The night I turned 31 years of age I broke in my mother’s arms. It was January 31st, 1996.
I had been a Catholic high school teacher for six years. It was two years since my divorce after which I picked myself up and carried on as though nothing were different. I thought I was strong enough to survive it all. In my life I had always managed. This would be no different. I focused all of my energies on the task of teaching, as well as helping students through the vales of adolescent tragedies. Then without warning, one of my students took his own life. He hung himself in the basement of his mother’s home with a computer chord. The immediate crisis was handled by myself and the other members of staff, and always in my mind, I would be strong as always. Yet I was not strong, not anymore.
I cried to God each evening, and asked that He carry me.
“If it is true that You never give anyone any more than they can handle, then carry me now. I’m too weak to stand on my own any longer.”
For months I prayed in this manner. One evening as I lay in bed, a figure appeared in my doorway. I could not move my arms and legs, yet I did not feel fear, only peace. I said to him when I saw him, “You’re here now.”
He had dew-kissed, translucent, white skin and sea blue eyes, and resembled a man with whom I taught and had developed a close friendship. The figure moved fluidly into my room and sat at the end of my bed, his back to me. He was dressed in a blue shirt and tan slacks. He didn’t have wings or a halo but I felt that the figure before me was a celestial messenger of sorts. He didn’t smile but merely turned his head to the side so that I could see his beautiful profile and said simply, “You must go home.”
The following morning, as I was making my bed before leaving for school, my clock radio burst forth in song. It was odd that this occurred for two reasons. The first reason was that my alarm was set for five to accommodate my morning run and not the hour of seven. Secondly, I never set my clock on music. I always set it on buzzer, for only that piercing shrill would make me stir. The song that was playing was a high school favourite: London Calling by The Clash. As the song played, I remembered all of which had occurred the night before, and fell to my knees in prayer. Heaven had heard my desperate whispers, and had sent to me an answer clearly and directly. I was to go home. Home. To London, Ontario. That was His answer?
I resisted it at first; however, over the next three months it came again and again with increasing clarity. Home. The writing was on the proverbial wall, and God’s finger had etched it there for me to see. In truth, I had always wanted to leave the small town in which I taught. I had stayed for the sake of a teaching position that ended every year in a lay-off notice anyway. I felt I could teach elsewhere and struggle through the lean years of academic cut-backs in a place where at least I wanted to put down roots. I had accepted the position because it was within commuting distance to the city in which I lived with my husband. Jack was established as a teacher in there, a place where he had lived all his life surrounded by his family and his friends. It was never my city. I had always wanted us to leave there. I had thought of teaching in British Columbia, or in Britain or even in London where my family resided.
Jack always said, “I don’t want to live and die in here, babe.”
“The only thing that will prevent that is if you physically leave here,” I told him.
He would never leave his hometown, and I could never make it my home.
I believed so strongly in what I had experienced that night in October that I knew God would look after me and grant me another post when the time was ripe. For the moment, I could only focus on re-establishing myself in the right place, where my life could begin once more. I knew my visitor hadn’t been a dream. I knew I had received a celestial caller, and he pointed me home.
Two days before I left, a childhood friend from London telephoned to tell me that her husband had left her after three years of marriage. Marina was beside herself with grief. Her Hungarian husband had bullied her for many years. She was never thin enough, smart enough or beautiful enough for his taste although he was an insignificant man in every way. He told Marina that he deserved to be with her more beautiful, younger sister who was also married and had a child. Marina had started to lose her hair from all the stress he caused her.
“It’s coming out in handfuls in the shower,” she told me weeping uncontrollably into the phone. I tried to console her but it was impossible especially long-distance. “I am moving in with my folks,” she sobbed.
“I am too,” I said and we both laughed. “Thirty is going to be great!” I told her. “Just you wait! It will be our banner year!” Marina’s birthday was two weeks before mine. We would both be turning thirty in the upcoming month of January. Marina continued to sob openly into the phone. “I’ll be home soon,” I promised her. “Hold tight.”
I drove home to London on a snowy, icy December 23rd. As I navigated the 403 and the 401, I remembered how often Jack and I had made that drive together and I missed him.
After I left him, Jack tried to get me to come home once. He called my apartment but I told him to leave me alone. He never did bother me again until one year after we separated when he called to tell me that we needed to sign some papers for our annulment. We agreed to meet at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop located on the highway between our places of residence on a cold, rainy November night. I saw Jack’s car and ran from my old vehicle to sit next to him in his new car. We were pleasant to one another and I quickly signed all of the papers with which he presented me. We inquired into the well-being of one another and our respective families before a pall of silence shrouded the car. His vehicle shook in the robust winds like a ship rocking on the water determined to break free of its mooring.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband to you, Ange,” Jack finally spoke. “I want you to know that because of you, despite how much it hurt when you left me, I will be a better husband to my next wife. I will be stronger.”
As he wept next to me in the car, I thought though his words were sweet, and likely words that he needed to say to me, they were strange. It was odd to hear him speak of his next wife. I looked at his big, beautiful, green eyes shining with tears in the night, and wept too. He reached for my hand and I leaned into his shoulder.
“I wish I had been a better wife to you too, Jack,” I said softly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t capable of being a good wife to you. You deserve to be adored. I want that for you more than I want it for myself.”
“Just promise me one thing, babe,” Jack said. “Promise me that you won’t go back to London, to your family.” I nodded and asked him if he were seeing someone new and he said that he was. I told him that I was glad he was with someone and he seemed to be stung by the realization that I wanted him to move on and be happy. He furrowed his brow. “And you know what, babe? She has sisters too, but I like her sisters. They’re good people.”
St. Jack, blessed be the peacemaker, liked everyone on earth but despised my two sisters and my parents because he felt that they treated me like garbage. He wasn’t wrong.
We gently kissed and hugged before releasing one another to an uncertain future. I jumped from his car and ran back into the lashing rain that washed the salt from my tear-stained face. I knew then that I had loved Jack as much as I was able, but just not well enough. I had rejected the only human love that had ever been offered me in short because I didn’t feel that I deserved to be loved. I was incapable of loving myself. As I drove to London that December night, I felt a great sense of despair and was disappointed in myself for all of the poor choices I’d made in my life, particularly in the past few years. I hated myself.
I stopped at a 7-11 convenience store in a small town along the way and gave the clerk twenty-five dollars for a small, fully decorated Christmas tree that he had on the counter next to the till. I sat the tree next to me in the passenger seat and continued the drive home. I thought of how I had vowed to never return to London when I ran from the city eight years before. That was the same year that I later met and married Jack. Yet, here I was making my way home through a year-end blizzard. London couldn’t be where I was supposed to end up, however.
“Surely not, God,” I prayed. “Surely not.”
Once in London, I stopped at Marina’s childhood home before I continued on to my parents’ place. I took the little Christmas tree from my car, and ran through the falling snow to the front door. I could see Marina sitting at the dining-room table with her family, enjoying dinner together. Her family, close and loving, was the opposite of mine. I felt embarrassed that I was intruding, and thought of leaving the tree on her doorstep without saying hello. I rang the bell instead. Marina was the one to answer the door, and when I thrust the tree at her, she burst into tears and flew into my open arms. I held my broken friend close to me.
“Merry Christmas, Marina,” I said and I kissed the top of her head.
“Merry Christmas, Ange!” she bubbled through her tears.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “It’s better not to be with a man who brutalizes your spirit.” She nodded her head and took the tree from my grasp, laughing at it with joy despite her flowing tears. “Put it in your room, next to your bed,” I said. “It’s just for you. I’ll call you in a few days. Tell your folks ‘Merry Christmas’ from me,” I told her. I dashed back to my car.
“I will. Same to your mom and dad,” she shouted after me. When I turned to wave, I saw her wipe away her tears, and go back inside carrying her little tree.
My parents lived less than five minutes from Marina’s parents, and all-too-quickly I arrived to Cant Crescent. I knew that my family didn’t want me back home, and I was desolate when I drove onto the street where I had grown up. I stopped a few houses back from my parents’ home and shut off my headlights. I let my engine idle to provide me with warmth against the December snowstorm that swirled all around. I sat in my car and wept, and then I prayed for Christ’s strength to get me through the door.
I did make it through the door. As the days passed, I found myself even more alone than I’d been before making the journey home. My family shunned me. I was not invited to my sister’s home for the family Christmas dinner, and my father didn’t speak to me. I felt that I shouldn’t have come home seeking solace. They didn’t want me. They never wanted me.
After the October visitor, I began to trust in God’s plan for my life. That experience wasn’t a dream. I remembered the details of that visit much too vividly for it to have been a dream. In the end, my belief that I had received a heavenly messenger gave me the wings I’d long lacked. For the first time in my life, I believed in the real-world presence of Christ in a way I simply had not prior to that celestial messenger. I trusted that God was invested in the outcome of my life, and began to feel confident that God would look after me if I let go of what I had always known to venture into the unknown. That is why, though I did move back to my childhood home in December 1995, within five days of living there, I bought a ticket to fly to London, England on New Year’s Eve 1995. I felt increasingly rootless in Canada and, in the end, I told myself that the London that was calling me was that of England and not of Ontario, Canada.
Of course, I was running away. It was my modes operandi. Perhaps I sensed that I had nothing left within me with which to stay and fight for a place at my family’s table so I decided to flee. As I prepared for that New Year’s Eve flight to London, England, I cried as I packed, unpacked and then repacked my suitcases several times. My devastated heart underwent a tug-of-war. I felt that though I had to leave, something within me told me that I needed to stay. My dad came into my room. Undoubtedly, my mother had sent him in. He held me in his sturdy arms.
“You don’t need to go, Ange,” he said to me. Those were the only words he had spoken to me since I’d arrived home.
“Yes, I do, Dad. I need to go.”
It was then that I packed my cases one last time and left for my New Year’s Eve flight. On December 31st, 1995, I flew to London, England toasting the New Year in two different time zones with champagne and tears. I didn’t know why I was so weepy. New Year’s Eve was my wedding anniversary. That could have been why I was crying, but I wasn’t sure.
In England, I stayed with one of my cousins and her husband. Cousin Christiane was the daughter of my father’s oldest sister, Murrin Griffin. Murrin had had Christiane out-of-wedlock after the Second World War. She had had an affair with a married man from the Isle of Barra and once she became pregnant with her daughter, the man returned to his wife and family on Barra, leaving Murrin to deal with the pregnancy alone in 1955 Glasgow, Scotland. When her own family learned that she was expecting, Murrin was shunned by the Griffins. I personally knew what it felt like to be exiled by my own blood. I didn’t know my cousin, Christiane. She had grown up not knowing any family, excommunicated by my father’s mother, our grandmother, Cecilia Griffin, just as my own sisters had always shunned me. I reached out to Christiane, my cousin overseas, because I had no sense of family at home.
I landed on January 1st, 1996. Christiane’s husband picked me up at the airport and drove me to their charming, little cottage in Croydon, where my cousin awaited my arrival. She wasn’t very welcoming as I walked through her front door and I felt that perhaps she didn’t want me there either. As time passed we did come to know one another, and Christiane proved to be that comforting older sister I’d never had in my own big sister. She and I went out together in London. She took me to Harrods and her favourite haunts about town. On one occasion, we hopped on a red double-decker and one of my bags blocked the aisle. A man struggled to get over it as he disembarked and he muttered something under his breath, which I didn’t hear but my big cousin did.
“She’s only just arrived from Canada!” Christiane shouted across the bus in her classy, Scottish BBC voice. Then she added, “Bastard!!!”
Christiane and I burst out laughing. The man quickly exited through the back door of the bus, and I had never felt so loved. No one had ever fought for me like that before. My own big sister had always enjoyed seeing others hurt or insult me. It gave her immense pleasure. My big sister certainly had never protected me or defended me as my big cousin did. It was after that incident that my cousin and I began to get better acquainted.
Christiane and I stayed at the exclusive apartment of her husband’s old auntie in the wealthiest area of London around the corner from Harrods. The old woman had all of her groceries sent round from Harrods. As I looked in her cupboards, all I saw was Harrods’ fare in tins and packages. The bathroom, like the rest of the flat, was luxurious. There was a white, oval whirlpool bathtub in the washroom, and my cousin insisted that I treat myself to a soak in it. From the tub I could see Jaguars and BMWs lining the cobble walkway beyond the windows. I thought that I could certainly get used to such a lifestyle. Living in London in such a place would be a dream. More than that, however, I was swathed in the love of my big cousin. Christiane was willing to give me the love and support I needed to start over there because like me she was hungry for family.
Within a week of arriving in England, a small voice whispered to my heart that I needed to go home. I stood on Platform Seven in London, England’s Victoria Station on January 6th, 1996 equipped with a map of the city and a tube guide as I set off on as series of job interviews. I was certified to teach in Britain, and as I was born in Scotland I was legally allowed to work in the United Kingdom. It was Friday morning rush hour and I studied the people who were taking the tube, focused on reaching their destinations. Everyone seemed to have a mobile to chat on as if it was part of the corporate uniform, and I could see myself chatting on my mobile to friends as I rode the tube to work or home. As I stood there observing the commuters and deciding for myself where I would fit in there, I felt what I can only refer to as a presence. I looked up Platform Seven and I felt something roll towards me. There was a winded sound like fire as it seeks to engulf a bystander with its flames. It rushed over me with an electrifying whoosh. There was no voice nor was there anything that I saw, but as its energy rolled across where I was standing, I heard in my heart the message, “You must go home.” The internal voice that would become clearer in time was beginning to whisper to me then.
I still struggled to believe that I had truly seen the visitor who I was only just beginning to characterize as an angel. I didn’t believe folk could see such things, but in childhood I had been told that I had a guardian angel, everyone had. After the October angel’s visit, I started to view life differently, and felt assured that we were not alone in our struggles. Christ was alive and invested in the well-being of people on earth, and He would intervene to draw us close to Him in love.
I buttoned my jacket collar against the January chill, walked to the train station’s bookshop and bought a postcard with a red double-decker bus on it. I wrote: England is the wrong place for you. I mailed it to myself, sending it to my parents’ Canadian address, as a reminder to me when I returned home in case I second-guessed the decision to return to London, Ontario at a later date. I knew then that I would resurrect my life in Canada, but first I yearned to see my Uncle Pádraic in Ireland where he had retired to Griffin land in Donegal. I could talk to my Uncle Pádraic in ways my father and I never could. Like my father, my uncle was a devout Catholic, and I worried what he would say about my divorce. My Uncle Pádraic had been a seminarian before marrying a Clydebank lass named Bridie. I called my uncle to ask if I might come and see him, though I dreaded having to tell him of my divorce.
“Is Jack with you?” he asked.
“I’m on my own,” I dodged the question.
“We’re roughing it here, Angela. We’re building a house. I’d feel ashamed to bring you here now,” he said.
“I just want to see you,” I said. There was a long pause during which I braced myself for his refusal.
“Céad míle fáilte,” he said at last.
“What does that mean?” I asked him.
“A hundred thousand welcomes.”
I had to travel from London to Holyhead in Wales where I could get a ferry across the sea to Ireland. My cousin’s husband drove me to the station early in the morning. When I climbed aboard the five-forty-five morning train in London, I looked forward to napping throughout the journey, but that proved to be impossible. Within minutes the train began to fill with boisterous, Welsh rugby players who appeared to be intoxicated.
An elderly couple, both of whom were partially blind, clamoured onto the carriage tapping their way with white canes. They sat in the seat in front of me with their middle-aged daughter who also seemed to be somewhat visually challenged. The three of them immediately began to bellow to one another in the Irish for the entire time they inhabited that carriage. Even the rowdy rugby players vacated our carriage in due course. I wanted to ask the Gaelic-shouting couple and their daughter to please speak softly to one another, but didn’t because they were blind. I had read of West coast folk speaking loud in the Irish in this manner as a way of forcefully displaying Gaelic in English-controlled Éire. I wondered if my own northern, west coast Irish ancestors had done this. I wondered if perhaps my Grandfather Griffin spoke Gaelic. He was illiterate, at least in the English language. My father was the last of six children born in 1937, and my Grandfather Griffin had signed my father’s birth certificate with an ‘X’. Though he couldn’t write his name in English (or wouldn’t), I wondered if perhaps he had known his letters in Gaelic. He lived in Donegal during the Easter Rising of 1916, and I always wondered if he left Ireland as a consequence for having been involved in rebel activities. Had he that would have certainly explained my own rebellious nature. I turned up the volume on my Walkman and blasted the Stones, Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac from a mixed tape I’d made, trying to drown out the Gaelic conversation ricocheting through the train carriage.
I wondered where my home was in this world. I never seemed to feel entirely at home in either Canada or Scotland though I loved both countries. I always longed for Scotland, the country of my birth. The same romantic nostalgia that surrounded Scotland for many also affected me. My heart ached for it as though it were my home. My family referred to Scotland as ‘back home’, as in: “We’re gain’ back hame fer Christmas.” When we said ‘back home’ or ‘back hame’ we meant Scotland. But Scotland wasn’t home for me. I was a stranger there who, to the Scots, spoke with an American accent. Maybe Ireland would prove to be the place where I felt a sense of home, family and belonging.
The train stopped in Holyhead in late afternoon. The three legally blind Gaelic bellowers navigated their way off of the train, and onto the boat that would ferry us across the Irish Sea. I watched where they went and walked in the opposite direction. A dense mist was settled atop the water, and the sound of foghorns rolled in from the sea. Seated next to a window, I was surrounded by Irish teens returning from some sort of school excursion. The girls were dressed in kilts and blazers, and their male counterparts wore the same emerald green, gold crested blazer with camel-coloured, flannel trousers. They were noisy, as teens will tend to be, and I knew that once again my attempt to find a quiet place had been thwarted.
“There will be a travel delay,” the ship’s captain announced over the tanoid in a pleasant Dublin accent. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I walked to a confectionary on the ship and I purchased a postcard with a Celtic cross on it, a sandwich and a cup of tea. I tucked the postcard inside my purse, and returned to my seat to eat my spot of lunch. The delay turned into a wait of several hours and my lunch became my dinner. It was dusk by the time we got underway.
The Irish Sea unmercifully tossed our small vessel as if it were a bath tub tugboat in the hand of an elated toddler. An hour into the journey, things became very quiet aboard the ferry as people battled seasickness. I sat still with my eyes closed in order to stave off waves of nausea. When I felt that I was going to lose my battle against my churning stomach, I went to the toilet so I could vomit privately, but the lavatory was bursting with the female kilted secondary students hurling in tandem into the porcelain pots. The sound of their retching and gagging as well as the smell of their vomit, made me feel worse, and I quickly exited. Holding myself upright with the vessel’s walls as the boat dipped and ascended on the crashing waves of the cresting sea. I lurched back into my seat. I sat completely still, afraid if I raised my head a second time I would be physically ill where I sat. Silently, I recited the words of Christ, “Peace, be still. Peace, be still. Peace, be still.” With those words, I redirected my thoughts from my desire to vomit to the peace only Christ can give.
Within two hours, the Spirit of Éire deposited us at Dublin’s dock already shrouded in winter’s cloak of night though it was only half-past-five. I’d been travelling for ten hours, and awake for longer than that. Exhausted, I boarded a bus marked for the city centre. A lovely, slender woman dressed in a tan raincoat with a silk beige and red silk tartan scarf tied neatly around her neck, sat next to me on the bus. She looked to be in her early fifties and her name was Mary. Upon learning I was from Canada, Mary offered me some advice.
“It’s not safe to be walking these streets alone at night, love. Never go out alone at night. Dublin is not the city it once was.”
She asked me if I knew where to stay in Dublin, and when I said that I did not, she told me that she would walk me to a place she knew to be clean, safe and reasonably priced. I thanked her for her kindness. We disembarked together and Mary walked me to a lovely but inexpensive B&B. A streetlight burned through the fog that wrapped itself around Dublin, allowing me to see little of the city. She walked with me to the door of the B&B, and left me there only after I promised her that I would indeed not venture out on my own at night.
“You’ll be safe here,” Mary patted my hand farewell.
I managed to thank her for guiding me to a safe place before she vanished into the vapor as though she had never been there.
The next morning, I awoke to discover that the bus I needed to take from Dublin to Glenvar was not running that day.
“That bus only runs every second day, love,” the B&B proprietress informed me at breakfast.
“I will need to telephone my uncle,” I told her. “Will I be able to stay here another night?”
“Of course, dear. Of course. January is the slow season here. We’ve loads of rooms available. You can ring your uncle from the house phone after breakfast.”
I telephoned my Uncle Pádraic after I finished eating.
“Go to the National Gallery while you’re there. Go and see some of Dublin. Ring me when you’re coming tomorrow.”
I walked to St. Stephen’s Green and stopped on a wooden bridge overlooking a small pond in the common. Two white swans swam close together so that a black swan, which appeared considerably smaller, couldn’t separate them. The black swan was rejected and eventually swam away on its own. I was the black swan that had always tried to fit in between my two sisters, one older and one younger, but was never accepted by them. They’d been jealous of me, claiming that I was my parents’ favourite. If I was, I never felt it.
