About a week after Will and Sally flew home, Emma and I had an unexpected meeting in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Neither of us had been sleeping particularly well since my father’s death; I had heard her a few times, moving quietly around the house, and I was sure she had heard me as well. But this was the first time we had actually bumped into each other; I went downstairs at about three in the morning to get a drink of water and there she was, seated at the kitchen table, sipping herbal tea out of a glass mug with a book open in front of her. She gave me a little smile as I went over to the sink to pour my water. “Couldn’t sleep?” she asked.
“I’ve been awake for about half an hour; how about you?”
“A little longer than that”.
“You’re going to be tired in the morning”.
She shrugged helplessly; “I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it, Dad. I guess it’s just something I have to work through”.
I took my glass of water over to the table and slipped into a chair beside her. Leaning over to kiss her on the top of her head, I said, “What are you reading?”
She showed me the book; “The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Do you know it?”
“Sure; your mum liked it a lot. Kind of heavy for three in the morning, though”.
“I know. Matthew gave it to me a while back, but I don’t seem to have a lot of time for general reading right now”.
“College is keeping you kind of busy”.
“Are you still liking the new placement?”
“It’s good; I like being on a community health care team”.
“Better than acute care?”
“Different. I didn’t think I’d find it as interesting, but it’s grown on me pretty quickly”. She grinned; “People keep asking me if I’m an American”.
“Brits can’t tell the difference between American and Canadian accents”.
“I’ve noticed that”.
We lapsed into silence for a minute, both of us occupied with our own thoughts. The house was quiet, and on our residential street late-night traffic was rare. I sipped at my water slowly, and she cupped her hands around her mug. “I’ve been trying to think of my earliest memory of Grandpa”, she said.
“Have you figured it out?”
She frowned. “I’ve got really vague memories from the first time we came. I don’t think I remember actual events or conversations; just pictures or impressions. I must have been really little; I remember the spiral staircase, and sitting on the bed in my room at their house with Auntie Becca. But I can’t make Grandpa come into focus”.
“We didn’t see much of him on that trip. It was the summer of 1990; you were four and a half”.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. There’s a boat in there somewhere, too, out on the sea”.
“That was in Scotland; Becca took us on a holiday. Your mum loved the sea and wanted to go out, so we took a trip out from Aberdeen in a tourist boat”.
“Were Grandma and Grandpa with us?”
“No – they didn’t come. I never had any success getting my dad to go on holidays with us”.
“He was always working?”
“Mostly. Mum was able to pry him away for a week or two most summers, but it was never much more than that. So have you figured out what your earliest memory of him is?”
“We’re kneeling down together beside the Christmas tree; that was 1994, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah; that’s the only year we came over for Christmas. Your mum was freezing cold”.
She laughed softly; “I remember that! She was always wearing three or four layers, and she had these multi-coloured wool socks”.
“Dad took one look at her shivering and ordered an extra load of wood for the fireplace”.
“Did he? I didn’t know that”.
“He liked your mum. He never said that to her, of course; he told me a few months ago”.
“It’s sad that he didn’t tell her”.
“I know. He was in an adversarial rut. So was I, so I can’t judge him”.
She sat back in her chair, her eyes far away. “I really didn’t expect to come to love him”, she whispered.
She shook her head. “I remember pretty clearly how he was the last time we were here with mom; how he got after Jake for capsizing the punt, and how he was always saying little things to get at you. I was always easy with Grandma – and Auntie Becca of course – but I was scared of Grandpa”.
“I didn’t know that”.
“I guess I never told you”.
“You hid it well. You didn’t say anything when we were talking about moving here”.
“I wanted to do the right thing, the thing Jesus would have wanted us to do. The thing Mom would have done”.
I smiled at her; “You’re so much like her, you know”.
“Thank you; I’ll take that as a compliment. If I can be half as good a person as she was…”
“I know. But don’t try to be a carbon copy, okay? She wouldn’t want that; she’d want you to be you, the person you were meant to be”.
“I understand, Dad. Anyway, I can’t be the kind of bubbly extrovert she was”.
“Yeah, you kind of got doomed by the Masefield genes there!”
She smiled at me again; “Nothing wrong with the Masefield genes”.
“Especially when they’re mixed with the Reimers’”.
She was quiet again for a minute, and then she looked at me. “Were you scared of Grandpa too?”
