If only good things lasted. Maybe not forever, but for as long as we need them.
As I stroll along the city’s winding riverbank, there’s a chill in the air and my feet scrunch along the rain-sodden ground. Ancient half-bare trees sway in the the wind, their curling leaves rapidly falling. Soon, they will be nothing but skeleton trunks and branches, and passers-by will clump along carpets of rusty red and gold. Wallowing, I collect my scattered thoughts, waiting for the river’s activity to abate a little.
For the past year, this has become my favourite haunt. A boat chugs past and I wonder where it’s headed. I instantly promise myself I will return, but realistically the chances are slim. Life will move on and this will be nothing more than a distant memory.
I’m now less than an hour from my weekly port of call. The place of refuge from life’s stormy waters. Today it’s my last session with ‘the group.’ So hard to take the finality on board. You see, I’ve come to care for its members, got to know them as they revealed their thoughts, fears and pent-up emotions. Every Monday morning for two precious hours, we’ve sat in a circle sharing one another’s tears, trials and triumphs.
How can it all be ending? I can hardly bear the thought of not seeing them again! I’m not ready to leave yet. In a sense, I’ll never be ready to leave, but I have to.
Arriving a few minutes late, I charge up the stairs. Along the pillared retro-style corridor, I’m hit by a faint mustiness, not unpleasant, that I will forever associate with the adult education centre where our sessions are held. The oak door opens and I enter a room that is normally used for drama classes, but today feels like a cocoon.
“Sorry,” I say, but people greet me warmly as I take my seat.
For the last time then, I join them. A company of people I feel privileged to have been part of. Where I’ve been given space to be myself.
Apart from the first session, there’s never been a ‘full house.’ Originally, ten members joined the group, but it soon dwindled and only seven or eight turn up regularly. The leaders or facilitators, as they are called, are a tall man called Josh who has long grey hair tied back in a pony tail and a woman called Ronnie who often arrives in a cape, with her black hair coiled serenely and fixed with a wooden clasp. Josh’s face is a mask of fortitude, but for me Ronnie’s expression is more open, hopeful even.
Closeted on this upper floor in the community room, we are ready to take on the world. Perhaps because it’s my last time, I’m more aware of my surroundings. At one side, there’s a long table with theatrical props. These papier-mâché objects have lain dormant. I’ve paid them scant attention, but now they assume a new poignancy. Today, they seem larger than life.
So here I am with people I’ve come to know in a way that would normally take years. Although I rarely see members outside this room – for the group is held some distance from my home town, I’ll never forget them. Like battle-scarred veterans, we have shared so much. Despair, sadness, laughter, reflection and the pain of regret.
Josh leans towards me, his hands forming a steeple. I think I know what’s coming next because there’s a pattern to endings. When someone’s come to the end of their time, members are expected to contribute in a way that will help the leaver when it comes to dealing with the world outside. The world that exists without the group. A terrifying prospect!
“Well, Dawn. It’s your last time here.”
A fake smile followed by, “How are you feeling about leaving?”
“I don’t know really.” Inside I’m crying. “It will be hard not to come to the group anymore. Not to have everyone’s support.” Faces nod agreement. I’m really going to miss them. It’s going to be hard not to know about the progress they do or don’t make. One of the group rules is that there will not be any contact outside it. It goes without saying that everything that passes between us is confidential and will not be discussed elsewhere. I’ve not spoken to anyone about what goes here, not even Vic. Especially not Vic. It was the one part of my life I managed to keep private from him. Ironically, it was my battered relationship with Vic that led me to the group in the first place. He even recommended it.
“I feel like a baby who wants to stay in the womb.”Everyone laughs at this, but it’s exactly how I do feel.
Ronnie, the other facilitator, reaches out. “You are ready Dawn. You’re so much stronger than when you first joined the group. We’ve all seen you grow. And now you’ve got your first job acceptance! That’s huge.”
“Yes, it’s good.”
“And you finally seem ready to move on from Vic,” she says gently..
Everyone has seen me in pieces over Vic. I couldn’t help it. The relationship went deep; his rejection cut me to the core – even when I came to see it was more about him than me. He had little love for himself, still less to give to anyone else. I see that now.
Yes, I’m truly ready to move on from Vic. It’s hard to believe he left only three months ago. I don’t know how I’d have got through it without the group. He left me with a mockingly empty flat and a garden devoid of love. But with the group’s support, I made it. It was like being embraced by the branches of an oak. A tree of constancy.
Yes, I’ve come a long way. I’ve made tracks in a life that was rootless.
There’s a heroic quality to Sarah. Sarah who joined the group a month after me, holds her back straight, wincing slightly. Her hair hangs loosely over her face and her deep eyes are as blue as the sea. She was a nurse before she injured her back and could no longer work. She keeps herself sane by making origami creations and gift cards. I imagine her house is filled with pine furniture and white walls and woven rugs. When I asked her about the origami creations, she explained they were suspended from wires in her living-room ceiling.
“If you’re comfortable with this Dawn, we’ve decided to do things a little differently today,” Ronnie says. “As we usually do when it’s someone’s last day, we’ve asked everyone to speak about your time here. The difference today is that Sarah has offered to write it all down. If that’s alright with you. It’ll be something for you to look back on.”
