A Kind-of Christmas

I promised that I would relate the story of our Christmas over here in California, where we have been travelling for a couple of weeks. In that time, we’ve seen some amazing places and been with some wonderful people. I don’t say that lightly; I truly mean people who, in their humility and generosity, have opened their hearts – their lives – to spend precious moments with us at this time of year.

I mentioned last time that we would be spending Christmas Day in Yosemite National Park, truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Yet the thought of it – the thought of Christmas anywhere without Ngaire – was confronting and daunting.

It has only been a little over five months since we said goodbye to her, yet so much has happened. As I read back over my blogs and the manifold nature of the process of grief that my boys and I have encountered, the journey has been far longer than for what these few months can account.

Now that Christmas has come and gone, I have some observations. Again, I mentioned in the last blog that so many of the places that we have visited, have significant memories of Ngaire attached to them. Yosemite is one such. This was my third visit and each of the other times, I was with her.

This National Park is a narrow, deep, once-glacial valley, over-arched on either side by mountains that thrust up from the valley floor, with iconic names like El Capitan, Eagle Peak, Half Dome and Sentinel Rock. I can think of no other place on Earth where you can walk up to, and put your hand on the wall of a mountain that soars four-thousand feet, straight up from where you stand. The valley floor itself is at four-thousand feet above sea-level – a lush meadow furnished with sequoia and western-red cedar. Down the middle the Merced River flows, at any point a postcard of giant river stones and sweet fresh water, on its way to join the San Joaquin River and eventually, San Francisco Bay.

Of course, Christmas-time here is winter and, with the sun low in the sky and temperatures well below freezing each night, early snowfalls had stayed on the ground and much of the valley was covered in a white blanket.

The Ahwahnee Hotel – our destination for Christmas lunch – was built of stone and timber in 1927 and is now a beautiful hotel which still retains its original charm and rustic nature. Ngaire and I had fallen in love with this place from the moment we saw it some thirty-two years ago: the giant fireplaces, American Indian furnishings and especially the great dining room with a dozen cast-iron, candle-filled chandeliers (sadly, now electric) and great, deep windows which look out on the splendor of Yosemite.

Our three days here were all crisp and clear. On Christmas Eve, after the boys went ice-skating, we walked up the trail to Mirror Lake, where Half Dome, with its sheer granite face towers nearly five-thousand feet above where you stand. On the way there, I passed something familiar. A large flat rock, which sloped up and was flanked by two great trees. I stood and looked at it, recalling the photo of Ngaire and me sitting on it with a couple of friends, some thirty-two years before. It took me completely off-guard, and though poignant, was yet another moment where I felt great peace mixed with sadness; here this rock had sat for who-knows-how-many thousands of years, and we had wandered along, sat, laughed – full of life – and then, suddenly transported, there I stood a generation later with her gone, me still here and the rock, just doing its thing, as it will for who-knows-how-many thousands of years more. Never have the concepts of mortality and eternity been so pronounced to me, yet the overall sense was of peace.

Here is the point I grasp: we are all terminal; our time here is finite, whether it be for two years, fifty-six years or a hundred years. In the vast scope of eternity, our time here is less than a breath; too short to waste on self-importance and anything less than what is real.

We sat in the Ahwahnee dining room on Christmas Day, by one of those great, deep windows, looking out on naked California Black Oak trees, snow and the imposing spire of Sentinel Dome. Part way through the sumptuous meal, a pair of deer wandered across our view. Idyllic is a hackneyed term, yet carries with it a real sense of what we all felt: that a hand was on us, almost commanding peace. The boys with their oh-so-healthy waters and me with my red wine, lifted our glasses in a toast “to the girl who resides forever in our hearts, but is not with us today, and whom we love always”.

It was a calm tear-welling moment which passed without too much more fuss. There was a quiet but happy solemnity to our meal; the food was wonderful, our love for one another and the girl who was not there – profound, yet tempered with this strange peace. In fact, the great unknown of which I had been so apprehensive, was itself overwhelmed by this mysterious peace that has been our constant companion, and for which I am deeply grateful. Sitting now, the night before we leave to come home, I find myself going to the moment of our toast and I admit to feeling a little mystified that grief can flower into peace.

I was finishing up a little belated Christmas shopping here in San Francisco tonight and walked past the shoe department of a store where I had sat with Ngaire just last year as she tried on a pair of shoes that had tickled her fancy, and which we bought. I barely changed my stride as I looked across, almost saw her sitting there, eyeing the sweet, suede dress shoes that had so caught her attention, and I smiled to myself, feeling warmth instead of pain; and it was good.

From Yosemite we left after breakfast for the drive across to the coast. It was twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit on our departure at 9.00 a.m. (almost -3ºC). Four hours later we were in Santa Cruz, on the coast, where it was a more-than-balmy 76º (25ºC). There we met up with some precious friends of more than three decades, and it was balm for the soul. Apart from sharing their precious family time with us, there was wonderful conversation, and I began to see something good in the timing of this trip. It could be seen as coincidental as the year comes to an end I don’t doubt, yet there has been a sense of “ticking things off”; something in the places that we have visited, the people that we have encountered, has left me with a feeling of, “the bundle is tied; Matt, you may put this year to rest.” Yet, I don’t understand why.

As I pondered this in conversation with my friend, Gary, I began to get a glimpse of the year ahead, and a perspective that I haven’t had before. It is as though I have been given permission, through the course of this journey, to bring the peace, and the warmth of remembered joy, smiles and love, into the year ahead; indeed, to dispense with the pathetic time-frames with which we burden ourselves and believe, as the psalmist did, that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning”. This is more than mysterious to me – something that I cannot quite fathom – but, at this point of the journey, I do not feel a need to. However long the night has been, whenever the morning may dawn, peace seems to have become our guide. That is good; we are thankful. 



It’s been a few weeks since I last wrote in here. I’ve been very busy, but have still managed to jot something in a journal. I’ll bring you up-to-date that way.

11th December, 2013:

Everyone whom I tell about why we are going to California for Christmas says that it’s a great idea, but I need to address an issue.

I have I think, embraced many aspects of grief in this journey of approaching Ngaire’s death, then living beyond it; but some things I have not embraced: going through her things, for instance, will require a distance that hasn’t formed yet. I don’t mean a distance in terms of being detached, but a distance that, through time and the processing of pain, creates a space in which much of the difficult and confronting has lost its sting.

This journey overseas then, while presenting itself as restful and new is, in many ways, running from the pain that would be, should we have endeavoured to have Christmas at home, without the one who did Christmas so well, who made even the smallest of gifts special, who gave of herself in thought, passion and detail to create “special”.

13th December, 2013:

So, I think my plan to go away, though ostensibly considerate of our family’s pain, probably had its genesis in a good element of not wanting to face Christmas at home.

By the way, it is now Friday and will be for quite some time. I am on the plane with Eddy. It is 7.00 p.m. Sydney time, but 12.00 a.m. San Francisco time. As an aside, going through security was a new experience. I had taken everything out of my pockets, but the metal-detector was still set off. I took off my shoes and belt, still to no avail. Only when I remembered that this was my first flight since having a hip replacement (metal) last March, did it click. One body scan later and I was passed as a non-terrorist.

Back to our “escape”: Although I am an adult, able and generally responsible in my own life, I understand that there are those who, for whatever reason, can’t escape this Christmas.

Last weekend, Ngaire’s birth family, partners and children, got together for our annual Christmas “do”. We often have it well before Christmas as so many need to be in other places on Christmas Day. In this, none of us could escape, for even though there were gifts, wonderful food, drinks and laughter, there was a conspicuous vacancy in all of our hearts, which paradoxically took on a kind of form in our gathering, as we spoke in small groups of our loss and grief, of how the hole left by our our precious sister, wife, friend, mentor, loving aunt, mumma, is a chasm confronted daily. It was, in the words of one email that circulated the next day, “weird and disjointed”. Perhaps we were together observing the journey of our beloved who has stepped out of time; and we realised that we cannot touch her, hold her, laugh with her or even cry with her, anymore.

Although we tried to make it as normal as it has always been, this was an event in which Ngaire always played a large part. Indeed, her “largesse” was a great part of what was missing.

In our little branch of the family, we are creating, in our escape, a different shape, a Christmas that she has not inhabited before, physically, but one in which she will be present in our thoughts and shared love.

On this trip, we will visit places in Northern California that I have only ever seen before with her, many only last year. One of our favourite places on Earth is Yosemite National Park, wherein lies a beautiful old stone lodge – now a magnificent hotel. Ngaire and I had agreed that one day we would have Christmas dinner there. That is where the boys and I will be on Christmas Day.

So this escape is, in some ways, more of an engagement, for me anyway, because I will be celebrating, confronting and building from that which we shared; and I will be underlining the hope. I have no expectations other than that we will engage.

21st December, 2013:

So now, I sit (real time, not transcribing journal entries) having encountered some of those places where Ngaire and I spent time, from cafés to mountains and, I have to say, while at times there have been powerful and poignant emotions, in general, there has been a large degree of peace. This town, Redding, was part of our last pilgrimage together, in search of restored health for her, so the memories are bittersweet. More important to me are the places where we spent time, in enjoyment, conversation and laughter. I have spent time in some, felt it enough to just view others, but the surprising thing to me in this engagement is the great sense of peace. There haven’t been any tears yet – some melancholy, for sure – but the overall experience has been of life: My son, his friends and their journeys that are just beginning with love and fresh pages; the friends, with whom we are staying whose generosity and warmth is both humbling and joyous; the wonder and beauty of creation that gives pause when self-importance rears its arrogant and unhelpful head.

I miss her. Last Sunday I sat in church here in Redding,while people around me were singing, and I contemplated Ngaire’s last day, as I often do. I know that I said goodbye to her and whispered into her ear as I held her face, yet I had no clear recollection of it. So much was happening, with so much information and so many decisions. I searched the blur in my mind, looking for a clear memory of that moment, when I was interrupted by her voice, softly saying, “Mattie, I love you.”