“When I was young I was really scared of him. He was hardly ever home, and when he was home he wasn’t pleasant to be around. I was always walking on eggshells, afraid of upsetting him”.
“What about when you got older?”
I nodded. “I told your mum once that I hated what the house in Northwood did to me when we visited; it was like I reverted back to being that fifteen year old boy who felt like he had to fight for his right to live the life he wanted to live, and study the things he wanted to study. Whenever we came here to visit I got that ‘Oh no, here we go again’ kind of feeling”.
“Did you feel that way this time too?”
“Not so much this time”.
“I’m older now, and your mum had a good effect on me. And I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin, or so Wendy tells me”.
“She thinks you’ve changed?”
“She thinks I’ve gotten a lot more confident in myself, and a lot more mellow”.
“Do you think she’s right?”
“Probably; what do you think?”
She gave me an awkward laugh; “I don’t know – you’ve always just been ‘Dad’ to me, and I’ve always liked you just fine, ever since I was little”.
I leaned over and kissed her again. “You’re a sweetheart, and you’ve never been hard to love”.
“I love you, Dad”.
“I love you too, Emma Dawn”.
“I like it when you call me ‘Emma Dawn’”.
She took a sip of her tea, cradling the mug in her hands. “I did love Grandpa in the end”, she whispered.
“It was like he got easier to love as he got weaker and more frail”.
“You made a big impression on him, too”.
“He told me that; he told me he’d never met a young person who was more genuine and thoughtful than you. And he told me that he really regretted not being able to tell your mum how impressed he was with the daughter she’d raised”.
She stared at me, and I saw the tears spring to her eyes. “Did he really say that?” she whispered.
“He did. I got a little emotional about it, too”.
She moved over a little and laid her head on my shoulder. “I’m really missing him”.
“Me too; we had better conversations in the last year than we’d had in my entire life”.
“Yeah. He asked me about all kinds of things; about the music and books I liked, and what I thought about stuff in the world, and whether Matthew and I talked about his political ideas, and why I was still a Christian. When we first moved here he could be really harsh and dismissive sometimes – like he didn’t really want to listen – but as time went by he changed; he really started listening and asking genuine questions. And he told me about his life too, and when he was a kid and all that”.
“We talked about that”.
“His dad was away in the navy a lot in the Second World War”.
“I can’t imagine that – if you’d been away for two or three years, and I hadn’t known whether or not you were going to be killed in a battle. That must have been awful”.
“Yeah. Of course, plenty of people were going though that at the time”.
“I guess so”. She moved a little closer, and I put my arm around her. “Grandma’s going through a rough time”, she said softly.
“Has she been talking to you about it?”
“My daughter, the one who helps everyone”.
I felt her shrugging. “I just listen, that’s all. She doesn’t ask for my advice, but I think she likes talking to me”.
“Is she talking to you?”
“Something like that”.
“I think she’s going to need you around for a while”.
“I think so too”.
A few days later we went out to Northwood on Friday and stayed overnight; Emma had the whole weekend off, and Rick and Alyson had made the rare decision to stay over as well. Eric had elected to stay home; Rick had told me that the two them were locked in conflict again over Eric’s future, and at the moment they were hardly talking to each other. “It’s more than a little discouraging, to tell you the truth”, he said to me as we were having a pint at the pub together earlier in the week. “I’m doing my best to remember all you told me, but we just can’t seem to get past this”.
“When you’re in a deep rut, it’s hard to get out”.
“That’s exactly right”.
Sarah had been working hard at her schoolwork and was now preparing to take the GCSEs she should have taken a year before. We had been having conversations lately about her English literature coursework; all of the set books were familiar to me, and I enjoyed hearing her talk about them. “Are you going to go on to an English Lit A1?” I asked her.
“That’s what I want”. She grinned at me; “Dad just smiles helplessly and tells me I’m turning into my Uncle Tom!”
After supper that night the children gravitated up to Emma’s room; Rick and I did the dishes together, and then the four of us sat at the kitchen table for a while, drinking a pot of tea and talking.
“So what about Emma?” Rick asked me at one point. “Has she decided to stay?”
“She’s not sure yet”.
“Surely it would be hard to leave Brookes after just one year and take up back home; the courses must be quite different”.
“She’s well aware of the complications, and she’s happy here too. The truth is, she’s torn”.
“You both are, I expect”, said Alyson quietly.
I shrugged; “I’ve got many years’ experience at the challenges of a transatlantic family situation, but this is really the first time she’s felt the full force of it”.
