Updated: Apr 23, 2020
During my early childhood years, in addition to the Grimm’s Fairy stories and Mother Goose tales considered appropriate for young children, I had absorbed a number of Bible stories, especially those in a little black book containing illustrated 'Stories of Jesus' which my mother would occasionally read to us. On learning that our dear playmate Jenny was seriously ill with leukemia, she began to pray passionately that God would cure her, just as I knew from our Bible that Jesus had healed many others. I knew about how Jesus was a friend to all little children. I knew that He healed the sick. I knew that all good people would go to heaven to be with Him. And in the pages of that small book I suddenly recognised what would help Jenny. If I could just get that book to her, she would know that she had a Friend in Heaven who could heal her. And she could feel the assurance that one day - having been healed and going on to lead a long and happy play-filled life with us - only then would she, being the good sweet person that we all knew her to be, go to Heaven to live with Him forever. Having, through this spiritual revelation, identified the means of Jenny's salvation, my next challenge was how to get the book to her. I very much doubted that my mother would understand the urgent life-saving nature of my mission, so I had to bide my time until one morning when she left the house for a short while, locking my younger brother and myself inside and impressing upon me that I would be fully responsible for his health and well-being until she returned. This presented me with a moral quandary; to be obedient to my mother by keeping my brother company, or to save a life? It was just one of a series of spiritual dilemmas that I would subsequently be called upon to resolve, and would do so with varying degrees of effectiveness for the remainder of my life. Back then, however, in my childish eyes the resolution of the situation had a crystal clarity and simplicity that would seldom be matched. I felt sure that Jesus would prefer me to save a life. With this noble mission in mind, I climbed up and onto the most accessible windowsill in my parent's room, opened the catch and prepared to depart. Unfortunately my brother failed to appreciate the imperative need for his abandonment and began to wail. With a powerful shove, I dislodged him from my way. He fell out and onto the concrete step below, from where I could still hear his wails as I ran off and shortly turned into the driveway of Jenny's home, two houses away. I saw the blank look on Jenny's mother's face as she opened the door to me. I saw how it was momentarily replaced with one of surprise, but had returned like a door closing shut in the short time it took for her to walk with leaden feet along the hallway to Jenny's room. And then my heart leapt as I found myself gazing upon my childhood friend lying still and silent within the starched whiteness of the bed sheets. Those dear familiar features peppered with big brown freckles were framed by two long plaits of brown hair falling loosely on either side. Her serene face and long bare arms, limp on either side of her skinny frame, still bore the faint suggestion of a tan, harking back to those few carefree weeks of summer before her condition become known. Now that I had attained the object of my quest I felt suddenly at a loss to put into words the nature of my visit. Gazing soundlessly at Jenny, I silently prayed for suitable words of divine inspiration. In that moment I realised that the only ones necessary were those between the pages of the book I was still carrying in my nervous and now sweaty fingers. And so, mission accomplished, I solemnly placed the book within her reach and with what felt like heroic resignation turned my steps back towards home to face the recriminations that necessarily awaited. Such, I stoically imagined in my four-year-old mind, were the feelings of the early martyrs of the Faith. That was the last time I saw Jenny. Some years later, when my parents subdivided our small holding and the paddocks in which we had played slowly disappeared, to be transformed into a soul-less community of new houses around a freshly tar-sealed street, my parents named that street Jennifer Place in her memory. And around that same time, Jenny's mother returned the book to my mother. I read it again with the advanced wisdom of a now-seven-year-old. I read it with the knowledge that Jesus had not saved Jenny's life. Since her passing the story seemed to have lost some of its earlier redemptive qualities. What, I wondered, had she got from it? Had she even read it? The only enduring effects surrounding the events of Jenny's passing were that my younger brother had understandably developed a keen mistrust of me, and Jenny's role among my childhood playmates had been usurped by her younger sister, now the only other girl besides me in a neighbourhood of boys, who as her point of difference to Jenny's saintliness had assumed the nature of a Nemesis whose role in our neighbourhood was to alternate between being a friend one day and my personal tormentor the next. Yet it is only recently, having freshly shared these memories with my daughter, that I recall the book returned to me appeared worn. Its pages were loose in some places. Had I noted this at the time I would have felt only anxiety that my mother would hold me responsible for its worn condition. Today the memory brings a surge of hope within the small child-that-was still living deep inside. Was it Jenny's frail slender fingers, opening and turning and closing and later opening those pages again that had caused such wear? Was it possible, during those long, bedridden days as we children continued to chase and catch and scream and laugh in the street outside her window, that beyond our sight and thought, and whilst Jenny's soul was preparing for its final flight, she may have loved this book as much as I had?