Opening Up / "Saying goodbye"
"Your friends were once strangers. Somehow at a particular time, they came from the distance toward your life. Their arrival seemed so accidental and contingent. Now your life is unimaginable without them."
When the phone rings at 4:30 a.m., it is rarely good news and Feb. 25 was no exception. My friend, Krysia Mosely, was calling from England to tell me that our beloved friend, 89-year-old Peter Durnford, had died.
According to Krysia, Peter had been watching the evening news with his wife, Muffet, become furious with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and fed up, had gone upstairs to take a shower and go to bed. Having showered, he put on his pajamas and dressing gown and sat on the edge of the bed in his bedroom and then simply died. When he did not come down for breakfast the next morning Muffet found him still sitting there but Peter was gone.
His funeral was scheduled for March 12. I booked a ticket. I had to be there; I needed to mourn with my friends; I needed to say goodbye.
All his friends had been expecting this. Last summer the oxygen tank was never far from his chair in the cottage. It was just a matter of time. But, still ...
When I said goodbye at the end of summer, he slowly walked me to the gate at the end of his garden and hugged me, saying, as he always had, "Look after yourself!"
I remember thinking, Is this the last time? After 20 years, is this the last time I'll see him? I walked down the lane with tears in my eyes and turned back to look again and there he was, still by the gate, watching me go.
I can see him so clearly: the rounded stomach beneath the heavy wool sweater, his abundant, wavy white hair, the shelf of wildly bushy blond and grey eyebrows above bright blue eyes that twinkled. Peter looked part Anglican priest -- which he was -- and part leprechaun.
In the summer of 1993 Peter, a gifted amateur painter, painted my portrait. It wasn't so much that I wanted a portrait of myself as that I wanted to spend time with him. I'd been immersing myself in feminist theology and I figured we had things to discuss. This was a casual portrait: I was wearing a blue denim shirt and some washed-out red Bermuda shorts and was seated kind of sideways on a small wooden chair.
"I want to paint your naughty look," Peter told me. "You have a very naughty look sometimes."
In the tiny, messy studio behind his cottage we spent two weeks, me sideways in the chair, Peter, with his baseball cap on, painting while we argued -- no, carried on, I should say -- about God and the church. Just when I'd think I had him, just when I was driving home what I felt to be some really important theological point to this painter, Naval Commander, priest, he'd wave his brush in the air and shout, "Hold the pose!"
I complained that he was taking advantage; he invited me to preach in church on Sunday.
About five years ago, when the hills of St. Mawes became too arduous, Peter began to use what he called his "Moses" stick: a very long stick of carved, dark wood. With that stick he walked from his cottage through the village, and up the steep hill to the Henry the Eighth castle overlooking Falmouth Bay, making this pilgrimage almost daily in the late afternoon. I took to meeting him on the way.
Once at the castle we'd lean against the split-rail fence and look across the bay filled with sailing boats. There are so many things to pray about, Peter told me: the good that had happened, the good that could happen and then, of course, there was the beauty of the bay itself to be thankful for. So we'd close our eyes, the two of us leaning on the fence along with the "Moses" stick. When he was finished he'd lift his head and look around. "Isn't this lovely?" he would say, patting my hand.
Walking home with Peter through the village took some time. He had been priest, then priest-retired in St. Mawes for 38 years. Everyone seemed to want to speak to him. In later years he could rarely remember anyone's name but he remembered people's lives. "I did an exorcism in her cottage years ago," he confided to me once after the woman had walked away.
"A real exorcism?" I was flabbergasted.
Peter smiled. "Incense, the works. These old cottages need some clearing from time to time."
During his retirement, Peter led services that were spontaneous and unpredictable, saturated with the loving spirit he exuded. He would read the Gospel and then wander down the aisle seeking reactions from the congregation. Any visiting summer person trying to follow the service printed in the booklet was simply out of luck. "Church rules are a lot of fuss," Peter believed. "The only thing that matters is that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves."
In St. Mawes church, when he wasn't in charge of the service, Peter sat in the same pew under a window where, Peter said, "I can get a view of the sea." For years, during the summer, we sat together in his pew.
The funeral service was not held in St. Mawes but instead in the 12th century Church of St. Just in Roseland. When it was over, following tradition, the family followed the coffin out of the church to the freshly dug grave in the church graveyard. We remained inside singing verse after verse of "For all the Saints." I wept with others, thinking of Peter's body being lowered into the ground.
On Sunday morning after the funeral, I walked into St. Mawes church, my eyes seeking the empty pew, Peter's pew. I had planned to sit in the back so I could look at it, so I could imagine him sitting there, but I could not believe my eyes. A family was sitting in his pew! A family: two adults and two whispering, wriggling children. My heart formed a clenched fist. "Get out!" I wanted to shout. "That pew is sacred! That's Peter's pew! You don't belong there. Can't you leave that pew empty for even one week? Get out!"
And suddenly there he was in my mind, Peter, laughing at me in the kindest way, forgiving me for my foolishness, for my refusal to let go, for my refusing to allow life as he understood it so well, to go on and on, to shift and change, for people to die and people to live. A family is perfect, I could hear him say, and such a lovely family.
Cecily Stoddard Stranahan is a psychotherapist, retired, and an interfaith minister. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.