Of Garden Beds and Destiny

I often wonder what it would have been like to lead a life in which everything went to plan. It’s pretty clear now that I’ll never know.

Many people think that life is all about following a belief system that explains or even “pre-explains” everything that happens to us. To a large extent I think I was one of them, but I don’t believe in that way of thinking or “believing” any more.

In the millions of possibilities with which we are presented each day, it is the mistakes, the unexpected and the surprises that really inform us and help us to grow.

A couple of nights ago I was presented with just such an opportunity. After a delightful evening with a dear friend, we had finished dinner in East Sydney and just left the restaurant. This part of town is a strange mix of history, eateries, old terraces, the homeless and addicted. As we approached my car, an older lady was using buckets to water some plants on the footpath out the front of her small terrace-house.

We made a comment about how beautiful her flowers were and, as she turned and stood upright to face us, I found myself being reacquainted with an old enemy.

It was not the dear little lady but rather that from which she suffered. She began straight away to tell of her difficulty in carrying buckets of water because she had emphysema.

However, I didn’t need her to tell me that she had lung disease. I recognised those familiar symptoms: the bluish tinge of the skin on her hands and around her lips (cyanosis) from lack of oxygen, gasping for breath before her sentences were completed and the depression which appeared at the base of her throat with each inhalation, the increased fatty deposits from long-term use of cortisone that make the face seem broader and “puffier”, and finally, as I watched her speak expressively with her hands, the curved fingernails – a phenomenon known as clubbing – from a lack of oxygen to the extremities.

Her name was Evelyn and she had lived in the same house for forty-five years. She spoke of the great difficulty that she now had in doing simple tasks like watering her plants because no one understood how difficult it was with her breathing difficulties. I wanted to tell her that she had no idea how well I understood, in having walked a very similar path watching my own wife’s ability to breathe inexorably diminish to nothing over the last ten years of her life.

I thought better of it. Evelyn had no need of someone to tell her how this would end. Ultimately, that would have been the message, should I have shared my understanding with her, and she would have been well aware of her destiny.

Rather she needed someone to listen and validate the life that she still had, now. So we listened to her tales of letters to the local paper, of the goings on with council over her garden beds on the footpath, of her full-sized Constable reproduction (which she showed us), hanging in her lounge room and a beautiful collection of life treasures that flowed from her lips and were strangely moving, including that she wouldn’t remember us next time she saw us; the stroke of twenty years before had rendered her unable to remember new things that had happened since then.

It was a beautiful meeting. My dear friend, who regularly visits a number of her friends who live on the street, said that when she first began walking this path of befriending and helping homeless folks, she was frightened that she wouldn’t know what to say to them. But she soon realised that all she needed to do was listen.

This shows love more than anything. One of the greatest ways to validate a life and show them that they are loved is simply giving them the time to listen to them.

I wanted to give Evelyn something before we left so I asked if I could shake her hand. I really wanted to hold it and somehow tune my spirit to hers; she commented on how warm my hand was – as hers were so cold – so I put my other hand on top. She laughed, and I think that somehow I felt life flowing from me to her.

Things that we don’t plan are often those that have the most profound effect on us, like that half hour with Evelyn. On another night, with a busier mindset, we may have walked right past her.

For those of us who live in the Western World, plans and dreams are often synonymous. Following your dreams is almost a mantra of the post-Christian west. But as I mentioned to my boys recently, “Don’t hold on to your dreams too tightly, because they might have you missing out on love, and that’s what we’re really here for”.

 

The Sleeping Assumption

The thing that whacked me in the face was the Radiation Oncologist’s statement:

“We’re here to talk about treatment options for YOUR cancer…” (capitals mine, because that’s how it sounded in my head).

Through the whole process of tests that had brought me to this point, perhaps the one thing that I had been keeping at arm’s length was ownership of this condition/disease/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is that it is my cancer and me owning it has made it much more manageable and, if not pleasant, tolerable.

In my prior visit to the urologist, he told me that although the cancer was contained and not elsewhere in my body, I was in for some interesting times ahead. I also began to realise that none of these medical professionals were offering guarantees or even calculated guesses at what my revised longevity may be. That was a little sobering. So what was it? Five years? Ten years? Could I hope for fifteen?

