When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.
(Mohican Chief Aupumut, 1725)
I rarely share personal stuff on this blog, but today I celebrate the life of a dear friend and former work colleague. Steve was a trade union activist, hard-left socialist, environmentalist, smallholder, home-brewer, traveller, and dedicated horiculuralist and gardener. He returned to higher education after retiring from work in 2019 after forty-years in the civil service, and was just about to start the final year of a Modern History degree.
He moved his family to North Wales from Gloucestershire for work in the late 1970s. He never lost that soft west-country accent, nor his love of cider and music festivals. In our smallish community, we’d seen the loss of coal mining and the steel industry in quick succession in the 1980s and Steve, along with others had long supported workers from both these industries over the years leading up to closures. Our department took up many of these redundant workers in the early 1990s so, when successive governments talked about reducing staffing numbers and closing smaller offices as early as 2000, he was among the first to say this wasn’t on in a rural area like North Wales, and rallied support. Of course, the goverment got their way – eventually – and much to the detriment of accessible public services and loss of face-to-face contact and assistance. Our office finally closed in 2020 and the building stands empty.
Steve was a fervent believer in recycling, re-using and repurposing many items, so when we were having our new patio built in 2008, I asked him if he needed any paving slabs or they would just be put in the skip by the builders (no Facebook groups offering items free to collectors then). ‘I’ll take them off your hands’, said he. ‘How many are there?’ ‘Eighty-four and some halves,’ says me. ‘And you’ll have to lift them.’ It took him and a mate all weekend to lift and stack them, and it was a week before he’d carried off the last batch in the boot of his car. But at least they didn’t go to waste and he got something he needed.
Though we remained friends on Facebook, the last time I saw him was August 2019 at ONE of his many retirement do’s. He was looking forwards to starting his course at the end of September; he’d just bought a camper van and was looking forwards to many trips away at festivals and walking in the hills with other friends. He practiced a form of Tai Chi, had usually walked the three miles to work every morning and the same back again each evening; then the same again to catch the train to Liverpool where he was studying.
Only a few months ago he wrote about the difficulty getting to see his GP for a face-to-face appointment. He, and we, thought his back pain was sciatica (this is a man who, two years ago, planted 120 fruit trees – by hand – in a new orchard). We joked about him getting old and needing to slow down, suggested alternatives like accupuncture or physio, shared – as you do – our own ailments.
It was on Monday 23 August that he put this brave message on his Facebook page: “Morning all. Its is with sadness that I announce that the so called sciatica gp diagnosed over last 3 months is in fact terminal leukemia. I have 6 to 12months if lucky. I am getting incredibl support and nhs is doing me proud. However my condition might have been avoided if the f2f gp appointment were still normal. I am interested to receive similar tales as a campaign is urgent to save lives.”
His first thought was for others; those, like him, who had tried and failed to get face-to-face appointments with their GP and are now facing serious illness. He shared this article and later this petition was shared to his Facebook page. No blame attached to individuals, but attention drawn to the ongoing shortage of funding that sees medical practices throughout the UK struggling to recruit doctors and other medical staff, and the consistent and persistent attempts to privatise the NHS and deny help to those who need it.
Three days later he posted this “Quick update. Finished first week of treatment and am on dialysis, this looks permanent. Still I’m hospital where it only 1 visitor per day.”
By 9th September he was hoping to be allowed home at least for a short visit. There were problems with the dialysis the following weekend; talk of developing heart problems and having a pacemaker fitted on the Saturday evening (according to one friend); Steve made the brave decision to discontinue treatment.
On the morning of Wednesday 15 September, his family posted this message:
Sadly Steve passed away yesterday after a short battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his family and was comfortable and in no pain.
We know Steve touched so many lives through his union work, festivals and campaigning for human rights and are so proud of that fact. Please feel free to share any wonderful memories of him with us on this post. We will update with details of the funeral in due time.”
Today that day has arrived. At 1.30 pm friends and family will gather at the crematorium for that final goodbye. With numbers restricted to just 100 people due to Covid guidance, many of those who would willingly have travelled from all over the British Isles and further afield, will not be able to be there in person.
Unfortunately, I am one of them as I have a hospital appointment that I cannot change, and nor would Steve expect me to, given his own recent experience.
But wherever and whenever his friends, colleagues, and fellow trade unionists gather, his name and his legacy will be discussed; the happy times and the sad, successes and failures too, and many a glass will be raised in silent tribute.