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.

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

The Transcendence of Hope

You will have read that we were just in California for Christmas. Eighteen months ago, Ngaire and I visited Bethel Church in Redding, Northern California. For Ngaire, it was her third visit. Many thousands of people have experienced healing through visiting this place; of this I have no doubt. Ngaire herself, as I have mentioned before, after her first visit to Bethel, went from being highly symptomatic to symptom-free for the eighteen months following. However, after the two subsequent visits, there was no difference. In fact, it was after our last visit that she began to require oxygen therapy twenty-four hours a day.

So why wasn’t she healed? I don’t know. That’s not what I’m writing about today. I will share some thoughts in the future, though.

As the trip was a kind of pilgrimage, it was, almost entirely, contemplative; we read much, talked much, absorbed much, stepped across the “physical divide” much and listened to music, some of which we had just bought.

There was a palpable sense of otherworld-ness as we left the town, escorted down the long driveway of Bethel Church by a bald eagle floating parallel to our car. The new music that we had playing filled us with a sense of hope and seemed to confirm our feelings that healing was imminent.

Yesterday I played that same music for the first time. Instead of melancholy, it again filled me with a sense of hope. Part of me thought that that was quite bizarre. After all, didn’t that hope disappoint? Not only was Ngaire not healed, but she became rapidly worse and continued so until she died, twelve months later.

I think that like many of us, I have had a belief that hope is what you do, so that when something happens to us that is contrary to what we had hoped, our hope is therefore diminished, not to be trusted, or even destroyed. Ngaire died, despite our best hopes; but I think I’m starting to see that our hopes are not Hope.

What if Hope has a life, strength and potency all of its own? What if Hope is something on which we draw, rather than something we whip up or project onto our future as a kind of semblance of our faith?

A few blogs back I spoke of some of the things that I have learnt about faith. One of them is that faith is not about having an expected outcome. While we were away over the Christmas period, I heard a young man say that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. His statement got me thinking again about how we have made so much of what we believe into a set of mantras so that we can put God into a manageable framework that helps us to keep things under control and to bring us, hopefully, an expected outcome. If we don’t do that, then God dwells, at least partly, in the unknown and mysterious; this doesn’t work for us.

So our theology becomes a series of “therefores” e.g. God wants to give me good things, and he is a loving father, therefore there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because he’s just busting to bless me – a little simplistic perhaps, but the problem with so much of what I have learnt is that it is part of this derivative system of belief: the great therefore.

The real issue here is that, depending on what form of logic you use, you can make virtually anything mean what you want it to mean, rather than necessarily what it is saying; just read Plato. But I digress…..kind of…because I was talking about hope.

In the oft-quoted chapter thirteen of the letter to the church in Corinth – a favourite for virtually anyone’s wedding – Paul talks profoundly about the nature of love, that it is, in its purest form, entirely selfless. He then wraps up the chapter with, “These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest is Love.”

He might as well have said, “When everything you believe is boiled down, this is what you’re left with: Faith, Hope and Love.” And it seems that Love is what makes sense of it all.

When I have thought of love, it has usually been associated in my mind and heart with a feeling, something that comes from within, establishing and/or confirming an emotional relationship with another person. But what if those feelings are simply the “exhaust” of a far greater engine? Of course, this is not a new thought with regard to love; greats have shared their wisdom for thousands of years, and the great commonality is that love – real love – is entirely selfless. It is not about what I get; it is about what I willingly lose for the sake of another. In a marriage or life partnership, the beauty in that mutual sacrifice is the gateway to oneness.

Love then, is a way, not a feeling.

So, as I ponder Hope and how it still makes its presence felt in my life after being so disappointed, it really doesn’t make sense unless seen in the context of the way of love.

Maybe people could say that I’m trying to find reasons why my beloved Ngaire died thirty or forty years before her time.

Possibly, but perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, said, “Nothing will shake a man…out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

It is no longer good enough for me to believe a self-serving theology of heaven and prosperity – which, one would think, includes the ongoing presence and love of my life partner – no matter how worthy, if God is not on the same page.

Again, as Lewis says, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” And again in the same vein, “I need Christ, not something that resembles him.”

I guess this means that I’m discovering the transcendence of hope, because the way of love is transcendent, and that is what makes sense of hope; it is not only superior, but outside of space and time, with a strength and nature of its own that is not dictated by the whims of our desires, no matter how strongly we feel, no matter how painful the path.


1. All C.S.Lewis quotes are from A Grief Observed – First published by Faber and Faber 1961


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does faith sit in all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the Oneness

Unwell, she convalesced in another place

Alone, deep in the night,

I stirred beside her, felt her warmth

And the air move past my face from her breath,

Tenderly, we enmeshed the arms and legs

Of our souls in gentle embrace,

And communed.

From the other possibilities of mind-time,

I called myself to reason, lying suspended,

Sliding around consciousness.

That reason again challenged life

That this is a dream,

That she is not here,

That I am alone.

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

Melancholy in such sudden solitude,

Until the voice of resonance

Within informed me,

It is the oneness.