Six months ago I could not imagine writing this letter to you. When you came over from London in April we had lunch together and somehow I felt you were not yourself. You were quiet and almost withdrawn. I called you a few days later to ask were you ok and you said you felt a bit ‘down’. I wonder now was that the beginning.
After a few months marked by a series of confusing incidents and apparent losses of memory you were diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), more commonly known as the human form of mad cow disease. You are not even aware of this diagnosis because it has been so brutally quick in playing havoc with your beautiful brain. I cannot believe this is happening to you who have been one of my dearest friends for almost 40 years.
We first met in September 1979 when we both began studying for the priesthood. Like many others who met you in those early months, I was somewhat overawed by you. You were intelligent, funny, gifted with the spoken and written word and blessed with a beautiful singing voice. To be honest, I was envious of you and I could never have imagined then that we would go on to create and develop a friendship which has enhanced and blessed both of our lives.
Gerry, you turned out to be a wonderful dynamic priest. That challenging line from the Ordination Rite – “May the example of your life attract the People of God” – was definitely fulfilled in your ministry. You, your family and friends and so many others were devastated when that ministry had to come to an end almost 20 years ago.
You owned your mistakes and you took responsibility adopting the maxim “the truth will set me free”. With your unwavering faith in the God who loves unconditionally and with the extraordinary support and solidarity of your family and friends, you slowly emerged from that ‘dark night of the soul’ out into light of a bright new day. One of your favourite poems which you read at your mother’s funeral is ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly. I think that poem has been a guiding star in your life…
“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending,
that always seems about to give in,
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.”
Using your natural gift for communication, you reskilled and reinvented yourself into a highly successful broadcaster and producer of memorable and inspirational programmes. In the last few years you have devoted so much of your time and talent to building up your flagship Sunday programme on Premier Christian Radio. Your listenership or should I say your ‘congregation’ has grown to the hundreds of thousands.
In recent weeks, as news of your illness has become known, a flood of letters has poured in from your ‘fans’, ‘listeners’, ’parishioners’ whose lives you have touched and inspired. To paraphrase a line from a famous eulogy; you have needed no ecclesiastical title to continue to generate your particular brand of magic! The ministry may be different but the example of your life continues to attract the people of God.
Gerry, my heart breaks at the thought of what lies ahead for you, for your family and for all of us whose lives you have enriched. But amidst the tears and the heartbreak I give thanks to God for the blessing of your life. I thank God for your ability to embrace the possibility of new beginnings. I thank God for your ability to accept the beauty of who are. I thank God for your partner Kei and the love which has dared to speaks its name, a love which has transformed both of your lives.
Gerry, when you were saying goodbye to your work colleagues in Southwark Council last December you quoted a beautiful short poem entitled ‘Late Fragment’
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
In the confusion and losses of these days, I pray that you may continue to feel yourself beloved.
Do not ask me to remember
Do not ask me to remember,
Don’t try to make me understand,
Let me rest and know you’re with me,
Kiss my cheek and hold my hand.
I’m confused beyond your concept,
I am sad and sick and lost.
All I know is that I need you
To be with me at all cost.
Do not lose your patience with me,
Do not scold or curse or cry.
I can’t help the way I’m acting,
Can’t be different though I try.
Just remember that I need you,
That the best of me is gone,
Please don’t fail to stand beside me,
Love me ’til my life is done.
– Owen Darnell