My sick friend died yesterday morning.
I found the message on my phone on my way to a class. I got there three minutes late and was not permitted to enter. After composing my frazzled feelings, I walked to the Cathedral, which was shut, but the adjoining hall was open, and a young priest helping tidy it let me in. The nave was locked, but I was permitted to hunker down in the atrium in front of the doors and under a statue of the Madonna and Child.
So my friend was 73 which surprised one of my healthy friend because my reaction when I found out she was coming home to die seemed to suggest she was a younger woman. However, 73 is not long innings these days, and my friend was not a religious or even spiritual woman. She was wonderfully kind, liberal-minded, cultured, well-travelled, politically active and worldly.
In the nine years of our friendship, I never knew how to approach the God Question, which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy topic for discussion in the United Kingdom. My friend grew up knowing many Catholics, including of the nun and priest type, but at the worst time in the Church's history. She was very fond of the sisters whose school she attended, who, as far as I could make out, never made the least effort to invite her to become a Catholic, and she had at least one colleague who was a Catholic priest, a man who, if I remember this correctly, did not live a chaste life.
My late friend also had an ex-Catholic friend, a loud one, who had second thoughts about being ex when he thought he was dying. When he spoke about seeing a priest, my agnostic friend called up my TLM priest and asked him to say a Mass for the frightened sinner. Then the Catholic got better and went back to his noisy "recovering Catholic" schtick.
During my friend's last weeks, I was haunted by the thought of all the bad Catholics she had known.
She, however, was lovely: a sort of female Petronius living far, far away from Nero (and with a lot less money and with much more of a social conscience). She enjoyed life very much, and she showed remarkable fortitude during all her bouts of cancer. Even when she was in agonising pain, the strongest expressions she used were "Cor" and once or twice "Blimey." This may have been because I was in the room, and she had exquisite English manners. When she complained, the complaints were always of some social injustice--like not getting credit for her pioneering work in the arts--never about pain.
For many years, she worked on her memoirs, which stretched from her post-war childhood though her 1960s university education in London and hitchhiking across Europe through her political activities in the 1970s where she met her husband. She wasn't able to finish them, but I enjoyed hearing her stories about the 1960s and about all her travels and work for the arts.
She also had splendid dinner parties during which I met a goodly number of people in the British arts and media I am very unlikely to have met any other way. When I say she was liberal-minded, I mean that she was able to be friends--a very affectionate, loving friend, too--with as raging a reactionary as myself. She had other friends who refer to Catholics as "them" ... Well, I won't get into that. At any rate, I was able to meet one of my great journalist heroes, and I somehow always missed the chap who late in life decided he was a woman.
The last dinner party occurred about a week and a half ago when my friend's husband called and asked if we would stay with her while he kept an appointment. Benedict Ambrose went at the end of his work day, and I joined him about an hour and a half later. My friend's husband had made an asparagus risotto. My friend was lying in a hospital bed in the ground floor sitting room. I'm a bit hazy on what happened when, to say nothing of our conversation, but at a certain point B.A. heated up the risotto, and we all ate it together. We drank wine, too.
The last important thing I remember my friend saying, after finishing what may have been the last book she ever read (and she read simply thousands and thousands), "I do love a story that ends with redemption."
I suppose this is where I could have subtly taken up the God Question, even just pointing out that the hallmark of a Christian culture is one whose literature celebrates redemption. However, I just said that I did, too. And I do.
Update (June 14) : My friend's funeral service was today. Afterwards most of those who attended went back to her house for the funeral tea. Her obituary was in four national papers, and I was pleased to see that her beloved convent school got a mention.
"Oh, look," I said, buried in the most important paper. "St [X] Convent School!"
"Och, puir [Departed]," said a member of her political party, a man I had never met, with relish. "What we know about convents now-oo!"
"[The Departed] LOVED THE NUNS," I said and was backed up in this by the Departed's Muslim best friend.
The funeral tea was otherwise a splendid, if sad, occasion. And, let's face it, it would not have been an authentic gathering of the Departed's diverse friends, acquaintances and party apparatchiks had someone Scottish or Northern Irish not made an anti-Catholic remark. The Departed, I will swiftly add, did not have an anti-Catholic bone in her body.