First a little warning: I’m aware that for those of you who know the weight of today this may not be an easy read. I needed to write this, but it might be that today isn’t the day to read it, and that’s okay. Look after yourselves.
In many ways today is just another day. Just one of the three hundred and sixty five that fill our year, full of it’s own challenges and possibilities. I’m sure many things happened on June 20th 2013, children were born, couples got married and friendships blossomed. That day will mean many things to many different people.
But for me, it was also the day we lost a dear friend James in a hiking accident, whilst we were away on a trip to Norway. I was on the trip with James and some other friends. As we started our trip, nestled at the foot of beautiful Norwegian mountains, we didn’t know tragedy would strike that day. I had no idea the words I exchanged with James would be our last, didn’t realise I was saying ‘goodbye’ instead of ‘hello’. I thought we had hundreds of ordinary days to come, that I had time for all the words I’d meant to say. I didn’t think tomorrow would be too late.
I felt just a fraction of the damage that day left, I know I experienced only a small part of that grief. A grief that was felt then, and is still felt today. I also know that for me, and for many others, June 20th will never be just another day.
Two months after returning from Norway I moved to a place where no one had ever known James. I realise to the new friends I have made he has become ‘my friend who died’. But that isn’t who James was, he isn’t defined by his death. Rather we love and remember James because of the way he lived.
He was the friend who always had time to help you with your coursework, even if he was overloaded with work himself. Without his patience and willingness to explain a topic, I’m not sure I would have graduated with a 2.1 degree in Mathematics. He showed me what it means to be selfless and generous. And he was a loyal friend, a friend who really cared, and listened to the answer when he asked you how you were. James had a passion and enthusiasm for life that was contagious. It was him who inspired me to take up photography, after he let me borrow his camera on a trip away. He had a joy and love of life that I admired and aspired to.
I don’t think I ever saw James do anything half heartedly, whether it was in his studies, hobbies or friendships, he gave it everything he had. And he was dedicated to growing in his faith, committed to following God as closely as he could, eager and excited to learn new things about Him. James was all these things and so much more. I can see he taught me so much through the way he lived his life, even though I did not realise it at the time.
And writing this I miss him, as all who loved him do. It still hurts to know we won’t see him again this side of heaven. But the beautiful thing about relationships is they change us. When we are loved by someone they give us a piece of themselves, and we are shaped by that investment. That change cannot be reversed. I see so much of James in those friends he has left behind. I see the way his life has impacted and improved our own. That whilst in one sense he is gone, in another sense he is so present to all of us. We will carry James with us into our futures, carry everything he taught us. Though he is not with us in person, I know he will continue to influence my life, mould the person I will become. He can never be forgotten.
Today is going to be tough and painful for so many of us. For some it may feel like too much to bear. It would be so easy to make today about death and loss, darkness and despair. But if James has taught me anything it’s that today should be about life. About the wonderful and inspiring way he lived his, the ways he continues to inspire us.
As you read this I will be travelling down to Southampton, to spend this day with some of James’ friends. There may well be tears, but I know there will also be laughter, as we celebrate all that James was. I thank God for loaning us such a brilliant friend, knowing he is now home where he belongs, at the start of his greatest adventure. As I look into the faces of some of those people James loved, I know I will see his fingerprints over their lives, see how knowing him has changed us for the better. How his influence will be with us for years to come.
And once June 2oth has passed us by again, I’ll continue to carry with me all James taught me. I will do my best to grab life with both hands like he did, to live my life without regrets or ‘maybe tomorrow’. To seek to know God more, to learn and grow in Him each day. I will strive to be compassionate and generous with my life, to be a loyal and caring friend. I will continue to capture as much beauty as I can through the lens of a camera, thinking of him as I do.
Each of us who loved him will carry a different part of who James was with us, letting it live on within, treasuring the memories. And as we carry him with us, until we see him again, we can know he hasn’t really left us. The ones that love us never do.