For the next week we seemed to live at the JR. Starting on Monday Emma was volunteering her mornings at Marston Court; she came home each day and ate a quick lunch with me, and then we went over to the hospital together. My mother was driving into town each day from Northwood; most of the time my father came with her, but on a couple of occasions he was too tired and he stayed home to rest. Most evenings Alyson, Eric, and Anna ate supper at our house or at Becca’s flat, and sometimes my parents joined us as well. During those evening meals I noticed that Emma spent a lot of time talking with Eric and Anna and a couple of times they stayed over for the night, Anna sleeping in Emma’s room and Eric curling up on a mattress in my den.
Sarah came out of her coma on the fifth day, New Year’s Eve. She woke up with a severe headache, nausea, and double vision, and she was immediately terrified. Alyson was not at the hospital at the time, but she was called and she came immediately. Emma and I joined her later; by then Sarah had calmed down a little but she was still in pain, and I could see that Alyson was frantic with worry. The doctor tried to reassure her; “This is not unusual”, he said. “She’s had a severe blow to the head, and the brain will take time to heal. She’s going to be scared, and she needs her family and friends to be calm and comforting”.
One person in our family who was very good at being calm and comforting was my mother, and I watched as she rose to the occasion, despite all her ongoing worries about my father and my brother. For the next few days, whenever she entered Sarah’s room she seemed to bring an aura of tranquility with her; no matter how agitated Sarah was when she arrived, she seemed to calm down visibly in my mother’s presence.
The other person Sarah found reassuring was Emma. They were close enough in age and interests to be able to talk each other’s language, but far enough apart for Sarah to be able to look up to Emma and lean on her a little. Emma knew this, and she quietly began spending more time with her cousin. The two of them were often alone together, and I asked Emma at one point what they did during those times. “Do you read to her, or just talk, or…?”
“Sometimes I read stuff she likes; she’s having trouble focussing on the page and her headaches get worse if she tries to read for long. But mostly we talk. We talk about everything. Actually, a lot of the time she talks and I listen”.
I was as concerned about Sarah as anyone else, but I was also worried about my brother; I knew he was blaming himself for the accident. His mood was quiet and subdued, and I mentioned to Becca one night that I was afraid he was sliding into depression.
“It’s not unexpected”, she replied, sitting across the kitchen table from me with a cup of herbal tea cradled in her hands.
“I know, but it’s hard to watch it happening”.
“Does he talk to you?”
“Sometimes. That first morning he was really open. Now his guard’s back up a bit, but sometimes if I catch him at the right moment he’ll let it down again”.
“I wonder if he’s talking to anyone else?”
“I really don’t know”.
On the evening of the first Friday in January I was feeling very tired. I still had a little work to do in preparation for school, which was beginning again in a couple of days, so I decided to stay home from the hospital that night. After everyone had left I washed the dishes and then made myself some herbal tea and went upstairs to my office. I had been working steadily at my computer for about an hour when the cordless phone rang on the desk beside me; I picked it up automatically and said “Tom and Emma’s”.
“Well, stranger – Happy New Year!”
“Wendy! I’m sorry – I tried to call you a couple of times this week but there was no answer”.
“I know; that’s my fault. We only came home today; we’d planned to come back earlier but Mum wasn’t well”.
“Is she okay?”
“She’s on the mend. She caught a bad cold that went down to her chest, so she was in hospital over Christmas”.
“That doesn’t sound good”.
“Well, she’s seventy-five and she’s been getting frail so I suppose this sort of thing shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does anyway. What about you? How was your Christmas?”
“Christmas was good but after that things went downhill; my brother and his daughter were involved in a serious car accident on Boxing Day”.
“Oh no! Are they alright?”
“They’re both still in hospital. Rick had a broken arm and leg, three broken ribs and a mild concussion. But Sarah’s a lot worse; both her femurs are broken, and her wrist and her collar bone, and she has five broken ribs. Both her lungs were collapsed too, but they seem to be getting better now. When they first brought her in she was in a coma but she came out of it a couple of days ago”.
“How old is she?”
“She turned fifteen back in June”.
“So young! How is she today?”
“Struggling. She still has severe headaches and double vision; I guess it’s going to take a while for the brain to heal. They’ve put a titanium rod in her left leg and they’ve been working on the other fractures too. It’s going to be a long process”.
“I’m so sorry, Tom; I shouldn’t be bothering you at a time like this”.
“You aren’t bothering me; I’m glad to hear from you. I’ve been thinking about you on and off”.
She laughed; “No you haven’t!”
“Actually I have. Aside from your mum’s illness, did you have a good time with your family?”
“Pretty good, thanks. We spent a lot of time with Mum in the hospital but we did a few other things too. We went to church Christmas Eve, and my brother Rees brought Dad over for supper a few times. Lisa and Colin spent time with their cousins and I went for some walks and did some reading. Oh, and I listened to some good music, too; I’d taken a few of my old records with me”.