I did as my Uncle Pádraic suggested and visited Dublin’s National Gallery. A dozen schoolchildren marched ahead of me along the corridor as I entered the portico. How magnificent to be exposed to these paintings so young, I marveled. There was no such exposure to great art in London, Ontario where I’d spent my own youth. There was one tiny gallery in London, Ontario, which housed a few paintings by Ontario artists and perhaps a clay pot fired and glazed in reds and blues. The children chatted excitedly as they gathered before various masterpieces in a nearby room, and I stepped away to enjoy a solitary moment of contemplation. I found myself before a number of paintings illustrating the life of Christ. I stared at the Taking of Christ, 1602 by Michelangelo. I pondered the look of pain in the eyes of the Savior as He is taken to his death. Then another portrait of Christ, painted by Gerard David of the Netherlands in the fourteenth century, drew my eye: Christ Bidding Farewell to the Virgin. Christ appears to be exhausted as He raises a solemn hand in benediction. His auburn hair is thin and his dark eyes appear weary. His creased brow keenly depicts his cavernous sense of fatigue.
Two teenage girls ran past me, giggling. The blonde one was dressed in a navy-blue and black plaid kilt and navy stockings that rolled over her slender knees to rest upon milky, trim thighs. Her outfit was very like the school uniform I donned as a Catholic Central student though her skirt was markedly shorter than mine had been permitted to be, and my navy socks had stopped at my knees. I stood before another masterpiece highlighted with brilliant blues. It was touted as Ireland’s favourite painting. Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, by Irish artist F.W. Burton, depicts the final embrace between the ill-fated lovers meeting on the stone, turret steps of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard fell in love, but the king disapproved of the match and ordered his sons to slay the amorous sentry. The portrait shows the couple’s final embrace as the doomed sentinel bids farewell to the king’s virgin.
I saw myself in that portrait, which poignantly illustrates the reluctance of two lovers to release one another and their obvious distress at being forced to do so. It reminded me not only of my dissolved marriage but also of the night my father beat me in front of my high school sweetheart, Sé Keen, because I was one hour late for my twelve o’clock curfew. My father split my lip and bloodied my nose dragging me home by the hair on my head while my seventeen-year-old boyfriend stood frozen in shocked horror at the sight of such brutality that had been a regular occurrence throughout my life. My father then forbid Sé to ever see me again.
I’d never heard the words, ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re beautiful’ until Sé said them to me when I was sixteen. When he was chased from my life by my father, I was devastated. All love stopped for me the night that Sé and I broke up. Sé was gone and I was so angry with my father for chasing Sé from my life, that I withdrew my love from him, the only person in my house that I did love. Six months later, I was sexually assaulted at a high school party by a boy from another high school. My life ended then, at age seventeen, in ways that I was incapable of comprehending or communicating to another. When I stared at the final embrace between these two painted, thwarted lovers, I felt that I was both the condemned lover and the grieving virgin in the painting. I certainly was not fully the princess in the portrait. Rather, I had mourned the death of my own innocence and the loss of my own love as much as she.
I left the National Gallery and breathed in the brisk evening air. The painting of the star-crossed lovers continued to tug at my heart as I strolled back to my B&B and I knew instinctively that I needed peace. It was peace for which I had long searched in my life. I felt in my purse for a peppermint, and my fingertips caressed the postcard I had purchased on the ferry crossing to Ireland. I’d forgotten all about it.
I stopped, fished a pen from my purse and wrote: Peace, be still on the back of it. I bought a stamp at the GPO on O’Connell Street made famous by the Easter Rising of 1916. Tucked into the window of the GPO was the statue of Cuchullain, the greatest warrior in Irish mythology and King of Ulster. It was a shame he was hidden away in a corner, inaccessible to the public who may wish to admire him. I affixed the stamp to my postcard and exited the GPO. There were pockmarks on the exterior of the GPO and I removed a red leather glove so that I could insert my fingertips into their chipped indents left there by British bullets fired on the Irish home-rule rebels holed up in the GPO on Easter Monday in 1916. I possessed the same fighting spirit as those home-rule rebels. I just needed to find it again. The GPO was listed as an iconic symbol of the failed 1916 Easter Rising where the short-lived Irish Republic was proclaimed by Pádraic Pearse only to result in the smoldering ruins not only of the building but also of that republic. The GPO had undergone several renovations to restore it to its former glory, and I was rebuilding myself in a similar fashion.
I popped the postcard into a green mailbox just round the corner of the GPO off O’Connell Street. It would await my arrival when I did return home to Canada, which I would in due course. I knew that I had to go home to face all the things from which I had been running all these years if was to ever be whole.
Before I left Dublin the following morning, I telephoned my uncle and told him that I was coming ahead.
“You’ll never find us unless I come and get you,” he told me. “I’ll meet you in Letterkenny and bring you the rest of the way myself.”
I got the six o’clock bus leaving Dublin destined for Donegal after asking the driver if his bus went to Donegal.
“You’re grand,” he said. “On you come.”
As I settled in with my music, some snacks and a boring book for the journey, a young mother jostled onto the bus with an infant. Though I hoped the young mother would sit away from me with her baby, mother and child sat across the aisle from me, and I prayed the child was a happy traveler, and even that she would sleep for the duration of our journey north. The baby gurgled and giggled as her mother made big eyes and smiled widely at her daughter. As I watched mother and child, I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother had ever been that playful with me or my sisters. It wasn’t in her nature to be warm or silly with infants. I am not sure why my mother ever had children except that it was expected that young women in the 1960s would become virgin brides and mothers immediately after the wedding. Women, especially young, Catholic women who were not going to become nuns, would marry and have a family.
When the bus reached Ballyshannon, Letterkenny, the driver announced that it was the final stop and ordered all passengers to disembark. I clamoured off the bus, and looked for my uncle, but I suspected that I was not at the correct stop. I felt that I had further north to travel. When I failed to find my uncle at the depot, I walked up and down the main street of the small town looking for him. This reinforced my certainty that I had disembarked at the wrong place. I was in Ballyshannon, Letterkenny and not in Letterkenny itself. When I walked back to the bus depot I saw that it was closed. It became apparent that I would not be going any further north that day.
I looked on the exterior bus schedule and map for the place called Glenvar – the area in Donegal where Pádraic actually lived – but there was no such place listed. I thought I would need to get a room in a local B&B and make my way north the following day, but I remained unsure as to what bus to get from Ballyshannon. I asked a few locals what bus I needed to take to get to Glenvar.
“Never heard of it, darlin’.”
No one I asked knew where Glenvar was located. I wandered the streets of Ballyshannon, looking for a phone box to use. I found one inside a local pub, and called my Uncle Pádraic.
“I got off at the wrong stop,” I told him, choked with tears.
“Wait there. I’ll come to you,” he told me.
“There are no other buses running from here tonight,” I told him.
“Yes. There is. The one I will take to get in to you will bring us right back home again. Get something to eat and I’ll meet you at the depot in two hours.”
