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”.


Opinions are like…..

O.K., all of us get spam daily. One of the things I loathe about coming back from a day or two away is having to go through and delete a couple of hundred solicitous emails. Many of them come from an online art workshop/school/supplier from which Ngaire received hard copy and email magazines and “how-to” publications.

I have reached a point where I’m O.K. with deleting these now, although it was difficult to begin with – it was a point of contact – connection – with her. Yesterday was different.

Whereas, I normally don’t engage with these emails at all, a particularly beautiful watercolour painting of a wilted rose caught my attention. I read the accompanying article, which ultimately was selling a magazine about painting flowers in watercolours – which Ngaire could easily have written herself; she was so accomplished in watercolour and had used flowers as her subjects since before I knew her. From fields of wildflowers to individual flowers in vases, and everything in between, Ngaire was proficient and prolific.

Now, I know that I’ve written about flowers before, along with those aspects of grief which relate to discerning how much of me is me – after being united with someone for seventy percent of my life, there is a melding between two souls that makes it almost impossible to tell where I end and she begins, if you follow.

But seeing the picture of the rose prompted something a little different. You see, I had learned so much about art, observation and appreciation from Ngaire that I could honestly say that these were now my abilities. However, she was the artist. Oh, I’m not too bad at drawing, but any opinion that I had about art really had its credibility in the fact that I was married to Ngaire, and she was the authority.

It’s like the little kid in the playground, telling his friends how badly made the schoolhouse is. They all give him a hard time until his Dad picks him up, wearing a hardhat and tool belt; suddenly, the little kid has credibility (even though his opinion may have been correct anyway).

I love art – well, not all art; the pragmatist and communicator in me draws the line at some things. But what it feels like now is that the artist in me, has gone; my credibility has gone in this area and I have to come up with some personal validity. Like the radio shock-jock who finds himself unemployed, I now have to dispense with my opinions and come up with some substance.

Of course, this is not earth-shattering for most of you who read this, but I cannot express to you how vital vision, perception, observation and appreciation were in Ngaire’s world, and consequently, my world. So now, I’m just another guy with an opinion. At least, that’s what it feels like. She lived and breathed beauty and appreciation, and she was grateful for all of it, almost every day.


The Journey – watercolour – Ngaire Wills

A legacy is on the chalkboard in our kitchen. One day, a little over a year ago, she wrote, “cultivate thankfullness” – replete with the usual artist’s spelling mistake – she, who had battled a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition for so long left a reminder to cultivate thankfulness.

In fact, if I could nail it down to two things, Ngaire’s benchmarks were a) to be thankful and b) to avoid comparison. The comparison thing was a real soapbox for her in recent times, because she had seen it damage others’ lives and the lives of those around them. “But, of course”, as she would say, “if you’re thankful, you won’t compare yourself to others anyway.”

So, that’s probably a good place to end. Opinions become far less vociferous when they come from a grateful heart, anyway. And I am grateful for every day that I spent with my girl.

That can be my opinion…..and my credibility.