04/10/2013 07:36 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Chance Meeting in a House of God and Saying Goodbye

My heart leaped straight into my mouth. I couldn't believe my eyes. I recognised that same gait, the quick, purposeful strides, the same petiteness. I jumped out of the car, the engine still running. "Sister Monique, Sister Monique! Remember me?"

Chance meeting in a house of God


Photo copyright S. van Dalen

On a stormy, rainy day as the end comes, a drive to an old spiritual haunt nestled at the top of a hill where a church and monastery remain. The morning had been slow, the heat and birdsong were forcing me away from contemplation, making me irritable, snappy. I wanted desperately to find a calm, silent place and most of all, to feel the ache in my soul disappear.

We drove there at our leisure. The morning had been slow. Each time we decided to set off, the 'phone rang or another call needed to be made to sort out the chaos surrounding the dying matriarch.

Almost two hours behind schedule, we finally set off. The rains had dissipated temporarily but the sky was darkening again.

The road was steep, winding and barely wide enough for two Trabant-sized cars. We were directionless, the road signs being non existent. A type of second voice began to whisper, "slow down, turn right not left, careful, a car is coming down the hill towards you."

We parked. A Rastafarian was busy mixing concrete by hand on the side of the road. We approached and asked directions to the shop. "Go up and turn right. You can park there." We retreated our steps back to the car and turned around. Up along the sharp bend and suddenly into the courtyard, the rococo church bearing down on us.

My heart leaped straight into my mouth. I couldn't believe my eyes. I recognised that same gait, the quick, purposeful strides, the same petiteness. I jumped out of the car, the engine still running. "Sister Monique, Sister Monique! Remember me?"

She didn't wait to reply but hugged me, that type of hug where the arms go tightly around the waist.

"I'm trying to remember. Tell me, help me out....I know your face but...."

"We were neighbours. I grew up..".

"Oh yes! Samantha!"

We clutched on to each other, embracing again. Stunned at the zillion-to-one chance that we would meet here and so far away from our respective homes. Her, some thirty miles and at a place where she had no reason to be other than a last minute change from her usual daily routine. Me, some 12000 miles away from my home and the last time I had been even near that church was 1987. The chance of that happening?

The sky quickly unleashed its cargo and the black clouds, by now stationed firmly above us, burst loudly, scattering ripe, plump drops of warm rain.

"Quick! Run!" Into the church.

The years dissolved into the present moment after we had revisited the past. I asked her about the signing of the will. Her memory ached as she revived those forgotten thoughts. She had been the second witness. She could answer the question: Was he forced to sign? Were you there when he did?

"Come," I say, guiding her gently by the arm, "please pray for my father."

We walk towards the front pew, the entire church empty, silent and waiting for us. We kneel. I weep as she prays. "Father," she whispers, "please protect Arnold, Susie and Samantha. We thank you for guiding us here..."

Our unplanned meeting after so many years, we couldn't attribute it to anything but...

I knew then that I had to go on.

Copyright Samantha van Dalen, 2013. From my soon to be released book, Memories.


Photo copyright Sandhya Harnanan

Saying goodbye

I had travelled across a deep, blue sea to say goodbye to my mother. Imperious, haughty, beautiful, difficult, generous, kind, bitter, loving, irascible, loyal, are all words I would use to describe my mother. But she is still my mother.

Our first encounter after the many, many years I had stayed away was one of profound sadness. I burst into tears but she did not. We had difficulty embracing but she wanted to even though she was attached to tubes, her frail body all but invisible under the sheets . I struggled to hide my shock at what she had become. She recognised me immediately and within five minutes we were arguing. Just like old times. I flounced out of the room vowing never to return. I was wrong, of course. How could I not try to make amends, to build bridges, to forgive and to learn how to forget?

I returned the next day and we both relaxed enough to smile, to talk, to figure out how we got to this miserable state. I cried and cried and cried at how I wished for the past to change. I longed for a magic wand to regain all the time we had lost bickering, trapped in a hateful silence, in a state of apathy so toxic that it would scythe though the air between us over and over again, slicing through the silvery thread that binds a mother and her child.

The sight of a once beautiful woman ravaged by old age and sickness was enough to make me want to never, ever, get old and so diminished that I would be at the mercy of others. The sages say that a peaceful death comes to those who have lived a good life. Do we choose the end which awaits us?

My mother was once the belle of the ball in an era where a date consisted of going to the cinema and sharing a bunch of grapes (!). The world has changed. We have changed.

Our parents bring us into this world and then they leave us. We are left to go on. My mother is taking her place in the morning mists that move across the hills and as they rise, will become the clouds.

Despite my fragmented relationship with my mother, I owe a lot to her. My love of cooking, my wanting to do things well or not at all, my vanity. My mother wasn't perfect and neither am I.

"I love you, Susie. And thank you." I'm sorry I never got to tell you that.


My mother, Susie