Fifth Installment

Chapter 13

My Peace I Give You*

In late 2003, following several days and nights of intense rain, we were treated to glorious sunshine and extravagant, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. God had His paint box out in full swing, streaking the brightest orange-pinks through crimson across the morning skies, and again at the close of day when the setting sun cast a fanfare of light up into the velvety evening sky.

In the mornings, the warm glow appearing at dawn along the edge of the skyline burst into beautiful technicolour on the wall behind our bed. I sensed the intense light through my eyelids even before I opened my eyes. It bathed the whole room in radiant warmth, heralding another day and reminding me that this is God’s ordered world, even though my little corner of it sometimes careened out of control. (*John 14:27)

The land around Canaan was quite flat, and after the corn harvest we could see for miles – to the edge of our world, it seemed. We loved the sunshine, didn’t much like the rain, though knew it was necessary as we came to appreciate the extremely fertile land of South West France, sustained by abundant sunshine and adequate rainfall.  Watching the seasons come and go in that beautiful, lush place made me ever more aware of our Creator, and what He still has planned for us when this world will once again be regenerated by Him. We began to feel emotionally, as well as physically, attached to our new lifestyle and the home we inhabited for that time. There are still times when I miss all that we were gifted with there.

As another Christmas hurtled full-speed towards us, we found ourselves wanting to be detached from the ‘norm’ and pondered what to do – how to spend the time. We wanted further healing for the wound that was life without Matthew: not wanting to live in a continual state of regret or resentment, though still not rehabilitated enough to trust ourselves in a world that continued outside the boundaries of our cosseted daily lives. Despite continually missing Matt, there were aspects of our lives we embraced and enjoyed, though it felt like we were away, filming a movie, almost like we had two parallel existences in different dimensions. I would frequently have to remind myself that wasn’t the case, and I couldn’t pack up and go back to my old life anytime I chose.

There was no guarantee we would even be together that December, until about a month before, when Mark’s roster showed he had been granted his requested leave.  All too tritely, Christmas and other festive holidays are promoted in the West as times of great togetherness – a vision of family happiness and wellbeing that is often a far cry from many people’s experiences. As far as we were concerned, we wanted to get Christmas out of the way, as painlessly as possible, and survive the anniversary of what would be Matt’s 15th birthday on December 30th.

Practicalities had to be arranged – after all, we were the custodians of two larger than life labradorables, who demanded to be kept in the manner to which they had become accustomed, with all the Christmas trimmings! Thankfully, friends David and Gwynn Williams and their three sons moved into Canaan for the holiday season, and catered for Simba and Louis, as well as Christopher Kay, our estate agent friend, who was at that time renting the gite from us in between homes. We left Canaan, secure in the knowledge that everything was in good hands

Our close friends Pieter and Debs, who had settled in Barbados and were running a small gift shop on the island, once again extended an invitation for us to join them in relative safety and peace for the Christmas season. So we made use of Mark’s concessional travel and jetted off to that sparkling jewel of the Caribbean, where we again found buoyant rest in our sea of pain.

The weather there was hot and humid, and the mosquitoes on a personal vendetta to cover as much of our hides in red blotches as possible in the shortest time, but nothing deterred us from experiencing a sense of peace in an atmosphere of love and friendship. We will always be so grateful for those respites.

Although trips abroad can be fun, without wishing to sound ungrateful, it is hard for Mark and I to travel anywhere without desperately missing Matt. During his life we never took a holiday without him. He loved to travel whether it was to an exotic location or in a camper van to the English seaside, and his joy was always our joy at such times. He approached vacations with the same eagerness he gave to life. He was always excited to be going away, delighted to be there and sad when the fun was over. Whenever possible he would sit between Mark and me, whether on a plane holding hands, on the beach or in a restaurant, and he would always be chatting to us both, playing countless games and attempting to separate us from our ‘spending money’.

Christmas day was spent on a deserted stretch of beach, just snoozing, reading and spending time with our friends. We went to church at eight in the morning, having already woken to the delightful sounds of voices singing in the popular five o’clock service! It was Matt’s second Christmas with Jesus and it was especially evocative to imagine the praise going on in heaven whilst we sang our hearts out on terra firma.

Although our stay was shorter that year, we still managed to pack in lots of experiences. Barbados is a popular tourist island, but we chose to avoid much of the hustle and bustle and explored deserted beaches, plantation houses, and our favourite art gallery, owned and run by a special friend. One thing that struck me looking at the works of art exhibited there is the amazing diversity of human desire and ability to express itself, often in the midst of trials and pain. We are made in the image of a multi-faceted God who has given us all something meaningful to express. We just need to tap into that source, and discover our own unique element, for I strongly adhere to the belief that expression through a myriad of creativity brings healing and release in this hurting, fast paced world.

We visited Villa Nova, the home of the late Sir Anthony Eden. Then converted into a restaurant and hotel and situated inland with breathtaking views, its structure allowed a pleasant breeze to reach most parts of the house, veranda and gazebo. For me, the architecture and wonderfully preserved interiors reflecting a tasteful view of the 60’s were a delightful escape into fantasy. No draughty French attics, leaking water systems or blocked chimneys to deal with, just sheer pleasure observing impeccable interior and exterior decoration and colours. For Mark I think the gargantuan continental breakfast we enjoyed on the shaded veranda, and lively conversation with good friends was the memory he will most treasure. I’m sure our renewed acquaintance with that beautiful island sustained us for another year at Canaan and that endless list of ‘jobs’!

We were enthralled once again to watch firework displays along the coastline from our vantage point on soft white sand near the water’s edge as another new year was heralded in. It hardly seemed possible that more than twelve months had passed since Mattie went to his glorious home.  We had travelled such a long way in so many senses of the word, yet it all seemed to have happened in the twinkling of an eye. We both voiced how it would seem perfectly normal to see our bonny boy walk through a door, with his characteristic smile and his sparkling blue eyes to ask if a friend could come over, or we would join him in a game.

Though our memories of him are marred to some degree by images of his prolonged pain and suffering, we possessively hold on to cherished pictures of a protected world where three people loved each other to the exclusion of all else. We always try and focus on Matthew completely well and full of life: that special young man, with a tender heart and infectious humour is the one whose loss we mourn. But that person, whose spirit is no longer bound by the earthly bodies we know, now scales the highest peaks with his Saviour and friend, Jesus. One day, we will join him, and whilst we wait, we ask for patience and daily grace to do God’s will here on earth, to tell others about our brave son who in such a short time taught us so much about showing God’s love to anyone in need.

During the protracted months of home nursing, we had the privilege of meeting many people all over the world, via the internet, who prayed faithfully for us, and communicated often. We still do not know the final number who played a major part in our lives then as now, though it has been our pleasure to be personally acquainted with some of them from far and wide.

Restricted by embargoes on our concessional travel, we could not fly directly back to the UK from Barbados that January 2004, so we took the opportunity of an indirect route home to call into Atlanta, Georgia, and visit several of our world-wide-web friends. It was weird to disembark at Atlanta airport realising we had only a few brief images from the internet with which to recognise our hosts, though any strangeness vanished as we were met with loving, smiling faces, flowers and home baked cookies. The three short days we spent in their company was ‘awesome’, as they would say!  We were introduced to many Christian brothers and sisters there who not only knew about our past battles and needs, but remain part of our future too.

We were ‘loved on’ and spoiled in true southern style: treated to culinary delights, whirlwind sightseeing, warm fellowship and spiritual food that plumped us up like pre-Christmas turkeys! It was wonderful and amazing to experience God’s family knowing no frontiers, boundaries or exclusions. We attended the local church there and felt God’s loving Hands on us as we sang one of Mattie’s favourite worship songs – “Jesus, You Are My Best Friend”, (penned at the prolific Hillsong Church in Sydney), before leaving, all too soon for France.

Chapter 14

That Shall Be To You Better

It was with mixed emotions we returned to Canaan. Our time away had provided us with a temporary break from the routine, and an opportunity to unburden some feelings of grief. It was hard to say good-bye to everyone we visited and return to a country where the native language was not our own. But we both felt a confirmation of the fact that we were there for a reason, that we had a destiny to fulfill and God provided us with more of His family at the little church we attended in Royan, to bolster our often flagging spirits. We learned with sadness nine year old Sebastian Gates, who we met with his family whilst Matt was in hospital in Oxford, had lost his brave battle with cancer, yet we knew him to be safe with Jesus too. After undergoing copious treatments and operations, he finally went home with Jesus on Christmas Eve 2003. Like Matthew, Sebastian’s story had touched many, many lives and continues to do so, as his family honour his memory by helping others in their plight.

Canaan’s list of jobs appeared as long, if not longer than before our trip, it was, after all, a set of buildings that had seen a lot more years than even I could boast. But coming back reminded us again of the dream that was hatched in a lounge in Bracknell by three big dreamers: a dream to find a place that offered a healthier, slower pace of life; a dream to see our son completely healed, and to reach out to others suffering and in need of rest.  Our son was healed completely, we knew that, but until God calls us home, we had some pretty mundane, as well as gargantuan jobs to do.

British Airways requested that Mark return to full time work – 6 days on and 3 days off with immediate effect that January. They had allowed him a 5/4 pattern for 6 months and would not extend that further. With less time at home, it meant more responsibility and work for me to run Canaan, and less time for us to be together as a couple. His requested permanent part-time contract was no nearer materializing and we were concerned how this additional time apart would affect our future.

The purchasers for our house in Bracknell had a major survey done and in view of several maintenance jobs stated they would not pay the price they had first promised and decreased their offer by another £6,500. We had hoped to complete, at their request by January 25th, but this hiccough threatened delays or a possible loss of a buyer. Another reduction would eat into any money we planned to use for the renovations of the barn and stables for accommodation; essential funds that had already been depleted since our initial assessment.

We prayed hard, hoping God hadn’t taken His eye off the ball. We had to continue to trust that 2004 would be to us better than we could imagine.

Our friend and Pastor’s wife from England, Debbie Hill, sent this poem to us that Christmas. (The first seven lines were quoted by King George V1 during his Christmas broadcast to the nation at the outbreak of WW2, to lift the spirits of the British people). It comforted me when I first read it, it speaks to me still.

God Knows – Minnie Louise Haskins

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied

‘Go into the darkness and put your hand

Into the hand of God,

That shall be to you better than light

And safer than a known way!’

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God

Trod gladly into the night.

And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day

In the lone East.

So heart be still, what need our little life

Our human life to know,

If God hath comprehension?

In all the dizzy strife of things both high and low,

God hideth his intention.

God knows. His will is best.

The stretch of years which wind ahead,

So dim to our imperfect vision,

Are clear to God.

Our fears are premature;

In him all time hath full provision.

Then rest: until God moves to lift the veil

From our impatient eyes,

When as the sweeter feature of life’s stern face we hail,

Fair beyond all surmise

God’s thought around His creatures our minds shall fill.

On a positive note, we were given some money at exactly the same time that some manual rotivators went on sale in nearby Saintes, though no sign of a dinky tractor, so it looked likely I would end up with some decent arm muscles after all. At least I would be able to see the land I would be tilling.

Thanks firstly to Christopher Kay, who arranged an emergency eye test for me upon our return, I became the incredibly proud owner of a trendy new pair of glasses. I think he was motivated by the fact that I desperately needed them after experiencing a spell of my driving! Secondly, huge thanks to friends Paul and Heather Bullen (she of Marie Curie fame who helped us nurse Mattie), who sent a donation that enabled me to be all seeing again. The glasses were trés chic, and very French. Mind you, the optician was so good looking, charming and complimentary about how they suited Madame, I probably would have bought a pair like Michael Caine, if he had suggested it. Ah me! Please help with this vanity Lord.

Life at Canaan quickly resumed its pattern, with Mark completing a six day stint from Heathrow, returning to France as quickly as he could for two, or at most three days off. These were spent in a whirlwind of chores – property maintenance, extension planning, dog walking, oh –  and sampling all the local wines, cheeses and pâtisseries! I continued to form meaningful relationships with building supply catalogues, swimming pool mechanisms and a large plot of the grounds we were preparing for our produce. For our first venture into self-sufficiency, I think we were a tad over-enthusiastic with the size allotted – around 500 square metres. I’m not sure we were either ready or capable of anything resembling market gardening, I just got carried away surrounded by extremely resourceful and experienced French neighbours.

We still had a way to go to warrant a documentary being made about our ‘good life’ across the channel. It took much time and sterling efforts to fence off the vegetable plot in order to render it Simba, and especially Louis-proof! Their well-rehearsed, mournful faces are ever etched in my memory as they stood on sentry duty while I laboured on the soil, their bodies as close to the fencing as possible and their noses poking through the wire gaps, emitting deep sighs of longing to be granted entry into the gardening sanctum, Louis salivating at the thought of ripe Charentais melons! No way, Hosé! Never trust a Labrador with a sad, pleading expression.

Chapter 15

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

It is good to look back over my diary entries to compose this sequel. It encourages me to appreciate there were lighter moments and enjoyable times, however brief, amidst the many dark recollections I have of our time in France. I frequently felt cut-off – from everything really. Although we met and made friends with some wonderful English and French people during our time there, and people from the UK kept in contact, the larger part of my day, and indeed my life was conducted in a language I struggled to master, and toute seule. As I have said, I quickly learned how to converse on a superficial level with the locals – shunning the alternative of not speaking at all – as I craved human company. The dogs were great companions from a walking perspective and their physical presence went some way to appease my need for a listening ear, though their intellectual input was sadly lacking.

