Stories are powerful. The best ones can freeze-frame time and steal our breath. They can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can build bridges and expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.
They have been shared since prehistory. We’re told them from birth. They surround us - not just in books, films and plays - but at the heart of the messaging we absorb each day from a thousand different sources.
Stories build identity and a sense of belonging. In my family we still talk about my grandfather’s childhood adventures, long since he left us. How he launched a makeshift aeroplane off a warehouse roof, how he blew his eyebrows off with a home-made chemistry experiment, how he learned to drive a lorry at the age of 13. The stuntman genes have not necessarily been passed down in my direction, but my children hear these stories, just as I did, and they know what they are part of and where they belong.
The stories you lean towards reveal what defines you. They say something about who you are and they shape and reinforce the deeper narrative through which you see the world. I have always sought out stories of redemption, of rescue and the power of hope over all that hurts and breaks us. I grew up hearing about a father who watched and waited for years for his long-lost, dissolute son, and hitched up his clothes to run at the sight of him, to welcome him home with arms open wide, despite the shame and smell and grime of the life to which his boy had sunk.
I love novels; my shelves are groaning under the weight of them stacked two deep and several high. I love the inventiveness involved in a talented person’s creation of a brand new story. But in their shadow, often overlooked, is the quiet, true story from your own life, or your family or community, now or mined from the past. There is richness close to you. You don’t have to go far. You just have to notice.
I have a story to share that stands up to any tale of high heroism I could find in a book.
It starts when I met a fellow parent at the school gates when my children were little. I liked her immediately and we became friends over a shared love of good books and funny stories. She was an A & E nurse at the local hospital. We were part of the same book group, and later prayer group. I remember the day a couple of years later that she told us of her diagnosis with breast cancer. All the people who knew her and loved her (same thing) were winded, blindsided.
But over the next few years we watched her walk her journey.
Despite what she was going through, her house was open and her laugh was loud and her friends were countless.
She made caramel shortbread once, and put it in the freezer to cool down. Carrying the tray out from the kitchen she suddenly bent double as she realised that the chocolate and caramel had frozen into the drawer above, and all she’d brought out was the shortbread. I can still hear her laughter.
She was honest about the grimness of what she was going through. She would share her heart and her thoughts and then turn the conversation towards the other person, to hear all that was happening in their life.
A few weeks before she died she took her children to the seaside with a friend, and despite lungs that were ceasing to work, she jumped in the waves with her son and he turned to her and said,
‘This is heaven’.
Before reading prayers at her funeral I had to stare at my feet and empty my mind to keep my tears at bay. Once I’d finished, I returned to my seat and looked up for the first time to see the flowers and the card her son had written that said, ‘Didn’t we have a lot of fun, Mummy?’
It would have been her 50th birthday tomorrow, and we would have been dancing and raising a glass, probably in some pretty preposterous fancy dress.
So I tell her story, which is one of courage and laughter and love. She will not be forgotten.
[She was a galvaniser of people and a raiser of funds, and her daughter is just like her. In honour of them both, I’m sharing the link to Sarah’s fundraising page for Cancer Research UK, in case you would like to make a gift: https://www.justgiving.com/catherinesangels1 ]