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Four months of Sundays

This story begins on a Sunday.
Actually, it begins with four months of Sundays and it ends with pomegranate and a promise.
But let's try not jump ahead.

Not too long ago I filled in a form. I crossed my t's and dotted my i's and I wrote down the names of the people who would kindly vouch for my character. I went to an interview, I read the information pack and just like that, I became a volunteer. I'm fairly sure I received the confirmation on a Sunday.

Sundays have always been an important day to me, but they sure looked different a few months ago. Sundays used to be about sleeping 'till noon. They were largely spent doing as little as possible. Lazy Sundays. Easy like a Sunday morning. Sunday morning rain is falling. (how many times do you think I can write Sunday in this post?)

Six months ago I became an accredited in-home visitor for Age Concern New Zealand.
In-home visiting provides a volunteer befriending service to the elderly in hopes of easing loneliness and isolation. They provide company and a listening ear for about an hour a week.
Six months ago I met June and started visiting her weekly.
You can bet it was on a Sunday.

I think I have always like the company of older people. As a child I can  remember the old ladies from my church who used to squeeze our cheeks and marvel at how tall we were getting. Later there were old ladies who used to come into the pharmacy where I worked, always with a story to tell me.
I had an after school job at a rest home when I was sixteen. Perhaps the most formative of my experiences with the elderly, I used to spend several afternoons delivering dinners and cups of tea to the many rooms of residents. Rooms that frequently became vacant or were filled with vacant stares. Other rooms were occupied with some of the sweetest souls I have ever known. Souls that had seen more than I would ever see in my lifetime, souls that remembered my birthday and made up nicknames and still hand wrote Christmas cards despite the arthritis. These souls are long gone but I am grateful to have known them. Grateful for the job that paid pennies but exposed me to the ups and downs of ageing at an early age.

And I can't express how grateful I am to have met June.
June is one of the most interesting and beautiful souls I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
She has had the most extraordinary life, which she would humbly describe as really very ordinary.
She came from a small town, she adored her parents, she married young, she had a family of her own and in turn, kids that adored, (and no doubt still do) adore her. She has loved much and lived simply and worked hard, and she would tell you that she never really considered doing it any other way.
It took less than a month of Sundays for June to let me in. This concept in itself is so incredible to me; I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life so far.
Because June has also lost.
She has lost friends and family and she is losing a long fight against cancer.
June is dying.
She told me six Sundays ago.
Let me just say that I have never met or been in relationship with someone who is contending with the idea of their own death.
I'm learning an awful lot.

June told me she was dying over a cup of tea, in the resigned way you might expect someone to tell you the outcome of a sports match of a team you once cared about. Or the way you might mention the changing leaves in autumn. June has known for a few years that she is terminal, but she senses that this is her final chapter. She's been given 6-12 months to live.

It strikes me that dealing with the knowledge of your own inevasible departure looks a lot different to how I imagined it would. I'm not exactly sure how I imagined it - for how can you truly imagine such things? My concept of my own death resides largely within the frame of a Hollywood drama, a promise of eternity and a foggy far away fear.

We are so bad at dealing with death. We have a terrible attitude towards growing old in the west. It's a universal truth that you are constantly ageing minute by minute, day by day until we run out of days - for they are numbered. Perpexingly we try to decide the number of days we hope we might have. We hope we live long and happy lives and that we would not be robbed of days by road accidents and disease, yet we are also afraid of getting 'too' old. We are afraid of losing our dignity and memory, our ability to hold a spoon and reliably shuttle food into our mouths. We are afraid of our bodies failing us - scared of stiff joints and scattered minds. It seems that ageing in the west is only a privilege if it means you never really get old. We want to live forever but with far too many conditions - good health, friends that would also live as long, memories clear and intact.
Time is rarely so kind.

The amount that I'm learning is blowing my twenty four year old mind.
It would be cliched and self-serving to say the concept of others dying makes you re-evaluate the way you are living. While it has never been the intention nor motivation for visiting, it would be a bare-faced lie to say that these months of Sundays spent with June have gone by without any part of it seeping into my own thoughts, my own life. I realised the other day that there is a unique privilege to getting to know someone late in their life. I've only ever known June as I know her now. In fuzzy photographs and in her family I can see traces of the younger woman that she was. But everybody in her life has known her for an age. They have watched time take its toll and her health deteriorate. I have only ever known her in her current state. To me, she is not a deteriorated version of a person she once was, she is wholly herself as she is now.
As I spent time with her last Sunday, I pondered what that might mean to June. It's my hope that it would be entirely refreshing for her to have a new friend, someone who is removed from the larger narrative of her life, who comes in and instead of pity, treats her with dignity, who is humbled and grateful to be there to enjoy the final chapter.

Sundays with June are a small but potent dose of reality in my otherwise orderly and ordinary life.
They say that distance is relative, but these months with June have made me think that time and age is relative too. Relative to the experiences you have, to the ones you let in, to the memories you make.

I've started writing down the many pieces of advice June gives me, and the things I am learning in her company. I wanted to write them in a post but it got far too long. I think it makes more sense to split them into chapters - lessons from a life well lived. I'll be posting them in pieces soon.

It was a bit of a surprise to me to learn a little while ago that June had never tried a pomegranate. I brought one over on a Sunday and we both stood at the sink cutting it up and scraping out the ruby coloured insides of the fruit onto small bowls of ice cream. We sat in her living room and I got to watch June experience a new taste, a fresh pomegranate for the very first time. It was the simplest thing in the world but it was a perfect vignette of our friendship. And herein lies the first lesson: It appears that even after a long life of 'lasts'  - last kiss, last laugh with a loved one, last time walking up a hill - you are never too old for firsts.


*June is not her real name - I changed it to tell this very real story but protect her privacy x

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