Wednesday 2 August 2017

A Celebration of Life for John Michael (Mike) Shiels | A few reflections on an (extra)ordinary life

Cilla and Mike on their wedding day

Last week I had the honour of facilitating the celebration of life for John Michael (Mike) Shiels (1942 – 2017). This was of particular significance to me given that Mike was the eldest brother of my late husband John Shiels (1948 – 2010). It was in a telephone conversation soon after Mike’s death that Cilla (Mike’s wife) and I ‘discovered’ that both she and I wanted me to do this.

I have reflected elsewhere on the distinction that is made between people in powerful and/or celebrity roles and so-called ‘ordinary’ people:

… there are many, many … extraordinary ordinary people whose invaluable work will never be noticed or recognised in this way and there are those whose acts of kindness are quietly undertaken. 

As a celebrant I am lucky to hear extraordinary tales about extraordinary everyday folk. Mike’s story is no different and I feel privileged to share, with Cilla's permission, a little of it here.

   John Michael Shiels was born on the 7th December 1942. He grew up in Farnworth, Bolton with his mother Hilda, his father Jack and younger brothers Martin and William John (known as John). Poor Martin must have felt excluded to be the only brother not to have been christened John. After being ‘kicked out’ of school at 15 but with a clutch of O’ Levels Mike’s first job was in metallurgy in a foundry where he quickly rose to manager. Whilst there he met an old school friend who was studying for A’ Levels with a view of going to university. After some thought Mike realised that this was what he wanted to do too. On leaving the Foundry he worked for the Post Office and saved money to fund his further and higher education. Following A’ Levels Mike began studying Sociology at Leicester where he was joined by Martin on the same degree a year later. Martin caught up when Mike took a year off to return home and stay with Hilda following Jack’s death. John, also studying Sociology (there must have been something in the water) but at Birmingham rather than Leicester, graduated the same year as his older brothers. Their mum was rightly proud of the three of them even though she had some reservations about their appearance. Mike with his long, ginger dreadlocks and his flared jeans with zips and mismatched material patches was, or was not, depending on your perspective, a fine example to his younger brothers.

The Shiels Boys
Left to right: Mike, John, Martin

The tributes that flooded in following Mike’s death included reference to him as ‘a good listener’; ‘a special man’, ‘one of the best’. Looking through the very many sympathy cards that Cilla received I saw Mike described not only as a ‘lovely gentleman’ (one word) which is defined as chivalrous, courteous, or honourable but also a ‘gentle man’ (two words); gentle being defined as kind, kindly, forgiving, sympathetic, understanding, compassionate and loving.

Mike’s wit and intellect was also noted by many not surprising given his many interests his interests in music and film; travel and geography; information technology and the mechanics of computing; science and the history of the universe; art; gardening; languages and cooking. Mike also had a life-long interest in sport and politics and it was a delight for me to look out at the red scarfs, ties, jackets, flowers and the occasional football shirt in recognition of his support of Manchester United and his political leanings.

Both Mike’s friend Neil and Cilla spoke of Mike’s intelligence, with Cilla reminding us ‘I christened him Mikepaedia but in other circles he was known as the Professor. He would always say, I’m not a smarty pants I just know the answer.’ Neil, having known Mike since university days, told a couple of colourful stories one of which involved Mike, Martin and John singing in three-part harmony in the student flat above Neil’s late one night/early one morning whilst Neil was attempting to ‘entertain’ a guest. Cilla spoke of Mike’s work in Further Education and of his interests and relationships. She also spoke movingly of his support for her:

He always said I was his motivator, but he in turn motivated and encouraged me to achieve my full potential. . . .

As Mike’s working life ended he took on more responsibilities in and around the home whilst my career took off. He knew me from student teacher to Head of Department and throughout our time together Mike supported me 100% even when that meant I stayed in my full-time post longer that he’d have liked as he was eager for us to begin our retirement together. 

If I had a deadline for Inspection or an assignment to complete he’d say, “We’ve got a campaign.” That meant he would do everything he could to make sure I was able to concentrate on meeting my targets.
In later years he used to say, “When you give the go by,” referring to my imminent retirement. We did get to have that quality time and enjoyed our later years together which was priceless. . . .

He was a good listener and we’d often laugh at how we could talk for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  I don’t have my mate now to say how nice I look or well done if I’d achieved something or head up shoulders back when I faced a difficult situation. He was my soul mate and can never be replaced but my fond memories and love for him will stay with me forever.

It was wonderful to observe the smiling faces as Cilla, Neil and I spoke about Mike and we all laughed at the mistake over the mix up when the member of staff at the crematorium played the closing piece of music Sister Morphine, by The Rolling Stones instead of Nessum Dorma, sung by Pavarotti for the Committal. Several of us also remembered a similar confusion over the music at John’s funeral …

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