So here's the thing.
When I was a kid, I wasn't exactly sociable. So, when I was about 14, my parents applied their parental pressure to force me to go to the church youth group. I didn't want to go - it was on Saturday nights, and I had things to do on Saturday nights (mostly TV watching). But they forced me to choose between a couple of choices, and the youth group seemed the best of my options. So, rather unwillingly, I started going. In hindsight, it was one of the best things that happened to me. I met a lot of great people; my best friends, people I will be close to for the rest of my life, come from that group. And over the next 3½ years, we grew to be such a strong group. And I met Daphne.
Daphne was the woman who ran the group, along with her husband. She would have been in her late-40s at the time, and she was wonderful. The family didn't have a lot, but what they had was always freely given. For all of us, she was less of a youth group leader, and more like a second mother. Many was the time when I would just go around to her place after school, unannounced, just because I felt like it, and I'd walk in to find a few other members of the group already there, having also decided to go around for a visit. And we'd just stay there for hours. If our parents were trying to find us, Daphne's was always the first place they would go to look. I'd even heard stories about how people would take the new person they're dating around to meet Daphne for her approval. Daphne was someone we all loved, so, so much, and she was one of the defining influences for all of us during our teenage years.
As I'm writing this, there's one moment that really comes to mind - something I haven't thought about in years. I was at church one night, and I had a thought come to mind; "Give Daphne some money." I won't say how much, but it was a specific amount of money, one that was very daunting as a high school student working just a few hours a week to have to give away. But I knew I needed to do it. So the next day I went to the cash machine and got the money out, then went to their place. Her husband was there, and said she wouldn't be available for quite a while. I said I'd wait. About 45 minutes later, Daphne emerged from her bedroom, looking grave, then surprised to see me. We went out, sat on the steps outside the house, and I handed her the envelope, saying that I felt I needed to give this to her. She looked in the envelope, was startled, and refused to take it. I pressed her, said that I was really certain that I had to give it. "Why?" she asked. "I don't know," I replied. Then she remembered a particular expense that had just come up, and the money was just enough to cover that. And then she started to talk in vague terms about another situation that she was going through. I don't know what the situation was - she never provided details and I didn't want them since it wasn't my business. But I know it was serious. She'd just spent the last hour in her bedroom praying for a resolution to that particular situation, and as she prayed she really felt that God was saying that He was in control and would provide a solution. And then she walked out of her bedroom, to find me with a gift that would help with a different problem. It didn't solve her big concern, but she told me how it restored her confidence that everything would be okay, whatever the situation. And her face at that moment, this mix of burden and relief, of discouragement and faith restored, was just wonderful. For all the encouragement, for all the support that she'd given me, it was a blessing to be able to encourage and support her when she needed it.
Long after she stopped actually working with the youth, she remained a central part of the church. Having a conversation with her after the service bordered on impossible. There were always people - her friends, people who were once part of her youth group, or as years passed even the children of those former youth group members - coming up for a hug or a talk. And she was inspirational - a number of the people who went to that group are now themselves involved in the youth ministry, either in after-hours work or in one case as his full-time occupation. And I know that they will all cite Daphne as a role model, and point to that group that we had as being the perfect example of what they want to see develop among their youth.
Sadly I lost a lot of that connection with Daphne when I left home. When I came home on holiday, I'd see her at church, and I'd say Hello, and she'd hug me, and I'd get embarrassed. I'd say "Certainly I'll come around to visit," and then often wouldn't, because I didn't get around to it, or I had other things on, or sometimes I'd just forget, or whatever excuse I had. But it didn't matter, because I knew that I'd be able to catch up with her next time. And that's how years would pass without my ever revisiting that house, years in which our relationship was made up solely of brief interrupted conversations after a church service.
About 18 months ago, I was back in my home town for a week, and was sitting next to Daphne during the Sunday morning service. During the sermon, Daphne just keeled forward and stayed there, her head resting on the back of the seat in front. She wasn't moving, just still. I was shocked, thinking "my gosh, is she dead?" But her husband didn't seem surprised or bothered by it - he just sat there, rubbed her back, and after a few minutes when she recovered, he got her a glass of water - so I figured whatever was happening, it must have happened before. But it was still significant enough that, during the following week, she went in for tests. When I saw her the following Sunday, she had the results: she had cancer, and it was serious.
There's nothing like the prospect of losing someone to realise just how much you actually care about them. Now, every time I went back home, I always made a point of visiting and spending time with Daphne. We'd catch up, she'd reflect on her life, tell me stories, and offer suggestions about how I should be living my life. It was wonderful to spend time with her, to see the way her face would light up with excitement whenever I'd appear and say Hello. But always there was that moment when I'd have to ask how things were going, and a cloud would come over. She'd talk about the treatments she was going through, and she'd ask that I remember her and her family in my prayers. She was always optimistic, never lost her faith, always believed that she would be healed. But she also knew that, even if she never recovered, she'd lived a good life, would be going to a better place, and her influence would live on after her in those of us that she worked with.
I was back home for a few weeks over Christmas, but just after I arrived, I became horribly sick. Even after I recovered enough to leave the house, I stayed away from Daphne. I was still sick, and figured it's not wise to go spreading bugs to someone who is already unwell. So, other than a quick "Hello, Sorry I Couldn't See You, Goodbye" at church on the day I left, I never saw her. And I was disappointed by that, but no matter. I'll see her at Easter.
And then I got a phone call this morning from a good friend of mine, someone who was also in the youth group. If the out-of-the-blue early morning phone call wasn't enough of a clue that something was wrong, you could hear the sadness in his voice as he greeted me. "My gosh," I thought, "what's happened?" And then he said it. "Aunty Daphne died earlier today."
Daphne - I love you. I miss you. I thank you so much for everything you ever did for me, for always being someone to talk to, for just being there. Thank you for your encouragement, for your constant joy. I hope you knew how much you really did mean to all of us. You've gone too soon, but I'll see you again, and I look forward to that day. Until then, I'll always remember you.
To her family - I know how hard things must be for you all. Just know that my prayers, and those of the many many people who knew and loved her, are with you right now.
And to all those who knew her - You'll agree with me that it has been the richest blessing to have her in our lives.