The Patron Saint of Relational Evangelists

Reblogged from 2012.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

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‘A Time to Mend’ – Chapter 5

Link back to Chapter 4

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 fourth chapter.

On our past visits to England we had always attended church on Sundays, either at the village church in Northwood or in Headington with Owen and Lorraine. My father had been an atheist for as long as I could remember and he found our continued church attendance puzzling, although he rarely said anything about it unless he happened to catch me by myself. Emma and I had agreed that we would continue our usual practice on the Sunday after our arrival; we would go down to the village church for the morning service, even though it would be very different from the style of worship at our Mennonite church back home. “When we get settled we can look around for something a little closer to what we’re used to”, I said, “but for now, the village church is fine with me, if you’re okay with it?”

“I’m good”, she replied with a smile; “I remember it from the last time we were here. It was kind of like a Catholic service, wasn’t it? I remember the pastor and the choir members wore robes”.

“That’s right”.

“Do you think we’ll see Uncle Owen’s mom and dad there?”

“No, they’re staying with Owen’s brother and his family up in Lancashire right now; Owen says they’ll be back in a week or so”.

“What time is the service?”

“The church sign says nine”.

“That’s kind of early”.

“Yeah; I seem to remember the vicar has two or three different churches to look after so they’re probably all competing for prime time”.

“Right”.

******

We mentioned to my parents on Saturday night that we would be going to church the next morning. Becca had gone back to Oxford late in the afternoon, so it was just the four of us sitting around one end of the long table in the dining room. My mother smiled as she and I were setting the table together; “We should probably just go back to eating our evening meals in the kitchen”, she said. “That’s what your dad and I usually do, but I wanted to keep it special for you and Emma for a day or two yet”.

“And we appreciate that”.

After we had finished our supper and were sipping our tea, I glanced at Emma and then turned to my mother; “We’re going to get up and go to church tomorrow morning”, I said. “The service is at nine, so if you don’t want to get up that early on a Sunday we’ll be happy to look after ourselves for breakfast”.

“I don’t mind getting up and making something for you; I’ll be awake anyway”.

My father looked at me for a moment and then shook his head reproachfully; “Still participating in that foolishness, then?”

“It’s not foolishness to me; it’s one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself; Sunday dinner’s at one”.

Emma gave a cheerful laugh. “I don’t think the service will last quite that long, Grandpa!”

******

The sky the next morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as we made our way down to the church. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma took my arm and said, “I’ve never really talked to Grandpa about Christianity”.

“That’s a conversation he’s not very interested in”.

“He’s an atheist, isn’t he?”

“Yes – and also a very good debater”.

“So there’s not much point in arguing with him then?”

“Not unless you want to learn how his opponents feel in court”.

“I guess it would have been hard to be a practising Christian when you were growing up”.

“Well, I wasn’t a practising Christian at the time, but yeah, I’m sure he would have taken every opportunity to make an issue out of it”.

“I noticed he wasn’t very respectful last night”.

“That was mild for him. If you hadn’t been there he’d have been a lot more aggressive.”

“Really?”

“Perhaps I’m being unfair; maybe he’s not feeling quite so belligerent now he’s dying of cancer”.

“Did you ever go to church when you were growing up?”

“I’m told I went when Rick was christened as a baby but I don’t remember that; I do remember Becca’s christening. Apart from that we only went on Christmas Eve and I stopped going when I was about thirteen; my dad didn’t care and my mum didn’t force the issue”.

“Grandma came from a churchgoing family, didn’t she?”

“She did – her dad was a church organist and he and his wife were both very devout. And do you remember my Uncle Roy?”

“Of course; he was one of Grandma’s relatives, wasn’t he?”

“Yes – he was married to my Auntie Brenda. He died about six years ago, not long after the last time we were here”.

“I remember that; he had a heart attack”.

“Yes. He and Auntie Brenda always went to church; I think she still does”.

“It must be hard for Grandma not to be able to go”.

“I’m not sure my dad would actually try to stop her, although he’s never been backward about trying to control other people’s lives. To be honest with you, I’m a little shy about asking her about it”.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. We’ve talked about lots of things through the years, but faith isn’t one of them”.

“How come? You and Grandma are pretty close”.

“My family tends to be more reserved about some things, I guess”.

“But you and I talk about almost everything”.

“But if I knew there was something you didn’t want to talk about, I wouldn’t push you; I’d let you decide when you were ready”.

“Right – I guess that’s true”. She smiled at me and laid her head momentarily on my shoulder; “That’s because you’re such a great dad!”

“Thank you; you’re pretty special yourself, too”.

******

In the centre of the village there was a small grass-covered square with a cross-shaped war memorial; the old stone church stood on the west side of the square, and the primary school on the east. The church was a solid-looking building with a tower at one end, set in a churchyard dotted with old gravestones, with a stand of trees behind. There were a few cars parked on the road in front, and a couple of people were going into the church through a porch on the north side of the building.

Inside, the air was pleasantly cool. The walls were plastered white, with stained glass windows higher up, and at the front the altar and choir stalls stood behind a wooden rood screen with the morning sun pouring in through another colourful window. There were already some people in the pews, including a couple of families with small children. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books and bulletins and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. Emma was looking up at the carved wooden ceiling. “I remember this now”, she whispered; “It’s fifteenth century, right?”

“Yes”.

“I remember the pastor showed me around last time we were here. Was that after a service or something?”

“No – we wandered in here on the first day of our holiday, when we were out for a walk. It was just you and me, remember? Your mum couldn’t get the whole five weeks off work, so she came a couple of weeks later”.

“Right”.

“We’d been sitting down for a long time and we wanted to take a walk so we came out for an hour or so. The minister just happened to be here when we stopped in to have a look; I think he said he was tidying up after a funeral”.

“I wonder if he’s still here?”

I glanced down at the bulletin I had been given. “Not unless he’s changed not only his name but also his gender”.

She looked at her own bulletin and then laughed softly; “The Reverend Claire Lucas”, she said. “Right – definitely not the same person!”

A few minutes later the service began. The choir entered from the back during the singing of the first hymn, followed by the minister; she appeared to be in her mid-forties, with greying blond hair cut just above her shoulders, dressed in the customary robes worn by Church of England clergy. The singing seemed a little timid compared to our Mennonite church back home, but the congregation participated well in the various prayers and responses throughout the service. Some of the rituals were strange to us but the minister did well in giving directions as to what was expected of us, and I speculated that she had probably noticed the presence of newcomers in church that day. She preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to her.

At the end of the service, during the announcement time, the minister gave an invitation for everyone to stay afterwards for a cup of coffee. However, when the time came Emma glanced at me hesitantly and said, “Do you mind if we don’t stay?”

“Of course not”. I looked at her curiously; “Are you okay?”

“Just missing home”, she said quietly.

“I understand”.

******

The sun was riding high in the sky as we left the church, and people were already out enjoying it; couples were walking with their children and the road was busy with cars and bicycles. I smiled at Emma; “Shall we walk down to the river before we go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s?”

“Sure; lead the way”.

So we strolled south on the main street and then took the old wharf road down to the river. There were several boats moving on the water, and I pointed out to her the little wooden jetty that Owen’s family had used for their canoeing during our teenage years. Emma and I both enjoyed canoeing, and we agreed together that we would beg or borrow the use of a canoe as soon as possible. “I won’t be surprised if Becca has one stored somewhere”, I said; “I don’t know for sure, though”.

We wandered along the footpath beside the river, heading east toward the Kingfisher Inn and the bridge over the Thames. After a few minutes I spoke hesitantly; “Are you missing our own church?”

She nodded. “It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with this one; it just made me think of home and all the people going to our church today”.

“Right”.

“It reminded me of Mom, too; she was with us last time we came to church here”.

“That’s right – she was”.

“I liked the service okay though”.

“So did I”.

“The minister preached a good sermon, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did”.

“Of course, I’m not used to all the written prayers and ceremonies – that always feels a little strange to me”.

“I know what you mean”.

“I like the sense of history here, though. And the building’s not too fancy, is it? I don’t think I’d feel good about going to a really fancy church, like some of those cathedrals we saw in London last time we were here. I’m not quite sure how they make that fit with what Jesus says about not storing up for yourself treasures on earth”.

“I know what you mean”.

“It must be hard for the minister to have three churches to look after; she must do a lot of driving”.

“The communities are closer together here, though. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Saskatchewan: how spread out the towns are. Here it’s an easy four mile walk from Northwood to Wallingford. Owen and I even used to walk home from Oxford sometimes when we were up at university”.

“How far is that?”

“About ten miles if you go direct, but we used to like to make a day of it and take the Thames path; that’s about seventeen miles”.

“That’s a long walk”.

“Not as far as Saskatoon to Meadowvale, though”.

She laughed softly; “I guess not”.

******

That afternoon Emma and my mother were both busy in other parts of the house, and I found myself alone with my father. He looked tired and pale after Sunday dinner and the afternoon was warm and muggy, but to my surprise instead of lying down for a nap he suggested we take a walk around the garden. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after church into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.

Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation, but since his illness he had been too tired to look after the grounds and he had reluctantly agreed to my mother’s suggestion to have a professional gardener come in once a week. I strolled along beside him for a while, listening as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and told me how they had been grown. Afterwards we went back to his greenhouse and sat down together on a wooden bench outside the door. He took off his glasses, wiped them with his handkerchief, and dabbed at his sweating brow. “The heat’s a bit too much for me”, he said.

“How have you been feeling?”

“Oh fine, fine. A bit tired of course, but that’s only to be expected”.

“You’re having another chemo treatment this week?”

“Supposed to be”, he replied, putting his glasses back on. “I’ll be seeing the doctor on Tuesday to make sure I’m ready for it”.

“The white blood cells don’t always build back up the way they should?”

He gave me a sideways glance. “Kelly had chemotherapy too, didn’t she?”

“Yes. It wasn’t enough of course, but I’m sure it gave us a little longer before she died”.

“Well I’m not going to let this thing get the better of me; I’m sure I’ll be fine once the treatments are over”.

“What’s your oncologist saying?”

He looked up at me sharply; “What have you heard from your sister?”

“Actually it was Mum, way back in January; she told me they’d said two years. A few weeks ago Becca told me they were still saying the same thing”.

“Then why are you asking me?”

“Because I’d like us to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things”.

“Are you accusing me of dishonesty? This from the man who told us he had a teaching job in Reading and then went off to Canada instead?”

I shook my head. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Dad. It’s just that I’d like to think we could talk about these things between ourselves rather than having to use other people as go-betweens”.

He looked at me suspiciously. “This is a new line for you. Why this sudden desire to talk to me? You’ve never been especially interested before”.

“I would think that would be kind of obvious”.

“Perhaps – although I can’t help being a bit suspicious that it’s got something to do with my money”.

“I don’t care about your money, Dad; I have all the money I need”.

He laughed; “I find that rather hard to believe!”

I didn’t reply, hoping my silence would ease the sudden confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “You know, I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing. I know Kelly and her family introduced you to religion but I’d hoped by now you’d have been able to see through all that”.

I smiled; “It didn’t start with Kelly and her family”.

“The Fosters, then?”

“They didn’t push it. I was questioning myself, long before I said anything to Owen”.

“Questioning what?”

I hesitated. “Dad, do we have to do this today? I can’t see that argument between us is going to do any good; can we just accept that I see things differently? Like I said last night, my faith is one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

“So you actually believe all that stuff about God and Christ and miracles, and Noah’s ark and the snake in the garden and all that?”

“I believe in God and Christ and miracles; I’m not especially tied to Noah’s ark or the snake in the garden”.

“So you pick and choose what you believe and what you don’t? A little inconsistent, aren’t you?”

“I take the Bible seriously as literature, which means I don’t treat all its various genres the same way”.

“How very convenient for you!”

I frowned; “I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”.

“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”

“No – I’m not afraid of that at all”.

“Then why don’t you want to talk about it?”

“Because I don’t have your faith in the power of a good argument. A friend of mine used to say that when an argument starts it’s no longer two people seeking the truth; it’s two egos trying to win. And we both know you have a lot of experience at winning”.

“That’s ridiculous!”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. When I came to faith I certainly didn’t leave my brains behind, but no one argued me into it. When it came right down to it, it was an experience of God that got me over the last hurdle”.

“That’s pure wish-fulfilment; we both know you’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.

“Sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg a crutch can be a good thing”.

“So you admit you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”

“Would it make you feel better if I did admit it?”

“Of course not; I’ve always known you preferred to follow sentiment over reason but I don’t have to like the fact. You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment’s all very well but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world and not spend your time living in some make-believe fantasy”.

I smiled at him; “Make-believe fantasy?” I said softly.

“Yes. I’m sure it’s a comfort of sorts to think there’s a god looking after you and you’re going to go to heaven when you die, but intelligent people deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it was”.

“So I’m the one who’s deluding myself here?”

“Of course you are, and I understand completely why you continue to do so”.

“You do?”

“Yes; to abandon your faith would feel like disloyalty to Kelly”.

“Or maybe it would feel like disloyalty to the God I met after Kelly and I got engaged”.

“Don’t be ridiculous; no one can meet God, for the simple reason that God doesn’t exist. People can persuade themselves to believe they’ve had all kinds of supernatural experiences, but modern, rational human beings know it’s all self-delusion”.

“So the spiritual experiences of millions of human beings around the world and throughout history are ruled out of court, just like that?”

“It’s not verifiable evidence”.

“Neither is the fact that you love Mum”.

“What an absurd comparison!”

“I don’t think so”, I replied softly.

We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then he said, “You know how to hit below the belt, don’t you?”

“Bringing in Kelly wasn’t hitting below the belt?”

He looked away, shaking his head. “I’m probably wasting my breath trying to talk some sense into you”, he said dismissively.

“I don’t mind changing the subject”, I replied. “I don’t especially feel the need to set you straight about your atheism, and I don’t understand why you feel you have to set me straight about my faith in God”.

He got to his feet. “I’m tired”, he said; “I’m going to go and lie down for a while”.

“Fair enough; I think I’ll go inside and find out what Emma’s doing”.

******

My body had still not adjusted to the time change, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap of my own. When I woke up after an hour’s sleep I could hear the sound of guitar music somewhere in the house. There was a small sink by the window in my bedroom; I went over to it, splashed some water on my face, combed my hair, and slipped quietly downstairs.

The music was coming from the living room. I put my head around the door and saw Emma and Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars, with Sarah and Anna sitting with them, listening to the music. Eric was playing and singing an old delta blues song, his accent imitating the old black blues performers like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; Emma was filling in some tasteful lead guitar licks as well as singing along with him on the chorus. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.

Emma smiled at me; “How long have you been standing there?”

“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”

“A couple of years. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.

“Sounds pretty good to me; you’ve got that delta blues style pretty well nailed”.

“Thanks!”

“Dad’s a really good player”, said Emma; “Do you want to play with us, Dad?”

“Not right now; I’m happy to listen. Are your mum and dad here, kids?”

“Mum’s here”, Sarah replied; “She’s out on the patio having lemonade with Grandma and Grandpa. Dad’s working”.

I glanced at Emma. “Are you guys going to play something else? I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and listen to the music while I wake up”.

Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”

“What do you like to play?” Eric asked her.

“I like a lot of bluegrass tunes, and I like Dad’s old folk songs, too”.

“You mean like Bob Dylan and those guys from the sixties?”

She laughed; “Actually, Dad’s songs are a lot older than that. No one knows who wrote them – they were handed down from long ago, and most of them have been changed and adapted over the years. They’re kind of like old blues tunes in that way”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that”.

“Yeah, you have; you just don’t know what they are. Do you know that old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Scarborough Fair’?”

“I think so”.

“It was an old folk song they arranged”.

“Do you know it?”

“Yeah; would you like to play along with me?”

“What’s the key?”

“I play it in E minor, but Dad plays it a little lower”.

She showed him the chords, and then sang the song for him; he watched, and by the third verse he was playing along with her, as well as singing along with the ‘then she’ll be a true love of mine’ lines. When the song was over he smiled; “I think I’ve heard that one before but I barely remember it”. He gestured toward her guitar; “That guitar sounds so awesome!”

“Yeah – I’m really lucky to have it. It’s got a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides; like Dad said the other night, it was built in 1970, so it’s thirty-three years old now”.

“Wow”. He glanced at me; “I can’t believe you gave away a beautiful guitar like that. What are you playing now?”

“A Larrivée; it’s the same kind of style but the construction’s a little different, so it’s got a slightly different voice. Emma and her mum and a whole bunch of other people got together to buy it for me for my fortieth birthday”.

“Mine’s just a cheap guitar; perhaps one day…”

“Sure – but don’t forget that Robert Johnson recorded all his songs on a much cheaper guitar than that!”

He nodded; “True!” he said with a smile.

******

I sat with them for about half an hour, listening to their music and joining in their conversation between songs. Eventually I got to my feet; “Sounding good, guys. Keep it up; I’m going to go find the others”.

I slipped out of the living room and crossed the hallway toward the back of the house. There was a large room there with a bare wooden floor, which at one time had been used for formal dances; it was almost empty now, with only my mother’s upright piano sitting in one corner, and a couple of armchairs scattered around the room. At the back, French windows opened onto an enclosed garden surrounded by a brick wall; beyond the wall was the orchard. My parents were sitting out there on the stone patio with Alyson, a jug of lemonade and some glasses on the table in front of them. Alyson was dressed for the heat of the afternoon in a loose sleeveless dress and a white sun hat. She was the first to see me, and she gave me a warm smile as I slipped out onto the patio and dropped into a lawn chair across from her. “Still getting over your jet lag, Tom?” she asked.

“Apparently. I hear my brother’s at work?”

“Yes; he had to go in for a while this afternoon”.

“Did you pass the musicians on your way out?” my mother asked.

“I did”.

“Emma plays very well”, said Alyson; “Did you teach her?”

“Some; her old babysitter Beth Robinson helped her a lot too”.

“What sort of music does she like to play?”

“She likes my old folk songs, but she and Jake play bluegrass and country music too; her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.

“Does she ever perform in front of people?”

“She’s done that once in a while with Jake when we’ve had family reunions, but most of the time she just plays for her own enjoyment”.

My father had been listening quietly; he was wearing a Panama hat to shade his head from the bright sunlight, and I noticed again how pale and tired he looked. “What are her plans?” he asked.

“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’ll try to find a volunteer position in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before”.

“Are you going to look for a house?” asked Alyson.

“Yes. I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school, although I know that might not be possible”.

My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive; you won’t find much in your price range”.

“Are you going to buy or rent?” asked Alyson.

“Rent. We haven’t sold our house back in Meadowvale, and I really don’t want to get tied up in another mortgage”.

“Buying is always a better idea”, said my father. “When you rent, you’re just pouring money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day”.

My mother gave me a sympathetic glance; “Are you and Emma going to get any sightseeing in before the school year starts?”

“We’ve been talking about it. We’ll go into Oxford, of course, and maybe London, and she’d like to go down and see Stonehenge again; we did that trip last time we were here and she really enjoyed it”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “What about you?” I asked Alyson; “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?”

“No definite plans; we’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a garden centre since school ended; it’s the first time he’s had a summer job. And Rick’s having trouble getting out of the office at the moment. Not that that’s an unusual situation, of course – there are very few times when he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the office”.

“Occupational hazard for a barrister”, said my father.

“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson replied. “I get a month off in the summer but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. What about you and Emma, Tom? Do you often take family holidays together?”

“Ah well, I’m a teacher, you know, so I’m used to long lazy summers. When Kelly was alive we used to take family camping holidays a lot; we’d pack a tent and a canoe and take off for a few weeks. We’d go up to Jasper, or when Steve and Krista lived near Prince Albert National Park we’d stay with them. Emma and I still like to do things like that, and we’ve got a folk music festival and a Shakespeare festival we like to go to as well”.

At that moment Emma appeared in the doorway with her cousins. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?”

“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied with a grin.

“Come and sit down”, said my mother; “The lemonade’s almost finished but I can easily go in and make some more”.

“I’ll do that, Irene”, Alyson said, getting to her feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course; I’ll be back in a minute”. She gave us a smile and then turned and slipped into the house.

My mother reach up and took Emma’s hand. “You were sounding very nice in there, my dear”.

“Thanks”, Emma replied as she and the other kids sat down with us. “Am I going to get to hear you play at all this afternoon?”

“Oh, I don’t know; I’m a bit out of practice”.

“We’re a friendly audience, aren’t we, Dad?”

“Of course we are!” I replied; “You should play for us, Mum”.

She shrugged; “Alright, if you insist – but I want another glass of lemonade first!”

“Fair enough”.

She smiled sheepishly at me; “And as for you, I want you to forget all the critical things I said about your playing when I was teaching you!”

Emma laughed; “Were you a tough teacher, Grandma?”

“Your dad definitely thought I was!”

“It’s okay”, I replied playfully; “I seem to have survived the trauma well enough. And you did succeed in teaching at least two of us to play”, I added, smiling at my mother.

“I did, didn’t I? And Becca still plays occasionally, so it’s not all been lost”.

“I haven’t heard Auntie Becca play piano in a long time”, said Emma.

“Well then, you’ll need to get after her too, won’t you?” my mother replied.

“I guess I will!”

******
Link to Chapter 6

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-four years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

‘A Time to Mend’ – Chapter 4

Link back to Chapter 3

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 fourth chapter.

******

Two weeks after my interview, I received an email offering me the position at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. Emma gave me a triumphant high-five when I told her the news; “Back to your old stomping grounds, then?”

“Yeah. It looks like things might have changed quite a bit since the last time I taught there, though”.

“Are you nervous?”

“A little. It’s nearly twenty-one years since I’ve started at a new school”.

“And in a different country, too”.

“Yeah”.

She gave me an inquiring look; “How do you feel?”

“Mixed feelings, I guess. I think it’s the right thing to do, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving Meadowvale – even for just a couple of years”.

She nodded, looking down at the floor; “I know what you mean”.

I stepped forward and put my arms around her, and for a moment we held each other close. When she looked up at me again, I saw that there were tears in her eyes, and I kissed her gently on the forehead. “I can still say no”, I said softly.

She shook her head. “I know it’s the right thing to do and I’m actually pretty excited about it. But, like you said…”

“Yeah, I know”.

******

I booked our flights to England for the night of July 31st, arriving in London on August 1st; it did not occur to me until afterwards that this would be twenty-one years to the day since I had first arrived in Meadowvale. It was Will Reimer, my father-in-law, who pointed this out to me. “I still remember you coming into the arrivals lounge that day with your guitar case and your long hair and your scrawny little beard. I don’t mind telling you, I wondered how long you would last in Meadowvale!”

I laughed; “I just remember how hot it was. Hot and dry; I’d never felt anything quite like that before. And I remember having supper at your house that night, sitting out on the back deck with you and Sally, trying to keep my eyes open through the conversation”.

“Yeah – you were doing your best to stay awake but we could see how tired you were”.

“Little did I know how many times I’d be coming over to your place for backyard barbecues in the years to come!”

“Isn’t that the truth? Well then – we’d better have another one before you and Emma leave”.

And so a couple of nights before our move Will and Sally hosted a farewell barbecue for us at their house. Will was seventy-two now; his beard had long since turned white and it took him longer to get up out of a lawn chair, but he was as gregarious as ever and he still loved having company in his spacious back yard during the warm months of summer.

Joe and Ellie were there, along with Jake and Jenna. Jake was working all summer for a local beekeeper, as he had done for the past three years; Jenna, meanwhile, was working as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool and she was as brown as a berry from days spent out under the sun. Ellie brought her fiddle and Jake brought his guitar, and I knew we would have music that night, especially when I saw Darren Peterson arriving with his mandolin and banjo.

Kelly’s younger sister Krista and her husband Steve Janzen came up from Saskatoon with their children Mike and Rachel. Steve worked as a wildlife habitat specialist with the Saskatchewan government, and Krista ran her own consulting business as well as teaching wildlife biology at the university. When our kids were little it was Steve who had first dubbed them ‘the Pack’. Nowadays of course the members of the Pack were all teenagers; Mike was sixteen and Rachel fourteen, and although they lived in Saskatoon they were as close as ever to Emma and Jake and Jenna. The Pack had some honorary members too; Brenda Nikkel’s son Ryan was now twenty and her daughter Jessica was fifteen. They were there that night, along with Brenda’s sister Erika, her husband John Rempel and three of their four children; their youngest son Dustin had graduated with Emma and the two of them were good friends.

Rhonda Janzen had also graduated with Emma; she was the youngest daughter of John and Ruth Janzen. Ruth was the sister of my principal Don Robinson, and John was Steve Janzen’s older brother. He had taken over his father-in-law Mike Robinson’s carpentry business when Mike retired; it had been John who had first gotten Kelly and I interested in Habitat for Humanity, and over the years we had spent many hours working with John and Ruth on Habitat building sites in Saskatoon and down in Mexico.

Glenn and Karla Pickering came to the barbecue with their children Molly and Tommy; Glenn was one of my oldest friends in Meadowvale and we had all been very happy when he had married Ellie Reimer’s sister in 1988. Don and Lynda Robinson were there too, along with their younger daughter Beth Fuhr. Don was Kelly’s cousin; he had been my friend and teaching colleague through all my years in Meadowvale and had taken over as principal at our high school when Will retired. As for Beth, she had not only been Emma’s babysitter, she had also been one of the founding members of an informal youth gathering that met at our house once or twice a month for several years in the 1990s. We had always resisted calling it the church youth group as it was not formally connected to our church; we saw it more as a casual gathering of friends, meeting at their request and discussing issues that were important to them.

Kelly and I had become very fond of all the members of that group, but Beth was special to us and over the years we had become very close to her. Her parents were not churchgoers but her grandmother Rachel Robinson was; she had begun taking her granddaughter to church when she was five, not long after I moved to Meadowvale, and over the years Beth had developed a thoughtful Christian faith of her own. Even though she had lived in Saskatoon for some years we still saw her frequently and made a point of visiting her when we were down in the city. Her accountant husband Greg, however, did not share either her Christian faith or her attachment to the community of Meadowvale; occasionally he came with her when she visited her old home but most of the time she came by herself.

Another member of our old Sunday night group was Megan Neufeld. Megan’s father Rob had been our pastor for most of my years in Meadowvale; he had baptized Kelly and me in February of 1984 as well as officiating at our wedding in October that year. Rob and his wife Mandy now lived in Saskatoon but they made a point of coming up for our farewell barbecue along with Megan and her younger brother Matthew.

Will Reimer’s older brother Hugo and his wife Millie also came. Hugo was seventy-five and he and Millie had been living in town for a couple of years, but he still drove out frequently to the old Reimer farm at Spruce Creek which had been their home for almost as long as I had known them; it was now being worked by their grandson Dan Rempel, John and Erika’s oldest son. Kelly had loved riding horses and when she was eleven Hugo had given her a horse, Jackson, who he had kept out at the farm for her. For many years we had visited out there regularly; I had learned to ride on Hugo’s horses, and so had Emma. Hugo and Millie had become dear friends of mine, along with their daughters Erika Rempel and Brenda Nikkel and their youngest son Donny, who lived in Saskatoon with his partner Alan Chambers. Donny’s coming out as a gay man ten years ago had been a seismic event in the Reimer family, but over time Kelly and I had become very fond of Donny and Alan. They didn’t usually come to large gatherings in Meadowvale, but I was glad they had made an exception for our farewell barbecue.

“Holy crap!” Dan Rempel said to me as he looked around the crowded back yard; “You sure have a truckload of friends!”

“Not bad for a shy introvert, eh?”

“You, an introvert? Surely not; you’re one of the most social people I know”.

“I think you’re confusing me with Kelly. She was the gregarious one; I was just freeloading on her”.

“Well if that’s true you disguised it well”.

“Thanks. You didn’t bring your lovely lady with you tonight?”

“She’s working, unfortunately, and she couldn’t get out of it”. Dan had married Cara Ratzlaff  the previous summer; she had been one of my high school students too, a year behind Dan, and she was now working at the Meadowvale Special Care Home.

There were plenty of conversations that night; I wandered around the yard all evening chatting with everyone, and I saw that Emma was doing the same thing, although she also spent a lot of time with Jenna who was her closest friend. Later on the musicians all got together as I had expected, and for an hour we went around the circle playing our songs for each other. The configurations had changed a little over the years; Ellie and Darren, my old musical partners, were now playing much more frequently with Ellie’s son Jake, who was a big bluegrass fan and had become a very good flat picker on his dreadnought guitar. Emma sometimes played along with them too, although she had wider musical tastes than they did. Will Reimer played old classic country tunes, and he and Ellie and I also played gospel songs together; we were still leading the worship music regularly at our church on Sundays, as we had done for the past twenty years. As for me, I found myself more and more playing along with Beth, who had picked up my taste for the traditional folk songs of England and Ireland in a big way. She had long since come out from under my shadow and had been creating her own song arrangements for a couple of years now.

******

Toward the end of the evening, after the song circle had broken up, Beth came over and gave me a warm hug. “You keep in touch, okay?” she said.

“I will, and so will Emma”.

She looked at me in silence for a moment, and I found myself remembering the little ten year old girl who had heard me play traditional folk songs at a house concert in the summer of 1988, and had started coming over to our place soon afterwards to find out more about folk music. She was now a lovely young woman of twenty-five, dressed casually tonight in jeans and a tee-shirt, her long brown hair tied back under a ball cap. “I’m going to miss playing music with you”, she said quietly.

“I’m going to miss it too. But you don’t need me; you’re doing just fine by yourself now. You’re still playing the piano, right?”

“Oh yeah; Grandma won’t let me quit, and I enjoy it”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure”.

“Are you and Greg thinking of having a family any time soon?”

She nodded. “He wanted to wait until he was all finished his accounting degree, but now he’s working full time at the bank…”

“Might not be long, then?”

“Maybe”, she replied with a smile; “Sometimes these things don’t happen to order, so I’ve been told!”

“That’s true”.

“How’s your dad doing, Tom?”

“He’s having chemo right now; Becca says he’s tired all the time”.

“Are you okay?”

“Most of the time I am, but every now and again I have my moments”.

She looked up at me in silence for a moment, and then she said, “Do you need another hug?”

“Any time you like”.

She put her arms around me again and we held each other close. “We’re all going to miss you”, she said softly.

“I’ll miss you, too”. I stepped back and smiled down at her. “England’s a nice place to visit, you know”, I said.

“Oh – believe me, I’d love to come!”

“And we’d love to have you – you and any little addition you might like to bring with you”.

She laughed, reached up to kiss me on the cheek, and then turned and made her way across the yard to where Emma and Jenna were standing with some of the other young people.

“They grow up fast”, Don Robinson said as he appeared at my side with a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand, watching his daughter as she went up to Emma and put her arms out to give her a hug.

“They sure do”, I replied.

“Do you remember the first time Kelly brought you over to visit Lynda and me, when Amy and Bethie were just small?”

“I do; you never know what’s going to come of small beginnings, do you?”

“Isn’t that the truth?”

“Amy’s okay?”

“As far as I know; she’s not the best person in the world for keeping in touch. I think Bethie hears from her more often than we do”.

“I haven’t seen your dad for a while; how’s he doing?”

“He’s okay most of the time, I think, although he never says very much”.

“Maybe that’s where Amy gets it from”.

He laughed. “In person, she’s the life and soul of every party she goes to, but when she’s far away…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean”.

He glanced at me; “Don’t you be like that, Tom Masefield”, he said quietly.

“I’ll keep in touch, Don”.

“Make sure you do. That school’s going to be very different without you around”.

******

Will and Sally drove us down to the city on July 31st; Joe and Ellie and their kids came separately, and we all converged on Steve and Krista’s place for a family meal before going to the airport. I knew Will and Sally well enough to know that they were dreading this parting; nevertheless, Will tried to stay as cheerful as possible as we checked our baggage through to Toronto and then to Heathrow. We had plenty of it; several suitcases and boxes, as well as two guitars in hard cases. When it had all been checked in and the excess baggage fees paid, Emma told me that she and her cousins were going off for a walk together for a few minutes, and I nodded, knowing that there were things they would want to say to each other.

So the adults went to the coffee shop where we sat together for an hour or so, talking about little things and trying not to watch the clock. After a while the kids came back and joined us, sitting at a table by themselves to drink their lattes and continue their conversation. Eventually I looked at my watch and said, “Well, I guess we’d better be getting down to the gate”.

“Is it that time already?” Will asked.

“I’m afraid so”.

We all got to our feet reluctantly and made our way down to security. Steve gave me a hug and a smile, and then Krista put her arms around me and held me tight. “Take care of yourself, Tom Masefield”, she said, her voice catching a little in her throat. “Don’t forget you’re a Reimer, okay?”

“Never”, I replied, hugging her again and kissing her on the cheek. “Call me, okay? I really like your phone calls”.

“For sure”.

I hugged each of the children in turn, and then Ellie, and Will and Sally. Joe squeezed me in a bear hug for a long time, and when we stepped back from each other, I could see the emotion in his eyes. “You keep safe”, he said quietly, “and don’t be a stranger”.

“I won’t”.

Will was hugging Emma, and that was the point at which his cheerful composure slipped a little; I saw the tears beginning to course down his wrinkled, sunburned cheeks as he gripped his granddaughter tight. “You take care now”, he said in a husky voice. “Look after your dad for us, eh?”

Emma nodded; I could see that she was too upset to reply. She hugged her cousins one last time and then I took her hand and led her toward the security gate. We went through the metal detectors and the carry-on baggage checks, turned and waved one last time to the family and then made our way down to our departure lounge. I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head, and she looked up at me and smiled bravely through her tears; “I love you, Dad”, she said.

“I love you too”.

All through the three and a half hour flight to Toronto she barely said a word, although she did reach out occasionally to grip my hand. We had a two hour layover in Toronto, but neither of us particularly felt the need for coffee, so we found our departure lounge and took our seats together in one of the corners; I put my arm around her, and I felt her head come down on my shoulder. “Sorry, Dad”, she whispered; “I’m looking forward to it, I really am, but right now I just don’t seem to be able to think about that”.

“I know, and I understand”.

“Thanks”.

******

I’ve never been good at sleeping on planes, and that overnight flight was no exception. I went through all my usual motions of getting comfortable, turning the light out, controlling my breathing, saying some mental prayers, and all the other sleep-inducing techniques I had come across over the years. But eventually I gave up and reached for a book from my carry-on bag; it was a new novel by one of my favourite authors, Wendell Berry, and all through the night as Emma slept beside me I lost myself in its pages.

It was not until the flight attendants began to come through the cabin with morning coffee that I finally closed the book, and by that time Emma was beginning to stretch. I smiled at her; “Good morning, sleepyhead”.

She yawned, opened one eye and looked at me; “What time is it?”

I looked at my watch; “Eleven-fifteen in the morning, U.K. time”.

“About two hours, then?”

“I think so”.

She looked over at me, her eyes bleary. “Did you sleep?”

“I rested my eyes from time to time”.

She leaned over, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I’ll be back”. Getting up, she wrapped her blanket around her and made her way toward the back of the aircraft. I noticed that at some point during the night she had taken off her sandals; her feet were bare.

When she returned to her seat the flight attendants were bringing food trays around; she shook her head at a cooked breakfast but accepted a muffin and a fruit bowl instead. I was already eating my own breakfast, and the strong airline coffee was beginning to do its work. “You slept pretty well”, I said to her.

“Yeah, I don’t remember much about the night”. She took a bite from her muffin, ate thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Owen and Lorraine are meeting us?”

“Yeah”.

“Are they bringing Andrew and Katie?”

“I doubt it. It would have to be a big vehicle; I warned Owen that we had a lot of stuff”.

“Right”.

“I’m sure you’ll get a chance to see them pretty soon”.

She nodded. “I think Uncle Rick and his family are coming for supper at Grandma and Grandpa’s tonight”.

“You probably know more about that than I do”.

“Sarah said they’d been talking about it but no-one’s said anything since last Sunday; she says her dad’s been working late every day this week. She thinks it’s still on though”.

“I’m glad you and Sarah have been emailing each other”.

“Me too; I like her a lot”.

“Kind of a kindred spirit?”

“In some ways”. She frowned; “What’s her mom like? I barely remember her”.

“I don’t know her all that well. She and Rick started dating during my last year up at Oxford but I didn’t see much of them even then, and after I moved we didn’t really keep in touch”.

“I don’t remember them being around much last time we were there”.

“No, we only saw them once”.

“Why was that?”

I shook my head slowly. “They were in the middle of doing renovations on their house. Rick was working a lot of hours too, but that’s always the story with him”.

“It seems weird that we were there for five weeks and only saw them once”.

“A little different from our Meadowvale family, eh?”

“Yeah”. She looked down at the food tray in front of her, her mood suddenly subdued. “I miss them already”.

“I know; so do I”.

She glanced at me with sadness in her eyes. “Sorry I was such a wreck last night; I wasn’t much help to you, was I?”

I took her hand. “It was always going to be tough. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad – or mad, either, if you want”.

She smiled; “The problem is I can’t quite figure out who to be mad at. It’s not Grandpa’s fault he’s dying of cancer and it’s not your fault you want to be with him while he’s still alive. I guess I could be mad at God but he kinda holds all the cards, doesn’t he? Anyway – I’ve had enough experience at being mad at him to know it’s not really very satisfying, on account of the fact that he refuses to get mad back!”

I squeezed her hand; “I guess that’s true, although I’ve never heard it put quite that way before”.

“Well anyway, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll steer clear of ‘mad’ and just stick to ‘sad’ for now if that’s okay with you?”

“That’s fine, love”.

******

Owen Foster and I had first met when I moved to Northwood from the Oxford suburb of Summertown at the age of eleven. He was the oldest of four children; his father taught English at the high school in the nearby town of Wallingford. We spent most of our holiday time together that summer; we walked in the country for miles, and he took me out on the river and taught me to paddle a canoe. In September we went to high school in Wallingford together, and by then we were fast friends. We got our first guitars at the same time, and in our mid-teens we spent hours working out how to play songs by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Wings, and the other popular bands and artists of the early 1970’s. Later on we fell under the spell of traditional folk music, and by the time we went up to university together we had learned many of the old songs from recordings by people like Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy.

Owen’s family was strongly Christian and as he moved into his teens he became more intentional about his own Christian faith. No one in my family attended church except at Christmas, but Owen went with his family every week. When we were in our late teens I became more curious about this part of his life and I began asking him questions about God and spirituality; he was always happy to talk about it but he never tried to coerce me into adopting his beliefs.

Owen’s father was a firm but patient teacher; in fact he was the one who gave me the idea of becoming a teacher myself. I kept quiet about this for a long time, but I remember vividly the first time I mentioned it to my parents. It was in my fifteenth year, during the Easter holidays, and we were eating our evening meal; Rick would have been thirteen at the time and Becca about three. My father had begun to talk about how I would be going up to Oxford in a few years to read Law. I had been aware of his plans for me for a long time but until then I had made no comment about them. On that day however, something made me decide to speak up. “Actually”, I said, “I don’t want to read Law”.

My father looked up at me sharply. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I think I’d like to be a teacher”.

“A teacher! Don’t be ridiculous! You’d be condemning yourself to poverty for the rest of your life!”

“Not necessarily; Owen’s family isn’t poor and his dad’s a teacher”.

“But they can’t afford very much more than the bare necessities, can they?”

“Well, maybe there’s more to life than money”.

He snorted; “That’s a typically romantic view but romance won’t support a family and give children the sort of start in life they need. You’ve got to have a good profession with a solid income”.

“I don’t think so. I like what Mr. Foster does; I want to be a teacher like him”.

“Rather than being a lawyer like me?”

“I didn’t mean it like that”.

“Then what precisely did you mean?”

And so the ‘Great War’ began. That was what Owen called it, because of course I told him about it; he and I talked about everything. I talked to his father about it too; I was always welcome in their home and I often talked to him about things. He would never have presumed to interfere in the internal affairs of our family, but he was always willing to listen and I felt he understood and sympathized with me.

But it was my mother’s intervention in the ‘Great War’ that finally tipped the balance in my favour. It was early October in my Upper Sixth Form year; the decision about what I was going to study at university could not be put off any longer. My father wanted me to do pre-law studies but I was determined to do a B.A. in English followed by a postgraduate certificate in education. The discussion was taking place in the living room; my parents and I were the only ones present but as the conversation turned into an argument and the volume got louder and louder I knew Rick and Becca would be able to hear us in their rooms. My mother had given up imploring us to stop shouting at each other and was now sitting in silence, the sadness written plainly on her face.

And then something unexpected happened. My father must have been extremely frustrated; I realize now he must have felt he was losing the ‘Great War’ because only desperation could have led him to ask for my mother’s help. “Irene”, he said, “can you talk some sense into this boy?”

She had been looking down at the cup of cold tea in her hand, but now she looked straight up at him and said, “I think you should let him do what he wants to do”.

I had rarely seen my father so angry. His face turned purple with rage; he opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The room was tense: I hardly dared to breathe. My mother was silent. Eventually I raised my eyes and looked across at her. “Thank you”, I whispered.

“Follow your dream, Tom”, she replied; “It’s the only thing any of us can ever call our own”.

From that point on my father never mentioned my plans for university. My mother helped me make all the arrangements and in September of 1977 Owen and I went up to Oxford together. He was studying medicine and I was doing an English degree, so we were never in the same classes, but we were both living at Lincoln College and we saw each other almost every day. We walked together, played music together, and went to pubs and coffee shops and concerts together. Even Wendy Howard, our musical partner through our later university years and a close friend to us both, was still very much a newcomer to us, and after I moved to Canada in 1982 we both lost touch with her. But we remained in contact with each other, and after twenty-one years on opposite sides of the Atlantic our friendship was stronger than ever.

******

Owen was waiting for us as we emerged from the doorway into the arrivals lounge. At forty-five he was still taller than me, with short dark hair, dark eyes and a thin-faced, rascally look about him. He had managed to position himself right at the end of the rope barrier, exactly where he needed to be to meet us; we saw him immediately and steered our baggage carts toward him. He welcomed us both with warm hugs, grinned at my bleary eyes and said “Didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“I never sleep on planes”.

“Of course not – it would be in such poor taste. Come on then – the car’s not far away”.

“Will we be able to fit all this luggage in?”

“Don’t worry – I rented an MPV”. He pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket, punched in a number and put the phone to his ear. “Hello, it’s me”, he said; “They’re here. Right – see you out front”. He closed the phone, slipped it back into his pocket, grinned at us and said, “That was Lorraine; she’ll be out front in about four minutes”.

We pushed our baggage carts out into the warm afternoon sun; when we reached the pick up area Emma took Owen’s arm and said, “How are Andrew and Katie doing?”

“Oh, they’re fine. We took them off to Essex for a cheap holiday last week; my sister lives at Clacton and she and her husband had gone away for a few days, so they told us to use their house. I don’t suppose you get to the seaside very often in Saskatchewan, do you?”

Emma laughed. “We never get to the seaside in Saskatchewan; Waskesiu Lake’s the best we can do!”

Owen gestured toward the guitar cases on the baggage carts; “Still playing your dad’s old guitar, then?”

“I’m a lucky girl”, she replied, glancing at me with a grin; “It’s such a great guitar. Of course I’m nowhere near as good as Dad”.

“Keep working at it; we all had to start somewhere”.

I put my hand on Emma’s shoulder; “She’s way better than I was at seventeen”.

Owen smiled at her. “We’ll have to hear you play soon. Maybe your dad will bring you out to the open stage at the pub we used to play at”.

“The ‘Plough’ still has live music, then?” I asked.

“Yes, open stage on Friday nights and concerts on Saturday nights. Our band’s actually playing a Saturday night gig there in a couple of weeks”.

“Is Bill Prentiss still running the place?”

“Yes, but he tells me he’s only going to go on for a couple more years; I think he turned sixty-three last month”. Owen put his arm around Emma; “Has your dad told you about the ‘Plough and Lantern’?”

“I think we went there for lunch with Auntie Becca last time we were here; I remember the guy who ran the place had a thick grey beard”.

“That’s Bill; he’s had that pub since we were in university”.

“Dad said there used to be a lot of traditional folk music there”.

“There still is”.

Emma smiled at me; “Are we going to go, then?”

“If you’d like”.

“I would like”.

At that moment a blue Mazda MPV pulled up in front of us; the driver’s side door opened and Lorraine Foster got out. She was as tall as Owen, with greying red hair cut just above her shoulders; she came over to us, greeted me with a hug and a kiss and then turned to my daughter. “Look at you, Emma Masefield!” she said; “You’ve grown into a real beauty!”

“Thanks”, Emma replied with a shy smile.

Lorraine kissed her on the cheek, gave her a warm hug and then said, “Right, let’s get your stuff loaded up”.

I saw that they had removed the third seat to make room for all our luggage. We quickly loaded everything into the van, and then Owen slammed the tailgate shut.

“You ride up front with Owen, Tom”, Lorraine said; “I’ll sit back here with Emma”.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely”.

We got into the van and Owen pulled away from the loading area onto Cromer Road and then down toward the tunnel under the runway. He glanced at me; “So you’re still planning on staying at your mum and dad’s for a few weeks?”

“Yeah, until we find a place of our own”.

“Are you sure? I seem to remember that didn’t go very well for you last time”.

“No – it was a little tense”.

“More than a little. If you find you need a break, come over to us for a few days”.

“Thanks, but I’m here to build bridges with my dad; I don’t think running away will help the situation”.

“If you’re sure”.

“I’m sure”.

He glanced at Emma in his rear view mirror; “Are you tired, Em?”

“I’m fine – I slept well on the plane”.

“You’re not in any particular hurry to get to Northwood, then?”

“No – why?”

“I thought I’d take the slow route up through the Chilterns; there’s some pretty villages and towns on the way”.

“Sounds good.”

“Of course, we’ll be going past Windsor Castle in a few minutes; we can always check and see if the Queen’s at home, if you like?”

We laughed, and Emma said, “I don’t think we’ve ever been there, have we, Dad?”

“No; shall we put it on our to-do list?”

“Maybe”.

Sure enough, a few minutes later we passed the familiar bulk of Windsor Castle on our left. I saw Emma looking at it intently as we sped past on the motorway; “How old is it?” she asked me.

“It was built in the eleventh century; I think it was one of William the Conqueror’s castles. There’s a really nice park around it; you approach the castle by way of a long road called ‘the royal mile’. That view’s definitely worth seeing”.

She was quiet for a moment, continuing to gaze out of the window. “Looks like the Queen’s got room for a few homeless people in there”, she said.

Owen laughed; “So speaks the daughter of Kelly Masefield!”

“I could do worse”.

“Yes you could, Emma Dawn. If you’ll take the advice of your uncle Owen, though, you’ll be careful about making statements like that when you’re with your grandpa Masefield!”

Emma loved the drive up through the Chiltern hills; Owen purposely left the main roads behind, taking us through picturesque little villages with old grey stone houses lining narrow streets. We passed village greens with quaint little churches, and pubs with names like ‘The Blue Boar’, ‘The King’s Head’, and ‘The Angler’s Arms’. It would have been hard to imagine a stronger contrast with the long straight roads and wide open spaces we had left behind.

We came down into the Thames Valley again at Wallingford, where Owen and I had gone to High School. We crossed the river on the old stone bridge with its graceful arches, and then turned toward our old home town of Northwood. Owen glanced over his shoulder at Emma; “Nearly there now”, he said; “Do you want to ring your grandma and tell her to put the kettle on?”

She laughed; “Can I?”

“Of course; Lorraine’s got a mobile in her pocket”.

Lorraine handed her mobile to Emma; Emma asked me for the number, punched it in on the keypad and put the phone to her ear. After a moment she said, “Grandma? Yeah, it’s me – Emma… Yeah, we’re fine. Uncle Owen says we’re almost at your place; we’re just driving through Wallingford now. Do you want to put the kettle on? Uncle Owen told me I should call and ask you”. She listened for a moment and then laughed and grinned at Owen; “Grandma says you’re just as cheeky as ever”.

“Well, at least I can be relied on to be entertaining!”

“Okay Grandma”, she said, “We’ll see you in a few minutes. I love you – bye!” She closed the phone, handed it back to Lorraine with a grin and said “I think she enjoyed that!”

