When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the first chapter.
If you take the gravel road that runs straight north of Meadowvale and stay on it for about twelve miles, you will find yourself dipping down into a shallow valley and crossing a narrow creek. Spruce Creek; that’s the name it was given by English-speaking settlers in the Meadowvale area, and the name stuck, even though the first people to homestead in the area spoke German, not English. They were Mennonites lately arrived from Russia, and they cleared the land and established their farms north of that shallow valley. At one time there was a corner store, a log church, and a one-room schoolhouse, but they are long since gone. The farms are still there, though, and some of them are still being worked by descendants of those early Mennonite settlers.
If you take the first right turn after the creek and go east three miles, you will come to the old Reimer homestead, first settled in 1924 by Dieter and Erika Reimer. Nowadays their great-grandson Dan Rempel lives there with his wife Cara; they run the old Reimer farm and also the Rempel operation four miles north, the home of Dan’s parents, John and Erika Rempel. Erika, who is a Reimer by birth, drives into town each day to her job at the Meadowvale library; John tries to help his son, but a heart attack several years ago has severely limited the amount of work he can do without a rest.
If you go back to the main road, head north another two miles and turn left, you will come to Spruce Creek cemetery; the old church used to stand there too, but it was pulled down in the late 1970s, having been disused for a number of years. The cemetery is a peaceful sort of place, the crosses and gravestones in orderly rows, and a stand of poplar trees bending around to the north and east. If you park your car in the little gravel parking lot, go in through the iron gate and walk north on the main path about fifty yards, you will come to the area of the cemetery where most of the Reimers are buried. Dieter and Erika’s graves are side by side in the centre, and next to theirs you will find a newer grave with a simple granite headstone. On the stone you will find the following inscription:
Kelly Ruth Masefield (née Reimer)
September 16th 1958 – May 26th 2001
‘Behold, I make all things new’
And so my own very English name, ‘Masefield’, has found a home among all those Mennonite names in the Spruce Creek cemetery.
At first Meadowvale was just a name on a map to me, a dot in the wide open spaces of the prairies, where towns were separated from each other by distances I had never imagined in my early life in England. I remember the time I first glimpsed its four grain elevators on the horizon as I drove up from Saskatoon with Will Reimer, my new principal. He gave me my first tour of the town, showing me the stores and businesses and the quiet residential streets, so different from Oxford where I had spent the previous five years, and different again from the village of Northwood where I had lived as a teenager. Gradually, in my first year in Meadowvale, I found my way around the community and the surrounding area, learning where people lived and where they gathered, and where I could go when I wanted to get away from people and make contact with the older world of fields and trees, narrow creeks and shallow lakes, coyote and beaver and white-tailed deer, ravens and chickadees and red-winged blackbirds.
Over time I came to love the vastness of the prairie sky and the open landscape beneath it; I loved the patchwork quilt of different-coloured crops in the late summer, the thunderstorms you could see twenty miles away, the red-tailed hawks circling on a hot summer’s day, and the clear winter afternoons with the mercury hovering around minus thirty and the sun shining down on the dazzling white snow. I loved the smell of the fields in the summertime after a heavy rain, the feel of the wind on my face on a hot day, and the bite of cold on my cheeks when I was out cross-country skiing in winter. I loved the old grain elevators standing tall against the horizon, and I was sad to see them gradually being torn down and replaced by the huge concrete grain terminals.
But gradually, over the years, I learned that there was much more to Meadowvale than geography. In the early 1980s, when I first arrived, there were people still living who had homesteaded there in the 1920s; from them I learned the history of the community and the people who built it, their stories stretching through the decades as their family trees reached out and connected with each other. I got a sense of the community as a living organism stretching out through time and space; people who had lived here all their lives were part of it, but so were the many people who had moved away, whether they cared to admit it or not. The Cree and Metis were part of it, whose families had travelled in this area for centuries, and new arrivals like me were part of it too, as we made connections and found ourselves gradually absorbed into the various circles and networks that made up the Meadowvale extended family. ‘The Meadowvale web’, my sister Becca called it, and I liked to remind her that she was part of it too, because she was related to me, and by then I was related to some of the biggest families in the community.
I came in 1982, having just finished my teacher training at Oxford University. I had no thoughts of staying permanently; I had things I wanted to get away from, and Saskatchewan seemed as good a refuge as any. But then I met Kelly, and in 1984 we were married, and suddenly I was related to the Reimer and Wiens clans, with connections to at least half a dozen other Mennonite families in the area. And so to my surprise I found myself settling down here, and over the years I gradually came out of my introverted shell and learned to find my place as a member of this farming community. I found a new faith and a new family, and a contentment and a sense of belonging that was entirely new to me. Kelly and I had a daughter, Emma, who we raised in our faith community and in the wider Meadowvale family, and although like me she grew up to be something of an introvert, nonetheless she always knew herself as part of that connecting web.
Over the years I got to know Meadowvale too well to be romantic about it. I was a teacher after all, and through my students I was connected to most of the families in the area. I knew about the alcohol and drug problems, the broken families and the ones I wished would break up so that their pain could end; I knew people who were well off and people who struggled to make ends meet. I knew when people were talking to each other and when they weren’t; I knew people who cared faithfully for loved ones with chronic illnesses and people who struggled with demons they could not get the better of. I knew people of faith and people of no faith, people who talked incessantly and people who barely spoke two sentences in a half-hour visit over a cup of coffee. English and French, Chinese and Ukrainian, Mennonite and Lebanese, Metis and Cree – I knew them all, the tales they told and the lives they lived.
Over the years I shared the sorrows as they came along, too. We said goodbye to old people in their eighties and nineties, and young people who died before their time through accident or deadly disease. And eventually the community came to share my own particular sadness, as I lost Kelly to cancer at the young age of forty-two, and I was left with the daughter she had given me and the relatives who had adopted me as one of their own.
I had no thought of leaving after Kelly’s death; I had kept up my connections with family and friends in England, but Meadowvale had become my home, its people were my extended family, and I knew deep down inside that to leave them would have been a kind of bereavement too. And so I can honestly say that the thought of returning to the country of my birth had never entered my head until that last week of January in 2003, just over a year and a half after Kelly’s death, when I heard that my father – who was the main reason I had left England twenty years ago – had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
When I got home from work on that cold and blustery Friday Emma was in the kitchen working on supper. She gave me a warm smile when I came through the doorway; “Ready for a cup of tea?” she asked.
“Absolutely!” I replied, kissing her on the cheek.
“I boiled the kettle a minute ago; I’ll just get this pie in the oven and then I’ll turn it on again”.
“Right; I’ll run down and drop my briefcase in the den”.
I went down the stairs to the basement and through to the back room, which I had used as a home office for over fifteen years. I kept a few shelves’ worth of books down there, with a filing cabinet for my school work, an old-fashioned desk, and a work station for my laptop computer and printer. On the wall above the desk was a crowded bulletin board, with notes and reminders and a few photographs of family and friends. Beside it on the wall was a framed family photograph taken about four years ago, while Kelly was still alive; my eyes lingered on her picture, dwelling on the soft curve of her cheek, the sparkle in her blue eyes as she smiled at the camera, the way her long blonde hair fell on her shoulders. Thirteen-year old Emma, standing between us in the picture, was like a younger version of her mother, a resemblance that had only increased in the intervening years.
I stood there for a moment with my briefcase in my hand, looking at the picture, and then my thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone on my desk. I heard the creak of Emma’s footsteps above my head, crossing the kitchen floor to answer the call; I put the briefcase down on the old armchair, and was just turning to go back up when I heard her calling down the stairs: “Dad, it’s for you; it’s Auntie Becca”.
I glanced at my watch: it was five thirty-five, which meant eleven thirty-five at night in Oxford. I turned back to the desk, picked up the phone, and said, “Hi Becs”.
“This is a little late for you”.
“Yes; have you got a minute?”
“Of course”. I pulled out the swivel chair and sat down, my elbows on the desk. “What’s up?”
“I just got back from Mum and Dad’s; they asked me to ring you before I went to bed”.
“Dad’s been diagnosed with lymphoma; I’m afraid the prognosis isn’t good”.
I glanced up instinctively at the bulletin board, at the photo my mother had sent with her Christmas card a few weeks ago. My father had been retired from his legal practice for a couple of years now, but he was still wearing a charcoal grey suit and a dark maroon tie; I noticed for the first time that his face looked thinner than I remembered, and his thick wavy hair was almost completely white. My mother, standing beside him, was dressed in a comfortable skirt and sweater, her reading glasses hanging from a thick cord around her neck; she was smiling cheerfully at the camera, her hand on my father’s arm.
“Are you there, Tommy?”
“I’m here. So he’s just found out about this?”
“Yes. Mum says he’s been having symptoms for some time, but of course he’s been ignoring them and hoping they’d go away. Then about two months ago he started having night sweats and that really worried Mum, so she insisted he go to his doctor. He was referred for tests, and they just got word of the results”.
“Did you know before today?”
“No, I found out when Mum called me at the clinic this afternoon”.
“And you went out this evening?”
“I went and cooked a meal for them, and stayed for a couple of hours afterwards”.
“How are they doing?”
“They’re in shock”.
“I guess. Do they know what stage he’s in?”
“Stage Four; it’s in the lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm, and in his bone marrow too”.
“How has it been able to spread so fast?”
“It probably hasn’t; I suspect he’s had it for two or three years. Indolent lymphoma doesn’t present obvious symptoms, so it can sneak in under the radar screen. I think that’s what happened to him, but at some point in the past few months it’s transformed into aggressive lymphoma, and now it’s started to present more serious symptoms”.
“Are they saying how long he’s got?”
“You know they’re reluctant to do that…”
“Yeah, I know”.
“Mum insisted, though, and the oncologist said she thought he might have as long as two years. But she stressed there are always unpredictable factors”.
“Still too early for a treatment plan?”
“I think so”.
“How did he look?”
“Exhausted, and he didn’t have much to say, either. To be honest, I don’t think he really wanted me there”.
“Mum probably appreciated your company”.
“That’s why I went”.
“Was she the one who asked you to call me?”
“Yes. I rang Rick earlier on, while I was still with them”.
“How did he take it?”
“He was shocked, of course; he asked if he could talk to Dad, but neither of them really wanted to talk to anyone, so I had to say no”.
“Should I call them tomorrow?”
“Yes, please. Mum told me she wasn’t ready tonight, but she thought that by morning she’d want to hear your voice”.
“I’ll call her”.
“Should I tell anyone else?”
“I think they’d be alright with you telling Emma, but maybe no further than that until after you’ve talked to them”.
“Well, I should go, Tommy; it’s been a long day”.
“Do you want to talk to Emma again?”
“Do you mind if I don’t? I love her to bits, but I’d rather not go through the same story a second time”.
I hesitated briefly, and then said, “What about you, Small One; are you okay?”
I heard her give a little sigh; “Not really, but there’s nothing to be done about it”.
“It’s complicated, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is”.
We were both quiet for a moment, and then she sighed again and said, “I really should go”.
“Okay. Will you be home tomorrow?”
“I’ll call you again after I’ve talked to Mum”.
“Alright. I love you, Tommy”.
“Love you too, Becs”.
Emma was just pouring the tea when I came back into the kitchen; she smiled at me and said, “Everything okay?”
She put the tea pot down on the counter. “What’s wrong?”
“Grandpa was diagnosed with lymphoma today”.
I saw the sudden stillness on her face; “How far along is it?”
“There’s already cancer in the bone marrow”.
She handed me a mug of tea; “So it’s metastasized, then”.
I took my seat at the small round kitchen table; she picked up her own mug, came and sat down across from me, and put her hand on mine. “Are you okay?”
I shrugged; “Yes and no”.
“Tell me what Auntie Becca said”.
I repeated what my sister had told me as briefly and factually as I could. When I was finished we both sat silently for a moment, our thoughts far away, and then she said, “I guess you’ll want to go over”.
“No word yet about treatment?”
“No, but I assume it’ll include chemo, and maybe radiation. I’m not sure how they’ll treat it in the bone marrow”.
“I wonder how Grandma’s doing?”
“Becca said they were both in shock today. I remember those hours after the first diagnosis; you feel numb, and then you start playing head games with yourself”.
“Denial, bargaining, that sort of thing”.
She looked at me in silence for a moment, and then she got to her feet, leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. “I love you, Dad”, she whispered.
“I love you too”.
“Are you okay?”
“You already asked me that”.
“I know”. She shrugged; “I guess I’d better finish working on supper”.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, but I wouldn’t mind if you’d stay and keep me company”.
“I could do that”.
We ate our supper in the kitchen as usual; Emma lit a candle and I said grace, and then as she served the shepherd’s pie and we began to eat, she said, “When do you think you’ll go for a visit?”
“Probably during spring break”.
“When is that this year?”
“Middle of April”.
“Still three months away”.
“Yes; it’ll go fast, though”.
“I know; I’ve got a lot of studying to do before then”. She frowned; “Do you think I should come with you?”
“Do you want to?”
“Sort of. But I don’t know if it’s a good idea, with my finals coming up. I’d like to see Grandma though, and Auntie Becca”.
“I’m sure they’d be glad to see you too, but they know it’s your Grade Twelve year”.
I grinned at her; “Of course, I need to be careful about spending lots of money on airline tickets, since I’ve got this expensive grad coming up”.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive; I’d be happy to go in a denim skirt”.
“Somehow I don’t think your mum would have approved”.
“No; she liked getting dressed up for the grad banquets, didn’t she?”
“I liked watching you guys dancing together”.
“Thanks. I’m quite looking forward to dancing with you at your grad, if your date will let me share you for a few minutes”.
She smiled ruefully; “When I know who that’s going to be, I’ll let you know”.
We ate our food in silence for a moment, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. I could see that she was avoiding my gaze, and eventually I put my hand on hers. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head. “There’s not much more to say. Russell and I are done; I’m sad about it, but that’s the way it is. He’s made it pretty clear that he’s moving on and I’m going to have to figure out how to do that too”.
I squeezed her hand. “Are you okay?”
She nodded; “I am, Dad. I’m sad, but I’ll get over it. And now do you mind if we talk about something else?”
“Sure; that would be fine”.
The next day was a Saturday, and I got up at around eight, showered and dressed and went for a two-mile walk. The storm had eased off, the eastern sky was just beginning to get light, and the temperature was hovering at around minus twenty.
Meadowvale was situated on a main road about seventy-five miles northeast of Saskatoon. The highway ran just east of the town, with the railway line running parallel to it; that was where the two concrete grain terminals and the Esso station and the ‘Travellers’ restaurant were located. Emma and I lived on the northwest end of town; a couple of blocks west of our house, a narrow creek bordered the town from north to south, before bending around to the east, flowing under bridges for the railway line and the highway, and emptying into Roberts Lake southeast of the community. I followed the snow-packed trail along the creek until it reached the highway, and then I came back into town on one of the main north-south avenues. Trucks were already beginning to move on the streets as people made their way to the cafés and restaurants for their Saturday morning coffee. I knew all the drivers, of course, and most of them exchanged cheery waves with me as they passed me on the road, bundled up in my parka.
When I got back to the house I made a pot of tea and dropped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster. I was just spreading peanut butter on the toast when I heard Emma coming into the kitchen behind me. I put the knife down, turned and smiled at her; she was wearing her old bathrobe over her pyjamas, and she had obviously made an attempt to run a comb through her hair. I put my arms around her; we held each other tight for a moment, and I kissed her gently on the top of her head. “Good morning”, I said.
“Want some toast?”
I poured tea into a mug and handed it to her. I pushed the plate of toast and peanut butter over to her, popped a couple more slices of bread into the toaster for myself, and sat down with her at the kitchen table. “You okay?”
“Still kind of sleepy?”
“Have you got plans for today?”
“Jake’s coming up for the weekend; I think I’m supposed to be getting together with them at some point. How about you?”
“The usual Saturday stuff – clean the house, do the laundry, shop for a few more groceries and all that”.
“I’ll do the cleaning if you want to do the laundry”.
“It’s a deal.”
After she finished her breakfast Emma had a second cup of tea, and then she excused herself and went off to take her shower. I went down to my den in the basement, sat down in the armchair beside my desk, picked up the phone and punched in my mother’s number. When she answered the phone I said, “Mum, it’s me”.
“Hello, Tom – I was wondering if you’d call today”.
“Are you okay?”
I heard her give a heavy sigh; “Well, you know how it is…”
“I know. How’s Dad doing?”
“He’s having a nap at the moment. He did well earlier on, but he ran out of steam about an hour ago”.
“Is he in pain?”
“Not really; it’s more the tiredness that’s dragging him down”.
“How long has he had the symptoms?”
“He’s been ignoring them for quite a while. I’ve noticed over the past few months that he’s been losing weight, and he’s been getting persistent fevers on and off. But it was the night sweats that made me insist he see a doctor”.
“How long ago was that?”
“He had his first appointment about two months ago. He insisted I not tell anyone until there was a definite diagnosis”.
“He probably didn’t want to be deluged with people asking him how he was doing”.
