LONDON, ONTARIO – In addition to some of its more routinely trumpeted pleasures and solaces, as you get older Christmas becomes an annual opportunity to spend time communing with the ghosts of the beloved dead. One old friend who’s taking up more pronounced residence in my thoughts this week is Jane Loptson, who died ten years ago in the hallway outside of her apartment at the Mary Campbell Co-op in the early afternoon of December 27th. She had been venturing out to buy some groceries following a rough Christmas when she’d had more than her usual difficulty breathing.
Jane would have turned sixty the following April though no one expected her to make old bones; saddled as she was for nearly half of her life with multiple sclerosis which incrementally wasted her body away – the 1980s would’ve been the last time she weighed more than a hundred pounds – and stripped away one physical faculty after another.
There was a major scare about four years before she died when Jane was hospitalized with collapsed lungs. The doctors managed to (as she described it) kind of re-inflate one of them and glue it back to the inner wall of her chest. But she was significantly and permanently weakened by that ordeal and, for the rest of her life, had to haul an oxygen tank with her wherever she went and wear one of those plastic tubular nose clips that shoot oxygen straight into the nostrils. A friend and I had taken her to see Of Gods and Men at the Hyland Theatre in 2011 and from inside her backpack, about every twenty seconds or so, her oxygen tank would make a little gushing noise that was only noticeable during quiet passages; of which that film, set in a monastery, had many.
I had last visited her in late October after Sunday morning Mass, helping to fix her incredibly wholesome lunch of salad, tea and a no-nonsense muffin and then cleaning up afterwards. She actually seemed in pretty good shape that day, jubilantly showing off a new treadmill that her neighbours had helped her to set up in her bedroom. This meant that no matter how much it snowed in the months ahead, she wouldn’t have to struggle with her walker to navigate clogged and slippery sidewalks to keep up her exercise regimen.
The first hint I had that everything might not be hunky dory was after the mail came on Christmas Eve and I noticed that her Christmas card hadn’t. Jane’s cards were always on time; never late and, just as importantly, she never rushed the season. As the most religiously fervent of all my friends, Jane's cards always featured unapologetically Christian art on the front, a holy exhortation printed inside, and, underneath that, her unvarying sign-off, “In the peace of Christ, Jane”. I made a mental note to check in with her early in the New Year and make sure that she was coping all right. Then I got the awful phone call seventy-two hours later.
We had attended South Secondary School in the late ‘60s/early 70’s but I first got to know Jane well through the autumn and winter of my eighteenth year when her boyfriend (and my best friend) headed off on a half year’s backpacking trek to Europe and India and asked that I drop in on her from time to time and see how she was doing. She had a large circle of friends at that time and was heavily involved in various musical undertakings. She had a sweet mezzo-soprano voice, played piano well, and guitar passably, and even back then was working up some mostly instrumental compositions of her own.
Somewhere around ’73–’74, Jane went over to England to live and work, imbibing as much music and theatre as she could, as well as other miscellaneous stimulants popular at that time, and got more than a little strung out. For days at a stretch she would disappear from the flat she was renting and come back to her roommate with unsettlingly wide-eyed tales of encounters with the late Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung; once on a crowded bus and another time while strolling through Highgate Cemetery. By the time they packed Jane onto a plane and sent her back to Canada, she was in pretty alarming shape.
One of the more discomfiting manifestations of this was impetuous visits in the wee hours of the morning when Jane would just turn up with her family’s long-limbed and small-brained borzoi who was the size of a small pony; announcing her arrival not by knocking on the door but by tapping on the window of my study. I suppose she didn't want to wake other people up but, oh man, it could be kind of startling. And my little terrier mutt was not the most gracious of hostesses to Jane’s great gangly beast.
Back in the care of her frightened and bewildered parents, Jane was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia and struggled mightily with its effects for the next twenty or so years. Every fall as the anniversary of her father’s 1976 death came around, the hallucinations and voices would get particularly bad. She would try to shut them out and adhere to reality as best she could discern it but when it became too much, she’d check herself back into the hospital for two or three weeks to ride out the worst of the storm.
Late one Labour Day evening in the early ‘80s, after a visit when I could tell that things were starting to agitate that way once again, she drove me out to my job as a nighttime superintendent and our car was passed by a bunch of high school kids decked out in grotesque masks; hanging out the front and back windows and gesticulating to people in the other cars. Jane’s eyes darted to the left and she didn’t say a word; just shifted her peepers back onto the road ahead and continued to drive as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “It’s okay, Jane,” I quietly assured her. “They really are there. Just some goofballs having fun.”
As someone who could bring such willpower to the very act of perception, Jane had a formidable work ethic and studied music theory and composition at UWO through the very worst period of her psychological turmoil. She graduated in 1982 and then worked as a piano teacher at a London conservatory and privately as well; all the while continuing to write her own music. In 1997 and 2005 she scratched together the money to produce two CDs worth of original music, including two string quartets, works for smaller chamber ensembles and songs for which she set favourite psalms and religious poems (including Gerard Manley Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur). I wrote the liner notes for both those albums which sold dozens upon dozens of copies (sigh) and she chortled with delight when she wanted to refer to one of them during a visit to my house and I pointed to the shelf and said, “I think you’ll find yourself situated north of Franz Liszt and south of Gustav Mahler.”
Like myself, Jane was always drawn to God and the Church. She regularly attended Metropolitan United Church in the early ‘80s and, naturally, sang in their choir. Her deepest desire was to join the Catholic Church but, unlike the United Church, they wouldn’t take you just because you wanted to join and she simply couldn’t stick the happy-clappy one-year preparation course of Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults demanded of their members. It was Jane who first persuaded me to check out a Catholic Mass one hot summer Sunday night in 1983 at St. Peter’s Cathedral and was, I think, a little miffed when I signed up for instruction that very same night and joined the Church the following Easter. Whenever I found the proceedings a little punk in the RCIA classes, I’d drop into Fr. Jack Michon’s rectory office immediately afterwards and he’d flesh things out with a little more rigour and often send me home with a book. Jane followed me in a few years later – when I had the unusual honour of being able to sponsor the person who had first brought me to the Church – after the late Monsignor John O’Donnell let her forgo the RCIA and consulted with her privately every week.
Once in, Jane became a super Catholic, far outstripping me in devotion and commitment; praying daily with the Sisters of the Precious Blood at their London monastery and motherhouse, and eventually joining the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order. (In conversation, she always referred to the Sisters as “the PBs” and dedicated her second album to them.) She found such peace of mind in the Catholic Church that she never again had to check herself into hospital for psychiatric care and never succumbed to despair or self-pity when multiple sclerosis was soon added to her woes. She sang in the St. Peter’s choir for her first five or so years as a Catholic until her MS made it impossible for her to climb up the curved stairway to the organ loft. In her strict religiosity, I occasionally found her a little judgemental, a little humour-deficient, and was ticked off when she refused to attend the reception after my Dad’s funeral because we held it at Chaucer’s Pub. But my rancour melted away when I discovered that she’d arranged for the Sisters to add my father to their prayers for the dead.
About an hour after I got back from her funeral at St. Andrew the Apostle Church on January 3rd of 2014 – a thoroughly Catholic service, as it should have been, but during which I’d struggled to get a sense of the person I missed – Jane’s final Christmas card showed up in that day’s mail. So there she was after all; signing off one last time, “In the peace of Christ, Jane”.
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