The New Land

The doctor said that everyone responds differently to radiotherapy. It’s not very comforting to hear that; it means that the yardstick by which I might gauge my progress is somewhat bigger than a yard and with indistinct measurements. However, four weeks into what will be a seven-week program, I feel that at least I have a kind-of rhythm going. The best part of it, I am discovering, is walking out of the Friday treatment (treatments are daily Mon – Fri) knowing that there will be respite on the weekend; and not just from the monotony of the daily trek to hospital, but from the more intense side effects; a weekend lets one’s body take a breath, as it were, although fatigue seems to be gaining momentum with a general energy shortfall getting larger by the day.
So far, the prognosis is good with everything going to plan. But, of course, cancer is a waiting game, with the tap-on-the-shoulder, if not anticipated, always lurking. The reality is, however, that apart from getting plenty of rest and eating well, I can’t do anything about it, so I tuck it away, do what I do, and keep moving. Thanks for your support, love and prayers.

For those of you who have been following this blog, you will know that I have committed to document the process of grief, having lost my wife, Ngaire, in the middle of last year. In a couple of weeks I will be saying, “the year before last.”
While what I have written is far from exhaustive and therefore shouldn’t be used as a road map for the process of grief, it is nonetheless the documentation of my story. I have tried to be ruthless, open and honest so that those who follow this blog may be able to relate and glean as much as possible. From the feedback that I have received, this has largely been the case.
Time marches on. When it turned 2014, I remember the melancholy of knowing that this would be a year in which Ngaire never existed. Now, as 2015 looms, I no longer have that same melancholy; now it is a given and an understood sadness that she is gone and that life goes on. In the process of living through grief we gradually begin to assimilate the loss and incorporate the sadness into the rest of life.
I actually believe that this incorporation gives fullness to those other aspects of life – love, hope, joy – that we may not have seen or felt before. Certainly that has been my experience.
In a post earlier this year I brought up the subject of moving on. It is timely for me to revisit this with a quote from it:
“I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, and 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 [here is something] 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… hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.”

The reason that I said it was timely is that I now stand in that future relationship. I am at peace to say that in this, my relationship with Ngaire is not only respected, but also known and honoured. Indeed, I am blessed to have found love with someone who was/is a close and treasured friend of Ngaire’s and mine; but it’s not that straightforward is it?
There was quite a degree of “navigation” before we reached this point. For the purposes of this blog, I should just refer to the places that I went in my heart and head in order to be OK about taking this new step. After all, I’ve been documenting the journey of grief, and the ability to finally reach that point of moving on is crucial.
Of course, I haven’t done this before, although I have read and half-read a few books on grief, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this current passage into the “new land” is the last one on this journey.
There will always be moments – birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Day – and in February when our first grandchild will be born there will be particular poignancy, because I know how much Ngaire was looking forward to grandkids.
But this is as it should be. Much of who I am, and all of my boys, are a memorial to Ngaire. She lives on in us, especially in her boys.
I have used numerous metaphors over the last year and a half to try to explain the feeling of loss after Ngaire died: standing inside half a house staring into the void where the other half had been, having a leg amputated, even disembowelment. Overlaid on all of this was my struggle to understand how much of who I was, was because of her influence. I would ask questions like” “What would she think? Would she like this? Would she approve?”
All were a regular part of gradually understanding and coming to terms with losing her and in recognising, to some extent, the degree to which her validation and opinion was important to me in how I lived life day-to-day.
Such questions are good and helpful in the process of loss, but I am discovering that they are not helpful in the process of moving on.
When I first contemplated the idea of moving on, I actually went to Ngaire’s grave. I have found it a helpful focal point for our discussion over these months; when I say “our discussion”, I realise that only one of us is speaking, but it has been helpful.
In these last days, I have seen that there are two Ngaires in my mind. One is the Ngaire who lived with me and loved me. It is this Ngaire who would have struggled with me moving on, because the thought of me with someone else would have been devastating for her.
The other Ngaire is whom I now see as the “altruistic Ngaire”, that Ngaire extant in another dimension, free from the bounds of earthly constraints, and only wanting the best for those of us left behind.
Of course the latter Ngaire is the only one with whom I could “converse”; the former has gone, and while I felt validated by what I imagined the latter would say in her desire to see me happy, loved and fulfilled in a relationship, I felt a strange discomfort about this.
You see, through this process of grief, I have had to relearn some simple things, the control of which I had abdicated to her or her opinions. Things like buying clothes, birthday presents, even a new car, now had to be done from my perspective and informed by my opinion; because, although I trusted and admired her taste and opinion, the reality is that she is no longer here. To continue making choices from that perspective is ultimately unhealthy.
In the same way, the choice of a new love is not hers to make.
I will always love Ngaire, but I have discovered, in a good way, that the rest of my life is not to be determined by what I might perceive her opinion to be; it should be determined by what I think, floated on the wisdom of those whom I love and trust, here and now. With regard to that, my boys are very happy too; they love my new “special someone” and have done for a long time.
This is hard stuff and no one tells you about it, except to use terms like, “when you’re ready.” It is a different type of saying goodbye, where your feelings stay the same, but your way of operating changes.
That is how it is, and I can honestly say that I feel happier and more at peace with myself. In fact, I haven’t felt this happy for a long, long time; and that’s coming from a guy with cancer.
But this “moving on” is not just about a new relationship, it is about becoming at peace with my voice and my heart making and affirming decisions about my future.
The past informs all of our lives, but we can’t live there forever. Grief requires us to live there for a time, but there is a point where we need to heed the call of the present. It is time.


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


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.


Opinions are like…..

O.K., all of us get spam daily. One of the things I loathe about coming back from a day or two away is having to go through and delete a couple of hundred solicitous emails. Many of them come from an online art workshop/school/supplier from which Ngaire received hard copy and email magazines and “how-to” publications.

I have reached a point where I’m O.K. with deleting these now, although it was difficult to begin with – it was a point of contact – connection – with her. Yesterday was different.

Whereas, I normally don’t engage with these emails at all, a particularly beautiful watercolour painting of a wilted rose caught my attention. I read the accompanying article, which ultimately was selling a magazine about painting flowers in watercolours – which Ngaire could easily have written herself; she was so accomplished in watercolour and had used flowers as her subjects since before I knew her. From fields of wildflowers to individual flowers in vases, and everything in between, Ngaire was proficient and prolific.

Now, I know that I’ve written about flowers before, along with those aspects of grief which relate to discerning how much of me is me – after being united with someone for seventy percent of my life, there is a melding between two souls that makes it almost impossible to tell where I end and she begins, if you follow.

But seeing the picture of the rose prompted something a little different. You see, I had learned so much about art, observation and appreciation from Ngaire that I could honestly say that these were now my abilities. However, she was the artist. Oh, I’m not too bad at drawing, but any opinion that I had about art really had its credibility in the fact that I was married to Ngaire, and she was the authority.

It’s like the little kid in the playground, telling his friends how badly made the schoolhouse is. They all give him a hard time until his Dad picks him up, wearing a hardhat and tool belt; suddenly, the little kid has credibility (even though his opinion may have been correct anyway).

I love art – well, not all art; the pragmatist and communicator in me draws the line at some things. But what it feels like now is that the artist in me, has gone; my credibility has gone in this area and I have to come up with some personal validity. Like the radio shock-jock who finds himself unemployed, I now have to dispense with my opinions and come up with some substance.

Of course, this is not earth-shattering for most of you who read this, but I cannot express to you how vital vision, perception, observation and appreciation were in Ngaire’s world, and consequently, my world. So now, I’m just another guy with an opinion. At least, that’s what it feels like. She lived and breathed beauty and appreciation, and she was grateful for all of it, almost every day.


The Journey – watercolour – Ngaire Wills

A legacy is on the chalkboard in our kitchen. One day, a little over a year ago, she wrote, “cultivate thankfullness” – replete with the usual artist’s spelling mistake – she, who had battled a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition for so long left a reminder to cultivate thankfulness.

In fact, if I could nail it down to two things, Ngaire’s benchmarks were a) to be thankful and b) to avoid comparison. The comparison thing was a real soapbox for her in recent times, because she had seen it damage others’ lives and the lives of those around them. “But, of course”, as she would say, “if you’re thankful, you won’t compare yourself to others anyway.”

So, that’s probably a good place to end. Opinions become far less vociferous when they come from a grateful heart, anyway. And I am grateful for every day that I spent with my girl.

That can be my opinion…..and my credibility.