The short ferry ride across Iona Sound from Fionnphort was rough, the strong wind churning the grey waters. Colum, age seven, sheltered inside the cabin. He wore a toy horned Viking helmet and carried a plastic broadsword in his belt—souvenirs his mother, Fiona, had bought at the Viking museum in York earlier in their summer holiday.
Fiona stood on the deck of the ferry, gripping the cold railing. The sea wind and the salty spray on her face enlivened her. She was a trim woman in her mid-forties with short blond hair, stylishly cut. Over the thrum of the diesel engine, she listened to the ha-ha-ha calls of the gulls circling over the Sound. She envied their freedom.
Through clouds and mist, she saw the Holy Isle of Iona, a small island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Pilgrims had journeyed to it since St. Columba established a monastic community there in the sixth century. In the distance, a medieval stone abbey church rose from the green hillside. Shops and houses huddled along the dirt and rock track to the abbey. Today, the ruins of the nearby nunnery were home only to doves.
From her rucksack, Fiona took out her Book of Common Prayer and retrieved a slip of paper with some handwriting. Martin, now more her friend than her vicar, had given her the prayer. It came from the Iona Community, the modern successor to Columba’s monastery.
Alone on the deck, Fiona breathed in the cool, misty sea air and prayed: “Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Deep peace of the Son of peace to you.”
Fiona was once more returning to Iona, her soul’s home. She first visited the island many years earlier with a youth group from her Episcopal church in Lerwick, Shetland. She was a pilgrim then, and she was a pilgrim now. For generations of pilgrims, she knew, Iona was a “thin space,” where heaven and earth joined.
The ferry reached the shore, and Fiona led Colum to Martyrs’ Bay. The short walk from the dock took extra time because of the boy’s halting gait. She moved at his pace. Since he was first diagnosed, she had organized her life around him. He was more important to her than anything or anyone else—more than her teaching, more than her marriage even. Now divorced, she had her regrets.
She directed Colum’s attention to the dull white beach where, she told him, Vikings had slaughtered the Benedictine monks early in the ninth century. “Nearly seventy monks were killed,” she said. “Imagine the beach red with blood.”
He shivered at the sight and then looked puzzled. “Why, Mum? The monks didn’t hurt anyone.”
“The Vikings lived by violence. They took whatever they wanted. Silver, gold, land, anything of value. And if they spared any people, the Vikings made them slaves.”
“Did our Viking ancestors do bad things, too?” Colum asked.
Fiona remembered telling him that their forebears came from Norway, which is where he got his blond hair from. Since then he had been fascinated by the Vikings.
“Oh, no. They didn’t live by the sword. They were fishermen. They lived peaceful lives like us.”
“Mum, I’m a gentle Viking, aren’t I?”
“You are—look over there.” She pointed to a large circle of stones on the beach. The stones lay amid driftwood and seaweed. “It’s a labyrinth. Medieval Christians used them to pray. You pray as you walk from stone to stone. You let go of whatever’s on your mind.”
“You worry about me, don’t you, Mum?”
“I do. I guess worry’s what mums do. And dads. If only we could trust God.”
Fiona moved around the labyrinth, step by step, focusing on the present, not on the future. Peace rippled over her like a tide. On the beach, Colum swung his broadsword in an imaginary battle, but quickly tired and sat on a stump of driftwood. “Can we go now, Mum? I’m hungry.”
They took a taxi cab up to the St. Columba Inn, a modern inn that looked out onto Iona Sound. Colum limped into the restaurant of the inn, his left leg trailing. Still helmeted, he parried and thrust with his broadsword.
“Don’t scare the guests,” Fiona told him. He returned his sword to his belt.
Resting her hands on his thin shoulders, Fiona coaxed him toward an empty table near a large window. She stood for a moment, looking onto the Sound, its waters as agitated as she was. The wind hurled giant raindrops against the window. They reminded her of tears.
Colum struggled with his chair, the paralysis on his left side making movement awkward. She tried to help him.
“I’ve got this,” he said. He scanned the menu. “Can I have the sticky toffee pudding?”
“Yes, you may—and may is the proper word. We’re not on a holiday from good grammar. Yes, you may have sticky toffee pudding. After a proper lunch.”
Fiona, even after living in England for more than twenty years, still spoke with a Scottish accent. She was proud of it. “Let’s take that helmet off for lunch, shall we?” she said.
“But, Mum, Vikings eat with their helmets on.”
“Not my wee Viking.” She smiled, rubbing the back of her hand against his cheek, red like fall apples.
Colum grumbled as he put the helmet under his chair. She could see his hair sprouting back in patches.
