My wonderful, wonderful friend Michelle died yesterday.
I am bereft. We all are, hundreds and hundreds of people across the world who have met her, who lived with her, whose lives she touched. A world without Michelle in it is not the same world.
I cannot believe I am writing these sentences. Michelle died just two days after Carol died. These women were part of my life, grounding me. My deep sense of loss is not just for them, but for a part of myself, for the person I could be with them. They knew me, they knew my faults (and I knew theirs), and yet they loved me (and I loved them). What I will miss is the light in their eyes when we met, shining in recognition of who I was. Not what I was, but who I was. They knew.
Michelle’s knowledge of me came from sharing her life with me in the 1980s (her bedroom, even, when I first arrived in England), the mundane everyday life. The joy and the exasperation, the excitement and the boredom of daily life. Michelle also introduced me to the F*** word (I still daren’t used it, but she did, freely).
Like Carol, Michelle was sent to a large residential hospital when she was a toddler, where she lived until she moved to our L’Arche Community in London when she was in her early 20s. Her triumphant survival of such an unpromising upbringing was thanks to her strong sense of self. Or perhaps it was simply a case of survival of the fittest.
She certainly was one of the fittest. Michelle fought to take centre stage. (Some of us suspect that she didn’t want Carol to take the limelight in death – these two women shared a strong but competitive friendship.) Michelle wanted to make sure that she got the things she wanted (that could include your earrings or your iPad), that things were done in the way she wanted it. She wanted to be in charge – ideally, she’d be the home manager, or perhaps the teacher. Tell people what to do. Sparks would fly (along with the F*** word), but her heart was made of gold, her sense of joy and celebration was infectious, and the love she had for her friends was deep.
Michelle became the community matriarch. She was one of our cornerstones.
I have written about Michelle before. There is a blog post about her move to a care home a few years ago. In my inaugural lecture this month, I explained how Michelle looked after me when I was ill, helping me see that I am not the sole Saviour Of The World – she, too, can lay claim to that title.
We are not surprised that Michelle has died. She had been unwell for years and was living on borrowed time. But at the same time we are surprised, because of that tenacious capacity for survival. When I heard the news yesterday morning that she’d died quite suddenly during the night, I went straight to her care home. The home was not used to opening the door on death (quite literally – she had been put in her bedroom with the door locked and nobody was allowed in) so it took some persuasion to let me reclaim her person-hood. I threw my decades-long friendship at it, and then, in desperation, my fancy job title (that’s another story altogether, which I will tell you some other time). But when they finally unlocked that door, I was able to spend such precious five hours with Michelle. I am moved to tears of gratitude for that opportunity.
I rang some of our shared women friends and once they arrived, the four of us did what I was, just two days earlier, able to do for Carol: we washed Michelle. Then we dressed her in the dress she liked, and she looked beautiful. I have never seen anyone look so happy, smiley and peaceful in death (and that’s saying something – I’ve seen hundreds of deaths). It made us smile and it made us weep. We sang Edelweiss, but I couldn’t quite reach the end of it, because it was her absolute favourite song. Before we got to bless Michelle forever (it should be bless My Homeland but we changed it) I was lying across her chest and sobbing. Because, honestly Michelle, how are we to live in a world without you in it?
But we will, and we shall, because among all the grief we, too, felt at peace. Michelle’s smile confirmed what we knew: her work is done. She truly was a teacher. To be in charge of your own life is not easy for a black woman born with Down Syndrome in the 1950s, but she managed it, and in doing so she showed us something precious: how to believe in yourself. Oh, and how to make lifelong friends, notwithstanding the F*** word.
Thank you Michelle.