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.

Poor Air Quality

It is mid-Spring here in Sydney. Summer is still six weeks away and yet there are over sixty bushfires burning around our state. The worst is uncontained and only an hour’s drive west. Over two hundred homes have been lost so far, fifty in my friend Shelley’s street. Her house is OK, but many of her neighbours who lost theirs, were uninsured. Their trauma and grief must be overwhelming.

I heard of one dear woman, with young children, who had recently lost her husband to cancer. Her house and all possessions were destroyed by fire. Every item, image, gift, note or piece of clothing that I still have the time to ponder, caress and treasure in my loss, has been taken from her and her children in the most terrifying of circumstances.

Where I live, the air smells of the burning; there is a heavy, smoke haze over the city, and the sun is an orange ball. Emergency reports are broadcast every half-hour on the radio – more in high-danger periods – and the weather reports end with, “The Weather Bureau warns of poor air quality; all those with asthma or lung conditions should stay indoors.”

Of course, when I first heard that, in this recent spate of fires, my immediate response, as I was driving, was to reach for the phone to warn Ngaire to keep the windows shut. Now, I expect it at the end of the news bulletin, but each time I hear it, it is like a fresh wound.

You see, that was my role: to care, look out for and protect my girl, more and more as the years rolled on. I realised that the pain in hearing this weather warning, however, was not in the reminder, but in the revelation that my ability to demonstrate my love in care and protection, which was so central for so long, has been taken from me. I weep as a write this, because this loss leaves me not only bereft of what was my most important role, but also of a place to put that which I have had prepared for so many years: my perpetual love, care, devotion, consideration and tenderness.

Like the mother whose children are gone, who lovingly prepares meals and waits, like the old man who has been suddenly retrenched after a lifetime of devotion to his job, I wait; I stare; I ponder; I search for that warm place where all this love can find its perfect resting place, but it has gone.

Obviously, the old man, if not beyond it, can be retrained, or find a new direction in retirement; the mother can receive her friends to help share her loss and her meals. But these things are all different shapes.

I am grateful for my friends and my boys, who daily help and receive help themselves, for I am far from alone in my loss. I am grateful, too, for this blog and those who, going through similar things, find comfort, solace and – dare I say – even enlightenment through it, especially those who are struggling to find the words for how they feel themselves.

As I said a couple of blogs ago, this process is all about being in and going through. Because of that understanding and the fact that I am gradually feeling stronger and healthier, I have an almost perverse gratitude for these confronting realities that, almost daily, present me with a different aspect of loss that I can then “gird up my loins” and begin to walk through. There is a strange wholeness in it and, deep within me a growing peace. I don’t expect that I will ever “get over it”, but nor do I want to.

Another poem to sign off:

Upon Retiring 

The guests have gone,

My children in bed;

The echoes of laughter

And conversation are suddenly

Stilled; their shadows,

Like those of silent undertakers,

Skulk on the periphery as,

Teeth done, ablutions done,

Pyjamas assumed,

I stand surveying the bed

That we once shared.

All is silent as I reach

For the lamp-switch, then

Pause before I flick on the radio;

In my memory, I strain to hear

The sound of your breathing,

Your voice, reach to feel your warmth,

The touch of your face, your hand,

See the grace in your eyes,

Your countenance, feel

The love in your presence,

An anchor-point for my soul

Now adrift. Like a storm-swell,

My need arcs up and towers over

The loss and vulnerability

Of my prostrate spirit

And face, misshapen in grief

And tears at your absence:

The queen, who ruled my heart,

Now lost to a kingdom

Beyond my reach as

The radio’s vacant banter

Takes your place.

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Associations

Perhaps I’ve touched on this before, but it follows on from last time. I was driving to work the other day when “Georgia” by Boz Scaggs came on the radio. Within a few bars I was a blubbering mess, not because the song held any special significance for Ngaire’s and my relationship, but because it was a song from an album that evoked the era in which we established our love for each other. In fact, the album was released that very year. They were the years of our late teens, full of passion and life, with the world and our destinies before us.

The first night that we went out together – May 3rd, 1976 – I brought her back to my parents’ place for coffee (they were overseas at the time). As we sat at the kitchen table, I recall so clearly that we both felt that a sudden shift had taken place in our reality and we were each staring into the eyes of the one we would spend the rest of our lives with. It was an amazing, profound evening.

It was also a time of powerful emotions forging the foundations of our lives together, and a time of great music. I did a bit of a web search and compiled a far-from-exhaustive list of artists from that era. When I saw the names and remembered the great music, it kind of made me understand why so many of us old-timers are a little underwhelmed at the general state of music these days. Look at these names of the ‘70’s:

Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Roxy Music, The Doobie Brothers, Boston, Neil Young, Carly Simon, John Lennon, George Harrison, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Thin Lizzy, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Blondie, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones – in their 2nd decade, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Rod Stewart, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, B-52’s, Abba, David Bowie, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Wings, Michael Jackson, The Ramones, Donna Summer, James Taylor, The Knack, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel.

