January can be a bleak month but this January has been especially bleak. I have lost two friends to cancer. Two contemporaries. Two beautiful women, one in her 40s, one in her early 50s, both gone before their time.
These are the first close contemporaries I have lost, except for a friend who died when I was in my teens, back when I was disconnected from my feelings and too young to appreciate how truly wonderful it is to be alive. Celebrities around my age have died but it’s so much more profound, so much more shocking and saddening, to lose a friend.
One was a friend from my childhood days back in Liverpool and her passing has sparked memories of those two summers a gang of us spent cycling around the Lake District and the countless Saturday nights we spent as teenagers drinking Southern Comfort and lemonade or lager and black in local pubs in the 80s. She was surrounded by a beautiful family and so many friends. She touched many hearts. Her funeral was only yesterday – feelings are raw – so I won’t write any more.
The other friend, Tricia, was a colleague who I saw a few days every week at our shared work space in Bournemouth. She was a writer who inspired me to write, a creator who encouraged me to create. She was also a fellow restless soul, a searcher and a seeker. We had many deep conversations over many cups of herbal tea.
I am re-reading Tricia’s novel, Benedict’s Brother and being moved to tears. I feel so connected to her through her words and through her story. I’ve just finished the part where the protagonist tours the bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand and I’m remembering when I made that trip myself, at 19. Two university friends and I had done the usual Chiang Mai trek followed by some island hopping and we were back in Bangkok. They wanted to go shopping. I wanted to go to the bridge. So I went alone on the bus and had a bizarre experience there, which I blogged about back in 2015 in a post called Keeping the spirit of adventure alive.
I ended up alone on a public bus with a driver who appeared to be giving me a private tour of the bridge, the cemeteries and other sights. I say appeared because I couldn’t understand a word he said and vice versa. I remember stopping at some rocks, which could have been the Hellfire Pass Tricia writes about in the book (I can’t recall). I remember catching a glimpse of the driver’s bare back as he lifted his shirt to mop his brow. And then spotting the gun tucked into his trouser belt. I remember my terror. Have I been kidnapped by the bus driver? Was he going to harm me? And I remember the restaurant he took me to for lunch, where paranoia got the better of me. I thought he’d drugged my lemonade so I went to the bathroom to see if I could escape through the window. No luck. Eventually, after a few more scares when I thought he was driving me somewhere else, he took me to the bus station, accompanied me onto the bus (which also freaked me out), sat me down and then said his polite goodbyes in Thai. I wasn’t in any danger after all. He was a kind and generous man who just happened to have a pistol down his trousers.
Reading Tricia’s descriptions of that beautiful, moving place – the River Kwai, the bridge, the surrounding scenery and its tragic history – took me right back. Like her protagonist, I was a young, sensitive woman who felt things deeply and who preferred to ride in the open air on the back of a truck than sit inside the cab.
The first time I read Benedict’s Brother I barely knew Tricia. I met her at a book reading and shared my own ambitions to write and my frustration that I hadn’t yet managed to get anything into print. The dedication she wrote in my copy of her book that I bought that night reads: “To Katherine. Next time we meet you’ll have FINISHED that book!!” followed by a smiley face. I hadn’t, but eventually I did, with her help. The book’s storyline is also profound but I won’t spoil it for you. I’d love you to read it. I promise it will move you.
A while after our first meeting, Tricia and I became friends and colleagues. She read a draft of some of my book and helped me to choose the cover design. A few days before she died, she sent me this message on Whatsapp from her hospital bed after I shared with her that I was scared to write, scared to finish the revised edition of my book: “Your words – especially your words – have wonderful positive power for many women. And some wonderful men too. Go girl.” Always encouraging. Always uplifting. Right to the end.
Tricia had extraordinary success with her book. It is now in film production and we hope it will make it to the big screen. A new and exciting chapter of her life was just beginning. She had just swapped her old car for a shiny white convertible golf so that she could enjoy Bournemouth’s sunshine and big skies in style.
Our work place isn’t the same without her. She has left a hole. But she’s also left a huge legacy, which extends far beyond her book and future film. She touched us all with her warmth, her sensitivity, her openness and her endearing smile. She showed us the value of relationships and the importance of making time to connect with each other and with the natural world around us.
