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.