This blog is not usually a place for very personal reflections. Today’s different, for reasons that will become evident.
A couple of weeks ago I set off for my regular half-hour pre-work run. I saw someone ahead, walking. Unusual, at just after 6.00 am – I see cars, other runners (as they zip past me) and cyclists, but rarely walkers, unless accompanied by dog. No dog in sight. The walker was slightly uncertain of gait and a couple of times strayed into the road and back. I was getting closer, and I did think of turning round and completing my run by a different route. Told myself not to be daft. As I got level with him I saw he was a black guy, perhaps in his 30s, with a raincoat and a woolen hat, no rucksack or baggage of any kind. He asked me the way to Sheffield. I told him Sheffield was back the way he’d come, and that ahead – a long, long way ahead – was Manchester. He didn’t respond, and I ran on. When I turned round to head home, he was still heading away from Sheffield, and he looked at me as I ran past as if we’d not spoken a few minutes earlier.
I didn’t do anything. I thought about it, but ringing the police seemed wrong somehow. He hadn’t done anything (to my knowledge) and in the unlikely event that they took any action, it might well be traumatic for him – a black man possibly with drug and/or mental health problems is unlikely to have had positive interactions with the police. I couldn’t think what else I could do. On the other hand, if he strayed into the road on some of the bends further ahead, particularly as the traffic got heavier towards rush hour, he could be knocked down. And if he just kept on walking?
He didn’t look like he’d been sleeping rough, he didn’t look or sound drunk. He looked lost – not just that he didn’t know he was heading away from where he wanted to be, and didn’t change direction when he was told, but more profoundly lost. He didn’t look or sound dangerous, but I was alone, and I felt vulnerable. But I have thought a lot about this encounter. To ask myself if I should/could have done something. To wonder what happened to him. And as so often I ask myself what my mother would have done – and as soon as I ask I know. She would have stopped, talked to him, tried to find out why he was walking out along that road, away from the place he said he wanted to get to. She would have tried to help him. She might not have been able to, she might have been rebuffed, she might have put herself at risk, but she would have tried.
A year or so ago I was walking to work as usual past the Children’s Hospital, as a young woman came out in pyjamas, lighting a cigarette, on her mobile – not an uncommon sight. But then she cried out, ‘She’s dead. My baby’s dead’. I stopped. And then I went on because I was afraid to intrude, to barge into a moment of such terrible private tragedy. I know that Mum would have gone to her and talked to her, and tried to help. It might have been a mistake to do so, but it would have been, somehow, a marvellous mistake.
Mum died on 29 May 1995, of pancreatic cancer. She was phenomenally intuitive, empathetic, generous of heart. She didn’t rate herself, but she ought to have done. There’s a song that sums her up, somehow, for which I thank Glenn Tilbrook & Chris Difford, a beautiful song, written about a friend who died very young. But for me, it’s about Mum – the first time I heard it after she died I was driving, and had to pull over because I suddenly couldn’t see, or breathe.
When she told me that, as she’d been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, she’d be moving to an oncology ward at another hospital, and as she put it, a ward ‘full of people like me’, she meant people with terminal cancer but my thought immediately was of a ward full of people like her, full of loving, intuitive, generous, warm, intelligent, profoundly good people. If I allow myself to riff on that thought for a while, it makes me smile – I envisage the nursing staff being brought cups of tea, being listened to, by people who prefer taking care of other people than being taken care of. I envisage the weaker, sicker patients being cared for by the stronger ones, so that no one’s need for pain relief or a drink, or just someone to talk to, goes unnoticed or unmet. Some fantastic place, indeed.
Real goodness is hard to convey without sentimentality or sanctimony. It comes down to two things, I think, integrity and empathy. If we can live in the world with those qualities we will live good lives, however numerous our failures and deficiencies. Mum had both, in abundance.
‘Her love was life and happiness and in her steps I trace
The way to live a better life
In some fantastic place’
Cecily Hallett, 8 January 1930-29 May 1995.
I miss her. Always will.
Some Fantastic Place lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing