Words cannot describe what I am feeling – yet I do need words to describe my emotions.
Susanna was a good friend. I hesitate to write the word „was“. In spite of all the tears the news that she, her husband Chris and their friend and collegue Melinda Harris died in devstating car crash a few days ago.
News hit me while I was on my way to the airport for a long awaited break and sabbatical. Since then tears and memories came flooding. I met Susanna when I was 18 – making her my 4th oldest friend. There are only 3 friends that I have known longer than her.
We both worked at a Christian Summer Camp for international students in Cambridge, providing opportunities for fun and talk. It was Susanna who told me about Wycliffe Bible translators / Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) who analyze languages that very often do not even have a written form and then translate the scriptures for these people. Susanna herself was the daughter of two SILers, John and Cathleen Callow, who lived and worked in Ghana.
Childhood and youth
That is where she and her 3 sisters Lois, Rhoda and Naemi (hope the spelling is correct) grew up – I remember her telling me stories of how their mom used the bathrooms in the SIL Center to wash all of their hair at once – each daughers head in a different sink – you have to be efficient with 4 girls.
Susann telling me about Wycliffe changed my life. Being interested in other cultures, the gospel and communication I wondered if this would be a career path for me. It later turned out that it was not. I lacked the analytical, almost mathematical skills that you need to dissect an unknown language.
However I spent one year working as a volunteer with a bunch of other young folks from all over Europe at the Wycliffe Center in Horsleys Green. We cooked for the people in training and joked that surviving out training was part of their overseas training. There was the famous Tuesday soup and all the fun and laughter of young people sharing life together.
But it was also stressful if you are not used to being around people constantly. After a few weeks I felt exhausted and unhappy. Susanna invited me to their family home near Oxford. We went for walks, drank endless cups of tea and her dad John shared how the words of the Apostle Paul about his sick co-worker Epaphroditus touched him. After this weekend of friendship and family time I returned refreshed and renewed.
We stayed in touch. Mostly through classical letters on paper. Susannas handwriting was small, almost a bid edgy, in some ways it looked like Aramaic.
And here letters were rich. We both did not stay with superficial things, but shared about what mattered most to us. Susanna wrote about
- Times when family members struggled in their health, releationships or faith
- Her prolonged illness and the hardship and pain of having to give up her beloved subject of medicine due to medical issues.
- Her choice to pursue teaching as a career.
And then…Chris came along
And then there was this letter where she described this young man she had met and who took her icescating one day. She was wondering if there was more…There was…and after a while I received the invitation to their wedding.
Susanna was one of the most beautiful brides I ever saw – her delicate features seemed even more beautiful in a simple, but elegant dress and behind a veil. And Chris and his family seemed to be a lot of fun. His best man and brother told stories of how even as young boy he had a lot of love for animals and research – using his mothers cooking pots to boil and preserve them.
Chris took it with humour as they told how as a young boy he was sent to the shop to buy some elbow grease…
Early years in the Middle East
A few years later they headed out for their live together, choosing to serve God in the Middle East as teachers. I had the privilege to visit them in Jordan where they attended Arab language school. We visited historic sites like Jerash, for the first time since Sam and Chloe was born Susanna left them with Chris as the two of us headed for two days of sightseeing in Petra and snorkling Aquaba in public bus – quite an adventure.
But most of our time was spend sharing, eating the great food Susanna cooked and deep talks – about the insecurities many women in the Middle East face. Just before I came there had been several cases of successful or attempted sexual assaults on women in Susannas circle of friends at and this deeply affected and also frightened her.
Yet she choose love over fear as they both continued to work and serve in the area as teachers in Kuwait. Their lives were spared as they were on holiday when Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait. But they lost all of their belongings. “They even took the light bulbs. The only thing that was left was one picture of my niece that was found in one corner of our flat.” For her one of the most painful losses was the loss of her wedding album. I gave her the pictures I had taken at their wedding, but then it was a miracle and answer to prayer that one day a parcel arrived at their doorstep that had no sender on it, but it did contain their wedding album – a big treasure for her.
They chose Lincoln as a base to rebuild their lives and I happened to be with them as the british government decided that the British Citizens who lost all of their possessions and their savings on Kuwait Bank accounts in the invasion –at least did not have to pay taxes. That was a huge relief to them and a sign of Gods provision in the midst of the crisis. We celebrated with a wonderful big meal. What a joy!
And they headed out again. To Lebanon with A Rocha an environmental charity, aiming to serve God by protecting his creation. We stayed in touch, shared life enjoying newer technologies like Emails to keep each other updated in newsletters.
In those years always said “I will come to visit you one day!” But as life was busy this one day never came – until I got one Email from Susanna: “We decided to return to England.” Yikes. “Can I maybe come to visit you in May?” “That is only three weeks before we leave, but you are the kind of person I can be at ease with – even in the midst of packing up my life!”
So I was with them – sharing and reflecting on the years that lay behind them. Years of a fruitful life, restoring the almost destroyed Amique Marsh, a home for wildlife and birds but also a place where Muslims and Christians could meet and interact.
Susanna also shared about the hard times. How it had shattered her, when Prime Minister Hariri was murded – just minutes after she had seen him pass by the crossroads where she stood with her car. The power of the explosion that blew up his car was so strong that it blew out windows hundreds of meters away. But worse than that was living through the Israeli-Lebanese war, with heavy fighting going on in their neighbourhood. Leaving them stuck inside with none of the needed medicine – in the end Sam risked his life to go to the pharmacy. The gunwholes from the fights were still visible on their balcony and so were some of the scars the trauma left on their souls.
I was with them as they said good buys to people and places, but also in some ways to the close knit family life they had enjoyed. Soon Sam and Chloe would pursue their own career while Josh would finish his last years of school.
Their willingness to rebuild their lives after losses was what impressed me most with Susanna and Chris. They did experience heavy losses of health, career paths, possessions, security and home, but did not become bitter, but grieved. And then chose to keep on trusting God and rebuild.
Chris accepted the position of CEO of A Rocha and Susanna worked as a teacher again. When I met her in England a while after they resettled. During a good meal she spoke about the difficult heavy times when Chris´ live was very much in danger due to his heart condition. He had once written to me that one of the things he had enjoyed most during the times of recovery was watching animals life on Webcam. Whenever I feel really stressed I now go to Africam to watch some elephants drinking or flapping their ears.
She also told me how her aging parents were still holding bible studies in their home and how grateful she was that her kids were doing well… Chloe in Nursing and Sam and Josh in their studies – she was deeply thankful that returning to England had given Josh the stability he needed to recover from the war traumas of Lebanon.
After the meal and watching the peacocks on the terrace of the restaurant we took time to stroll through Oxford. Susanna showed me the grounds of her former college. That was the last time we met on this earth. We ended our friendship where it had begun: In a beautiful old university town in England. Sharing life and faith.
It so hurts, to loose you, Susanna and Chris, but I am thankful for all the years we had together. I know that you now are in a place with no more insecurities and losses. I imagine heaven as a place where you, Susanna, can do medical work…cooperating with God and the Angels to bring healing to people on earth and as a place where you, Chris, can admire all the birds and wildlife of the universe. I trust you will love that. However you are missed on earth. See you soon!
My heart goes out to Sam, Chole and Josh a lot these days and to Susannas parents, sisters and other relatives that I know so well from her stories and also Chris´ family. Grieving their unspeakable loss and praying for comfort.
(I am travelling right now, so unfortunately I do not have access to my photos of Susanna and Chris. I will add more photos later.)
Chris wrote a book about the long and fruitful time they spent in the Middle East called „Postcards from the Middle East“