I found Gwen sitting on the sun-warmed stoep of her tiny serviced flat. Recently returned from a prolonged stay in a big-city hospital followed by a convalescent spell in the local nursing home, she was settling back into ninety-three year old normalcy.
I lighted comfortably on the stone surround of her strawberry patch, looked into her faded blue eyes, and returned her smile of pleasure with pleasure. When old friends meet there is often little need for words and we sat for some time soaking up the weak winter sunshine, just happy to be together.
I broke the silence. “Good to have you home, Gwen.”
She nodded. Her eyes traveled through her small garden. “Good to be home,” she acknowledged.
I looked to the rake leaning against the wall. “See you’ve been busy already.”
Her smile broadened. “Had an idea you’d be along so I raked the leaves, but I need your help to lift them into the compost bin.”
Following the line of her pointing finger I saw a huge pile of leaves raked onto a spread tarpaulin. I was appalled and silently berated myself for not thinking earlier of the fallen leaves.
“Gwen, you shouldn’t have!” I sputtered. “I would happily have raked as well.”
Her chin and nose tilted pugnaciously. “My dear girl, do you want to bury me as well? I’m not dead yet, you know, But,” she added with a sigh, “I am a little weary now. There were so many and it took me a while. That is why I was resting when you came. Let’s get rid of them before the wind comes to spread them around again, and then you can make me a nice hot cup of tea!”
Together we lifted the tarpaulin. The leaves rustled down into the bin with a shake and a pat to dislodge the last few. Gwen sprinkled a cup full of her special accelerator while I folded the tarp, and we clamped the lid together.
Gwen preferred delicate china teacups rather than mugs; and tealeaves in a big silver teapot covered with a magnificent ‘chicken’ cozy of her own making. We sat together on the sunny stoep, drinking cup after cup of fragrant brew, skipping from time machine to prayer closet, and generally setting the world to rights. Between us our memories spanned a period of more than a century and a half, a great many square miles, an island and a continent. We shared a common faith and hope, as well as a deep enjoyment of literature.
The teapot was emptied, the cups washed. Clouds were beginning to gather. I saw Gwen settled into her big armchair, her lunch ready to heat in the microwave. We held hands and prayed before I left.
Fat raindrops fell as I hurried home. They mingled with the tears on my cheeks. Each time I saw my friend she seemed more frail. Gwen was in her winter season, and her winter was steadily drawing to a close. I was in my twilight years when you seem to send more sympathy cards than birthday cards. Friendships have the tenuous strength and fragility of spider webs. And you have a larger prospect when you look back than you do when you look ahead.
As I walked words sang into my mind: “My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run,” and Gwen’s smile shone through the rain as I whispered, “My greatest trials now are past, my triumph is begun.”
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