One of the first things I did after arriving back in Oxford after the holidays was send Walter Hooper an e-mail. Jennifer and I had gone over to his place for dinner before we left and, knowing I’d be on my own for a bit before Jen rejoined me, Walter made sure to invite me over when I returned.

I sent him an e-mail shortly after getting settled in, and it wasn’t long before I received a reply from Walter, welcoming me back to Oxford and inviting me over for tea my first Sunday back in Oxford.

Saturday: CS Lewis gifts from a stranger

When we’re apart, Jennifer and I try to Skype a couple times a day. The whole long distance thing isn’t a lot of fun, but if you can talk regularly, and even see each other, that makes everything a bit easier.

I Skyped with Jen Saturday evening. My evening, her afternoon. And she told me someone back home who knew her Dad, and who had heard about what we were up to, had given me a first edition copy of Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. As well as a complete, early-edition set of The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Apparently this man had heard I was a big fan of Lewis’ writing, and that I was studying here at Oxford, and he had decided to give me these books from his personal collection.

I was stunned. I didn’t even know the guy, but that was an incredible gift.

“You’re building up quite the collection,” Jennifer told me over Skype.

“No kidding,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief of the generous gift.

Sunday: Tea with Walter

After church on Sunday morning, I made my way to Summertown. To get some work done on Greek before the start of the first official week of the term. And to catch up with a friend.

Richard had sent me a message shortly after lunch. Letting me know he was studying from Startbucks in Summertown, in case I wanted to join him. It’s nice to come back to a place half-way around the world and find people reaching out to you. It certainly makes for an easier transition.

I met Richard shortly before leaving to return home from the holidays. He’s a great guy. He and his wife are from California. Beautiful, sunny, southern California. And they had actually just been married before moving here to Oxford, so Richard could start his Doctoral work.

Richard’s background is in Philosophy. He seems young for the job, but he’s been teaching at Biola. Philosophy. His passion, though, is Christian Apologetics. Talking about why Christians believe what they believe. Answering questions about the faith. And that’s something I certainly appreciate. That’s something we have in common, as it’s much of the reason why I’m here, too. So we find a lot to talk about.

We caught up for a while, sharing stories from our holiday vacations over coffee, before picking up our books and getting some studying done.

After a couple hours, I excused myself, telling Richard I had a tea to make. At Walter Hooper’s house. He thought that was pretty great.

Summertown is about a five-minute bike ride from where we live, and Walter’s house is about another five-minute ride north of Summertown.

It was just starting to get dark outside when I arrived. I pulled my bike around the back of his large, condo building and locked it up. Not seeing a bike rack, and not wanting it to get in the way if I tied it to the entryway.

I passed through the two large double doors and rung the bell at Walter’s door. Seconds later I was greeted by his wonderful smile and  a “Why hello there!”

It really was great to see him again. Being at Walter’s home makes me feel like I’m at home, in a way. It’s just comforting.

After we had said our “hello’s,” I handed Walter some canned pumpkin pie mix we had promised him the last time we were over. After he had raved about the pumpkin bread Jen brought over for dessert. He was pretty happy to receive it, and he was quite grateful about it, thanking me several times.

I also brought him one of our Christmas cards. Jen had signed and prepared it for him before I left. It seemed like he appreciated it. I pointed out all the places we had been in the photos on the cards. The Tower of London. Bath. Blenheim Palace.

Walter invited me to sit down and we shared some tea. From that old, comfortable chair in his living room. The one I always sit in. He pointed a plate of shortbread cookies in my direction and insisted I have some. Walter’s incredibly hospitable.

I love sitting in Walter’s living room. Talking. While the fire flickers in the fireplace. There’s always great conversation, and it’s never forced or dull. He always has something interesting to talk about. And, somehow, it always comes back to Lewis.

I asked him about meeting Lewis for the first time, and he shared the story with me in incredibly rich detail. It was like I was right there with him.

He told me how he had shown up on Lewis’ doorstep several days earlier than he was expected, after being told to give some extra time, as Lewis’ home was difficult to find. And, even though Lewis wasn’t expecting him for another few days, he invited him into his home and they ended up sharing three pots of tea just like that. Apparently Walter had come expecting just to stay for the one visit, and maybe to see a bit of England, but that trip quickly turned into the next 45 years of his life. Walter went from being a pen-pal of Lewis’ to being Lewis’ personal secretary.

“I remember thinking, shortly after meeting him for the first time,” Walter told me, “that I genuinely loved this man.” He let his words hang in the air as he looked off in the distance, into the fireplace, and you knew he was replaying these experiences to himself.

