I knew she had cancer: her Christmas letter had mentioned it in amusing detail; but I thought, from the tone of the letter, that she was in the clear.
Evidently, she wasn't.
I didn't contact her. We were, by now, only on Christmas letter terms. That doesn't stop me from contacting other friends who I only hear from every year, should the news warrant it, but this time I didn't.
One ugly reason played a part in this. A small part - the main part was busyness and no sense of urgency. We weren't close - hadn't met, in fact, for 15 years. We lived far apart - to meet would have entailed planning and travelling and intention, and neither of us pushed to do any of those things. We still kept in touch, as old friends often do, but few of our group of friends ever met up.
The unspoken reason - for not meeting and for not writing - is the immense spiritual division between us. I am a Christian, trying hard to follow Jesus as closely as I can; she was an avowed atheist/agnostic. I had the conversation years ago and I knew that spiritual questions did not figure largely in her life.
The 'Order of Proceedings' at her funeral hammered this home to me. There were tributes; a poem; a song to listen to; a welcome. But no encouraging Bible reading, let alone the sign of a hymn or a prayer. Nothing. No sense of hope. No sense that there is more to this life than just the eating and drinking and merry-making. No glimmer that Jesus is standing beyond the grave, longing to welcome us to his home. Just a sense of emptiness and sadness and a focus on what was not, rather than what would be. A focus on the empty space rather than anticipation for the future.
This sadness has reflected the uneasiness in my soul every time I have thought of my dear friend. A knowledge that there was a huge gap in belief between us.
While a sense of spirituality, of seeking meaning to life beyond the here and now, was absent, what did feature in her life was fun. I have just received a copy of the loving tributes which her two daughters paid to their mother. She was a warm, friendly, colourful, creative fun-loving woman who was highly intelligent, a marvellous cook, a dedicated gardener and a determined education-seeker. She had several degrees, learned the piano as an adult and took up teaching late - she must have been well into her fifties when she did so. She had travelled all over the world. Her leaving this life will undoubtedly leave a large, large gap.
Much that happened in my friend's life was owed to her husband's high salary and a comfortable lifestyle which gave them many adventures and luxuries. Often, she was not able to work, so pursued studying and socialising, learning to make friends easily. There were no money worries, the children went to private school and were privileged - though not, I think, spoilt - in many ways. Life was for living and she was able to squeeze the last drops out of it.
Over the years, I sensed she thought me foolish in my beliefs. After all, giving money away - a core tenet of Christianity, which teaches us to hold our possessions lightly - is counter-intuitive to the world and means a lower standard of living, however you interpret that. But above all, my focus was so different from hers. It put a huge wedge between us.
And so I look at her life - so full, so rich in friends and family and the pleasures of this earth. I think of many other lives, not least friends in Africa, whose lives are full too. Full of friends and family and of struggling to care for themselves and others. Who is to say that hers was a 'better' life? It was the only one she had and she lived it to the full as best she could.
But is that really the best? I think of another friend who died a year ago; who managed her death so beautifully, thinking only of her sons and husband and family, so giving and cheerful to the end. I think of her funeral - fiercely humanistic, as she had lived for so much of her life. Many of the songs and readings - meant to be uplifting, I am sure - were anything but, serving only to highlight her absence and the sorrow she left behind.
Yet in her last weeks and days, she turned to God. She had conversations with the curate, a friend whose daughter was a her son's classmate. She received anointing some hours before she died. And so in that service, led by the curate of our parish church, were many glimpses of true hope: the prayers, the readings...and every time the name of Jesus was mentioned, my spirits lightened as his name touched me, reminding me that there is indeed life beyond this life, that Jesus the man was Jesus God who demonstrated that he has power over death, that he has the whole world in his hands and that in his company there will be no sorrow or mourning or tears or death.
So...I am sad that my friend appears to have rejected Jesus, to have lived her life for herself, her friends and her family, commendable though that is. I feel sad that I do not know how to talk to her husband about this hope we have within us, a hope that would transform his grief, his life...
And I am sad that, in the end, it is our wrong choices which determine our destiny. I determine to pray for my friends and colleagues, wonderful people though they are, who seem determined to squeeze the cloth of life dry. And I ask for strength and courage to speak, to write, to love in the way that Jesus would.