What would she think?

Sometimes it seems that I’m trundling along the railroad of life when a friend, up ahead, pulls a lever that shunts me off onto another line. The other day I had lunch with one such, whom I hadn’t seen since before Ngaire went. He started by saying, “I guess you must be over people asking how you are….”
There is a kind of celebrity attached to being the “other half” of one who was so well and widely loved. It is not the kind of fame that one seeks. But I do appreciate when people ask how I am; mostly I answer with, ”OK”, and then search the eyes to see if this is someone who is able and willing to listen to something deeper.
In a similar way, whenever I start to write, I second-guess myself. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is a saying that, in our society, carries a weight of impotence. You hear it often, usually used in a derogatory way about someone sharing his or her feelings or life issues. Most often, in the political arena, it is used to denote – ever so carefully – a sign of weakness, or of someone not being adequate for the task (but, the qualification is that they’re a nice person). If he is a man, then he is certainly not acting like a man. A man does not express his true feelings; we are taught to cover them up.
I don’t doubt that most of the women who are reading this whole-heartedly approve of a man making himself vulnerable in this way, but I suspect that a lot of the guys might feel pretty uncomfortable. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry guys; I have discovered on this path, that the only way to effectively love and be loved, is to make oneself vulnerable.
So, what is vulnerability? I’ve been tossing this around for a while. Put simply, it is openness, being willing to be known for who you are, warts and all. Within a community – a group of friends, club or church – vulnerability can be our gift to one another. In many respects, it is the only way we can connect with another person, soul-to-soul. When we protect ourselves and don’t allow others in, we are often betraying the fact that we are hiding our shame or sense of inadequacy that if others saw what was within, we would in some way be diminished, humiliated or not accepted. I suspect that machismo mostly hides frightened little boys.
A couple of weekends ago, my dear friend, Mick, talked to a group of us on this very subject:
“Let’s open ourselves up to the gift of vulnerability; start with one or two. Begin to open up; build trust; let down your defences; take some risks….”
Our vulnerability connects with others in a way that no teaching or opinion can because it connects with another’s heart. This is how we read stories and watch movies. Usually the storylines we love the most revolve around the characters that we can most relate to – connect with. Every superhero has a flaw. Why? Not for the sake of the story, but so that the audience can relate to their humanity; otherwise we wouldn’t care about them.
This has been the failing of a number of “competition-type” lifestyle shows. It’s not the format that people care about so much, but the characters. The successful ones don’t build their audience around the competition itself, but around the characters involved, their personalities, feelings and vulnerabilities. Once you can relate to a character, you’re hooked on the show, because you care about what happens to them. Conversely, if the characters are nasty or “stand-offish”, we quickly lose interest and don’t care about what happens, ratings drop and the show is pulled off air, if we’re lucky!
Vulnerability – openness – is also the way that you give others an opportunity to connect with you and give them the chance to be open with you. Your vulnerability creates a “safe place” for others to be open themselves.
So, why go there? Why does it matter? What is so good about being vulnerable with one another?
The way I see it working is, as a two-way street, but usually that will mean someone has to take the first step. Remember that your openness creates a safe place for others to be open themselves, and being vulnerable is the first step towards emotional healing. I am convinced that we wouldn’t, as a society, spend a fraction of what we do on psychologists and counsellors if we practised openness in our close relationships. It is also the entry point for going deeper into life and love; the more open we are prepared to be, the deeper we can go; and there is treasure to be found in the depths.
Are there dangers in practising openness? Sure. Others can perceive it as weakness or that you are “using” openness as a means of getting sympathy or attention – which you may well be. You also make yourself vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, should others take offence at or criticise you.
That’s why it’s important, like my friend Mick said, to start small, just one or two close friends whom you already trust. Open the conversation; start talking about the beauty and depth to be found in openness and vulnerability. Gossip is the enemy of trusting relationships, so be a safe place for your friend and ask them to be that for you. Most close friendships are already at that place, so explore the path together. Open yourself up to the gift of vulnerability.
To some extent, I didn’t mean for this blog to be about this subject, as you can probably tell from the title, so let me be open with you.
I was driving to work the other day, listening to some old music from my youth that pushed all the right “feel-good” buttons (Chicago – Saturday in the Park, for those who need to know). I had the windows down and was singing along, actually feeling a real sense of joy. But even as I contemplated that, my thoughts turned to Ngaire; would she be hurt that I was having a “happy” moment; what would she think?
I began to feel a little guilty, almost ashamed that I could allow myself this indulgence. But, we had walked the deep roads together, and I knew that she had no doubt of my love for her, and I certainly had no doubt of her love for me. Our mutual happiness was one of her greatest desires. So I turned up the music and sang along.


I was having coffee with some friends, when one said to me, “I like the beard; you should keep it.”

I hadn’t consciously been working on a beard. When I got home, I went to check it out. As I stood before the bathroom mirror, I realised that I hadn’t spent any time looking at my face recently, almost as if I had some kind of hesitance in engaging the eyes, for fear of what I might see there. I had become a little unkempt, though not too bad – kind of like a front lawn that had grown a little too long and with edges in need of a trim. Normally, I would keep things under control, but I had clearly been preoccupied with something. I say “something” because it’s not what you might think.

While my loss of Ngaire does account for a huge part of my thought life in a day, I am still living life: going to work, cooking meals, washing clothes, seeing friends, laughing and making small talk. What the unkempt man in the mirror underlined was that normal had, in many instances, become something that I had to make a conscious decision to engage, e.g. “I think I’ll make dinner now”, or “maybe I should have a shower before I go to work.”  It is almost as if the chip that looks after routine has a malfunction and that part of my brain is floating in cyberspace somewhere – preoccupied with floating! Maybe that’s why the unexpected has such a sudden impact on me emotionally.

I’ve talked about this before; it’s common to all who grieve and understood by most. We hold it together most of the time as we continue the job of rebuilding and working with the new shape of our lives. Then something appears – usually entering through our senses, catching us unawares – that folds space and time so that we are instantly transported back by a smell, a picture, or a sound. There have been many such moments over the last four months but the other day, one in particular showed me another aspect of this journey.

Most of us have a presence on Facebook; for those who don’t, I hope you will bear with me. Ngaire still has a presence there and I see no reason why that should ever change. I had actually made a decision not to visit her Facebook pages yet, in the same way that I have decided not to sort through her clothes, personal items, etc. It’s too confronting, too painful still; but I know that the time will come.

Remy, my precious twenty year-old son, who is living overseas, did go to her Facebook pages, to look through the pictures that she had put up there, many of which were tagged with my name. When Remy “liked” them, or made a comment about them, I was notified on my phone, and unwittingly drawn into reading her comments about pictures of me and of our family.

Ngaire nearly always had something good or encouraging to say about everyone she knew. That was one of the things that she did well, but when I read the comments of love and adoration that she had for me in these pictures, I was undone. In instance after instance, I had reinforced to me the one central, glorious, beautiful thing that was gone from my life – her love for me.

As stupid as it sounds, I hadn’t fully realised that it’s not just her presence, her touch, conversation, smile, laughter, or any number of things that relate to her being present that I miss the most; but the love that captivated me, helped sustain me and made me feel that I could do almost anything, was gone – relegated to the past – and the loss is palpable.

I know that there are those who will say that her love lives on in me and the boys and in the hearts of those whom she loved; I understand that sentiment and it is true to a point, but the active adoration with which she endowed me, that was central to the peace of my heart and my home and helped shore up my character, is no longer a vibrant life-force in my world – in my boys’ world. This is loss and, as I ponder, it is also key to understanding the rebuilding. Now that I see the keystone is gone, again I sit pondering the precarious nature of this house in which I dwell.

If only we realised how central love is; it is the stuff of life. Without it, we merely go through the motions. It is that which holds life together, makes the weak strong and the poor, rich.

I am deeply grateful for the love of my boys, my friends and my family. Without that, I can’t think of one reason why a person would want to keep on living. With it, I have the mortar to rebuild.


Ngaire’s battle with lung disease stretched out over a period of more than twenty years – over one third of her life; and I had the privilege of walking with her through it all. For the first seven there was hope that it may resolve itself, but thirteen years ago, the diagnosis turned sinister – to pulmonary fibrosis – which is always terminal.

