Last week I was informed the father of a close friend had suffered a heart attack and it wasn’t looking good. I never know how to react when someone has a heart attack, my grandfather had a few and rallied each time whereas my grandmother suffered a massive myocardial infarction and was dead within hours. I remember not taking the news very seriously when I heard she had been dispatched to hospital in the early hours of the morning, barely opening an eye to register my frantic sister stood in the doorway, before rolling over to sleep again. In my youthful naivete, I was 20 at the time, I had reasoned she was a battleaxe and could not be felled by the usual frailties. I was in shock for days, unable to process the reality of what had happened, she was only 72 and I had imagined her as some kind of immortal entity, not subject to the laws of nature, she would fight death and win. It was a rude awakening for me, to say the least.
My friend’s father, let’s call him Daniel, had a similar energy. 5 days after he went into hospital he passed away, aged 89. A community elder, he was well known and loved by all, from the young to the old, irrespective of gender or race. He was a white man, of a silent generation that sits at odd with my own (vocal as we are) and yet I always looked forward to seeing him and hearing his thoughts. He was a peace seeker, a thoughtful person who considered the needs of all and not just his own. As a Quaker elder he was accustomed to thinking deeply on conflicting issues and was happy to share his knowledge. Daniel paid for me to attend my first Quaker camp, 10 days in a field with 100 or so Quakers, working together to make it an experience we could cherish forever. Children would happily share their experiences of camp, some before they were even born, inside their pregnant mothers. I loved this fact, the belonging these children had, when in stark contrast I had struggled my entire life to fit in anywhere. I will always be grateful to Daniel for the opportunity I was given here, to see how the other half live, to be warmly welcomed into an established community and shown their way of doing things.
One of the things I especially appreciated was the concept of a devotional, a period of time where Quakers sit together in silence and pray on pressing matters. Practicing Quakers meet at Quaker Meeting Houses for hour long devotionals but during camp there was a 15 minute session in the morning and one in the early evening before cocoa and bed for the little ones and the adults went about their evening activities. I valued these times because of the togetherness and meditation of sorts, which forces you to ground yourself and be mindful.
One of my favourite stories of Daniel was about how he tackled an issue that was causing some conflict at camp, especially in this group of Quakers that comprised of a number of young adults, more so than any of the other groups. Alcohol isn’t forbidden in Quakerism but it isn’t encouraged, with most choosing to abstain or consume in moderation. As a result young Quakers had taken to boozing in secret. It was Daniel who prayed on it and decided, even as a teetotaller himself, that it was better to allow alcohol on site, with the full knowledge of all camp goers than it was to restrict its use, forcing younger Quakers to lie about their actions. He did not think it made sense to encourage lying – because people are going to do what they will, whatever the rules dictate – and did not impose his own opinions on to the needs of the whole. He met them in the middle, demonstrating that he was willing to trust people not to take advantage of this gesture.
I had a level of respect for him few people have been afforded, because most people centre themselves and their own needs and care very little for the impact their decisions have on others. Even at his age he was open to learning new things. His was a generation that bore witness to atrocities we said we’d never forget yet with each one of theirs passing, we edge backwards toward iniquity. That generation, at least in my experience, were open to learning, to being taught, to accepting they might not have all the answers and to listening, really listening to people when they say they are suffering. I feel like Daniel heard me before I’d even said a word and I will be eternally grateful for this.
Truly, there was that of God in you.