“Okay,” I told him.
I entered the pub and asked for broiled or steamed vegetables.
“No meat?” the waitress asked me.
“Just vegetables,” I requested again.
She brought me a plate of soggy carrots and watery, bland potatoes, but charged me as if I’d ordered it with meat. I ate what I could, paid the extortionate bill and ventured outside. I wandered the streets taking photographs of Ballyshannon. I rambled into Ballyshannon’s St. Patrick’s Church and took some photographs before lighting a candle and saying a prayer for my family’s peace. I left the chapel and wandered further along the lane. I found myself in front of a convent. I took pictures of the monastery and sat in the garden for a time. Why did I always end up in front of nunneries? Was God telling me to take the veil? If He was, wouldn’t I feel more joyful at the prospect of life as a religious? That couldn’t be where He was leading me, I decided, and I pushed on down cobblestone laneways. There were beautiful, white cottages with flower boxes on the windowsills vibrant with green and crimson blooms though January. There were some old ruins overgrown with deep green, climbing vines alive with violet blooms. I snapped a picture of a fly fisherman who, though far from the bank, stood knee deep in the Ballyshannon River casting his rod. He smiled and tipped his hat to me. I smiled and discreetly waved to him.
I came across a historical plaque in Ballyshannon that commemorated the river as a famine departure point in the 1840s and I wondered how many of my ancestors starved to death or left Donegal in that terrible time. In Montréal there was a place called Griffintown established by a woman, Mary Griffin, in the 1820s, and populated by Irish immigrants and their descendants. Was I related to that Mary Griffin? How many Griffin relatives left Ireland and made it to Canada before my family crossed the sea in 1966? All had come from Ireland hopeful for a better life. My parents had certainly found a better life in Canada in terms of material wealth, but we missed out on any sense of familial love. My mother valued money above family and our family was fractured in the ways that it was, not because of me, as I had always been told, but rather because of my mother’s obsessive pursuit of wealth and financial security. Like my father, my mother was born in 1937, just after the Great Depression and just before WWII. She’d grown up in lack and during a time of global uncertainty. In adulthood, she needed money to make her feel safe. Money was my mother’s god, and the emotional, spiritual and mental needs of her three children were sacrificed on the altar of her pursuit of financial security. We didn’t matter to my mother, only money mattered to her. Consequently, as siblings, we were unimportant to one another.
I walked out into the countryside and petted some horses who playfully hung their heads over a mesh fence. Their large eyes looked into mine with such trust and defenselessness that I felt my heart break open at their vulnerability. I returned to the town and thought I would seek out a cup of tea, but when I looked at my watch I noticed that it was time to meet my uncle. I made my way back to the Ballyshannon bus depot, and saw my uncle standing beneath a station light. He had a newspaper tucked under his arm, and his navy, knit cap rested above his beautiful, bright blue Griffin eyes. We smiled at one another and I kissed his grizzly cheek ‘hello’.
“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he said in English this time.
He and I departed together on the ten o’clock bus and traveled to his home. The bus journey rocked me to sleep. My uncle nudged me awake two hours later when we arrived in Glenvar. It was after midnight by the time he and I silently trailed the cobble walkway to his cottage, puffing frozen exhales into the aubergine sky. My fatigue was replaced by a sense of marvel at the blackness of the Irish night blanketing us. I looked up as I walked. The stars shone like diamonds in a black velvet sky. I’d never seen stars that brightly before and they seemed closer to earth than ever I had seen them before. My uncle unlatched the front door and mutely led me into his cottage. His dog ran to greet my uncle, and growled at me.
“Come here, Binbo,” my uncle called to his dog. “He may growl at you, but he can’t bite you, Angela. He’s no teeth.”
There was a simple mattress for me to sleep upon placed in front of a white stone fireplace. After a snack of warm biscuits and hot Irish breakfast tea, I crawled into my bed without changing out of my clothes; I was too tired to even open my small suitcase to find pajamas. Rather, I collapsed on top of the simple mattress still clad in my green Aran knit jumper, blue jeans and thick, white woolen socks, and I slept feeling closer to God than I had in sometime.
I had always been true to my faith in terms of belief, but I had not always been true to myself or to my relationship with God. I’d offended God with my behavior often. I was ashamed of that, and had often felt that God did not love me because I was imperfect. The angel’s visit demonstrated to me that God was there walking beside me despite my human shortcomings or maybe because of them. He saw all that I did – good and bad – and He knew all that I’d suffered. He saw how deeply I had been wounded in my life, and He witnessed all the ways that I continued to be hurt by my family’s indifference towards me. He wanted me to heal. He was directing my life in ways that I was unable to fully comprehend in order to restore peace to my heart.
When I woke, I opened the thick, gold brocade drapes that hung over the front window. The brilliant morning sun lit up a postcard view beyond the huge windowpane that had been hidden by darkness the night before. White cottages dotted emerald hills, silvery clouds broke an azure sky and bleached sailboats danced upon the cobalt water of Mulroy Bay. I spotted my uncle walking to town with his toothless, hound dog, Binbo. Pulling on my boots, I chased after them. We walked together without speaking and when we reached the town chapel, he and I took turns entering the church and standing outside with Binbo. Like all the buildings of Glenvar, the Catholic Church was white and small in its splendor. My uncle never passed a Catholic church without blessing himself with the cross of our faith. It was an unobtrusive, reverent gesture I noticed when he and I spent time together in Edinburgh in 1991.
“Your faith is your most precious gift, Angela,” he said as we left the chapel.
Hesitantly I responded, “I’m afraid you’ll disown me, Uncle Pádraic.”
“It’s divorce then?” he looked to me for confirmation. He waved his hand. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes.”
Beauty for ashes.I thought it a lovely sentiment and held tight to it.
Over the next few days, my uncle introduced me to many Griffin relatives. “Your cousins want to meet you,” he told me simply.
I met who my uncle told me was my dad’s cousin, Sheena, and her husband, Tam. Sheena was a great-granddaughter of my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin. Dainéal had been married twice. He had my grandfather, Ever Griffin (my dad’s father), with his wife Roísìn, then a daughter also named Roísìn, but when Dainéal’s wife died in childbirth with their third child, Iain, Dainéal Griffin remarried. The woman with whom he married as a widower was Sheena’s great-grandmother. Sheena’s father, James Griffin, was Ever Griffin’s half-brother. My dad and Sheena then were half-cousins. Pádraic and my father never told me that my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin, had married a second time. It was as if they felt ashamed that their grandfather had married twice, and kept it a family secret.
Pádraic took me to where he constructed the new home he was building for himself and my Auntie Bridie. It would be ready by Easter and named in the Gaelic, Teach Bridie, which means Bridie’s House. The gate to the property needed to be unlatched before we could enter the grounds. Uncle Pádraic wasn’t able to close the gate properly, and was impressed that I was able to push the post back into place to secure the opening once we were through the entryway.
I met three bachelor brothers, who were my dad’s uncles and my great-uncles. They were three men in their sixties, who lived together on the family farm adjacent to Uncle Pádraic’s property.
