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How the Church of England changed my life

Death, grief and love in a strange city

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

It was October 2010 the night the priest came to our door. The knock startled Tim’s dullard beagle into a howl just as Tim’s mother was serving up dinner. She and her husband had flown in from New York a few weeks earlier to care for their dying son.

Tim and I had moved to London the year before. Our friends — newsroom colleagues — visited sometimes, though only with advance notice. Tim’s brain tumour had severely blunted his wit. I was prone to crying jags. As a couple, we did not inspire drop-ins.

Tim’s mother told us to start eating and went to answer the knock. The beagle ricocheted in frenzy between food and front door. ‘Charity collectors,’ Tim’s father guessed.‘They love targeting dinner time.’

Tim’s parents were in their seventies: he a former newspaperman, she a retired librarian. They hailed from the Lower West Side of Manhattan and I from the Upper East, meaning we were nearly as foreign to each other as the English were to us. Upon arriving in London, Tim’s father had fixed every wonky hinge and crooked step in the three-storey flat. He took the six-year-old beagle for daily romps. Tim’s mother laundered and ironed, co-ordinated medical providers, filed private insurance claims and cooked all the meals. On weekends they donned hiking boots and joined hipsters on walking tours.

By contrast, at 27, I did little except work, sleep and cry. I despised London, which did not exist for me beyond our flat in Islington, the City office and the Mayfair clinic that treated Tim. My chest was heavy all the time, as if cold stones were filling my thoracic cavity. Though physically robust, I was privately convinced I was dying right along with Tim.

We’d met three years earlier in Brussels, where Tim had transferred from Singapore after vanquishing his first brain tumour in 2006. He’d wooed me with good manners, bad dancing and rambunctious intellect. Thrilled with Europe after a decade in Asia, and revelling in remission, he was forever planning the next Mediterranean getaway, or trundling the beagle and me to gourmet Trappist abbeys.

The glioma returned in 2008 — an appalling blow, though I was cosseted by old friends and my own father in Antwerp. They took care of the beagle and me, we took care of Tim, and Tim took on the glioma once more. By the time our newsroom relocated to London, Tim had survived two brain surgeries, multiple frequencies of radiation and increasingly experimental toxins.

But it wasn’t until London, in 2010, under the creamy plasterwork of that Mayfair clinic, that the doctors finally said there was nothing more they could do — no good time left to buy. That’s when the rocks began piling up in my chest; cold and dense like the cobbles around St Paul’s. Tim’s insurance covered caregiver counselling, in the same converted Mayfair townhouse. I screamed at the therapist when she wouldn’t let me interrupt her presentation on grief. She threw me out and was wise enough not to offer me help again.

Tim’s parents arrived at the end of the summer and occupied the top floor of the flat. He was 42 that October, and would be dead three weeks later.

His mother returned to the dining room.

‘Tim, there’s a priest at the door.’ She gripped her hands in front of her sweatshirt, balling her fists into her stomach. ‘He wants to know if you want to speak with him.’

Tim laboured to chew and swallow the food in his mouth. ‘A priest?’

‘From the Church of England.’ Tim’s father and I checked each other’s faces for comprehension. Only Tim intuited immediately why a priest had come calling.

‘No.’ Tim shook his head. ‘Please tell him no.’

His mother turned back into the hallway and I followed, tripping over the frantic dog.

‘No we don’t want any,’ she told the priest, as if he were there selling vacuum cleaners. ‘Please don’t come back.’

‘Wait!’ I clamped my hand in the doorjamb. I didn’t know what to call him (‘Minister’ sounded wrong, ‘Reverend’ tasted odd on my tongue). ‘Priest! Please wait!’

Tim’s mother kept her hand on the doorknob, turned to me and hissed. ‘Tim said no!’

I hissed back. ‘I know! It’s for me. I want to talk to him.’

The beagle, having judged that home defence trumped table scraps, heaved himself between our legs, yowling and squirming to confront the intruder. Tim’s mother relinquished the door to grab the dog’s collar. She stared at me for a half-second, then marched the beagle into the dining room and shut the door behind them. I turned to the priest.

‘Sorry. We’re having dinner. The dog’s not vicious, just stupid.’

‘Not at all! It’s me who’s terribly sorry to come at this hour!’

‘Um.’ There was no elegant transition. ‘Why are you here?’


The priest explained that the woman who cleaned our flat was one of his parishioners. She’d informed him of Tim’s condition. ‘So I wanted to see if I could offer any assistance.’

‘Yes, thank you, but — we’re not Church of England. We’re not even English.’

‘That doesn’t matter. You live in my parish.’

He pointed to the spire of a grey stone church I passed every morning on my way to work. ‘Is this covered by council tax? We’re on an expat scheme…’

‘That’s immaterial, really.’

