My godmother Jude died almost a year ago. Her ashes were scattered yesterday, though I wasn’t able to join the family to say that particular goodbye. As I approach the anniversary of her sudden death, I find myself thinking of her a lot, so I dug up the eulogy (of sorts) I wrote in the aftermath. Reading the words brings me back to the place where I wrote them: in her living room, with my godfather Bill and their son Sam on the couch, and Sarah in the kitchen, busying herself with the hosting duties her mum always took care of. I typed through tears then, as I do now.
I always felt like Jude was with us on borrowed time. If I believed in the existence of angels, it’s because I was lucky enough to have Jude in my life. She was the most open, honest, uncomplicated person I’ve ever known, childlike in her joy and endearing vulnerability. She didn’t like scary movies, or even the scarier bits of what most of us would judge as pretty tame tv shows or films.
There was always light surrounding Jude. She didn’t know how to not approach everything and everyone with boundless love and affection. That’s not to say she loved everyone; her son-in-law didn’t win her favour for many years, and there was a handful of others whose own negativity was something she rejected. Her life hadn’t been easy – far from it – but that wasn’t a good enough reason for Jude not to wake up each day with gratitude and light. If anything, the trials she and Bill went through made them stronger, their love an unbreakable bond that gave each of them a soft place to fall.
Their daughter Sarah once told me that the love her parents shared was so good and so pure that she grew up with unrealistic expectations of love and relationships. I know I’d always felt like their kind of love was one to aspire to, and I was just the godchild, only seeing them a few times a year as I got older and moved away. I can’t imagine how inspiring and daunting their love must have been for those who lived in it every day for years.
When I moved back to the UK in 2011, I was determined to be in the South West, to be closer to Jude and Bill, as well as my grandparents and my great aunt and uncle, all of whom lived in Somerset. I am immeasurably grateful for the last three years of living closer to them and getting to spend more time with Jude and Bill.
A few weeks before Jude died, I was asked by my American boss if I would want to pursue moving back to the US in the new year. There were many reasons to say no: I was newly in love, and I wasn’t prepared to put 3000 miles between us. But I also wanted a few more years with the family I’d reconnected with over the past three years, leaving unspoken the fact that my grandparents and my aunt and uncle were all getting older and I wanted more time with them before they died. I’d even thought we might lose Bill, with his heart problems earlier in the year. The idea of spending more time with these loved ones before they pass away was an abstract idea, not something I’d actually prepared for. Especially not Jude. I never imagined a scenario where she would be the first to go.
There’s rarely a good time for someone you love to die – we romanticise the idea of our elderly relatives dying peacefully in their beds, surrounded by family, drifting off into sleep with a smile on their lips – but there are sudden and unexpected deaths that cause an irreversible shift in our core, a quake that disrupts the mantle holding us together, for as long as the grieving process takes. The deaths we expect still hurt, but to see it coming is a blessing.
To not see it coming can be a blessing, too. The events in life that shake us, those are the moments that present us with a choice of which version of ourselves we want to be. We can shut down, be defined by the trauma, and stop moving forward as we get stuck in our grief. Or we can use the struggle to shed unnecessary burdens, rising in our love for those around us, both present and departed, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until thoughts of those who have left us are memories instead of ghosts.