It was St Francis of Assisi who used to call her “Sister Death” – in his “Canticle of the Creatures” where he also talked about “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” and referred to his chronic illnesses as his “sisters.” It seems extraordinary to us! There is a welcoming familiarity in the name, an ease with death’s presence as part of life, the comforting acceptance of entering into rest at the right time… certainly there is no fear. Death and sickness were seen as close and well-known relatives at the beginning of the 13th century: Francis was only 44 when he was embraced by her himself. Our life expectancy is nearer 84 these days, and our resistance to death stronger than ever.
The nearest person I have to a sister is Helen. I have known her since 1969 when I was 12 years old: she introduced me to Jesus in my first term at boarding school. She was only a year older than me, but in a way took me under her wing, like a big sister. For 4 years we were in the same dormitory, as a kind of school family unit, sharing life, meals, faith, growing up, singing, playing guitar, messing about and arguing – until she left just before the 6th form. Her mum died in the same way my mum did… she had a younger step-mother and the same kinds of tensions to cope with at home as I did.
I was a bridesmaid at her wedding when she married Bristolian fireman Dave in June 1974 and almost against her better judgment (because I was marrying a non-believer: see My Story!) Helen came to my wedding to Martin in September 1982.
We stayed in touch over the years as she and Dave went to train at All Nations and then moved to Zambia as missionaries. We rejoiced in the arrival of Matthew in early 1990 after they had been trying for a baby for so many years – and not many years later, we wept at Dave’s funeral when he died suddenly at the age of 40… My oldest friend has been a widow and single-parent ever since.
Helen and Matthew have been regular visitors to our home over the years, whenever they were home from Zambia, where she continued to work in a school until her health brought her back to Bristol: I think she left part of her heart in Africa. Matthew was brought up there – now 21, he calls us ‘the mad family’ – and he usually ended up with Sam’s cast-off clothes. She has seen our kids grow up and been like an auntie to them, she knows me SO well… and over the years it has also been such a joy to see Helen and Martin developing a deep love for each other: she doesn’t doubt that I married the right man now! In recent years she has honed her counselling skills through training and practice and has often helped us through our family crises with her skilled insight and wisdom. Her sense of humour and love of sport, her singing and piano playing – her CORNET playing! – her solid faith, numerous long-standing friendships and complicated family, her home in Bristol whenever we are passing on the M5 – her uniqueness – has been a huge part of the backdrop of our lives. But Helen is dying: at the age of 54 she now probably only has a few months left to live…
It started with a breast lump. The cancer was the triple-negative type for which the hormone treatments and other new drugs do not work. But she embraced the necessary surgery and chemotherapy like the trooper she is – though we really thought we were losing her when a nasty chest infection dramatically reduced the oxygen supply to her brain for 2 days! But she got better, her hair grew back, she started travelling across to the Midlands again to see her dad. My most vivid memory of that time is her stopping on our garden path as she was leaving the house and pulling up her top to proudly show me the clever bra hiding her scars!
When some months down the line the cancer returned in her lungs and she was given a second course of chemotherapy, we knew her days must be numbered 😦 The question has always been, ‘How long…?’ – for Matthew’s sake. She wants to finish well – she even undertook a road trip round 10 friends and family’s homes in the short time of relative good health she gained through the additional chemo – to ‘fulfill all righteousness’, to say goodbye… But her face is set towards heaven and the Lord is her companion on the road: she has no doubt she is going home to Him. We were privileged to be included in that valedictory journey and Martin noticed a slight limp. Within a few weeks we had a text saying, ‘I have one golf ball, one bean and one pea where they should not be! 5 day radio prob next week. Can’t take my peace away…’ Secondary tumours, this time in her brain.
‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearing.’ 2 Timothy 4v6-8.
Its hard to say goodbye: it will be really sad not to see our dear friend again and we will mourn and keenly feel the loss. Breast cancer takes away so many women before their time – we all know someone who has been affected – I was at the funeral of another old friend who succumbed to it at the end of last year (Mortality). BUT we have no doubt, even in our sorrow, that Helen is going home to heaven and we will meet again there one day: ‘and so we will be with the Lord forever’. Best of all, she is looking forward to it, like Reepicheep crossing over into Aslan’s country – if you have seen the latest Narnia film 🙂
So this is my goodbye, and my tribute and thanks for a more than 40 year old friendship. Helen, we’ll always remember you when we are “Swinging along the Open Road” singing in harmony or telling stupid jokes or suggesting to a guest that “if I were you I would be thinking about leaving about now!” Our lives would not have been as rich without you and I would not have been the same. You have blessed and influenced so many people: you have been a faithful friend. Just as The Mountain Goats say in one of their songs,
“And you were a presence full of light upon this earth
And I am a witness to your life and to it’s worth”
We love you, Hellin Flew X