When there are more important things than blogging

by Jeanne on December 22, 2005

in Table scraps

Christellebwpic

I know that many of you have been waiting eagerly for the EoMEoTE roundup and I promise that it will be posted.  But (as it has a habit of doing), my real life has rudely interrupted my blogging life and I just have not been able to bring myself to blog.

Regular readers of this blog (and I do entertain the fantasy that there are a few of those…) may remember a post back in June about my friend Christelle who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in February this year. Well, after her remarkable recovery, she had an MRI scan in July which showed that the tumour had responded well to the chemo and radiotherapy, and doctors were confident that a scan towards the end of the year might even show further improvement.  Christelle was still plagued by kidney infections and pain, and remained worryingly thin, but she was well enough to come to a braai (BBQ) at our house in August and to fly home to South Africa form most of October to visit her family.

When she returned to London in early November she started experiencing severe pain in her leg and eventually went to hospital to have it checked out.  As she had just been on a long flight, DVT was the primary suspect and an MRI scan was done to check that she did not have a blood clot rushing towards her brain or heart.  It was during the course of this scan that she received the dreaded news that there were cancerous lesions on her liver – in other words, the cancer had not only not gone away, but it was also spreading.  And although it is true that you can live without large chunks of your liver, Christelle was so thin and weak that there was no way that surgery was an option.  Instead, the doctors decided to embark on a second course of chemotherapy, and Christelle’s mom flew over from South Africa to be with her. 

On 1 December Christelle had her first session of chemo and almost immediately things started to deteriorate.  Her immune system is already so weak and the chemo just seemed to knock out what was left, and she promptly developed a severe stomach upset.  So for three or four days she was at home but unable to eat and getting weaker, but also terrified of going back to hospital.  Eventually, though, Donald and her mom persuaded her and she returned to hospital where they diagnosed a stomach infection that was making it impossible for her to absorb anything she ate.  Obviously, further chemo was out of the question for the time being and doctors told Donald they were purely trying to bring the stomach infection under control so that she could eat and regain some strength before they continued treatment. 

When Donald called to let me know she was back in hospital, I went that same night (6 December) to visit her.  I must say that I was shocked when I saw her.  OK, she was thin when I had seen her last, but still looked like Christelle.  Even when se was in ICU in June with tubes and drips and a dialysis machine, she just looked like a frail, sleeping version of Christelle.  But this was different.  She looked more like a concentration camp survivor or a famine victim with HUGE eyes and skin that seemed to stretch too tightly over her cheekbones.  Christelle has always had lovely rounded features and suddenly she had a sharp nose and cheekbones that could cut paper.  Plus there was the small matter of the drain in her abdomen to drain the fluid accumulating because of her kidney and liver problems.  And the antibiotics that she was taking for the stomach infection had given her sores in her mouth and throat, making eating even less successful.  But having said all that, she was remarkably unchanged in other ways.  We still talked about Christmas plans, which restaurant she wanted to visit when she got out of hospital, what I bought in Dubai – just normal, everyday kind of stuff in a very abnormal situation. She also had that slightly listless look that very ill people have, as if they are gradually disconnecting themselves from this world.

Donnie told me that the doctors had said the next week would be crucial – they would first try to bring the stomach infection under control and then decide on further treatment. And although I called and spoke to Donnie during the next week, I did not manage to make the hour-long trip to the hospital until a week later. On this occasion, a friend and I wanted to visit, but at the last minute Donnie called and vaguely explained that Christelle was sleeping most of the time anyway and there was not much point to our visit. I only learned much later that Christelle’s hair had started falling out in patches and she didn’t want visitors seeing her like that, so she had asked Donnie to head us off. Two days later I called again and this time there was nothing vague about Donnie’s response. Christelle had been sedated and unconscious since Thursday sometime and they had feared she might not make it through Thursday night. The difficult decision had been made to fly her father over from South Africa and he was landing on Saturday morning. At this point, Donnie was just praying Christelle would hang on until her father arrived – that’s how far things had deteriorated. I asked if I could visit and his exact words were “just come, whenever you can”.

