The Sleeping Assumption

The thing that whacked me in the face was the Radiation Oncologist’s statement:

“We’re here to talk about treatment options for YOUR cancer…” (capitals mine, because that’s how it sounded in my head).

Through the whole process of tests that had brought me to this point, perhaps the one thing that I had been keeping at arm’s length was ownership of this condition/disease/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is that it is my cancer and me owning it has made it much more manageable and, if not pleasant, tolerable.

In my prior visit to the urologist, he told me that although the cancer was contained and not elsewhere in my body, I was in for some interesting times ahead. I also began to realise that none of these medical professionals were offering guarantees or even calculated guesses at what my revised longevity may be. That was a little sobering. So what was it? Five years? Ten years? Could I hope for fifteen?

As I sat in the car afterwards with a dear friend, feeling a little shell-shocked, I considered this lack of guarantee, and had something of an epiphany:

None of us has any guarantees.

We live in a world that reminds us constantly that our lives and our futures are the stuff of choice, ambition and dreams, when reality is far from this. Sure, we live longer than ever before thanks to hygiene, medicine and diet but we are still subject to the unexpected, unexplained or incurable.

Strangely enough, I found that understanding quite comforting. The only difference for me is that I have something inside me now that has been identified as a potential killer. So, there is a little less “unknown” for me.

In any case, the doctor was confident and thorough and, after lists of all the statistics, side effects and costs, left me with hope that this thing is completely treatable and beatable without radical surgery. There will be potential ongoing consequences, but that’s OK; at least I’ll be alive, hopefully for many years to come.

 

But I’ve been thinking about this problem of guarantees.

I spend most of my days in the world of the mass media – particularly promotions and advertising, which has at its core the premise that, if you can make people feel something, they will buy it, or watch it, or identify with it. It’s almost never about information, but about how that product is going to make you feel; it might make you feel more important, manlier, more feminine, have more value or more sex appeal. It is a subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) form of manipulation in which all of us are well practised, since the time we first cried to elicit sympathy in order to get what we wanted.

One of the things that the media has taught us quite well is that we are the most important person in the world. In fact, an insurance company had a campaign not so long ago with that as a tag line: “The most important person in the world: You”

With so much around geared to telling us how important we are and how in control we are, we could be forgiven for thinking that happy, trouble-free immortality is just one purchase away. Of course, we are only in control if we have made the correct purchases; if we haven’t then we are doomed to be inadequate fringe-dwellers until we do.

As a yardstick, I often consider what someone from a different, simpler culture would make of these social straightjackets that we insist on wearing. For example, what would the rice paddy worker from Cambodia make of my desperate need to have the right brand of jeans, toothpaste or hair gel? (For those of us who are fortunate enough to have hair).

In our free-market, capitalistic world it seems that we have allowed options to muscle out contentment and gratitude to the point where, in our abundance, what we don’t have is always more important than what we do. It’s how this system, which is really perpetuated by our feelings of inadequacy and not ever having enough, fuels itself.

Cobbled in with all of this are my choices, ambitions and dreams. Like most of us, they relate generally to family, love, and friendships; but of course, there is a critical element in all of those things in order for choices, etc., to become functional; that element is time.

With a cancer diagnosis, suddenly time becomes the most important factor. Everything in our lives that we plan or dream about is framed around the sleeping assumption that we will have time for it. When an external factor – like cancer – overrides our choices with regard to how much time we may or may not have, all of those choices, ambitions and dreams become very focussed and rapidly prioritised. All of that is to say, the journey of what does and doesn’t matter becomes a little easier.

To learn to live with an understanding that there are no guarantees for how long any of us has on this planet is actually very freeing: a refocussing on how to live and love well and how to leave behind the things that encumber.

That’s a nice little media-style catch-phrase to finish with: LIVE, LOVE, LEAVE BEHIND. “Matt’s Three L’s for the next stage of life.”

Just to fill you in, I hope to begin a combination of internal and external radiotherapy in a few weeks; that will last for six weeks. After that, I hope to be cancer-free. I’ll keep you posted.

 

Tell Me When….

This piece has been a long time coming, with lots of revisions and changes, because in it, I’m not just talking about me and my feelings and experiences, but also of the feelings of those around me – at least to some extent. I want to treat them gently and with respect. So here goes:

I was talking to a close friend the other day about this whole process: grief and healing, loss and recovery. He said something that I had been suspecting but as I have never been through this before (at least not at such an intimate level as having lost my wife) have been wondering if I should expect something more.

He said that he thought that the way I had engaged in my grief, embracing the great variety of issues and emotions, then processing them through my writing, had expedited the whole experience. That’s how I feel.

Another friend told me that I had “grieved well.”

“Processing” is a clinical word for such an organic, spiritual progression; and progression is what it is, as I look back over the months. I am now at a place where I can look at Ngaire’s things with a sense of love and gratitude rather than heartache. I know that there will always be moments that will overwhelm; I’ve seen that in others, sometimes even after many years.

As you’ve probably deduced from reading these blogs, I talk to people a lot; I like to have “sounding-boards”: people whom I trust to not only reflect back to me what I am saying – to help me see it more clearly – but people who will also give me another perspective that I may be missing.

In a different conversation to another friend, I said that I felt that it seemed much longer than the nine months since Ngaire died; in looking back and reading my blogs again, it really felt like years. In fact, if I had to put a number on it, I’d say, about two and a half years.

I have started going through her things now, to pass them on to the people that I know she would love to have them, to keep some for my boys and their prospective partners, and to keep some myself. I have had help, but it has been an almost pleasurable experience.

I am a little surprised at how quickly this time has arrived. There is none of the dread that I had been anticipating, none of the melancholy or even grief. I have some sadness, but also some joy in knowing that I will be sharing some of her things with those she loved.

I have heard stories of spouses who never address these things, who are perpetually in a state of waiting for their loved-one’s return, so the slippers, the dressing-gown, the favourite shirt, dress, jacket, earrings….whatever, remain for the owner to come and step back into them. What I am saying is that I now know that she is not coming back. I referred to this in my last blog regarding dreams and how they were an indicator of me coming to terms with her not being here. Now that I know, I will be doing what needs to be done.

 

As usual, I have been doing a lot of pondering; I have wondered about this whole epoch of “moving on” i.e. stepping into the next phase of life, as it were, whatever that looks like. These are words that run through my mind: newness, uncertainty, promise, apprehension.

In my last blog I wrote of the cost of being in this place now, to me personally, and to my family. Of course, I realise that it is not helpful to stay in that headspace.

Some years ago, Ngaire and I invested significantly in property in Brisbane. Rather than an investment, it turned out to be a massive burden that we carried for years, which ended up costing many times more than what we had invested, just for us to eventually be free of it. But, we couldn’t stay in the pain and loss of that experience. We had to move on and leave it behind.

While the analogy is inadequate, I feel that there is a clear sense of moving on now; that it is not helpful to remain in grief and loss, nor do I want to any more.

I have even noticed a difference in my response to others when they ask how I am. Normally, it will be something like, “I’m doing fine, thanks,” or “OK.” Now, I actually find myself saying, “Good.” I’m pretty happy about that.

This whole process has, however, been intense; those of you who read these posts regularly will know that I have embraced the grief, engaged in each issue and experience and not let go until I have wrung every last drop from it.

I spoke of conversations earlier. Some folks that I know who are church pastors in New Zealand were part of a recent weekend away with my church community. Hamish told me about a lady in their church whose husband had died some time before. She had met another guy whose wife had also died under similar circumstances. They ended up together and, as part of their commitment to each other, gave permission to have their own individual “space” around birthdays, anniversaries, etc., that related to their lost partners. I thought that that was beautiful and showed a depth of understanding and love that can only be appreciated by someone who has walked the path; someone who is not intimidated by the intimacy that you had with another, who is brave and loving enough to allow such freedom.

So, sitting in this classroom of life, looking out at all the students who are parts of me and my questions, I can see a boy about three rows back, with his hand up, a quizzical expression on his face, along with a slight sense of embarrassment as I give him permission to talk.

“Sir, does that mean you are moving on?”

“Good question, young man,” I cautiously respond.

This is an area that Ngaire and I touched on, though not in any depth. She recognised that, should she not make it through, I was still young enough to consider life with someone new.

Her illness lasted over many years, and the possibility of her death was never far from my thoughts; in my own heart, I had made a commitment long ago, that if Ngaire died, I wouldn’t even consider a relationship with someone else until my boys were out of school; that would have been an unfair stress that young hearts may not have been able to cope with. As I’ve mentioned before Eddy – our youngest – finished up at school just a few days before Ngaire died.

Since then, I have laid out the journey on these pages: the various aspects and issues associated with the path of grief and loss; I have wrestled and wept, struggled and somehow come through. Now, I stand here on open ground; the cloud has parted, the sun is shining and there is hope on the road ahead. I feel good, not just OK. I don’t doubt that there will be moments which will still overwhelm from time to time, but generally I feel strong and at peace. There is, however, a consideration that I find a little unusual, possibly even perplexing.

I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, about which many people have strong opinions. I have seen people, including myself, who have been hurt and angry when someone close has begun a relationship with another, sometimes within a time-frame that may be considered too soon. From my pondering, I throw out a couple of things to consider:

In looking at my own judgement of others in the past, I realised that, even though it may not have been conscious, I had made an assumption of, “How can they just forget their wife/husband like that?” It is almost as though I had felt them to be discarding or cheating on their spouse.

One thing I hadn’t allowed, is that the journey of the bereaved person is one of which I had no context to help me even remotely understand. The depths plumbed by a grieving spouse are simply beyond those who haven’t been there. Plus, how that person deals with and processes the pain of their life is entirely their business and I have no right to judge them.

For me personally, I know that I will always carry my love for Ngaire with me and, like the couple of whom I spoke earlier, hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.

Of course, people who actually have a right to be concerned or emotionally jarred are those who are closely related e.g. children and siblings of the one who has died. A father or mother beginning a new relationship can be hurtful to a child, if not handled properly – even years down the track. So I think that it is reasonable to expect, particularly if close relatives or friends are involved, that there be sensitivity and lots of conversation.

My boys for instance would and should be the first to know; in fact, I would not consider moving forward in another relationship without them being OK about it themselves. Which brings me to my next deliberation: perhaps some people may be upset or judgemental about a bereaved person moving on, because they have not been able to process their own grief, or have avoided visiting the pain. I suspect that some reasonably close to me may be in that situation and, in my pondering have realised that, apart from a gentle conversation, there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot process their pain for them, nor do I believe that it is my responsibility to wait until they can cope.

It’s a weird, new world and in some respects, this whole process is a metaphor of life, which teaches me that even if I walk in love, there will be pain for others, no matter how sensitive I am. We are each responsible for our own lives, and often our judgement of others hides a deeper need within ourselves.

If all of us are to move on, we have to deal with the pain gently, but thoroughly and leave it behind. Coincidentally, I read this quote last night:

“Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons…hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. Then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.” – Richard Rohr

For that to happen requires us to look into the pain, not as our enemy, or something to be shunned, but as that which will help us to live more fully, more alive. I am convinced that those who walk through the pain are those who know true joy. I think that that is why, when someone asks me how I am, I can now say, “Good.”

Stages

February is always the most humid month in Sydney; days and nights enervate. I think of those who suffer with depression and wonder if these humid nights are a greater burden. I am so thankful for my ceiling fan.

As I said last time, my sense of loss is no longer as painful; grief has modulated into a very specific loneliness for which no company or friendship can quite provide adequate balm. Having said that, the proposition of nights alone is often daunting and much easier in the company of loved ones.

In looking back over my notes on this journey, I spent a bit of time looking at the “Stages of Grief” as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. I thought it would be pertinent to see how much of my last seven months has mirrored this framework. It should be said that these are not strict, chronological stages; some may be revisited, for example, Stage 4, which is depression.

 

Stage 1 – Denial: The shock of losing a loved one usually hurls us into denial, a state that helps us to survive the loss. It is not so much a denial of what has happened as numbness to the impact of what has happened. In Kübler-Ross’ words, “There is a grace in denial.” That grace allows us to regulate – pace – our feelings of grief; we simply walk, or stumble, through the basic commitments of each day: getting up, showering, having breakfast, etc. This disconnection, if handled properly, will see us gradually begin to ask questions in order to begin the healing process.

For me this process was very real. I could not really write or do much else other than go through the motions, where numbness ruled, apart from the occasional electric jolt when a thought or association would shock into life the monster of grief.

Stage 2 – Anger: Apparently this is the stage where one recognises that denial can’t continue and the questions begin, such as, “Why did this happen to me? Who is to blame?”

I can’t recall being angry. Although I had anticipated Ngaire’s death for many years, hope had arisen in the form of a lung-transplant. When she died, possibly within days of lungs becoming available, the sudden shift from hope to hope shattered was staggering in its finality, like a guillotine-blade through the soul. I had, of course, considered that Ngaire might die; we had to face that very real possibility, as part of the process in preparation for a transplant, not to mention that for her to have a terminal condition was a perpetual reminder of her potentially imminent mortality.

I actually felt that, if she died, I would be angry at God for callously allowing us to hope, only to rob us at the final hurdle (especially after so many hurdles that dear Ngaire had already jumped). However, I wasn’t angry; instead, in the midst of the pain I felt a great peace and an abiding understanding that God is good. I actually don’t get that.

Immediately I hear my own voice saying that this is just another form of denial. Maybe. It could be that this whole process of the last seven months has just been a little padded cell in which I have put myself, protecting that self from hard truth – an extension of denial that is shaded and coloured by the need to fool myself that God is in control and that I am engaging truly in grief and loss; or maybe there is another reality.

Maybe there is a reality – the real reality – that says that I am not fooling myself. I quote from my post-Christmas blog: “Here is the point I grasp: we are all terminal; our time here is finite, whether it be for two years, fifty-six years or a hundred years. In the vast scope of eternity, our time here is less than a breath; too short to waste on self-importance and anything less than what is real.”

Maybe God is good and there is an eternal perspective that exists well outside the confines of my egocentricity, a perspective in which the oneness of creation is paramount and is not particularly ruffled by my need to have answers. I have no other explanation for why I mostly have this peace.

Stage 3 – Bargaining: I think this is more an issue for the one who him/herself has been given a death sentence. The individual bargains with the Higher Being for an extension in years, in exchange for a reformed lifestyle, or some such. I do remember in passing, a comment that I made to Ngaire, after she went, that I would give everything I had to hold her and kiss her and laugh with her one more time.

Stage 4 – Depression: It is during this stage that the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death and may ask questions like, “My loved one has gone and is not coming back. What is the point in going on?” I recall my father being in depression for an extended period after the death of my mother, despite our best efforts to stand with him and reintroduce him to relationship with his grandchildren after years of being “locked-in” as carer for a wife with Alzheimer’s. One night, as he was leaving our house, having had a great night with us all, he sat in his car, in tears, before he left, and said to me, “I guess I have realised that a lot of people would be very sad, if I wasn’t here.”

He needed to understand, as do we all, that we have value in the lives of others. One of the most significant things that have given me the impetus to work through this whole painful process is that I know that I have almost immeasurable value in the lives of my boys.

I have referred in my blogs to the dark places that I have visited over the last year; it has only been in the last month or so that the frequency of these visits has diminished. Nonetheless, it sometimes doesn’t take much. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was going to sleep, my mind went to one of the few times that Ngaire cried in fear that she might die; I remembered her saying through her tears, “I don’t want to die….”. I hadn’t even thought of that before, but instantly the rug was pulled out from under my soul, and depression and sleeplessness was my lot for the rest of the night.