As I sat in the car afterwards with a dear friend, feeling a little shell-shocked, I considered this lack of guarantee, and had something of an epiphany:

None of us has any guarantees.

We live in a world that reminds us constantly that our lives and our futures are the stuff of choice, ambition and dreams, when reality is far from this. Sure, we live longer than ever before thanks to hygiene, medicine and diet but we are still subject to the unexpected, unexplained or incurable.

Strangely enough, I found that understanding quite comforting. The only difference for me is that I have something inside me now that has been identified as a potential killer. So, there is a little less “unknown” for me.

In any case, the doctor was confident and thorough and, after lists of all the statistics, side effects and costs, left me with hope that this thing is completely treatable and beatable without radical surgery. There will be potential ongoing consequences, but that’s OK; at least I’ll be alive, hopefully for many years to come.

 

But I’ve been thinking about this problem of guarantees.

I spend most of my days in the world of the mass media – particularly promotions and advertising, which has at its core the premise that, if you can make people feel something, they will buy it, or watch it, or identify with it. It’s almost never about information, but about how that product is going to make you feel; it might make you feel more important, manlier, more feminine, have more value or more sex appeal. It is a subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) form of manipulation in which all of us are well practised, since the time we first cried to elicit sympathy in order to get what we wanted.

One of the things that the media has taught us quite well is that we are the most important person in the world. In fact, an insurance company had a campaign not so long ago with that as a tag line: “The most important person in the world: You”

With so much around geared to telling us how important we are and how in control we are, we could be forgiven for thinking that happy, trouble-free immortality is just one purchase away. Of course, we are only in control if we have made the correct purchases; if we haven’t then we are doomed to be inadequate fringe-dwellers until we do.

As a yardstick, I often consider what someone from a different, simpler culture would make of these social straightjackets that we insist on wearing. For example, what would the rice paddy worker from Cambodia make of my desperate need to have the right brand of jeans, toothpaste or hair gel? (For those of us who are fortunate enough to have hair).

In our free-market, capitalistic world it seems that we have allowed options to muscle out contentment and gratitude to the point where, in our abundance, what we don’t have is always more important than what we do. It’s how this system, which is really perpetuated by our feelings of inadequacy and not ever having enough, fuels itself.

Cobbled in with all of this are my choices, ambitions and dreams. Like most of us, they relate generally to family, love, and friendships; but of course, there is a critical element in all of those things in order for choices, etc., to become functional; that element is time.

With a cancer diagnosis, suddenly time becomes the most important factor. Everything in our lives that we plan or dream about is framed around the sleeping assumption that we will have time for it. When an external factor – like cancer – overrides our choices with regard to how much time we may or may not have, all of those choices, ambitions and dreams become very focussed and rapidly prioritised. All of that is to say, the journey of what does and doesn’t matter becomes a little easier.

To learn to live with an understanding that there are no guarantees for how long any of us has on this planet is actually very freeing: a refocussing on how to live and love well and how to leave behind the things that encumber.

That’s a nice little media-style catch-phrase to finish with: LIVE, LOVE, LEAVE BEHIND. “Matt’s Three L’s for the next stage of life.”

Just to fill you in, I hope to begin a combination of internal and external radiotherapy in a few weeks; that will last for six weeks. After that, I hope to be cancer-free. I’ll keep you posted.

 

The Familiar Abyss

“What are you scared about the most?”

It was a question that cut to my core. Innocuous, it would seem, as something that we all ask of those that we know; but given the right context and timing, it cut to my core.

“So, what are you scared about the most?”

It’s a pretty normal question, a conversation starter, or a “getting–to-know-you” group question, but this time, because it was asked the evening after I had received the diagnosis of the presence of a moderately active cancer in my prostate, it was particularly pertinent. That I received this news two days after we commemorated the first anniversary of Ngaire’s passing wasn’t lost on me either.

After the initial blow subsided, the clouds cleared and I, again stood looking into this seemingly bottomless abyss of the unknown and unfriendly. It seemed strangely familiar and not quite as fearful as I remembered it. In fact, as I talked to a friend about it later in the day, it dawned on me that there was actually treasure to be found here. However, I will have to climb down into this hole; at some point, I will have to leap across the gap, and I will get to the other side.