“I’ll bet she did”, Owen replied.

We crossed the river again beside the Kingfisher pub and drove through the village of Northwood; Emma was keeping her eyes open for familiar landmarks, and she recognized the old fifteenth century church on the west side of the village green. “I remember going to that church last time”, she said.

“You had a few conversations with the vicar”, I replied.

“Yeah, he was a nice man”.

A minute later Owen turned off the road onto my parents’ long driveway and we saw the old house up ahead. “Wow!” said Emma; “I’d forgotten how big it is! I remember the spiral staircase and the lake out back, and the orchard”.

Owen pulled up opposite the front door and turned off the engine. As we climbed out of the car my mother was already coming out to greet us; the afternoon was warm, and she was wearing a loose summer blouse which left her arms bare. She and I embraced, and then she turned to her granddaughter with a smile. “Hello, Emma”, she said, holding out her arms; “Welcome back to Northwood”.

Emma returned her smile and gave her a gentle hug; “Thanks Grandma; it’s great to see you”.

“I’ve got your usual room all ready”, my mother said to her. She smiled at Owen; “You’re still just as cheeky as you ever were, Owen Foster!” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you, Mrs. M.”, he replied; “I’ll take that as a compliment. We’ll help carry Tom and Emma’s stuff inside”.

“Thank you – that would be very kind”.

And so we all went inside, and Emma grinned when she saw the spiral staircase; “Just like I remembered!” We took our bags and boxes up to our rooms, and then my mother turned to Owen and Lorraine; “Will you join us for a cup of that tea?”

Owen shook his head with a grin. “It’s kind of you Mrs. M., but Andrew and Katie are at my mum and dad’s and they can be a bit boisterous after a while, so I think we’d better go and pick them up”.

“Some time soon then? I’ll look forward to hearing you and Tom play together again”.

He nodded; “Absolutely”, he replied, bending down to kiss her on the cheek. He grinned at me; “See you later, then”.

“Thanks”, I said; “and thank you, Lorraine”.

“No trouble”, she replied with a smile, and Owen winked at Emma and said “Make sure your dad behaves himself!”

“I will. Are you guys going to be home for the next few days?”

“As far as I know; have you got something in mind?”

Emma grinned; “Well, I like Andrew and Katie you know!”

“Come over any time you like; just give us a ring to make sure someone’s in”.

“I’ll do that!”

My mother left us alone in our rooms for a few minutes while we ‘freshened up’, as she called it. I splashed cold water on my face, changed into a clean shirt and then went down the hall to Emma’s room. It was in the old servants’ section at the back of the house, but it had been beautifully redecorated as a guest room and it had an excellent view out over the apple orchard. I knocked lightly on the door and heard Emma answer “Come in”. She was standing at her window looking out over the trees and the fields below, a faraway look in her eyes. “I’d forgotten what a magical place this is”, she said quietly.

“Do you still like the grounds?”

“I love them; can we go out and look around?”

“In a while, but first we need to go drink that tea we asked Grandma to make for us, and then before too long it’ll be time to eat”. I kissed her on the top of her head; “So this room’s still okay for you, then?”

She turned from the window and surveyed her surroundings. The ceilings were lower in the old servants’ quarters, giving the rooms a cosy feeling; the wallpaper was quiet and tasteful, the curtains at the window simple and elegant. The single bed had a polished antique wood headboard, with a matching bedside table on the window side.

“It’s great”, she said; “It always has been”.

At that moment there was a knock on the door and Becca slipped into the room, dressed in a summer skirt and loose top, a warm smile on her face; “There you are!” she said.

Emma laughed with delight, and the next moment the two of them were hugging, kissing each other on the cheek, leaning back to smile at each other and then hugging again. I grinned at them; “Didn’t you two see each other a month ago?”

“Don’t be rude, Tommy”, Becca replied mischievously, coming over to me and giving me a hug and a kiss; “I’m allowed to be glad to see my niece”.

“Yes, you are. Are you glad to see your brother, too?”

“Very glad”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic smile; “You look a little tired there!”

“You know me and planes!”

“Are you staying for supper, Auntie Becca?” asked Emma.

“Absolutely, and Rick and his family will be here in a little while too. And tomorrow’s Saturday and I’ve got the day off, so if you want you and I can spend the day together”.

Emma laughed; “What’s the plan?”

“Anything you like. Coffee at a fancy café, sightseeing in Oxford, walking – it’s up to you”.

“That’s if she’s still awake and over her jet lag”, I observed with a grin.

“I’ll be awake,” said Emma. “Will you be alright without me, Dad?”

“Absolutely; I may even do a bit of wandering around myself”.

“Anyway”, said Becca, “I was sent up here to summon you to the living room for tea. When the rest of the family arrives we’ll move into the dining room for dinner”.

“Right”, I said with a grin; “Are you ready, Emma Dawn?”

“I am!”

“Lead the way, Doctor Masefield”, I said to Becca.

My brother and his family arrived a little later than expected, at about six forty-five. Rick had obviously come straight from work; he had removed his jacket and tie but was still wearing his suit pants and white shirt. Emma and Sarah greeted each other warmly; Sarah introduced Emma to Eric and Anna, and Eric smiled and said, “You’re a bit shorter than I thought you would be!”

“I take after my mom, so I’ve been told”.

“I don’t really remember her very well. She didn’t seem especially short to me – but then I would have been shorter, too, I suppose”.

They talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then Emma turned to my mother and said, “Do you mind if us kids go up to my room for a few minutes, Grandma?”

“Of course not; we’ll probably be starting dinner just after seven o’clock”.

Sarah glanced at Alyson; “Is that alright?”

“Go on”, Alyson replied with a grin; “We’ll call you when we’re going to eat!”

I smiled at Rick, gesturing toward his formal clothes; “You didn’t have to dress up for me, you know!”

“I had a late afternoon meeting, so I didn’t have time to change…”

At that moment I heard a buzz from his pocket; he reached in and pulled out a Blackberry, frowned at the screen for a second and then put the phone to his ear. “Excuse me”, he said apologetically, turning to leave the living room; “I’ve got to take this”.

I grinned at Alyson; “Well, that was a quick visit!”

“Sorry; there’s something going on and I’m not quite sure what it is!”

We ate in the dining room with the French windows open to let in the warm evening air. The room was elegantly furnished with an antique dining suite; there were a couple of paintings on the walls and a formal sideboard on which to place the food. My mother and father sat at each end of the table; Rick and I sat on either side of our father, with Alyson beside Rick and Emma beside me. Becca sat on the other side of Emma, and Rick’s three children on either side of my mother.

While we were filling our plates Eric turned to his mother and said, “Mum, Emma’s got a Martin!”

Alyson looked at him quizzically; “I take it that’s a guitar of some sort?”

“It used to be Dad’s”, Emma explained; “He gave it to me not long after Mom died”.

“It’s a 1970 Martin 000-18”, I added; “It’s a fairly good guitar. You might remember it”, I said to Rick; “I bought it about the time I went up to Oxford”.

He shook his head; “I’m afraid I wasn’t taking much notice of your musical instruments at the time, bro”.

“Well, it sounds brilliant!” said Eric; “She let me play it, too”.

Emma grinned at me; “He’s pretty good – you should hear him play ‘Come on in My Kitchen’”.

I raised my eyebrows at Eric; “You play Robert Johnson songs?”

“I think Robert Johnson was brilliant!”

“How did you learn about him?”

“I heard one of his songs on the radio a couple of years ago; that’s why I wanted to learn to play guitar. Do you play his music?”

“No, but I know about him; he’s influenced a lot of people”. I looked across the table at Rick and Alyson; “You didn’t tell me this guy was into 1930s delta blues singers!”

Rick shrugged disinterestedly; “Sorry – I don’t know much about that kind of thing”.

I smiled at him; “Surely you’re not still listening to Mott the Hoople and Slade, are you?”

“It gets worse”, Alyson replied with a mischievous smile; “When he thinks there’s no one in the house, he occasionally plays his old Gary Glitter singles”.

Becca looked at Rick with a bemused expression on her face; “I vaguely remember you having some Bay City Rollers LPs, too”.

“He’s still got them”, Alyson confirmed, “but he doesn’t dare play them when the children are around!”

“What on earth are you people talking about?” my father asked.

“Our misspent youth”, I replied; “Apparently there’s still more to my brother than a suit and a Blackberry”.

My mother was looking at Rick affectionately; “I never had much success getting you interested in classical piano, did I?”

“Not for want of trying”, he replied, and at that moment his Blackberry buzzed again in his pocket.

“Can’t you turn that thing off?” asked Becca.

“I’m afraid not”, he replied, putting it to his ear as he got to his feet; “This is rather a big contract. Sorry, Mum – excuse me”.

I had been shocked when I first saw my father again. His hair by now was completely gone, which I had expected, but I also noticed that his skin colour had faded, the lines on his face were deeper and his voice was even thinner than it had been at Easter. He ate very little of his food, pecking at it disinterestedly, putting his knife and fork down when he asked Rick the occasional work-related question. He paid very little attention to the conversation of his grandchildren – partly, I suspected, because he couldn’t hear them very well – but Rick’s three children were obviously used to this and they continued to talk amongst themselves and with Emma. By the time my mother was serving the coffee and dessert Emma was talking to her cousins about our extended family in Meadowvale and the other people she was close to there; it was at that point that eleven-year old Anna, who had been mainly quiet so far, looked across at her with a little frown and said, “Did you ever wish you had a brother or sister?”

Alyson put her hand on her daughter’s arm; “Maybe we should talk about something else”, she said quietly.

“It’s alright”, Emma assured her; “I don’t mind”. She glanced at me, as if to make sure I was okay with the conversation, and then turned back to Anna. “I did wonder occasionally what it would be like to have a brother or sister, I guess, but I didn’t really think about it very much. And I had four cousins real close, and all my second and third cousins – I have so many of them I have a hard time keeping track!”

“It’s a really big family”, Becca explained to Anna; “Emma’s Grandpa’s got seven brothers and sisters”.

“And Kelly’s mum was one of seven siblings too”, I added. I smiled at Anna; “Sometimes we have family reunions but we have to hire the community hall for them because so many people come”.

“They have family reunions, do they?” Rick asked; “People actually attend that sort of thing?”

“Yes, they’re very popular in Saskatchewan”.

“What exactly does one do at a family reunion?”.

My mother was passing cups of coffee around; I paused to accept one from her, and Emma said, “We actually just had one at the beginning of July”.

“What did you do?” asked Rick.

“On the Friday night we had a huge supper at the community hall; there were about three hundred people there, so there was like, a whole lot of food! We had a big family tree up on the wall with all kinds of photographs, and we’d asked people to bring more, so that was fun – people kept adding pictures all weekend. The first night we had a kind of barn dance – but not in a barn, of course!” She smiled at me; “Dad was one of the musicians”.

Rick grinned at me; “I didn’t know you played danceable music, bro!”

“Yeah, but not ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘Stayin’ Alive’!”

“What sort of thing were you playing?”

“Mainly bluegrass. Ellie Reimer got me into that a long time ago; back in the nineties I was in a band with her and our friend Darren Peterson. We don’t play together very much any more but we had a bit of a reunion for this event”.

“A reunion for a family reunion!” said Becca.

“I guess so”.

Rick leaned back a little in his chair, taking a sip of his coffee; “Tell us more about the proceedings, Emma”.

She shrugged; “There’s not much more to tell really. On Saturday we had a pancake breakfast in the morning and a softball tournament in the afternoon, and then in the evening we had another big meal. Some of the people hadn’t seen each other in a long time so there was a lot of visiting and conversation. On Sunday some of us went to church together, and then in the early afternoon there was another meal – like I said, there was a lot of eating! After that people started to head for home”.

“And these were all Reimers, were they?”

“Actually”, I said, “it was a Wiens family reunion – Kelly’s mum’s family”.

“There were some Reimers there too though”, Emma added.

“I guess so; there’s been more than one marriage between the two families over the years”.

“And the Janzens and Robinsons”.

I grinned; “Yeah, I guess pretty well every family in Meadowvale has been connected with the Wiens’ at some point!”

Eric, who had been listening carefully, said, “It must be very different to have a family that big, with all those distant relatives, and to have them actually come together all at once. I don’t think our family has ever done that, have they?”

“I don’t know whether to be happy or sad!” Rick replied sarcastically; “I find some of our relatives hard to take when they come in ones and twos, let alone in packs!”

“But don’t you think it would be interesting? I mean, the only cousins I’ve got are Ewan and David and Emma, and it’s not like we see each other very often”. He smiled at Emma and me; “It must be rather nice to be part of a big family like that”.

“I like it”, I agreed.

Emma grinned at me; “I guess you and Mom kind of met at a family gathering, didn’t you? Not as big as a family reunion, but…”

I laughed. “I thought it was big enough at the time; little did I know what I was in for!”

“When was that?” asked Sarah.

“October 1982; I had moved to Meadowvale that summer, and Kelly’s dad was the principal at my school. He and his wife were always inviting me over for meals and in October they invited me round to their place for Thanksgiving dinner. There were a few others there: Joe and Ellie had just gotten engaged, and Krista – that’s Kelly’s younger sister – was home from university. And there was also Kelly’s grandma Reimer and her grandma and grandpa Weins, and her uncle David and his wife Anna. And there was Kelly; she was working as a nurse in Jasper at the time but she had come home for a few days over Thanksgiving. So that’s when we met”.

“How long after that did you get married?” Sarah asked.

“Two years, almost to the day; we were married on Thanksgiving weekend in 1984”.

“My brother, the hopeless romantic”, Rick observed with a grin, draining his coffee cup just in time for his Blackberry to buzz again.

“Are you choreographing that?” asked Becca.

He shook his head apologetically at my mother as he got to his feet and put the phone to his ear again; “Richard Masefield”, he said.

Much later on, I was sitting up in my bed reading by the light of a single bedside lamp when I heard a quiet knock on my door.

“Come on in”, I said.

The door opened slightly and Emma slipped into the room, dressed in her old cotton pyjama bottoms and a dark blue tee-shirt, her hair tied back in a pony tail. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a minute?” she asked.

“Of course not”.

She came and sat down on the bed, glancing at the book in my hands. “Is that a new Wendell Berry book?”

“Yes”.

“What’s it called?”

Jayber Crow”.

“I haven’t tried Wendell Berry yet”.

“I think you’d like him. He’s a good poet, too – that might be a good place to start”.

“I’ll have to have a look when your books get here”.

“For sure”.

She was quiet for a moment, her eyes down, and eventually I said, “Something bothering you?”

She shook her head; “Not really. It’s just that – well, I liked talking about Mom at the table, but afterwards I felt a little sad”.

“Me too”.

“So I thought I’d come and sit with you for a minute”.

“I’m glad you did”.

She leaned forward, kissed me on the forehead and said, “Uncle Rick’s really taken up with work, isn’t he?”

“Well, he’s a senior partner in a busy law firm”.

“Is that what it was like with Grandpa when you guys were kids?”

“There were no Blackberries in those days”.

“I guess not”.

“But he always brought work home, and sometimes the phone would ring for him”.

“That must have gotten annoying after a while”.

I shrugged; “I bring stuff home with me two or three nights a week, too”.

“Yeah, but you leave it down in your office when you’re done, and you always make time to do things with me”.

“Well, I’ve probably spent my life trying not to be like my dad”.

“He’s really not looking too good, is he?”

I shook my head; “I think he’s had seven chemo treatments now, with a little break after the third and the sixth, and he’s due another one in a couple of weeks”.

“How many does he have to have?”

“I don’t think there’s really an end in sight; I think they’re just doing their best to control the cancer. A lot will depend on how much his body can take”.

“That’s got to be tough”.

“Yes”.

She pulled her legs up on the bed, hugged her knees under her chin, and smiled at me; “I like my cousins”.

“Good”.

“They’re all different from each other”.

“They are, aren’t they?”

“You and Uncle Rick are different, too”.

“Yes, we are”. I frowned; “I remember one of the times we were here visiting while your mum was still alive. Grandma had arranged for everyone to get together here for a meal a day or two before we went home. I have a very vivid memory of watching your mum walking on the grass with Alyson, obviously deep in conversation, while Rick and I were struggling to find things to talk about”.

She put her hand on mine; “That’s sad”.

“Yes, it is. Most of the time I don’t think about it, with us living so far away”.

“Not so far any more”.

“No – for a little while, anyway”.

She stifled a yawn. “Okay, I’m really sleepy, but I just wanted to come and make sure you were okay”.

“I’m fine, love; thanks for checking on me, though”.

“You’re welcome”. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead; “Goodnight”, she said.

“Goodnight, sweetheart”.

She smiled at me again, then got up and slipped quietly out of the room.

********

Link to Chapter 5

What Happens To Us After We Die? (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave? Human beings have always pondered that question.

The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. In the Nicene Creed – which goes back in its earliest form to the fourth century A.D. – we say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. But what does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?

Not surprisingly, the early Christians asked these questions just like we do. One of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; many scholars think it was written around 50 A.D., about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-believers who had died: were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other with these words.

Now that’s an odd answer, isn’t it? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about going to heaven. But Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?

I find it helpful to try to figure out what question the Thessalonian Christians were asking Paul. When you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, it seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our brother and sister Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’

Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul deals with that issue. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?

Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. Apparently Paul didn’t actually say ‘died’ – he said ‘fallen asleep’: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. This is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ.

Why do the biblical authors use this ‘sleep’ metaphor? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead.

But the second reason is more important: sleep is temporary. The sleepers are going to wake up! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.

From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?

A lot of people are surprised to hear that the New Testament doesn’t actually have a lot to say about ‘dying and going to heaven’ – if by ‘heaven’ you mean ‘a non-physical existence far away from this earth where we will live a life forever as disembodied spirits’. That idea actually comes more from Greek philosophy, not Jesus and his apostles. Christian teaching about life after death is different; we stand up week by week and say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – our bodies, that is, not just Jesus’ body.

But what about heaven? Well, you can make strong arguments from the New Testament for two different points of view. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it! The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know for sure which of these views is the right one, and I don’t worry about it, because the thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – the life after life after death – is the coming resurrection.

So let’s go back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul says,

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).

Now I need to say at this point how easy it is for modern people like us to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, being caught up in the clouds, meeting the Lord in the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, but I don’t think the earliest readers would have done that. Paul was using the symbolic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature – literature that was designed to bring hope to people who were oppressed and were looking for God’s intervention for a better future.

Apocalyptic literature had well-known codes. For instance, if you were an early Christian and you were listening as someone read from the book of Revelation or the book of Daniel, you’d hear a lot of talk about ferocious beasts. You’d know right away that they weren’t literal beasts; they were symbols for evil empires. That’s how apocalyptic literature worked. In the same way, back in the early 1980s, if you saw a political cartoon in the newspaper with a bear in it, you knew it wasn’t meant to be a literal bear: it was a symbol for the Soviet Union. A man with a top hat with the stars and stripes was ‘Uncle Sam’, the U.S.A. If you didn’t know the code you’d be confused, but if you did, you’d understand.

The problem nowadays is that when we read this kind of thing in the Bible we don’t know the code. So in today’s passage we don’t realize that when Paul talked about the sounding of the trumpet and going to meet the Lord in the air, he was using the symbolism of a royal visit, or even a coronation. If the Roman emperor came to visit Thessalonica, the leading citizens of the city would go out to meet him with great pomp and ceremony, with fanfares and the sound of trumpets. But they wouldn’t stay out there with him – they’d lead him back into the city to meet his other subjects there.

This is what Paul is talking about. Jesus is Lord of all, Lord of heaven and earth. At the moment his reign is hidden, but one day it will be revealed. Paul uses the symbolism of clouds and sky because it was the most exalted symbolism available to him, and also because it was used in the Old Testament for the same thing. But the idea isn’t that the true believers are snatched up to be with the Lord so they can spend the rest of eternity floating around with him in the sky. In the Book of Revelation, when the last day comes the City of God descends from heaven to earth. We’re not escaping from the world; we’re welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of love, as God’s anointed King of all creation! And when he comes, or when he appears, he will bring others with him: those who have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and are now awakened to share with him in his eternal kingdom.

In other words, our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. And that future will involve bodies and matter, not just souls and spirits. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world. No: the Bible tells us God is going to ‘make all things new’; God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.

Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. For instance, I’ve sometimes been asked ‘Where are we going to put everyone?’ After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? I don’t have an answer for that question, except to say that there are a lot of things God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of us to speculate.

What we do know is that the Christian hope is about the renewal of this world.  It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; the last word will be God’s word, not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth God will make his home among us and live with us forever. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; and God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).

That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We don’t pretend death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they don’t need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). People who don’t have the hope of resurrection grieve because they see death as the final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.

You and I, and our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ, have been promised that we will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God!

‘A Time to Mend’, Chapter 3

Link back to Chapter 2

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 third chapter.

I landed at Heathrow Airport on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon. Becca was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge, standing on the edge of the crowd and waving furiously in my direction; twelve years my junior and slightly shorter than me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders. I walked over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss; “Hello, you!” she said.

“Happy Easter, Becs”.

“Same to you. You look tired; here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”

“She’s fine; she drove me to the airport yesterday”.

“Oh right – I keep forgetting she’s got a driving license now!”

“I know; doesn’t seem that long since she was a baby, does it?”

“No”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic grin; “You really do look wiped out there, Tommy! Do you want to pick up a coffee for the road?”

“That would be great”.

“Come on, then – there’s a coffee shop in the corner over there”.

We lined up for a few minutes to get our coffees, and then made our way out of the terminal building into the spring sunshine and across to the multi-story car park. We took an elevator to the top level, where we found Becca’s little Renault squeezed between two bigger cars; she opened the doors, threw my bag in the back and said, “In you get, then”.

I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “Oh”, she said, “before I forget – Owen told me to remind you to ring him some time this evening; they’re not leaving until first thing in the morning”.

“Right – he mentioned that”. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in Headington for many years, was a senior partner at the medical practice where Becca worked. I had hoped to get a chance to see him while I was in England, but it had turned out that he and his family were going to France for a few days during the Easter holidays.

Becca started the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove down toward the exit ramp. I took a sip of my coffee; “Any news about dad?”

She shrugged; “He’s lost a lot of weight and he gets tired quickly, but none of that’s especially new”.

“When’s his next chemo treatment?”

“Tuesday; this will be his third”.

“How’s it going?”

“I think he’s finding it harder than he expected – especially the nausea”.

“I expect he just takes himself off to his room when he’s feeling sick, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah; he lets Mum help him, but I’m not allowed anywhere near him when he’s like that, and I’m sure no one else is either”.

“No trouble with infections so far?”

“No, but they’re going to have to be very careful about that; it’s harder on older people. And there’s another problem too – he’s in denial”. She pulled the car up to the ticket machine, paid for her parking and then pulled out onto Cromer Road. “He’s still trying to downplay it all”, she continued; “I’ve heard him say several times that he’s just got to get through the chemo and then he’ll be fine”. She shrugged; “I don’t know if he really believes that, but it’s the line he takes when he’s talking to anyone”.

“Including Mum?”

“Yes”.

“That’s got to be hard for her”.

“I would think so”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her frown thoughtfully. “Did you and Kelly talk honestly about her cancer, Tommy? Right from the start?”

“We did the second time. The first time she ignored the symptoms for a while”.

“Right – I remember that”.

“She was worried, but she didn’t want to tell me or anyone else for fear she’d have to leave Emma and go into hospital. But the second time around we’d learned our lesson; we were honest with each other from day one”.

“It just took you a bit longer to tell everyone else”.

I nodded; it had been a sore point between us at the time. “She didn’t want to tell a lot of other people until she was sure of the diagnosis”.

“I get it, Tommy, I really do. I didn’t at the time, but I do now”. She reached across suddenly and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry; let’s change the subject, shall we?”

I glanced at her; “You okay?”

She nodded; “I am. It’s just that every now and again…”

“I know”.

For a moment neither of us spoke; I sipped at my coffee, and she steered the car down through the tunnel under the runway and out the other side, heading north toward the M4. I watched as the cars sped by in both directions, and then I said, “I guess Dad doesn’t go into the office anymore?”

“No, and Rick’s glad about that; ever since Dad retired Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone”. My younger brother had followed the career path my father had wanted for me; he was now a senior partner at my father’s old law firm.

“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?” I said.

“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on! But on a happier subject – two interviews this week?”

“Yes – Headington and Cowley. I’ve already done phone interviews for Reading and High Wycombe”.

“That one in Headington – isn’t that where you did your first student placement?”

“Yes. It seems like a long time ago now”.

“You’re such an old man, Tommy!”

“I know; I get regular reminders of the fact from Emma!”.

“It must be a bit strange to think about going back there”.

“A little. It was a reasonably good experience, but of course a lot will have changed in twenty-two years”.

“I’ll be hoping for that one or Cowley; it would be nice if you were close by”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How are you feeling about this move? Are you sad?”

“I am. I don’t think I really believed it until I started getting involved in the interview process, but now it’s starting to sink in. I know nothing’s certain yet, and I know if I’m successful there’ll be lots of good things about living in the U.K. again, but to be honest, at the moment I’m strongly tempted to intentionally mess up the interviews”.

“I know”, she said quietly, “and I understand”.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to be closer to you and Mum, of course”.

“I know. What about Emma; how’s she feeling?”

“She’s excited about being here for a longer period of time. She likes the idea of getting a closer look at her English roots, and she wants to be able to spend some time with Mum and Dad too. But there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.

“Of course”.

“She’s relieved that we’re not planning to sell the house; it gives us a tangible link with home”.

“Right. And then there’s her nursing training”.

“She still wants to do that, whether it’s here or back home”.

“I was talking to her about that last week. She really likes volunteering at the special care home, doesn’t she?”.

“She does; I could easily see her making a career in geriatric nursing. But to be honest I think she could do any kind of nursing she wanted”.

“Well, there’ll always be a need for nurses in England. Even if the move here turned out to be permanent, she’d probably never be short of a job”.

“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.

“I understand; one day at a time”.

  • * * * * *

I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had actually preserved few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. It was in Northwood that I had formed my friendship with Owen; it was Northwood and the surrounding countryside that he and I had explored as teenagers; it was in Northwood that we had learned to play guitar together and had shared some of the most formative conversations of my early life. It was true that the emotional dynamics of my home life there had been complicated, but I still had a deep sense of connection with the village itself and the countryside around it.

It was a community of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames Valley just north of the town of Wallingford. It was strangely elongated; the southern area was built beside the river, but the village narrowed around the main street as it ran north-east, and then widened out again into a northern part which was almost a second community. The northern part, where my parents lived, was actually the original village of Northwood; it had expanded toward the river in the eighteenth century when the bridge across the Thames was built, with the Kingfisher Inn beside it.

We crossed the bridge at around three-thirty, driving north on the high street and passing the old 15th century church on the west side of the village green. We turned east at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of a few familiar buildings and the addition of some new ones. About half a mile further on, we turned right onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, most of it now converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.

Becca pulled the car up by the front door and turned off the engine. “Well, here we are”, she said, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.

I looked up and saw my mother emerging from the front door; she had put on a wool cardigan before coming outside to greet us, and I noticed immediately how tired she looked, and how white her hair had turned since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral. I opened the car door and got out to meet her; “Hello, Mum”, I said.

“Hello, Tom; welcome home”.

I put my arms around her to give her a hug; “Happy Easter”.

“Happy Easter to you, too”.

Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”

“Alright this afternoon; he had a good nap earlier on. Shall we go inside?”

We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room; it was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the two outside walls providing plenty of light. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand. “So you finally came home again”, he said; “It took you long enough”.

His voice was not as strong as I remembered. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, his few remaining wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.

“How are you, Dad?” I asked.

“Not dead yet, at any rate”. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”

“Oh, I don’t know – Scotch, I guess”.

He looked at me over his shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. “Well? Do you want it or not?”

“Sure – yes please”.

“Becca? Dry sherry?”

“Yes please, Dad”.

He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield. “So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”

“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.

“Her hair’s getting long again”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one and passed them to my father.

“Well, it’s been over two years now”. Emma had shaved her head along with her mother when Kelly’s hair had started to fall out from chemotherapy. Kelly had protested, but Emma had insisted and I had sided with her, knowing how badly she needed to feel she was doing something to show solidarity with her mum.

“Are these recent?” my mother asked.

“Just a month ago”.

“She looks more like Kelly all the time”.

“That’s what I always think”, Becca replied softly.

“Good heavens!” my mother exclaimed, pointing at one of the photographs; “Is that Jenna?”

“Yes it is”.

“She’s certainly shot up in the last couple of years, hasn’t she? Look at this, Frank”.

My father glanced at the photographs as she handed them to him. “She takes after her mother too, doesn’t she?” he said.

“She does”, I agreed, “and Jake’s more like his dad”.

“A month ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.

“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.

He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years”.

“It comes and goes; in Meadowvale they still think I sound English”.

He handed the pictures back to my mother; “Two interviews this week, then?” he asked.

“Yes, one at Gypsy Lane School in Headington, and one in Cowley; I’ve already done two by phone”.

“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, said my mother.

“You could live here”, my father suggested.

“I could, or I could start out here and then look for a place of my own once I get my feet on the ground”.

“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here; on your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy; living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.

“I’m not thinking of selling or buying; I’d be making enough on a teacher’s salary to be able to afford to rent a small house, and I can supplement that with the money I make on renting out our place back home”.

He shook his head. “Renting is never a good idea; you’re paying out money and getting nothing in return. If you’re not going to buy, you’d be far better to stay here”.

“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Becca spoke. “Are Rick and his family still coming for supper?”

My mother nodded; “I hope you don’t mind, Tom? I thought it would be nice for us to have a family gathering, with it being a holiday today”.

“Of course not. I wouldn’t mind catching a nap before they come, though; it was a long trip, and as you know I’m not especially good at sleeping on planes”.

“That would be fine; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.

“Maybe after I’m done this drink I’ll go up and get settled in”.

  • * * * * *

A few minutes later I excused myself, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory, not so much from my childhood years as from the times that Kelly and I had stayed in this room together; we had come to Northwood three times over the years as a married couple, twice in summer and once for a shorter period at Christmas. I put my bag down on the bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the lawn with the brick wall of the orchard off to the left; she and I had stood side by side at this same window many times during our last visit in the summer of 1997, and for a brief moment the sense of her presence was so strong that I almost felt I could reach out and put my arm around her.

I heard a quiet knock on the door, and as I turned Becca slipped into the room. She came over and put her hand on my arm; “I just came up to make sure you were okay”.

“Thank you; I’m fine”.

She kissed me gently on the cheek, smiled at me, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. But you’re a good woman, Becca Masefield”.

She shook her head; “I don’t know about that”.

I went over to the bed and began to unpack my bag; “Are you working tomorrow?”

“No, I don’t start again until Tuesday, and I’m not on call either; I did my bit Good Friday and yesterday”.

“Are you staying out here, then?”

“Just tonight; I’m going home tomorrow after supper”.

“Maybe some time tomorrow we could wander down to the Kingfisher for a pint?”

“I’d like that”. She smiled at me; “Okay, I’m going to leave you to rest now”.

“I just need half an hour with my head down on my pillow; after that I’ll come down and help you and Mum with supper, or do whatever you like”.

“Alright, then, sleepyhead”, she said with a mischievous grin; “See you in a bit”.

  • * * * * *

My brother and his family arrived just before six; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up to the front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the room. Rick had let his hair grow a little since the last time I had seen him; it was beginning to turn grey, and his face seemed pale and thin, but he gave me a warm smile as he shook my hand; “Welcome home”, he said.

“Thanks; it’s good to see you”.

I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in jeans and a sweater; she worked as a researcher for a wildlife conservation unit in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well; they had never visited us in Canada, and even on our last trip to England we had not seen very much of them. Eric was tall and thin like his father, while the girls tended to take after Alyson.

My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. When we were all sitting down my mother glanced at me with a smile; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”, she said.

So my pictures made the rounds again. Anna, glancing at one that had been taken at the old Reimer farm a couple of weeks ago, said, “I didn’t know she rode horses”.

“She’s been riding since she was a little girl”, I replied.

“Was this taken at a riding school?”

“No, it’s the old farm where Emma’s grandpa grew up. We still have relatives out there”.

“So this is one of their horses she’s riding?”

“Yes”.

Sarah spoke in a quiet voice; “How old is she now?”

“She turned seventeen in December”.

“Is she doing A-levels or something?”

“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve in June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.

“Will she be going to uni?”

“Yes”.

“What does she want to do?”

“She wants to be a nurse”.

“What else does she like to do?” Anna asked.

“She likes outdoor things – hiking and canoeing and cross-country skiing. She reads a lot too, and she plays guitar”.

My brother gave me a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”.

Alyson glanced at her son; “Eric started to play guitar a couple of years ago”.

“I’m not very good yet”, Eric replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick; “I expect he’s got a guitar hiding around here somewhere”.

“Actually, no”, I replied; “I’m only here for a week, so I left it behind”.

“You surprise me, bro – I thought you were inseparable from that thing!”

“I must admit I don’t often part with it, but it seemed easier not to bring it this time”.

“Do you and Emma play the same kind of music?” asked Sarah.

“Some, but she’s got likes and dislikes of her own too”.

“I should email her; it’s weird that she’s my cousin and I hardly know her”.

“She’d like that; I’ll give you her email address”.

My mother got to her feet; “Well, the food’s almost ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table”.

  • * * * * *

After supper my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. The evening sun was close to the horizon; the sky had cleared and the temperature was dropping. We skirted the flowerbeds in silence; at the bottom of the garden Rick glanced at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, then?”

“I am”.

“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” I saw the mischievous grin on his face.

“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going, by the way?”

“Very well. We’ve got about twenty-five people now, partners and solicitors and so on, and we’ve started to build a rather good name for ourselves nationally”.

“You must be squeezed tight in that office”.

“We actually bought the place next door a couple of years ago so that we could expand, but we really need to move out of the city centre. We could lease a much more functional property down at the Oxford business park, but of course the old man won’t hear of it”.

“I thought Dad was retired?”

“Yes, but until a few months ago he was still coming in two or three times a week; he was constantly interfering with the day-to-day running of the place, not to mention long-term decision-making. We’ve had several opportunities to merge with national firms – which would have been really good for our business – but in his mind Masefield and Marlowe is still an old Oxford chamber and he wants to keep it that way”.

“Does he actually have a say in the matter, though? Surely, if he’s retired…?”

“There are ten partners; all he needs to be able to do is influence six, and of course the majority of them go back to his time. If he wants to make an issue of something it’s not hard for him to get his own way”.

“That must be frustrating”.

“You could say that”.

“I suppose Jack Marlowe’s retired now too?”

“He is, and he’s a lot better at it than the old man; I honestly believe there are days when Dad thinks I haven’t got a clue”.

“He has an enduring habit of trying to control our lives”.

My brother gave a short laugh; “Well put! We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We ambled along in silence for a moment in the fading light, our hands in our pockets, and then he said, “If you move back here we’ll have to invite you over to the house for a meal some time”.

“That would be nice. How long is it now that you’ve been in the new place?”

“A couple of years”.

“I vaguely remember hearing about it after the fact, but of course I was a little preoccupied at the time”.

“I know”.

“I remember last time we were here you were having renovations done on your old place so you could sell it and make some money on it”.

“God, yes! That was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually we got it done. We’ve got a nice property now out at Cumnor Hill: newish house, six bedrooms and a couple of reception rooms, big garden, lots of trees. Good neighbourhood, too”.

“Pretty swanky out there, as I recall”.

He shrugged; “I suppose so. You’ve got to have money to live there but it’s comfortable and the children like it, and I’m not worried about crime or gangs or drugs or student parties or anything like that”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

He was quiet for a moment as we skirted a line of rose bushes, and then he said, “So what’s made you think of coming back after all these years? I always got the impression you saw the move to Meadowvale as permanent?”

“I did”.

“What’s changed?”

“I’d like have another try at making things right with Dad while I still can”.

He looked at me incredulously; “You want to make up with him? The old man’s not the reconciling sort, you know”.

“I know. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance I want to give it a try”.

“You’re serious about this?”

“I am”.

He shook his head in disbelief; “Well, that’s put me in my place. I was sure you were thinking about the will”.

I was astonished; “The will?”

“Yes; Dad’s got a considerable sum of money stashed away, you know”.

“I assumed he’d leave everything to Mum”.

“I’m sure most of it will go to her, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a smaller amount for each of us, too”.

“I can honestly say I hadn’t even thought of that; until you mentioned it, it never even occurred to me”.

“No, I believe you”, he said apologetically, “and now that we’re talking about it I can’t for the life of me imagine how I could have thought such a thing”. He glanced at me with a sheepish grin; “Sorry, bro – I spend far too much time with millionaires and lawyers. Everyone I know thinks money’s what makes the world go around – the more of it the better”.

“Well, I’ve always known that’s the way Dad thinks, so I can’t really hold it against you”.

“But I should have remembered that you don’t think like that; you’re the least worldly person I know”. He laughed softly again. “I think you’re a romantic dreamer, of course; you always have been, but greedy you’re not”.

“Well, I was lucky that my romantic dreams came true – at least for a while”.

He gave me a sideways glance, his face suddenly serious; “I’m really sorry about Kelly”. He shook his head again; “I know I should have written or called or something, but to tell you the honest truth I never know what to say in that sort of situation. What on earth does one say?”

“There’s really nothing to say”.

We strolled along in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the birds in the treetops as the sun got close to the horizon. Eventually he spoke again; “So is there a plan?”

“A plan?”

“For fixing things with Dad”.

“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to be as helpful as I can”.

“Is Emma looking forward to it?”

“I think so; she likes England and she wants to help Mum and Dad if she can. Of course, she’s going to miss Meadowvale”.

“Totally understandable. She’s a good kid, Becca tells me”.

“Yes she is. And your three? They were quiet at the table tonight”.

“They like Mum, but Dad can be a bit intimidating”.

“Of course”.

“They’re doing well though, for the most part”.

“Sarah’s growing up fast”.

“Yes she is; turning a few heads already, so I’m told, although of course she’s still only fourteen”.

“She’s got a birthday coming up soon, right?”

“She has”. He grinned at me; “I’m impressed – I’m not much for remembering those kinds of things myself, as you know”.

“Well, I was married to a girl who thought family was really important”.

“Emma must have her admirers too?”

“She had a boyfriend for a while but he broke up with her just after Christmas. She’s known him since she was eleven and they were dating for over a year, so she was pretty sad about it”.

“What happened?”

“He was a year ahead of her, and he went away to university”.

“Someone else caught his eye?”

“That’s what I hear. It’s too bad actually; his mum’s a teaching colleague of mine, Mary Stonechild, so it’s been a little awkward”.

“Small town”.

“Yeah”.

We lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said, “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”

“No. I didn’t notice it right away of course; it came on gradually”. He frowned; “The truth is, I don’t really understand all of it. I don’t understand how he could have had the disease for two or three years without it being noticed”.

“You’ve heard them talk about the difference between indolent and aggressive lymphoma?”

“Yes”.

“Indolent lymphoma isn’t especially dangerous because it doesn’t show many symptoms, but that means that it tends not to be detected until it’s well established. And of course it can turn into aggressive lymphoma, which is what’s happened to Dad”.

He frowned at me; “That’s not what Kelly had, though?”

“No, she had breast cancer. Eventually it moved into her lymph nodes and from there to the bones and the liver, but it wasn’t true lymphoma”.

“Right”.

We ambled along in silence for a couple of minutes, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Eventually he said, “Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I think I’m ready for another drink”.

“Okay”.

  • * * * * *

I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept each day for at least an hour in the early afternoon, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview, and afterwards we went out for lunch at a nearby pub.

My father went into the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on Tuesday for his third chemo injection. As I expected he was fine on Wednesday, but the next day he began to feel seriously nauseous and by the middle of the day he was keeping to his room. My mother spent a lot of time with him, but when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she shook her head and said, “He doesn’t like to be seen like this, Tom”.

“I understand”.

  • * * * * *

On the Friday afternoon I had my interview at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. The head teacher, Siobhan Macnamara, was a dark-haired Irishwoman, a little older than me; she was brisk and businesslike, and in her questions she wasted no time in getting to the point. I saw the head of English, Kathy MacFarlane, smiling furtively at a couple of her head teacher’s comments; she herself took the lead when it came to specific questions about my teaching skills and experience, and I could tell she had read my resumé carefully and been impressed with it. The third person in the room was one of the school governors, but he took very little part in the interview and seemed to be there mainly to listen. I left at the end of the afternoon with a sense that things had gone well and that there was a good possibility I might be successful.

  • * * * * *

My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again on Saturday night; I had spent the afternoon in Oxford with Becca, and it was already about five-thirty by the time we arrived at my parents’ place. Rick and Alyson and their children got there about half an hour later; it had been a working Saturday for my brother, and he was still wearing a dark suit and maroon tie when they came into the living room.

My father was getting over his nausea by now but he was still looking tired and pale. Nevertheless, he insisted on getting up and pouring drinks for everyone; Alyson accepted a glass of sherry from him and then took her seat beside me on the chesterfield. “How did your interviews go?” she asked.

“Alright, I think”.

“I hear you were back on familiar ground yesterday?”

“Yeah; there’ve been a few changes since the last time I was there”.

“How soon will you hear anything?”

“A couple of weeks”.

“Any sense of which way things might go?”

“I thought both interviews went quite well, but of course I’m unfamiliar with the protocol here so I can’t know for sure”.

“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?”

“Well, it’s the Easter holidays so I didn’t actually get to see either school in action. They’re definitely bigger than I’m used to; our school in Meadowvale has about six hundred students, and the one in Headington has fifteen hundred. I know the school culture’s going to be very different, and so is the curriculum; I have to admit that I find that a little daunting”.

“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak or they’ll take advantage of it”.

“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”

“Your pupils, of course”.

I shrugged. “I’ve never viewed teaching as a battleground”.

“You might find things a bit different here”.

“Of course; I’m sure the learning curve will be steep”. I glanced at my brother, who was sitting across from us in a wing chair, nursing a glass of scotch. “You were obviously working today”.

“Yes – I’ve got a client with a very important trial coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re burning the midnight oil getting ready for it”.

“A criminal trial?”

He shook his head. “Commercial”, he replied; “There’s rather a lot of money involved”.

“Are you working on this alone?”

“God, no!” he exclaimed; “There are about five of us on the team. The files already fill dozens of boxes”.

“Do you have to read them all?”

“If I’m going to do a good job for my client”.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eric shaking his head a couple of times, his eyes on the ground. He had refused my mother’s offer of a cup of tea, and was sitting in the corner of the room, obviously rather bored with the proceedings. Sarah was sitting beside him on a hard-backed chair, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she was waiting to catch my eye. I smiled at her; “How are you doing?”

“I’m alright. I emailed Emma”.

“That’s what I hear”.

“She’s read Harry Potter”.

“She has; she’s a big fan. You are too, are you?”

“I’ve read all of them; they’re fantastic!”

“I think there’s another one coming out soon, isn’t there?”

“In July; I can’t wait!”

“Are these those boy wizard books?” my brother asked with a smile.

“‘Boy wizard books!’” Becca quoted with a bemused grin; “Is it possible my brother hasn’t quite registered the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history?”

“Are they really that big? I don’t know anything about them other than the name and that there are wizards and witches in them”.

“They’re well on their way to becoming the best-selling fiction series of all time”, I replied. “Kids have been lining up in bookstores for hours when new titles are released”.

“And there are films”, Becca added; “Highly successful films, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars”.

“Money, Dad”, Eric said sarcastically; “Surely you’ve noticed that?”

Rick glanced at him darkly; “Watch your tongue, Eric Masefield”.

Eric tossed his head dismissively and looked away again. Sarah glanced at him for a moment with a little frown, and then turned back to me. “Anyway”, she said, “I’ve emailed back and forth a couple of times with Emma; she seems really nice”.

“I knew she’d be glad to hear from you”.

“We mainly talked about books”.

“Do you like Ursula Le Guin too?”

“I love A Wizard of Earthsea; it’s my favourite book!”

“Oh yeah? It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, too. I read it when it first came out; I think I was ten or eleven at the time”.

“Have you read her other books?”

“I think I’ve got almost every book she’s written; I think she’s brilliant. Emma really likes her, too”.

“That’s what she told me. But she said she’s reading George Eliot right now; I don’t really know anything about him”.

“‘Her’, actually; ‘George Eliot’ was her pen name, but her real name was Mary Ann Evans. Her stuff is really different from Ursula Le Guin’s”.

“Emma says her books are fantastic”.

Alyson smiled at her daughter; “You’ve found a kindred spirit”.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her; she’s really interesting to talk to”.

  • * * * * *

The following morning, as Becca and I were finishing our coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said, “Rick seems to have inherited Dad’s work ethic in a big way”.

“Well, I can’t really talk there, can I? I’m just as much of a workaholic as either of them”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You know you can”.

“Do you ever see Mike?”

Immediately she looked away. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for about eighteen months and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, they had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me; while they were with us we had taken them camping for a week in Jasper National Park.

“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t really talked since we broke up”.

“Sorry; it’s not really my business”.

“Don’t be silly; you and I don’t keep things from each other. To be honest I’m still finding it hard; the hardest part is knowing it was my fault”.

“You can’t be sure of that”.

“Tommy, spare me the sympathy; you and I have talked about this enough times to know I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. He was tired of being short-changed when it came to time together, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t”. She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.

“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.

“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.

“You’re still in touch with some of your high school friends, right?”

“I swim once a week with Stevie Fredericks, and we always have coffee afterwards”.

“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”

She laughed; “Not for a long time!”

“You two did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.

“We did”. She smiled at me; “Those were good days”.

“Kelly and I had our struggles with being over-busy, you know”.

“She told me that. I found it hard to believe; you always seemed so relaxed when I was with you”.

“That was because you almost always came in the summer time. During the school year it was a lot harder”.

“I know teachers are busy”.

“Yeah, and there were other things too. Kelly was working full time, and we were running the Sunday night group a couple of times a month, and attending a midweek study group at the church, and Ellie and Darren and I were driving down to Saskatoon regularly to play gigs. For a couple of years there we were running so fast that we barely connected with each other from morning to night”.

“But you worked it out?”

“Eventually – I gave up gigging with Ellie and Darren, and Kelly went down to half-time at the special care home. It wasn’t easy though; she loved her work and I loved my music. We had to decide what came first, but it wasn’t black and white; that’s what makes it hard, sometimes”.

She frowned thoughtfully, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Are you telling me that you and Kelly were really in trouble for a while?”

“I’m telling you that we were an ordinary married couple and we had our struggles. Fortunately for us we were able to work through them; if we hadn’t, then yes, we could have been in trouble”.

She drank the rest of her coffee in silence, put the cup down on the saucer and said, “I suppose I always knew you were an ordinary married couple, but…”

“You enjoyed putting us on a pedestal”.

“I suppose I did. Life was pretty chaotic for me here, and coming to Meadowvale was always such a wonderfully restful thing. And of course, Kelly was always so good to me”.

“I have to say, our struggles were more my fault than hers”.

“Why are you telling me this, Tommy?”

“Because I don’t believe in all those neat personality classifications between Type A and Type B people. I think people are people; we all struggle with getting our priorities right and we all fail sometimes”.

She smiled sheepishly at me. “That’s your gentle brotherly way of telling me to quit blaming my Masefield genes and work harder at getting my life under control?”

“No, that’s my gentle brotherly way of saying we’re in this together”. I glanced at my watch. “And speaking of time…”.

“It’s that time, is it?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We got to our feet reluctantly; “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.

“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me. Tell her I’ll see her in a couple of months”.

“I will. You don’t have to stand and watch me go through security, you know?”

She grinned at me mischievously; “But if I leave and then they turn you away at the gate, who’s going to drive you back to Northwood?”

“Well, I guess you have a point there, Doctor Masefield; they might even arrest me and throw me in jail”.

“Exactly! So you’ll let me stand and watch while you go through the line, then?”

“Oh well – if you insist”.

“I do”, she said defiantly, “So let’s go down to the gate, shall we?”

Link to Chapter 4