Each morning after Mass, Fred would follow us out of the church.
“How’s my girls?” he’d ask and then he’d grin at my daughters and say, “You’re the only girlfriends Laura will let me have!” They’d smile. They liked being Fred’s girlfriends.
We loved Fred Allan. He had a lot of time for our family. Whenever we met up, he was never too busy to stop and chat.
“I'm a convert like you,” he told me one day. “Laura’s a cradle Catholic. Many years ago when we were courting, we attended some marriage preparation classes. But there was something Laura didn't know. The priest was preparing us for marriage but he was also giving me secret lessons about the Faith. The week before our wedding, Laura and I went to Mass together. When it came time for Communion, I stood up and approached the altar and Laura kept whispering frantically, ‘Fred, you can’t come up for Communion!’ and I whispered back, ‘Yes, I can! I’m a Catholic!” Fred laughed out loud as he remembered that once-in-a-lifetime moment. “You should have seen Laura’s face!”
I thought about that story for a long time. I know I couldn’t have arranged such a surprise for Andy. On the day I entered the Church, Andy was standing right beside me, just where I wanted him. I could never have kept such a secret from him. But Fred was different. He could keep things to himself. And then later enjoy the surprise.
“How’s that daughter of yours, the one who entered the convent?” he asked one day. I confided how difficult I sometimes found having a daughter who was technically not my daughter any more. Fred listened intently.
Before we parted, he said, “You and Andy are doing a great job with your family. You have such a great love for each other. I can see that. You and Andy have something very special. You’re not like me and Laura.” I floated home with my head in the clouds. Andy and I could do anything together. I was absolutely certain about that. Weren’t we bound together by a unique love that would see us through any difficulty?
Later I told Andy about Fred’s words. “Well, if Fred says we have a very special love, perhaps we do,” he grinned. "Maybe we're not doing so badly after all."
Several years ago we moved to a village outside town, and discovered Fred and Laura lived only one street away from us. One day Andy and I went for a stroll together up to the village shops. We met Fred getting out of his car.
“When Laura and I were younger, like you two, we’d walk up here all the time.” Fred waved his walking stick in the air. “But I can’t walk very far anymore. Now I have to drive.”
That was the first time I’d noticed Fred was getting frail. But he was still cheerful. He didn’t complain about the walking stick. He just made the most of it.
“I met Mr Allan up at the shops,” announced Callum. “He’s dangerous. He has a new weapon!” Fred may have been an old man but he could hold his own with teenage boys. “Mr Allan chased me out of the shop with his walking stick.” Callum laughed. Fred knew how to have fun with the kids.
About 18 months ago, I was in the village post office. While I was waiting to be served, I glanced at the community notice board and read:
The funeral of Fred Allan will be held at St Michael’s Church on Thursday at 11 am…
It was Friday. Fred had been buried the day before. I stood in the queue not believing what I’d read. How could Fred be dead? Had he been sick? I’d seen him only a few weeks ago and he’d looked as lively and as cheerful as ever.
I asked the post mistress about the notice: “Did you know Fred Allan? Do you know what happened?”
“Fred had cancer. It was discovered only recently. It had already spread to all parts of his body. He might have lived a little longer if Laura hadn’t been involved in a car accident.”
Laura had been nursing Fred at home. One night she needed to drive into town. On the way out of the village, she was overtaken by an impatient driver on a narrow dangerous section of road. With nowhere to go, Laura drove straight into the cutting. The rescue team cut her from her vehicle and she was taken by helicopter to hospital.
There was no one at home to look after Fred so he was also admitted to hospital – a different hospital to Laura. When Laura was finally released from hospital she came home to an empty house… and a life without Fred. Fred had died while she was recovering from her accident. She never got to say goodbye to her husband.
“How is Laura?” I asked.
“Laura is devastated. She and Fred were soul mates, you know. They were everything to each other. They had a very special love. Fred couldn’t live without Laura. I don’t know how Laura will live without Fred.”
I remembered Fred’s words to me: “You and Andy have something very special. You’re not like me and Laura.” Fred certainly knew all about real love, so why did he say such a thing? And why didn’t I realise the truth of the situation?
I guess I wanted to believe Fred’s words about our love being unique. I wanted to believe we had something no one else had. And Fred wanted me to believe that too. He was quite willing to keep a low profile and let Andy and I be the shining stars in order to encourage us. Yes, Fred knew all about love. Love sometimes means keeping quiet, not making comparisons, not talking about ourself, not singing of our own achievements but instead taking an interest in others, putting them first, making them feel special, telling them what a great job they're doing...
The last time I spoke to Fred we were chatting about our homes. “I could tell you a few stories about your house!” he declared, his eyes sparkling. For some reason, he didn’t elaborate. Maybe we were distracted by something. I assumed we’d return to that subject another day. But time ran out. What would Fred have told me? What would he have surprised me with? I often wonder but I’ll never know.
It took a long time for me to get used to the idea I'd never bump into Fred unexpectedly ever again, never hear another of his surprising stories or see him smile. Yes, he has gone. But there is something that will stay with me forever: what he taught me about love.
In real life, I can try to put into practice what I learnt about love. But "Love sometimes means keeping quiet, not making comparisons, not talking about ourself, not singing of our own achievements but instead taking an interest in others, putting them first, making them feel special, telling them what a great job they're doing..." seems very much at odds with the blogging world. Is it possible to reconcile the two?