Friday, March 24, 2006

Like Ripples on a Pond: On the Life of a Much Loved Friend

In our lives there are people we meet who change us for good and ill. On the positive side, the influences can be thrilling, life-enhancing and joyful and if we are blessed we can know enough to be able to say: “this person changed my life, I am thankful for his/her influence.” If we are doubly blessed we can tell the person so directly. This tribute is about one such a double blessing friend: Dr. Richard Johanson.

It all began when a mutual acquaintance told me of another student at St. Andrews in Scotland (I was on a one year exchange from Queen’s University) who was going to go to Cambridge to study medicine. As I had just received a provisional place there to read law, we were introduced and said, as young students do, “see you at Cambridge.” And so, a year or so later, we met up.

It was the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship. We played in a folk group together, we played squash against each other we had relentless games of anything we could find - - croquet, darts, you name it. He was a superb and unrelenting sportsman, excellent scholar, amazing musician and, later, loving husband and excellent father. In later years we saw less of each other divided as we were by a continent and an ocean.

While at Cambridge we, with another friend of Richard’s, a talented medic from Zimbabwe, formed a folk trio and managed to wrangle tickets at the expensive “May Balls” put on in early June by the Cambridge colleges in exchange for playing a few sets of our blend of music in the wee hours of the morning and Richard or I would “pipe in the dawn” from the College ramparts.

Richard, as the better bagpipe player and guitarist (we never let him sing as his singing voice was terrible) was, with the other banjo and guitar-player, the musical excellence of the group. We played a kind of Celtic blue-grass, blues and African fusion.

He epitomized life lived “full on” and with great gifts of personal charm, good looks and staggering abilities in all areas of life - - he had everything. We often talked about God and religious faith and he was there, as in everything, a firm and sometimes combative but always fair opponent. He believed in virtue but not in God.

He played his bagpipes at our wedding and, soon after tying some monstrous cans onto the back of our “get-away car” (he loved pranks) wrote to us from his hospital bed saying that he had been diagnosed with a cancerous growth, a malignant melanoma, on his back. But his letter said much more.

He said that, while lying for weeks on his stomach in the hospital bed he had time to reflect on his life and had been wondering what all his gifts and talents were for. He had come to the conclusion that he’d been living entirely for himself and had lived, in fact, a very selfish life focused on his own achievements and prowess. I think this was a harsh assessment as he was a kind and generous friend. His letter also said that he realized that he had been keeping God at bay. The result of his reflections was, he told us in the letter, that he had made a promise to God that he would now live for others and for God for the remainder of his life. And he did.

Soon after, or about that time he decided to become a Christian - - a faith he had been interested in before and knew much about as the son of a Presbyterian minister, but had never embraced, he decided to convert. Literally,” to turn with” instead of go the other direction from this God he now accepted. Of course his embrace of the Christian faith was done with all the joy, enthusiasm and outrageous talent that he had brought to everything else.

He soon married his date from the last May Ball we played at, another doctor, a year or so ahead of him in her training, called Charlotte, they embarked upon a whirlwind life of medical training and qualifications, then missionary work here and there from Nepal to India to Russia to Africa. He specialized in safe-birthing techniques, built an international reputation and they had three children along the way as they both got more and more senior jobs ending up at a prestigious research hospital in England where he eventually was given the title “Professor.”

Their lives were full and joyous. He was also a top-notch skier and enjoyed playing his bagpipes in Austrian towns in the morning and skiing in the afternoons. He did all manner of sports, traveled and read avidly while continuing music within his family.

Sometime in the late summer a few years ago, he sent us a note saying that his cancer had returned. Typically, he diagnosed it himself and knew what the prognosis was. He faced it with genuine fortitude and even, if one can say such a thing, with a kind of joy. He knew he did not have long to live but threw all of himself into the adventure - -a last vital game. It was a mark of the man that with courage and irrepressible joie de vivre, he skied down a ski run the week before his death - -insisting that his illness not spoil a planned ski-trip- - daring death to take that from him. He won that one. Then, rather quickly and mere hours before we arrived to say farewell to him, he succumbed to his illness, dying at home in the arms of his beloved wife, completely exhausted by the disease and the way he lived in his fight against it.

Strangely, that same night the other doctor of our trio from so many years before arrived from the United States with his wife and they had also just missed saying goodbye to Richard. The two of us played the old songs into the small hours of the morning as the whisky, memories and tears flowed freely.

Our best man at that wedding where Richard played his bagpipes so beautifully almost twenty years before was the Rev. Alan Torrance, who now holds a Chair of Divinity at St. Andrews University where Richard and I first met several decades and a life-time ago. Alan passed on an item that I think it appropriate to republish here because it details another facet of the life of this most remarkable man. It comes from the journal of the Christian Medical Association in the U.K. and I share this here because it casts light, a bit, on how Christians see the living and passing on of faith and I know Richard would not mind.

So much more could be said about Richard Johanson however it is too personal and too deeply within friendship to share. What follows, however, gives a glimpse of the man, and shows a part of why love and religious faith matter, why they cannot be captured by simply rationalistic formulas and why faiths such as his continue from time to time, place to place and generation to generation - - ripples across the pond of being.

Last summer we saw his widow and children here at our home in France after they had been hiking with another family along a route in the Pyrénées that Richard loved. There was joy and laughter recalling old and more recent times.

Richard was missed but in a way he was also powerfully present; that too, an element of the faith he and his family and so many of his friends embrace. Here is the article from the journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship by Janet Goodall.

Janet Goodall reflects on the loss of a colleague

Son of a South African pastor, Richard Johanson was born in South Africa. His mother’s obstetrician was Paul Bremer, an old friend of CMF, so much prayer must have surrounded him from the start. We met in 1984 when Richard joined our hospital team as a junior doctor, by now married to Charlotte. They occasionally visited my home, then years passed and paths diverged. In retirement I heard that Richard and Charlotte were back at our local hospital, she as an anaesthetist and he as a highly respected perinatologist. By now they had three children, lives were full and we did not meet up again, although his work was becoming internationally acclaimed. I was therefore shocked to hear of Richard’s early death from a malignant melanoma in 2002. It is no surprise to note the affection with which he is remembered, or that an obstetric prize now bears his name.

Yet our tenuous connection did not end there. Not long ago our church family was blessed by the arrival of Linda, a research worker, and Paul, a lecturer in computer technology. Paul willingly came to my rescue over some teaching material I was trying to prepare and, after our technical discussion, I asked him how he and Linda had come to faith.

‘It was through Richard and Charlotte,’ he replied.

It emerged that Linda had been Richard’s research assistant, and the two couples had been friends for six years before Richard’s diagnosis. ‘We thought they were great,’ said Paul,‘except they were Christians, which we found a bit weird. We had a lot of discussions, though. Then we heard the awful news, and I got as far as saying,“OK, God, I’ll believe if you’ll heal Richard.” But he only got worse – from the start he’d only been given a few weeks to live. There was, though, a great sense of excitement and serenity about him which we couldn’t understand.’

The‘few weeks’were extended to five months – a crucial extension. One memorable day, Richard invited Paul and Linda to take a walk with him through the woods.

‘I do this every day,’ he told them,’ I sit on a log and look out over the countryside.’ Sure enough, there was the log and they sat down together to admire the view.

‘What I do here is pray,’ said Richard,’ and that’s what I’d like to do now.’

‘In his prayer he mentioned our names, and that did it,’ said Paul, still a little choked.

‘We just said to God that we gave in, and it was up to him what happened to Richard.’

Three weeks later, as very new Christians, they attended Richard’s funeral.

‘In spite of the sadness,’ said Linda,‘there was such a sense of peace.’

Someone at the service directed them to our church, and so we met. Soon I hope to meet Charlotte again. Despite the great loss Richard’s early death means to her and their children, and to friends and colleagues worldwide, we can surely thank God for answering those perinatal – and subsequent – prayers.


I have not met the people that the article refers to but we are joined through our mutual friend. To recall Richard now is to smile and realize that in a real way he is not gone and that what was within him is blazing, undiminished and unquenchable. As so often used to be said between Christians, please remember Dr. Richard Johanson, his widow Charlotte and their children in your prayers for, as William Wilberforce once said: “we can render one another no more estimable a service.”

CENTREBLOG: Volume 116
Iain T. Benson©