Remembering my friend Gordon Aikman
The 2nd of February 2017 was a Thursday and the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament was about to have a rare evening group meeting to discuss how we’d vote on Article 50.
I was on the agenda to lead the discussion in the hope of getting the whole group behind our plans. I’d spent a good bit of the afternoon preparing for it, making sure I was on top of the arguments and able to anticipate everyone’s questions.
As people started to drift in to the meeting after the usual 5pm vote, I was at the front raring to go. My phone was on the table and it started to ring. It was Joe. He never called. He would text or email. We’d bump in to each other in the street and make plans to get together, but he never called. Instantly I knew something was wrong.
I took the call outside the group meeting room and slid down the wall until I was crouched on my heels as Joe told me Gordon had died that morning.
I was utterly numb. Confused. I’d seen him on Monday, just hours before, at the Euan MacDonald Centre which we’d visited to see what advances were being made in medical research. We posed for cameras as I presented a cheque to MND Scotland for money I’d raised writing for the Daily Record. I kissed him goodbye as I rushed to my next meeting. He said he’d see me later. I never saw him again.
Losing Gordon has altered my whole life and my attitude towards it. More of that in a second. But first, the loss of his life was my first real, deep experience of grief. What a horrendous gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and horrible experience.
We all knew we were going to lose him at some point. Every time I saw him he was that tiny bit weaker, but his mental strength was boundless and he still had a lust for life despite its adversities. His two major loves – Joe and his nieces/nephews – were the engines behind his desire to keep going. Somehow we thought he had years.
I didn’t cry that night. I didn’t really do anything, I just sat. The next morning my alarm went off, the radio kicked in and a recording of Gordon’s voice came on as the BBC announced his death. I wept like a child.
At the time of his death, Gordon was a major figure in public life. He had political leaders wrapped around his finger, he had raised hundreds of thousands for charity and had a bank of political achievements behind him. His legacy is huge and it lives on to this day.
I was immensely touched to read that the University of Edinburgh, where Gordon and I met 12 years ago, is to rename its George Square lecture theatre after him. I love the fact that the hall is both a seat of learning and a major Fringe venue – capturing both Gordon’s studious nature and sense of fun.
A week or so after Gordon’s death, Joe and I met in the Beach House café in Portobello to talk about the funeral arrangements. Joe asked me to speak at the memorial. He also had to break it to me that Nicola Sturgeon would speak too – that was Gordon’s dying wish.
Far from being upset about that, I was pleased. If it was what he wanted, there was simply no question about it. I knew instantly why he wanted Scotland’s First Minister to be there. To make his mother proud. As if she could be any prouder of him than she already was.
Two years previous, I did a reading at Gordon and Joe’s wedding. It was the lyrics to one of their favourite songs by Jack Johnson. After the wedding, they gifted me a framed picture of the song sheet and it hangs on the wall in my hall:
And they are made out of real things
Like a shoebox of photographs
With sepia-toned loving
Love is the answer.
At least for most of the questions in my heart.
Like: “Why are we here?”, “And where do we go?”,
“And how come it’s so hard?”
I nearly used that in the eulogy, but I didn’t think I’d get through it without breaking down.
Gordon taught me so much about life whilst he was living, but even more after his death.
It’s a cliché to say life is short, but Gordon proved it. I’ve learnt never to waste a moment. I’ve addressed everything in my life that made me unhappy and I’ve refocused my time and energies on the things that really matter. I’ve travelled more, said yes more, been more spontaneous. And each time I’ve had to make a big decision, I’ve thought of him.
Here’s the final section of the eulogy I gave. I meant it then and I mean it today. In fact, I’ve lived the spirit of it since and I continue to do so.
We are all better people for having known Gordon – that almost goes without saying. But perhaps the pledge we can make together today is to all live better lives in his memory.
In one of his columns Gordon wrote:
“What I have lost in strength of body, I make up for in strength of mind. I am more determined and driven than ever… I want to make every day count.
“My love is deeper. I find joy in simpler things and in different places. I am more chilled out, at peace with the fact that there is so much in life that is out of our control.
“Let’s celebrate the rich, diverse and complicated world we live in. Let’s savour each day. Let’s measure life not by length but by depth.”
Gordon Aikman. A beautiful man, who enriched the lives of so many. Who did so much good in such a short space in time.
We miss you terribly but pledge today to honour your life in how we choose now to live ours.
To savour each day.