“He was so incredibly kind,” Walter said to me after a pause. “He really was unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”

I asked Walter if he had been homesick after coming here and staying unexpectedly. He told me he had, particularly after Lewis passed away.

Walter’s cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia, entered the room while we were talking. Walter always addresses Lucy when she’s around, as if she were a person who had just entered.

“Well hello, Blessed Lucy of Narnia,” he said to her. “Are you going to say hello to your uncle Ryan?”

I smiled, as Lucy paced back and forth in front of where Walter sat as he played with her tail.

We talked for a bit longer. He asked about Jen. How she was doing, and if she was enjoying being home.

I asked him a theological question. Something a friend of mine back home had been talking with me about. Something that had been weighing pretty heavily on this friend for some time. About whether or not everyone, ultimately goes to heaven (what’s called “Universalism”), or if there is indeed a heaven for some, and a hell for others.

Walter was quick to answer, and he immediately began by referencing Lewis book The Great Divorce. He asked me if I had read it. I told him I had began reading it at one point, but I hadn’t finished it.

“Oh, you must read it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.”

I told him how I had just received a first-edition copy as a gift the day before, and how I now had no excuse.

He began to tell me how he’d respond to this question, that he believed the end of this life would mean great disappointment for many. But that it wasn’t a matter of tastes or opinion. Rather, it was matter of fact. Of truth, referencing Lewis’ book as he talked. He then excused himself from the room so that he might grab a copy from his room and read directly from the book.

This surprised me, as Walter routinely quotes verbatim from books when we’re talking. Not just Lewis, but others as well. And I’m always blown away. I hope I can pull that off when I’m 79.

After a few minutes, Walter returned to the room, his copy of The Great Divorce in hand. He flipped through the pages to find the section he wanted to read from, scanning the pages like he was returning to an old conversation. And, as he read it aloud, I realized he was doing just that. After knowing Lewis, and after working on his books for more than 40 years, Lewis’ words must feel like nothing short of an old friend to Walter.

“I’m often asked if I regret this, having spent all this time studying Lewis’ writing and compiling his letters. I’m often asked if I feel like it’s been a waste,” Walter later shared with me. “And I don’t know how I could. My life is so much richer because of this man.”

Walter was beaming as he finished this sentence.

Staring at this 79-year old man seated in the middle of his beautiful living room, knowing the amazing difference meeting Lewis had meant in his life, I was touched. To know such a man, and to know that, as much as Lewis has meant in my life, he has meant so much more to Walter.

I could feel the joy permeating from him as Walter sat there across the room from me, and I was so thankful for that time together.

Monday: Back in school

It was an odd feeling, returning to class on Monday. Like I had never really been away.

My week began with Greek, which meant I hit the ground running. We spent most of the class time talking about what we would be focusing on this term, and what Rhona expected us to have finished by the next time we met.

Looks of horror spread across the faces of those seated around me, as fingers and eyes flipped through page after page of Greek translations to complete. It seemed insurmountable, more than we could possibly do or know, on top of the rest of our studies. But Rhona spoke of it like it was nothing, of course. I think she honestly believes students can learn Greek by osmosis. By simply looking at the pages for a few moments. I think that’s how she learned it. Fresh out of the womb. She’s brilliant.

Lyndon and I were chatting about the workload as we left class that morning, as we were unlocking our bikes.

“And now I see why the Oxford name carries a certain cache,” he said with a large grin.

“Yeah, no kidding. It’s there for a reason,” I told him as I got on my bike and made my way to the library to get started on my reading list for the week.

Oxford attire

I couldn’t help but take in the different outfits of those passing through the library while I was supposed to be reading. My head lifting up with each passerby. After being away from Oxford for a while, I was reminded how unique men dress here in Oxford.

Very academic, for the most part. Particularly those who aren’t 18 and straight out of high school.

Lots of tweed jackets with v-neck sweaters, dress shirts and ties. Pointed leather shoes. And turtle shell rimmed glasses. Messy hair and scarves. Unkept, not polished, seems to be the Oxford way. Too flashy or showy seems to be very much “un-Oxford.” No whites, or light or bright colors, but dark browns and greys and black earthy colors.

It feels like an escape, in a way. Being here. Into history. Into the classics. And I suppose you can’t help but feel that way, when you study in libraries that are nearly as old as The United States, and when you’re daily walking past buildings that are 800 years old.

Oxford, where young men dress like old men. Where modernity, it seems, is shunned.

Tuesday: Sitting with Felix

Jane told me shortly after I arrived that Beng was away on vacation. I let her know that I was happy to help with anything until she returned, if needed. She thanked me, and then asked if I might be willing to “babysit” Felix Tuesday night. I thought it odd, referring to hanging out with a 12-year old boy as babysitting, but I told her I’d be happy to.

