3. Of Strangers and Havens

Mary Wickham rsm

It was a hot August day in Dover and I was thinking of Christmas. As an Australian it is not altogether incongruous that I should associate Christmas with sunny humidity. The paradox was that a celebration of birth should insistently surface in my mind when I was in a situation of sudden illness and near death.

My parents’ carefully planned holiday itinerary and had included Europe, Britain and Ireland, my father’s birthplace. Things went awry when my mother, a robust sixtyish, was rushed by ambulance from the Channel ferry to hospital in Dover. A virulent, invasive illness it proved to be; Legionnaire’s Disease. It was a long, slow haul back to life.

I became the ‘accidental tourist’ despatched by the family at home in Australia 10,000 miles away to do whatever was required.

Six weeks in Dover, waiting for my mother to live or die, taught me a great deal. It was an experience of lucid intensity: sitting by my mother hour after hour, trying to breathe love into the rhythmic necessary of the respirator, sharing my father’s grief and murmuring hope. We were, the three of us, in a strange place, out of our familiar milieu, traumatised in differing ways. Being a stranger at the best of times can be confusing. This was not the best of times.

The reality of being a stranger led me to think of Christmas. I thought of what it must have been like for Mary, waiting among strangers for the onset of labour; of Joseph trying to arrange make shift comforts. I thought of them sick for the familiarity of their own pots and pans, regretting their distance from kinsfolk. I thought of them not being able to presume kindness; of their ignorance of local ways. I thought of refugees and migrants, tinkers and vagrants.

As a stranger in Dover, I came to appreciate the benison of kind words from shopkeepers and bus drivers. I felt pleasure in a smile of recognition from hospital staff encountered away from the hospital. Patience from bureaucrats, helpful advice from the people we were to consult about wheelchair hire and air travel for convalescents – these kindnesses mattered. They were small acknowledgements of a shared world, glimmers of connectedness.

In the early critical stage of my mother’s illness, my father and I were virtually resident in the High Dependency Unit of the hospital. We were privileged to observe a team of dedicated and gifted professionals. My mother’s life bears witness to their skill. Aspects of this time I valued were the ways the HDU team included us in my mother’s healing. They encouraged us to speak to and touch her, explaining each new treatment and change in her condition. They also invited us into their own personal worlds, drawing us into the incidental chat about partners and house renovations, new cars, favourite foods. Such apparently irrelevant talk became, in fact, a lifeline for us to normality and domestic ordinariness.

Six weeks is a considerable time to be a visitor in town. It was a kind of safety-valve to focus for a short time each day on something other than the hospital. I became acutely aware of the natural environment: not just the famous cliffs, but under my feet the ubiquitous flint, complement to the chalky white. Outside the fruit shops the great black velvet orbs of bumble bees hovered, defying gravity. I had never seen these creatures before. The accretions of Dover’s history offered sobering perspectives on present reality, as Romans and Hitler vied for attention. Little rituals established themselves: they helped to mark the time in our limbo world. Each morning I greeted the tortoiseshell cat in the window of a shop near the hospital. At twilight, I walked along the seafront, listening to the cry of gulls.

Survival instinct early identified places of safe haven from the trauma: the randomly selected B&B guest house whose owners bestowed on us prodigious kindness; the encompassing, reverberant silence of the tiny 13th century St Edmund’s Chapel: the hospital cafeteria which ironically, had been the chapel of the 19th century poorhouse which originally stood on the site. These were places of peace, prayer and comfort.

Hospitality has a rich history in Dover. The Maison Dieu, the oldest of the Town Hall buildings, was founded in 1203 to provide accommodation for travellers proceeding to or from the continent. Its community of monks, committed to practising hospitality to all strangers, tended the destitute and wounded. Canterbury pilgrims and crusaders.

I once read a reflection on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity in which it was described as ‘Philoxenia – the welcome that makes a stranger into a friend’. I have always found that phrase beautifully evocative of the divine mystery. Now, though, it reminds me also of Dover. In our time in Dover we experienced God’s love in hospitality, in kindness, and in finding, as strangers, safe haven. We left for home, the three of us, knowing we had made, and had been made friends.

This reflection was first published in the magazine Madonna, Dec-Jan 1994/5.