There is a pretty good success rate with this type of cancer. For the sake of those who love me, I’ll do all I can to make sure that I’m in the positive percentage. Nonetheless, it is quite sobering knowing that I have “the worm” inside me: that which could end my life is resident within.

The reality that we tend to ignore rather well in our society, is that we are all terminal and, as C.S. Lewis said, “Death has a way of focussing one’s attention.”

So, what am I scared about most? Oddly enough, it’s not that I might die, or the numerous unpleasant procedures involved; it’s my mental health.

Since a couple of years before Ngaire died, I found myself gradually sliding from being my normally robust, buoyant self into being frequently depressed, anxious and fearful, particularly through the long hours of the night. To even contemplate the possibility of entering that darkness again, having been free of it for many months now, is more frightening than anything else.

As always, there is tremendous strength drawn from the love of my friends and my boys; I am grateful beyond words.

Well over a year ago, I committed to document Ngaire’s journey towards a lung transplant; within a few months she was gone, having never made it that far. The documented journey became the path of grief and so many aspects of relationship and love lost, all the way through into the open space.

So now it’s time to head off into the woods again – pop on the boots, tighten the belt and strike up the hiking song……whatever. I may not be the Happy Wanderer, but I hope to walk this path with a great degree of peace. Thank you to those who are walking with me.

Stay tuned for updates.

Falling

It would be a very brave person to say that grief is desirable. Such thinking is anathema to the “feel good” world in which we live. The idea that suffering is not something that we should avoid at all cost, borders on the absurd in our success/merit-based society. In our thinking, suffering is the symptom of failure, injustice, inequity or weakness; those who suffer deserve our pity, right? Or, if we believe that their suffering is self-created, they should surely receive our derision and pity.

For me, being in suffering has afforded a most wonderful change of perspective.

From even before Ngaire died, I found myself in a world where I became aware of people beginning to make decisions based around my and my family’s well being. Kindness, love, consideration and thoughtfulness towards us, was something that grew to be normal; and I had to learn to receive it, which is not all that easy.

Because of that, I have in many ways discovered greater levels of intimacy than I have really known before: I am experiencing richer and stronger bonds in my relationships with my boys; likewise, in a number of my friendships, I am enjoying a level of loyalty and inter-commitment that I once only theorised about. I have realised the potency and beauty of being a part of a small but vital, loving community.

I am not convinced that I would have had my heart open to receive in quite the same way, if I had not been on the “way of grief.”

Growing up and living in a world that rewards achievement and places value in all kinds of social status, means that we learn what is and isn’t acceptable socially; accordingly, receiving from others is not something that many of us do well.

Yet, for those of us who follow Jesus, it is what we must do. If we don’t, then our beliefs will lead us deeper and deeper into a morass of self-defeating efforts to be good enough, which will eventually destroy us or at best, leave us jaded and bitter.

Grace is not something we can earn; it is a state in which we must simply be.

In spite of the fact that most Christians may say amen to that, over the considerable number of years that I have been a member of this “club”, I have observed a different reality.

I am reminded of something that I read the other day, written by Richard Rohr:

“Switching to an “economy of grace” from our usual “economy of merit” is very hard for humans, very hard indeed. We naturally base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance, or worthiness of some sort—it can be called “meritocracy” (the rule of merit). Unless we experience a dramatic and personal breaking of the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit, it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of its rigid logic. This cannot happen theoretically, abstractly, or somehow “out there.” It must happen to me.”

There’s a point – “the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit” – a system that we adhere to and perpetuate.

Go to any party and what’s the first thing that we will say to someone that we’re meeting for the first time?

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question that helps us identify where this person fits within our cultural context – their worthiness, if you like.

Sadly, in many churches, it’s not all that different. Go to any Sunday service and may well have a similar context for a visitor to our gathering. It may be the same question, using the same value system, or we may frame it differently. We may say, “So where do you fellowship?”

Their response will let us know whether their cultural framework approximates ours, and therefore, whether or not they “fit” with our value system.

If what they think is nothing like how we do things at Happy Town Church, then we’ll probably politely show them where the tea and coffee is, and move on.