“And she’s got a boyfriend, too”, said Rick.
“Yeah, although I’m still not quite sure whether they’re using that word”.
He laughed softly; “They’ll be the last to know what’s obvious to everyone else!”
“It’s certainly obvious to Matthew’s mum and dad”.
“Right – you work with the mum, don’t you?”
“Kathy’s my Head of English, and Jim’s the pastor of our church, so we see quite a bit of them both”.
“Is Emma really considering going home?” my mother asked quietly.
“Yes, and she knows she’s got to make a decision soon. Part of the problem is that Kelly’s mum and dad are the same age as you, Mum”.
“I’m well aware of that”.
“And Kelly’s Auntie Millie has Parkinson’s, and we’re really close to them too”.
“Are you thinking about going back too?” asked Rick.
I shook my head. “I’ve already told Don Robinson I won’t be coming back to Meadowvale school. They’re going to advertise my old job, but I’m pretty sure the woman who’s been doing it for the past couple of years is going to apply; Don says she’s great and everyone likes her”.
He gave me a sympathetic glance; “That must have been a hard decision for you to make”.
“Yes, but I’ve known for a while I was going to make it”.
He nodded slowly. “I can’t say I’m sorry, Bro, but I know you’re going to miss a lot of people”.
“Well, I’ll take a trip in the summer again. Em might come with me for a couple of weeks; she’ll have a summer placement but she should be able to get a couple of weeks off. And there are some people who want to come with us”.
“I hear that”.
“You’re okay with Sarah coming?”
“Absolutely; thanks for giving her the opportunity”.
“You’ll have a lot of teenagers on board”, Alyson added.
“The more the merrier. I might have to rent a big van when we go to Jasper, though”.
“Are all Wendy’s family going with you?” my mother asked.
“Looks like it. Lisa’s a bit worried about slowing us down when we’re hiking in the mountains; she’s putting in some extra walking times right now, to get into practice”.
My mother laughed softly; “I know how that feels!”
“You did well, that summer you came to us”.
“That’s because I doubled my daily walking distance for six months to get ready for it!”
Rick and Alyson went to bed around ten-thirty, but my mother and I were both wide awake, so we warmed up the kettle again and made ourselves some hot chocolate. “Do you want to go through to the living room?” I asked.
She shrugged; “I’m alright here for a bit. Somehow the kitchen feels comfortable tonight”. She put her hand on mine; “I’m grateful to you all for coming out to spend the night with me. Sometimes the place seems so big and empty”.
“We’re glad to come. I hope you’ll feel free to let us know when you just want to be alone, though; I know that can happen sometimes”.
She nodded, looking down at the mug on the table in front of her. “There are days…”
“I remember”. I moved my chair toward her a little and put my arm around her, and I felt her head come down on my shoulder. “Oh, Tom”, she whispered, “What am I going to do without him?”
“I walk around this house and I keep expecting to see him”.
“Of course you do; you’re so used to going into a room and seeing him there, and you just can’t get your head around the idea that he’s gone now”.
I felt her shaking her head against my shoulder; I kissed her forehead, and for a few minutes we said nothing. Eventually she moved away, wiping her eyes on a handkerchief. “Look at me”, she said; “this isn’t helping anyone, is it?”
“You don’t have to help anyone. This is about helping you, and if you need to have a good cry, then go ahead”.
“Thank you”. She picked up her mug, sipped at the hot chocolate for a moment, and then said, “I know it took you a long time to get over losing Kelly”.
“I’m not sure I’m over it yet”.
She gave me a sympathetic glance. “Sorry; that wasn’t a very sensitive thing for me to say”.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure I know what it means to be ‘over’ someone. I still miss her, and I think I always will. But I don’t very often find myself in tears with no warning, like I did for the first couple of years”.
“So that’s normal, is it?”
“It was for me, anyway; how about you?”
“I wake up crying in the night, and I don’t remember if it was a dream that started it, or what it was. I can be busy doing something in here, and suddenly without any warning I break down”.
“Yeah – that’s how it was for me, too”.
“So I’m not going crazy, then?”
I smiled and put my hand on her arm. “Of course you’re not going crazy; you’re one of the sanest people I know”.
“Well, that’s reassuring, anyway!”