“So this is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?”
“Becca said he’s in Stage Four”.
“But they haven’t given you a treatment plan yet?”
“No; there are still a few more tests to be done – I can’t remember what they’re about. But she did say a cure is unlikely”.
“Becca said he has about two years”.
“Yes, although the doctor told us that wasn’t a hard and fast prediction”.
“It must have been a shock, Mum”.
“It was, but I’m relieved to know what’s going on. I was frightened by the symptoms, especially the sweats; he’s sometimes woken up in the night with the sheets totally drenched”. She paused for a moment, and then said, “Have you told Emma?”
“Yes. She’s actually in the shower right now, but I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you later. She wasn’t sure whether you’d feel like talking to her yet”.
“I’ll be glad to hear her voice. Give her my love”.
“I will. Listen, Mum, do you mind if I tell a few other people? I’m sure Will and Sally would want to know, and Joe and Ellie”.
“Of course. Please tell them not to send cards, though; if they want to send notes addressed to me, that would be fine”.
“I understand. And I think maybe I’ll book myself a flight to come over during spring break”.
“Is that after Easter?”
“It would be really good to see you; do you think Emma will come too?”
“She’s thinking about it, but she’s got her finals coming up, so life’s going to be very busy for her”.
“I understand. I had thought of coming over with Becca for her grad, but now with this news…”
“That’s fine Mum; you need to stay with Dad. But don’t forget to look after yourself; make sure you get plenty of rest, and take advantage of all the support the medical system can give you. I was lucky; I had a huge family circle full of willing helpers. You’ve got a much smaller group there”.
“The problem is that your dad isn’t going to like having strangers coming in”.
“I know. Just try to be wise about it, okay?”
“I will; thank you”. She was quiet again for a moment, and then she said, “Well, I’d better go; there are things I need to get done around here while he’s sleeping”.
“I understand. I love you”.
“I love you too”.
“Give Dad my love”.
“I will, and thank you for that”.
“No need. I’ll talk to you soon”.
“‘Bye for now, Tom”.
A few minutes later I went back upstairs. Emma was sitting in the living room playing her guitar; her hair was up in a towel, and her head was bent over the fretboard as she moved her fingers over the strings. The guitar was an old Martin 000-18; I had bought it second-hand in 1977 and had played it myself for many years, but I had given it to her not long after her mother died. Over the last couple of years she had been practicing a lot, and she had begun to create instrumental versions of some of the traditional folk songs I liked to play. I stood there quietly for a moment, watching and listening as she picked out a melody.
“That’s excellent”, I said when she was finished; “‘Plains of Waterloo’, right?”
“That’s right”, she said with a smile; “I’ve been working on it for a few days”.
“Open C tuning?”
“More or less”.
“You’re getting to be such a good player”.
She smiled shyly; “Thanks. Did you talk to Grandma?”
“Yeah”. I sat down across from her and told her what my mother had told me. “She’s going to have to be careful not to tire herself out”, I concluded; “She’s got that enormous house to look after, and the home help only comes in once a week, and now this”.
“Is she seventy-one now?”
“She’ll be seventy-one in April, and Dad’ll be seventy-two in August”.
“Like Grandpa and Grandma Reimer”.
“But Grandpa Masefield’s been slowing down for a while, hasn’t he?”.
“Yes; Becca says his arthritis has been progressing”.
“Are you definitely going over?”
“I told her I’d come in spring break. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of money on airline tickets over the next couple of years”.
“Whether Grandpa wants to see you or not”.
“There is that”.
She frowned; “This thing with you and Grandpa, Dad – you’ve never really told me much about it”.
“It’s a long and complicated story”.
She looked at me in silence for a moment, and then she nodded. “Okay, I get that you don’t want to talk about it. But it goes back a long time, right?”
“Do you think it can be fixed?”
“I honestly don’t know, but I suppose I should keep trying”.
“Seems to me you’ve tried a few times over the years”.
“Yes, I have”.
“Maybe with this news, he might be a little more receptive”.
“Maybe”. I sat back in the chair and stretched my legs out; “With Dad, I tend not to get my hopes up”.
“I know”. She got to her feet slowly; “Well, I’d better go dry my hair”.
“Oh, I almost forgot – Grandma told me she’d be glad to hear your voice”.
“I’ll call her as soon as my hair’s dry”.
Link to Chapter Two