Distant figures

Another postcard from the land of grief

Years ago, I used to travel once each year to Serbia, where I lectured in a Bible School. I soon realised how fascinated people were to find out about my life back home, and decided to make those conversations easier. I filled a little photo album with pictures of my ordinary life.  As well as family, friends and colleagues there were pictures of red post boxes, buses, local shops and even the supermarket where I did my shopping. My Serbian friends loved them, and they led to many an interesting conversation.

If I had moved abroad and kept that album – I wonder how it might have looked a few years down the line? Would the once familiar have looked strange, or quaint, or slightly unbelievable?

As I write this now, I have been twisting the wedding ring on my left hand, and looking at the picture below, taken on August 29th 1987. Those two figures at the front of St Salvator’s Chapel in St Andrews look so very far away. They don’t look real to me. In fact they look rather like the figures of a bride and groom you might stand on the icing of a wedding cake.

They are not.  That is my beloved Fiona and I, flanked by her sister on one side and my brother on the other. It was taken just at the moment that we made our wedding vows to each other 30 years and 364 days ago. Like every couple on their wedding day, our heads were filled with dreams of what the future might hold. Many of them came true, and there were many more besides.  Others did not, and I have left them on the far shore of that other country.

I shall not blog tomorrow, but today I wanted to thank God for the 31 years that were. Throughout them I was fortunate enough to have a companion whose faith, wit and steadfast love made me whole. For that, I shall always be grateful. God bless you and keep you, my #bravestandbest

OOS

 

 

Nothing planned

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the curious things about living abroad is that the ‘obvious’ special days, the instinctive milestones on your calendar, mean nothing to anybody here. Days which have formed part of your emotional and psycological landscape for as long as you can remember simply do not feature here. My online calendar reflects exactly that truth today:

For just about all my adult life, this day has been an opportunity to celebrate the difference my beloved Fiona makes to the world. Every birthday present bought, every candle snuffed, every ‘happy birthday’ sung has allowed us to rejoice that the world has truly been a better place with her in it. Her fierce loyalty, her brilliant mind and her steadfast love have touched our lives in a million untold ways.

Today, she is not here to celebrate. All those benefits linger on, of course – but who feels like celebrating a birthday when the guest of honour is unable to come? Maybe in future years I will find myself able to celebrate this day once again. Maybe it will become a kind of ‘Fiona day’ to cherish those things which she also cherished. Not this year though.

This year, I walked with Ginny beside the sparkly sea. This year, I laid a single sunflower on the waves and watched until it was washed from sight. My beloved sunflower stands tall, I know – but not where I can see her. 

Stand tall, my love. Happy Birthday



Reasonable adjustment

Another postcard from the land of grief

When you first start to live abroad as a foreigner, people make adjustments. For the most part, they realise that you know things are ‘done differently here’ and that you might be unaware of the unwritten rules. If your turn up too early or too late; if you wear clothes which are too formal or too smart; if you bring a gift which is inappropriately large or small – people will make allowances. These things are only to be expected from a new resident here.

Throughout the first months of living here, in this land of grief, people have done just that. They have understood if I am a little more cautious or fragile than I used to be. They have accepted that my appetite for change and progress has been muted, as if a taste bud had been removed. They have understood if occasionally the victor in the battle for today’s small wins is sorrow rather than strength. To be honest, they understand it still – but I fear the day when they will not. I fear the day when I will do something like a foreigner making a faux pas in an unfamiliar situation and my supply of understanding will have run out. I am grateful that they are more tolerant of me than I am.

Today, I have had cause to rejoice when I look at the two photos below. What a difference has come over my rescue dog, Ginny, in the time she has been with me (134 days). The caution and timidity has almost gone. The eyes are those of hunter rather than hunted, and the coat bears the gloss of a contented animal. All the same, I sometimes fear that the slack people cut her ‘because she is new’ will run out one day. Maybe not yet though…

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

A cross-border confession

Another postcard from the land of grief

When I used to live in that other place, holidays to France were an annual feature. The rumble of the wheels down the ferry ramp and the first sight of a French flag fluttering over the port always brought a frisson of joy. So, too, did speaking another language. The sheer fact of speaking a different language and saying different things made me feel like a different person. I could say them ‘over there’…

I am about to write something from ‘over here’ which I could never have written ‘back there’. I could never have written it because it would have been embarrassing and awkward. I would never have written it because it would have been untrue. Nonetheless, I write it now. I am lonely. Married to Fiona for 30 years, and in love with her for longer than that, life without her by my side is shockingly different. One day last week a 24-hour period passed where my only conversations were on the phone or with a cashier at the supermarket. Mine is by no means a unique experience, and I have endured it for a far shorter time than many.  All the same, it is a shock to find that it is true.

