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”.


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


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.



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.




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.