After my father went home from hospital, Emma and I fell into a pattern of going out to Northwood at least one evening a week to visit. We often went out for part of the weekend as well; we would go on Friday night and stay over until late afternoon on Saturday, or at other times we would wait until Saturday to make our visit, staying overnight and going to church in Northwood the next morning. Thus our churchgoing continued to be unsettled; sometimes we went to the village church in Northwood, and at other times we attended a small Baptist fellowship we had discovered in Headington. The services were actually held in the assembly hall of my school, and every Sunday morning a few volunteers arrived early to set up chairs and make the coffee and tea. Unusually, I found myself almost the oldest person at the services; many of the others were university students or young professionals. Leadership was shared by a group of three or four people, with a lecturer from Regent’s Park College providing a little more theological depth from time to time. Like many small churches, our little fellowship was often short of musicians, and Emma and I soon found ourselves invited to play guitar for Sunday morning worship.
Emma read Wendy’s book and enjoyed it, and she quickly checked out her other two books from a nearby library. She had been hoping that we would hear from Wendy soon, and that there would be an opportunity for us to meet again. In this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after the holidays I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over for a visit with us; she replied that she would be interested at some point, but that she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually, reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been a cordial one, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.
My father’s health continued to deteriorate visibly. He managed to fit in two more rounds of chemotherapy in late October, and lost even more of his hair as a result. He was walking with a stick almost all the time now, but his physical frailty was not necessarily reflected in his personality. Sometimes, especially when Emma was around, he seemed to be mellowing; it was becoming more and more clear that she had succeeded in charming her way into his heart, and even when they argued, as they often did, he was nowhere near as scathing as usual. However, at other times, especially when he and I were talking alone, he could be every bit as sarcastic and contemptuous as ever.
One weekend in mid-November, we drove over to Northwood for supper on Friday night, and spent a quiet evening with my parents. My father was feeling unwell, and was unable to keep his food down, so he went to bed early. The next day he had still not appeared by mid-morning. My mother went up to see how he was feeling, and she came down a few minutes later to tell us that he would probably not be joining us for morning coffee; he was still not well enough to leave his room. Emma had been sitting quietly in the corner of the living room reading; now she closed her book and said, “Perhaps he’d like a cup of herbal tea, Grandma – that’s sometimes easier on people’s stomachs than coffee. Does he like herbal tea?”
My mother shrugged; “We’ve haven’t tried it very often. I certainly don’t think we’ve got any in the house”.
“I brought a few chamomile bags with me this weekend; shall I make him a cup?”
“I don’t quite know what he’ll think”, my mother replied hesitantly; “Perhaps we should ask him first”.
“No, I don’t think we should do that. If we do, he’s more likely to say ‘no’ right away, and then he might never get a chance to experience the tempting aroma!” There was a twinkle in Emma’s eye as she said this, and she gave me an impish smile.
“Well…” my mother pondered.
Emma got to her feet; “Shall I put the kettle on?”
“Alright, then, I suppose there’s no harm in trying”.
They went out to the kitchen together. I sat in the living room alone for a while, sipping my morning coffee and enjoying the sunshine pouring in the windows. It was a fine autumn day outside, and the weather was beckoning me; I was already planning a long walk that afternoon. I glanced at the book Emma had been reading; since finishing Wendy’s introduction to George Eliot she had continued to explore Eliot’s writings, and was now slowly working her way through Daniel Deronda.
After a few moments I heard the creak of the staircase as Emma and my mother made their way up to my father’s bedroom, and then for a long time there was quiet. I could hear the old clock ticking on the mantlepiece, and away back in the kitchen the faint sound of a radio playing classical music. Finally I heard footsteps coming back down the stairs; my mother came back into the room, a smile on her face, and sat down beside me. She leaned over and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Tom”, she said, “you’ve raised a wonderful girl there”.
“She’s charmed her way into Dad’s good graces again, has she?”
“She poured two cups of herbal tea and walked into the bedroom with them. He was surprised to see her, of course, but she sat down by the bed and asked him how he was feeling. The next thing I knew, she was helping him sit up a bit and putting some pillows behind his back; then he started to drink the tea she’d poured for him and he seemed to like it well enough. She started asking him questions about our family, and now they’re chatting away like old cronies up there”.
I smiled and nodded; “I’ve seen that happen many times”, I said, “She just seems to have a way with older people, especially when they’re feeling under the weather. Kelly was like that, too; that’s one of the things that made her such a great geriatric nurse”.
“Yes, she’s so very much like her mother, isn’t she?” She glanced at the book in my hand; “What are you reading?” she asked.
“It’s Emma’s book, actually. She’s on a George Eliot track right now”. I told my mother about our discovery of Wendy’s book about Eliot, and our meeting with her at the school; to my surprise, she remembered Wendy very clearly from our student days. “Yes, you and Owen brought her out here a couple of times, and you played a concert for our music society one night, too, didn’t you?”
“We did – I’m surprised that you remember!”
“I remember it very well!” she replied with a smile. “It wasn’t often that I got the opportunity to hear you and Owen play after you went to university, and then when Wendy joined your group – well, I think that was the only time I heard the three of you together in a concert setting. She had a marvelous voice, as I recall”.
“Yes, she did”.
“Do you think you’ll be seeing much of her?”
“Hard to say”, I replied; “She seems to be a very busy person”.
A few moments later I heard Emma coming down the stairs. She came into the living room, put two empty cups on the coffee tray, and said, “Well, I think chamomile tea was a hit, Dad”.
My mother held out her hand, and Emma took it with a smile. “Thank you, my dear”, my mother said; “You’ve brought a little bit of sunshine into his life this morning. I know he sometimes seems hard and unfeeling, but he’s really very pleased that you’re here”.
Emma and I went out for a walk for a couple of hours after lunch. I had discovered that she enjoyed having me show her around my old haunts in Northwood and the surrounding countryside; she especially enjoyed the footpath along the River Thames, which had become a standard part of our walks together. Also, it had become customary for us to drop by for half an hour at the home of Owen’s parents, George and Eileen Foster. They were close in age to my mother and father; Eileen had gone very deaf, but George was in very good health and often joined Emma and me for the second half of our walk. His mind was as agile as ever, and having discovered that Emma enjoyed English literature he would often ask her about her reading.
When we arrived back at my parents’ home later in the afternoon my father was sitting in the living room with my mother. In answer to our queries, he said that he was feeling a lot better, and perhaps there was something in that tea Emma had made for him that could be marketed to the National Health Service. Then, sitting in his easy chair by the fire, he looked across at Emma and said, “Speaking of the National Health Service, what’s happening about that little glitch you ran into when you were applying for your nursing training? Have you got it sorted out yet?”
“Yes and no”, she replied quietly. “On the one hand, they’ve admitted that I don’t really fall into either of their usual categories. So they’ve agreed to let me begin nursing training next September, after only a year’s residence in the UK instead of three. But on the other hand they won’t waive their policy of not funding me until I’ve lived here for three years”.
“That won’t be a problem”, I added; “As I said, I’ve still got most of the money from the sale of our house”.
He looked across at Emma; “Where will you be going for this training?” he asked.
“Oxford Brookes; the School of Health and Social Care is right in Marston, a fifteen minute walk from our house, and of course the JR is the teaching hospital”.
“So you’d be living at home?”
“Yeah, that’s one of the nice things about it”.
“And is this a degree program, or some sort of diploma?”
“A degree; that’s what I want to do”.
He nodded his approval; “Very wise. Now tell me: exactly how much per year is this going to cost?”
“Dad, you don’t need to worry about this”, I cut in. “As I said, I can handle it, and the chances are that before too long Emma will be able to get a paying job too, so she can help”.
“Will you just answer my question, please? How much money are we talking about?”
I was determined not to let his insistent manner irritate me. “The tuition and registration costs for an overseas student are around six thousand pounds a year”, I said.
“Emma is considered an overseas student, is she? Even though she’s a British citizen?”
“And that cost doesn’t include textbooks and other incidental expenses, I expect?”
“That’s a lot of money”. He thought for a moment, then turned to Emma and said, “I’d be glad to pay those fees for you”.
“Dad!” I exclaimed angrily; “Haven’t you been listening? I’ve got the money – we’re not in the position of needing anyone’s help!”
“But I know that sooner or later you had been hoping to put a down payment on a house of your own. This way, you can still do that. And why shouldn’t I do this for my granddaughter? Surely you’re not saying that you don’t ever want me to give her anything?”
“Of course I’m not saying that”. I thought for a moment, and then said, “Are you planning on doing this for Rick’s children as well?”
“They probably won’t need it; Rick’s a very good barrister, and he’s making a lot more money than you are as a teacher”.
“Dad, I really would rather you let me handle this in my own way. I’ve got the money; I don’t need your help”.
He eyed me in silence for a moment, his face hardening. I could feel myself reverting to the fifteen year old who was angrily asserting his right to make his own career decisions; I knew that if I was not careful, his overbearing manner would provoke me to lose my temper.
“I don’t understand this, Tom”, he said slowly and coldly. “I’m offering to pay Emma’s fees through her time at university. This will be a real help to you, because you’ll be able to take the money you made on the sale of your house in Canada and use it to make a sizeable down payment on a house here. It will be a help to Emma, because she won’t have any financial worries through her nursing training. It will be a benefit to me, too, because I’ve hardly seen her at all for most of her life and I haven’t had the opportunity to do her any good. But you’re sitting there telling me that you don’t want this help. I find it hard to attribute that attitude to anything other than an unwillingness to accept anything from my hands, and I find that quite offensive”.
“I’m sorry, Dad; I just know from experience that there are going to be strings attached to this money. If I accept it, I’m going to have to put up with constant reminders that I was unable to provide for Emma’s education without your help. I’m going to be unfavourably compared to Rick, and you’re going to be able to feel smug about the fact that you were right all those years ago; if I’d done as you wanted me to do and become a barrister, I would have been in a better position to provide for my family”.
“Well, you must admit that’s true. You’ve been to Rick’s home; you’ve seen what he’s been able to do for his family”.
“Yes, and I’ve also seen that he works long hours and hardly ever gets to spend time with them, and he has a drinking problem and often says and does things that are hurtful to them. What kind of benefit is that?”
“I admit that the drinking is a problem, but the fact is that his financial position is very good, and his children will have no worries when it comes to university, whereas if you pay for Emma’s university education you’ll be condemning yourself to living in rented accommodation for the rest of your life. You may not like to admit it, but those are the facts”.
“Excuse me for making such a mess of my life!” I replied sarcastically.
“I didn’t say it was a mess”, he snapped; “Don’t over-react, Tom. You’re reading all kinds of things into this that aren’t there. All I’m doing is offering to help you out of a financial difficulty. Why are you making such a big issue of it? Why do you always insist on not doing what’s in your own best interests?”
“I do not always insist on not doing what’s in my own best interests!” I retorted defensively. “I’ll be the first to admit that not all of my decisions have been smart, but for the most part I think I’ve done a pretty good job of running my own life”.
He eyed me coldly; “Your life doesn’t look like such a stunning achievement from where I sit”, he continued in an icy tone of voice. “You’ve achieved some modest success in a low-paying career far away from the place where you were born and brought up. The reason you’re having financial difficulty with Emma’s education now is because you went to Canada in the first place; if you’d stayed in England, Emma would be a resident of this country, and the NHS would be paying her fees. What you’re doing now is reaping the consequences of a foolish and stubborn decision you made twenty-one years ago”.
“If I’d stayed in England”, I insisted, “Emma wouldn’t be Emma, because I would never have met her mother, and she wouldn’t have had all the benefits of being part of the Reimer family. And if I’d stayed in England I would have had to put up with this kind of argument every time I came home for the past twenty-one years; I would have had to put up with your arrogant insistence that you always knew what was best for me. Excuse me for finding life with Kelly and her family preferable to that!”
“I see!” he snapped; “I spent your high school years being unfavourably compared to George Foster, and now I’m going to have to sit here and listen to you telling me that I’m a failure compared to the Reimer family, am I? All of this, despite the fact that I paid every penny for your five years at Oxford, even when you stubbornly refused to follow the career I wanted for you! The Reimers didn’t do that for you; I paid for it all. That’s more than you’re going to be able to say; the only way you’re going to be able to pay for Emma’s education is to condemn yourself to poverty for the rest of your life. So perhaps I’m not such a pathetic failure as a father after all!”