I have not vocalized much about the ‘dark holes’, as I came to refer to them. It was as if my path was littered with gaping chasms of despair and futility. Some days I could navigate my way around them, indeed I made a conscious effort to do so. Other times, it was as if I had little appetite for the battle and would simply throw myself over the edge of the hole into a black abyss. Those days, I never shared with anyone, not even Mark.

At times, I would wake in the mornings experiencing similar physical symptoms to those of that first morning after Mattie died. A sensation of something horrible would travel from my feet, upwards along my legs, accompanied by overwhelming nausea. Having since spoken to many people about manifestations of grief, I’m sure it was my body’s physical reaction to a myriad of emotions. There were days when I would drag myself out of bed to walk and feed the dogs and then crawl back under the covers for the remainder of the day. I seldom slept during those times, merely lay as still as I could, in a state of near-hibernation, fearful that the slightest movement or thought would force me to acknowledge life was still going on when everything inside me screamed it shouldn’t.

In the years that ensued, I have gleaned from Mark something of the feelings of emptiness and hopelessness he experienced too, though of course, his return to the working arena affected the way he dealt with them. Often, he would be overcome by feelings of regret, despair and pain, only to have to maintain an outer equilibrium because his work as cabin crew was so blatantly in the public eye. He frequently had to excuse himself from service in the cabin to retreat to the privacy of the washrooms to cry.

The big old barn outbuilding we planned to convert into accommodation for the Trust had been standing for almost 400 years, and we thought looked ready to stand for many years to come. Which just goes to prove you can’t judge a book by its cover. Following gale-force storms, sleeting rain, some hearty hail and snow – yes snow in the Charente Maritime – more of that later, we noticed rather large cracks appearing in the wall which rapidly got worse. Making my way up to the vegetable plot, I glanced over towards the barn and to my horror saw that much of the end wall had collapsed, and the roof remained precariously hanging, supported there by only a few end stones.

Local builders immediately installed supporting scaffolding while we figured out the best course of action. As the house and outbuildings were insured, we presumed it would be a simple case of claiming on the policy and getting it repaired as quickly as possible, to avoid further damage to the barn before renovations began. Ah! But this was France, and this damage was caused by an act of God, and our policy didn’t cover anything remotely resembling that! We learned later there wasn’t much our policy did cover in fact, especially where, according to the agents, God and the weather was involved!

The barn was originally built using stones from rich local limestone quarries, held in place with a dry mix of limestone mortar. Apparently the barn wall collapsed because a long unnoticed leak in the roof structure was not addressed by the previous owners. It fell to us to get the wall repaired promptly, to avoid further deterioration. More demand on our ever diminishing renovation funds.

So – back to the snow. Not seen in any measure in those parts by locals for about 20 years apparently – or that was their story anyway. ‘Pas normal’, as they were wont to tell us at every opportunity. It was beginning to feel like nothing was normal, especially since the Leitchs had arrived.

To my surprise one morning, as the dogs and I embarked on our walk, flurries of pretty little snowflakes fell from above. Our temporary guest, Christopher, house agent extraordinaire and man who advocates it is always sunny in the Charente Maritime, emerged from the gite with a perplexed expression that matched my own. Pressing chores and conscience prevented me from challenging him on his explanation of the fast settling snow, and fortunately providence saw the sun break through promptly, melting the snow, and the cold start developed into a beautifully warm day.

It could almost have been a dream – except for one morning a week later, when I looked out of our bedroom window on waking to see the landscape transformed into a winter wonderland! Snow had obviously been falling during the night and everything was shrouded in a thick white powdery substance I had been falsely led to believe never graced that particular part of France. It remained for most of the morning until strong sunshine once more committed it to memory. My bubble had been well and truly burst weather-wise. Never more will I stand quietly by and listen to people bemoaning English weather and saying how much better the climate is in South West France. Like England, when it’s good it’s very good, when it’s not it’s…reality!

The continuing saga of the dogs and the fencing around our land was further proof of reality…there is no heaven this side of heaven. After labourious physical effort we thought we had securely fenced in the whole of Canaan, making it escape proof. Not so, it appeared the tenacity and audacity of Simba in particular proved to be the straw that weighed heavily on the camel’s back. We secured and fixed, adjusted and tweaked the fence to little avail.