Felix is a great kid, and I was looking forward to getting to hang out with him again. It’s something I’ve wanted to do more, but things here don’t leave a whole lot of free time.

Felix was working on Latin homework at the dining room table when I crossed the hall and made my way into their home Tuesday night. He greeted me with that large, toothy grin of his. It was great to see him again.

Jane and I caught up and talked about our holidays. She asked if the baby had come yet. Jen’s sister’s first. We had been hoping she’d arrive before I left, but we had no such luck, I told her.

“Jen’s getting pretty excited for her to arrive at this point,” I told Jane. “I think everyone is.”

“I bet so,” she said, with that same wide grin that Felix has.

“Oh, I booked our skiing trip today, Felix,” she said. Turning quickly to where he was seated at the table.

“Felix and I are heading to Switzerland for some skiing in February,” she told me with a look of excitement. But nonchalent excitement, like it wasn’t completely out of the norm for them.

It was for me, as I’m sure my large eyes gave away.

“Oh wow. That sounds great!” I said.

She walked over to where Felix was seated at the dining room table working on latin and asked him to sit up straight. He did. I smiled, to myself.

“He might like some pudding later on. Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told me. I smiled and thanked her.

Jane went through Felix’s bedtime with me, “Lights out at 9:00,” and she asked me to look over Felix’s work, if I wouldn’t mind. I was actually considering asking Felix to look over my Greek, but I told her I would, not knowing how I would actually know whether or not he had done what was being asked.

After Felix had wrapped up his Latin homework for the night, he told me he needed to go feed his rabits. He asked if I wanted to join him. I told him that’d be great. It was dark outside, and so Felix snagged a pair of goggles from a table in the corner of the room.

“They’re night vision goggles. I got them for Christmas,” he told me, while holding them out to me.” Would you like to try them?

“Cooool…,” I said, like a kid seeing his buddy’s new toy. “Yeah, I’d love to try them out.”

I’m not one to pass up on night-vision goggles. We walked out to the rabbit cage, me holding the goggles to my face, and he told me about the fox they had spotted in their backyard with the goggles.

I considered telling him I had received some pretty great wool socks for Christmas, and how they were keeping my feet nice and warm, but I decided against it.

We played some cricket in the large entryway of their home after feeding the rabbits. Felix ran over the different batting styles of the game. I was surprised to hear it’s still called batting. And not punting or something else, just to be different.

Grizz, their small dog, hated that we were playing with her tennis ball, and she’d constantly try to get it until we finally gave up and tossed her the ball.

“Would you like to watch some Simpsons?” Felix asked me, after throwing in the towel on our game of Cricket.

“I would love to, yeah,” I said. “I haven’t watched Simpsons in years.”

Seated there, in their living room, watching The Simpsons with Felix, I thought about all the studying I needed to get done. All the Greek I had waiting for me. But then I remembered I was being paid to watch The Simpsons with Felix and all of a sudden those studies didn’t seem quite so important.

One of the (three) episodes we watched involved the family going to an apple farm. Grandpa Simpson went with them. When they were leaving, he took his seat in the backseat. Marge quickly asked, “Oh no! Are you sitting on the apple pie?!”

“I sure hope so…” he replied.

Felix laughed quite hard at that point. “I sure hope so,” he repeated to himself, eyes glued to the TV screen.

After one of the episodes had finished, Felix got up and made his way to the kitchen.

“I like enjoying pudding while I watch The Simpsons,” he told me. He really is a smart kid, I thought to myself.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

We enjoyed our dessert, or pudding, while watching a couple more episodes of The Simpsons.

During a commercial break, Felix asked me if I had heard his dad had started another paper. I knew he co-owned two papers in London already.

“No, no I hadn’t heard that,” I told him.

“Yeah, it’s called The I, and it’s a short paper. Just the basics.”

About five seconds later, a commercial came on the TV announcing a new, concise newspaper. “Only what you need, none of gossip you don’t,” the narrator’s voice spoke. It was a great commercial.

“There, that’s it,” Felix said.

I had to laugh. It all seemed quite unreal.

After several episodes of The Simpsons, I told Felix it looked like it was about time to start getting ready for bed. I followed him upstairs and waited outside his door as he brushed his teeth and got changed for bed.

I told him goodnight and turned off the light as I left. “Thanks for watching me tonight,” he said as I left. It put a smile on my face. This kid is a stud; he’s so polite.

“You’re so welcome, Felix. It was a lot of fun.”

