I only had one evening to get to know Judith Cumming before she died.
It wasn't enough, but it's too late now, and I have to make do with it.
We all 'meet people' at gatherings and functions, without there being time to do more than register a name, perhaps to remember later, perhaps not. My meeting with Judith certainly got stuck in my mind, for always, the day of my mother's wake.
That was years ago now, and of course under the circumstances I wasn't fastening too well on the details of every conversation I had that day. So many kind people, so many words of sympathy. But standing out from them all, like a beacon in the night, were Ian and Judith and I still remember, still feel, the sense of warmth and support that flowed over me like a balm, as we talked. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing sublime. Probably about how they cooperated with each other in their business ventures. But their eyes, and the soft skin around them, conveyed so much more, and their voices carried the matching undertones, and the combined message went clear through to my soul, without passing go, with no pause at all.
I well remembered meeting Ian previously. My first clear impression of him as a person rather than just a voice, was when we had a few words together at my brother's fiftieth birthday party. Ian was directing the filming of the celebrations, and I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with him during one of those pauses when a party seems to draw breath, like a single organism rather than the hodge-podge of poeple that it really is. I particularly wanted to meet this writer and director, because he had recently produced a taped interview with my mother, a work of sympathy and genius.
The sympathy was evident in the wording and timing of the questions, and the warmth of interviewer's disembodied, off-camera voice. The genius was in the fact of the tape, at all. Firstly, my mother's mind was so nimble, and she thus so easily bored, that it was virtually impossible to get her to sit still and focus on just one topic or activity for more than a few minutes at a time, unless it was golf or bridge for which she had the passion, bordering on the insane, that those pastimes seem to evoke in some of us. Secondly, various of her relatives, me included, had tried many times to record even the highlights of her life story, with pen or tape-recorder, but never successfully. Which was why Ian had been asked to help. That was what he did. Well, one of the things, at any rate. And why not? He was brilliant at it. That was fully evident to anyone who got to know my mother well, and then saw the tape.
When I first saw and heard that tape, sent to me in Australia, I knew I had to get to know the person who owned the off-camera voice. It was so gentle, and patient, and tactful. But within the softness was a firmness and control that you could almost see turning mother's whim of iron back onto itself, so that she was again and again smoothly retrieved into getting that archive recorded.
Finally I did get to talk to Ian, at that party, as I had wanted to, after watching the tape. But I was left frustrated that we had so little time together. Of course, he was working that night, and I was due to fly out, back to Australia, the following morning. I thought it would be months or years before I would have another opportunity. I couldn't have known that mother would die and bring us back briefly together, later the same month, though of course it was on the cards, given her age and her rapidly declining health.
After mother's funeral, at the wake, I recognised Ian, and sought him out, and began getting to know Judith as well, and felt that warmth, and once more I was left frustrated by the meeting. I wanted to know more, to share more with these people, who were still, indeed who were then only, acquaintances, but from whom I had felt that impact, and I knew some bond was forming, that was for me at least, one of substance. And so the frustration, that the rest of my stay, on that sudden trip across the Tasman, was taken up with the essential obligations and responsibilities of such times, right up to the moment when I was due to fly out, back to Australia, again. Once more I had to make do with a brief meeting and hope for a better opportunity, but again, postponed into the future.
Having cancer has its benefits. Especially so when in remission. Of course, we all have to die from something, but a close, protracted and painful call really twists the focus of the mind on to a whole new set of priorities. Professional advancement, for me, fell to the bottom of the heap. Why keep on clawing steadily upward if you've run out of time, perhaps, and might not survive to bask in the feeling of success? Why struggle to make more money still once the needs are met, if you might not be around long anyhow? Family and friends become more important, for if you don't make contact now, you might not have the opportunity later.
For me, it also became important to try and achieve, in whatever time I had left to do so, my best potential as a skier. What an irony that was, for I had abandoned this exhilarating sport two decades ago, as being too risky - I might have broken a leg. Ha! Now I combine skiing trips that I would not have made before, with family visits that also would not have been made before. I try to exercise more now, for stronger legs are less easily broken on the ski slopes, and I try to be emotionally more open, for I have come to realise that a generous heart is also less easily broken.
I don't have time to muck about any more, though some of the things I now fasten on doing may look exactly like mucking about, to other people.. None of us have time to muck about, I guess, but us close call survivors, whilst we survive, can't help but have our different slant on life, and be more aware of the sand dribbling down within the glass.
And so, in the early winter, almost a year after first getting to know Ian and Judith, when the first snows fell and I could combine skiing and friendships, I again caught the plane from Australia to New Zealand. I divided my time as I had planned, on my skis in the daytime, and after dark with family and friends.
The Cummings were high on my list, that trip, but it was a week that was busy for them, and it seemed likely that I would once more have to do with just a few short words, and leave for Australia frustrated yet again. Fortunately, though, the ski field was closed by a storm, so my other plans were changed, and coincidentally we ended up with an evening when we could get together after all. At last!
I will never forget that night. The warmth of their welcome. The other couple, their old friends, who they shared with me. So many common interests. Horticultural contracting, computerised wine cellar inventories, the 1955 edition of the Guggenheimer Family of Man photographic exhibition out on the table. One evening was never going to be enough.
And their home, how fascinating that was. That they had preserved the old tin flour bins - the first that I had seen, outside a museum, since my childhood, and yet, how practical. A window over the kitchen bench, opening into the green of a conservatory, and out of the weather so that it could always stay open and pull that freshness and peace into the pivot of the home.
And themselves. first and always, themselves. Warm to their friends, yes, oh yes, but to see them look at each other, that was the best part of all.
Ian had picked me up, from my brother's home where I was staying, in the evening on his way home after a long Saturday of work in his studio. Though I had the use of a car they wouldn't hear of me using it. I was their guest; they were adamant. And so, at the end of the too short evening, Judith drove me back again.
I got out of her car into the crisp, frosty night, outside my brother's porch. Just before she turned the car round, Judith got out too, and put her arms round me, looked me in the eye, said 'keep in touch', got into the car, and drove off back to Ian. I felt warmed by the affectionate gesture, and suddenly more keenly aware of the distance from my own wife, waiting for me in Australia, and suddenly too, particularly pleased I would be returning to her the following day.
And yet, that flight would carry me away from Christchurch, and it might be a year before I could be with the Cummings again.
Of course, I wrote to them, and when he had time, Ian wrote to me, but it was not good news. Judith's remission had ended, though while it was current you would never have known she had cancer, and as is often the case the recurrance was in the brain.
As I have been advised by my own doctor, when that happens the end is usually mercifully quick. I phoned, and spoke first to Ian, oh, poor man, what a change in his voice, and of course, how else could it be. Then I spoke to Judith, and she sounded cheerful, but I imagined I could hear how the mind and body were loosing their mutual hold, and I felt so sad, for Judith, and for Ian and their family, and for myself.
Judith died a short time later.
At least I did have that one evening.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins