Let me begin this post by introducing you to my friend Claire. She’s going to curse and kill me for this photo but I’ve already hit ‘publish’ so you’ll know all about her shortly. (The good stuff only, I promise, Claire).
Well, we’re back home again and what an amazing time we have had. The beauty of travelling, and one of the things that makes us eager to hit the road time after time after time, is not only the places we see but also the people we meet. This trip not only had us discovering the overwhelming beauty of Albania and its people, but also had us falling head over heels in love with Slovenia, where we were so warmly welcomed at Domačija Paternoster that we ended up feeling as though we were leaving family behind – so much so that I actually shed a tear saying goodbye!
Kindness is the key to our enjoyment, we’ve found. The kindness and hospitality demonstrated by the people we have met along the way is what can make or break a visit to anywhere. The warmth of being wanted and welcomed makes a difference to one’s soul and creates a memory that lasts forever. It’s what the children tell stories about, it’s what they remember, it’s what becomes meaningful to them. The lessons in teaching kindness is not telling them how but in showing them how. It’s in enabling them to see how people are kind and helpful and loving, no matter how much or how little they might have, no matter where in the world they are.
Our children were so lucky to experience this by total strangers in new countries, which confirms one of the purposes behind our intentions to show them as much of the world as we can – the reality that no matter what we might read about, see on the news or hear from others, that the world is actually full of good, loving people and not a place to be feared.
It’s nice to be nice, as the saying goes, and it makes a huge difference to a lot of people, which is why Wall’s Pastry has launched a search to find a person, club or facility that deserves a special thank you to its local community. The Wall’s Pastry Helping Hand Campaign will see a chosen person or project will receive a £5,000 makeover from its team of ‘helping hands’ so that a local clubhouse can be spruced up or, in the case of an individual, they can finally get that new bathroom or kitchen they’ve always dreamed of.
It didn’t take me long at all to decide who to vote for even though, nice as she is, she will call me an expletive and ask me why the hell I did it for – the nomination and the photo.
Because she’s like that.
Meet my friend Claire.
Claire and I first met when we began high school back in 1988. I know that you are all shocked at how that is almost 30 years ago and how neither of us looks a day over 25. No, it’s not a typo and, as impossible as it seems, it’s true. It’s a curse, I tell you.
Anyway, I digress…
We went through the next few years of school within our little group, did our GCSEs, left school and lost touch.
A few years ago and thanks to Facebook (which I mainly abhor but it does admittedly have it’s advantages), and Amanda, another mutual friend from our back-then group which I also got back in touch with, made contact once again. All three of us are in the photo above – I think we’re about 15-years-old or thereabouts there.
Claire had become a paramedic many years earlier and loved her job. She was well suited to the role; caring, kind, no-nonsense and so, so funny. We saw each other few and far between but stayed in touch through infrequent messages and even less frequent meetings. Because you know how it is when life gets in the way.
Then life gave us a curve ball. My brother was diagnosed with leukaemia and, just three months later, my dad received the news that he too, possibly had cancer.
As dad’s diagnosis was confirmed, my family’s life was put on hold in a way we hadn’t expected. As my brother was confined to a hospital room for month after month whilst he fought the battle of his life, for his life, I had to try to help support our dad as best I could. Mike held the fort at home telling me, ‘Don’t worry about here. I’ll take care of it. You be where you need to be.’
And so much of my time last year was spent travelling back and forth between our home in Kent and where my dad and brother were over in Surrey.
Hotels proved expensive, especially when they were needed night after night and in increasing frequency. Then came a message from Claire.
‘I’ve got a room. Just use it.’
She also had a job, a son, bills to pay and problems of her own.
She didn’t let me take no for an answer.
My father was a stubborn man who no longer trusted hospitals. As he deteriorated, his refusal to seek help was a battle I could not win, regardless of the pleading or begging I did. Determined to die at home, difficult circumstances with my mother dictated otherwise and neither of us were safe in his final days.
Claire gained his trust.
Claire got him to safety.
Claire enabled my dad to die peacefully and with dignity.
I am a lot like my dad, in that I don’t trust easily and friendship needs to be earnt. Just days before he died he told me how much he liked Claire. ‘She’s my mate of honour,’ he smiled. I don’t think Claire quite gets what an accolade that is, coming from my dad.
Little over two months later, my brother, who had been in remission, was told that his leukaemia had returned. This time, they said, there was nothing that could be done about it.
Claire had done so much for me already and, being someone who was used to be ‘the helper’ and not ‘the helped’, I did not feel it right to ask more of her when she was going through so much herself. Alternative offers of help came and I accepted. Unfortunately, the offer was withdrawn after an 11 day total (not at once) with the suggestion I might ‘find somewhere else to stay to mix it up a bit’. My solution and the only one I had at the time was to sleep in my car near the hospital my brother was in.
‘I’m really sorry. I need help.’ I messaged Claire. I was angry, upset and desperate and hated having to ask for help.
I drove to her house after leaving the hospital and filled her in. She was angry – not just at how I had ended up sleeping in my car at the most desperate time of my life but at not going to her before.
‘F*ck ‘em,’ she said. ‘You don’t need them. You’ve got me.’
She was right.
Claire stayed up with me until midnight, letting me talk as much as I needed to in order to process a particular day’s events despite being full of cold and needing to be up early the following morning.
Claire held me as I sobbed whilst I watched the two remaining members of my immediate childhood family battle for their lives and lose their fight.
Claire gave me many much-needed boots up the butt and doses of reality during my numerous ‘I can’t do this’ moments. ‘Tough, you’ve got to. You could get on a plane to Australia tomorrow but nothing’s going to change. It’s still going to happen. You’ve got no choice. You’ve got to deal with it.’
Claire was the one who hugged me the day my brother died. ‘You knew it last night, didn’t you?’ She knew because she was the one I had confided in. I had seen the last days all too soon just five months before with my dad. I had gone back to her the evening before, vocalising the fears I had been keeping inside and crumbling as they became real as I said them out loud.
Claire kept me going as I was far away from my husband and my children, and during a time that I felt so very alone in the world.
‘Stay as long as you need,’ she told me.
And all the while, she had her own stuff to be dealing with; her night shifts, her day shifts, her beautiful boy, her own problems…
And she never once, not once, left me feeling as though I was alone, or indebted, or a burden.
I haven’t seen her since I left her home in November. Life gets in the way, you know. And I don’t know how I will ever repay her. But I do know I shall never, ever forget her love and kindness.
Knowing Claire, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one she’s been an amazing friend to. I’m pretty sure she’s changed the lives of hundreds of strangers over the years too, not only through her job but in general.
She’s beautiful, inside and out, and I don’t know if she will ever understand just how much she has done for me. I know she would shrug it off as she did when I told her she saved my arse again.
‘That’s me. I’m an arse-saver, not a lifesaver,’ she quipped as she threw away my thanks. Because that’s her. She does stuff… just because.
Her jokes are bad but they made me laugh at times I really didn’t feel like laughing.
Some people talk about being good people. Good people don’t need to broadcast the fact. Good people act, don’t talk. Good people just ‘do’.
Not for anything – not for recognition or thanks or reward.
Claire didn’t talk about being a good friend.
She just did it.
And that’s why I have nominated her.
Thanks, for saving my arse, Claire. Thank you for everything you did for me. Thank you for being my friend. Just… thank you.
You can vote for your individual, club or facility in Wall’s Pastry’s Helping Hand campaign here. You can also keep up with the campaign on social media with the hashtag #WallsHelpingHand.