In writing last week’s blog, I looked up my copy of 'The Art of Loving'. Folded within it was the obituary of Ellen Wilkie. Ellen had been a presenter on Channel 4’s current affairs programme for the disabled community ‘Same Difference’, as well as an actor, singer and poet. She was thirty two when she died on the 7th August 1989.
I met Ellen a few weeks before this, when we were both staying at the MacLeod Centre on Iona. She was there as a practising Christian, I was there trying to make sense of a Christian upbringing, which I was leaving behind and endeavouring to understand, as I did so. We met at meal time, it was natural to do so, the other inhabitants were a party, we and I include Ellen’s friend, and carer Judith Gunn, were solo independent travellers. In meeting, I took Ellen for who she was, the fact of her disability was obvious, as was her failing, it was clear she had not long to live. It seemed right to neither ask, what was wrong or to ask about her disability. I trusted her to tell me, if the time came and the moment was right. The moment did come one evening, after I helped Ellen to get to the abbey, to read some of her poems, as part of the evening service. She read well, with the skill of an accomplished performer. Afterwards two older women came to thank Ellen, as I stood behind her. They told her how good the poems were and silently, unsaid in the thanking, in the intonation, was the addition, ‘for a cripple.’ I was upset, angry on Ellen’s behalf but worse was to come. The next person came up and asked her straight out, what was wrong with her, adding, as if it gave her the right to know, that she was second year medical student at Aberdeen. Afterwards, when we talked about what had happened, Ellen told me her story, of how she had an extremely rare muscle wasting disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She had outlived the doctors predictions for her life expectancy by over a decade, successfully fighting the view and prejudices we had seen displayed that evening, to live a rich and full life. One in which she had packed more in and been more alive to her possibilities than many people manage in a life time. That she lived so long, Ellen put down to an experimental treatment she had, that she live so well, she put down to the love of her family and her Christian faith. I think everyone who knew her would have added her spirit and her determination. Looking back over twenty years later, I realise we became friends because I took her as she wanted to be taken, I looked past the obvious to find the person and for that I am thankful. It was a rare meeting, remaining a precious memory, a reminder of the possible in the most difficult of circumstances, as well as the wonders of friendship, in unfamiliar circumstances.
Which is where I will be next week, on a course with new people, sharing, trusting to find connection and possibility. Which means no blog for two weeks.