The Dancing Puritan

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Last Friend

Jack and Joy

Some of the information about C.S. Lewis in this column is adapted from The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter, pages 233-252.

There is an ending for everything under the sun. People come and go; jobs change; events transition and children get married. Things, once so seemingly permanent on our calendar and in our traditions, transition to something else. The transitions come to a final transition when life is swallowed up by death and then death gives way to life eternal.

Everything changes. One moment we are holding the hand of a loved one and the next they are gone.  They have moved away to that far-away land. They are not coming back.

One day we will have a last friend.

For C.S. (Jack) Lewis that last friend was a lady from New York, Mrs. Joy Davidman Gresham. They first became acquainted when she wrote to him. Lewis was accustomed to getting letters from American fans. The letters from Joy were distinct and captured his attention.

Joy Davidman was born a Jew, declared herself an atheist at the age of 8, and later became a member of the Communist Party. She was a teacher and a writer of poetry, novels, and scripts. She married a Communist, William Gresham, in 1942.

Joy discovered The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by Lewis. The struggles of her husband and their marriage led Joy to a sense of helplessness and humility. She was converted and became a Christian. Though she and her husband both professed Christ, their marriage continued to fail and they would eventually divorce.

She made a trip to England in 1952 and Lewis invited her to Oxford for a visit.

She was fascinating to C.S. Lewis. He wrote, Her mind was... quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it.

By 1953 Joy moved to England with her two sons. They visited Jack and his brother Warnie Lewis in their home for four days in the winter of 1953. Lewis wrote to a friend, Can you imagine two crusted old bachelors in such a situation? 

Joy continued writing and in 1955 her book, Smoke on the Mountain, based on the Ten Commandments, was published. Lewis wrote the foreword.

She moved to Oxford in the summer of 1955 and regularly visited with Lewis. Their friendship, through various challenges, grew. One of the challenges was that Warnie Lewis was suspicious and probably a bit jealous. He and his brother were very close.

In 1956 Joy's permit to live in Great Britain was not renewed.

She was married in April of 1956 to Jack. Lewis called the marriage a pure matter of friendship and expediency. They did not live together and the marriage was considered an act of friendship, simply that Joy could remain in England. Lewis saw the marriage as a civil marriage distinct from a marriage in the Christian sense. The distinction between civil marriage and church endorsed Christian marriage was a position that he held prior to meeting Joy.

Joy began suffering hip problems and had to go the hospital. It was discovered that she had bone cancer.

Lewis remarked, soon after he heard the news of her cancer, No one can mark the exact moment in which friendship becomes love.

Humphrey Carpenter wrote:

  ...The days of talking about the marriage as a mere expediency were over, and Lewis and Joy determined that they must be married in the eyes of the Church. Warnie too had been won over. 'Never have I loved her more than since she was struck down,' he wrote in November 1956, shortly after the cancer had been diagnosed. 'Her pluck and cheerfulness are beyond praise...God grant that she may recover.'

C.S. and Joy were married, in the Christian sense, at her bedside in the hospital, on March 21, 1957. Her death was seen as imminent but prayers were offered for her recovery. She began to heal. By the summer of 1958 her cancer seemed to be in full remission and she was moving rather freely, though with a limp. Even the doctors, considered her recovery a miracle.

Lewis discovered romantic love. He remarked to one of his friends, Do you know, I am experiencing what I thought would never be mine.  I never thought that I would have in my sixties the happiness that passed me by in my twenties.

With Joy now in the home of C.S. and his brother Warnie, she brought a woman's touch to their world. Warnie wrote, What Jack's marriage meant to me was that our home was enriched and enlivened by the presence of a witty, broad-minded, well read, tolerant Christian whom I had rarely heard equalled as a conversationalist whose company was a never ending source of enjoyment.

The marriage had a profound impact on C.S. Lewis.  He was different in the best sense of the word.

By October 1959 the cancer had returned. Her pain increased and yet she continued to persevere.

In May, Jack. and Joy were on a dinner date. He recalled, how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone.

On July 12th, 1960 Joy and Jack were playing Scrabble. Lewis wrote of that night, How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night!

By midnight on July 13th, after a day of horrific pain, Joy died.

Lewis struggled greatly in the days following Joy's death but eventually the grief began to subside. His own health declined. In 1963 he had a heart attack but recovered. He said, I can't help feeling it was rather a pity I did survive. I mean, having glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one's face and know that the whole process must some day be gone through again, and perhaps less pleasantly.

On Friday afternoon, November 22nd, 1963 C.S. Lewis died. His brother Warnie, his best friend for all of his life, was at home with him.

His death resulted in the death of the Inklings as well. As one friend said, He was the link that bound us all together.

C.S. Lewis, prior to meeting Joy, did not welcome conversation from his friends about their wives at the meetings of the Inklings.  Joy changed everything.  She was his last friend.  She was the friend that gave him what he had missed for so long. She gave him the friendship of a wife. She put a spring in his step and was a source of joy to his heart. His last friend was in a sense, his best friend.