To Start in Kindness

By Lilian Kennedy (Editor)

I write this on my train journey north, to my dear friend’s funeral. I sit facing backwards, gliding over green, wet countryside, through small and charming, and larger, grubby towns shrouded in early evening light. Each scene whips past from behind, over my right shoulder, in seeming solidarity with my unwillingness to face the reality of my trek. I can’t see where exactly it is I’m going; instead I peer carefully out of the corner of my eye to the north, and concentrate on the horizon laden with rose-gold lined clouds, safely out of reach, and beautiful.

This isn’t about my work, or dedicated to a minute aspect of academia. This post is about my life, and about my dear friend who isn’t alive any longer. Miss Kirsty Bailey, a fellow editor of this blog and friend to so many of us passed away in the afternoon on September 3rd, 2015.  I received the news that Kirsty died late that same night, and for days, through disbelief and a commitment to busyness successfully staved off succumbing to the warm and heavy constriction inching through my lungs. There was everything to do, at once, every task to tackle. Sorrow in its first stages sits like tuberculosis, until shock is worn thin and subsides, and suddenly, you’re drowning in a watershed of accumulated outrage and bewildered grief.

Becky Hewer, former editor-in-chief of this blog wrote beautifully about Kirsty, capturing her infectious and singular verve, and deep, persistent kindness.  In her piece, Becky grapples with the same hesitation I feel, a hesitation to easily proclaim that those we love were angels, or live on with the same vividness in our memories. I grapple, because for someone like Kirsty, how can it be possible that she, who was so sweeping in her friendship and tenacity to live, fit within the borders of mere recollections? How can someone with so much her-ness be kept in the space of my mind or others’? She needs a bigger, brighter house.

I went blackberry picking in the Heath three days after Kirsty died, on a rare Sunday off from fieldwork and an even rarer day of blue skies. I woke early, and in the calm and stillness of the early morning sat with my coffee, sipping from a mug I’d painted the year before with Kirsty, on a day we escaped from papers and books. I stared out my window, into windows opposite my own, containing other lives moving through other early morning tasks. I’d stayed up late the night before, lying in bed contemplating other late nights with Kirsty, in tiny pubs failing at pub quizzes, in the library staring down drafts of a paper, on her couch with a bottle of wine giggling, or other nights, scarier nights before a big surgery texting plainly about the unanswerable what-ifs. In the dark, remembering these nights with my friend, my boyfriend’s breathing beside me was a rhythmic beacon of vulnerability, his warmth a bonfire betraying our temporality, our existence as dear, dear beings that do not last. I thought of my sister and brother, thousands of miles away and willed that every cell in their body keep going, going, going. The dark became a tender membrane reflecting back the precarious, precious places I’ve dug wells for my love. I pulled my Mary Oliver books from the shelf and by mobile light, read again through words I have almost memorized, poems that have become an oft-visited refuge in times of heartache and fear.

The next morning, staring out the window and picturing Kirsty’s dimpled grin, I took heed of Oliver. I heed of Kirsty, my friend who was courageous, cheerful and bright, and who at every occasion, celebrated the joys in her friends’ lives. I planned how I was going to “start the day in happiness, in kindness,” (1) how I was going to dedicate every one of its small joys to my friend as a token of my deep gratitude that she befriended me. Each blackberry I picked I put in my bag with an unspoken “for Kirsty.”  Caterpillars moving slowly over overripe berries were sacredly alive, and every chirp and whistle from the trees was a spirited hello from my friend. The sun on my back and my arms was a reiteration of Kirsty’s warmth, a moment to remember how positively lucky I had been - as a girl far from home and feeling it - to have this girl with fantastic fuchsia painted nails see my embarrassment at spilling coffee across my shirt on the first day of class, and almost in solidarity, knock over her tea to soak the floor.

I haven’t found a tidy way that this loss makes sense, yet. Perhaps, I’ll never find it. I know I’m not alone, I know there are many of us who Kirsty befriended, to our great and good fortune, who are heartbroken and missing her. In Kirsty’s family’s generosity, we were welcomed at her funeral, and it was oddly wonderful to see the pews lined with so many of her friends, friends who had been lucky in the same way, and were suffering the same loss. The service was beautiful and reverberant with sunflowers. Her family’s openness and strength was a salve to all of us, I think, and in them and their words Kirsty was alive. In the relatively short time I knew Kirsty, she’d talked about her family often. Kirsty counted herself immeasurably fortunate to be her parents’ daughter and her brother’s sister. She described with quiet pride who they were and that they were hers, she spoke with wonder about the boundless love and support they gave her. She loved how close she was with her mother, father and brother, and how much fun they had together. This was obvious during the times I spent with Kirsty’s family before she died, and obvious at her service; hers is a family that knows how to be deeply good to each other. This was where Kirsty, who was so good to me, came from.

A few years ago, I attended a Buddhist lecture by a nun, and in it someone asked what exactly enlightenment felt like, what it was. The nun responded simply, saying that it was realizing your continuity with reality, with all life, and that it felt as though you’re being lived by all existence. Kirsty’s mother said something at the funeral that struck me and has stayed with me. She said, “We don’t want to get over Kirsty,” and the moment these words hit the air, I thought thank god. I don’t either. I don’t want to leave Kirsty behind, or house her only in my memories. I want to push her forward, into life and my own future alongside me. So, weeks after my friend has died, I’m striving to be lived by Kirsty, by trying to pay forward goodness in the same ways that Kirsty gave it so completely. I’m striving to be kinder, to be braver, and to be a better friend, because this was how she lived, she lives.

1. Oliver, Mary. Why I Wake Early. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Print.