A different perspective
Days merged imperceptibly with one another. We’d wanted to make this journey for several years. Then unexpectedly, a company reorganisation brought redundancy, with a decent settlement. After some hesitation with both of us reluctant to take the initiative, the suggestion was being discussed, tentatively at first, then with increasing enthusiasm and momentum. Finally, here we were. Our newly built hotel with a private balcony, facing onto the most beautiful sandy bay I’d ever seen. Daily and frequent walks became a much loved routine.
I stood on the edge of the beach watching the gentle breeze ruffling John’s hair. His prematurely greying locks resting against his thin tanned face, provided a backdrop for piercing blue eyes. He was concentrating deeply on his sketchpad, tanned hands moving rhythmically across the surface, as he regularly looked up at the horizon, and then translated the images. The sea was imperceptibly moving towards him and I knew shortly he would have to pick up the folding chair and retreat towards me.
John seemed immersed in his surroundings although he responded increasingly to a stray dog which had recently appeared and singled him out for attention. It was carrying a dark, discoloured stick in its mouth and laid it playfully down at John’s feet. Then it backed off a few paces tail wagging expectantly, before yelping excitedly as he reached down, picked up the stick and threw it along the edge of the water. Expecting the direction of his throw, the dog scampered away, quickly retrieved it and ran back to begin the process all over again.
This behaviour went on for ages, which I found quite surprising because John had never really been a doggy person and preferred the company of cats, where his gentle manner and tactile needs were more fulfilled. Finally, even John got fed up and convinced the dog he’d thrown the stick in one direction, whilst in fact hiding it underneath his seat. The dog looked puzzled and for a while ran back and forth along the beach before getting bored and trotting off towards the adjacent road.
John stood up shading his eyes with one hand, slowly traversing the surroundings, then settled on a particular view, moved his chair back several yards to avoid the lapping water before resuming his drawing. To an onlooker he would have appeared to be totally at peace, a relaxed holidaymaker. As his wife for 30 years, I knew nothing could be further from the truth.
He was still deeply grieving and traumatised by the loss of our darling Jenny. Whilst his tears had lessened, they now fell in some secret place. From the moment Jenny was born, there’d been a magic between them. A special affinity, which epitomised itself in a deeply loving father and daughter relationship.
It had been a difficult pregnancy. We’d given up on the idea we could ever have a child of our own. Tests, disappointment, further tests and more demoralising news, with a clock that was inexorably ticking away. Then those first few days of uncertainty, anxiety and initial awareness. Small subtle changes to my body, and odd feelings. Such odd feelings. A growing optimism, which initially I didn’t want to share with anyone. I wanted to be sure, so it was nearly 3 months before I told John.
He was looking tired when he came home from the office and sat down wearily in the lounge. This was the moment Sam our Siamese cat had been waiting for all day. She emerged from her favourite daytime resting place, on the ledge next to the window where she basked in the sunlight. Seeking no permission, she jumped onto John’s lap, curled herself around the contours of his body and fell asleep. All day I’d wondered how he might take the news and had some gentle rehearsals.
He didn’t leap up and punch the air, nor shout out exuberantly, but his whole being changed. It was as if a gentle light suddenly flickered and grew within his eyes before slowly spreading across his whole face. There was a subtle, then slow shaking of his head before a developing smile quickly transformed his air of tiredness into one of joy. A trickle of tears ran down his face. He sniffed, then gently lifted Sam into his arms and for a moment buried his face deep within her soft welcoming fur. Sam protested gently as she always did when disturbed, responding with that oh so familiar, unique Siamese growl.
The following months were a blur of tests, anxiety, growing excitement and absolute anticipation across our whole family and friends. Then one wet and thundery evening, just before midnight and with a cry of such piercing presence heard throughout the ward, she was finally there. Our long awaited, adorable and so unique Jenny.
She besotted John. There were times, when even I felt an occasional twinge of jealousy, as he calmed the most fractious and fearsome tantrum. Laying her tiny frame across his shoulder, he would gently pat and rub her back until she was calm, then other than the occasional whimper, she’d sleep.
Suggesting we idolised Jenny would be an understatement. She became the focal point of our lives. We gave her every opportunity and experience possible; encouraging her development, reinforcing every achievement and daily feeling blessed and in awe she was such a lovely and responsive child. Early school days merged into adolescence, which became a blue of university examinations culminating in the realisation that our darling daughter was now a young woman.
She strode purposefully across the podium to collect her degree watched by a middle-aged couple with watery eyes and an enormous sense of pride. We saw a shy little wave as she descended the steps on the other side. During her university days Jenny remained at home, so apart from the occasional holiday or degree pursuit, our lives entwined for over 20 years.
She told me first about her desire to take a gap year and travel abroad before seeking employment. In private moments I sometimes regretted my supportive response. We’d agreed how she would broach the subject with John. I don’t know if he had any sense of foreboding although he was strangely quiet in the early months of her absence. I knew he was missing her as dreadfully as I did. For both of us Jenny was more than a daughter, rather a genuine friend and for me especially, a confidant which I’d let go.
She kept in touch regularly during her time in the various countries she visited. Phone calls from Ecuador, E-mails from San Francisco, Postcards from Cape Town, and occasional letters with obscure stamps from diverse parts of the world. Jenny embraced all the experiences with her usual eagerness and appetite for learning. We were not a religious family, but gradually John and I realised, that Jenny was not only on a journey of discovery in terms of the physical world, she was also exploring her own spirituality.
It was not surprising therefore to receive a much awaited, rather bulky envelope in which she described working in an orphanage in Thailand, run by Buddhist monks, and that she’d adopted their faith. Knowing she’d already made such a decision was comforting when the other devastating news arrived.
The stray dog had reappeared and was approaching John again. There were dozens of couples on the beach, and it seemed odd it seemed to be consistently seeking us out. I hesitated before speaking.
‘John. Do you know in the Buddhist faith when someone dies it can reincarnate them as an animal?’
He looked at me quizzically before reaching under his chair and picking up the stick again.
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘Well, it seems strange that the dog has sought us out regularly, although the beach has dozens of people on it and especially as this is the actual place Jenny was last seen before the Tsunami arrived’.
He turned away briefly, then reached out and touched my face with his hand.
‘I think it’s time to go back to the hotel’ he whispered. Then he paused and turned.
‘Wouldn‘t it would be nice though?’ and in one movement joyously threw the stick into the air and shouted
‘Come on Jenny. Fetch’
As the stick arched slowly, tumbling across the sky, before falling into the water, the dog was gone. John turned and I could see a wetness in his eyes. We looked at one another without speaking for a few moments, then he reached down and packed up his drawing materials and canvas. I moved towards him.
‘John wait. Can I see how far you’ve progressed the painting.’ Without waiting for a response, I gently pulled the canvas from under his arm. The mage of the bay, with the golden sands, palm trees and gently rolling white topped surf was magnetic. In the forefront, he’d already developed the outline of a familiar figure, in a remembered stance.
‘Time to go back to the hotel’ John said, placing a familiar arm around my shoulders.