Clearly, it was Simba’s destiny to escape. He of Houdini blood had a call to the wild that nothing and no fence it seems could deter. Louis proved to be an erratic partner in crime, sometimes assisting the perpetrator to abscond, other times remaining close to the kitchen, the source of all things edible! We spent much time praying and seeking a solution and the best option seemed to be to have Simba neutered. Whilst there was no guarantee of success, he was a prime candidate by his behaviour, according to the vet, and the gradual diminishing of testosterone did eventually deter him from breaking out, running away, not heeding calls or instructions and generally considering himself to be ‘king of the hill’. Louis remained as nature intended, with something of the false humility of Uriah Heep about him, thankfully not damaging Simba’s self worth.

Mark who really was king of the hill and desperately trying to listen, heed calls and not run away was meanwhile trying hard to settle down into his new routine on longhaul flights based out of Gatwick, to which British Airways had finally transferred him. Obviously the time changes and night flights were challenging but he tackled it with his usual commitment. His case was further delayed for consideration by the Compassionate Board for a part-time contract, but assigned a new manager who seemed sympathetic to his case, we remained hopeful. In the interim period, the B.A doctor agreed that it would be beneficial for Mark if he had some additional time off every now and again in order to continue his grieving process.

The house sale in England remained a thorn in our sides. Countless frustrations tested our forbearance, though we both felt a calm about the proceedings. Life post Matthew had at least made us appreciate the really important issues in life. God was in charge – for everything else there’s Mastercard, as they say. I did notice that Mark, like me, would still experience overwhelming grief that followed no pattern or seemed to be abating with the passage of time. In the loneliness of our separate journeys, we continued to pray, patiently waiting for each of us to receive healing in those dark places.

I finished the draft of Infinity and Beyond…Matt’s book! Two volunteers proof-read it for me and their initial feedback was encouraging. There were still insertions to be added and some more tweaking required, but the bulk of the book was finally in place. I wrote a synopsis and detailed each chapter and submitted it to a couple of contacts I had for their appraisal. I hoped I had honoured God and my son in everything I had written and my prayer was that many people would gain insight, inspiration and comfort from the contents.

Emerging from a long and particularly difficult winter for us both, and walking lonely paths in our separate circumstances, we gleaned comfort and encouragement from even the smallest of achievements, and for us, the telling of Mattie’s story was on a grand scale. We believed then as now that God is faithful, He knows our needs and His timing is perfect. Our loss is monumental; there was and is no day, no hour, no minute, no second that we are not reminded of our beautiful, unique son. He is with Jesus in Paradise, that we know, but we remain here on earth, awaiting our reunion, hoping we may be faithful to God’s plan for the rest of our lives and see beyond our pain to a greater grand design.

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Fourth Instalment

Chapter 10

The Long and Winding Road

As the summer of 2003 sizzled on, visitors and guests continued to come. For several weeks, every habitable room was inhabited, every bed, permanent and makeshift, including our faithful caravan set up in the grounds, was spoken for. Tom’s parents arrived towing their own accommodation, making use only of our bathroom facilities and the pool. The fridge in the main kitchen soldiered on in an attempt to keep cool enough food for a small army amidst the characteristic French power cuts, and frequent visits from people eager to trace their provisions and a tiny respite of cool air.

My sister, Jackie, came with her family, on the pretext of a short holiday, though clearly the real reason was to help with the vast array of vegetables and plants scattered over the daunting acres. Herself a keen gardener, she made valiant efforts to bring some semblance of order to my frenetic display of produce. We lost her a couple of times as she was almost swallowed up by the tomatoes in some bizarre re-enactment of Little Shop of Horrors. It felt good to have so many people at Canaan, the company was a welcome break from my solitary existence there, and Mark enjoyed the bustle and fun, though I believe we used it as a diversion to the alternative of facing and dealing with our loss.

Cousins came from Australia, to view our promised land, offer support and make donations. They all enjoyed exploring the area, and were blessed by the picturesque surroundings, the genial atmosphere, hospitality and the dream that was Canaan.

Following a chance meeting between Mark and another cabin crew member at Heathrow, we became close friends with a family of fellow Francophiles who, like us, had cast off their English commitments, to embark on life across the channel. Steve and Karen and their two daughters, Amy and Sophie were avid supporters of our vision for the charity, and as well as serving amazing coffee and melt-in-the-mouth pastries whenever we visited them in their nearby village, managed to renovate an old farmhouse beyond recognition and open up holiday accommodation, which remains a successful business today.

