Pictures

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.

Rehearsal

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.

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.

P1010020

How much is me?

Walking through the markets yesterday morning, I spotted some beautiful waratahs at a flower stall. Up until a few years ago they were a protected species – possibly still are – and weren’t readily available. So seeing them at market stalls for a reasonable price is a whole new experience.

The point for me, though, was when I was walking away with my waratahs and began thinking, “When did I become a guy who appreciates beautiful flowers?” (In fact, I stood for a while pondering whether or not to buy some stunning dusky-pink roses; I decided against them but I have to say, without good reason).

So as I cradled my purchase in my arms and wandered amongst the hand-crafted breads, fresh produce, coffee, home-made cakes, and meat from almost any creature you could think of – including alpaca – I thought back to how I was, in what seemed like my two-dimensional-days before I met Ngaire. I found it hard to remember.

You see, I always had an appreciation for beauty, but she had a passion for it. I think I could safely say that, thanks to that passion, I now love good art, architecture, design, and the stunning extravagance of nature in sky, landscape, plants, creatures and all their individual elements: clouds, mountains, leaves, feathers….  and flowers. She was also my muse, the one who was my great encourager, inspiration and sounding-board for all of my creative pursuits.

I don’t know that anything of me had as much influence on her, perhaps some. I think degree of influence relates to mutual love, respect, and familiarity – even admiration. I remember, as a small boy watching my father, that I thought to myself, “I really like the jaunty way he moves when he’s walking.” So I began to emulate him. The older I get, the more I remind myself of him. Likewise, I see in my boys some of my own characteristics – and sometimes they annoy me.

The next question that follows is, “How much of who I am, is me?” Now obviously, I am entirely me; but we are all, to an incredible extent, an agglomeration of the influences of our friends, teachers, parents, partners; even our children can have a profound influence on the shape of who we are. This doesn’t even account for the trauma that so many suffer which also goes into the mix.

But when so much of who I am has been shaped by her in an almost-ongoing symbiosis for so many years, how do I find the me who functions and has sole thoughts and individual purpose without her? This may seem unnecessarily existential but bear with me.

It occurred to me in my pondering, that so many of my choices in the past were fashioned out of a desire to bring her joy, please her, or engage her more. Now, without that impetus, I cling to tenuous frameworks like going to work, cooking dinner or doing the washing; even looking after my boys is fading as they are now all older and making their own way, as it should be. Suddenly, irrevocably, it is no longer Matt and Ngaire – the unit. It is just Matt. And, as I said in a recent poem, “[The grace and love of her] presence, [was] an anchor-point for my soul, now adrift.”

You see, while I wondered at the mystery, I think that deep down I had an idea that this whole “the two shall become one” thing, was just a metaphor. It is clear to me now that it is not. In fact, to add to it, I would say that it seems to me there is an ongoing imperative when two spirits are united – that they will continue becoming one while they live.

It is as though the house that was Ngaire and Matt has been half-demolished, and I stand in my half, amongst rubble and torn plaster looking into the void. Within the half that remains there is strong evidence of her everywhere, for the house was as much hers as mine. So, almost feeling like a squatter now that she is gone, I contemplate the rebuild. In being exposed to the elements so, the stuff of life becomes more tedious and difficult. But, I have many who love and support me to help with that “project”.

However, in the midst of this, I think of those who are refugees or destitute on our own streets who have suffered unbearable loss through persecution, war or personal trauma – whole families in many cases – and it can be seen on their faces: a tragic empty pain that only love and time may help to heal. It angers and saddens me that many in our society have forsaken compassion and mercy for the “first world values” of hedonism, selfishness and misguided self-protection. But I digress.

For me, of course, there is truth in the line, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all”. It comes from a very long poem of Tennyson’s, written over a period of many years, after the death of a close friend, and is to be ventured into at your peril, for it delves into the dark places of the soul. Having said that, one of the central themes in the poem is the ongoing search for hope after loss:

 

O living will that shalt endure

When all that seems shall suffer shock,

Rise in the spiritual rock,

Flow thro’ our deeds and make them pure

 

That we may lift from out of dust

A voice as unto him that hears,

A cry above the conquer’d years

To one that with us works, and trust,

 

With faith that comes of self-control,

The truths that never can be proved

Until we close with all we loved,

And all we flow from, soul in soul.

 

– Stanza 131, In Memoriam – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

This is a worthy journey.