I arrived at the hospital on Saturday morning, sick with worry and fear. Christelle’s parents were with her and looked tremendously strained. I could not believe the change in Christelle. Once again, she was sedated, as she had been in ICU in June, but this time there was nothing left of her. Although I didn’t think it was possible for her to get any thinner, she had surprised me and got a lot thinner. She was still breathing on her own but in shallow gasps that were both terrifying and mesmerising to hear. I suddenly began to understand what Donald had said about sitting in the darkened hospital room on his nightly vigil, counting the seconds between each breath and wondering every time whether there would be another breath. It was as if cancer had totally subsumed my friend and her whole being had become the disease. But she still wore a pink scarf around her head, decorated with little hearts, so cancer never got her sense of style, even if it got everything else. Her mom told me that the doctor had said Christelle was sedated but could probably hear us, so they had been talking to her. And then her parents did a beautiful thing: they went for a walk and left me alone with Christelle for 20 minutes or so. And so I sat with her, holding her hand and talking (inexplicably) about my Christmas plans, our mutual friends’ lives and the weather. It was only after a good ten minutes of this that I could collect my emotions and tell her how much I have always loved her and how very sorry I was that she had to walk this final journey alone. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but also the most necessary, and something that I never had a chance to do for my own mother. After her parents returned, we spoke for a while and then I kissed Christelle goodbye and left, promising to return the following day.

On Sunday morning we got up and Nick was getting ready to drive to the hospital when the call came. Christelle had slipped away just after 10 on Sunday morning. She and Donald (who married in the registry office in the UK) were due to have a marriage blessing service in front of her friends and family in South Africa on 7 January. Now those same friends and family will be attending a funeral. She was 30 years old.

Two days later, on Tuesday 20 December, a memorial service was held here in London for her UK friends. I was asked by her parents to speak at the service and I don’t think I can say anything more appropriate than what is already contained in the speech below. Christelle, our lives were richer for having known you and we will miss you forever.

EULOGY FOR CHRISTELLE’S MEMORIAL SERVICE, LONDON, 20 DEC 2005

Thank you all for joining us at such short notice on this very sad day.  For those of you who don’t know me, I am Jeanne, a friend of Donald and Christelle’s from PE who has been living in London for about as long as they have and I want to thank Christelle’s family and Donald for letting me speak here today.

What you don’t know about me is that when I was younger, I used to write a lot of poetry.  Hey – I was a student – that’s what students do – write anguished poetry in the middle of the night!!  Most of my poems are safely locked away in South Africa and mercifully unknown outside of a very small circle of my friends.  But one of them was a poem that my father found great comfort in when my mother died in 2003, and when uncle Bennie asked me to say a few words today, it was the words of this poem that came back to me:

“If I died today

My shadow would melt

My reflection would fade

And a little piece of you (that lives in my heart)

Would die.

But a little piece of me (that lives in your heart)

Would live.”

And I think it is safe to say that a piece of Christelle will live on in the heart of every person that she met. 

I have known Christelle for relatively few years –in fact, only since 1999, when Donald said he was bringing along his girlfriend to a weekend away near Knysna organised by our mutual friend Paul.  Within a couple of hours of her arriving on the weekend, she had made firm friends with both me and another friend, Bronwyn, who promptly christened her “Sneaky short red-haired person” in honour of her short hairstyle at the time, and her mischievous sense of fun.  From that day on, she and Donald became part of my “inner circle” of friends who were always first on the guest list for any party, first to hear any big news, and this relationship was cemented further when they became our closest friends to move to London.  We have shared so many wonderful times and silly private jokes, and those are the memories that will be treasured in my heart for all time, and I hope to share some of them with you today.

When I was trying to put down on paper my thoughts and memories of Christelle, a number of words sprang to mind.  The first is BEAUTIFUL.  And I don’t just mean our long standing joke of, whenever a camera appears, to say “you’re so beeeeaaaauuuuutiful, the camere laaaaahves you!”.  No, Christelle was one of those very rare people who truly do not know how beautiful they are.  When I told my mother that I had a friend working at Red Square and she should ask Christelle for help when she needed to find something, she came home and said that she had just met my most beautiful friend!  But that was only half the story – her beautiful soul shone out through her eyes and charmed every person she ever met.  I cannot imagine anybody knowing Christelle for more than a few minutes and not falling in love with her.  Testimony to this fact is the number of people who could not be with us today but have asked me to convey their condolences and best wishes to Donald and Christelle’s family.  From PE we have Bronwyn, Andrea, Anton and Paola; from Joburg we have Catherine, Claudette and Lisa Baird; from Durban there is Gillian;  Roger and Lesley from Kent; our friend Lizel who is herself recovering from breast cancer; and two friends of mine who have never met Christelle – Johanna and Moira.  Moira is an American living near Cambridge and she sent Christelle a “care package” of sweets and magazines when she was first having chemotherapy, even though she never met her.

Another word that springs to mind is PUGS.  I imagine it will be a very long time before I will be able to walk past a card or a picture of a pug and not think “ooh, I must buy that for Christelle!”  It always pained her that she had to say goodbye to her beloved pug and leave it with Donnie’s family when she came over here, and so she extended her love to every four-footed creature she came across – cats, dogs, Donald, you name it.  As many of you know, she was planning this year to enrol in a pet-grooming course and I have no doubt that there would have been a queue round the block of pets eager to spend some time in her loving and tender care. 

Another word that I also associate strongly with Christelle is LOVE.  She was so incredibly generous with her love – love for animals, love for her family, love for her God, her infectious love for life and of course, her enduring love for Donald.  As her friends, Nick and I would often come home from Donnie and Christelle’s house feeling as if we had just been guests of honour at a state banquet with the queen – she treated all her friends as if they were precious jewels and it always made you feel incredibly special.  And as far as her love for Donald goes, I can honestly say that they were one of the few couples that I never saw argue.  The worst you would hear is the occasional “DonalT!” when Donnie was annoying her, but I don’t think I ever saw her annoyance level rise beyond this.  Their love for each other was a joy to see and an inspiration to others.

Another word that came to mind and something that I shall miss terribly is Christelle’s LAUGHTER.  She loved to laugh and seemed to laugh often and heartily.  Her laughter was never restrained and bubbled up from her like water from a fountain.  Mostly, I think, she liked to laugh at my and Bronwyn’s silly jokes and rambling conversations.  Her particular favourite was my translations of English songs – we spent hours doing Abba translations – and I can safely say that I am the only person on whose wedding video the bride and bridesmaid are captured on film singing an Afrikaans translation of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.  As Bron and I start “Eers was ek bang, ek was lamgeskrik”, all you hear in the background are Christelle’s helpless giggles.  She always made me feel as if I were the funniest person on the planet and I have many memories of her and Donnie clinging to each other, helpless with laughter at some joke.  Donnie will no doubt recall the “Gereedskap vir Gemeenskap” joke, or Platbek padda, which was a particular favourite of hers.

No list of words about Christelle would, of course, be complete without SHOPPING!  Oh, how Christelle loved shopping.  She loved it almost as much as I do, and I have Olympic colours in the sport of shopping.  She had an inexhaustible capacity for shopping and even while in hospital, she would talk about how she looked forward to the day she was well enough to go home and go shopping again.  If there are shoe stores in heaven, I hope they are fully stocked because let me tell you, their sales are about to triple.

A final word that I would use to describe Christelle is Afrikaans and sadly has no English translation, and that is deursettingsvermoë.  Roughly translated it means the strength to see things through and carry on despite adversity. And I don’t just mean in the last few months – no , Christelle’s steely will and deursettingsvermoë has raised its head before,  Like when Donald first came to England and Chirstelle tried to get a  visa to join him, but her application was turned down.  Christelle then told me that she was going into England, visaless,  as tourist and that they would sort out later how she could stay.  I immediately panicked and told both her and Donald how strict the Immigration authorities could be and that there was every likelihood that she would be questioned extensively and sent back to SA, never allowed to return to the UK.  But no, she was determined.  And armed only with her determination to be with Donald and her deursettingsvermoë, she endured the questioning at Heathrow and arrived safely in England.  I was amazed.  But of course, the real test of Christelle’s deursettingsvermoë came this year when she was diagnosed with cancer.  Through courses of chemo and radiotherapy, a terrifying battle with septicaemia, DVT, kidney problems and the dreaded news that the cancer had spread, her deursettingsvermoë pulled her through where many others would simply not have had the strength to continue.  Even while she was having chemotherapy, she set up a fundraising page for other cancer sufferers and raised over £500.  When I saw her in hospital the week before her death, she was planning which restaurants we should go to when she was better, determined to look beyond her current state of health.  All the nurses that I spoke to mentioned that she was such an incredible fighter and had survived long after medical science would have said it was all over.  And I am sure it was her deursettingsvermoë that provided her with the strength to wait until Oom Bennie arrived from South Africa before finally setting down the heavy burden her body had become.

I truly believe that now that Christelle is no longer earthbound like the rest of us, she will be with us all over the world.  No longer will being in England mean that she cannot be with her family.  No longer will being in SA mean she cannot be with Donald.  She will always be with each and every one of us, watching over us and guiding us, and smiling at us from every beautiful thing we see.

On that note, I would like to leave you with a very beautiful poem called Grieve Not by Mary Frye:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

angelika December 23, 2005 at 11:58 am

Dear Jeanne, I am so shocked and sad finding this note right now when browsing my favourite blogs. I remember when we personally spoke about Christelle in September and I could hear in your voice that you were worried. How right you were. But how precious it must have been (and still is) for both of you that you have had such a friendship. She will always be with you, even more than before. Thank you for sharing the story and I can only wish you and Nick some hopefully peaceful days, and please submit my kindest regards and deep sympathy to Donald. It must be a very hard time for all of you now. Take care, a big kiss from angelika

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Jeanne December 23, 2005 at 12:19 pm

Dear Angelika
I remember our conversation a couple of months ago and I rememeber I was touched by your concern for sombody you have never met. I will certainly let Donald know of your kind words – he and Christelle’s parents draw great comfort from the tremendous kindness that people have shown in the past few months, and I know they will contiue to do so.
Best wishes to you and Herbert (and of course Gino!) for a wonderful Christmas.

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Jacqui Johansson December 23, 2005 at 1:26 pm

I am terribly sorry for the loss of your friend. So young and so beautiful, her life was just begining. It´s at times like this when I hold my arms upwards and ask why?? The answers never come. HUGS!!

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Sam December 23, 2005 at 2:52 pm

jeanne.
I can’t say anything to make things better for you, but please know I was exremeley moved by your sad post and I am thinking of you and your friends at this sad time.
sam x

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Moira December 23, 2005 at 5:53 pm

Oh, Jeanne- what a lovely, lovely eulogy for Christelle…thinking of you all…xo, Moi

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johanna December 24, 2005 at 12:18 am

my dear friend jeanne, what a beautiful eulogy. it’s brought christelle even closer to me than she already was through our long conversations. her passing away was a blow to me – and a reminder to do all i can to prevent a similar fate… i’ve decided to bake cakes for birthdays and other celebrations for my colleagues (and anyone, in fact) in 2006 and donate the money to cancer research. Already got £50 in my piggy bank and if only small, it is one step towards preventing more tragedies.
While I deal with my own life turned upside-down, I am with you in my thoughts – and i can’t wait to hold you on Boxing Day!
Take care
johanna

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Tana December 24, 2005 at 5:28 pm

Dear Jeanne,
I am so sorry you lost your beautiful, young friend. What a lovely tribute to her you’ve written here, and I wish you all ease and comfort in the days ahead.
It is good to have had such a wonderful friend in Christelle, though. May your happy memories sustain you.
Peace and joy,
Tana (a fellow food blogger who subscribes to your blog)

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Ronni Bennett December 25, 2005 at 3:09 pm

Dropping by to wish you a very Merry Christmas, Jeanne – and a peaceful new year.

