OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

OF GRACE AND MAGIC

``Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.''

From ``The song of wandering Aengus'' by William Butler Yeats.

It was the summer of 1978 and he did not really want to think about why he was driving for nearly three hours for a very brief dinner invitation; if he had stopped to think he would have had to conclude this was crazy. But as he sped along the busy Interstate 95 toward Guilford he could not help but think back more than twenty years to the lovely 17-year old girl with the beautiful smile that he had last seen so long ago. He knew she was married and had four daughters. He imagined she and her husband had a comfortable and affluent life in the little Connecticut coastal village of Guilford. He wondered how she (and her mother who was living with them) would react to this jarring intrusion from long ago. Would they wonder what on earth this man was doing essentially inviting himself to dinner and driving all that way for such a superficial encounter? But he did not want to think; if he thought he would have had to accept that all he wanted to do was see her just one more time and remember the love he felt for her all those years ago. But that did not seem proper for a happily married man with three children. So he choose to drive and not to think.

It had all begun many decades ago and many thousands of miles away. Begun in the small, sleepy Northern Irish village of Magherafelt. At about five years of age, they had gone together to the tiny kindergarten attached to the Rainey Endowed School in that rural village. They became friends then and that friendship lasted throughout their school days. They had played together, children of two of the small number of middle class families in the village and members of the same Presbyterian church. She had witnessed some of his crazier exploits such as the time he jumped from a high second floor window with a home made parachute. Indeed his mother blamed her for encouraging that exploit, unfairly in her eyes. Yet, many years later he would wonder whether her sparkling laugh with its hint of devilment had not indeed encouraged this and other crazy exploits. She also remembered the time he had inadvertently ridden his bike down a steep embankment at high speed and become entangled in the barbed wire fence at the bottom, a stunt that required some 60 stitches to repair the rips to his skin.

At the age of 17 this friendship suddenly and briefly blossomed into a romantic relationship. This was short-lived for when she went off to nursing school in the big city of Belfast, they drifted apart and went on to their separate lives. He met and eventually married his Doreen; they had three children and made a life in sunny southern California. She met and married a doctor, Colin Angliker; they had four daughters and also emigrated, in their case to Canada eventually moving to Montreal. Though there was virtually no communication, they could not quite forget each other. In the boys case this was why he was driving through the rain toward the little Connecticut coastal village of Guilford.

How he came to know of her whereabouts involved a remarkable coincidence that had the essence of destiny. Strangely it came about through his academic professional interests. In the mid-1970s he and a handful of other scientists around the world became interested in the strange mechanics involved in the flow of granular materials. Through this activity he struck up a collegial and personal friendship with a professor at Magill University (in Montreal) by the name of Stuart Savage. One night in a bar at Cornell University they were enjoying a beer after a long symposium when the talk turned to Montreal. He casually remarked that a former high-school sweetheart of his now lived there. Stuart politely asked for her name and when he replied "Barbara Angliker" a look of astonishment came over Stuart's face. "She was my neighbor" he replied. So it was that he learned that Barbara and her family had moved away from Montreal, to New England and the New Haven area.

Arriving for that dinner in the late afternoon she greeted him warmly, made him feel a little more comfortable and spent some time giving him a tour of the lovely old New England home in which they lived. Then it was time to prepare dinner and her husband, Colin, returned from work to join the pre-dinner drinks. It was all very pleasant but reserved. Her mother was particularly friendly and made the situation more comfortable than it might otherwise have been. He sensed a tension and wondered from whence it came. She sat between her visitor and her mother and did not say much. Once dinner was over he recognized that perhaps it would be best if he started the long drive home. So he began his goodbyes. Getting up to leave he was a little surprised that her mother urged her to accompany him to the gate as he left. He was struck by the forcefulness of this suggestion and also by the sad look in Barbara's eyes as she said goodbye to him at the gate. Had he not been so absorbed by his own turbulent feelings he might have understood the emotional tensions of the evening a little better.

He returned to his wife and children and got on with life. Some years later he learnt from his mother and the Magherafelt grapevine that there had been a very unpleasant divorce and that Barbara now lived alone in Guilford (several of her daughters lived nearby). Occasionally he idly googled both her and her husband and found reference to the divorce and to some of his activities. When her mother died Barbara and her sister called on his mother when they carried their mother's ashes back to Magherafelt. So it was that he learnt of these developments from his mother. His mother even had a photograph of that visit that showed a face that reignited that ancient affection. He took time to compose a letter of condolence to Barbara, one that seemed to resonate with her for she sent back a heartfelt response.

Again some years passed. Then he happened to be asked to participate in a technical feasibility study at General Dynamics, Electric Boat Division, in Groton, Connecticut. Groton happens to be an easy 40 minute drive east of Guilford. Again without wanting to think too much about his own motivation, he immediately wondered about whether he might visit with her again. Eventually he got up the courage to seek his wife's permission to have dinner with Barbara, permission that was granted though the underlying thoughts on both sides were not explored. However, both he and his wife were confident enough in their relationship to recognize that this was mostly him being his usual curious self and that this dinner would not have any significant consequence for their marriage.

And so it was that after business one day he drove those 40 minutes to Guilford where Barbara and he had a lovely dinner in a Guilford restaurant, reminiscing about their youth and the community in which they grew up together. Another such harmless dinner occurred about a year later. Barbara would come to call these the "polite dinners". Nothing remotely inappropriate occurred during them though they both learnt that they enjoyed each other's company very much. He was surprised by the extent to which that childhood friendship and shared experience were resumed after so many years.