It’s quite normal and the same everywhere in society. Our friends and those with whom we like to surround ourselves, generally think like us and are usually in a similar socio-economic group.

We build sanctuaries of like-mindedness and create frameworks of exclusion, which by their very nature don’t allow us to truly receive or give. We may even truly believe that we are “saving the lost”, when all we are really doing (as we did to ourselves) is make people fit into a cultural framework that gives them a sense of value. The more that we “do” to fit into this framework – meetings, small groups, committees, etc – the more value we have. Sadly, those who aren’t prepared to fit this framework are often viewed as fringe-dwellers who are not really “walking with the Lord.”

We shape our beliefs to fit what we want our lives to be. We have made theologies out of how God wants us to be happy, prosperous and comfortable. We shape “mantras” that help us to get handles on God, so that he can fit into our lives and therefore, we can have the lives that we want.

But, in all of this following of our dreams, at the back of our minds is the ache that maybe this isn’t how it was meant to be.

Jesus said things completely contrary to that, things like:

“In this world you will have trouble.”

“Whoever loses his life, will find it.”

“He who would be greatest, must serve.”

From my not-too-distant past, I can tell you how we Christians spin interpretations on those very confronting words of Jesus’, so that we become “faith-filled overcomers” of our situations, thinking that it is the outcome of success for us that is the proof of what we believe. It becomes a lifestyle of denial that doesn’t allow that pain and suffering is anything but bad, never allowing us the freedom simply to be, to feel, to love, and to be loved. It is a theology that equates “successful” faith as that which fulfills my dreams – one that is no longer centred around God’s purpose of oneness and unity, but around the needs of my ego – which is the opposite. Somehow we have written theologies that pretty well say, “God wants me to be happy”, when maybe God really just wants me to be real – that in the Universe there is everything from the budding of a flower to the catastrophic destruction caused by a supernova, vaporising millions of worlds in an instant; my dreams need to be understood in that context.

Of course, the God-wants-me-to-be-happy theology can never work, so our lives become more and more a search for which speaker might approximate the truth more closely to how we feel at any given time; which “teaching” dangles the carrot that is a little sweeter from our point of view. We may tarry for a while at those places which call us up to a “higher place”, then move on to another conference, a deeper understanding – all the while feeling inside that there must be a magical ring, the key that will unlock the secret – never realising that God is in all life, not just the good bits.

He is in that which we deny, as much as that which we pursue, the prayers that are unanswered as much as those that are, the people with whom we disagree, as much as those whom we worship….

So now I find myself in a place that is one of rest, where it is possible to hold the good and the bad in balance, only attempting to change that which is naturally altered by love, though I confess to being far from competent in that. My litmus test is my behaviour when in traffic and so far I’m not doing all that well!

What I have learned is what I may have touched on before; that most of our attempts at theology are about us trying to get a handle on the God who refuses a handle. Life will always throw something up to break our perfect mould.

Maybe these are the ravings of someone who has been hurt and is reacting negatively; or maybe God is infinitely bigger than the tiny box in which I had him; or maybe this is what the mystics call the second half of life. As Richard Rohr says of the spiritual journey of the second half of life:

“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have—right now. This is a monumental change from the first half of life…holding life’s sadness and joy is its own reward, its own satisfaction, and your best and truest gift to the world.

“Strangely, all of life’s problems, dilemmas, and difficulties are now resolved…by falling into the good, the true, and the beautiful—by falling into God.” *

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* From Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr

Us and Them

This month sees the last three anniversaries in our family in the year since Ngaire died. One, of course, is Mothers’ Day, and this year that Sunday was also the birthday of my eldest son, Jordan. At the end of the month my youngest son, Eddy, turns eighteen.

I decided that it might be nice to celebrate all three of these events with a long weekend away in Far North Queensland; some sun and fishing was just what the doctor ordered. With Remy still away in California, exploring and building his own future, the trip included three of us.

Looking back at the anniversaries this year and the effect that each had on my family and me, as detached as it may sound, this grieving process is exactly that, a process; each celebration, generally, was a little easier than the one before.

However, when you are in the midst of it, the thought of it being a natural progression is almost sacrilegious; something so deeply personal, challenging and “other-worldly” in its stark contrast to the nuts-and-bolts days of life on this planet, surely can’t be referred to in such an impassive way: a process.

Maybe that’s part of the problem: In our individual understanding of our own uniqueness, we forget that we are part of a much larger community on this planet, that has been dealing with, pain, loss and grief for multiplied millennia. Our Western culture, to a large extent, and quite ironically, insulates us from death; we load our entertainment media with death and carnage, yet when it comes to the reality of death in our lives, we are often kept from even seeing a dead body. I know many adults in their thirties and forties who still haven’t experienced that.

Yet many cultures that we might consider overly modest in their entertainment options, embrace the experience of a loved one’s death passionately in a virtual spree of commemoration, often for extended periods of time. Perhaps this is why such cultures are loathe to see death as much a part of their entertainment and why we tend to grieve so badly – we don’t embrace its stark reality.

In any case, I am glad to be in this place now, where I have embraced the loss of so much life and love, to come through into a place of grace, peace and blessing – a new place that is at once both fresh and ancient. I wish that I could explain that last statement, but it is a feeling – an awareness – that I have no other way of expressing yet.

Let’s get back to Far North Queensland.

I had only been so far north in Australia once as a teenager but having lived in Hawaii for a couple of years, the memories of the tropics came flooding back; there is a strange corollary between the two that doesn’t relate to the weather.

We had hardly driven any distance in our hire car, when I saw the first example: an indigenous teenager crossing the road, in no hurry – in fact, somewhat aimlessly, it seemed to me. I took note and probably wouldn’t have paid any attention at all had he not been indigenous.

When I lived in Hawaii, the local Polynesian population had likewise been disenfranchised by the influx of Westerners and Japanese and the surge of development that saw so many sacred places destroyed or, at best, cheapened by business or tourism. Racial prejudice and violence was common, particularly on the outer islands.

There is something that I have noticed of all people who have been, for whatever reason, disenfranchised, be they an indigenous people, a man who is suddenly unemployed after decades with one company, a homeless person, or even someone who has just found out that their lover has been unfaithful. It is grief, with all its unrequited emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness – from being powerless – and depression. You see it, even through smiles.

From where we stayed in Port Douglas, it is only a twenty-minute drive to Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest. The local indigenous community – the Kuku Yalanji people, I believe – operates the Gorge entrance, transport and administration. While all were pleasant and helpful, I wondered if I saw behind the eyes, that same grief, that deep sense of loss, which has been the lot of our indigenous people for centuries.

Of course, I am paddling in the shallows here; it is no arcane secret that injustice and trauma though individuals’ lives, family lines – even through nations – shapes psyches at every level; and it is no secret that this has been the case for our original Australians. But where I live, on the Northern Beaches of Sydney is relatively insulated (there’s that word again) from indigenous culture and contact. I know a few, but that’s about it.

Maybe it’s that I have been on this journey of grief and now find it easier to recognise in others; but I wasn’t expecting it on a holiday weekend away.

So, what does it tell me and what should my response be? It may seem simplistic, but the thing that I have found invaluable from others through this time of grief, is friendship – love – not offering answers, sometimes offering help, but always offering love and another’s desire to “be” – with me.

While we treat our indigenous people as separate, and not our brothers, sisters and friends, their path to healing will remain arduous. While those of us who come from non-indigenous backgrounds have in our hearts and minds that they are separate, we are to some extent guilty of the same racism that caused the pain in the first place.

It is always a danger to talk about any group of people as if it is a collective that functions uniformly; one of the basic characteristics of racism is just that: to see a race or people group as a unit, not as a collection of individuals.

It is at the heart of our government’s treatment of asylum seekers, who are no longer seen as a collection of individuals fleeing the torment of persecution with all the associated grief and anguish, but are seen as a dangerous bloc that we must fear. So our response is to rob them of all freedom without any hope of a future, inflicting grief upon grief. I wonder what we would see were we to look into those eyes.

