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.

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.

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 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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