Spirit Quest

 

'Stella died this morning . . .'

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

Shortly before breakfast on the morning of April 24 the phone rang.  As so often is the case calls at that hour bring  ominous messages.

“Stella has died this morning,” I heard the voice in the receiver.

That is both bad news and good news. Stella was 97 and bed bound for the past three years. For a woman endowed with a high intelligence  and boundless energy it is good news. The last time I saw her she was anxious “to have it over with.” However, as the memories rolled through my mind I was aware that this was also the end of an age and there is always something sad about a “fin de siecle.” It is not only the termination of a life but a marker en route of the demise of a certain way of living.

Who is this Stella, you will ask. Since the early fifties she and her husband Dr. Robert J Weil lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was on the faculty of Dalhousie Medical School as well as a practicing psychiatrist. Their home in Armdale  was my home when I first came to minister in that city in 1957. He believed that as a minister I should have some understanding of psychiatry and thus took me into his classes.  

However, my memories go back much further. Bob and Stella had, like my parents,  managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia  in March of 1939. Reaching Britain after a hairraising journey across Europe they immediately joined the Sudeten refugees who were preparing to depart for freedom and security in the wilds of Canada.< p/>

Although both medical doctors, having met while students in Prague, they, like my parents, attempted farming on an abandoned homestead near the village of St. Walburg, Saskatchewan. It was on that pioneer farm that I first encountered them . They were leaving what seemed like a hopeless effort to eke out a living on low grade land in order to practice medicine once again. We inheirited their cow and calf and had come to pick them up.

An acute shortage of physicians in that forgotten part of the province won him a temporary permit to practice his chosen profession once again in the hamlet of Frenchman’s Butte on the North Saskatchewan River.  Their clientelle took in a nearby First Nations Reserve. He proved to be an imaginative and resourceful practicioner using whatever was at hand.

They loved it there, although income from doctoring was largely in kind rather than cash, a bag of potatoes, a side of beef or a cord of wood. They had acquired two beautiful and highly spirited riding horses, lovely beaded chaps and vests, and both became excellent riders. They also obtained a used Ford coupe whose rumble seat I often occupied when I spent some of my summer holidays with them. Many of their former patients kept in touch over the years, some of whom he had delivered into life.

Bob had studied under Freud in Vienna and became very interested in the workings of the mind and its various malaise. On a scholarship he was enabled to study at the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas and became certified as a psychiatrist. Shortly after that he accepted a teaching post at Dalhousie University where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Bob was the life of a party while Stella played a supporting role. I attended many a bash at their cottage at Sambro Beach near Halifax. But there were tragedies in their lives. Of course, there was the loss of home and job and most certainly the death of most of their families in the holocaust, except for Bob’s brother who had also managed to escape to Britain. However, the greatest blow was the death of their daughter, Sonja, their only child, a peadiatric social worker, in a fluke car accident in Chicago. In 2002  Bob died and Stella journeyed on alone. However, she was a gregarious person and was always surrounded by friends. They had travelled widely and it wasn’t just scenery and interesting food that they enjoyed but the people en route.

 

Bob and Stella were my surrogate parents. We share no blood but certainly spirit.  Hardly a year went by that we did not visit them or they us. More lately, our daughter Karla whose frequent business trips to Halifax always included a visit to Stella who she supplied with books. Stella was an avid reader.

Her circle of friends has been rapidly shrinking. What lives on in me is not the picture of a woman with a slowly atrophying body lying on a hospital bed in her living room, lovingly cared for 24/7  by the Newfoundland ladies, rather it is that infectious smile, the vigour and joi-de- vivre of a woman who had no illusions about life, who knew the darkness and the light, but never lost hope.

It is that spirit that I covet for myself and for all of us as we struggle with reality. I shall miss her, but will never forget her open house and arms . And when I am down and worry about the future she “flashes upon that inward eye” as Shakespeare wrote about his discovery of those daffodils.

True, we are not all gifted with the same intelligence or energy, but there is a spirit  that is available to all who seek it. I shall remember its embodiment in Stella.

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