“I must warn you,” Pádraic told me. “Their house is not clean. I wouldn’t use the lavatory if I were you.”
The bachelor cousins were hulking men with hands the size of shovels, toothless smiles and little to say. They presented me with old family photographs, some of which showed my father as a small boy. My dad looked the same as he did in adulthood just miniature size. His pale blue eyes were so large they occupied his entire face when he was a small child. They looked ghostly white as they peered out of the black and white snaps. My eyes showed up in my black and white baby pictures in the same way. The bachelor great uncles, delighted to have company, offered me tea in a chipped, stained cup and pound cake sliced with a knife that one brother wiped on his filthy coveralls. The bathroom was so soiled that I gagged when I went to use it. Feeling I should have heeded my uncle’s warning, I merely washed my hands and kept my jeans on. I wondered if my great-grandfather and grandfather had lived in such filth.
My uncle coached a men’s football club in Glenvar. His players were required to take Gaelic lessons from my learned uncle if they wished to remain on the team.
“I’m afraid the language of Ireland will die if we don’t protect it,” he told me. “You never hear it anymore. We have one Gaelic television station and one Gaelic radio channel. It’s a sin.”
I told him I heard plenty of the Irish on the train to Wales and, describing the scene to him of the visually impaired Gaelic bellowers, my uncle tossed back his head and howled with laughter.
“What happens if your players miss a class?” I asked.
“They’re benched! They don’t play unless they come to Gaelic classes! I don’t care who it is. That’s the way it is!” my uncle shouted, pounding the air before him with closed fists.
I nodded and smiled as I thought my father, football mad as he was, would never bench a player for lack of attendance in Gaelic classes especially if the player were a great competitor.
Waves of grief washed over me at unexpected moments while I was in Glenvar, and I was confounded at the sorrow that I felt over a marriage I’d ended. I told God then that I wasn’t ready to go it alone yet.
“I need you, God, every day. Please just hold me close. Just hold me, hold me, hold me,” I prayed.
In truth, I couldn’t see the day coming when I could go it alone. I came to see that I needed God in my life every day from that day forward.
I worked with my cousins and helped to erect my uncle’s home over the next two weeks, and in time, physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging helped to quell my grief. I attended daily Mass with my uncle, and that too led to light filling the cracks of my broken heart. In Glenvar, I bought a postcard showing the quaint village chapel my uncle and I frequented. On it I wrote: I’m in God’s country. Standing where your father stood. Walking where he walked. I mailed it to my father in Canada with the PS: Don’t tell mom I’m in Ireland. She’ll go daft.
The white cottage that was my grandfather’s birthplace, still in pristine condition, was the first place I went on my morning run each day. It stood at the foot of Knockalla Mountain. I would achingly touch the damp stones of the ancestral home, closing my eyes. The earnest sea breeze blowing in from the Irish Sea always enveloped me. My tears readily fell and the same prayer always settled on my lips.
“Walk with me on my journey. Please help me reclaim my fighting, Irish spirit.”
My heart was in pieces and alone I didn’t possess the necessary strength to begin again. I could never walk alone again. I needed Christ to go before me, to walk beside me, to lie beneath me, to hover above me, and to rest within me. He was to be my bejeweled breastplate for the rest of my life.
I had a lot of time to walk and think while I stayed with my Uncle Pádraic. As I strode upon the country roads, countless people stopped to ask if I needed a lift. I told my uncle about the countless rides I was daily offered and he laughed and said that folk there didn’t believe in walking the length of themselves.
I walked into town to do my laundry and stumbled through the process with the help of the young girl who managed the launderette. Despite her limited English and my non-existent Polish, we managed to communicate with one another. She took my clothes from my hands and loaded up the washers for me, demonstrating the workings of the facilities as I keenly observed. Despite the young girl’s assistance in the Letterkenny launderette, I realized that though my clothes were clean, the ultra-hot dryer had shrunk every article of clothing that I had with me. I walked back to my uncle’s place feeling slightly miffed, and left my wash folded in my bag before I set off to meet with a cousin at her home. I stopped to ask directions several times before finding the little coach house where Dearbhail lived with her new baby and husband. When I chapped the door Dearbhail answered and welcomed me into her home.
“Come through, Angela. We’re in the front room.”
An electric fire warmed the sitting-room and I looked at Dearbhail’s wedding pictures standing along the fireplace mantel. She and her husband had been married at an Irish castle. Both were dark-haired and blue-eyed from large, Irish, Catholic families. I watched Dearbhail play with her infant son, Aaron, who thought his mother’s comic expressions were completely delightful, and who became equally distressed by his grandfather’s funny faces.
“What’s it like being a mother?” I asked Dearbhail who was so obviously a loving, gentle mother to her son.
“Ah…now. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she said.
Dearbhail certainly made it seem so.
I went to Mass each Sunday in Glenvar at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church. During my final week with my uncle, I was at early morning Sunday Mass when I saw three little girls adorned in white dresses and elaborate veils. They looked like miniature brides. Two young boys dressed in dark suits and tiny neckties sat at either end of the little girls, bookending the miniature brides in white lace. The little children were very solemn as they participated in the Mass, which was clearly their First Holy Communion. Youngsters at home and seemingly in Ireland, no longer made their First Communion with their Grade two classes in May, which is how it was when I made mine. They made their First Holy Communion intermittently throughout the year.
I thought of my First Holy Communion. After I dressed in my big sister’s homemade, ugly white dress and veil, I went to my mother’s bedroom and asked her where my brand new white knee socks were. In a fit of rage my mother battered me. I cowered on the floor of her bedroom shielding my face from her blows until I could run from her bedroom back to my own. In Holy Rosary Church, I sat in the pew next to my best friend, Lina Caro. Lino wore a beautiful white silk First Communion gown adorned with white Irish lace. Her veil was splendid and puffy, not droopy like mine. She wore dainty white lace gloves on her delicate hands, and carried a white satin purse that was a gift to her from her parents for her First Holy Communion. As I sat with Lina, the hem of my white dress slid up my legs revealing the red mark left by my mother’s hand on my right thigh. I tugged at my hemline to cover the mark, but Lina had already noticed it.
“What happened?” she stroked my leg with her white gloved hand.
I shrugged. “Don’t know.”
I fibbed to Lina in church on the day that I was to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. I had lied because I was ashamed of my mother’s raging temper. My mother’s black moods always tainted what was sacred in my life. When I knew that I wasn’t ready to marry my husband at age twenty-three, it was my mother who convinced me to follow through with the wedding. Of course, she just wanted rid of me. “You’ll never meet another man like that. He’s one in a million,” she said. The day after I married Jack, I asked him to pull off the road at a pay phone so that I could telephone my parents to thank them for all they had done for me. My mother answered the phone. When I thanked her for everything she said, “I always thought you’d marry someone mere rugged. Jack’s no very strong. He’s no strong enough fer you, lassie!” Then she laughed.