We both laughed, and then I said, “But to get back to what you said, I know I still love Kelly, and I think I always will. I think what’s happened is that I’ve learned to live with her absence, and I’ve learned to be happy again, which at the beginning I couldn’t even imagine. And I think it was probably a couple of years before I began to realize those things were happening”.
“And now you’ve got Wendy”.
“Yes; that definitely helps. Curiously enough, it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the fact that I miss Kelly, though; it’s like they’re in two separate compartments in my brain. But I’m glad not to be lonely any more”.
“I’m glad for you, too. And I like Wendy a lot”.
“She’s kind of special, isn’t she?”
“Getting back to Dad – it was good to see you two happy together in the last few months”.
She nodded; “It was as if we went back to the beginning again, only without leaving behind anything that had happened in between. It seems almost cruel, now, though – to have had him back for such a short period of time”.
“Were you angry when Kelly died?”
“Who were you angry with?”
“God, mostly, for not giving her back to me”.
“But you got over that?”
“I did. After a while it just didn’t seem to make any sense going around the same unanswerable questions over and over again. Kelly’s death was hard to fit into my view of God, but the world made even less sense to me when I left God out of it altogether”. I smiled at her;“Dad and I actually talked about this stuff not long before he died, you know”.
“He told me about that”.
“It was an amazing conversation – totally unexpected. It was one of those nights when I was sitting up in his room – I think it might actually have been the first night, after you’d gone over to Becca’s flat, and Lisa and Wendy had left. He woke up about four o’clock in the morning, and we started talking. I’ve got no idea how we got onto life after death, and Kelly, and God, but we had quite a good talk actually”. I took a sip of my hot chocolate, glanced at her, and said, “I didn’t know he had been a believer when he was younger”.
“He rarely mentioned that part of his life, and he had already lost his faith when we first started seeing each other. He did tell me about it once or twice, but it already seemed such a minor thing to him. Later on, of course, being an atheist became such a big part of his view of things that it was easy to forget he hadn’t always felt that way. But I think he softened a bit in the end; that was your doing – yours and Emma’s”.
“That’s what he said to me – that we hadn’t made a believer out of him, but we’d succeeded in giving him doubts about his doubts. A few nights later he had a long talk with Emma about it, too”.
“So I heard”.
“Did you know ahead of time about those instructions he left for his funeral – the ones you gave me?”
“I’ve wondered a few times what that meant”.
“It meant that you and Emma had impressed him with the genuineness of your faith, and that you’d opened his mind to the possibility there might be something in it”.
“You and Dad discussed that too?”
“You did talk a lot in the last few months, didn’t you?”
“For hours and hours”. She looked away from me; “Some days we talked from the time he got up until his afternoon nap”, she whispered, “and then again until he was too tired to carry on in the evening”.
“What did you talk about?”
“Everything. You children, and the things you’d done and the struggles you’d had – our courting days, and the early years of our marriage, and the days when you and Rick were little boys when we were living in Summertown – our memories of childhood before the war, and how much the world has changed – our grandchildren and how proud we were of them. And we had some conversations about you and Wendy too”.
“Dad and I talked about Wendy”.
“He told me what you’d said”.
“No keeping secrets around this place, is there?”
“Not for the last few weeks, anyway – time was too short”. I saw her bottom lip beginning to quiver; “It was far too short”, she repeated, and I saw the tears in her eyes again. I put my arm around her, and this time as she turned and laid her head on my shoulder she whispered, “I miss him so much, Tom! God, how I miss him! I knew when Kelly died that it must be terrible for you, but I had absolutely no idea how terrible”.
I didn’t answer; instead, I held her a little more closely and kissed her gently. The house was quiet except for the sound of someone moving around upstairs in the old servants’ wing, and I guessed that one of the children was getting ready for bed.
Eventually she lifted her head from my shoulder, smiled at me through her tears, and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. “Thank you”, she said softly.
She got to her feet slowly, moved over to the window and drew the curtains shut. “I think there might be some Scotch around here somewhere”, she said; “Would you like a snifter?”
“That would be fine; is it up in the usual cupboard?”
“I think so; can you reach up and get it down?”
I got up, went to the cupboard above the fridge, and opened it to reveal several bottles. “Dad’s got quite a stash up here”, I said. “There’s a Laphroaig, and a twelve-year Macallan. Oh, there’s also a very nice looking Connemara, if you’re interested in going Irish instead of Scotch?”
“Connemara sounds good”.
I took the bottle down from the cupboard. “You sit down again; I’ll pour”.
