I recently heard via a social network site that my former English teacher had passed away after a long illness at the age of eighty. A fellow student had remained in contact with her and was informed by her family when she died. He then duly passed the sad news to several of us who had had been at the sixth form college and invited us to her funeral.
I felt sad of course but also most disconcerted to be invited, Surely I shouldn’t attend the funeral of someone I hadn’t spent any time with or barely kept in contact with since leaving school more years ago than I’m prepared to put in print here!
So it should have been a simple decision — just say ‘no can’t make it’. Yet when I stopped to remember this particular teacher, I realised she had a profound effect on my life — she had encouraged me to love language and literature. Her A-level English lessons were life-changing experiences as at the tender age of seventeen and eighteen, we grappled with the descriptive qualities of Thomas Hardy and argued over the moral dilemma of George Elliot (well that’s her pseudonym — women weren’t meant to be novelists.) This particular teacher had us enthralled with tales of James Joyce who never washed his neck, she made us long to visit his stomping ground of Cork and she had us rolling around with laughter at Charles Dickens daring and innovative swear words such as ‘strumpet’”! She aroused all sorts of tricky sexual emotions too as we studied DH Lawrence and ‘The Rainbow’.
Having become a songwriter and then more recently an author and journalist, I’m convinced that this English teacher played a part in shaping me, in encouraging and inspiring me. So I wondered if indeed I should pay my respects, if only to let her family know how much she was appreciated.
When anyone we know dies it reminds us of our own mortality. I asked myself if I’d want only those at my funeral who’d been constantly around for me or, if I suffer an untimely death, would I prefer crowds hanging from the rafters, queuing to get in to mourn my departure whether they’d ever met me or not? Perhaps just because they’d heard me on the radio or been encouraged to try a natural deodorant because they’d read one of my books on holistic living? Perhaps in their droves they would feel entitled to wax lyrical about how much I’ll be missed and drink the organic wine that I can only hope will be flowing at my wake.
I‘m honestly unsure of the answer, I’m still musing on it, but what I do know is that when someone dies you reflect on their impact on your life and what they meant to you. This can sometimes lead to serious regrets that you hadn’t said what you wished you had in the living years (cue for a Paul Carrack song!) This dilemma has helped me to remember that however busy I am I intend to make time to let the people I care about know that they’re important to me. It doesn’t take long to whizz off an email, make a phone call, bake a cake or send a handwritten letter (remember those?) or even, heaven forbid, show up and see someone in person.
Apologies for seeming morbid but just in case someone you’ve known passes suddenly, ask yourself if you’d accept an invitation to their funeral — if the answer is yes, pop by while they’re alive!
Janey Lee Grace