By R. J. Stove | October 14, 2011
On the afternoon of Wednesday 5 October, at a cemetery in the little Gippsland town of Bunyip (population in 2006 census: 2,103), they buried the bravest woman whom I have ever met. She was my godfather’s daughter, Katie. And she had died, aged 31, after enduring cystic fibrosis. If you are wholly unaware – as I once was – of what cystic fibrosis does to people, you do well to maintain your ignorance. Suffice it to say that she was widely expected not even to reach the young age she did.
I did not myself attend the burial, but I had attended the Requiem Mass for her that morning in Melbourne: Latin rite; Gregorian chant and male choir only; no female singers; no organ or other instrument. Although I had arrived half an hour before the starting time, the church was already filling up. Latecomers would have had no hope of getting a seat.
It would be impudent to suggest I ever knew Katie well. Apart from other considerations she spent a high proportion of her life hospitalised. But over years I saw her often enough to apprehend – with what inadequacy I need not emphasise – something of her totally undemonstrative, yet blazing, religious devotion; something of her tenacious spirit through all the agony (mental perhaps even worse than physical) which cystic fibrosis brings to the sufferer. Above all something of her courage, the like of which I have never otherwise seen in the flesh, except, of course, among her grieving family.
A totally undemonstrative, yet blazing, religious devotion …
Most of the funeral I cannot describe and would dare not even if I could. It nonetheless makes sense to recollect, in connection with Katie, Joan of Arc. Never, I should imagine, was any woman since the Maid of Orléans born with – metaphorically speaking – a lower blood-sugar count. Very occasionally and fleetingly Katie would give, in my presence, a tiny hint of the rage which must have been hers to command. But never a word of complaint about her frightful illness. Not a syllable. Even, I suspect, during the dark nights of the soul which could have been worse than the dark nights (themselves numerous, so horribly numerous) of the hospital. Who shall say?
It is a line-ball decision as to whether fervent faith or physical stoicism is the virtue I most revere in others and most lack in myself. That Katie possessed both virtues, and the stuff from which martyrs are made, I have not the faintest doubt. Yet the encomium which most sticks in my mind when I think of her is the atheist Clive James’s tribute to a very different heroine: Sophie Scholl, who died – aged, Lord help us all, 21 – on a Nazi guillotine in 1943. Of Fräulein Scholl, James says: “She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me either.”
But I’ll bet that, in other times and other places, it would have been Katie. “Eternal rest grant her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her.”