We live on a very small planet. It is too small for us to be drawing lines between us. As a friend said the other day, “we are all made of the same stuff”, so why do we have this need to make others separate? Is it to reinforce our own sense of belonging? Governments and tyrants have for a very long time used the principle that the most effective way to unify a group of people and make them do what you want, is to make them afraid of another group, to make them think that those people are different in an undesirable or threatening way. Hitler did it with the Jews, and look how that ended up.

We say that such a thing could never happen again, but I wonder if we don’t see smaller examples of it every day. Any form of patriotism has the seeds of such a possibility. Interestingly, the word patriotism comes from the Greek patris which means fatherland, use by Germans of their own country during the reign of Hitler.

We see it in football violence, church movements, intolerance of different religions or sexuality, pretending not to notice a disabled person, even demographic differences between people in the same city. The danger lies in anything that creates a dividing line, and makes us feel exclusive, because exclusive means that we exclude others.

Paul the apostle said it well: “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilised and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ; everyone is included in Christ. (Colossians 3:11 –The Message – italics mine).

All of the great global problems through the centuries have arisen because we don’t get this basic principle: There is no us and them; there is only us.

Tell Me When….

This piece has been a long time coming, with lots of revisions and changes, because in it, I’m not just talking about me and my feelings and experiences, but also of the feelings of those around me – at least to some extent. I want to treat them gently and with respect. So here goes:

I was talking to a close friend the other day about this whole process: grief and healing, loss and recovery. He said something that I had been suspecting but as I have never been through this before (at least not at such an intimate level as having lost my wife) have been wondering if I should expect something more.

He said that he thought that the way I had engaged in my grief, embracing the great variety of issues and emotions, then processing them through my writing, had expedited the whole experience. That’s how I feel.

Another friend told me that I had “grieved well.”

“Processing” is a clinical word for such an organic, spiritual progression; and progression is what it is, as I look back over the months. I am now at a place where I can look at Ngaire’s things with a sense of love and gratitude rather than heartache. I know that there will always be moments that will overwhelm; I’ve seen that in others, sometimes even after many years.

As you’ve probably deduced from reading these blogs, I talk to people a lot; I like to have “sounding-boards”: people whom I trust to not only reflect back to me what I am saying – to help me see it more clearly – but people who will also give me another perspective that I may be missing.

In a different conversation to another friend, I said that I felt that it seemed much longer than the nine months since Ngaire died; in looking back and reading my blogs again, it really felt like years. In fact, if I had to put a number on it, I’d say, about two and a half years.

I have started going through her things now, to pass them on to the people that I know she would love to have them, to keep some for my boys and their prospective partners, and to keep some myself. I have had help, but it has been an almost pleasurable experience.

I am a little surprised at how quickly this time has arrived. There is none of the dread that I had been anticipating, none of the melancholy or even grief. I have some sadness, but also some joy in knowing that I will be sharing some of her things with those she loved.

I have heard stories of spouses who never address these things, who are perpetually in a state of waiting for their loved-one’s return, so the slippers, the dressing-gown, the favourite shirt, dress, jacket, earrings….whatever, remain for the owner to come and step back into them. What I am saying is that I now know that she is not coming back. I referred to this in my last blog regarding dreams and how they were an indicator of me coming to terms with her not being here. Now that I know, I will be doing what needs to be done.

 

As usual, I have been doing a lot of pondering; I have wondered about this whole epoch of “moving on” i.e. stepping into the next phase of life, as it were, whatever that looks like. These are words that run through my mind: newness, uncertainty, promise, apprehension.

In my last blog I wrote of the cost of being in this place now, to me personally, and to my family. Of course, I realise that it is not helpful to stay in that headspace.

Some years ago, Ngaire and I invested significantly in property in Brisbane. Rather than an investment, it turned out to be a massive burden that we carried for years, which ended up costing many times more than what we had invested, just for us to eventually be free of it. But, we couldn’t stay in the pain and loss of that experience. We had to move on and leave it behind.

While the analogy is inadequate, I feel that there is a clear sense of moving on now; that it is not helpful to remain in grief and loss, nor do I want to any more.

I have even noticed a difference in my response to others when they ask how I am. Normally, it will be something like, “I’m doing fine, thanks,” or “OK.” Now, I actually find myself saying, “Good.” I’m pretty happy about that.