As I sobbed my way through the traffic, it didn’t help to drift in my mind from song to song of that era that I won’t be able to hear again without the associations of that love, passion and life that put their indelible stamp on so many great tunes that we listened to over and over. Now that she is gone, the intimacy of those associations is no longer shared; the memories that each evokes are now mine alone, and it underscores the loneliness and loss.

Of course, music has an incredible ability to evoke memories. My parents’ “song” was Moon River and even now, many years after they have gone, I find myself drifting into melancholy whenever I hear it.

Smells are the same. Ngaire had a favourite expensive Estée Lauder perfume that she wore on our first date. I bought it for her from that time on; she never ran out. Someone wore it the other day in a shop in North Sydney and I made a hasty exit, choking back an involuntary sob.

I must sound like I’m crying all the time, but it’s only these moments now, although they do have a way of hitting when I least expect it. And I’m sure that these associations will be the things that will make getting over losing Ngaire that much harder and yet, they are a tie that we alone shared and I don’t want to ever find that they become just another memory.

I bought the Santana album, Amigos right around the time that we first went out; our “song” was an instrumental, a powerful, majestic lead guitar break from the album called, Europa – Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile. Strangely fitting……

 

 

In and Through

I went to dinner with some dear friends last night and, as we were leaving, Gary asked me when the next installment of this blog would appear. I said that I didn’t have anything to write about at the moment. As I drove home, I began to realise that it wasn’t true.

For people walking the road of grief and loss, I suspect the issue is not that there may be times when you have nothing to say, rather that you actually have a lot to say, but not the words. This surely is an aspect of the deep pain.

I went to sleep reasonably early but woke just before 2.00 a.m. This is not entirely uncommon, but I was hoping for more rest than three and a half hours. As I tried to get comfortable, I made a small, gentle movement with my hand to draw the sheet closer to my chest. I suddenly became aware of it being a “Ngaire” movement. Maybe this sounds odd, but I felt it to be one of those “the-two-shall-become-one” moments that I have talked about before. When such things happen, I find that I am instantly undone, hence sitting writing this now at 3.33 a.m., after too long of trying to get back to sleep.

You see, what I am finding about grief is more along the lines of what C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”.

In the dark hours particularly, the loss feels like a deep, penetrative disturbance in my being that has no ready connection to the rational. I become anxious, a little unsettled in the stomach – like Lewis, I keep on swallowing – I have to get up; to try to sleep is utterly pointless. I quote from my journal of September last year:

In terms of my identity and the things that drive me, my compass has her as north. I live to please her, to make her happy, to have her respond to me. For that to be gone would be to lose my reason to exist. I suspect that that is why grief feels like fear, because it is; and it is a dark, unholy place.”

Such moments have become less over the last while. Strangely, they were more common in the year before Ngaire died. Her condition was so perpetually confronting that no matter how brave I appeared on the outside, within was a soup of confusion, dread and fear mixed with hope and, of course, love. The grieving began long before she went.

In contemplating the vast ocean of humanity that has suffered in grief as I, my boys and Ngaire’s close family and friends are now, I feel quite insignificant in the context of history. Despite what the humanistic self-theorists say, despite what the preacher may tell us about our importance, there is a vital understanding in this “insignificance.”

The reality is that, in this world of seven billion people, we are very small; beyond our family and the worlds of those who love us, we are, most of us, of little consequence. The author, Henri Nouwen calls it “smallness”. I like that because it is in this smallness that help arrives, if we ask for it. He goes on to say that only when we invite God in to the pain can we live fully through it. That is one of the reasons I write this blog: to engage with God in the pain to find the right way through it. As Nouwen says, “The way out of grief is in and through.”ı

In our western world, we have highly developed systems and processes designed to help us avoid pain. Consequently, our learned tendency is to deny, avoid, suppress and medicate. Sadly, all we have ended up with is a society that is largely unprepared for many aspects of life; unpleasantness and the tough stuff of relationships are often ignored or left unresolved until the pile of crap becomes too high. Then, we decide, it’s time to move on. “I don’t love you anymore” or “you’re not the person I married” are some of the ways we speak out our justification for not engaging in life.

We also “medicate”. Believe me, I know about this one. Sadly, we think that all we are doing when we use medication is numbing the pain. But, as social researcher and speaker, Brené Brown says, you don’t just numb the pain; you numb everything2: your ability to love, experience joy, build caring relationships and empathise. Whatever your drug of choice is, from alcohol, through to prescription drugs and even food, you numb your ability to be in life.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not being a wowser. Those of you who know me will know that’s definitely not the case. All I’m saying, from bitter experience, is when you use anything as a means of numbing the pain, you also numb your ability to engage in life, with all of its beauty and ashes.

