I wasn’t a close friend. But close enough, I hope, to say a few things. I was going to write a poem, but you hated verse.
You didn’t get to live this coldest day of the year. I went for a walk. The guy in the car park was full of hacking cough and phlegm as he pulled on his gloves. The parakeets were making a bee line above the straight path to the field where the daffodil bulbs lie waiting. I was wondering why the joggers bothered. Why folk go on. Why they don’t.
You beat me to the most brilliant job at the BMJ. I’m so glad you did. We met at the UCLH café afterwards and in an hour I felt I knew you. I think we were (The past tense arrives with quickening gloom) quite similar – born activists and ambivalent towards academia (loving its territories of investigation and curiosity, hating its straight lines and dictats). And you made that job your own and were absolutely the right person at the right time. You were revolutionising that arena. And were beginning to reach deeper and broader.
What happened? There is that self-indulgent curiosity. I’m not sure why it matters. You’re gone.
You didn’t like poetry. We teased each other across social media. We both had cats and swapped pictures. Yours is a big furry male beauty. Mine a wimpish tabby. But you thought she was gorgeous. There is that heart again.
And here in the warm café, I am looking for an ‘organising principle’ – a theme for what I am trying to say. That is what I have been taught to do in poetry, in work, in life. But my family is away and my days have been loosened. I write what I write for a change. We go wherever we go – sometimes things happen without explanation. This blog. Your act.
During the junior doctors dispute, we both got crazed by the belligerence of both sides and the toxic nature of the debate – what happens when two sets of people set up and go tooth for tooth, claw for claw. We spied a different space and a potential solution – bring patients in. And we worked bloody hard to get a co-signed letter in the BMJ to all parties, pleading for dialogue and inclusivity. That spirit. That energy. That tenacity. That sheer bloody mindedness.
Is that what drove you in the end? Speculation. Speculation. It really doesn’t help. You, who also needed evidence. Us too. Left without.
You do need to know that you have left a deep legacy amongst us fellow ‘patient leaders’ – a term you had some problems with (we all do – even those that invented it!). But you deeply got it – that people who have had life-changing illness, injury or disability can help change healthcare. Indeed we may be the ones who will.
You deeply moved those of us who hung on to your wonderful edited articles in the BMJ. Generous. Kind. Thoughtful. Insightful. Bla bla. Words. Good ones. But mere words.
And you inspired me more than I was able to say (NOTE to readers – go now tell someone how great they are – life is utterly short).
I do what I do, only because of fellow travellers like you. We are left in a more vulnerable place. I have talked to two people who didn’t know you well, but feel that we need more than ever to support each other, to create those loose ties across the diaspora of the marginalised in these difficult times – that your death has made us even more aware of the need to connect.
I think you would have liked my parable ‘The Jewel Merchants’. I wish I could have seen your face when reading it. I wish I could have seen you at our recent event with thirty or so amazing patient leaders – you would have shone with pride at the people there. The gathering of folk ready to change healthcare forever. We will go on, with your blessings in our mind and heart. Corny? You bet.
Your laugh was intemperate and your humour acerbic and infectious. You tapped into my dark side at times, and I loved that. But. But. But.
But it is the wilful brutality of suicide that I have been struggling with. You are not my first friend to have done the deed. I have seen people dabble with suicidal thoughts who wandered wearily into a High Street and been hit by cars. I am not sure they wanted that, and were unfortunate. I did that and survived. The dice.
But I have also seen others who have gone determined and without second thoughts. It is too late now to say ‘hold on, things will change’. Maybe you would not have heard. The futility of asking myself what I could have done, what you could have asked is clear – but the guilt (again, self-indulgent) seeds itself unbearably. This too shall pass. It was, after all, your decision – we need to respect that. I think you would have argued for that in an article if you had written it.
I do not know why it is worse to think that you chose to die, than it is to bear the weight of a death through a choiceless voiceless illness. Or maybe that was the case. How little we know.
It comes to that wilful self-inflicted brutality for me. At that point you must have borne a self-loathing or a self-respect that saw that this was the only thing to free yourself of pain – again, we must respect that. I have seen what the wilful mind can do, and stood near to where you stood. But you made a choice. No blame. Respect.
Maybe it’s as Joni Mitchell said: ‘All we ever wanted is to come in from the cold’. I hope you are warmer now. I am agnostic, weave between religious thoughts and secular ones. But mostly they come down to the only thing I know any more – let’s be kind to each other. You were so kind. I am going to miss you.