I didn’t respond. It was the first morning of my Catholic marriage and my mother criticized my husband, a man whose virtues she had repeatedly extolled before I wed him, just as she’d torn into me and my sisters throughout our lives. She cursed us with her wicked tongue. I didn’t know why I kept seeking her approval. I’d never get it. It would take me decades more of wasted effort, leaving my husband, leaving jobs and placing myself in difficult situations just to prove I was strong and capable before I stopped trying to win my mother’s endorsement.
I watched the Irish children go to the altar rails of the village chapel and kneel as they received the Eucharist for the first time. The gold plate gleamed beneath tiny chins as the altar servers held it there, and the sacred host was deposited on eager, innocent tongues. Though they did not yet understand the Catholic religion, I knew that their faith may prove one day to be a sustaining force in their lives as it had in my own. Religion, with all its tenets, was man-made and therefore fallible. Faith was something different entirely. Faith was a God-given gift always there to draw upon. I objected to some aspects of the Catholic Church but I chose to celebrate my faith through the Catholic religion because it kept me steadfast. The practice of the Catholic religion reminded me of God’s presence, God’s word, and what was truly important in life: to love God, love others and love myself. My faith was more personal. It was about a more intimate relationship with God that had nothing to do with the rules of any religion.
After Mass, I walked along roads that had become familiar by then. It still was not home for me though, and I knew that the time had come for me to go home to Canada. It was time for me to do as the angel had directed me, and I felt ready to tackle my life head on. I knew with God holding me, I would be invincible in my flight to my new sun.
Rain christened Ranny Hill on my last day with my Uncle Pádraic in Glenvar. I plucked two rocks from the north wall of my Grandfather Griffin’s cottage and pocketed them: one for me and one for my father. I would carry Griffin strength with me even after I left this place that had proven to be my sanctuary in early days of 1996. My uncle took me to St. Mary’s, Star of the Sea seaside chapel, and we visited the cemetery. He showed me where my Great Uncle Colm lay, a Catholic bishop of Ireland, and together Uncle Pádraic and I washed clean family headstones.
“God loves you, Angela,” my uncle said suddenly as he wiped raindrops from his face. “There are always arms for you to fall into,” he told me. “His arms are the only arms you ever need. Trust.”
I strolled to the shore contemplating ocean waves rhythmically washing clean the silver sand, reclaiming in the water’s visiting grasp life stuck but wishing to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Glenvar bell heather, fell softly. Something sacred surrounded me and the internal voice I’d become accustomed to heeding whispered its message to my heart above the roar of the sea: “I am with you always.”
Returning with my uncle to his home, I wrote on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone, and I mailed it to myself.
When I travelled back to my cousin’s in England, I waited for Christiane outside her office building. We had arranged to meet so that she could give me the key for her place. A bride and groom walking hand-in-hand suddenly appeared to my left. A wedding photographer traipsed after them. The bride’s shining, green eyes met mine and I wished her good luck as she smiled widely and gave me a nod of gratitude. They crossed over the road to pose in front of a cathedral for photographs. The morning sun shone on the beautiful bride – a tall, fair, blonde woman who appeared to be in her early thirties – and provided a gentle warmth for the newlyweds. The bride radiated joy as she looked upon her groom, a man of similar age, who was ebony-skinned. I thought they looked beautiful standing next to one another, her stark whiteness in skin and gown magnificent next to his dark, morning suit and black skin. Both looked so happy. I hadn’t shone with joy on my wedding day, and I was beginning to forgive myself for that as I came to understand why. The people who need love most are the first to run from it when it arrives.
My cousin greeted me outside her workplace. “I’ve loads to tell you,” she said breathlessly and kneaded her hands together.
“What is it?”
“My husband and I are chucking it. He’s had an affair. I found out the night before you arrived. We’d been to a New Year’s party. She confronted me at that party. He’s moved out,” she told me.
“Oh, God,” I said. “That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”
“Och. It’s fine! It’s fine!” she said. “I’m relieved.” Her obvious agitation belied her professed jubilation. “That’s why I was so funny the morning you arrived. I’m very sorry for my mood that day.”
“Och. You were fine,” I lied. “I thought you were just hung over.”
“Well. That’s all finished now. He’s moved out so we can have a proper chat when I get home tonight.”
“Okay,” I said. “See you at home later then.” She handed me her house keys.
We hugged goodbye and she ran back inside her office building. I walked towards the shelter where I would catch the bus back to her wee cottage. The newlyweds had vanished.
I knew that it wasn’t my fault that my big cousin had thrown out her husband, still part of me felt that she made the decision to leave her marriage so quickly because her wee, divorced cousin from Canada was staying with her. Maybe I’d made freedom look appealing. If I had, it was an illusion and it was unintentional.
Christiane and I did have a chat that night. She drank a lot of wine and we listened to an Oasis cd she’d just purchased.
“I think they’re idiots,” I said referring to the feuding Gallagher brothers.
“I think they’re lovely,” my cousin swooned.
“Och, yer aff yer face, hen!” I said and we chuckled together.
I returned home to Canada shortly after that. I left my cousin to end her marriage and I returned to London, Ontario to wrestle with my own past. It was a struggle to live in London again. It was at the end of that month, on the night of January 31st1996, that I broke in my mother’s arms. I told her I felt broken inside, and did not know how to put myself back together again. She just held me and rocked me. She stroked my hair as she had done when I was a small child crying with the pain of an earache. When I was ill was the only time my mother would be tender with me. When she held me in my adulthood, I did not have the strength to return my mother’s embrace. I just asked her repeatedly to not let me go.
Many times I turned to my father and asked that he hold me in his arms always so solid and strong. He told me anytime I needed his arms, they were there for me to fall into. My father and I had been close when I was small. I had been a true Daddy’s girl. My mother liberally doled out daily corporal punishment in my childhood. She lost her tempter at the least acts of childish curiosity, and I grew up cowering in corners covering my small face with my tiny hands to protect myself from her landing thumps, kicks and thuds. She never struck me when my father was home. He wouldn’t have allowed it. When I was fourteen, I was taller than my mother’s five foot frame, and when she struck me I hit her back. She became afraid of me and put my father on me. “See to that lassie, Joseph!” my mother would scream. The anger I felt at having been battered constantly by my mother emerged in my adolescence and it resulted in many beatings from my father. Still, during those days in 1996 it was my father to whom I turned. I needed his strength again and again. I would ask my mother periodically to again hold me, just for the moment, but it made my mother uncomfortable to touch in tenderness; my father never refused my request to be held. He liked that I needed him again as a daughter needs her father. His strength that had often brutalized my young body soothed my battered spirit then.
Though I benefitted from the physical presence of my parents, it was really my faith that sustained me then. Of course, it was my parents who first gave me over to Christ’s divine embrace on the morning of my Christening on February 14th, 1965 in Scotland’s St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church. The gift of my faith was the greatest gift they ever gave me. It was always there for me to draw upon. It was always to the living well of Christ that I went to quench my thirst. I would be forever grateful to them for the gift of my faith.
I continued to find peace in London’s St. Peter’s Basilica during that tumultuous period, as I had in my youth. I went to the cathedral to bask in its solitude just as I had when I was a high school and university student in that city. I usually had the cathedral to myself, and I would sit still in the surrounding silence, my heart whispering my troubles to God. Daily I asked that He help me make it through another day. I could no longer stuff down the pains of my childhood, and it was then that I started to confront my past once and for all, and miraculously, I began to heal.