This whole process has, however, been intense; those of you who read these posts regularly will know that I have embraced the grief, engaged in each issue and experience and not let go until I have wrung every last drop from it.

I spoke of conversations earlier. Some folks that I know who are church pastors in New Zealand were part of a recent weekend away with my church community. Hamish told me about a lady in their church whose husband had died some time before. She had met another guy whose wife had also died under similar circumstances. They ended up together and, as part of their commitment to each other, gave permission to have their own individual “space” around birthdays, anniversaries, etc., that related to their lost partners. I thought that that was beautiful and showed a depth of understanding and love that can only be appreciated by someone who has walked the path; someone who is not intimidated by the intimacy that you had with another, who is brave and loving enough to allow such freedom.

So, sitting in this classroom of life, looking out at all the students who are parts of me and my questions, I can see a boy about three rows back, with his hand up, a quizzical expression on his face, along with a slight sense of embarrassment as I give him permission to talk.

“Sir, does that mean you are moving on?”

“Good question, young man,” I cautiously respond.

This is an area that Ngaire and I touched on, though not in any depth. She recognised that, should she not make it through, I was still young enough to consider life with someone new.

Her illness lasted over many years, and the possibility of her death was never far from my thoughts; in my own heart, I had made a commitment long ago, that if Ngaire died, I wouldn’t even consider a relationship with someone else until my boys were out of school; that would have been an unfair stress that young hearts may not have been able to cope with. As I’ve mentioned before Eddy – our youngest – finished up at school just a few days before Ngaire died.

Since then, I have laid out the journey on these pages: the various aspects and issues associated with the path of grief and loss; I have wrestled and wept, struggled and somehow come through. Now, I stand here on open ground; the cloud has parted, the sun is shining and there is hope on the road ahead. I feel good, not just OK. I don’t doubt that there will be moments which will still overwhelm from time to time, but generally I feel strong and at peace. There is, however, a consideration that I find a little unusual, possibly even perplexing.

I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, about which many people have strong opinions. I have seen people, including myself, who have been hurt and angry when someone close has begun a relationship with another, sometimes within a time-frame that may be considered too soon. From my pondering, I throw out a couple of things to consider:

In looking at my own judgement of others in the past, I realised that, even though it may not have been conscious, I had made an assumption of, “How can they just forget their wife/husband like that?” It is almost as though I had felt them to be discarding or cheating on their spouse.

One thing I hadn’t allowed, is that the journey of the bereaved person is one of which I had no context to help me even remotely understand. The depths plumbed by a grieving spouse are simply beyond those who haven’t been there. Plus, how that person deals with and processes the pain of their life is entirely their business and I have no right to judge them.

For me personally, I know that I will always carry my love for Ngaire with me and, like the couple of whom I spoke earlier, hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.

Of course, people who actually have a right to be concerned or emotionally jarred are those who are closely related e.g. children and siblings of the one who has died. A father or mother beginning a new relationship can be hurtful to a child, if not handled properly – even years down the track. So I think that it is reasonable to expect, particularly if close relatives or friends are involved, that there be sensitivity and lots of conversation.

My boys for instance would and should be the first to know; in fact, I would not consider moving forward in another relationship without them being OK about it themselves. Which brings me to my next deliberation: perhaps some people may be upset or judgemental about a bereaved person moving on, because they have not been able to process their own grief, or have avoided visiting the pain. I suspect that some reasonably close to me may be in that situation and, in my pondering have realised that, apart from a gentle conversation, there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot process their pain for them, nor do I believe that it is my responsibility to wait until they can cope.

It’s a weird, new world and in some respects, this whole process is a metaphor of life, which teaches me that even if I walk in love, there will be pain for others, no matter how sensitive I am. We are each responsible for our own lives, and often our judgement of others hides a deeper need within ourselves.

If all of us are to move on, we have to deal with the pain gently, but thoroughly and leave it behind. Coincidentally, I read this quote last night:

“Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons…hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. Then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.” – Richard Rohr

For that to happen requires us to look into the pain, not as our enemy, or something to be shunned, but as that which will help us to live more fully, more alive. I am convinced that those who walk through the pain are those who know true joy. I think that that is why, when someone asks me how I am, I can now say, “Good.”

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