Fiona had brought Colum to Iona for more than the Viking history. She also wanted him to see the home of St. Columba—“the dove of the church.” Since Colum was a toddler, she had told him stories about his patron saint—how Columba and twelve monks had paddled their coracle from Ireland to Iona, how they had established a monastery on the island, and how they had evangelised the Picts of Scotland and the pagan people of northern England.
“If I had lived then,” he’d once said, “I’d have been a monk, too.”
“Not a Viking?” she’d teased.
“Well, maybe a Viking monk,” he responded.
Martin once said that Colum had “great spiritual insight.” On Sundays at St. Nicholas, their church, the boy liked to pester the priest with questions about God. Once he’d asked, “When you die, do you go to heaven right away?”
Martin smiled, thought, then shrugged: “You’re with God, always.”
One Sunday after the Holy Eucharist, Fiona lingered inside the church to talk with Martin When Fiona emerged, Colum was sitting on a bench within the church graveyard. “Talking to yourself again?” she’d asked. She usually did not think anything about it; he would outgrow it as she had.
“No,” he said.
“Well, then, to whom?”
“To them, Mum. They’re all around. Don’t you see them? As thick as the dew on the ground.”
Later, she told Martin what he had said. “As thick as dew on the ground? Where does he get these phrases?”
She wondered then whether the operations and radiation had muddled his thinking.
“Sometimes,” Martin said, “I think he looks beyond this world and into the next one. It’s like he’s standing in the doorway between the two. Aware of both. At home in both.”
…she was terrified that he would be leaving her in the next six months, a year at most…
Here in Iona, Fiona hoped Colum would experience the island as she had as a teenager: a little heaven on earth.
Waiting for their food, Fiona looked out on the Sound. The wind whipped the water into foamy white peaks. Her father, her Da, as she called him, used to describe such waves as “seahorses.” She missed her father and mother. Her mother had died from cancer when Fiona was aged ten, and her father, more recently, of a heart attack when Fiona was finishing her doctorate in medieval history at Oxford. Now, Colum was all she had.
A gale began to blow—the “seahorses” galloping across the Sound. She watched gannets, white Vs against the dark sky, climb the drafts and then plunge into the water, plucking fish and flying away to their nests on Mull across the Sound.
“Look, Mum.” Colum said. With his functioning hand, he’d drawn a fishing boat anchored on calm waters in the Sound.
“Lovely,” she said. “I wish I could draw half as well.”
He handed it to her. “It’s for you. To remember today.”
Smiling, she reached over and brushed his hair, which reminded her of tall, golden strands of barley in the fields. She wet her fingers and tried to tamp down his hair.
“Mum, please.” He pulled away. “I’m not a baby. I’m seven. Remember?”
“You’ll always be my wee man.” She stroked his cheek.
“Don’t cry,” he said. “I’m here. Still.”
She was sad. But more than sad, she was terrified that he would be leaving her in the next six months, a year at most, the doctors speculated. He would be leaving her—and not for boarding school, but for a place in St. Nicholas’s graveyard.
Then, she would be utterly alone. Divorced for nearly five years, she regretted now that she had pushed her husband Nigel away. Thanks to psychotherapy, she knew why.
As a girl, she watched helplessly while her mother died slowly from breast cancer. Her mother’s death crushed her father’s spirit. A teacher and poet, he lost his words and, with them, his joy. Seeing her father’s grief and suffering, Fiona resolved that she would never allow herself to love as deeply as he had loved her mother. In her marriage, she’d kept an emotional distance from Nigel, so that when death came she would not be devastated. Their marriage had ended not in death, but in divorce. Her grief and guilt were real.
She was sorry that their marriage had ended, but was glad that Nigel had found someone else to love and to be loved by. He and Charlotte had been married two years. He was teaching economic history at University College in London. He saw Colum every other weekend and Skyped him during the week. And when Colum had doctors’ appointments, or when he was in hospital, he was there.
The memory of those hospitalisations was never far from her mind.
Fiona had been on her way to give a lecture, passing through the Great Quadrangle at Christ Church where she taught church history. Her mobile rang with a call from Colum’s school, St. Edward’s. His headmistress told her that Colum had collapsed outside while playing soccer with some boys.
“He was seizing,” Ms. Cunningham said. “The ambulance just left. I’ll meet you at the John Radcliffe Infirmary.”
Fiona panicked. Five years earlier, Colum had had a seizure. A cancerous tumour was removed from the right side of his brain. Further treatment eliminated all traces of the malignancy. Fiona and Nigel believed that their son would lead a normal life.
She ran to the bus stop. On the ride to the Infirmary, she thought about the last few months. She’d seen the signs: slurred words, irritability, a little down at times, not himself. He had become clumsy, once bumping into a table and knocking an antique vase of her mother’s onto the floor, where it shattered. If only I had paid attention. What if it’s too late? I won’t be able to live by myself.
To stop herself from panicking, she closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths, and imagined herself in a calm place: at home on Shetland, sitting on a bench above the sea and watching the waves and the swirl of seabirds in a sky of blue patches and towering cumulus clouds.
Arriving at the hospital, she met Colum’s headmistress, who told her that he was stable. Fiona found a nurse who led her through a set of swinging doors to a curtained cubicle. A doctor was talking with Colum about cricket. The boy was smiling.
The doctor took Fiona outside the cubicle. “With your permission, I’d like to get a scan of his brain to determine what caused the seizures.” She nodded her approval and then went back to the waiting room, where she phoned Nigel with the news. He said he would leave London immediately. She stayed with Colum. By early evening, he was in a private room.
When Nigel arrived, the two of them sat in Colum’s room. Exhausted, the boy slept. For a time, they sat in silence, alone with their worries as they waited for news. Then, they talked, mostly about work. Nigel was working on a BBC documentary in addition to teaching and writing. She told him about an invitation she had received to lecture at a seminary in America. “That won’t be happening,” she said. “Not now.”
Nigel fell asleep in his chair.
She closed her eyes, although not to sleep—she was too upset for that—but to pray. Her prayer was simple: Why God? I thought this was behind us, that Colum would be okay. Now, what?
She knew there was no answer to that why-God question. Life was often tragic. There, looking at her son resting peacefully, she knew that a tumour was growing again in the dark regions of his brain. She asked God to save him. Again and again, she prayed the same prayer that night.
Fiona believed in God. Nigel did not. To him, religious belief of any kind was unfathomable. It was easier to believe in physics, with its speculations about multi-dimensional reality, than in God. Still, he did not scoff at her for believing, nor did he stop her from bringing up Colum as a Christian.
“I’m glad believing in God works for you,” he once said. “I wish it did for me. I really do.”
Late that evening, the neurologist told her and Nigel that the scans revealed a mass on the right side of Colum’s brain.
“Is it…?” She hesitated to say it. “Cancer? Again?” She twisted a kleenex in her hands and stared at the doctor, waiting for his reply. As she began to sob, Nigel put his arm around her.
“Yes, I’m sorry, it is a malignancy. But since your son’s last malignancy, new drugs and treatments have been developed. They’re very effective.”
Two days later, after a five hour operation, the neurosurgeon visited Fiona and Nigel in Colum’s room. “The operation went well. I removed as much of the tumour as I could. I wasn’t aggressive because I didn’t want to damage any vital centres. We’ll follow up with radiation. Chemotherapy.”
During the months of treatment, Colum lost his appetite and his hair. He was tired most of the time. Too tired even to stay awake for Fiona’s stories. The pediatric oncologist assured Fiona and Nigel that Colum was responding normally. The chemo was doing its job: killing the cancer cells.
Nigel arranged his teaching schedule so that he could be with Colum for his treatments. Fiona was glad to have him nearby.
Following the treatments, and slightly stronger now, Colum spent Holy Week and Easter week with Nigel and Charlotte in London. They went to the Easter service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They visited the London Aquarium. They rode a tourist boat down to Hampton Court, a first for Colum.
He returned home to Fiona in Old Marston, their village outside of Oxford, after the holiday.
After school one afternoon, as the two of them walked to the bus stop, she saw a group of boys playing cricket on the pitch across the street from St. Edward’s.
“Mummy, I want to play cricket one day, just like them.”
“Why wait? Come on.” She gripped his hand as they crossed the road.
He limped toward the boys, who waved him on.
She smiled, thankful for their friendliness. She watched him strike the ball hard, and it went over the boys. One shouted, “Well done.”
Smiling, Colum turned to his mother. “See, Mum, I can do it.”
“Of course, you can,” she shouted back.
Later at home as they were finishing their tea, and she was clearing away, he brought out his school books and was doing his homework. “This,” he said, “was the best day of my life.” He smiled. She paused and thought, Thank you, God.
With the end of the term came their summer holidays. And more bad news.
A follow-up scan revealed a newly developed tumour in the same part of Colum’s brain. “I wish we could do more,” the neurologist said. “I’m so sorry.”
Fiona burst into tears. How could he possibly survive a third tumour? He can’t bear it. God, why? It’s just so cruel. He’s only a child.
Fiona rallied. She had to be strong, positive, for him. He could not see her doubt. She collected him on his last day of school. “I’ve got a treat for you,” she said. “We’re going on an adventure.”
She outlined their route. They would go to York to see the Minster, then on to Lindisfarne, site of an early Christian mission, second only to Iona. They would tour the castle Edinburgh and attend the tattoo. “Oh, you’ll love it. The pipes and drums. The kilted, parading bandsmen. All very Scottish. Your heritage too…laddie.” Then they would drive west across Scotland to Glasgow and then to Iona.
“God, please heal my wee man.”
From the table inside the St. Columba Inn, Fiona watched the dark clouds clear, and the sun spread sparkles of light on the wet lawn. A man and a boy she imagined to be his son emerged from the inn. A kite in hand, the boy ran onto the lawn. The kite corkscrewed in the wind, tale fluttering and snapping. It searched for a draft, found one, then climbed. She was envious; this boy had many more afternoons of kite flying ahead of them, but not so for her son.
“Mum, you’re daydreaming again, aren’t you?”
“Something like that. Ready? Let’s get out and explore.”
Knowing his love of history, she led him by the hand up the track behind the inn to the ancient graveyard. It stood near the abbey church. There, she told him, kings of the western isles and even of Norway lay side by side with monks, townspeople, perhaps even some Vikings.
Colum traced the long-faded names on the headstones with his fingers.
They visited the little chapel just outside of the abbey church. It had been rebuilt near the site of St. Columba’s first chapel. Inside, it was cool. The floor was gravel and dirt. On the stone altar, beneath small stones were scraps of paper with what she took to be scribbled prayers. She tore a piece of paper from her travel journey and wrote her own prayer. She folded it and found a stone. She was about to place the prayer on the altar with the rest.
“Can I see what you wrote, Mum?”
He smiled. “I mean, may I see?”
She smiled back at him. He read her prayer to himself. She had simply written, “God, please heal my wee man.”
He placed the folded paper on the altar and topped it with a stone. “God hears. Right, Mum? And answers our prayers as is best for us, right?”
She nodded and turned her head away, concealing her own tears.
They walked on to the abbey. “There he is,” she said, pointing to a stain glass of St. Columba above them.
He studied the image. “The saints let the light in. That’s what Martin said. Remember?”
She pulled him close and, looking up at Columba, said, “That’s what you do, my boy.”
That night, by the light of her torch, the two of them joined a group of people walking up the track to the abbey for a service of the Iona Community. Inside the church, hundreds of candles flickered, giving the nave a golden glow and a warm, welcoming feel. A pianist played. Rows of chairs slowly filled with people. A few people whispered. Others sat in silence, their eyes focused on the altar and the big arched window behind it.
Fiona tried to quiet her mind and settle herself in the present, but she kept thinking of the next day and of their journey home. Her chest tightened; she felt as if she could not get her breath. Then, she remembered something from earlier, the gospel reading from Evening Prayer.
Jesus and his disciples were traveling by boat across the Sea of Galilee when a storm surprised them. They panicked. Jesus slept. They shook him awake, and he commanded the storm: “Peace, be still.” And so it was.
“Peace. Be still,” she said to herself. She prayed those words there in the abbey just as she had while Colum napped after supper in the bed beside hers. She felt peace then and, again, now.
At the service, Fiona and Colum sang hymns and listened to Scripture readings and a talk by a community member. He then invited anyone who sought healing to come forward and kneel around the altar.
At first, only a few people went forward. Fiona held back but then felt something nudge her. I’d never forgive myself for missing this opportunity. Why not? Why not have faith? It not now, then when? She knelt with the others, her eyes closed, her hands trembling.
“Are you seeking healing?” a prayer team member asked her.
“Oh, no. Not for me. But for my wee boy. He has cancer and not much time left.” She wept.
The woman knelt down, wrapped her arms around Fiona and asked for her and her son’s name. Then she prayed. “May the Spirit of the living God be with Fiona’s son Colum in body, mind, and spirit and heal him of all that harms him. And, God, may your Spirit deliver Fiona from all that would harm her. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
“Amen,” Fiona said. At that moment, she felt a presence, bright and warm—like the sun breaking through the grey cloud and mist—and then she felt a hand on her shoulder, and with it, that deep peace of sky, sea, and hill. Of Iona and of God. She looked around.
He was shining. Colum, her wee man.
Kenneth L. Chumbley is a former banker, reporter, and PR professional. He has been an Episcopal priest for more than thirty years. He is in his twenty-first year as rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, Mo. His nonfiction work has appeared in several regional and national publications, including The Other Side, Sojourners and The Christian Century. He contributed three chapters to The Christian Sourcebook, published by Ballantine. For ten years, he wrote a monthly religion and ethics column for his local daily paper, The Springfield News-Leader. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Louisville, his master’s in divinity at The General Theological Seminary in New York City and his master’s in English/creative writing at Missouri State University. He and his wife, Penny, visit Scotland frequently. Iona is one of their favorite places. Read his blog at onepriestsblog.blogspot.com.
Photo by Ken Chumbley