Over those years, my role was to love, support, care for, encourage and enable her to walk the path towards wholeness. We looked for healing, from the supernatural to the intensely natural: prayer, whole foods, herbal remedies, naturopathy and everything in-between. Because the prognosis was terminal – usually, at best three to four years – perhaps, in retrospect, there was a measure of healing in some of those. After one visit to Bethel Church in California in 2005, where Ngaire was prayed for, she was completely symptom-free for eighteen months. Two subsequent visits, however, yielded no such fruit physically. All of that is to help paint the picture that this was a long journey, full in many varied and challenging ways.

One of the things that we learnt early on in the process was that the medical profession wasn’t very good at giving you bad news. In many ways, they were often quite brutal and many times we found ourselves clawing our way out of a pit of despair (I should say, however, that Ngaire’s doctor for the last three years was an exception to this experience; we found him hopeful and supportive, even when things went sour).

I found myself needing to be Mr Positive because of this, always pointing the way to the positive aspects, always trying to provide her with an anchor point for hope. The reason for this is the real help that hope provides, emotionally, psychologically and physically. The alternative – despair – soon carves a slippery slope to destruction in the often desperate heart of one with a terminal sentence. Even in her last thirty-six hours, Ngaire hoped and believed that after her sedation and intubation, she would wake with new lungs from a transplant. I am relieved that that was in her heart rather than hopelessness and despair.

Of course, my own personal journey was different. I purposed to maintain her hope, but would, myself, at times, visit dark places, writing of hopelessness and the feeling that my days were a rehearsal for what life would be like without her. This would happen particularly when she was convalescing elsewhere or on one of her several hospital visits. Without her presence in the house, the whispers would often be that my actions of preparing meals, doing washing and ironing, making lunches, organising cleaning rosters amongst the boys, were all practice for the future when she would no longer be with us.

I couldn’t talk to her about this, which is more difficult than I can tell. In almost everything, Ngaire and I would seek each other’s opinions, thoughts and feelings. I think the word that I used in an earlier blog was symbiotic. Since we remarried in 1991(for those of you who don’t know, we were separated and divorced for five years – that’s another blog), our marriage was totally different. We had almost a singularity in our approaches to things. We would use ineffectual words like “team” and “agreement” but it was much more. I cannot tell how many hundreds of times I would pick up the phone to call her and she would be calling me, and vice versa; we would often be jointly thinking of the same things or people and begin to speak about them together at the same time.

Much of this kind of thing is not uncommon in close marriages, but we had fought some hard-won battles to bring us to where we were. Part of our remarriage vows said, “I give my life to you as an open book”. Now, here I was with all of these feelings of hopelessness and despair, and I was unable to tell her, because I knew that it would be destructive in her physical battle. One of us needed to be paddling the boat, and that was usually me. I have learnt that this is often what happens to a carer. I saw it in my own father as he took care of my mother through many years of Alzheimer’s. Despite my urging he found it difficult to open up about his struggles – which were deeply evident in his demeanour – and mostly kept it bottled-up, to his and our great detriment; he died shortly after mum. However, I am immeasurably grateful for those few friends in whom I could entrust the deep, dark things, who supported, prayed and help strengthen me for the road.

So where does faith sit in all of this?

Over the course of Ngaire’s illness, faith changed shape enormously. In fact, to enlarge the metaphor, it became an almost unrecognisable monster at times, as we waded through the mud of “unlearning” what faith is.

As an aside, I am bemused by atheists, some of whom are my friends, who in their own “evangelism” presume that I, or others who think similarly, have not grappled substantially with these issues of the existence of God. It is arrogance to presume this and flawed thinking to not allow another possibility. What is the difference between that and a rabidly fundamentalist Christian? I digress.

Let me tell you some of the things that I believe I have discovered about faith:

  1. It is not about me having an expected outcome.
  2. It does not dictate that I must badger God until he gives me what I want.
  3. It is not about having an expectation that everything will be peachy.
  4. God is far bigger than any box that I may create for him or indeed, any understanding to which I may come.
  5. God can do things any way he likes.
  6. Suffering is an integral part of the journey to joy.
  7. It is O.K. to doubt.
  8. Faith is purified more by unanswered prayers than answered ones.
  9. Yes, I am loved.

I was talking earlier about Ngaire’s and my closeness. I don’t want to give the impression that it was all sweetness and light. To reach the gold you have to dig the dirt; at times we could be downright abrasive with each other: I have some memorable journal entries! But, generally….mostly…..entirely…we were deeply in love.

I wrote this about eighteen months ago, after we returned from California; Ngaire had taken a downturn and was staying at our friend, Moira’s, place.

It is the Oneness

Unwell, she convalesced in another place

Alone, deep in the night,

I stirred beside her, felt her warmth

And the air move past my face from her breath,

Tenderly, we enmeshed the arms and legs

Of our souls in gentle embrace,

And communed.

From the other possibilities of mind-time,

I called myself to reason, lying suspended,

Sliding around consciousness.

That reason again challenged life

That this is a dream,

That she is not here,

That I am alone.

I turned my back and swung my feet to the floor,

Melancholy in such sudden solitude,

Until the voice of resonance

Within informed me,

It is the oneness.

Opinions are like…..

O.K., all of us get spam daily. One of the things I loathe about coming back from a day or two away is having to go through and delete a couple of hundred solicitous emails. Many of them come from an online art workshop/school/supplier from which Ngaire received hard copy and email magazines and “how-to” publications.

I have reached a point where I’m O.K. with deleting these now, although it was difficult to begin with – it was a point of contact – connection – with her. Yesterday was different.

Whereas, I normally don’t engage with these emails at all, a particularly beautiful watercolour painting of a wilted rose caught my attention. I read the accompanying article, which ultimately was selling a magazine about painting flowers in watercolours – which Ngaire could easily have written herself; she was so accomplished in watercolour and had used flowers as her subjects since before I knew her. From fields of wildflowers to individual flowers in vases, and everything in between, Ngaire was proficient and prolific.

Now, I know that I’ve written about flowers before, along with those aspects of grief which relate to discerning how much of me is me – after being united with someone for seventy percent of my life, there is a melding between two souls that makes it almost impossible to tell where I end and she begins, if you follow.

But seeing the picture of the rose prompted something a little different. You see, I had learned so much about art, observation and appreciation from Ngaire that I could honestly say that these were now my abilities. However, she was the artist. Oh, I’m not too bad at drawing, but any opinion that I had about art really had its credibility in the fact that I was married to Ngaire, and she was the authority.

It’s like the little kid in the playground, telling his friends how badly made the schoolhouse is. They all give him a hard time until his Dad picks him up, wearing a hardhat and tool belt; suddenly, the little kid has credibility (even though his opinion may have been correct anyway).

I love art – well, not all art; the pragmatist and communicator in me draws the line at some things. But what it feels like now is that the artist in me, has gone; my credibility has gone in this area and I have to come up with some personal validity. Like the radio shock-jock who finds himself unemployed, I now have to dispense with my opinions and come up with some substance.

Of course, this is not earth-shattering for most of you who read this, but I cannot express to you how vital vision, perception, observation and appreciation were in Ngaire’s world, and consequently, my world. So now, I’m just another guy with an opinion. At least, that’s what it feels like. She lived and breathed beauty and appreciation, and she was grateful for all of it, almost every day.


The Journey – watercolour – Ngaire Wills

A legacy is on the chalkboard in our kitchen. One day, a little over a year ago, she wrote, “cultivate thankfullness” – replete with the usual artist’s spelling mistake – she, who had battled a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition for so long left a reminder to cultivate thankfulness.

In fact, if I could nail it down to two things, Ngaire’s benchmarks were a) to be thankful and b) to avoid comparison. The comparison thing was a real soapbox for her in recent times, because she had seen it damage others’ lives and the lives of those around them. “But, of course”, as she would say, “if you’re thankful, you won’t compare yourself to others anyway.”

So, that’s probably a good place to end. Opinions become far less vociferous when they come from a grateful heart, anyway. And I am grateful for every day that I spent with my girl.

That can be my opinion…..and my credibility.