reflections in Scotland, as an attempt to regroup, and heal from relationship losses.
The coastline below me is vastly different from the metropolitan area that so recently filled my view. Huge boulders, worn smooth by centuries of waves, edge the shore. Just inland, tidal pools of seawater shimmer and reflect the wide open sky overhead. Behind me the earth climbs gradually to the flat ridge of a shallow cliff above. Mingling salty breezes and moist, rich humus soothe me with their aromas. I am peace-filled here. The anxiety of my former life is fading quickly. I breathe deeply the scents and am not afraid to relax and invite the surroundings into my senses.
I have come to stay here awhile. Perhaps a long while. The opportunity to house sit here presented itself at the perfect moment. Far from my strained marriage and the compassion-fatigue of healthcare work, I enjoy the solitude.
The mornings are splendid. I arise before the small community has begun to waken and enter the village streets and pass the small shops. My home, albeit a temporary one, is near the end of a court. A short street with residences close together, tall and narrow on one side and open land overlooking the North Sea on the other.
I have just returned from a walk along the cliff's edge away from the village, I swung back and walked past the quiet harbor while the sun was still barely above the horizon and the tide was out. Beyond the harbor is a stretch of smooth beach as yet untouched on this new morning. The shallow water drifted in and out almost lazily. I was fascinated by areas of smooth rocks in the clear water that seemed to shine and invite lingering over their beauty.
When I had my fill of sea sounds, smells, and views, I returned to the duplex town home. I am "sitting" the right side or north side of the duplex. There is a small entryway between outside and inside. An old wooden door with glass window and old-fashioned lock opens into the foyer. On my left, stairs rise to the second floor where there are three guest rooms, one full and one half bath and a common room.
The first floor I call home. A bedroom faces the street with tall windows, a pleasant though far from modern bath, a bright kitchen looking out on the courtyard-like yard, and my favorite area, a room adjacent to the kitchen. It is also on the back of the house and has a door to the yard. This room is so "right". A wall of books, a couple comfortable chairs, a light wood desk, and a table that currently holds my watercolours and paper, a jar of pencils and brushes, and a pottery vase of wildflowers: I call this the study.
The walls here and elsewhere in the house are hung with large perfectly detailed photographs. One in this room is of hundreds of small smooth rocks glistening in the shallow water- I can believe, looking at it, that the photo was taken only moments ago- so similar was the scene at the beach.
I do not reach out to the world here. I will not for a while. This sabbatical was in lieu of a more severely restricted stay in a psychiatric ward. I will not play on the edge by exposing my mind to news of the outside world. It can wait. Or someone else can worry over it, mourn over it, be angered or frightened by it. I seek respite, renewal, relief.
While I stand in the door of the study, I revisit another such house overlooking the North Sea. It was another summer that began with the potential to be wonderfully memorable and became bittersweet horror.
Nancy and I had been so close for several years. However, as I learned more clearly at her funeral, she was close to and especially dear to literally dozens of people. I shared one unique facet of Nancy's life. I followed her to France every summer for eight years, and had the distinct pleasure of working alongside of her in the Camp de la Bonne Nouvelle- Good News Camp- kitchen for three weeks each year. We shared the joy of providing meals for the campers, frustration of anticipating the appetites of the campers, and sweet exhausted contentment when the campers left for home at the end of camp. We were so ready to go home ourselves once camp ended. Mission accomplished. Time to return to our other lives. We parted from the campers and others workers with the annually repeated phrase "l'annee prochaine". See you next year. Without fail, when the calendar showed January, our thoughts, conversations returned to camp. We made new attempts to brush up on our French, and even attempted to learn more. Camp was a bond between us. At camp, we shared Nancy's tent. The tent was splendid: Tall enough to stand in, big enough for three cots though typically we had two cots, the one on the left Nancy's, the one on the right was mine. We each had an overturned wooden crate for a dresser at the end of our cots. There was room between the cots for a makeshift plastic night table that held our towels, alarm clocks, glasses. One of the most wonderful features in my opinion was the completely enclosed floor. No bugs violated our sleep by invading the tent. The tent had large windows on three walls and a screen door which allowed excellent ventilation. So welcome on a hot summer day when we tried to rest during sieste.
The final summer that we were at camp together Nancy was so weak, so sick that she rested after every meal, sometimes not even able to stay upright through the meal service. Margie and I carried on admirably well but missed her presence in the kitchen. I had my first of many opportunities to make "executive decisions" as Nancy called them, regarding food prep during that camp.
Nancy would return to our tent to rest, and when I went in to rest also during sieste, I feared that she was dead. She lay so still, skin pale, sunken eyes exposing the fact of her rapid weight loss. It was only slightly worse when I stood by her hospital bed with another dear friend and Nancy's family less than six months later and watched her take her last gasping breaths after the ventilator was removed.
Nancy loved Scotland as much as she loved being at camp in France and at Easter camp in Honduras. She made 14 annual trips to Honduras and 24 to France. Several years, she extended her trip to France to include a visit to Scotland, or Germany, or Britain. Scotland was her favorite. She spoke of it and the people that she met there during repeated stays at particular B & Bs with immense love. Several times she shared with me stories of her visits to the Rose Castle including details about visits with Lady Rose the last heiress of the Castle who left it to a Christian organization to use for youth type camps and as a B &B.
Nancy invited Alexis to visit Scotland with her several times through the years. Finally, a year before Nancy's final trip to camp, Alexis looked ahead and realized that the following year would be ideal for making a trip to Scotland with Nancy.
Throughout the fall and winter months Nancy and I met most Fridays to do stained glass, or make note cards, or just pass several hours visiting over tea. When Nancy mentioned that she and Alexis were planning to visit Scotland after camp, I asked if I could tag along. Nancy and Alexis agreed that I could join them on the trip.
During the winter and early spring, Nancy planned our ten day trip to visit some of her favorite places in Scotland. Three days were devoted to the Isle of Skye, Nancy's number one destination. From Skye, we would drive north then east past Inverness then drive to the Castle to spend one night in a room there. After leaving the castle, we would drive south and further east past Edinburgh to a small village on the North Sea.
Plans began to change in the spring when Nancy, ever full of ideas, projects, decided to complete the terracing of her garden by spreading dirt herself and strained her back. Despite visits to the chiropractor, she was still hurting when she left for camp at the end of June.
When I begin to recall and relive that final camp and our trip to Scotland, I am filled with regret, remorse. It wells up and chokes me as though I will drown in it if I do not flee. I totally missed the severity of Nancy's illness, was helpless to aide her. Nancy saw a doctor while we were at camp who prescribed a medication for deep muscle pain, which seemed to be Nancy's biggest symptom: unrelenting pain in her back next to her spine. She had no appetite, lost weight and became weaker. When we left France for Scotland, Nancy was unwilling to see another doctor so we merely carried on with the agenda Nancy had planned of driving from locale to locale where Nancy had made reservations. Alexis drove on the unfamiliar left-sided roads and I navigated from Nancy's well-worn Scotland Road Atlas. Nancy was usually so weak that she sat and rested or went to bed immediately upon our arrival at each destination. When we finally turned toward Dunbar, the village where missionary friends of Nancy's and Alexis' lived we were ready to be still and rest for the four remaining nights until our flight home.
It was in Dunbar that I met Graham, and his artwork. We showed up at his doorstep Thursday afternoon, tired and without a place to stay. A wrong phone number left us stranded for 24-48 hours until our friends would be home. After several attempts to make contact, we had driven into Dunbar to the tourist office and inquired about available rooms for the night. The clerk gave us Graham's information and since he was a near neighbor of our friends, we knocked at his door and asked to room at his home for the night...
He was gracious, and welcomed us ... and, though we had no private conversations, I was immediately infatuated with him...
My home life had become so fractured and isolated. My husband and I were living separate lives in the same house, and though I did not know how near to crumbling our marriage was, I sensed that I did not want to return there. I nearly begged Graham to let me stay with him. Wildly I thought, "perhaps I could offer to be a housekeeper, anything to avoid going home..." Thankfully, I was needed to escort Nancy home, and my commitment to my vows to my husband protected us from the huge error I was so tempted to make... I made no plea to this stranger who had given us temporary refuge.
The evening of the day we flew home to Chicago, a good friend planned to stay with Nancy. We knew by then that she was gravely ill, but had no idea of the source. Her chief complaint continued to be the stabbing pain in her back. She had lost twenty pounds in two months. The evening we arrived home, Nancy spiked a temperature of more than 103 degrees. She was hospitalized and after several days and numerous tests it was determined that she had Bacterial Endocarditis. One of her heart valves had been destroyed by the infection, and she would need a valve replacement after a course of IV antibiotic, when she became stronger, more stable.
As I stand in the study door, presently, I close my eyes and picture Nancy when she was well.
I don't desire to remember too much, my memories of Nancy are mine. She has died and when I die they will be gone also. It is that vaporous quality which so illustrates to me the Bible verses "What is your life? It is even a vapor which appears for a little while and then vanishes away." A vapor can make no lasting effect, and even if it has a sweet savor it will not out last the visible vapor by very long.
When I feel ineffectual, I dwell on the briefness of life- for example my sister-in-law's life: Cathy died of Breast Cancer at 46 years of age. She is missed- will be as long as those who knew her have memory-but she is replaceable in many of her roles. In fact in all roles except "Mother” my brother, her widower, is engaged to a kind pleasant woman. And Cathy is replaced. I serve in the kitchen where Nancy was Cuisiniere from 1983-2006. And Nancy is replaced, not as efficiently, but the need is filled. I am not unique. My co-worker, a wonderful friend, an excellent, caring, dedicated nurse, died this spring and is replaced.
We can't stand still. Those who live and remain keep moving. My life is about keeping moving. So why does God tell us to "be still"?
Today, in the study, I will paint the sadness. I will use blues and grays and will cry on my watercolour paper as I send the tears away. I cry for those I have lost. I cry for myself awaiting my call to go.
The day is well spent when I stop saturating paper with color and weeping. As I look up from the work I catch a glimpse of the sleek form of the cat crossing the garden. He is graceful and unhurried as he walks to a sunny spot on the pavers and lies down to preen himself. It is knowing that he will demand attention and dinner soon that requires a commitment from me to set aside the paints and go to the kitchen. I prepare his simple supper, though it is only tea time. I prepare myself a cup of tea and take the cat's supper and my tea out to the paved square. I select an iron seat to rest on and hold the warm cup in my hands. Hands which are empty and longing to hold another person's hands.
I always desire to hold on. Letting go of people, moments is difficult.