Harold and Queenie- An End of Life Journey

“Harold Fry is walking. But in another way, even though you are here, even though you’ve done your traveling, you’re starting a journey too. It’s the same and not the same. You see?” Sister Mary Inconnu

Rachel Joyce is so much fun to read! Her novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of my all-time favorite books. Somehow I missed her companion story The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy when it was published a few years ago. If you remember, Harold starts walking the length of England after receiving a note from an old friend, Queenie to say basically that she was dying at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He goes to post a return letter and impulsively decides to walk to her. Harold sends Queenie postcards asking her to wait for him along the 627 mile journey that takes him 87 days. He has lots of time to reflect back on his life, his marriage, his son who commits suicide and his work relationship with Queenie. The Love Song gives us Queenie’s experience. She has been in love with Harold for twenty years. Harold may not have realized it, but his son David figured it out. Queenie’s relationship with David turns out to be the biggest secret she kept from Harold. With the encouragement of Sister Mary Inconnu, Queenie begins writing her confessional love letter to Harold for the Sister to give to Harold when he first arrives at St. Bernadine’s. Sister Mary Inconnu volunteers to type everything Queenie writes, and everyday she comes to Queenie’s bedside with her typewriter. Queenie tells Harold of her life over the past twenty years- her beach cottage, her rock garden, the people she met along the way while living with a heart full of love for him.

Harold attracts media attention and soon dozens of strangers join his pilgrimage. He is written up in the print media, he is on television, there are Twitter hashtags with Harold’s name, Queenie’s name, live forever, unlikely pilgrimage. Meanwhile at St. Bernadine’s, Queenie’s fellow patients are caught up in the excitement. There is a Harold Fry bulletin board in the commons room with all his postcards to Queenie. Strangers send muffins, flowers, notes of well-wishes and encouragement. Everyone declares the desire to still be alive when Harold shows up. A welcome party is planned, banners made, and the menu is planned. The excitement is palatable. Fellow patient, Mr. Henderson quotes to Queenie, “How oft…when men are at the point of death have they been merry!”

All the while, Queenie stays in bed with pencil and her notebook writing her confessional letter to Harold. She blames herself for so much tragedy in Harold’s life. Sister Mary Inconnu tells her none of this is her fault. “‘All those years you blamed yourself…’ I began to cry. It is not with pain. It is a sort of relief…I can let them go. My head is silent. The sorrow has not gone but it no longer hurts.” The end of life peace we all hope for.

Christina Ianzito, writing for The Washington Post says, “In the end, this lovely book is full of joy. Much more than a story of a woman’s enduring love for an ordinary, flawed man, it’s an ode to messy, imperfect, glorious, unsung humanity.” Couldn’t said it better myself.

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