Becoming An Uncle

I returned to the living room and pulled my Greek textbook and notebook from my bag. I figured I would get some work done while I waited for Jane to return home.

But I couldn’t. My mind was elsewhere. Thinking about the e-mail Jen had sent me just before I came over to Jane’s. Telling me Leann’s contractions were getting closer, and that they would likely be heading to the hospital that day. That Khloe would probably be arriving soon.

I tried to put my head down on my Greek, knowing I had vocab to memorize for a quiz the next morning, but I couldn’t focus. Finally, I pulled out my laptop to check my e-mail. Hoping I would have an update from Jen, as I had asked her to keep me posted.

Sure enough, Ben & Leann had left for the hospital, and Jen and her parents weren’t far behind. Khloe was on her way, it seemed!

I was so excited. More so than I expected to be. But I was also sad at the same point. I think it took receiving that e-mail to realize this is something I’m going to miss, being here. The birth of my first niece, and I wouldn’t be there to experience it.

Jen had asked Ben & Leann if it would be all right to bring the laptop into the room with them, so that I could be a part of things. Not during the birth, obviously. But before, while they were waiting. And afterward.

It was nearly 11:00 by the time I got back that night. After Jane returned.

I was quick to get online and Skype with Jen and Ben & Leann and Tim & Rhonda. To see them all there, in the birthing room. Getting ready for Khloe’s arrival.

I was so excited Khloe was finally coming, and it was so good to see them. They hadn’t slept much the past several days, apparently, but you could tell they were terribly excited as well.

I stayed up for a couple more hours. Studying Greek for my quiz. And taking breaks to check in with Jen.

By 1:00, Leann wasn’t far from giving birth, they told me, but I was fading fast. I told them I was probably going to need to turn in.

Jen told me they’d Skype in with me after Khloe arrived, if I wanted to leave my computer on. So I did. I turned the volume up as high as it would go and I left it at the foot of the stairs leading up to our bedroom, knowing the wireless signal isn’t strong in our room, and I didn’t want to miss out.

I told Jen goodnight and went to bud, a little past 1:00.

At around 6:00 that morning, a beeping noise woke me from my sleep. It took me several seconds to realize what was going on, but I stumbled toward the source of the noise, with one eye open and one eye still shut.

I spotted my laptop at the foot of the stairs and, even in my sleepy-state, I quickly realized what was going on. Khloe had arrived!

The first thing I saw after taking the call was Jennifer holding baby Khloe, and suddenly I was filled with incredible joy. I sat down on the stairs in my pajamas, held the laptop up close to my face and said, “Oh wow. . .that is amazing. She is so beautiful!”

Jen was smiling from ear to ear at this point. Smiling like I hadn’t seen her in a long, long time.

I couldn’t get over what a beautiful baby she was. Even while struggling to wake up, I was taken aback by her perfect features. Her perfectly round button nose. Her beautiful round face.

“That is so amazing,” I said again.

Seated there, on the stairs that early morning in Oxford, the house still dark and the light of the laptop illuminating my face, I was taken aback by the beauty of this baby. And what an incredible blessing she was to our family in what has been a pretty difficult time. This past year has been full of some of the deepest, darkest pain we’ve ever known, after losing Hayley. And yet, here, before us, was this beautiful baby girl. This gift of light and joy. From God. Almost as if to say, “Here I am. In all the dark and in all your pain, I still delight in giving good gifts.”

I was terribly disappointed I wasn’t there to experience, first-hand, this moment with my family. It hurt deeply. I wanted with all I had just to reach out and grab a hold of Khloe. So that I might hold her in my arms. But I realized I couldn’t. And I realized I would have to wait six months before I could. I wondered if I would one day look at Khloe, after she was several years old, playing by the lake as a beautiful little girl, and regret that I had not been there for this moment. Ben & Lean had said time and time again that they understood I couldn’t be there, after I apologized time and time again. They shrugged it off, saying there was nothing to forgive me for. I wondered if I’d be able to forgive myself.

But those thoughts of disappointment quickly turned to joy. Joy for Ben & Leann, and the beautiful, healthy baby girl they had been blessed with. For the family she was born into, and knowing how deeply she would be loved and cared for. Knowing what wonderful parents Ben & Leann were going to be to her. What amazing grandparents Tim & Rhonda would be. How Jen was going to be the most incredible aunt. And how I couldn’t wait to spoil her as an uncle should. Those thoughts brought me great joy.

Baby Khloe Dawn Van Dyken, welcome to the world. It is more beautiful now that you have entered into it, and we are so delighted to have you. (Click here for a bit of mood music to accompany the photos).

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