Some more time passed before the tragic developments of the year 2007. After about 6 months of uncertain health, Doreen was diagnosed in July 2007 as suffering from colon cancer that had spread to her liver and her lungs. All possible life-extending measures were explored before the inevitable was accepted and his lovely wife, friend and companion of some 47 years passed away on Aug.22, 2007, just a month after the diagnosis. She died peacefully surrounded by her closest family and was laid to rest beside her son in Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, California.

As was the case after the earlier tragedy of his son's death, he somehow managed to survive the terrible agony of that loss but only with the mutual support of his daughters, Dana and Kathy who mourned with him. However, they had other responsibilities and so he was inevitably left alone in a now bleak and lonely house, left with the life-threatening struggle of emotional survival. Sometimes he would hike into the nearby mountains after sunset and scream Doreen's name into the dark. Sometimes he would conclude that it might be easier to end his own life, a fundamental right he believed he possessed. Always the thought of his two daughters and their children prevented his suicide. And gradually the blackness receded. Friends helped too. He began to go to work again. And in Nov.2007, he was again asked by Electric Boat to come to Groton, Connecticut. It seemed perfectly appropriate to again ask Barbara to have dinner with him. Again all propriety was observed, though this time it seemed a little different for now he was no longer married. They enjoyed each other's company very much and agreed to see each other again before too long.

Returning to California, the thought of this lovely friend of long ago kept returning often in his mind. Finally, after much thought, he decided to act. And he wrote this email to Barbara:

My dear Barbara:

For a number of weeks I have thought to sit down and try to write down my thoughts regarding the two of us. But I have hesitated for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously because I recognize the possibility that my thoughts may still be somewhat jumbled by grief and conditioned by loneliness. Second because in making suggestions for the future (however indeterminate that might be) I run the risk of upsetting you and endangering a friendship newly born but anciently valued. In response to the first I argue to myself that whatever jumbling or conditioning there may be, they do not change the 50 year-old love and affection I have for you. And in response to the second I trust you will, as always, deal with me kindly and honestly.

Fundamentally, as I did 50 years ago, I want to ask you whether you see a future for the two of us beyond the friendship of one or two dinners a year, however delightful those might be. I sure hope the answer is different this time around but if it is not I will continue to enjoy and value our more distant friendship. You might ask for clarification of my meaning, but I leave that for whatever routes both of us find comfortable in following. We could think of a small start such as a long weekend somewhere away from both our homes. But maybe I go too far with even this suggestion. Most of all I want to end by telling you how much I love you and how much joy I think a deeper relationship could bring to both of us.

With much love

Chris

He waited in suspense for the next few days while, unbeknownst to him, Barbara wrestled with how to reply. She later said she exhausted the patience of her daughters in struggling with how to respond. Eventually she sent the following email in reply:

Dear Chris,

First of all let me start out by thanking you for your beautiful and very touching letter, and for sharing your thoughts so openly and honestly with me. I hope that I can always be as open and honest with you.

After my divorce I guess to some extent I built a wall around myself as protection from ever getting hurt again. It took me a long time to rebuild my self esteem, so it would be a very big step for me to allow anyone into my life again. However having said that I feel that I would like to take that step and explore the possibility of something deeper than a friendship with you and see where it takes us. I hope that you will understand and appreciate my need to take things slowly for both our sakes, but I look forward to the journey.

With love to you,

Barbara

He was ecstatic when he read that last sentence. Somehow it meant that there might be life and love left for him yet.

The "journey" as Barbara appropriately described it began at that moment. He sent her a dozen red roses with the message "For the journey". They both expected that journey, if it continued at all, to last many months, perhaps even years. But from the start of the visit to Connecticut that followed, events and emotions seemed to have their own momentum. He was absolutely bowled over, fell in love with her again after a fifty year interruption. Was it her smile, her lilting laugh? Was it her evident sensitivity to his recent loss, her unassuming kindness and grace? Was it their shared heritage? Maybe all of these and yet these could not have been enough in and of themselves. There had to be some special, undefinable magic that drew them inevitably together. That magic made it all seem so right, so predestined. She would say that instead of taking it slowly as they had agreed to do, he moved like a freight train. But it really was not him. It was the magic that had its own momentum, its own predestined pace and that magic overtook them both. In short, love was like a sky, a heaven that crashed down all over them both.

Returning from that visit he felt like a seventeen year old - not able to think of anyone or anything but her. In short and quite unexpectedly he had fallen deeply and uncontrollably in love with this lovely, beautiful woman. He also believed those feelings were reciprocated. He went back to Guilford two weeks later and the emotions accelerated even further. He was certain then that he wanted very much to spend the rest of his life with Barbara and he hoped very much she felt the same though she was rightly a little more circumspect. Then came a break of about four weeks over Christmas and New Year. He told both of his daughters then that he might have to go back on his resolve not to get married again. During that extended break he really felt a little unbalanced by his separation from her even though they talked by phone every day. Her magical present to him on Christmas day was to tell him (on the phone) that she loved him. He probably grinned like an idiot for the rest of that special day.

To his daughters he wrote:

"Barbara is a very, very special person for me. I love this lovely, gentle, kind and beautiful woman very, very much. From deep depression after Doreen's death she showed me that there might still be life and love for me and she returned the optimism and love that was born in those visits east. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

Flying across the continent again in early January, they resumed their breakneck courtship. This culminated in a moment on the evening of Jan.11 when the magic cascaded up through his brain and he asked her to marry him. It was a special and almost completely impetuous decision. Though he had practiced the words of a measured proposal on the plane journey there, it was a plan for a future many weeks away when he would have had time to seek the approval of his two daughters. The moment was so impetuous that Barbara was not sure she had heard him properly and twice asked him to repeat the question. When it finally sank in her face lit up with her glorious smile and, now to his surprise, said "absolutely I will marry you!" He knew he would relive that glorious moment for the rest of his life.


Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen