Life, but not as we know it…..

On the 15th March, 1991, after much revisiting, renewal and rebirthing, Ngaire and I were remarried. We had been separated for over five years and divorced for three of them.

After the first six months of our separation, the dust began to settle. We found that a kind of civility grew between us because of our desire to have a unified approach to the parenting of our son, who was only two and a half when we parted; we needed to agree on many things.

One of the things that was important to us both was that neither of us use Jordan, our son, in a manipulative way in order to push our own side with respect to the breakdown of our marriage; we purposed to make him feel as loved as possible, and to do this would require us to keep our “issues” for private conversation; it also meant that we needed to do our best to resolve them so as not to have ongoing tension between us.

After some time it dawned on us that, of all our friends and family, we were the ones who supported each other the most. Of course, there were friends who were brilliant. I can think of a couple who stood by me closely; Ngaire also had a couple of friends who loved and supported her; but many others only had opinions or advice; many simply didn’t know what to do – particularly with me, as I was the “bad boy” in the break-up, having dissolved more or less into a jellyfish, numbed by alcohol, totally lacking in self-belief or vision and carrying the full weight of responsibility for a broken marriage.

Ngaire was deeply hurt; for years she had felt that she didn’t know who the stranger sleeping next to her was. When she discovered that I had been unemployed for over a year and had spent most days drinking, it all made sense.

In retrospect, for a couple as broken as we were to make any kind of positive decision about parenting, borders on the miraculous. I guess the thing that I think is really significant, is that our desire to have a unified approach in our love for our son was the catalyst in our communication.

Love rears its head again. What a powerful force; or are we wrong to even think of is as a force? Perhaps it is that which holds everything together.

However, even though Ngaire and I were civil to each other, that was a long way from getting back together. Whenever anyone asked either of us if we had considered that we might do that, the answer from both of us was always an emphatic, “No!”

It was occasionally followed by the qualifier, “Well, unless God does a miracle.” But neither of us really believed that; in fact, after a couple of years we met for a coffee and agreed that the marriage was dead, so what do you do with a dead thing? Bury it.

The divorce was amicable in every way; but I do recall a tremendous sense of loss as I sat in the courtroom and the judge brought his gavel down.

Shortly afterwards Ngaire decided to pursue some art opportunities overseas. She took Jordy with her. I stayed and worked, putting life back together.

When Ngaire returned with Jordy after eight months, she wanted to meet with me. I cooked dinner for her one night and she began to tell me the other part of her reason for going away. She said that she had always heard that it takes two for a marriage to break down, so she wanted to do some searching of her own heart, to see how – or if – she had contributed in any way. She asked God to show her.

Incidentally, I know that I am not sharing any more than she had always been comfortable to share; in fact, I think that in a lovely way, she was proud of the way her desire to be “clean” had born fruit.

I remember that night so clearly. She went through the things that she felt had been as instrumental in bringing our relationship down as my actions. Then she asked my forgiveness.

I had asked her forgiveness many times, and she had graciously given it; but when she asked forgiveness of me, I recall a moment of bewilderment, as if something completely loud, irrational and irrelevant had happened in the room, then a light shone on a deep hidden pain within me, that I hadn’t even recognised. By this time, Ngaire was in tears and asking me again to forgive her, and as I did, the pain surged up and out of me in a rush of tears.

There were many tears that night and much healing. The freedom that followed for both of us was amazing, as if chains had fallen off; and the love that was dead and buried had been suddenly and astoundingly resurrected, but not in some second-hand, band-aid way. It was new, exciting and fresh.

We spent a lot of time in counselling over the following couple of years, getting some understanding on our own and each other’s motivations, rebuilding our lives together on a solid foundation.

That night of forgiveness was almost exactly twenty-five years ago. It was miraculous, replete with healing and resurrection, and from it new lives were created. Jordy was seven when we remarried , and was an integral part of our wedding service. Our vows were said to him, almost as much as to each other, because his family was coming back together too.

Though we had hurdles and differences to overcome, our lives were rich and full; we were blessed with restoration in every way: two more beautiful boys and another twenty-two years of marriage that never saw us short of love.

Because one person chose to sacrifice self for the search for truth, so much beauty was born. I will always be indebted to her for that and for the fact that she was ruthless in the search for personal truth; I am convinced that this was how she loved so well.

I am publishing this now, rather than on March 15th, because the days and weeks following our night of forgiveness were the newly plowed and sown field from which the rest of our blessed lives were harvested. As I said, it was at this time of year.

A final word: to ask for and extend forgiveness is an acknowledgement from your heart that love is the ultimate yardstick for life. If we choose not to forgive, we limit our ability to truly love anyone, ever. If we want to live in peace, forgiveness is not an option.Image

Stages

February is always the most humid month in Sydney; days and nights enervate. I think of those who suffer with depression and wonder if these humid nights are a greater burden. I am so thankful for my ceiling fan.

As I said last time, my sense of loss is no longer as painful; grief has modulated into a very specific loneliness for which no company or friendship can quite provide adequate balm. Having said that, the proposition of nights alone is often daunting and much easier in the company of loved ones.

In looking back over my notes on this journey, I spent a bit of time looking at the “Stages of Grief” as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. I thought it would be pertinent to see how much of my last seven months has mirrored this framework. It should be said that these are not strict, chronological stages; some may be revisited, for example, Stage 4, which is depression.

 

Stage 1 – Denial: The shock of losing a loved one usually hurls us into denial, a state that helps us to survive the loss. It is not so much a denial of what has happened as numbness to the impact of what has happened. In Kübler-Ross’ words, “There is a grace in denial.” That grace allows us to regulate – pace – our feelings of grief; we simply walk, or stumble, through the basic commitments of each day: getting up, showering, having breakfast, etc. This disconnection, if handled properly, will see us gradually begin to ask questions in order to begin the healing process.

For me this process was very real. I could not really write or do much else other than go through the motions, where numbness ruled, apart from the occasional electric jolt when a thought or association would shock into life the monster of grief.

Stage 2 – Anger: Apparently this is the stage where one recognises that denial can’t continue and the questions begin, such as, “Why did this happen to me? Who is to blame?”

I can’t recall being angry. Although I had anticipated Ngaire’s death for many years, hope had arisen in the form of a lung-transplant. When she died, possibly within days of lungs becoming available, the sudden shift from hope to hope shattered was staggering in its finality, like a guillotine-blade through the soul. I had, of course, considered that Ngaire might die; we had to face that very real possibility, as part of the process in preparation for a transplant, not to mention that for her to have a terminal condition was a perpetual reminder of her potentially imminent mortality.

I actually felt that, if she died, I would be angry at God for callously allowing us to hope, only to rob us at the final hurdle (especially after so many hurdles that dear Ngaire had already jumped). However, I wasn’t angry; instead, in the midst of the pain I felt a great peace and an abiding understanding that God is good. I actually don’t get that.

Immediately I hear my own voice saying that this is just another form of denial. Maybe. It could be that this whole process of the last seven months has just been a little padded cell in which I have put myself, protecting that self from hard truth – an extension of denial that is shaded and coloured by the need to fool myself that God is in control and that I am engaging truly in grief and loss; or maybe there is another reality.

Maybe there is a reality – the real reality – that says that I am not fooling myself. I quote from my post-Christmas blog: “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.”

Maybe God is good and there is an eternal perspective that exists well outside the confines of my egocentricity, a perspective in which the oneness of creation is paramount and is not particularly ruffled by my need to have answers. I have no other explanation for why I mostly have this peace.

Stage 3 – Bargaining: I think this is more an issue for the one who him/herself has been given a death sentence. The individual bargains with the Higher Being for an extension in years, in exchange for a reformed lifestyle, or some such. I do remember in passing, a comment that I made to Ngaire, after she went, that I would give everything I had to hold her and kiss her and laugh with her one more time.

Stage 4 – Depression: It is during this stage that the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death and may ask questions like, “My loved one has gone and is not coming back. What is the point in going on?” I recall my father being in depression for an extended period after the death of my mother, despite our best efforts to stand with him and reintroduce him to relationship with his grandchildren after years of being “locked-in” as carer for a wife with Alzheimer’s. One night, as he was leaving our house, having had a great night with us all, he sat in his car, in tears, before he left, and said to me, “I guess I have realised that a lot of people would be very sad, if I wasn’t here.”

He needed to understand, as do we all, that we have value in the lives of others. One of the most significant things that have given me the impetus to work through this whole painful process is that I know that I have almost immeasurable value in the lives of my boys.

I have referred in my blogs to the dark places that I have visited over the last year; it has only been in the last month or so that the frequency of these visits has diminished. Nonetheless, it sometimes doesn’t take much. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was going to sleep, my mind went to one of the few times that Ngaire cried in fear that she might die; I remembered her saying through her tears, “I don’t want to die….”. I hadn’t even thought of that before, but instantly the rug was pulled out from under my soul, and depression and sleeplessness was my lot for the rest of the night.

According to Kübler-Ross, depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the “aftermath”; feeling sadness, regret, fear and uncertainty is natural at this stage. These emotions show a beginning of acceptance of the situation.

Stage 5 – Acceptance: I guess this is pretty much where I am now. It’s the understanding and attitude of heart that there is a future, and that everything is going to be OK. It is simply what it says:  acceptance of the situation.

Now a number of my friends are facing very solid journeys themselves. One thing that these Stages of Grief don’t account for is that, for those of us who recognise a connection with God, there is always an underlying hope, no matter how hidden it may seem at times.

God’s way is the way of love. His way may include healing; I know more than one person who has been miraculously healed of deadly types of cancer. But, to hark back to a couple of blogs ago, the love of God, in which we trust, is transcendent; that is why we have an underlying hope, because it is not only good for this life but also beyond.

“Neither death, nor life…the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God…”* and love means hope.

* Romans 8: 38-39

Alone

For those who have only started reading this blog or are reasonably new to it, I am documenting the journey of grief, so if it seems self-indulgent, forgive me; there is method in the madness, in the hope that some may find it helpful.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote and, to be honest, I have felt a little exhausted and daunted at the thought of looking at another aspect of this journey. I thought that there may be time to pause and go through the motions of getting used to routine in this new, unfamiliarly-shaped life. No such luck, I’m afraid.

A dear friend was prompted to send me a text message the other morning, to ask how I was. I’m normally a fairly buoyant person, even through everything that has been going on over the last six months, so I normally present fairly well in work and social contexts. But because of the relationship that I have with this friend, I took some time to think of my answer. I allowed the busyness and short-term attention grabbers to slip away and thought honestly, “How am I?”

The question began to swell in me as I looked into the chamber within that held what I was feeling. I opened the door that day-to-day life had kept reasonably hidden and was suddenly flooded with the realisation that I was incredibly lonely, in fact, it dawned on me that I was never more lonely. I didn’t cry, but the sudden awareness had tears quietly trickling down my face.

Although I recognised that I had been feeling this way for some time, it was still a shock to be confronted by it. I spend time with people every day – friends, family – all of whom are kind, loving, even affectionate in their love. We often speak frankly and share things of our hearts, and yet there seem to be foundational elements of who I am deep inside, that seem to have had their life in communion with Ngaire and only with her.

You could probably think that this is just a convoluted way of saying that I really miss her. Of course I do, but this isn’t the same. In truth, I think I am managing the “missing” reasonably well. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the pain of losing her is no longer sharp, and I am far more at peace in that regard. No, this is more about the loss of companionship, the communion that was potent and real, even without words. It is the fellowship of spirit that doesn’t exist with another, no matter how much I love them, or they me; the closeness is never matched; the companionship is not soul-to-soul.

Perhaps this is part of the vulnerability of those who have lost a spouse; some quickly hook up with another, presumably to try and reconnect those nerves of the soul that are exposed and unprotected. Maybe it is for other reasons completely and I am just waxing lyrical. I suspect not.

Speaking of waxing lyrical, here is a poem that I wrote for Ngaire two years ago. I did not know how prophetic it would prove to be:

As she sleeps

 

I can only hear her

As she begins

Each gentle exhalation

And yet, her stillness surges,

Her spirit soaring through

The blazing empyrean of the night.

 

Will I close my eyes and meet her –

As if my choice

Or yearning bears a part

In joining another’s destiny –

Her utter all-but-silence

On this plane

Is terrible and beautiful?

 

I cannot pass,

Only move

Cautiously to feel

Her breath’s vital warmth

On my cheek,

Only wonder

At her singular pilgrimage

Across the heavens,

Only hope

That she will be pleased

To wake with me again.

 

The Transcendence of Hope

You will have read that we were just in California for Christmas. Eighteen months ago, Ngaire and I visited Bethel Church in Redding, Northern California. For Ngaire, it was her third visit. Many thousands of people have experienced healing through visiting this place; of this I have no doubt. Ngaire herself, as I have mentioned before, after her first visit to Bethel, went from being highly symptomatic to symptom-free for the eighteen months following. However, after the two subsequent visits, there was no difference. In fact, it was after our last visit that she began to require oxygen therapy twenty-four hours a day.

So why wasn’t she healed? I don’t know. That’s not what I’m writing about today. I will share some thoughts in the future, though.

As the trip was a kind of pilgrimage, it was, almost entirely, contemplative; we read much, talked much, absorbed much, stepped across the “physical divide” much and listened to music, some of which we had just bought.

There was a palpable sense of otherworld-ness as we left the town, escorted down the long driveway of Bethel Church by a bald eagle floating parallel to our car. The new music that we had playing filled us with a sense of hope and seemed to confirm our feelings that healing was imminent.

Yesterday I played that same music for the first time. Instead of melancholy, it again filled me with a sense of hope. Part of me thought that that was quite bizarre. After all, didn’t that hope disappoint? Not only was Ngaire not healed, but she became rapidly worse and continued so until she died, twelve months later.

I think that like many of us, I have had a belief that hope is what you do, so that when something happens to us that is contrary to what we had hoped, our hope is therefore diminished, not to be trusted, or even destroyed. Ngaire died, despite our best hopes; but I think I’m starting to see that our hopes are not Hope.

What if Hope has a life, strength and potency all of its own? What if Hope is something on which we draw, rather than something we whip up or project onto our future as a kind of semblance of our faith?

A few blogs back I spoke of some of the things that I have learnt about faith. One of them is that faith is not about having an expected outcome. While we were away over the Christmas period, I heard a young man say that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. His statement got me thinking again about how we have made so much of what we believe into a set of mantras so that we can put God into a manageable framework that helps us to keep things under control and to bring us, hopefully, an expected outcome. If we don’t do that, then God dwells, at least partly, in the unknown and mysterious; this doesn’t work for us.

So our theology becomes a series of “therefores” e.g. God wants to give me good things, and he is a loving father, therefore there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because he’s just busting to bless me – a little simplistic perhaps, but the problem with so much of what I have learnt is that it is part of this derivative system of belief: the great therefore.

The real issue here is that, depending on what form of logic you use, you can make virtually anything mean what you want it to mean, rather than necessarily what it is saying; just read Plato. But I digress…..kind of…because I was talking about hope.

In the oft-quoted chapter thirteen of the letter to the church in Corinth – a favourite for virtually anyone’s wedding – Paul talks profoundly about the nature of love, that it is, in its purest form, entirely selfless. He then wraps up the chapter with, “These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest is Love.”

He might as well have said, “When everything you believe is boiled down, this is what you’re left with: Faith, Hope and Love.” And it seems that Love is what makes sense of it all.

When I have thought of love, it has usually been associated in my mind and heart with a feeling, something that comes from within, establishing and/or confirming an emotional relationship with another person. But what if those feelings are simply the “exhaust” of a far greater engine? Of course, this is not a new thought with regard to love; greats have shared their wisdom for thousands of years, and the great commonality is that love – real love – is entirely selfless. It is not about what I get; it is about what I willingly lose for the sake of another. In a marriage or life partnership, the beauty in that mutual sacrifice is the gateway to oneness.

Love then, is a way, not a feeling.

So, as I ponder Hope and how it still makes its presence felt in my life after being so disappointed, it really doesn’t make sense unless seen in the context of the way of love.

Maybe people could say that I’m trying to find reasons why my beloved Ngaire died thirty or forty years before her time.

Possibly, but perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, said, “Nothing will shake a man…out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

It is no longer good enough for me to believe a self-serving theology of heaven and prosperity – which, one would think, includes the ongoing presence and love of my life partner – no matter how worthy, if God is not on the same page.

Again, as Lewis says, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” And again in the same vein, “I need Christ, not something that resembles him.”

I guess this means that I’m discovering the transcendence of hope, because the way of love is transcendent, and that is what makes sense of hope; it is not only superior, but outside of space and time, with a strength and nature of its own that is not dictated by the whims of our desires, no matter how strongly we feel, no matter how painful the path.

 

1. All C.S.Lewis quotes are from A Grief Observed – First published by Faber and Faber 1961

Can Someone Explain Australia Day to Me?

It’s time for a little departure from what has been the normal subject of my blog over the last six or seven months.

I am an Australian, from as far back as I can work out, on my father’s side. With the exception of a couple of years in the U.S. in my twenties, I have lived, been educated, worked, paid taxes, married and raised children here; but I never know what to do with Australia Day.

To begin with, what exactly are we celebrating? The date itself relates to the founding of the colony of New South Wales on January 26th, 1788, although the actual proclamation didn’t take place until the 7th of February. It’s probably enough that Captain Phillip landed in Sydney Cove, with a few others, on the date that we now celebrate; the rest of the First Fleet followed in dribs and drabs over the next few days after some complications in Botany Bay.

How odd, that we should celebrate the foundation of a penal colony: The official formation of a village where the refuse of Britain could be safely spewed out on the shore about as far from Old Blighty as was then possible. At best this is melancholic, at worst, tragic, and certainly as worthy of celebration as the death of your favourite pet. As a friend recently commented, “Most countries celebrate the date of their freedom from colonial oppression, but we celebrate going into it.”

The other issue is that this date also signifies the beginning of the almost total demise of the indigenous people of this country – an often-merciless slaughter, most often without just cause.

Yet, “Happy Australia Day”, is the cry.

It is true, we do have a lot to be thankful for. We live in one of the pre-eminent democracies of the world (albeit with a unelected Head of State, Queen Elizabeth, incongruously born into that position); we have freedom of which most countries couldn’t dream, and an exemplary standard of living and level of free education. We’re one of the few democracies that haven’t had a civil war, or a war of independence. Compared to many nations, we’ve managed the whole immigration/multi-cultural thing reasonably well and now are moving quite smoothly into the second and third generations.

Yes, all in all, we have a lot to celebrate, but when I vocalised my ambivalence about Australia Day, a friend asked me if I wasn’t even a little bit proud to be Australian. It made me think and, to be honest, I don’t know whether or not I am proud to be an Australian. Thankful, yes, absolutely, but proud…I don’t think so. Pride can be a dangerous thing.

There are so many nations around the world, some of whom are very close allies, whose citizens are so inculcated with patriotic national pride that it smacks of elitism and borders on racism. “Surely the rest of the world would want to be like us!” Is the almost inherent inference in such an attitude. More than this, one of the chief dangers of such self-belief on a national scale is the desire to make the rest of the world either like them or amenable to them. Such hyper-patriotism also seems to create intolerance of cultures that are unlike theirs, and especially of those that are unwilling to belike theirs. Perhaps because we have been drenched in such culture through our television media for over half a century, we have come to view it as normal or acceptable.