“Your brother still has a record player?”
“Funnily enough, he does! My old folk LPs are getting a bit scratchy these days, but I’ve got a sentimental attachment to them”.
“I know what you mean; I’ve still got all my old Nic Jones and Martin Carthy records”.
“Those early Nic Jones albums are hard to find”.
“I know; that’s why I take good care of them”.
“I really enjoyed that afternoon singing with you and Owen”.
“It felt good, didn’t it?”
“It really did”.
“You’re off for for a while yet, right?”
“Yes – the university’s down for the better part of January. You’re starting again on Monday, though”.
“Yes we are”.
“I suppose between prep work and hospital visits you’re rather busy”.
“Yeah; the curriculum’s still strange to me so getting ready for classes is taking longer, and hospital visiting has put me behind. I don’t have a lot of free time this weekend or through the week, but next weekend might work; do you want to do coffee some time next Saturday?”
“I’d love to, but are you sure you want to take the time?”
“Next Saturday will be okay as long as we can do it in the morning. Visiting hours at the hospitals start around noon”.
“Are you still an early riser?”
“Yes I am”.
“How about nine o’clock at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House?”
“That’ll be fine; I like that place. I’ll look forward to it”.
“Me too. And again, I’m sorry I didn’t ring you to let you know we were staying longer in Essex”.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you soon”.
“Bye, Tom; I hope you have a better week this week”.
“Thanks. Bye for now”.
And so we met at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House the following Saturday. It was still barely light at nine o’clock on a January morning, but the coffee house was brightly lit. It was divided into two rooms, with small round tables, and a glass-covered counter off to one side showing all sorts of delicious-looking baked goods. Wendy was already there when I came through the door, and she waved to me from a table in the back corner. She was dressed casually in faded jeans and an old shirt and top; she had a cup of coffee at her elbow and a hardback book open on the table in front of her. As I approached, she removed a pair of reading glasses and got to her feet, looking at me with concern in her eyes; “You look exhausted, Tom”, she said.
“I am a little tired; we were at the hospital last night, and then I had all my usual schoolwork to do”.
We exchanged kisses on the cheek and sat down across from each other. “How’s Sarah doing?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Not much change. Her vision seems to be getting better but she still has headaches and nausea, and she can’t handle too much noise. Her left leg seems to be healing pretty well from the surgery but it’s going to be a while before she can put any weight on it. Apparently there are several other surgeries ahead for her as well”.
“She must be having an awful time”.
I nodded; “It’s very hard for her”.
“How’s your dad?”
“Quite well actually; his latest round of chemo finished on December 31st. He had a few tests and scans this week and apparently his cancer has stopped growing”.
She stared at me; “Is he in remission?”
“No – the cancer’s still there and he’s still experiencing the symptoms, it’s just that the chemo seems to have done a good job of controlling its growth, which was what they wanted it to do. The way his oncologist put it was ‘This is not a victory, it’s a successful rearguard action’”.
“So what happens now?”
“They’re going to give him a break from chemo for a while, but he’s supposed to go back once a month for scans so they can keep an eye on things”.
“He must be pleased”.
“I think so. Actually, Becca’s worried he’s going to read too much into this”.
“You mean he’ll think he’s cured?”
“I think he might; denial’s been a problem for him all along”. I gestured toward her cup; “What are you drinking?”
“Americano, but this one will last me for a while yet”.
“Excuse me while I go and get one for myself”.
I went to the counter, ordered a coffee and waited while they made it. When I got back to the table she was just putting her book away in her bag; I sat down, took a sip of my coffee, and said, “What are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s just a dry academic book about the Lake Poets; I try to keep up with the scholarship but sometimes it’s not very inspiring. What about you? Have you got a book on the go right now?”
“Sweeter Than All the World, by Rudy Wiebe”.
“I’m not familiar with him”.
“He’s a Canadian writer, a Mennonite actually; some of his novels are about Mennonites and some are about the history of Western Canada. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; I don’t like everything he’s written but I’m enjoying this one”.
She smiled at me; “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do”.
“Yes we do, Doctor Howard! Do you find it strange to be teaching at the college where you were a student?”
“Interesting; I now know what goes on behind all the mysterious closed doors!”
“You must be pleased, though; it can’t be easy to get a fellowship at an Oxford college. How long had you been at UCL?”
“Nine years, eight of them full-time”.
“It took you a few years to get on there, then?”
“Yes”. She looked down at her half-empty coffee cup. “I moved in August, after you left for Canada. I – well, I was missing Mickey, and on the spur of the moment I decided to apply to go back to UCL for my doctoral work. Mickey and I were able to get past our differences and we ended up moving in together. He’d started working for the Telegraph Magazine by then and he was doing well; he’s always been a gifted photographer”.
“Your work must have slowed down a little when you started having kids?”
