Spring 1973: I have a year of sabbatical leave, and so we thought we would take the path of other friends, to spend a semester in London with their families. We settled in Fulham, at the edge of the lovely Hurlingham Park, where the Monty Python troupe staged their “Race of the Upper Class Twits.” At the beginning of July I took the hand of our five-year-old Jeremy, and I told him that we might be able to sneak into Wimbledon for the final hours of the tournament.
It quickly broke in on me, though, that this was likely to be a futile trip. Better, then, not to waste our time on the trains, and so I called it off. For the moment, at least. But it was a long, long moment as that prospect simply dangled there over the years. And yet, there was Phil de Picciotto, one of my dearest former students. He had the imagination to form a law firm supporting athletes in several dimensions of their lives. Phil’s firm rents a lovely home around the corner from the tournament in order to house staff and entertain clients.
Over the years he has urged me to complete that trip, and he pressed me again this year: It was forty-three years later – why not finally do it? And so we would.
My 5-year-old was now 48, and he would be camping with his wife in Iceland before hopping a flight to London. He had the confidence to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road, negotiating the confusing “roundabouts” – with a stick shift. He drove then to meet me in Oxford. We would immerse ourselves in the quads and colleges at Oxford – but first, a trip to the Cotswolds, to those picturesque villages with names such as Moreton-on-the Marsh, Chipping North, and, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon. One expected to see Miss Marple walking along the street in these towns, with a murder scene nearby.
But back to Oxford for Mass at St. Aloysius with John Finnis and family, and, during the week, a visit to Evensong at Christ Church College. The chapel is one of the loveliest, and the service High Church Anglican. It becomes easier then to remind ourselves that this impressive College, with its Chapel, was a Papist establishment – before Henry VIII confiscated properties and drove the Catholics underground.
On then to spend our final days in London, seeking out our old house on Dolby Road and savoring the matches at Wimbledon. One connecting strand was the presence of men and women with upper class accents, marks of education, happily dishing out food, baking, and doing all kinds of manual work. Wimbledon was thickly staffed, with guards evidently informed and civil, and that ambience was remarkably reflected even among the diversity of types in that sea of spectators. Across the classes, decorum and respect prevailed as people held back from distracting the players and leaned in quietly, focusing on the intensity of the games.
Back in Oxford Jeremy and I had stopped in at Blackwell’s, that remarkable bookstore. I’ve made a point of reading or re-reading some of the books and writers that my late wife savored; and we found a new book by Sebastian Faulks, Where My Heart Used to Beat. My wife had appreciated his novels, Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion d’Or. Jeremy and I both took copies home. The central character is a British psychiatrist who had shown his mettle in leading men in combat in the Second World War. His own father had perished in the First World War before he had come to know him.
Robert Hendricks, the psychiatrist, drew the attention of another psychiatrist who had known his father, and the painful story is allowed to come out in fragments: The father had seen the most massive killing in a war that went on well past the expectations of an early end, and he had seen the mindless quality of his own commanders, wasting life in futile charges. With a sense of hopelessness and despair he tried to take his own life.
But he botched the job, shooting away part of his face. Against his pleas and cries, heroic efforts were made to save his life – so that he could be put before a court-martial. And then before a firing squad. Before he shot himself he wrote a letter to his wife and son. To his two-year-old he said, “I carried the picture of you into battle, please carry me in your heart till in a better world than this one we may somehow meet again.”
With that, I admit, I was moved to cry. And with everything descending on us now, I couldn’t help thinking: What did Judy and I do in bringing Peter and Jeremy into a world falling now into a spiral of violence and moral inversion, with a political season promising the worst? But as I look at my own sons, and the children of others, I know that, as bad as it is, the world cannot be a better place without them. They are still the gifts we were given, the lingering reflections of the loves that brought them into being.
They may be still, in themselves, the living faith, “the evidence of things not seen” and yet offering the redeeming grounds of hope.