I can step off a plane this morning in Burundi and face the statistics of suffering and misery; it is the individual stories that cause the pain. The sadness of the loss of a single life still lingers with me years after his death.
Tom was a good friend to me. Thirty years my senior, he was an avuncular figure who kept open the little church where he and his wife and a small number of others worshipped Sunday by Sunday. Tom always smiled, always laughed, always had an encouraging word. Tom was getting better. The day he was told that the tests were clear, he waltzed his wife around the hospital ward.
A few days after the good news, Tom died. It was a cold, bleak winter’s Saturday evening in Belfast and Tom was the second of my parishioners to die that day. I drove back through the Ulster countryside feeling numb. There was no time for feeling sad, it was Sunday the next day and the show would go on. Tom’s loss was a bitter blow.
Tom’s funeral took place on a bright, chilly Tuesday afternoon in the little church he loved so much. There was not space for the community that gathered to bid him farewell. Tom had a daughter in her 20s, bright, articulate and pretty, she was her parents’ pride and joy, getting to college and becoming a teacher. She took Tom’s death with a gentle grace and asked to read at the funeral, choosing the passage from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything”.
I buried Tom close to the churchyard wall, a spot he had chosen for himself, laughing when he showed me it. Neither he nor I could have suspected that the grave would be opened so soon.
I arrived back at the Rectory with a heavy heart. There was nothing cheerful to be said. The telephone rang, ‘Ian Poulton’.
‘Mr Poulton, I am phoning to complain that nothing has been done about the trees at the bottom of the Rectory garden. If they came down in a storm, they would hit our house’.
‘Mrs Smith, the trees have been there for centuries, they are not tall enough to hit your house, and do you know what? I have just buried a good friend and I am not interested in silly conversations about trees. Goodbye.’
I slammed the phone down. Tom would probably have frowned at me for not being more diplomatic, but Tom wasn’t there anymore.
When there are times spent with people on the very edge of life, it’s very hard to cope with the things that really don’t matter. It is a small mercy that there will be no telephone calls this morning.