I could feel my heart pounding. “Well, perhaps I’m not such a wealthy man as you”, I retorted, “but at least I haven’t been too busy to spend time with my daughter while she’s been growing up, and I haven’t driven her away by my constant criticisms and my incessant meddling and trying to force her onto the path of life I’ve chosen for her! At least I’ve allowed her to be herself and make her own choices in life!”
His face was reddening; I knew I had gone too far, but something had given way deep inside me, and there was no stopping the torrent which had been released. I watched him pull himself slowly out of his chair, leaning on his cane. “I drove you away, did I?” he barked at me. “That’s not the way I remember it! You were the one who made plans to leave the country and kept those plans a secret from us until a week before you left! You were the one who lied to us about having found a teaching job in Reading, while all the time you knew that you were moving to Canada! How do you justify that, Mister holier-than-thou Christian? I suppose your religion condones that sort of lying, does it?”
“My religion!” I retorted, rising to my feet in my turn. “My religion, as you call it, teaches me that there’s a better way to live your life than dedicating yourself to greed and success and claiming the right to control the lives of everyone you know. But of course, you’ve never understood that, and you never will!”
He advanced a step toward me, lifting his cane from the ground. “How dare you speak to me like this in my own house!” he bellowed. “I thought you’d made some progress over the years, but I can see I was wrong! You’re still just as insolent and stubborn and self-centred as you always were!”
My mother’s face was aghast. “Frank!” she protested; “You’re going to make yourself ill! Both of you, stop this immediately, before it goes too far!”
I ignored her; I knew that I could have stopped if I had wanted to, but somehow I didn’t want to; the torrent of rage was surging madly inside. “You want to know why I lied to you?” I shouted at him. “Ask yourself what you did when you found out that I was moving to Canada! Do you remember that day? I’m sure Mum does, and so do Rick and Becca – they were here, and they saw it. Is that still the same cane that you used, or did you break the old one on someone else’s back since then?”
“Dad!” Emma cried out suddenly; “Why are you doing this?”
I turned to her, the fury still strong, but the moment I saw the expression on her face my anger died inside; I had never seen her looking so scared. She was staring at me as if I was a stranger, the tears welling up in her eyes, and as I watched she turned to look at my father. “I don’t want you to fight over me like this!” she sobbed. “I’d rather not go to university at all than hear you yelling at each other like this!” She turned back to face me. “What’s come over you? Grandpa’s a sick man, and all he wants to do is help me; why are you yelling at him like this?”
I shook my head slowly, feeling the guilt like a heavy weight on my chest. “Emma…” I began, holding out my arms to her. But she was shaking her head at me in her turn, the reproach written clearly on her face. “I don’t understand”, she said; “I’ve never seen you like this before”. Then she got quickly to her feet and left the room.
My mother looked from my father to me, and back to him again. “Well, I hope you two are satisfied with yourselves!” she exclaimed. “That girl thinks the world of both of you, and look how much you’ve hurt her! Frank, you’re seventy-one years old, and Tom, you’re forty-five, but you stand there screaming at each other like two eight year olds on a school playground! Tom, your dad is dying of cancer, and I didn’t ask you to come back to England to drive him to his death even earlier. Frank, your son has come back to this country in the hopes of building a better relationship with you while he can, and you’re not making it very easy for him to do that. I’m heartily ashamed of both of you, and I hope you’re heartily ashamed of yourselves. I’m going to find Emma to see if I can mend some of the damage you two have done. Be so good as to speak civilly to each other while I’m gone, or don’t speak at all!”
My father stared at her in astonishment, a feeling I shared; in forty-five years I had never heard her speak to him like that. She turned and left the room, and he and I were left standing there, avoiding each other’s eyes. I turned away from him and walked over to the window, fixing my eyes on the darkening sky outside. Behind me, I heard him blowing his nose, and then I heard the creaking of the chair as he sat down again. After that, there was silence in the room.
I have no idea how long the silence lasted. Inside, my heart was heavy; in my mind I could still see the fear in Emma’s face, and I knew I had shown her a side of myself that afternoon that I had tried hard to keep under wraps for most of her life. I was well aware that she and my mother were both right; my father was a dying man, and I had come over to England to try to build a better relationship with him, not to prolong a quarrel that was over twenty years old. I knew that, as the professing Christian, I was the one who ought to have given the soft answer that turns away wrath, and I knew that it was now my responsibility to apologize. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. He was the one who was continuing to try to run my life, I reasoned; he ought to be the one to make the first move.
Eventually I heard my mother coming back into the room. I turned to face her; she was looking reproachfully at the two of us. “Well, I see that neither of you is willing to back down and make the first move to apologize; why am I not surprised?” She turned to me and said, “Emma’s packing her bag; she wants to go home right now. She was going to ring Becca and ask if she could stay overnight with her, because she was so upset with you, but I think I’ve persuaded her to go home with you instead. I think you’d better go to her now and take her home. Please, next time you come, come with a little more patience and magnanimity”.
“I’m sorry, Mum”, I replied; “I’ll be on my way, then”. I went over to her and kissed her on the cheek. Glancing at my father, sitting in his chair with his head turned away from me, I said, “Goodbye, Dad”.
He grunted in response, but said nothing. Shaking my head, I turned and left the room.
Emma was silent in the car all the way home. At one point I stole a sideways glance at her and saw a tear running down her face; I tried to take her hand, but she shook her head and turned to face the passenger side window. When we reached our home, she carried her bag into the house, went straight upstairs and closed her door behind her.
I knew I had to leave her alone until she was ready to talk, but I was so agitated that I found it hard to be patient. I paced around the living room, went up and down the stairs, listened at her door to the silence in her room, and then went back downstairs to pace again. It was after midnight when I went to bed, and for a long time I lay awake, reliving the scene in my mind over and over again. I tossed and turned, and finally at about three o’clock I put on a dressing gown, went downstairs, boiled a kettle, and made a small pot of tea. I sat beside the gas fireplace in the darkened living room, warming my hands against the mug of tea, trying to pray for a way out of this mess I had created.
After a few minutes I heard the stairs creak behind me. I turned and saw Emma’s face in the doorway; she was wearing a bathrobe over her fleece pyjamas, and her eyes were red.
“Can’t sleep either?” I asked softly.
She shook her head.
“Want some tea?”
“I’ll get it”.
After a moment she came into the living room and sat down across from me, a mug of tea in her hands. She would not look at me; instead, she stared into the flames of the gas fire I had turned on to warm up my cold feet.
I knew it was up to me to make the first move, and suddenly I was determined not to mess up again. “I’m so sorry, Em”, I whispered.
Now at last she looked up at me with confusion on her face. “What was it all about, Dad?” she pleaded in a voice so soft I could barely hear her. “Why do you and Grandpa hate each other so much? All he was doing was offering to pay my fees through university; that was a really kind and generous thing for him to offer, but it seemed like you took it as so much more than that. Obviously there’s some sort of past history; he was pushing buttons, and you were reacting like…” Her voice trailed off, but she continued to look at me steadily.
“I was reacting like…” I prompted.
She shook her head; “Please – I have to try to understand this. I’ve never seen you like that before”.
For a long time I didn’t reply; I knew I had no option but to try to answer her questions, but I was shrinking from it. I had thought that I could return to England without excavating these long-buried feelings, but events had proved me wrong.
“You want the whole story, do you?” I asked.
“Yes, I do”.
I looked down for a few minutes, collecting my thoughts; then I said, “I don’t remember my Dad being around much when I was little. He was building up a law firm, and he worked long hours and often brought work home with him too. He pretty much left the day-to-day upbringing of his children to my Mum. I have no memory of a single walk or game with him. The only memories I have are of times when he lost his temper with me”. I paused for a moment, looked at her, and said, “This is not a nice story; are you really sure you want to hear it?”
“Yes; I want to understand”.
“All right then. Well, the ‘Great War’ started when I was fifteen; that’s the name Owen and I gave to this particular disagreement. I had known since my early teens that my Dad was raising me to be a lawyer like him. But then I met Owen and his dad. That was the first time I realized that my relationship with my Dad wasn’t a normal one. Owen’s dad was my first taste of what a father is meant to be like; he was the one who first inspired me to want to be a teacher, too.
