We’ve been skiing this last week. I love skiing. I love the mountain air, I love the feeling of freedom, I love that it’s a passion shared by all my kids, I love the scenery and I especially love the food!
I was first taken skiing when I was 12 or 13 years old. From the age of 12 I spent 3 weeks every Easter in a French family in Libourne, not far from Bordeaux. Brigitte, my French “penfriend”, would come to the UK for 3 weeks in summer and we became great friends, bosom buddies, besties. This exchange went on each year until I went to university and then beyond at other times. We attended each other’s weddings and celebrated each other’s successes. Brigitte married and had children early. I set upon starting a career and for a time our lives went in different directions.
By the time I was pregnant with my first child, Brigitte had popped out 4 and we lamented that our children would not be able to exchange as we had – something we always dreamed would happen. I went on to have 3 children, and then Brigitte had a 5th. 8 children between us and not a single one the same age??
Still when we did meet up we would drop back into the same easy friendship as if we’d only see each other the day before. Years meant nothing. We’d discuss all the landmarks, all the important things that had happened, talk about God and our faith and its place in our lives. It was a rare friendship, and I think we both felt that.
Back to the skiing. One Easter Brigitte’s family decided to head to the mountains to join friends for the weekend. It was unplanned but they all had their own skis, boots etc so there was only me to equip! They lent me a ski jacket, hired me some skis, taught me how to get on a button lift and how to snow plough and then left me playing on the nursery slopes of Bareges in the Pyrenees. I was thrilled and immediately hooked. I didn’t know anyone in Leeds who’d ever been skiing. It was 1976 and I felt like the luckiest girl alive.
I’ve been skiing as often as I can afford it ever since, and once I’d married and had children we were determined that they too would get to enjoy this wonderful pastime. Our children are now 21, 19 and 17 but skiing is the one holiday they still always want to join us on.
For the last 2 years we’ve been to Les Menuires – a 3 valleys resort just down the valley from Val Thorens. It’s pretty high up and so relatively snow sure. On my to do list before the holiday was “Ring Brigitte”. It had been on my list since Christmas when a rare photo of her popped up in Facebook. She was wearing a headscarf and my heart sank.The last time we had seen each other (in 2014) she told me she felt something wasn’t quite right.
She rang me later in the year to say she was having various tests. It was a difficult conversation. Brigitte spoke softly but also quite fast. We always spoke in French and I realised my knowledge of the vocabulary of cancer and all things medical was limited. To this day, I haven’t really understood what she told me about the symptoms she was experiencing and the possible treatments and outcomes. What I remember is that nothing was confirmed and of course she hoped for the best.
And so seeing that photo – wearing a headscarf – I knew I had to ring her. But I put it off – fearful of how to begin a conversation like that, knowing that we wouldn’t be catching up about the kids, or work, but on illness, at best on further treatments and at worst on life and death.
On the second day of our holiday I saw an announcement of her funeral. It was like a punch in the stomach. An impossible, nasty announcement that couldn’t possibly be true. She’d gone and I hadn’t had that last conversation. Gone and here was I, alive and kicking, on a skiing holiday. Gone. What does that even mean? Gone. Incredible. Gone. Unbelievable. Heart aching, heart breaking, gone.
I carried on with my family holiday and of course we had a lovely time. Interspersed with tearful moments when I grieved that I would never see her again, and thanked God that she had been in my life. Thanked God for the wonderful experiences I had being a part of her family – for the fabulous food experiences around her mother’s table; for the most exquisite wines from St Emilion & Pomerol gifted to my parents; for Souveilles and the beautiful landscapes of Provence; and visits to Arcachon, les dunes de Pyla, and the Atlantic Coast. And for that very first skiing trip which developed into a lifelong passion.
My life was so enriched by being part of her family and my soul was enriched by her beautiful spirit.
Au revoir, ma chère Brigitte … grands bises