healing the sick, teaching skills, creating gardens…. Sometimes there have been numerous honours bestowed by the world, but no family or good friends who care enough to come to mourn. What I have learned is that a life well lived can look different depending on who has lived it, but there is always an impression of that life left on the universe when it has been lived fully.
When Dylan Thomas advised us to “not go gentle into that good night”, he thinks in part of those wise people who, “because their words had forked no lightning, they/ Do not go gentle into that good night”.
I have been privileged to meet many people whose words have, indeed, forked lightning – albeit in a gentle and undramatic way. And one of these is my own sister, who, while on chemotherapy for breast cancer some 16 years ago, started a fundraising quiz which has now raised over 80 thousand pounds. Initially the money was for equipment for her local hospital that would mean that other women would not have to have so intrusive a treatment as she herself suffered, later the money was directed to the Macmillan cancer charity.
She had just turned 40, had started a new and demanding job, and her two children were both under ten when the diagnosis came out of the blue and her world collapsed and she was parachuted into that parallel universe that is the domain of the seriously ill. As she surfaced through what felt to her like “the cold waters of fear, anxiety and confusion” she coped by deciding to focus on doing something that would make things easier for the women coming after her, and to distract herself and set her mind down a different path than fear for the future, she devised a cryptic quiz that she would sell to family and friends. The quiz, selling for £2 a copy, took on a life of its own, with its recipients selling it on to their family and friends, and her target of £500 was surpassed four fold.
Every year after that she, her husband and an old school friend created, sold, marked, the new quiz. It has now become a fixture in many homes, something to do over the Christmas period, with the possibility of a small prize to the winners. Hundreds of people now contact her for a copy of the quiz, a JustGiving page allows people to donate and many offer more than the requested £2.
When I asked her about it recently, she wrote to me “Facing your own mortality head on and so bluntly, actually sharpens your thinking about what is important once you do come up for breath. It also makes you realise how short a time we are on this world anyway – cancer or not.”
So – if you want to know more and would like to take part in this year’s quiz (with a botanical theme), please e mail her at Joycerothschild2@hotmail.co.uk or contact me via the blog and you too can take your part in one of the myriad small and unsung actions that go on across the world and leave a definite and positive mark on the world.