Recently, I attended the funeral of a friend. I had not known Mark for a long time. I cannot even say that I feel I knew him particularly well. But I liked him very much. I like his family very much. My wife and I wanted to show our respect.
Mark died of cancer. He had fought a long battle with the disease. His dignity and courage in the face of it commanded the admiration of all who met him. He was first diagnosed at about the same time that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. His boys attended the same school as my son. This meant that we moved in some of the same circles in the small town in which we both lived. But, I guess, it was a shared experience of living with a serious illness that brought us closer together. Mark attended my tai chi class. When the relentless round of chemotherapy and steroids allowed him to do so. He would turn up on his bike. Always smiling. Always cheerful. Always positive. Determined that he would not be defined by his illness. Everyone liked him. The class always benefited from his being there. During the tea break (tai chi is a very civilised form of exercise) we talked and found many areas of common interest. We both had careers in education and were passionate about young people deserving the best possible teaching. We both had backgrounds teaching in the Arts – he Music, me Drama – and were strong advocates for the importance of the Arts in education. We were both keen on sport. Mark’s passion was for cycling, mine for hiking and running. The town in which we live, Much Wenlock, lays claim to be the birthplace of the modern Olympic movement. Each summer, the town hosts its own Olympics. Mark and I both loved this and felt privileged to live in such a special place. For several years I had been taking part in the Olympics. I had completed several of their triathlons. It was a great event to take part in. Challenging but friendly and supportive. A great atmosphere. A number of friends in the town have become regular participants. It has become an event on the social calendar. We now have an annual post triathlon party. Mark and I talked about this.
And so it was that we found ourselves starting side by side in the school swimming pool. 20 lengths. Then a bike ride. Then a run. We were the first competitors in the pool. This is because we had the slowest estimated swim times. Neither of us were particularly fond of swimming. It was to be endured. But it felt good to be starting together. Nervous but smiling and joking.
I was first out of the pool and on to my bike. But it wasn’t long before Mark tore past me. I knew he would. He was a much stronger cyclist than me. I watched him fly into the distance, shouting words of encouragement. I struggled on. Up that final killer of a hill. Back to the school and change into my running shoes for the final part of the race.
What I hadn’t mentioned to Mark was that I had had a powerful dream the night before the event. In it he and I had crossed the finish line together. Hand in hand. Beaming with a shared achievement. I was determined that the dream would become reality. But Mark was nowhere to be seen. I had no idea how far ahead he was. But I knew that I was a stronger runner so I set out as fast as I could. Which, by this stage, was not exactly going to set any records. Runners kept on overtaking me but I kept doggedly on. And, eventually, after about three miles, I caught sight of Mark. It seemed to take forever to close the distance between us. My legs simply would not go any faster. But catch him I did with about a mile to go. I was exhausted. He was exhausted. A friend was running with Mark. Offering encouragement. Now egging us both on.
We crossed the finish line together. Hand in hand. Beaming. It felt like we were joint gold medal winners in our own personal Paralympics. It is a memory that will stay with me forever. Without doubt the most powerful experience I have ever had in a sporting event. Often we are told that sport is all about competition. Partly it is. If nothing else, there is always an element of competition with oneself. But, for me, it is more about a sharing. Of experience. Of support. Of hardship. Of joy. There lies the true value of sport. I will always be grateful to Mark for the sharing of that day.
This generosity of spirit was characteristic of Mark. He was a strongly spiritual man. A Quaker. His funeral was a Quaker funeral. I had never been to one before. It was very different. I found it to be hugely dignified and moving. There were two short eulogies. One of his sons played two pieces of music which touched the soul. There were no hymns. I don’t remember there being prayers. Instead there were two periods of silent reflection. Within these periods members of the congregation were given the chance to speak if they felt moved to do so. Another of Mark’s sons spoke of his memories of his father. Some other people spoke briefly. But what struck me most of all was the silence. It seemed to me to speak more profoundly than any number of words. Beautiful in its simplicity. Honest. Sincere. There was no words from a vicar who barely knew the deceased. Everyone that spoke that day knew Mark and spoke from the heart . No empty words. We were left with our own thoughts. Private but with the option to make them public if we felt the need. I did not speak on that day. I thought about it. But I was happy in the silence. Lost in thoughts. Of Mark. The thoughts that I have written down today. I guess that this is my going public.
We live today in a world of constant chatter. Social media. Facebook. Twitter. TV soundbites. Radio edits. There are a lot of words about. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for words. What are we searching for in this blizzard of language?
Mark’s funeral made me stop and think. Maybe we need fewer words. More space. More pauses. More silence.
Thank you, Mark.