For those who are scrolling for the comments box even as they read this, I wanted to write a message or two. Firstly – thank you. Your kindness and warmth are a reflection of God’s image in the foxed mirror of humanity, and it is wonderful to see.

Secondly, please be assured that my loneliness is neither your problem nor your fault. You did not cause it and I do not count it as your duty to rectify it. Your attempts to distract me from it are always welcome, and the place in your heart from which they come is very dear.  Please don’t be surprised, though, if I do not always accept them. The reason for my refusal has everything to do with me and nothing to do with you. Part of the collateral damage of bereavement is a wastage of the confidence muscle, if there is such a thing. That muscle which heaved body and soul up over the parapet of home has shrunk, you see. I look out over the threshold of home to a landscape filled with life, laughter, food, drink and conversation and I both move towards it and quail from it. I will learn, and the muscle will grow back, but it may take a little time.

Thirdly, please don’t let the sea-mist of sadness which sometimes rolls off me put you off from telling me about your life. I want to know. I want to hear the shrill sound of laughter and the clatter of ordinary dishes and the occasional curse! It reminds me that there is a life out there, beyond the mist – and I still belong to it.

Finally, I may be lonely, but I am not alone. My God is ever with me. His people carry me in their hearts and prayers, which is an act of the truest love. I live here now, but so does He.

A decoration which used to hang on the mantlepiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree...

A decoration which used to hang on the mantelpiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree…

 

Blessings and regrets

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the features of living unexpectedly here is that you occupy what is now your permanent home country as if it were only temporary. You make only short or mid-term plans, but never long-term ones. You shop erratically, as if not wishing to fill cupboards you might leave behind. You make rapid friendships, as travellers often do. You eat like Moses’ Exodus people of old – staff at the ready and more mind on the journey than the plate. You tidy things away in a hurry too.
I have a drawer I am filling with regrets. Some are like a tiny scrap of paper, torn off the bottom of a leaflet. Others are more like essays – filled front and back with tightly packed handwriting. I have been stuffing them in the drawer in such a way that you can squeeze more in, but never open it to take them out. If you try it, the papers curl against the edge of the drawer and it jams half open – mocking your attempt.

The other day, I shoved a blessing in with the regrets, and now I cannot seem to take it out again. A family with two small children had been to visit me, and I had brought out the big box of Lego we keep for such occasions. I say ‘we’ – but it was her idea to keep it. Thinking ahead, she rescued the box from the charity shop and said we might need it one day – which we did. When the children had gone, it was time to put the scattered Lego away.  Scraping up handfuls and pouring them into the crate, tears fell with the little bricks as I regretted bitterly that she had not heard the children’s chuckles of delight.

It was only later that I realised what a blessing it had been to have those children here – filling my all too quiet house with their laughter and noise. Can’t get it out of that drawer now, which is annoying.

I really must write a clearer label for my drawer of blessings, or put it in a more obvious place… or both.

legobox

Spring

Another postcard from the land of grief

It was Winter when she left. Not a crisp and hopeful Winter, full of sparkling promise as it had been the previous day. No, this was a Winter day of dwindling light and remorseless rain, streaking the windows and bouncing off the pavements. Colours were insipid, light, muted – as if the day were muffled.

Yesterday was a Spring day, apparently.  The calendar says that Summer is nearly here and everywhere there are splashes of colour, like guests arriving dressed for a party which has not yet begun. Yesterday I visited a special place, my little bit of there which is here. The rain drummed on my coat and the grass squelched beneath my feet. Right there though, above the spot where she will be forever remembered, her cherry tree was flowering. Some of the bigger flowers had been felled by the rain, unable to resist the onslaught. Some of the newer, tighter buds were holding on, the droplets of water making jewellery out of them.

52C353CE-A606-4C90-BADE-D2CF949F15BC

Showing fragile beauty in the storm and insisting on colour in the drabness seems such a fitting memorial for the bravest and best. Spring is coming.

