Inspiration for Life

For the last eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to know this bloke called Tim.  He was a colleague, and a friend.  Each time he passed my office he’d put his head round the door and offer some truly awful joke, or a greeting in French, Spanish or Latin (or some mix of the three).  Occasionally, just a rude noise.  He made me laugh, but he was also one of the people I knew I could turn to for support, if I needed it.  He was warm, generous, open and positive.   Tim was a physicist, an artist (his work regularly featured at the Physics & Astronomy Art Exhibition – idiosyncratic semi-abstract paintings, and an installation involving apples at various stages of decay), a poet and a writer (as will be evident when his diary is published shortly), a musician, a gardener and passionate lover of the natural world – and above all a communicator.

Tim had terminal cancer.   He was diagnosed back in June, and told that as the cancer has spread to his liver there wasn’t any chance to operate.  Chemo could give him a bit of extra time.  Tim reckoned he could beat the odds, that the time estimate the doctors gave was skewed both by the desire to not give false hope, and by the inclusion in the statistics of those whose life expectancy was already shortened by old age or other frailties.  He found, along with despair and grief, a way of living in the world more intensely:

I’m looking at everything differently with a renewed intensity and concentration, as if to draw out of every image all the information I’ve never ‘seen’ before. The deep colour of the leaves of trees, the vivid green of grass, the happy laughs of children playing, the clinking of tea cups in a café accompanying the chat and the laughter. I remember that I am still part of this world and no tumour is going to defeat me without a fight. I’m sad, yet I’m happy; I’m angry yet I’m calm and I’m scared yet I’m brave for this new challenge that lays ahead.

When we heard of Tim’s diagnosis we had to think about how to tell people.  Because it wasn’t just me whose life was enhanced by Tim being part of it, it was everyone in the department, staff and students.  And Tim was adamant that the students who were about to graduate, all of whom he’d looked after during their first year at University, mustn’t have their celebration spoiled by this news.   Some already knew he was ill, and already feared the outcome, and we had to tell them that it was pretty much as bad as it could be.   Students came back in September to find that he was no longer in the department, that he wouldn’t be returning.  That was hard, and there were tears.    As the news spread, people have wanted to do something, to show their love and gratitude.

Initially this was expressed through messages of support for Tim and his family – it wasn’t easy to see what else we could actually do.  The impetus to do something more, something different, came, of course, from Tim.  On the day he was told that the cancer was terminal, he said that he’d been keeping a diary and wanted to use it in some way to help other people.  The obvious thing was to publish it to raise funds for the specialist cancer services that he and so many other people rely on – and we will.   But Tim’s vision went far beyond that.  As first year tutor and PhD supervisor, Tim supported and inspired generations of students in Physics & Astronomy.  And he wanted that to continue – to encourage people to believe in themselves, and to carry on learning throughout their lives, to revel in the possibilities that life holds.

So we set up a charity, called Inspiration for Life.  Tim wasn’t sure about the title, didn’t think it was catchy enough.  We were sure.  The title sums up everything that we hope to do, and more than that, it sums up the impact Tim has had on so many of us.  We’re working towards our first big event, 24 hours of lectures, on a host of topics, from physicists, philosophers, zoologists, historians, psychologists, lawyers and more.   We’ve got musicians who’ll be busking around the building through the night, and people across the University baking biscuits and cakes to sell.  And the wonderful thing is that we haven’t had to beg or cajole people to do this.  The response – from speakers, and bakers, from students and staff – has been so enthusiastic, so generous, that it’s often moved me to tears.  It’s going to be amazing, I know that.

The only thing is, Tim won’t be there.  We knew he was unlikely to be well enough to attend, but we did hold on, for as long as we could, to the hope that he would be able to enjoy it vicariously, to watch the recordings afterwards and see the funds mount up for the causes we want to support.

But Tim slipped away on 5 February, after several weeks when it was clear his strength was failing.  He died at home, with his family around him, as he had wished.

He didn’t beat the odds, as he’d hoped he would.  But he’s in our hearts, in our memories.  He’s made such a difference, touched so many people’s lives, given them, yes, inspiration.  That’s been evident in the messages since he died,  so many expressions of loss and grief, but also so many heartfelt thanks, so many debts of gratitude, and so much love, for him and for his family in their heartbreak.

From all of us, who’ve been privileged to have had you as part of our lives, thank you Tim.

Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale.

And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell (Catullus, 61-54 BC)

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