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anthony December 26, 2005 at 5:05 am

“She always made me feel as if I were the funniest person on the planet ”
It’s the best quality you can ever ask for in a friend and a lovely tribute to her.
A happy boxing day to you 2/162 at the moment

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Lady Amalthea December 26, 2005 at 8:17 am

Jeanne,
I was so sorry to hear about your friend. There is nothing I can say to make you feel better, except that you are lucky to have had a wonderful friend like Christelle.
All my prayers go out to you at this most diffiult time.

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Jeanne December 26, 2005 at 8:17 pm

Hi Jacqui
I know what you mean – I think everyone that knew her is asking why??? But Christelle’s mom did say though that a lot of C’s friends have been for smear tests since her diagnosis and if even one person’s life is saved because of greater vigilance after Christelle’s death, she feels that somethign positve has come from C’s death. So I guess that is one way of lookgng at it but what an expensive way for others to learn a lesson!
Hi Sam
Thanks for your kind words and thoughts. I know there is nothing to say, but just knowing that you are not alone in your grief helps.
Hi Moira
Thanks also for your words and thoughts. Christelle’s mom remarked again last week how kind it was of you to send her a care package – you rock. Hope you had a good Christmas in the new house.
Hi Johanna
Hey – what a great fundraising idea! I may have to order a cake for myself one of these days… Thanks for a lovely day today – your family are the best!
Hi Tana
Thanks for your kind words. I know that the happy memories we had with Christelle will be a comfort in the days ahead and I am glad that after the memorial service a few of Christelle’s friends spent a couple of hours with Donnie and Christelle’s parents and reminisced about our happy times together. I am putting together a photo album of pictures for Christelle’s parents, showing some of the good times we had together in London, which I hope will bring them peace in the knowledge that she was happy in her life over here with Donald.
Hi Ronni
Thanks for the wishes – hope you also had a good Christmas and wishing you and Ollie all the best for 2006 and your move…
Hi Spicey
Thanks mate. Being described as funny has almost been my favourite compliment (in the amusing sense, that is, not peculiar!!) So as my most captivated audience Christelle will be sorely missed.
2/162 – funny score for a rugby game if you ask me… :o)
Hi Lady A
Thanks you for your kind words and prayers. Even just hearing from all the lovely food bloggers I have met over the past 18 months makes me feel less alone in my grief. Much, much appreciated.

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Sally December 27, 2005 at 2:54 am

Jeanne and Nick,
We are so sorry to hear of Christelle. What a beautiful eulogy. Please send our deepest sympathies to her family.
Kevin and Sally

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Ruth December 27, 2005 at 3:48 pm

The words – “sorry for your loss” seem so banal but I know that over time, the pain will lessen and the memories will be joyful.
Thanks for sharing your moving eulogy.

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Julie December 27, 2005 at 4:04 pm

Hi Jeanne,
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, feelings and words at such a painful time. Your writing gathers us in, brings us all closer even in this virtual world where I’ve never yet met you, nor now shall be able to meet your lovely friend Christelle. Perhaps you’ll want to know that your words bring comfort to strangers, and help them through their own losses as well…

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tokyoastrogirl December 27, 2005 at 6:23 pm

Hi Jeanne,
Who can thing about eggs when you’re going through such a personal tragedy? Your tribute was so touching and clearly you have a gift for touching people through your writing and your kindness. That is the best gift anyone could ever receive and I’m sure Christelle is happy to have had you in her life. Happy Holidays to you and your family, and I hope you know that Christelle is looking down on you right now, smiling.

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ejm December 28, 2005 at 12:06 am

Jeanne, this is indeed sad news. You have spoken beautifully of your friend, who is gone from the earthly part of her life far too soon.
With heartfelt condolences, Elizabeth

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Zabeena December 29, 2005 at 8:01 pm

Dear Jeanne,
what a sad, sad entry. But also a beautiful one. It made me cry, and like so many other people, it made me ask ‘why?’.
My heart goes out to Christelle’s husband, family and friends. Wishing you all strength and deursettingsvermoë.
Love and kisses
Zabeena

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Anna December 31, 2005 at 5:18 pm

Jeanne,
Your eulogy is beautiful. Christelle was obviously a very dear person to you and so many other people. I send all best wishes to you, and onwards to her family and other friends.

