January 2016 was a cruel month. We all felt it. Too many good ‘uns were taken. David Bowie (one of my favourite musicians); Alan Rickman (one of my favourite actors); that Motorhead guy with the moustache. One of The Eagles. The nation’s favourite Uncle Terry. Hope Harrison.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the funeral of 20-year-old Hope, the son of a friend. ‘Privilege’ may seem a strange choice of word under the circumstances, but to have been present at such an occasion – to have learned, through the beautiful photographs displayed and the tributes given, about the life and outlook of a truly extraordinary young man – was indeed a privilege. Leaving the church that day, I wanted to tell everyone I met about that young man. I wanted to run up to strangers and tell them.
I barely knew Hope. I remember, from my days as a regular churchgoer, his name being on the prayer list for a long time. I had assumed he, or she, was an elderly relative of the Harrison family, rather than a small boy from Malawi who had been entrusted to the care of his uncle and aunt following his mother’s death, leaving behind his father and sister in Africa. When Hope recovered from his childhood illness and started attending church, I thought once more that he was probably a visiting relative, or perhaps a friend. It was not until later, when I became friends with the family and began teaching Hope’s brother and sister the piano, that I learned a little of Hope’s history.
That Hope has changed my outlook on life is all the more extraordinary for not having known him well.
Inside a packed church, including several ministers and so many young people, I learned of Hope’s nature: whereas most of us grumble our way through our days to a lesser or greater extent, “Hope lived, grateful for everything he had”. I learned of his humour (who would have believed that laughter could fill a church following such tragedy?); of his astonishing sporting prowess on the football pitch and, later, in the boxing ring; of his transformation from “small, lopsided” boy to a stunning young man with “a physique that David Hasselhoff would have envied” and, always, “that smile”.
From his dad and a close friend, I learned more about Hope’s philosophy on life. A person of few words but profound thought, he was popular, but never chose friends for their popularity. Whether making the most of his remarkable talents with dedication and humility, or facing devastating illness with unflinching courage, he stoically played the hand he had been dealt. I was reminded of a line from Kipling’s If:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same
The very morning he arrived in the UK, having lost his mother and left his father and sister, all of six years old and possessing a handful of English words, Hope just assumed he’d be trotting off to school alongside his new brother and sister. Years later, having undergone surgery to remove half his liver, Hope was back in the gym as soon as possible, lifting twice his bodyweight. There are simply no words.
It was both moving and inspirational to hear how Hope “reached out to those on the fringes of society”. Once, on his way into hospital for a chemotherapy session, he stopped to buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich for a homeless person. This was not an isolated incident, his dad told us. This was typical Hope.
I learned that Hope’s Christian faith was resolute all his life. In his last weeks would ask for passages from the Bible to be read to him, from which he gained comfort. He had a holding cross, which he sometimes rested on his chest as he slept, and which was in his hand when he died. Regardless of your stance on religion, you just don’t mess with that kind of personal faith. It is something immense; awe-inspiring.
A family friend wrote “We live in hope, inspired by Hope.” And although I did not know him well, I am making changes to my life – small but significant changes – which have been inspired by Hope. I include items for the food bank in my weekly shop. I buy The Big Issue. Why haven’t I been doing these things for years? I no longer curse my quietness, nor the physical effects of ageing. I try to live rather than to dread and anticipate. Being an emetaphobe I have spent a portion of every day since September 2014 (the last time I had a stomach bug) dreading the next stomach bug. What a profound waste of precious time. I don’t do that any more.
I have also been inspired by Hope’s family. One minister said that to have carried himself with such quiet confidence and self-assuredness, Hope must have “known, deeply, that he was deeply loved”. So each day, amid the routine rush and hubbub, I try to find an opportunity to ensure my children also know, deeply, that they are deeply loved.
My sincere thanks to Hope’s family for permitting me to write this, and to Phil Barrett for the photographs.