Prophet-like, Sarah unrolls what looks like a scroll, but is actually a large piece of paper. As she clips it onto a board, her calm aura comes across. And yet, many times, she’s spoken of chronic pain and fatigue the effect it has on Claire, her best friend and lover. The deepest hurt is that her parents have never accepted she is gay.
Sarah shifts until she finds the right position. Clearly in pain, she holds herself upright in her seat. In that moment, she strikes me as the bravest person I’ve ever met.
“Well, if I can kick things off, I think you’ve come a long way in recognising your self-worth, Dawn.” Her words, very much to the point, mean everything. And it’s true. When I first joined the group, my self-worth had drained to a trickle. Now, it’s starting to emerge like a lotus flower surfacing on a stalk, opening its petals to the sun.
Bert, who is crippled by shyness and sexual terrors, can hardly bear to look a woman in the eyes, but manages to look in mine.
“You are stronger than you think, Dawn,” he says.
It’s the first time he’s said my name. Only the week before he’d related his terror at being suffocated by another person’s body, of being smothered to death. His fantasies are so lurid, he can’t speak about them. “I’d be too ashamed to say them aloud.”
“I can see you moving forward. You’ve been freed up,” Zach, a more recent member, who struggles with severe depression smiles at me. His eyes light up with kindness, taking my breath away.
Sarah continues to write with large looping letters.
“It was great to see you apply for the job,” Ali, a woman who was an executive before she got burnt out says. She’d left her job because she hated having to hurt people all the time, couldn’t stand being ruthless. “All I wanted was to curl up into a ball and never leave the house.” She turns to me now. “You said you weren’t able to make decisions when you came here, but you managed to get a job,”
“I feel less clogged up now.”
“You’ve been released,” – this from Roger, a man who says he’s desperate for a relationship, but has never got beyond kissing a woman from his church.
So much to remember from my last session. I will carry their words, solidifying them in the days ahead.
But for me, the key moment comes when Ronnie asks me to select one of the theatrical props.
“Choose whatever you like and bring it back to your seat.”
It doesn’t take me long to find something. Before long, I return with one of the papier-mâché objects. It’s a large goblet and as I hand it to Ronnie, there’s vulnerability beneath the professional mask.
“But this is for you, not me. Think of it as representing all the good things that are coming your way after you leave here. Please take it.”
To my amazement, I’m unable to accept this ‘gift.’
“What’s happening here?” Ronnie asks.
“I don’t know, I’m struggling to accept it.”
“I guess I don’t think I really deserve it.” This is a revelation to me. It had never occurred to me I actually deserved to be happy.
“I’m going to give you this cup and I want you to accept it,” Ronnie says.
“Okay, I’ll try.”
She passes the goblet to me and although I take it, I hold it away from me. As if it belongs to someone else. Ronnie’s eyes are filled with light. “Take it Dawn. You deserve it.”
“Do I? I don’t know why I’m finding it so difficult. It’s like climbing a mountain.”
“What does it feel like to hold it?” Bert asks shyly.
“Physically, it’s light. I mean it’s made of paper and glue. But emotionally, I don’t know. I’m just not used to it.” Getting up, I return it the other side of the room, then spend the rest of the session unable to tear my eyes away.
After the session when all the goodbyes have been said, Roger tentatively asks if I’d like to meet up. I know how much he wants to be with someone and what it must have cost him to ask.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.” It sounds mean somehow – especially after the nice things he’s said about me. I’ve experienced rejection in spades from Vic and hate to reject anyone, but I’m not attracted to him. I know he will want more than I can give. Besides which, it’s going to take time to get over Vic.
I’ve reached the door, having just about managed to say all my goodbyes without breaking down, but just as I reach the end of the corridor, Sarah taps me on the shoulder.
“Once again, all the best for your future.” She hugs me warmly and I long to suggest meeting up, except I’m scared. “A little something to open later,” she says handing me a small envelope.
As I go to catch my bus, I think of the paper with Sarah’s writing rolled up in my bag and am curious about what’s inside the envelope.
Once home, I release the paper from my bag, unroll it and study the words. Determined to keep busy, I place it inside a clip frame and hang it on my bedroom wall. It will be the first thing I see when I wake in the morning and the last thing before I turn off the light. I place the envelope in the back of a drawer – I know I’ll need to open it at some point. Most likely when I’m feeling low.
That point comes a few weeks later when I see Vic passing the other side of the street without acknowledging me. I’m frozen to the spot. His avoidance must be deliberate. Admittedly, our last meeting went badly. We were unable to part as friends. Painful, but probably for the best.
After seeing him, I open Sarah’s envelope and am amazed when a tiny origami cup is revealed. She must have found time and made it for me during my final session. Unless she was psychic and had known in advance about the papier-mâché goblet, she must have worked on it when she took a break.
All that happened a long time ago now. In fact, I’ve lost count of the years since my last group session, but I’ve often wondered how everyone is getting on. Apart from once encountering Roger in a shop when we both waved awkwardly, I’ve never seen anyone from the group since. However, the paper in the clip frame remains firmly fixed to my bedroom wall, offering words of comfort and support. Sarah’s writing eternally etched on my heart. Even now, as I reach for the small box containing the miniature origami cup, I hope and pray she is happy.
Her gift means more than words can say.