I took down two snifters, put ice in them from the fridge, and poured the amber liquid into each glass. “Shall we take it through to the living room? Somehow it seems like the appropriate venue for sipping whiskey; we could put our feet up and make ourselves comfy”.
“Let’s do that”, she agreed.
I went to bed just after midnight, but for some reason – probably the mixture of tea, hot chocolate and whiskey – I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake for a while, tossing and turning; eventually I sat up, turned on the bedside light, and read for a while. At about one o’clock I got up to use the bathroom and then slipped quietly down the stairs to the kitchen for a glass of cold water from the fridge. I was surprised to see a light under the kitchen door, and when I pushed it open I found Emma sitting at the table in her pyjamas and housecoat, a mug of hot chocolate at her elbow, reading a book.
“Couldn’t sleep either?” I asked.
“I slept for a while, but then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep”.
“What are you reading tonight?”
She closed the book and lifted it up to show me the cover. “It’s yours, actually”, she replied; “The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry”.
“Ah”. I moved over to the sink, rinsed out a glass and then opened the fridge and poured myself some cold water; “What do you think?”
“I think he’s brilliant; I love his descriptions of nature”.
“Yeah, he’s very gifted that way. He’s a very visual poet, isn’t he?”
“Totally. I like the things that annoy him, too – I think he’s a curmudgeon of some kind, isn’t he?”
I sat down beside her at the table and took a sip of my water; “I think so. Do you have any particular favourites so far?”
We poured over the book together for a while; she read me the poems that had particularly touched her, and I shared some of the ones I liked best. Eventually she closed the book, smiled at me, and said, “I love talking poetry with you, Dad”.
“Yeah, it is kind of nice, isn’t it?”
“Did you and Grandma and Rick and Alyson have a nice visit earlier on?”
“We did. How about you and the kids?”
“It was good. Sarah and I sat up for a long time”.
“I thought you might”.
“I had a text from Colin. His dad’s been bugging him again”.
“Again? I knew he’d gotten an email a few days ago”.
“He got another one yesterday. I don’t know why his dad won’t leave him alone; he must know he’s not helping the situation”.
“Strange as it may seem, I think Mickey’s threatened by the fact that I get on well with Colin. Colin never seemed to mean that much to him when he had him to himself, but now…”
“I’ve told him that I’m not trying to be Colin’s dad, but he doesn’t seem to want to believe me”.
“I think Colin would be very happy for you to be his dad”.
I stared at her for a minute; “Did he say that?”
“In what context?”
She shrugged; “We were just talking about parents – me and Lisa and Colin – it was a few weeks ago. Lisa’s really happy to have you as her dad even though she doesn’t always see eye to eye with you”.
I gave her a wry grin; “There is that!”
“It’s okay, though, Dad – she knows that’s not always how it works”.
“He said he found you really easy to talk to, and he liked how you were always encouraging him, and he liked that we took him walking with us and that sort of thing. And he told Lisa he was a little jealous of her, because you were her dad, and he’d like to have that too”.
“I remember months ago having a conversation a bit like that with him; it was before Wendy and I decided we were a couple. He said he wasn’t really sure where he was with us; Lisa was my daughter, and if Wendy and I were married, or at least together, I’d be a kind of step-dad to him. But of course I was moving pretty slowly on that at the time”.
She looked at me steadily for a moment, and then said, “Are you and Wendy going to get married?”
“We haven’t talked about that yet”.
“Are you going to?”
“You know how to ask ‘em, don’t you?”
She frowned; “Are you scared?”
“What are you scared of?”
“All kinds of thing. I’m scared that I’m still too sad about your mom to really be able to give Wendy the sort of love she needs. I’m scared that what Wendy and I can achieve together won’t be as good as what I had with your mom. I’m scared that I’ll fall into the trap of comparing her with your mom, and not wanting to put her through all of that. Yeah – if you must know, I am quite scared”.
“But you love each other”.
“Don’t be scared, Dad”, she whispered. “You’re a good man, and Wendy’s a great person. I think you should ask her”.
I shook my head; “I’m not ready yet, Em. Don’t push me on this, okay?”
Her eyes searched mine, and she gave a little frown. “Are you upset with me?”
“I’m not upset. I do love Wendy – I love her a lot. But it took me a while to get this far; it’s going to take me a while longer to move to the next stage”.
She nodded; “I understand, Dad”, she whispered.