“I told my Dad when I was fifteen that I wanted to become a teacher, and we fought about it for two years. What you heard tonight was mild compared to the fights we had. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps, you see, and he’d just assumed I’d do the same. He was determined to stop me from screwing up my life, and I was equally determined to do what I wanted to do.
“It all came to a head in my last year of high school. We had a spectacular shouting match that lasted for about four hours. At the end, my Mum took my side, and my Dad knew he was beaten. From then on he rarely spoke to me. I studied in Oxford for five years, and every day he drove into Oxford to work, but he never once came to see me or asked me out for a drink or made any attempt at all to contact me.
“But even though I hardly ever saw him, I could still feel his disapproval. Whenever I went home for holidays, the atmosphere in the house was ice cold. He made no secret of how he felt; he was paying for my education, so he ought to have the right to tell me what I should be studying and what I should be doing with the rest of my life. Paying my fees wasn’t the kind and generous offer you talked about a minute ago, you see; it was a claim on my future, and I was rejecting that claim.
“In the end, I knew that the only way to escape was to leave the country. There was a student from Canada at our college, and he told me about western Canada. I made all the inquiries in secret, I applied for jobs and initiated the emigration procedure, all without telling my Mum and Dad. I knew that once Dad got hold of this information, he would go ballistic.
“And I was right, he did”. I stopped talking, took a sip of my tea, and stared into the gas fire. “I had lied to my family and told them I was going to get a job in Reading. Then a week before I was due to leave, I told them the truth. We were all in the living room, including Rick and Becca; Becca was eleven at the time. I told my Mum and Dad I had some news for them; ‘I’ve decided to move to Canada’, I said; ‘I’ve got a job at a school in Saskatchewan’. Mum started to cry, Becca started to cry, and Dad started to shout. He called me an idiot and a fool and a sneaking liar, and then he took his walking stick and attacked me with it”.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
“He struck me as hard as he could, three times across my shoulders and twice across the lower back. A person wielding a walking stick with that kind of determination can cause a lot of pain. My Mum was crying and pleading with him to stop, but he didn’t, not until I managed to get out of the room and out of the house”.
I had avoided this scene in my memory for years, and as I was retelling it the raw anger was resurfacing. When I was able to continue, I said, “So a week later I flew to Canada. I avoided home for that last week; I stayed at Owen’s. And as you know, since then I’ve rarely come to England, and my Dad has never been to Canada to visit. He didn’t come to my wedding, and he didn’t come to your Mom’s funeral”. I looked across at her; “Does that answer your question?”
She got up, came across to me and sat down on my knee. She put her arms around my neck, kissed me gently on the forehead, and said softly, “Dad, you’re amazing”.
“Amazing? Where did that come from?”
“Well, for one thing, despite everything, when you heard that Grandpa was dying, you came over anyway, and you’ve been doing your best to be patient with him”.
“Is that what it looks like? It hasn’t always felt that way!”
“And the other thing is – you’ve been so different in the way you brought me up – so patient and gentle and all that. Where did you learn to be such a good father?”
“I’m not always sure that I am!”
“Are you kidding? You’re the best!” She was gradually curling herself onto my lap, as if she was trying to snuggle up to me like she had done when she was nine or ten. She laid her head on my shoulder and whispered, “Are you going to be all right, Dad?”
“I am now”.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it up for church in the morning, do you?”
“I’m afraid we have to”.
“Because we’re leading the music tomorrow”.
“Right! I’d forgotten. Well, we should probably go to bed, then, even if it’s only for a little while, don’t you think?”
“Sounds good; I might even sleep now”.
She lifted her head off my shoulder, kissed me again on the forehead, and got to her feet. I took her hand and said, “Do you understand a little more now?”
I kept her hand in mine, paused for a moment, and then said, “You know, despite all that, I think you’re mostly right. The way I talked to Grandpa tonight was wrong. I should have kept my temper and I shouldn’t have read into his offer to pay your fees all the things I experienced when he paid for my university education. I’m really, really sorry, and I’m especially sorry that I scared you so much”.
She squeezed my hand; “I was scared, but I’m okay now”.
She pulled me gently to my feet. “Come on”, she said; “Go up to your bed to sleep; if you let yourself fall asleep in the chair, you’ll be really sore in the morning”.