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Jeanne January 1, 2006 at 6:17 pm

Hi Sally
Thanks for your and Kevin’s wishes – I will definitely pass on your sympathies to the family. Btw, please tell Kevin his new photo site is *fabulous*!
Hi Ruth
It is true what you say – I know that 2 years after my mom’s death, it’s not the end of her life I remember, but all the good times we shared together when she was well. Thanks for your kind words.
Hi Julie
Thanks for your lovely comment. It is true that reading about somebody else’s painful experience can be immensely comforting. Ronni Bennett’s fantastic series on her mother’s death over at http://www.timegoesby.net was tremendously comforting to me after my mother passed away and it is wonderful to think that my words might bring even a small fraction of comfort to somebody else who has lost a loved one.
Hi Tokyotoastgirl
Thanks for your kind thoughts – we actually drank a toast to Christelle last night before we started our New Year’s dinner, and I’m sure that wherever she was she was smiling.
Hi Elizabeth
Thanks you for your kind words. It is true that Christelle’s earthly life was ended far too soon – she had so much that she still wanted to achieve and so many places still to see. I think, though, that Christelle’s friends and family can at least take comfort in the fact that wherever Christelle is now will be a place without the pain and sadness of earthly life.
Hi Zabeena
I still cannot believe that Chistelle is gone and I must have asked a million times why? But I suppose we have to accept that there is some kind of plan and that this sad event was part of it, even though the plan may never be apparent to us. Thank you for your kind words.
Hi Anna
Thans for your thoughts and wishes. Christelle will be sorely missed by everyone who knew her, but as I said in the eulogy, she will live on in the hearts of her friends an family.

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Jyotsna January 5, 2006 at 2:59 pm

Dear Jeanne,
Very sorry to hear you’ve lost a wonderful friend.It was moving to read about her ,the way she was and the way you remember her.I came to this post not knowing anything of what you were going through in between.
Condolences to you and all Christelle’s friends and family.

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Pille January 6, 2006 at 12:40 pm

Dear Jeanne, I am sorry to read about your friend Christelle. Sincere condolences.. My first boyfriend, with whom I stayed for 8,5 years, passed away in May after a 5 year fight with a brain tumour. He was 30 as well, and had just got engaged to his girlfriend. I flew over 3 days before he died to say my goodbyes, and it was the toughest moment of 2005..
Life can be so unfair sometimes, taking away people who wouldn’t hurt a thing.

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Jeanne January 7, 2006 at 12:36 pm

Dear Jyotsna
Thank you so much for your kind words. I still cannot believe that Christelle is gone. I think it will only sink in when Donald gets back to the UK and we see him on his own. The worst is that it had to happen so close to Christmas and so close to what would have been a day of celebration for Donnie and Christelle. Although we have to believe there is some master plan to the universe, sometimes it’s very hard to imagine how something like this can fit in with that plan.
All the best to you and your family for the coming year.
Dear Pille
Thank you for your condolences. My half-sister Lucille died of a brain tumour in June of 2003 – but she had less than a year from diagnosis to death. Isn’t it terrible how a disease like cancer robs us of our family and friends before they are even physically gone. Their entire personality becomes a daily struggle against an unseen foe which is terrible to have to watch. I know what you mean about the toughest moment of 2005. It’s terrible because you don’t know what to say; because you feel guilty that you can get up and go away and you know they have no choice but to lie and wait for death; because you see a foreshadowing of your own mortality; and because it is just so senseless and unnecessary – cruel and unusual in the same sense that being struck dead by lightning is. But at the same time, I think it is one of the greatest gifts one can have, to be able to say goodbye.
I hope that 2006 brings more joy and less sorrow – for you, for me and for us all.

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celiaK January 19, 2006 at 1:43 am

Goodbye beautiful dear Christelle. Thank you for the light and happiness you’ve given to many people like your loving friend Jeanne.
Fly away … up away to where the pain is no more … go home to where your soul can find rest …

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Pille January 23, 2006 at 6:15 pm

Thanks, Jeanne. You are so right about losses like this making us realise that we are all truly mortal. It’s sometimes hard to grasp when we are still young..

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