A startling common thread connects two strangers in distant cities
The voice mail message was, "Hello Pat. This is Heidi Jensen* calling from California. My dad David* died this summer, and I found your name and number in his address book. If you are willing to talk to me, please give me a call..."
How astonishing! In October 2009, this message was left on our family phone in Toronto. At McGill I had dated a Californian named David Jensen for five months in early 1963, when I was 17 and he was 21. I liked him enough to take him out to meet my parents in a Montreal suburb.
He dressed smartly in navy blazer, white shirt, tie, and grey flannels – typical meet-the-parents garb in the 1960s. My father adored sailing, so was duly impressed when David described sailing his boat over to Santa Catalina Island. They talked boats for much of dinner.
We parted ways that summer, when I went to Europe with my parents, and he went home to California to work. Although extremely handsome, clever, and fun, he’d been a little too loud for me, so I suffered no broken heart. I last saw him at Convocation in May 1965 – each of us about to receive degrees,
garbed in black academic robes and ermine-trimmed hoods, whose yellow linings denoted the Faculty
Because David was my first real boyfriend, I was naturally curious about how his life had turned out. In the 1980s when visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., I searched for his name among the thousands carved into black granite. Being an American male of appropriate age, it was possible he’d been killed in battle.
After McGill published an alumni directory in about 1995, we connected for a few brief email messages – which explains how my information got into his address book.
We also enjoyed a couple of lengthy phone calls describing our respective post-McGill lives. He was fond of Savage Garden, an Australian pop duo unfamiliar to me. Being the era of VHS tapes, I was delighted when David sent me a tape of the movie “Truly, Madly, Deeply” to introduce me to Savage Garden’s soundtrack. (Odd to realize this was the only gift he ever gave me.)
In a 1999 email, I mentioned I’d be in San Francisco and invited him to lunch with my husband and me. David explained that he was living with his aged mother in a mobile home on 80 acres, about two hours from the city. He described himself as a “mountain man,” sporting very long hair and beard. “Mom says I need to tidy up before I come to the city,” he laughed. We agreed on a restaurant date.
David never showed up, so I decided that was that. My curiosity had been soothed and he was clearly not comfortable meeting in person. Neither of us reached out again.
Ten years later, out of the blue, his daughter left a voice mail. With pounding heart, I immediately called Heidi back. Her dad had died of bladder cancer that July. Over the next weeks, we spoke a few times, sharing emails and scanned photos.
At McGill, David had expected to study medicine after his B.Sc. He was active in student politics, having been Vice President of the Students' Executive Council in our final year. I'd assumed he would be a
success at whatever career he set his sights on.
Heidi explained what had actually transpired. Soon after marrying his McGill girlfriend, he became a dad. After a year or two the marriage dissolved, and he went back to California. He'd then fathered two more children, ending that relationship when Heidi was about 18 months old.
He became an organic farmer – growing avocados and citrus – and was instrumental in setting up farmers’ markets and improving small-business conditions. Heidi didn't see much of David while she was growing up, only really getting to know him properly during his final seven-month battle with cancer. She was his principal support.
Heidi was excited to hear details about the man I knew from 1963 to 1965, and to receive photos of David posed with fraternity brothers and other student groups, from my Old McGill annuals. She sent me photos of him over the years, beginning with the McGill graduation photo used in his passport.
Many parents show their kids where they've spent their formative years, but he never took her to Montreal. Instead of my heading to California to meet her, I offered to help her see McGill. Married with two children, Heidi lived in Oakland, and had never been to eastern Canada.
In May 2011, we made it happen. I drove to Montreal, she flew, and we set eyes on each other as strangers at the airport. Spending two nights in a hotel, we strolled around the campus, visited David’s fraternity house (where we’d first met) and the former Students' Union where he'd lived as President of the Union Board of Managers. It's now the McCord Museum, pictured above.
We wandered around Old Montreal, and took a ride in a horse-drawn caleche. As we were leaving the city, I waited in the car on Sherbrooke Street while she meandered around the campus for the last time – she returned in tears, understandably.
Heidi spent time with me in Toronto meeting my family, before heading home. Afterwards, she sent me a tiny silver teacup charm as a thank-you reminder of all the cups of tea and coffee we consumed on our travels.
It’s an exaggeration to say I think of her as a surrogate daughter, but there is no question that we share a strong emotional bond. How could we not? We are still in touch, having been together two more times although we live on opposite sides of North America.
How I wish David knew about our magical connection. Perhaps he does.
* Names have been changed.