That’s why a bunch of us went in the sea this week following her memorial service, during which her ashes and rose petals were scattered into the sea from Boscombe Pier. We connected with each other and with her. We laughed. And we experienced the bracing cold. She wouldn’t have joined us but she would have cheered us on with that huge heart and big smile.
I find it hard not to think of her when I’m doing simple things. I listen to a wonderful song and think she won’t get to hear that again. I plunge my hands into soapy water to wash the dishes and, just as I’m about to moan about my dull chore, I realise she won’t get to wash dishes again. I touch my partner, feel his warmth, and feel devastated at the thought that she’ll never touch another again.
But maybe I can believe that she’s listening to sweeter songs now and experiencing love, somewhere else where there are no dirty dishes to wash.
Death will come to us all, sooner or later. But we can honour those who have passed away before their time and we can appreciate the gift of life by truly living. As I wrote at the end of the revised edition of my book:
We have no idea when our time will be up. So let’s live courageously and love courageously, for our own sakes and in memory of those who no longer have the chance.
So what would living courageously look like to you? And what would loving courageously look like to you? What changes do you need to make in your life?
I confess that I find it hard to live courageously. Or maybe that’s unfair. Because the truth is I wake up most days feeling scared, scared of the steps I need to take in my work, scared of the conversations I need to have, scared of being me in this big, crazy world. But then I do it. I do it anyway. I stress and worry and question. I procrastinate. I waste time and energy making decisions, unmaking them and then making them again.
But I do it. I make good things happen.
I was struck today by how much my life has changed. My fiancé and I went to a wedding fair in Bournemouth (our worst nightmare but we decided to give it a go and we actually had a giggle and got some good information too). As I walked around the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC), I was reminded of my days as a political journalist, attending party conferences there, running around the halls trying to speak to MPs and get vox pops from delegates, stressing over the stories that I needed to file, binge eating to ease my terror of making a mistake. And at the end, heading back exhausted to my London flat and my single life.
Today I was there as a fiancée. But I was also there as an author, as a dating and relationships coach and as a mid-life mentor (carrying a few How to Fall in Love books in my handbag just in case). I was there as someone who lives here in a home with my partner, by the beach and the sea. I was there as a woman who has found her purpose and passion and who is beginning to blossom and flourish as she takes to the stage to share her message with others. I was there as a speaker who on Monday will host a sold-out London workshop in partnership with Psychologies magazine (Fall in love with yourself, with life and another) and who’s had the courage to put on another London workshop on the same theme a few weeks later for anyone who missed out (Love yourself, love life, find love on Feb. 28), plus a few more events and seaside retreats in coming months (click here for details).
So I am living. I am truly living. Most days I’m terrified. I wake up feeling anxious. But I feel alive. I already have a legacy in my book and I know that I am touching people’s lives. It took courage to get here, bucket loads of courage, and it will take even more courage to continue along this path. But it’s worth it.
How about you? Where do you want to be? What do you want to do? Do you want to find a healthy relationship and have the courage to commit? Do you want to write your book or stand at the front of the room and deliver your message to an audience at a Psychologies event? Do you want to share your gifts with the world? And what’s stopping you?
You have those gifts for a reason. You’re meant to share them with others, not keep them all to yourself.
Believe me, I know it’s not easy. Tricia knew it wasn’t easy too. The following extract is from her final blog post, To the River (the title of the film that’s being made of her book). It was read at her memorial this week.
As with anything, sometimes you have to take a risk and jump into the river, be knocked under, be challenged and be scared, be battered and bruised but be carried by a bigger force to a place where the waters are calmer, where the river is wide and where the risk is worth it because we find the sun shining and the flora flourishing and we find the place where our hearts can be truly happy.
And that is by far a more beautiful and better place to be than to remain standing on the bank of the river, failing to dare.
So, the world may indeed feel in collapse and chaos but by jumping in I truly believe we will eventually see the wonderful world we seek.
Nobody said it would be easy.
Indeed, nobody said it would be easy. So don’t stand on the riverbank. Jump in.
I would love you to join me at any of the following workshops, events or retreats: Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
How to Fall in Love. Wednesday, Feb 14th. Valentine’s Day. Facebook Live on Psychologies magazine Facebook page. 1 pm.
How to Fall in Love – Challenging Fears & Changing Patterns. Tuesday, March 27. 7-9 pm. London. Tickets.