According to Kübler-Ross, depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the “aftermath”; feeling sadness, regret, fear and uncertainty is natural at this stage. These emotions show a beginning of acceptance of the situation.

Stage 5 – Acceptance: I guess this is pretty much where I am now. It’s the understanding and attitude of heart that there is a future, and that everything is going to be OK. It is simply what it says:  acceptance of the situation.

Now a number of my friends are facing very solid journeys themselves. One thing that these Stages of Grief don’t account for is that, for those of us who recognise a connection with God, there is always an underlying hope, no matter how hidden it may seem at times.

God’s way is the way of love. His way may include healing; I know more than one person who has been miraculously healed of deadly types of cancer. But, to hark back to a couple of blogs ago, the love of God, in which we trust, is transcendent; that is why we have an underlying hope, because it is not only good for this life but also beyond.

“Neither death, nor life…the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God…”* and love means hope.

* Romans 8: 38-39

Alone

For those who have only started reading this blog or are reasonably new to it, I am documenting the journey of grief, so if it seems self-indulgent, forgive me; there is method in the madness, in the hope that some may find it helpful.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote and, to be honest, I have felt a little exhausted and daunted at the thought of looking at another aspect of this journey. I thought that there may be time to pause and go through the motions of getting used to routine in this new, unfamiliarly-shaped life. No such luck, I’m afraid.

A dear friend was prompted to send me a text message the other morning, to ask how I was. I’m normally a fairly buoyant person, even through everything that has been going on over the last six months, so I normally present fairly well in work and social contexts. But because of the relationship that I have with this friend, I took some time to think of my answer. I allowed the busyness and short-term attention grabbers to slip away and thought honestly, “How am I?”

The question began to swell in me as I looked into the chamber within that held what I was feeling. I opened the door that day-to-day life had kept reasonably hidden and was suddenly flooded with the realisation that I was incredibly lonely, in fact, it dawned on me that I was never more lonely. I didn’t cry, but the sudden awareness had tears quietly trickling down my face.

Although I recognised that I had been feeling this way for some time, it was still a shock to be confronted by it. I spend time with people every day – friends, family – all of whom are kind, loving, even affectionate in their love. We often speak frankly and share things of our hearts, and yet there seem to be foundational elements of who I am deep inside, that seem to have had their life in communion with Ngaire and only with her.

You could probably think that this is just a convoluted way of saying that I really miss her. Of course I do, but this isn’t the same. In truth, I think I am managing the “missing” reasonably well. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the pain of losing her is no longer sharp, and I am far more at peace in that regard. No, this is more about the loss of companionship, the communion that was potent and real, even without words. It is the fellowship of spirit that doesn’t exist with another, no matter how much I love them, or they me; the closeness is never matched; the companionship is not soul-to-soul.

Perhaps this is part of the vulnerability of those who have lost a spouse; some quickly hook up with another, presumably to try and reconnect those nerves of the soul that are exposed and unprotected. Maybe it is for other reasons completely and I am just waxing lyrical. I suspect not.

Speaking of waxing lyrical, here is a poem that I wrote for Ngaire two years ago. I did not know how prophetic it would prove to be:

As she sleeps

 

I can only hear her

As she begins

Each gentle exhalation

And yet, her stillness surges,

Her spirit soaring through

The blazing empyrean of the night.

 

Will I close my eyes and meet her –

As if my choice

Or yearning bears a part

In joining another’s destiny –

Her utter all-but-silence

On this plane

Is terrible and beautiful?

 

I cannot pass,

Only move

Cautiously to feel

Her breath’s vital warmth

On my cheek,

Only wonder

At her singular pilgrimage

Across the heavens,

Only hope

That she will be pleased

To wake with me again.

