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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Escape

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

11th December, 2013:

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

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

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

13th December, 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st December, 2013:

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

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

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

I’ll let you know how Christmas goes.

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

 

 

Anniversaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehearsal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does faith sit in all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the Oneness

Unwell, she convalesced in another place

Alone, deep in the night,

I stirred beside her, felt her warmth

And the air move past my face from her breath,

Tenderly, we enmeshed the arms and legs

Of our souls in gentle embrace,

And communed.

From the other possibilities of mind-time,

I called myself to reason, lying suspended,

Sliding around consciousness.

That reason again challenged life

That this is a dream,

That she is not here,

That I am alone.

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

Melancholy in such sudden solitude,

Until the voice of resonance

Within informed me,

It is the oneness.