 

 

Home advice from abroad

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes shops in holiday resorts would offer postcards with no picture. Instead, the front would contain a checklist of postcard style information which could be deleted as applicable. This might include:

  • Weather is good/ bad/ indifferent
  • Food is too spicy/ too bland/ interesting
  • Hotel is smart/ shabby/ comfortable

Very soon, I shall have been living here in this land of grief for an inconceivable six months. This being so, I am sending a list back to that other place. These are lessons learnt here which count so very much there.

  • Never believe that money is worth more than time – it is a poor trade
  • There are many conflicting duties, but the primary call on you is love
  • The things which have the highest value are those which have no price
  • A beautiful view shared is a view immeasurably enhanced
  • It is never too soon to say sorry nor too late to swallow your pride
  • Every conversation has value, no matter how trivial its content
  • Faith, hope and love endure, to coin a phrase
A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

Not jumping the fence

Another postcard from the land of grief

Occasionally in this new land of mine,  I catch sight of the suitcases I used to use when travelling. They are far more than I shall ever need for one, and I look wistfully at a sunhat perched on top of them which no-one will ever wear again. These are bags for those who travel, not for those who stay.

There are other bags, though, which I have packed many times in these past five months. I pack them in a hurry, like a character in a film storming out of their life and heading for the airport.  I pack them as if I have had enough of living in this strange place called grief and I would like to go home, thank you very much.  This experiment in living alone has been interesting, and on some days I have survived it better than I thought possible.  However, enough is enough, and now it is time to go back to being married, just like I have been for the past 30 years.  I crave the easy familiarity of routines honed over the years and a companionship so deep as to be instinctive.

Thoughts trailing like a stray sleeve caught in the suitcase lid, I head for the border of this land and demand to be let through.  Sadly, I cannot pass.  The border is sealed, the guards are impervious, and my ticket was non-returnable and one way.  I live here now.  Bag tucked under my arm, I head disconsolately back, and stow it away for next time.

This is a process which is likely to repeat many times, I think – like a dog running time and time again at a high fence before realising it cannot be jumped.  However, as with every trip away from home – it looks slightly different each time you return.  Each time I come back from the border with that suitcase, ready to stash it away, I see the house just a little differently.  I move things around, I update old things, I act like I am intending to stay here.  Like a person with no passport, I start to think how I can make a life here rather than pining for there.

Family are a huge help – constant in their love, and unchanged from the way they were.  They live here, as well as there, it turns out.  Friends are a blessing – kind, patient, standing by but never pushing in.  The value of my faith is incalculable – lending light to the darker days and hope to the deeper valleys.  Even if I did not choose to live here, there are ways to make it work and people who are willing to help.

Not ready to pack those ‘go-bags’ away quite yet – but maybe one day.

shadowz

 

A song far from home

Another postcard from the land of grief

To live in this foreign land and yet still try to sing the song of faith is not a new thing. People of faith were doing it as far back as the 6th Century BC when exiles on the bank of the River Tigris tried to remember their spiritual home even though it cost them dear. In Psalm 137, harps hung on a tree and captors smirking at them, they tried to summon up a faith all but quashed by their circumstances.

__

Today, before a congregation of Christians drawn from every tradition in Newbury, I sought to do the same thing:

As most of you will know, my wife, Fiona, died in November last year.  For the past seven years she had been battling cancer – with multiple surgeries and repeated rounds of chemotherapy.  On at least two occasions during that time, bad news was delivered at Easter. On both occasions, it was on a Maundy Thursday.

Last year was no exception.  On Maundy Thursday her oncologist finally told us that there was no more which could be done.  All curative options had been exhausted.  Fiona was handed over to the care of the local Sue Ryder palliative care team – who would see her through to the end.

The next day was Good Friday – and we were both here, along with all of you.  After the service, we joined in the walk through town to the Methodist Church.  When we got there, Fiona had to sit on the wall for the short service in the open air, as she was too weak to stand.  This was to be an Easter like no other…and our last together.

Two days later, I left the house shortly before 7 for the Easter sunrise service. Fiona was really needing her sleep at that time, so I closed the front door very quietly behind me . That was when it struck me with a kind of searing clarity: next year, she will be up before I am at Easter.

There it is – in all its simplicity and depth. What we sing about, what we proclaim in our churches…all comes down to this. Do we believe that those who die in Christ are raised to life?  I do, and it makes it possible to live in a miasma of constant sadness but with an unshakeable hope. I shall celebrate this Easter without her, but not without hope…and on Sunday morning, she will be up before I am.

IMG_2135