 

The Path of Healing

So, now we are back home and life has resumed as normal. North-American Christmas has given way to the beautiful post-Christmas summer of Sydney: fresh, seasonal avocadoes, mangos and watermelon, along with the smell of gardenias, the ubiquitous barbecue, cold drinks and sun on skin.

Although we bathed in the peace of our time away, there is a great sense of home and rest in Sydney at this time of year; everyone is in a relaxed mood, the air is warm, the traffic light, and it’s all about relaxing and spending time with friends, for as long as we can make it last.

I love this time of year here.

Being back has had me reflecting, in a peaceful way, on the journey of the past nearly-six months; I have written about grief and all of its facets – at least, what I have been able to identify within the context of the relationship that Ngaire, our boys and I shared; I have had marvelous conversations with friends and family – life-filled conversations – that have gone deep and helped bring a measure of peace and understanding; I have sat to write many times, having experienced an aspect of pain or loss, and in the engaging, found profound, unexpected truth.

Though I don’t anticipate that this journey will ever fully end, I have found myself in a different headspace lately; some of the things of which I have been apprehensive have taken on elements of peace, and become building-blocks for the future: unexpected but deeply appreciated.

Today is Ngaire’s birthday. Birthdays in our family would normally be mini festivals that stretch over at least a few days; this was something that Ngaire instituted and perfected – an honouring of a person that would leave them in no doubt that they were loved. This practical and caring demonstration of my love is what I am unable to give today; but this now leaves me with melancholy more than pain.

Now, most of the time, when I think about Ngaire, I see her smiling, vibrant and full of life. I don’t know how or when that happened, but I am glad for it, and in many ways, feel that it happened in spite of me. This brings me to what I have really been thinking about.

It would seem pretty obvious that grief is a process that the bereaved person goes through and, no matter how well supported they are, is quite a solitary journey. It occurred to me recently however, that Ngaire has been my almost-constant companion through this process. I am coming to understand that how I thought of her through this process is an indication of what I was going through. For example, throughout much of this period, my mind has gone over and over her last weeks, particularly her last day. The pathos of her frailty and weakness has at times been overwhelming in my mind. It has screamed at my ineptitude at not being able to save her and laid bare the inadequacy of my support, provision and care for her, all of which laid an axe to the root of my perception of who I was, as a man and husband.

Over time and particularly through our “time of peace” away over Christmas, I have been able to let go of many of these feelings. I know that there was nothing that I could have done, and now my heart is beginning to agree with my head. Now, I think far less of the tragic moments before her death and more of the happy, healthy, vibrant girl that Ngaire was for most of our life together.

People often say to someone who is bereaved, “remember the happy times – let them be a strength to you.”

I get the sentiment, but it seems to me that it would require a “short-circuiting” of the whole process of grief. One thing that I have been discovering on this journey is that the engagement is everything. Pain can be a good thing if we, with our limited, pain-minimising Western understanding, can clasp hands with our inner life and walk through the pain. It’s the old in and through.

I know there are different kinds of loss; I can’t imagine – or perhaps I can – of losing a child or another close loved one through sudden, tragic circumstances; I couldn’t begin to fathom the pain of those who lose many members of their family in a car accident, and find themselves alone in their anguish.

This I do now know: grief is the path to healing; if I do not engage in the pain and walk through it, I will become misshapen by it. I also believe that a key is the need for me to continue to give as well as receive love; in the giving, the flow of life is restored, little by little.

I don’t pretend to undertsand this whole thing; that mysterious, peaceful time overseas has brought restoration deep within, but I don’t know how or why. It is as if God, has, as I mentioned in the last blog, tied it all up and said, “Here, tuck that away. Don’t be afraid to refer to it as often as you want, but it’s gift to you will now be peace.”

Ngaire is still my companion, but now there is peace and, dare I say, even a modicum of joy for who she was. I still miss her, every day, but now I see her smiling. She was also a twin, so today is her beloved sister’s birthday too. Everyone has their journey, so we need to tread gently.

Image

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.

Image

 

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.