“I took a break from studying for a while after Lisa was born, but by the summer of ’86 I’d finished my doctorate. I taught at UCL part-time for a year before Colin was born, and I went back again in September of ’88; Mickey and I were married by then. I got a full time position in ’89 and I stayed there ’til I came back to Oxford in ’97”.
“When did you start writing?”
“My first book was basically a worked-up version of my doctoral thesis; it came out in 1988. I wrote the next one from scratch, so it took a bit longer”.
“I’ve read it. I’ve read all three of them, actually; I thoroughly enjoyed them”.
She gave me a shy smile; “Thanks”.
“Your latest one’s a little different from the first two”.
“Yes; my editor thought I should write a big picture introduction to George Eliot. The idea was that it might be used as a text in undergraduate courses, so I needed to write at entry level. I’ve been teaching undergrads for years, of course, so that wasn’t especially hard”.
“Emma enjoyed it, so you must have succeeded”.
She smiled again; “Has she been reading Eliot for long?”
“She read Middlemarch about a year ago and she’s read a few others since then. She’s become a big fan”.
“You must be pleased”.
“Well, she’s been raiding my bookshelves for a long time”.
“Do you point her in the right direction?”
“Not really; most of the time I let her read whatever catches her interest, and if she has questions I do my best to answer them. She watched the Pride and Prejudice miniseries a few years ago; that’s what got her started on Jane Austen. She hasn’t really looked back since then”.
“What was she reading before that?”
“Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Ursula Le Guin and people like that. She picked up some of her mum’s tastes over the years too”.
“What did her mum like?”
“She was a wide reader; she liked novels and poetry, but she enjoyed theology and science too. She was very interested in the connection between science and faith”.
“Some people find that a challenge”.
“It was a challenge for Kelly when she was in her teens; she actually took some time away from her faith for a few years because of it. But when she came back she had a real hunger to think the issues through”.
“She sounds like a remarkable person”.
“She was”. I took a sip of my coffee, cradled the mug in my hands and said, “So you wrote your last book here in Oxford, then?”
“Yes. I’d started to plan it several years ago while I was still in London, but then I got a bit preoccupied with other things. My marriage was breaking up and I needed to get away from London and re-establish myself somewhere else. Bev had already moved to Oxford; she was the one who told me about the English Fellowship at Merton. I didn’t think I had much chance at it, so I was quite surprised when they called me in for an interview and even more surprised when they offered me the position. It came along at just the right time”.
“Your kids have adjusted all right?”
“They have. Lisa loves it; they both grew up in London but she was getting really tired of it. We’d visited Oxford a few times over the years and she’d always said this was where she’d like to go to university. And for her, London was so closely associated with Mickey; I’m afraid the two of them were thoroughly estranged by then”.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you and Mickey”.
“Well, you and Owen warned me, didn’t you? I’ve got no one to blame but myself”.
“The victim of abuse isn’t to blame, Wendy”.
“I know, but I was the one who put myself in an abusive situation, and all the signs were there. I should have seen it coming, but I was young and in love and I was only seeing what I wanted to see. And Mum and Dad had been warning me about him long before you and Owen came into the picture”.
“Does Colin still get on well with your dad?”
“He does. They made that connection through carpentry, and they’ve never looked back”.
“That’s great. I like Colin a lot; he’s pretty easy-going and friendly”.
“He is, isn’t he? And he’s a lot better than I am at just taking life for what it is; I’m always trying to manage it, and that doesn’t often work out well”.
“It’s a fairly common human weakness”.
I smiled at her; “So you’re the mother of a boy who plays sports!”
She gave me a sheepish grin. “I know; hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ve actually become quite good at standing on the edge of cold football fields cheering for his team. What about Emma? Is she an outdoor sort of person?”
“Yes, but she’s not really into competitive sports. She loves walking and hiking, and canoeing and snowshoeing and horseback riding…”
“She’s a real renaissance girl, isn’t she? Music, and reading, and nursing, and all the outdoor stuff…”
“I’ll tell her you said that – she’ll enjoy that description! What about Lisa? You said she’s not really into Colin’s football games”.
“No – she’s not an outdoor girl. She likes reading, and of course she loves listening to classical music and singing”.
“Was she in other choirs before the Radcliffe Singers?”
“She’s always been in choirs, right back to her primary school days. Since I’ve started going back to church I’ve sometimes wished I could get her involved in a church choir, but she’s not in the least bit interested in churchgoing. Neither is Colin, despite the fact that he and my dad get on so well together”.
“You sing with Merton Chapel choir, you said?”
“During the week, but I’m not very conscientious about attending practices. I enjoy it, but I find it hard to give it the time it deserves. And on Sundays I’m mainly at St. Michael and All Angels now”.
“You’re enjoying that?”
“Yes. It’s actually quite refreshing to belong to a church that’s not made up entirely of academics – although having said that, the vicar’s also a part time tutor at one of the Oxford theological colleges, so she’s quite brainy. But I still attend Merton Chapel two or three times a week, so my churchgoing loyalties are a bit divided”.
“Ours too; we go to Banbury Road Baptist when we’re in town, but when we’re at Mum and Dad’s we go to the parish church in Northwood”.
“That would be a bit different for you – going to an Anglican church”.
“Yes, but we’re okay with it; Owen’s mum and dad go to that church, and we like the vicar. But I’m glad we’ve found the Banbury Road church; the pastor there’s been strongly influenced by Mennonite ideas and that’s important to us”.
“You’ll have to tell me more about that some time; I realized when we were talking the other week that I know next to nothing about Mennonite Christianity”.
“Well, you did know we were pacifists”.
“That was probably the only thing I knew!”
I sat back in my chair and took a sip of my coffee. “On a completely different subject – getting back to Mickey for a minute, can I ask you one more question about him? Feel free to say no; I don’t want to cause you any distress”.
“Ask away; if I don’t want to answer, I’ll tell you”.
“You mentioned he was charged with assault and he went to prison. Were you very badly hurt?”
“I had broken bones. And it wasn’t just me; Lisa was hurt as well”. She stared off into the corner. “Rees had come into town to meet me for lunch, and when I didn’t arrive at the restaurant he came over to the house to see if I was all right. He found Lisa and me and he got us into hospital. He was the one who persuaded me to have Mickey charged”.
“I’m sorry, Wendy; it was really none of my business”.
She shook her head; “No, I don’t mind. You were always a good friend to me; I appreciate your concern”.
“Thanks”. I smiled at her; “Would you like another coffee?”
“I think I would, but why don’t you let me buy for us both?”
“You don’t have to do that”.
“Don’t be silly; I’m the Oxford don so you’re on my ground today!”
“Well – if you insist, Doctor Howard”.
“I do!” she replied with a mischievous grin, getting to her feet and picking up our cups to go over to the counter.
When she returned with fresh coffee she took her seat again and said, “Alright, now it’s your turn; tell me your story”.
“Oh, my story’s quickly and easily told. I went to Canada. I met a girl. We fell in love and we got married. We had a daughter. We were all very happy together. The girl died. I miss her. That’s pretty well it”.
She tilted her head a little and spoke in a quiet voice. “Now it’s my turn to ask you: would you prefer not to talk about Kelly?”
I shook my head. “Actually I don’t mind talking about her; sometimes it helps”.
“Are you sure?”
“Tell me about Meadowvale, then”.
“Well, that’s a big subject; it’s hard to know where to start!”
“What were your first impressions?”
“That’s easy – distances. Meadowvale is seventy-five miles northeast of the city of Saskatoon, and there are only three towns in between”.
“So it’s just wide open spaces?”
“It’s mainly open farmland. It’s beautiful in late summer, with the different coloured crops – like a patchwork quilt of green and yellow and blue”.
“What’s the blue?”
“Flax. The yellow is canola”.
“Right. So how many people live in Meadowvale?”
“I think about two thousand in town and another three thousand or so on the farms around. It’s shrinking, though. Hundreds of small towns in Saskatchewan have died out; the people have been moving into the cities. A lot of grain elevators have closed and that means farmers tend to truck their grain further and do their business in the larger towns. So far Meadowvale’s benefitted from that but the smaller places are struggling to survive. I think sooner or later Meadowvale will have that struggle too. The big issue is that there’s a really good road to Saskatoon and it only takes an hour and fifteen minutes”.
“So people tend to shop when they go to the city?”
“What are the people like in Meadowvale?”
“Very diverse – their ancestors came from England and France, eastern Europe, China and Japan – to mention just a few. There were already aboriginal people in the area of course, and there are still some of them living in Meadowvale. And then there are the Mennonites. They came from Russia in the early 1920s – Kelly’s grandfather Dieter Reimer and two of his brothers arrived in 1924. They now have close to three hundred living descendants”.
“Well, Dieter and Erika had eight kids, and they all married and had big families”.
“Do you ever have family reunions?”
“Actually we do; they’re very popular. Kelly used to help organize them”.
“You would have needed a big hall”.
“Fortunately there’s a community hall designed for exactly that sort of thing”.
“So Meadowvale isn’t very old, by our standards?”
“No; it really got going in the 1920s. When Dieter and Erika first arrived they had to clear the land of trees, dig stumps and roots out of the ground, pull out rocks and boulders, build their houses and barns – all without modern machinery, and in some really severe weather. They’d come from a very comfortable Mennonite colony in Russia so it was a whole new world for them. But everyone was in the same boat of course, and their kids were raised to that kind of life. Most of the older folks in Meadowvale can do pretty well anything they put their hands to – fix tractors, build barns and houses, work long hours during harvest and get up the next day and work the same hours ’til the job’s done. But they don’t seem to define themselves by their careers the way we do; that’s what they do to make a living but they can turn their hands to other things if need be”.
“You obviously really admire them”.