As I recall this, now I have tears….and peace.

I’ll let you know how Christmas goes.



Last year, the owner of a lavender farm, just north of Mt Shasta, gave Ngaire a bunch. She took this picture of it on her lap.




There is the supposition that we (read “I”) have in life, that if things have taken a bad turn, they will gradually improve. That has been my expectation, though those of you who have been reading this blog over the last six months or more would know that there have been plenty of hiatuses along the way.

I have spoken to lots of Ngaire’s friends who are still struggling – finding themselves in tears at the strangest times and for unexpected reasons. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Yesterday I had a break around lunchtime and thought that I would grab a few things for Christmas, for the younger kids in our extended family. After taking twenty minutes to find a parking spot at the mall, I began the procession of arcades and moving footways as a great sadness enveloped me. I used to do this very thing with Ngaire. She loved it – lived for it – buying exactly the right thing for each person. Cheap junk was never good enough. She always valued each little life and it would be evident in the gifts that she chose.

By the time I got to the shop, the world around me was blurry from welling tears and it was an effort to stop my bottom lip from quivering. I took a decision to can that idea and go to the department store to buy something for me. I needed a new shirt for work, so thought I’d take the opportunity as a diversion. After looking at a couple of shirts that I liked, I gradually became inundated, like water rising around my feet, and I felt hopelessly insecure that she might not like my choice (even though she would always say that she didn’t care, as long as I liked it). I stood in the men’s department, looking around, but seeing nothing. I turned and made my way back to the car.

These reminders don’t come at an intellectual level; they are visceral. They penetrate unobserved and bring all those hidden emotions to life, along with all their connections: joy, pleasure, love, sadness, loss, hope. Ah…hope. That’s a tough one, but I’ll come back to it later.

Since Ngaire died, we have had a few milestones: Our son Remy’s birthday, Fathers’ Day, then, more recently, our wedding anniversary and, just this week, my birthday. A friend told me that the hardest part of grieving takes a year, because all of those milestones have to be encountered for the first time without her. So far, our wedding anniversary was the hardest and that was unexpected; we didn’t normally give a lot of attention to anniversaries unless they were of a significant number. All through the day when I wasn’t concentrating on work or something else, my mind drifted to that beautiful, young girl making vows and giving her life and love to me. I had numerous “moments”.

It occurs to me that, regardless of our philosophical or religious viewpoint, all of our celebrations pivot around a core element of hope. In a birthday, we celebrate a person’s life and hope for the year ahead; at Christmas we allow ourselves to unearth in our hearts the mysterious hope that Peace on Earth might one day be. What is the phrase “Happy New Year” all about, if not loaded with hope? Every celebration seems to be at once a reflection on the past with hope for the future.

Surely this is why they are so difficult in the grieving process. In death, the past is all there is. Hope has been disappointed – catastrophically – and needs to be refashioned so as not to include the one towards whom so much of your hope was directed.

I am apprehensive at the thought of New Year’s celebrations. It will be an embarkation on a year in which Ngaire will have never existed on this Earth, and I’m not quite sure how that will go. Yet, in the refashioning, love has a way of making itself central. For my birthday, I received a note from my youngest son, Eddy. While acknowledging how tough this year has been and how incredulous he still is that Ngaire has gone, in his pain he fashioned hope for us both. I know that all of my boys are gradually doing that, it’s just that Eddy was the first one to put it so beautifully and powerfully: love, encouragement, loyalty and hope. It touched something very deep in me that was neither grief nor loss, and fanned the weak ember of hope within.

I feel like I’m a bit of an expert on hope. It has been one of the hallmarks of our life together. Ngaire and I were separated and divorced after only five years of marriage. We lost everything. She was living alone with Jordan, and I was just alone. People would ask us individually, if there was any hope of us getting back together. The answer was always an emphatic “no”. After four years apart, there was a roadblock in the way, which may as well have had a sign that read, “No Future Without Forgiveness” (to quote Desmond Tutu).

One night after long, lonely separate journeys, Forgiveness arrested us. There were many tears over the course of that night and, though neither of us was looking for it, hope was reborn in our hearts.

I struggle when I hear of people who make decisions not to forgive. Perhaps they think that forgiveness is another word for excusing someone’s actions; it isn’t. It is simply saying that, “I will no longer hold this against you. For in exercising this power over you, I am also accepting all the corruption and bitterness that will flow from it to distort my own life.” I don’t think I have ever met a person who has held on to not forgiving, and been happy.

Ngaire and I remarried in March 1991. It was one of the greatest celebrations ever. I still have people say to me that it was the most joyful and memorable wedding that they have ever been to. It was all about hope.

Now, when these anniversaries (yes, we celebrated both), birthdays and festivals come and go, the rawness of Ngaire not being here for them makes a stark contrast with the hope that was the “fragrance” of our marriage. As I said, with her gone, there is only the past now. But there is love in abundance in my boys, dear friends and family; and from that, as I felt so strongly from Eddy‘s note, hope will be reborn.