Let me tell you about my friend Becca.

I first ran into Becca Henderson on Twitter after posting that I had been accepted into Oxford for a Master’s in Medieval Literature. The words ‘FREOONND!’ (the word for ‘friend’ in Old English) flashed up in my comments. Admittedly, the enthusiasm scared me at first. However, after chatting to Becca for a bit I soon came to realise that this was someone who was definitely going to be a friend.

I knew from Twitter that Becca had a total artificial heart (TAH), having suffered with a rare form of heart cancer. I remember meeting her (and her wonderful mum, Linda) on the first day of our Master’s and thinking about the amount of strength and determination it must take to continue to pursue a graduate degree whilst having a TAH.

I was really nervous on my first day but Becca made me feel instantly at ease, complimenting my rather loud stripey red and black trousers. That’s the thing about Becca. She had this way about her and could sense when someone was nervous or uncomfortable or even just a bit sad and she would know what to say or do to put them at ease. It’s a very rare quality.

Becca receives her transplant call

Fast forward a few months and Becca and I are chatting on Facebook, it’s a few weeks into Hilary term (Spring term in Oxford) and we’re busy talking about our Old Norse essays. I’m getting ready to walk to St John’s College chapel to sing a service. I look down at my phone expecting to see a response to my message about Old Norse translation. Instead, there’s two simple words: “Transplant call!!!”. I know what this means to Becca and I’m excited for her, I barely look where I’m walking as I respond to her saying “GO GO GO”. She tells me she’s scared and I promise to pray for her. I tell her that she’ll be fine.

Becca complains about what she’s wearing and then tells me that this is the first time she’s seen the entire route to Harefield Hospital. On every journey to the hospital before this she had fallen asleep on the way. She arrives at the hospital. Updates come in every 10 minutes or so. Everything is going ahead. She gets washed and prepped and sends me a picture of herself smiling. She asks for my number so her mum can update me. A string of hearts pop up on my phone: “I’m going offline now to spend time with my parents!! All my love”. I’m about to perform evensong. I smuggle my phone out under my gown and write “Much love xxxxx” whilst the choir director is looking the other way. I didn’t know that was the last text from me that she would ever read.

Unfortunately, there were post-operative complications and Becca ended up suffering an irreparable brain bleed. She passed away ten days later. I received the news as I entered St John’s Chapel for our Wednesday service. I remember feeling completely blank and not quite being able to process it. A good friend was in the chapel at the time playing piano and he just sat with me whilst I stared at my phone. I am still so thankful that he was there at that moment. It’s amazing how the simplest act of support can come to mean so much when you look back and this is one thing that I try to keep in mind and remember now in my day-to-day dealings with people. The funeral for me was probably the hardest part of it all. Seeing Becca’s coffin made everything true. She was gone. The person I had talked to every day since starting at Oxford, who had made me laugh and given me pep talks when I was down, my most loyal of friends, was gone. I don’t cry very often but at the funeral I couldn’t stop.

My pilgrimage challenge

After Becca died I knew I wanted to do something to remember her but I didn’t know what. It was during lockdown in summer 2020 that I came up with the idea of a ‘Pilgrimage Challenge’. The plan was to walk 30 pilgrimage routes of various lengths and difficulty and to document my experiences of each walk. The pandemic has somewhat delayed things, as I haven’t been able to travel to some of the routes on my list. However, to date I have done six routes, the majority in South West England. The support from Becca’s family, friends, and anonymous donors has been amazing and to date I have raised just over £1500 (my initial target). I still have 24 routes to do and I am so looking forward to getting back out on the road and exploring some of England’s most beautiful walks and pilgrimage sites.

These walks have been a way for me to remember Becca, but I also feel that they have helped me to process things. Each walk has left me with something – a different way of looking at things, a deeper connection with my faith, and, weirdest of all, a donkey bite on the backside!

I’ve come to realise that it is true that the people who we love never really leave us. We take them with us on all our journeys and they live in us and through us every day. Walking for me is now a way to deal with pain, a way to move forward. Setting an intention and committing to a pilgrimage helps me to deal with the troubles of everyday life and helps me to remember that I am never alone wherever I walk.

My friend Becca was incredible. She taught me that life is far too short to linger on the past and that each day is to be embraced and cherished. Most importantly she taught me that things may not always work out how you planned or how you wanted them to, but it is how you respond to these challenges and difficulties that is most important and helps to determine who you are as a person. I may not be able to share my next few years at Oxford with Becca but my promise to her is to live life as fully as I can and to have as many adventures as I can in the time I have left. This life I live, full of beautiful walks, pilgrimage, adventure, and challenges, is not just for me anymore. It’s for both of us.

For more information on the Pilgrimage Challenge, please see my JustGiving page. I am also documenting my pilgrimages (and my other adventures!) on my Instagram account: @micahexplores.