Jonathan Stedall

Preface

My wife Jackie, to whom these poems are dedicated, died in September 2014 at the age of 64. About a year later I wrote a poem for her that I called 'A Bigger Picture'. Since then others have followed, all prompted by my attempt to come to terms with my grief and by my long held belief that death is a transition rather than an end.

Jackie didn't like the word 'battle' in relation to her illness. For two years she 'lived' with cancer. She spoke to our son, Tom, about 'the extraordinary quality of these days, the precious intensity of it all', and about her deep sense of wellbeing. 'I don't know where this inner strength comes from and I don't ask', she said; 'I'm just grateful for it.' In the last weeks she spoke to us on several occasions about how extraordinary it was that she felt so alive.

Jackie's adult life had three quite distinct and fulfilling phases. After reading mathematics at Cambridge she travelled extensively, partly in connection with her role as Overseas Programmes Administrator for the charity War on Want. After we married she devoted ten years or so to bringing up our two young children. She then read for a PhD in the History of Mathematics at the Open University, and in 2000 made her first connection with Oxford where in due course she became Senior Research Fellow of The Queen's College and Lecturer in the Oxford Mathematical Institute. Among the nine books that she wrote, largely on developments in algebra during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was her much acclaimed 'The History of Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction.' In Jackie's obituary in the Guardian, her friend and colleague at Oxford, Dr Peter Neumann, referred to 'her exceptional breadth of scholarship.'

At Jackie's funeral our daughter, Ellie, spoke of how her mother's deep sense of the past seemed to make her 'unusually comfortable with her own limited space in time and to give her a quiet confidence in the future.' This confidence and trust is beautifully conveyed in a message she wrote to young people - 'my beloved children, their wonderful friends, nieces, nephews, students' - that she asked to be read out at her funeral: 'I want you to know how much I loved you; how much I enjoyed seeing you make your way into adult life, each with your own particular energy and expertise. I want to tell you that for a very long time I have been learning more from you than you could ever have learned from me; that wisdom and understanding are not the prerogative of the old or middle-aged, they are yours too. And I want you to know how profoundly I respected your values: your care and respect for me, for your own families, for each other, and for the world about you. I am confident of a future that is in your hands.'

Jackie's own role in that future will, I believe, be more than just the influence that is inspired by memory; she was less sure of this. Life and death, time and space, the wisdom and beauty that surrounds us - we each had our own way of expressing our understanding and appreciation of these great mysteries. She was increasingly drawn to the silence of a Quaker meeting.

Some months before she died I told her that I wanted to write a book for her. 'You'd better hurry up' was her reply! Yet she knew what I meant and that I believed much could still be conveyed between the living and those who have died - albeit not in words as such, but through what lives in our hearts.

I hope, therefore, that what follows - the thoughts and feelings that prompted what I have written - will be a bridge of sorts, both to her and also to those who sense that there is indeed a bigger picture. Some of the poems are also intimations that in our efforts to extend boundaries of every sort there is, in fact, no shore too far.

Jonathan Stedall

Where on Earth is Heaven? cover

All text and images © Jonathan Stedall