“I do. Of course a lot of the younger ones have left town and moved to the city, and they see life much the same as we do. Some of them have moved back, though; my brother-in-law Joe went to Saskatoon and trained as a vet, but he came back and joined a practice in Meadowvale. And my friend Glenn Pickering went to Law School in the city but after a few years he moved back home, and now he’s the most popular lawyer in town”.
“It must be a close-knit community; was it hard to get into it?”
I smiled. “It could have been, but I had the good fortune to be working for Kelly’s Dad, Will Reimer. He was my principal and he’s easily the most gregarious guy I’ve ever met in my life. He met me in Saskatoon the day I arrived and drove me back up to Meadowvale; he’d arranged a house for me to rent and he’d put some borrowed furniture into it for me. He and his wife Sally had me over for meals once or twice a week for the first few months I lived there, and he took me out and introduced me to all kinds of people in the community. So it wasn’t really hard for me, because of him and Sally”.
She smiled at me; “You make him sound like an incredible person”.
“He is. He was my mentor and my friend; I can’t begin to describe how much I owe him”.
“So Kelly was his daughter? How did you meet?”
“When October came around, Will and Sally invited me to join them for a family Thanksgiving dinner. They had three kids: Joe, Kelly, and Krista. Like I said, Joe had not long moved back to town after qualifying as a vet; he became my closest friend in Canada. His two kids Jake and Jenna are like brother and sister to Emma. And then there was Kelly; she was working as a nurse in Jasper in the Rockies, but she’d come home for the weekend. She was very beautiful; she had long blonde hair and she lived in jeans as much as possible, and I was attracted to her right away. We soon found we had a lot of interests in common”.
“We both liked doing outdoor things, especially hiking and canoeing, and later on she taught me to ski. But we were both on a spiritual journey too. When she was a teenager she’d left her Mennonite faith for a while but she’d never stopped believing in God, and when I met her she was gradually finding her way back. And I was spiritually hungry too”.
“I remember you saying something about that; you’d been having some conversations with Owen about God”.
“We talked about it a lot in my last year at Oxford. I guess I’d come to realize I wasn’t satisfied with my dad’s materialistic approach to life; I knew atheism was just too cold and impersonal for me”.
“You and Kelly talked about that?”
“Yes – we started writing to each other almost immediately, and we had quite a correspondence going for the next few months. She came back to Meadowvale for a week after Christmas and we did a lot more talking then, and it just went on from there”.
“And eventually you found your way to faith”.
“We both did”. I frowned thoughtfully. “Joe gave Kelly a good tip. He reminded her that Christianity isn’t just about ideas; it’s about putting the teaching of Jesus into practice. So it’s not enough to try to find intellectual answers; you need to train yourself to follow Jesus. He told her to start reading the gospels each day and pray that God would help her figure out who Jesus was as she was reading. But the most important thing was that sooner or later something she read would hit her between the eyes, and then she should stop reading and ask God to help her put it into practice”.
“That could be quite challenging”.
“Sometimes it was. Kelly and I talked about it when I visited her in Jasper after Easter, and eventually I agreed to work on it with her”.
“What kind of things did you do?”
“She’d already been struck by‘Blessed are the peacemakers’; she told me it had prompted her to try to stay out of conflicts at work and be a mediator instead. But the one that became very important to us both was ‘Lay up not for yourselves treasures on earth’. We both found that attractive – as well as challenging – so we decided to try to live our life together in a simple way, without a lot of luxuries. Kelly was better at sticking to it than me but we both felt strongly about it”.
“Would this be a specifically Mennonite thing – this strong emphasis on putting the teaching of Jesus into practice?”
“Mennonites make a big deal out of it, although I’m sure other Christians do it to”.
“I don’t know – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s tried to be that literal about practising the teaching of Jesus”.
“We didn’t always find it easy to figure out how to do it; we struggled with it, but we kept coming back to it”.
“And meanwhile you were falling in love with each other”.
“Yes; that came on gradually, but after my visit to Jasper we both knew what we were feeling. We got engaged at Thanksgiving in 1983 and we were baptized in February of 1984. By then Kelly had moved back to Meadowvale and got a job as the resident nurse at the special care home. She and I were married at Thanksgiving, two years after we first met”.
She grinned at me; “Tom Masefield, that was very romantic of you!”
“It was, wasn’t it?” I replied with a smile.
“So you obviously had a good marriage”.
I frowned. “Yes, but not an easy one. We had a normal married life for about a year and a half; we had Emma, and Kelly had always wanted to be a mum, so she was really happy. But then early in 1986 she started to have sharp pains in her abdomen; they did surgery in May and discovered cancerous growths on both her ovaries, and the cancer had already started to spread to the uterus. She’d always wanted to have a big family, but of course the ovaries and the uterus had to come out, so everything changed for her after that”.
“That must have been awful for her”.
“It was unbelievably hard. She had chemo all through the summer and into November, and she went through a big black depression. But eventually she came out of it, although it stalked her for years afterwards”.
“That kind of thing is so hard to deal with”.
“Yes. We prayed about it a lot. That was something we did our entire married life; every night we would read the Bible and talk about what we’d read, and then pray together. I guess her struggles made us pray a lot harder. It wasn’t a magic cure, though. Still, that’s what life’s like, isn’t it? Good times and hard times”.
She nodded; “That’s so true. It’s nothing like what we thought, is it?”
“No – and yet somehow, that’s okay”.
“I suppose so, although I have to admit I wonder sometimes”. She frowned; “How long were you and Kelly married, Tom?”
“Sixteen and a half years; she died on May 26th 2001”.
“Had she been ill for a long time?”
“She found the lump in her breast on September 26th 2000, but by then it was already in her lymph nodes too. She had surgery, but it had metastasized to her bones, and then it jumped to her liver. She had radiation and chemo but it was always a losing battle. She was incredibly brave and serene about it; she faced her death with her eyes wide open, and when the time came she was at peace”.
“I can’t begin to imagine how awful that must have been for you”.
I nodded; “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me”.
She reached out impulsively and put her hand on mine. “I’m sorry”, she said softly; “I shouldn’t have asked you to talk about her”.
I shook my head emphatically. “As I said, I don’t mind talking about her; I find it a comfort somehow”.
“Are you sure?”
She squeezed my hand and let it go; “Owen said he and Lorraine really loved Kelly”.
I nodded; “We visited back and forth quite a bit with them, and Becca came to us even more often”.
“You were always close to Becca, weren’t you? She must be happy to have you back here”.
“I think we’re both enjoying it”.
“But you and Emma must miss home. Are you planning to go back after…?”
“We’re not really planning anything at the moment”.
“I get the impression you and Emma are really close”.
“We are. How about you and your kids?”
“Colin and I get along well; we enjoy doing things together. With Lisa it’s more difficult; we used to be close when she was younger, but when she got into her early teens things got more complicated”.
“Was this about Mickey?”
“Yes. The situation with him was getting very bad, but like a fool I stayed around for a few years, hoping things would get better. I blamed myself for our troubles and I thought if I just tried harder to be a good wife he wouldn’t get so angry sometimes. At that time he wasn’t abusing the children – only me. The first time he ever went beyond an ordinary spanking with one of the children was the day he put Lisa and me in hospital; that was when I left him. But Lisa blames me for staying in the marriage and exposing her to that. She’s not nasty with me or anything; she very rarely loses her temper or shouts at me, she just keeps her thoughts to herself most of the time. I miss the good times we had when she was younger; I miss them a lot, actually”.
I saw the sadness in her eyes. “I’m sorry”, I said; “It was really none of my business”.
“Tom, you don’t have to keep apologizing for asking me questions about my life. Everyone has pain; lots of people have worse pain than me. Besides”, and she gave me a shy smile, “we were close friends once, and I hope…”
“Yes – so do I”.
She tilted her head a little to one side, the smile lingering on her face; “Really? I’m glad”.
“What about your other friends? I know I’ve made some really close friendships over the past twenty years”.
She frowned; “I don’t know – maybe not so much as you”.
“More since I moved away from London, perhaps. I knew Bev before, but we’ve become really close since I came back to Oxford; we get together once a week for a good visit, and I see her and David as a couple as well”.
“He seems like a really genial guy”.
“He is; he and I have become good friends over the past few years. And then there’s my church communities – Merton Chapel and St. Michael and All Angels. They’ve both become really good support groups for me”.
“That’s a story I’d like to hear”.
“How I found my way back to Christianity, you mean?”
“I suppose it was a bit like your story, actually. I’d become aware of a spiritual hunger; I wasn’t sure what it was about but I knew I was looking for something. My brother Rees is an Anglican priest, like Dad, but his faith’s quite evangelical and charismatic and I wasn’t really attracted to that at the time, even though he was such a huge help to me when my marriage broke up. But I was hungry for God – I know that now – so when I moved here I started going to chapel from time to time. Alan Hargreaves was our chaplain then. He noticed I’d started attending and one day he struck up a conversation with me. And that was the beginning of a series of really good conversations that eventually led to my confirmation”.
“I don’t know much about confirmation”.
“In the Anglican tradition it often happens when young people are in their teens. The theory is that it’s the time we take for ourselves the promises our parents made for us when we were baptized, and then the bishop lays hands on us and prays for the Holy Spirit to fill us. I suppose for a lot of people it’s more of a formality; lots of the kids I went to school with were confirmed, but it was more about what their parents wanted than any sort of faith commitment of their own. I never wanted to do that; my parents asked me about it when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t sure what I believed at that point, so I said no. They were good about it, but I could see they were disappointed”.
“It was probably good that you waited til later, til it really meant something to you”.
“That’s what I think. For me it was a real moment of commitment”.
“That’s very similar to the way we Mennonites see believers’ baptism”.
“Interesting. Do you do anything for new babies, then?”
“Kelly and I had a dedication service for Emma; we were giving her to God and promising to bring her up as a Christian”.
She grinned. “So our churches both give children to God and ask adults to make faith commitments; we just use different symbols to do it”.
“I guess so, although we would say that we’re following New Testament practice in baptizing adult believers. But there’s no need for you and I to argue about that; carry on with your story”.
“Well, Alan taught me to pray, and he taught me that prayer together is important, so I kept going to chapel on Sunday evenings and sometimes on weekdays too, and gradually the community there became more important to me. The students change all the time of course, but there are a few other dons who attend, and as well as going to services they do things together regularly on an informal basis”.
“I noticed you said ‘they’, not ‘we’”.
“I’m really only part of the chapel community midweek. They have daily services, and I try to get in for them a couple of times a week, especially now that Colin’s older and doesn’t need my help to get himself up for school. But for Sundays I needed something that was consistent all year round, and at a more convenient time. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels on Sunday mornings. I still enjoy the chapel community and I still go on Sunday evenings about once a month, but St. Michael’s is really my church now”.
“And you like it”.
“I do. As I said, it’s quite diverse – lots of different kinds of people. And Elaine’s been good for me; she’s the vicar there. She’s quite well informed about the history of spirituality; she’s been teaching me lately about contemplative prayer and the Rule of St. Benedict. I find that really attractive”.
“I don’t know very much about the Rule of St. Benedict”.
“Benedict was the founder of the Benedictine order of monks in the early sixth century. He wrote a monastic Rule that became the basis for almost every Rule written since. I’m not a nun of course, so a lot of it doesn’t apply to me, but I still find plenty of food for thought in it”.
“I’ll have to read it”.
“It’s not something you read only once; it’s more like a daily discipline; something you dip into regularly, in a sort of liturgical fashion”.
“Like reading the Bible, you mean?”
“Yes. But Benedict has just been the beginning for me; there are other writers in the same tradition who I enjoy too”. She gave me an awkward grin; “Sorry – I didn’t mean this conversation to take such an intensely monastic turn!”
“Nothing to apologise for; I’m interested, although I’ve got a feeling that this Benedictine stuff is quite different from our Anabaptist approach”.
“You’re probably right; monastic spirituality does talk about imitating Christ but I haven’t come across the sort of intensely practical approach to discipleship you were talking about”.
“That would be very typical of Anabaptism. Like I said, Kelly and I picked it up from Joe, but Rob Neufeld was my mentor in it too. He was our pastor at the time”.
“Are you still close to him?”
“Yes – especially since Kelly died – him and Ron Bergen, who followed him at our church in Meadowvale. They’ve both really helped me a lot over the past couple of years. Not so much by giving advice, though, if you know what I mean”.
“I know; sometimes it’s not so much advice that you need, is it?”
“No; I’m afraid a few of the good Mennonite old-timers in Meadowvale don’t understand that”.
“Are they full of wise advice?”
“They’ve always meant well. I’m thinking of the time just after Kelly died. Don’t get me wrong – most of them understood that warm hugs and casseroles were the best thing for us. But a few of them took the opportunity to point me to all sorts of helpful Bible verses, and to tell you the truth, for the first few weeks I wasn’t really sure I had anything to say to God any more, so the Bible verses weren’t very useful for me”.
“You made it through somehow, though”.
“Yeah, although I still struggle with the ‘why’ questions”.
“Some questions can’t be answered, can they? I used to think there was always an answer, but now I’m not so sure. I think some things just can’t be fixed”.
“I think you’re right”.
“But at least people can be there for each other. That helps”.
“How are things going between you and your father, Tom?”
I shrugged. “We have our days. At the moment we’re doing a little better, but it’s not always easy”.
“The past gets in the way?”
“It does. We had a rough patch back in November”.
I told her about the ongoing argument between my father and me about Emma’s fees, and how I had eventually told him how I felt about Kelly’s life insurance policy. “I should have told him a lot sooner of course, but I just didn’t want to break down in front of him”.
“Emma was a lot more sensible about it than me. And she was right – once I was honest about it Dad understood, and he hasn’t raised the issue since”. I shook my head; “I found it so hard to believe he wouldn’t try to control Emma’s life like he tried to control mine”.
“Sometimes the past won’t stay in the past”.
“You’re right. Sometimes I think I’ve laid it to rest but at other times I’m not so sure”.
“What about your brother? You hardly ever saw him or talked about him in our student days”.
“No – well, when we got into our teens we had so little in common. And Owen and I became such good friends, and sometimes I think Rick resented that. And then when I refused to go into Law all Dad’s hopes for an heir passed over to Rick. That really strained things between us, because he seemed to embrace it so enthusiastically; whenever I came home all I heard from Dad was what a good son Rick was and how he was going to make such a fine barrister”.
“Tom, you never talked about any of this in the old days”.
