Like Ripples on a Pond: On the Life of a Much Loved FriendIAIN T. BENSON
To recall Richard now is to smile and realize that in a real way he is not gone and that what was within him is blazing, undiminished and unquenchable.
It all began when a mutual acquaintance told me of another student at St. Andrews in Scotland (I was on a one year exchange from Queen’s University) who was going to go to Cambridge to study medicine. As I had just received a provisional place there to read law, we were introduced and said, as young students do, “see you at Cambridge.” And so, a year or so later, we met up.
It was the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship. We played in a folk group together, we played squash against each other we had relentless games of anything we could find — croquet, darts, you name it. He was a superb and unrelenting sportsman, excellent scholar, amazing musician and, later, loving husband and excellent father. In later years we saw less of each other divided as we were by a continent and an ocean.
While at Cambridge we, with another friend of Richard’s, a talented medic from Zimbabwe, formed a folk trio and managed to wrangle tickets at the expensive “May Balls” put on in early June by the Cambridge colleges in exchange for playing a few sets of our blend of music in the wee hours of the morning and Richard or I would “pipe in the dawn” from the College ramparts.
Richard, as the better bagpipe player and guitarist (we never let him sing as his singing voice was terrible) was, with the other banjo and guitar-player, the musical excellence of the group. We played a kind of Celtic blue-grass, blues and African fusion.
He epitomized life lived “full on” and with great gifts of personal charm, good looks and staggering abilities in all areas of life — he had everything. We often talked about God and religious faith and he was there, as in everything, a firm and sometimes combative but always fair opponent. He believed in virtue but not in God.
He played his bagpipes at our wedding and, soon after tying some monstrous cans onto the back of our “get-away car” (he loved pranks) wrote to us from his hospital bed saying that he had been diagnosed with a cancerous growth, a malignant melanoma, on his back. But his letter said much more.
He said that, while lying for weeks on his stomach in the hospital bed he had time to reflect on his life and had been wondering what all his gifts and talents were for. He had come to the conclusion that he’d been living entirely for himself and had lived, in fact, a very selfish life focused on his own achievements and prowess. I think this was a harsh assessment as he was a kind and generous friend. His letter also said that he realized that he had been keeping God at bay. The result of his reflections was, he told us in the letter, that he had made a promise to God that he would now live for others and for God for the remainder of his life. And he did.
Soon after, or about that time he decided to become a Christian — a faith he had been interested in before and knew much about as the son of a Presbyterian minister, but had never embraced, he decided to convert. Literally,” to turn with” instead of go the other direction from this God he now accepted. Of course his embrace of the Christian faith was done with all the joy, enthusiasm and outrageous talent that he had brought to everything else.
He soon married his date from the last May Ball we played at, another doctor, a year or so ahead of him in her training, called Charlotte, they embarked upon a whirlwind life of medical training and qualifications, then missionary work here and there from Nepal to India to Russia to Africa. He specialized in safe-birthing techniques, built an international reputation and they had three children along the way as they both got more and more senior jobs ending up at a prestigious research hospital in England where he eventually was given the title “Professor.”
Their lives were full and joyous. He was also a top-notch skier and enjoyed playing his bagpipes in Austrian towns in the morning and skiing in the afternoons. He did all manner of sports, traveled and read avidly while continuing music within his family.
Sometime in the late summer a few years ago, he sent us a note saying that his cancer had returned. Typically, he diagnosed it himself and knew what the prognosis was. He faced it with genuine fortitude and even, if one can say such a thing, with a kind of joy. He knew he did not have long to live but threw all of himself into the adventure — a last vital game. It was a mark of the man that with courage and irrepressible joie de vivre, he skied down a ski run the week before his death — insisting that his illness not spoil a planned ski-trip — daring death to take that from him. He won that one. Then, rather quickly and mere hours before we arrived to say farewell to him, he succumbed to his illness, dying at home in the arms of his beloved wife, completely exhausted by the disease and the way he lived in his fight against it.
I have not met the people that the article refers to but we are joined through our mutual friend. To recall Richard now is to smile and realize that in a real way he is not gone and that what was within him is blazing, undiminished and unquenchable. As so often used to be said between Christians, please remember Dr. Richard Johanson, his widow Charlotte and their children in your prayers for, as William Wilberforce once said: “we can render one another no more estimable a service.”
Benson, Iain T. "Like Ripples on a Pond: On the Life of a Much Loved Friend". CentreBlog (March 24, 2006).
Reprinted from the Centre for Cultural Renewal's blog, "CentreBlog", with permission of the author, Iain Benson.
Iain T. Benson is Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, an Ottawa-based "think-tank". He travels and lectures widely in North America and overseas on philosophical, theological and legal issues related to "strategic cultural renewal." Iain Benson is a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
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