But when I see cars draped in flags and people painting their faces, I find myself at once concerned and ambivalent. I’m concerned because I see the danger inherent in walking too far down this path. For example, I saw a sticker on a car recently, which said, “Australia – Love it or leave it!” The problem really is not just that this is a very ugly, elitist statement – dare I say, red-necked – but also that many people won’t see a problem with it; yet, it is the epitome of intolerance.

But I am also ambivalent because of what I said earlier about the day we celebrate – what it means foundationally with our nation being established as a penal colony, and what that in turn meant for the first inhabitants of our land.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see this country as my land, and I am grateful, thankful and happy to be an Australian; I like the sense of community that seems to be growing in local barbecues and breakfasts around the place on Australia Day. But I don’t like the way our National Apathy lets us slide into things without grappling with the issues associated with them, in this case, genocide and oppression. Perhaps there are those who may consider such an opinion to be a “bleeding-heart view of history,” as if that was something bad. I don’t quite understand why it is bad to be upset about such a tragic history, and to want to do something about it.

It is also quite Australian to be pragmatic and say, “Hey, that was a long time ago, mate. Just grab a beer and get on with it.”

There’s a lot to be said for that approach. In many ways, it gets the job done, but there’s one very big problem: it ignores the wounds, the pain and the sentient truth that has gone into the shaping of our culture in a negative way: the elephant in the room that we have been ignoring for generations. If we understood the disdain that was felt by the British for the colony of New South Wales and the fact that many saw it as worse than a death sentence to be sent here, and if we understood how thousands of indigenous families, fathers, mothers and children were obliterated because they stood in the way, creating an aching chasm in the ethnic psyche of those who were “lucky” enough not to be wiped out – along with their descendants – we may view the celebration of this day a little differently.

While then Prime Minister John Howard was technically correct in saying that we can’t be held responsible for the crimes of our antecedents, what we do have is the ability to grasp the issues involved and do all within our power to make amends.

We need to step away from our polluted, penal heritage and say, as a nation, “That was not acceptable. We are better than that,” and bury January 26th as the ignominious moment in history that it was.

We have had an apology from a Prime Minister to the indigenous people of our land, and I was among those who wept while listening to it. I believe that it began a healing which still needs to be struggled for. I also believe that to step away from the celebration of January 26th as Australia Day would demonstrate something powerful to our indigenous brothers and sisters: That we, as a nation do not consider what happened to their ancestors was right, nor do we in any way, directly or indirectly, sanction it. To determine to celebrate Australia Day on another day would help to illustrate this very strongly.

It is also time that we were free to celebrate our “unity in diversity”. At the moment, we’re not. Sociologists for decades have studied the “cultural cringe” – that national inferiority complex that often rears its ugly head when we, or one of our leaders goes overseas, or when a reporter asks a visiting American celebrity,  as if we needed their validation, “So, what do you think of Australia?”

It’s the chip on our national shoulder that, I believe, emanates from our national beginnings and makes us do the kinds of things we would never do at home, like embellishing our or our country’s achievements, our country’s size, grovelling before Presidents, etc. It is time to break free as a nation, reject our oppressive beginnings and choose another day.

So what day would it be? January 1st has been bandied about – the date of the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia – fairly obvious, I would’ve thought. So much more obvious than January 26th, but the average Aussie wouldn’t like having to telescope Australia Day into New Year’s Day, effectively making one party when you could have two – not very Australian.

I’m all for finding a day in August. In New South Wales we have a dearth of holidays between June and October, so August would break it up nicely. We could just select a day, without having to ask Her Majesty, and boom, there you go.

In our present shape as a federation, we’re a young country; so while we’re young, let’s get it right. Let’s find a day that fits for us to celebrate the great things about our nation, in an Australian way, without adopted affectations; and let’s decide not to commemorate so much of what’s bad about our nation’s beginnings, because that’s what we are doing at the moment, whether we realise it or not.

The Path of Healing

So, now we are back home and life has resumed as normal. North-American Christmas has given way to the beautiful post-Christmas summer of Sydney: fresh, seasonal avocadoes, mangos and watermelon, along with the smell of gardenias, the ubiquitous barbecue, cold drinks and sun on skin.

Although we bathed in the peace of our time away, there is a great sense of home and rest in Sydney at this time of year; everyone is in a relaxed mood, the air is warm, the traffic light, and it’s all about relaxing and spending time with friends, for as long as we can make it last.

I love this time of year here.

Being back has had me reflecting, in a peaceful way, on the journey of the past nearly-six months; I have written about grief and all of its facets – at least, what I have been able to identify within the context of the relationship that Ngaire, our boys and I shared; I have had marvelous conversations with friends and family – life-filled conversations – that have gone deep and helped bring a measure of peace and understanding; I have sat to write many times, having experienced an aspect of pain or loss, and in the engaging, found profound, unexpected truth.

Though I don’t anticipate that this journey will ever fully end, I have found myself in a different headspace lately; some of the things of which I have been apprehensive have taken on elements of peace, and become building-blocks for the future: unexpected but deeply appreciated.

Today is Ngaire’s birthday. Birthdays in our family would normally be mini festivals that stretch over at least a few days; this was something that Ngaire instituted and perfected – an honouring of a person that would leave them in no doubt that they were loved. This practical and caring demonstration of my love is what I am unable to give today; but this now leaves me with melancholy more than pain.

Now, most of the time, when I think about Ngaire, I see her smiling, vibrant and full of life. I don’t know how or when that happened, but I am glad for it, and in many ways, feel that it happened in spite of me. This brings me to what I have really been thinking about.

It would seem pretty obvious that grief is a process that the bereaved person goes through and, no matter how well supported they are, is quite a solitary journey. It occurred to me recently however, that Ngaire has been my almost-constant companion through this process. I am coming to understand that how I thought of her through this process is an indication of what I was going through. For example, throughout much of this period, my mind has gone over and over her last weeks, particularly her last day. The pathos of her frailty and weakness has at times been overwhelming in my mind. It has screamed at my ineptitude at not being able to save her and laid bare the inadequacy of my support, provision and care for her, all of which laid an axe to the root of my perception of who I was, as a man and husband.

Over time and particularly through our “time of peace” away over Christmas, I have been able to let go of many of these feelings. I know that there was nothing that I could have done, and now my heart is beginning to agree with my head. Now, I think far less of the tragic moments before her death and more of the happy, healthy, vibrant girl that Ngaire was for most of our life together.

People often say to someone who is bereaved, “remember the happy times – let them be a strength to you.”

I get the sentiment, but it seems to me that it would require a “short-circuiting” of the whole process of grief. One thing that I have been discovering on this journey is that the engagement is everything. Pain can be a good thing if we, with our limited, pain-minimising Western understanding, can clasp hands with our inner life and walk through the pain. It’s the old in and through.

I know there are different kinds of loss; I can’t imagine – or perhaps I can – of losing a child or another close loved one through sudden, tragic circumstances; I couldn’t begin to fathom the pain of those who lose many members of their family in a car accident, and find themselves alone in their anguish.

This I do now know: grief is the path to healing; if I do not engage in the pain and walk through it, I will become misshapen by it. I also believe that a key is the need for me to continue to give as well as receive love; in the giving, the flow of life is restored, little by little.

I don’t pretend to undertsand this whole thing; that mysterious, peaceful time overseas has brought restoration deep within, but I don’t know how or why. It is as if God, has, as I mentioned in the last blog, tied it all up and said, “Here, tuck that away. Don’t be afraid to refer to it as often as you want, but it’s gift to you will now be peace.”

Ngaire is still my companion, but now there is peace and, dare I say, even a modicum of joy for who she was. I still miss her, every day, but now I see her smiling. She was also a twin, so today is her beloved sister’s birthday too. Everyone has their journey, so we need to tread gently.

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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. 

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