Walking out of the Manning Great Lakes Memorial chapel yesterday, I overheard a couple talking. He said, ‘We used to go to weddings.’ I completely got him. The service that I had just attended was the fifth funeral in the last year, with nary a wedding in sight.
Alison Rose Gray was one of my first students when I began teaching in the Yoga Shed eight years ago. She loved yoga and would often enrol friends in coming along with her. There was a long period where I didn’t see Ali, even though she lived at Manning Point, on Mitchells Island. She may have been busy looking after her aged mother, or just dealing with life.
I learned more about Ali at her service than I ever did from her attendance in my classes. I feel sad that I didn’t befriend her. She had a tough early life and then had a sudden spiritual epiphany. This led Ali to stop drinking and dedicate herself to a life of service. Person after person at her funeral eulogised Ali for the kindnesses she bestowed on them. At the same time, she had demons. Ali wrote a prayer in her journal, ‘I want to be more God and less me.’
I was happy to see Ali back on the mat when we returned to classes after the summer break. But she was unwell and halfway through that first class, she had to leave. No one knew how very sick Ali was at first. After weeks and weeks of pain, Ali was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This is a particularly wicked disease, with the highest mortality rate compared with all other cancers. Ali’s diagnosis came too late for her to undergo treatment.
There are things to learn from each person’s death and from attending funeral services, too. As a palliative care volunteer for these last three years, my patients have taught me that the Grim Reaper isn’t necessarily grim. The last patient I visited until her death reminds me a little of Ali. They were both free spirits. This patient had famously said, ‘I didn’t know dying could be fun.’ It made all the difference that she was surrounded by loving friends as well as a community that she had cultivated and contributed to for decades.
Ali’s service reminded me of how worthwhile a life of service can be. But being of service is elevated to another level when we understand that the Other is the same as us.
So, I dedicate my favourite yoga aphorism to Alison Rose Gray.
When I don’t know who I am, I serve you.
When I know who I am, I am you.