“No – I didn’t want to think about it, I suppose”.
“How are you getting on with him now?”
“We’re still not really close, but since the accident I’ve been visiting him three or four times a week and we’ve had a few good conversations. But most of the time his guard’s still up with me. I guess I just have to be patient”.
“Is he starting to feel any better?”
I shook my head. “It’s a slow process. And I know he’s feeling intensely guilty about the accident; he still blames himself for it”.
“The police haven’t charged him with anything, though?”
“No; they say no one was at fault. Everyone seems to have been obeying the speed limit and exercising proper caution; it was just a freak accident caused by black ice”.
“But of course he finds it hard to convince himself of that”.
“I think so. And getting back to your question about how we’re getting along, I should add that Emma’s been a big help. Since we got here she’s become really good friends with all three of her cousins. She and Eric both play guitar and they enjoy playing together. And she and Sarah are both great readers, so they get along well too; Emma’s spending a lot of time in hospital with her right now”. I smiled at her; “Speaking of music – do you ever perform in public any more, other than singing in church choirs?”
She shook her head; “I’m afraid I’ve very rarely even been out to a concert, other than Lisa’s choir events – which is a shameful admission when there are so many live shows in Oxford”. She tilted her head to one side, looking at me with a wistful expression on her face. “To tell you the truth, Tom, you and Owen spoiled me for making music with anyone else. I tried singing again with Mickey in the early years of our marriage but the magic was gone. I never realized how much I enjoyed singing with you two until it was over, and I always regretted that I’d never told you that”.
I smiled at her. “Thanks; those were good years”.
“They really were. And while we’re talking about regrets, there’s something else I want to say. That night in your flat – well, I really spoiled things between us after that, and I know it. I was fixated on the idea that you couldn’t combine love and friendship – which seems more and more bizarre the more I think of it – and I let that night spoil our friendship. That was a really ungrateful way to pay you back for all the kindness you’d shown me after Mickey and I broke up; it was a rotten thing to do to you after we’d become such good friends. I’ve felt bad about that for years. I’m very sorry, Tom”.
“I’m sorry, too; I was probably as much to blame as you were”.
We sat in silence, looking at each other, both of us knowing that the moment was special and fragile, and neither of us wanting to be the one to bring it to an end. Eventually I was the one who smiled and said, “So, would you like to get together again to sing with Owen and me?”
“I would; I realized after our time together the other week how much I’ve missed it”.
“We’ll have to see if we can make our calendars work. Of course, things are a little hectic for me right now”.
“Of course; I wouldn’t think of asking you to do anything while Rick and Sarah are in hospital”.
“Sarah’s likely to be there for a few months, so we might not want to wait quite that long”.
“Well, count me in, whenever you can find the time”.
“I’ll talk to Owen”.
She glanced at her watch, grinned at me apologetically and said, “I’m sorry – I need to get going; Colin’s got a football match in a couple of hours and I need to drive him there”.
“No need to apologize; that stuff’s important”.
“Yes, it is”.
“This has been a real pleasure, Wendy”, I said as we both got to our feet; “Thanks for taking the initiative and calling me”.
Tilting her head on one side in her characteristic pose, she said, “I’m glad I did”.
She held out her hand and I took it, leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. “Take care, and give my regards to Lisa and Colin”.
“I will, and you give mine to Owen – and to Emma too. Tell her to keep on reading George Eliot, and to ring me if she wants to talk”.
I smiled; “She’ll like that; she really did enjoy your books”.
“All the better”, she said with a grin; “authors always enjoy talking to their fans!”
We both laughed, and she said, “Well, I must be on my way. Bye for now”.
“See you soon”.
I told Emma about my visit with Wendy while we were eating supper that night; she had been volunteering at Marston Court for part of the day, and had then spent the afternoon visiting with Sarah. She was very excited to hear about the possibility of Owen and Wendy and I singing together again. “That would be awesome!” she said; “Would you let other people listen?”
“By ‘other people’, you mean you?”
“Well, maybe Alanna and me”.
“I’d have to think about Alanna; I think Wendy might prefer to keep it to close family until we’ve spent more time practising”.
“I understand”. She took a forkful of chilli, ate thoughtfully for a moment, and then said, “So you had a good visit with Wendy?”
“I really did. It was a little strange actually”.
“Well, you know, I’m still a bit of an introvert…”
“Just a bit”, she replied mischievously.
“Not as much as when your mum first met me; she really helped me come out of my shell”.
“Maybe I’ll come out of mine one day”.
“I think you do pretty well, Emma Dawn”.
“Thanks. Anyway – a little strange, you said?”
“Yeah; I said things to her about – well, about our life, and your mum, and some other pretty personal stuff – things I wouldn’t normally say to people on the first meeting”.
“It wasn’t your first meeting, though”.
“No, but we haven’t talked at that level for a very long time”.
“Maybe you and Wendy are better friends than you thought you were, Dad”.
“Maybe we are”.