Three Years After Terry Waite's Kidnapping in Beirut, His Mother Clings to Faith in His Return

updated 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

She starts each day by switching on her bedside radio and ends each night with the TV news and a prayer. For Lena Waite, the mother of abducted Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, the news reports that punctuate her days dictate the tides of her hope and despair. "I look at his photo and think, 'Oh, Terry, I wish you were back,' " says Lena, 76. "I know he'll be worrying about whether I'm all right."

In the three years since Jan. 20, 1987, the day Waite was last seen on a hostage negotiating mission in Lebanon, there has been no demand for ransom, no claim of responsibility, no acknowledgment from his captors that he is being held. A long train of unconfirmed rumors and false sightings has taught the family not to place much faith in most news about the missing envoy, now 50, that originates in Beirut. "I once got calls from some reporters from NBC and ABC after they'd heard of a report in a little-known newspaper that Terry might be released within 72 hours," recounts David Waite, his 43-year-old brother. "We soon realized that everything that has been reported is not accurate. When you've been dealing with a problem like this for quite a while, you get used to reading between the lines."

Lena, too, has gotten used to the news lapses despite her TV and radio vigils. "I am sure Terry is coping quite well and making the best of it," she says hopefully. "Maybe the main thing he's missing is exercise. He likes to go for long walks. Being shut up would be awful for him."

Credited with arranging the release of at least 11 Western hostages in his seven years as the personal representative of Dr. Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, Waite was on his fifth mission to Beirut when he dropped out of sight. Runcie, along with John Gray, then British Ambassador to Lebanon, and others had warned Waite not to return because of press stories that he had somehow been involved in the Reagan Administration's arms-for-hostages negotiations. They feared those reports would convince hostile groups in Lebanon that Waite, who strenuously maintained that he always acted independently of any government, was in fact secretly tied to the U.S. But Waite insisted on returning, motivated in part, some say, by a desire to restore his tarnished credibility.

"I asked him not to go because I knew they'd been taking hostages," his mother recalls. "But he went in good faith. He said, 'Look, Mum, I want to go because I promised those people I'd try to get them out.' Terry's like that. If he promises something, he'll always live up to it. So I wished him all the luck."

Their last visit together was just after Christmas in 1986, when Waite stopped by her modest three-bedroom house in Lymm, a small town about 200 miles northwest of London. He was forced to leave early when his red MG broke down and had to be transported back to London. "We kissed goodbye right there at the service station," Lena says. "It was sad our visit had to be cut short."

Now, deprived of their regular, twice-weekly phone calls, she fills her time with church work, baking, gardening ("I cut the lawn myself) and embroidery. Supported by a sparse $520-a-month pension, "I keep busy," she says cheerily. "If people ask me out, I go."

In truth, she has never been the retiring sort. The daughter of a World War I soldier who died when she was 2, Lena left school at 14 and worked for 10 years as a housekeeper and confectioner before marrying Thomas Waite, a police constable (who died of cancer in 1967). Terry, born two years after their wedding, was followed by daughter Diana, now 47, and then by premature twin sons. Of the latter, only David Waite survived. Now a press assistant for a British television program, David has acted as the family spokesman since his brother's disappearance. It is an arrangement that has allowed Waite's wife, Frances, and their four children to carry on their lives in privacy. Frances works as a retirement-home cook, twins Clare and Ruth, 23, have office jobs, daughter Gillian, 22, is a physiotherapist, and son Mark, 17, is still in school.

Though the extended family is a comfort, Lena admits that anxiety over Terry's fate often borders on obsession. Friends confirm that she is suffering. Canon Geoffrey Davies is rector of St. Mary the Virgin Church in Lymm, and he and his wife occasionally have Lena as a houseguest at the rectory. "For the first time, I saw her have a little weep a year ago," says Davies. The low point came when the mother of another hostage, British television producer John McCarthy, died last summer while her son was a prisoner. That "was the worst thing Lena had to live with," says Davies. "Though she remains totally confident that Terry will come out alive, it brought home to her that she may not live to see it."

There are, of course, periodic high points. On her birthday last May, Lena received a large bouquet of lilies, carnations and chrysanthemums. After quickly glancing at the card, she assumed it was from her daughter. But the delivery man corrected her: "They're not from your Diana, they're from the Princess of Wales." The card read: "You are very much in our thoughts. These flowers come to you for a very happy birthday, from the four of us—Diana (Wales)."

But even the kindness of princesses can't banish all her sorrow—or moments of anger. "Why do they keep him?" she says of Waite's nameless abductors. "They don't say they want money or anything. They've never even admitted they've got him. It's senseless, a very awkward situation to be in. I wish something could be done. But what?" Then, the crudest irony of all sets in. "Other hostages were able to rely on him to get them out," she says. "But there's no Terry Waite to get Terry Waite out."

—Fred Hauptfuhrer in Lymm, England

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