There are people who uniformly, consistently make things that little bit easier for others. Yesterday a few of us had the privilege of celebrating the 80th birthday of one such lady, and as we took it in turns to recall her kindness it was overwhelming evident that we were in special company. Here are a handful of lessons learned in the few hours spent celebrating Shirley:
1. Small is beautiful
Almost everything that people wanted to say thank you for were small attentions: a hand-wrapped treat of favourite sweets given as a spontaneous gift; unasked for financial help with a notelet of encouragement tucked into the envelope; names remembered and families asked after; conversation in place of loneliness; a smile and a hug instead of isolation. People have carried those moments of love like life buoys. Selflessness saves lives.
2. Loss is inevitable, but not insummountable
I don't know her well enough to speak definitively on her behalf, but looking at the life events that did and didn't take place over the last eighty years, I hazard a guess that at some stage a decision was made to be "better, not bitter".
3. Learning is life-long
From sports to spiritual growth, it was incredible to listen to a long list of the new things being discovered at an age when it might be tempting to think you know a thing or two already.
4. Image is irrelevant
One of the things I prize the most about returning to the church community that I grew up in and Shirley belongs to is a timely rebuke about getting caught up in how things look from the outside.
There things are done in idiosyncratic and arguably unfashionable ways: awkward silences are allowed to attend a party instead of being drowned out by background music; spontaneous off-key singing is okay and common interests are sometimes hard to find in the ethnically, economically and age diverse hodge-podge of people.
But there is laughter. There is love, so much love. And the peace of being acceptable and accepted by others - not on the basis of attractiveness or shared likes and dislikes, but just because. It's miraculous. It settles the soul.
To grow old having lived life on that basis in a society that shouts the opposite is surely one of the most amazing achievements of all.