I learned that God does not just hold me when I ask Him to. I thought I had His embrace for a short time, and that He would tire of holding me eventually, and my time to be carried would be exhausted. Others needed Him more than I, did they not? I was being selfish, hoarding His affections, manipulating His attention. He would have to leave me to toddle on my own again soon. I feared that time coming. Thus, I decided to tell Him I could not see the day coming that I could let Him release me from His embrace. I needed Him every day, forevermore, to illuminate my path and protect me from becoming lost along the way.
By July of 1996, I moved into my own apartment and things became more settled for me in London, Ontario. I was working full-time though not yet in teaching. I had also made friends, and I walked downtown to join some of those friends on an outdoor patio for coffee. The summer sun had been cooled by the night air, so sweet and thickly fragrant with the perfumes of the July black spurs. Something sacred was next to me in that summer night air, leading me, whispering to my heart above the soft chirpings of the nocturnal crickets. I strolled past St. Peter’s Basilica, admiring the way its spires were illuminated by three soft spotlights pointing up at the Cathedral from its plush green lawn. I walked on from St. Peter’s and found myself in front of Catholic Central, my old high school. As I stood in front of the Kennedy football field I saw a navy-blue sweatshirt peeking out from the dried earth.
The school had erected a twelve foot fence around the track so that it was inaccessible to the public. I scaled the fence, noticing a police cruiser drive by as I straddled the top bar of the paling. Fortunately, the police did not return to question me as I trespassed on my old stomping grounds, and I clamoured down the other side of the fence, my feet landing on the red clay track as I let go of the chain link. I walked to the blue sweatshirt and pulled it from the mound of desiccated muck in which it found itself entombed. I brushed dust from its logo. It was not a Catholic Central sweatshirt as I had thought, but rather a ROOTS CANADA sweatshirt. As I held the jumper in front of me, the internal voice that had become my companion by then whispered once again to my heart. “You will teach here one day.” I knew that I was to put down roots where I was.
Later that evening, I told my mother what I’d heard.
“That’d be wonderful, but how?” she asked me. “They’re no teaching jobs in London.”
“I don’t know, but I feel like I will teach there one day. I’ll leave it up to God as to when and how.”
I researched the experience of seeing an angel during that time. I took out many books on the topic of angels, God and the Gnostic Gospels from the London Public Library. On a day when I took out thirteen at one time, the young, male librarian asked me if I was becoming a nun.
“No,” I answered with a smile.
“I figured with all of these religious books,” he motioned toward the stack of texts with his laser.
“Just interested in the subject manner,” I smiled at him a second time. People were funny, I thought as I gathered the books in my arms and walked toward the exit still smiling.
The accounts in the books were identical to my own experience of an angelic visitor. People reported seeing and experiencing what I had. All of the figures had translucent skin. Each angel looked like someone known to the person to whom the messenger was sent. That made the otherworldly visit less frightening to the individual who was graced by the angel’s visit. The celestial visitors were dressed in clothing of the current era. They sported no wings, nor a halo. In each case, the angel did not smile. Those visited felt a sense of peace come over them as had I. The descriptions of all of the experiences were exactly as my own had been. Upon reading through all of the accounts recorded in the books, I became convinced that an angel had visited me, though I still could not believe that I mattered enough to God to warrant such attention from Him, my heavenly Father.
During that time, when I slept at night, I would feel the weight of someone sitting at the foot of my bed. The first time it happened, I froze beneath my blankets. Once I felt courageous enough, I peeked out from under my covers expecting to see some madman seated at the foot of my bed, but saw no one. I could still feel the weight of someone by my feet. It was my angel returned and I came to welcome his nightly presence. I would even call for him if he had not yet shown up for the night. I would always ask him to wrap his arms around me and I always felt arms enfold me. I decided that it was my guardian angel watching over me during those years of personal restoration. At times I wondered if it was just my imagination but one night Marina stayed with me in my room after we had been out late that night. She crashed next to me in my bed, and the next morning she mentioned to me that she had felt the weight of someone at the bottom of my bed. She said that she had felt frightened because she had thought that someone had entered my bedroom and was sitting at the end of my bed during the night.
“I know. It happens every night,” I told her.
Her eyes grew wide. “What do you mean?”
“I feel him there every night. I believe it’s my guardian angel watching over me.” I shrugged.
She accepted what I said. She too was Catholic and a very spiritual person. The fact that she felt his presence validated what I had been experiencing nightly for some months.
By 1999, I was teaching at Catholic Central High School through no initiative of my own. It just was. It was simply God’s intent for my life.
The fall that I started teaching at my former Catholic secondary school, the building was undergoing a two-million dollar renovation. Its guts spilled onto the surrounding downtown sidewalks. The metaphor of that was not lost on me, and I knew what I needed to do. The London Police Department was located directly across the road from CCH and I found the courage to walk into it and file a report of the rape that had occurred to me seventeen years before. There is no statute of limitation in Canada with regards to rape, the constable told me. I talked and he typed as he locked his steely gaze on my apprehensive expression. He took my statement and spent the next two years interviewing the list of witnesses with which I had provided him.
Only one person would corroborate my story. The girl who found me naked and unconscious in the forest, my bra twisted around my neck, told the police officer that she would testify in a court of law that I had been raped. The rest refused to corroborate my story. A boy I refused to date in high school telephoned the individual who had raped me and warned him of the ongoing investigation. The rapist lawyered up and the investigation, having become tainted, came to an unfruitful conclusion. Nonetheless, filing the report was an important component of my healing and the reclamation of my life. The inspecting officer called to tell me that the investigation had come to a vain conclusion one night as I arrived home from an exhaustive day of teaching. I listened to him as he spoke, remaining completely silent on the telephone. As he finished, he apologized to me and asked if I had any questions for him.
“One,” I said.
“Go ahead,” he told me.
I was reluctant to speak at first and then I asked him what I needed to know.
“Do you believe me?” I said.
“Yes, I do,” he replied without hesitation. “A woman doesn’t come back after seventeen years and file a report and open up her life to this kind of intrusive investigation and to the scrutiny of people from whom she has deliberately distanced herself for almost two decades unless she is trying to heal from a sexual assault and find closure. I know you are telling the truth.”
That was something anyway.
My faith sustained me then just as it has proven to be the one sustaining force in my life. I’ve learned to be still and know God. I’ve been a witness to the real-world presence of Christ in such a way that I can never doubt again that I’m loved by God and that I matter. I’ve learned that my life will unfold in God’s time and in God’s way. I need only be present to His gentle, guiding grace. Definitively, I came to know what it meant to be saved by Christ. He was my Savior. He lifted me out of the pit of my despair and breathed life into me once more. I found the love and recognition that had been withheld from me by my earthly father and mother through their human shortcomings, in the relationship I engendered with my heavenly Father. It was the realization that I could turn to God for the love and approval for which I had longed craved that allowed me to walk on. With God firmly by my side, I worked toward a healing and hoped for better days ahead.