He reached into his cassock and produced a business-card identifying him as Fr John Burniston, vicar of St James’s church. My brain rippled with the Eddie Izzard riff about Anglican inquisitors: ‘You must have tea and cake with the vicar, or you die!’

‘Come by any time. I’m there 24/7.’

I wanted to hug him and not let go. Instead I took the card, thanked him again, and closed the door.

Back in the dining room, Tim’s mother spoke first.

‘I didn’t know you were religious.’

‘I don’t know that I am.’

I set the card on the table and reported that we lived in a ‘parish’ whether we liked it or not. ‘The cleaning-lady tipped him off.’

Tim’s father examined the card and guffawed. ‘A vicar! Like the Anthony Trollope novels?’

Not having read Trollope, I nodded. ‘Glamorous, right?’ In a faux-Victorian warble I added, ‘The man is ailing — send for a prrriest!’

Tim and his father giggled. The mother did not.

‘We’re atheists, you know. Tim is too — we don’t want a priest coming here.’

Tim sighed. ‘She knows, Mom.’

I did. I had pressed the matter once, shortly after the terminal prognosis. We’d been on a plane returning from Malta, where one of Tim’s seizures had marred what would be his last vacation. On the flight back to London, Tim gripped my hand and admitted for the first and last time, ‘I’m scared.’

The rocks bulged in my chest, clamping my arteries and squeezing my lungs. I ached for him to believe that something might come after death — anything besides dark, lonely nothing. I told him even if he didn’t believe in his everlasting soul, I did.

‘Does that make it any less scary?’

He kissed my knuckles. ‘No.’

I’d never again brought up his soul.

But I was worried about my own. After dinner that night I googled the Church of England — history, customs, protocols for addressing clergy — and analysed Fr John’s social media history. A few evenings later, I stopped by the church on my way home from work. The priest was there, as he’d promised, and invited me into the vicarage for tea and cake, as Izzard had promised.

‘Where are you from in America?’

‘New York originally. But I lived in California for six months. Your parish profile says you took a sabbatical there in the 1990s?’

‘I did.’ He poured mint tea and set out store-bought sponge. ‘How have you been?’

I did not hold back. I told him about the rocks in my chest and the plane ride from Malta, and how graceless I’d been with Tim’s mother. I told him how mean I felt, when, of everyone in that household including the beagle, I had the least invested in Tim’s rapidly ending life. I even told him about the therapist. He was duly impressed.

‘I didn’t know one could get kicked out of therapy!’

‘Oh one can. Well, I can.’

He poured more tea and asked about my religious leanings. I rehearsed my muddled hopes for an afterlife, informed by lapsed Episcopalians on my mother’s side and non-observant Jews on my father’s, plus a stint of convenience in the Catholic school system.

‘Sounds very American.’ Then, ‘Is there anything I can do to attend to your spiritual needs?’

I finished my cake and drained my tea. What I wanted, still, was a hug. Tim’s parents weren’t much for them and Tim had grown too weak to do the job properly. But I had lived in England long enough to know that hugs were also ‘very American’.

‘The Anglican Order for the Visitation of the Sick suggests reciting the Lord’s Prayer.’

‘It does. Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?’

‘I do — including the end-bit about “the power and the glory forever and ever”. I like that bit.’

‘The doxology — me too. Shall we?’

We bowed our heads and prayed, doxology and all.

By ‘Amen’, I had the nerve to stick out my arms for a hug. Fr John returned with a long, tight squeeze, proving that his time in California had not been wasted. He told me to come back any time.

Tim got worse and was soon confined to a hospital bed on the ground floor of the flat. He couldn’t eat or speak or even salivate, so his parents and I took turns dabbing his lips with pineapple juice, which was all his mouth could absorb. Every night I crawled into the bed, wedged between the rail and his blanketed body, and fell asleep to his raspy breaths.

The priest did come back, unbeknownst to me, at the behest of Tim’s mother. While I was at work, she’d called the church about donating Tim’s books and clothes. Fr John had shown up with the details to have everything collected when the time came.

‘He’s a nice man,’ she told me later. I agreed.

Then, one crisp morning in November, I woke up in the hospital bed to Tim’s mother shaking my shoulder.

‘He’s dead,’ she whispered. ‘He’s dead.’

The coroner would guess he’d been dead for hours. The fact that I’d slept through it, he said, suggested it had been ‘peaceful’. Who knows? I only hope it wasn’t terrifying.

The dog and I went for a walk, and stayed out most of the morning. In the gardens abutting St James’s, I stooped to hug the beagle, resting my chest against his warm panting bulk. Overhead, the church spire pierced the sky like sword through stone. I never went back to see Fr John. At the time, it was enough to know I could.

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