Anyway, that was a very protracted way of saying that I am discovering that the best way out of this pain is in and through. Of course, I’ve had times of drinking too much, as a means of escape, but it is not my ongoing mode of operation. I want to get this right. Maybe what this whole thing is saying is, we only get one shot at this life, so for our sake and the sakes of those who love us, let’s do it right.

Thus endeth the sermon. One thing I wanted to add for those of you who might be going through something similar, is that because of the long period of grieving over the last couple of years, I feel that the grief itself is diminishing somewhat; the dark times are not so regular, and now the issue for me is one of loss. My precious one is gone.

I have started making a list of things that I miss about Ngaire and have found it difficult, poignant, beautiful, funny and heart-rending. I want to share some with you:

Things I miss about you

 

–             Seeing you in the morning sun, looking out on the beauty from our bedroom window

–                    Watching you paint in your studio, while I write

–                    Making you cups of tea that you never finish

–                    Standing, holding you

–                    Finding things that you mislaid

–                   Making you fresh bread and mortadella sandwiches with tomato sauce and you, every time saying, “Oooh, my favourite!”

–                    Your beautiful thoughtfulness

–                    Praying for our boys together

–                Ringing or texting whenever I see something that I know you would love or be interested in.

–                    Your cute sketches of things that you’re trying to describe.

–                    Sharing chocolate-covered aniseed rings

–                   Putting my hand on your leg while driving, and you putting your hand on mine

–                    Looking into your beautiful eyes

I don’t suppose the list will ever end.

ı Henri Nouwen, Turn my Mourning into Dancing

2 Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability

Condolences

Condolence – noun – an expression of sympathy with a person who is suffering sorrow, misfortune or grief.

It’s a strange word and one that you don’t usually hear at any other time. That’s one of the things that I love about English; you can have a hundred words that are nuances of basically the same thing, but, usually, if you really need it, there is also a word that means exactly what you’re looking for.

“My sincere condolences….”

It sounds so formal and unnatural, probably because everything about death and loss is so foreign to how our lives are structured. I have had many different expressions of sympathy from many people over recent weeks. All have been appreciated. It’s interesting, though, that the ones that “touch” deepest are the simple ones. A mate said to me the other night, “I really have no idea how you must be feeling. I cannot comprehend it, but I am so sorry.” Oddly enough, that meant so much more to me than someone who may be offering comfort from a philosophical/ideological/spiritual viewpoint. Not that those aren’t appreciated, it’s just that, before Ngaire died, I had my own viewpoint, which would, in many ways, have looked or sounded just like many of the expressions that I have received. But really, my mate was right.

Along this road, I have experienced a lot of death. The ones that touched deepest were, of course, those closest: my mother, father, and before Ngaire, my brother’s death was the most devastating. However, though Ngaire’s passing was a possibility that was never far from my thoughts over much of the last few years, there is no comparison with anything that I have experienced before.

“….and the two shall become one flesh.”

There’s the difference; the other losses were just that: tragic losses. But this is like a disembowelment of the soul, the sundering of a union formed at the deepest level of being, so there are not many words that can come close to easing that. I also feel ashamed that I have been oblivious to the pain that those friends and loved ones who have lost partners must have endured. Then again, how could I possibly have known?

I am honoured that people have bravely ventured into that territory with us, though. Some have written letters, cards, sent emails, flowers, boxes of fruit, delivered meals, invited us for meals – so many expressions of love, for which I am immeasurably grateful and which have been a balm. In fact, without them, this journey would be bleak and dark indeed. Thank you.

As time draws the slow separation which gradually begins to make the loss manageable, the staggering and daunting realisation is that there is no going back; everything is new, and life – lives – must be rebuilt. I left a friend’s place last night, after dinner and, as I went over the evening’s conversation, began to fashion in my mind how I would tell Ngaire about it when she came home……but that will have to wait.

Here’s a poem about another aspect of life now:

The Estate

  Apparently now you have an estate,

Or so some letters are addressed.

They want to tidy things up

While I want to keep things going.

But when I read your name on other dispatches

From The Chamber Orchestra, the Art Gallery

Or even the bank, it tells me that you are

Still here, still interested and full of life.

The Art Store, the Fabric Store tell me

That you are still creating, flowing in love

Living in all that meant so much to you

And others, not silenced

But juvenescent, absorbing journals

And how-to mags, always thinking

How to bless, honour, bring joy

Through word, gift or effort.

Those who received show where

Your true estate lies; those whose

Lives were changed, enlightened,

Warmed are those who, part of the larger

Domain of grace and light, walk now on land

Reclaimed, with hearts imbued

With hope and worth, who feel the loss,

Not as that to be tidied, but as a precious seed.  

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