We are eternally grateful to them. It was great to make friends who not only spoke the same native tongue, but quickly mastered French, thus offering us a lifeline when it came to translating the copious frustrating, bureaucratic forms that were part of everyday life in France. Apparently, you can park virtually anywhere in France it would seem, but you can achieve very little during lunch times, 12-2pm and most Mondays, which holds some kind of significance as a special day of inactivity! Their love and assistance didn’t stop there however, as they were always ready, willing and able to assist with many of our building projects too. Through them, we met another English family, Chris, Karen and daughters, Dani and Georgia, who joined the growing ranks of people who helped complete the work we carried out at Canaan.

Finally, the glorious summer indicated it was almost over, gently being nudged out of place by vivid autumn hues. Golds, rusts and browns formed a rich mantle all around us as the days became noticeably shorter and winter waited in the wings, bringing her own collection of paler gowns.

The dogs and I sadly bid ‘au revoir’ to our latest visitors and Mark as they all headed back to the UK. I sensed a look of bored resignation on Simba’s handsome face as he and Louis followed me back into the kitchen. It’s not their idea of fun, being holed up in paradise with only me for company. Dogs can be very cruel sometimes!

Comforting memories of laughter and easy conversations hung over the covered pool and gardens long after the tables and chairs were stored away. Forged friendships and changed lives seemed to be Matt’s legacy. We were happy to be part of that process, yet devastated at the emotional cost. It seemed a cruel paradox that the very things his short life had inspired were because he was no longer with us and could not share in the joy they brought.

I am fascinated by colours and God’s palette is always breathtaking. I remember painting a bedroom as a wedding present with a girlfriend whose passion for colours matched mine. As we munched our lunchtime sandwiches, we discussed the likelihood of there being a fourth primary colour in heaven. The subsequent possibilities so blew our finite little minds, we almost didn’t get back to the job in hand. Goodness knows what we’d have done if we’d anticipated more than four!

Matt shared my love of colour and the season’s changes with their panoramic displays. We enjoyed spring with all its fresh clear promise of new life, with longer, warmer days waiting around the corner. Summer, vibrant with boldness and sunshine dancing over different surfaces and textures was always a favourite, though Matt’s perspective was probably viewed through the rose tinted glasses of six weeks off school. We both especially loved the autumnal colours of fallen, crunchy leaves and harvests of collectibles bountifully falling from trees. Winter seemed like a closing down of so many vibrant shades that it was always somewhat sad until we spied a vivid scarlet berry against a backdrop of rich green to jazz up the shades of grey.

Walks around Canaan were mostly along quiet lanes, often through agricultural fields and more daringly, through dense woodland occupied by deer and wild boar amongst numerous other creatures. It was a special treat to encounter baby deer, like Bambi, happily munching on the cobs of corn. For Simba and Louis it was a different kind of treat, but the deer were far too swift to be caught by two thundering teenage Labradors up for the chase. Louis ran with his rear end curved right in, shortening his thick-set frame, with his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth as he pelted after the game, looking for all the world like a little boar himself. It is only with hindsight I appreciate how fortunate we were the wild boar did not consider us fair game – I’m not sure we could have outrun them.

That first year at Canaan was a huge learning curve. Not only were we learning how to work the land, maintain a very old building and plan and prepare renovations for what we hoped would be Matt’s Retreat, but Mark  had to familiarise himself with chain saws for all things wooden, (we had 13 chestnut trees alone on Canaan) fixing leaky roofs, gas leaks, boundary fencing, car repairs, copious DIY jobs – and all in a foreign language. I nearly mastered the art of pool maintenance, cooking for crowds, preserving nearly everything edible that fell from trees, reading instruction booklets in French and shouting at the dogs in French and English.  Actually, I totally mastered the latter, it simply remained to teach the dogs to listen in either language!

We were daily learning to fully rely on God (or FROG – as depicted on one of Matt’s many bracelets) for everything. The house in Bracknell remained unsold, though we had some encouraging signs. I guess in many ways our problems would be solved if all our debts were settled. When I mentioned it to God, He asked me, if that were the case, how much we would look to Him for provision from our self-sufficient vantage point and when our faith and trust would kick in. I had to admit He’d got a point!  Our human nature makes us want to be in control of things and know exactly what’s what. God’s desire is that we look to Him first in everything and let Him get on with providing for our needs, peppered with the odd miracle here and there.

After an arid summer, we received an extremely dry offer for the UK house.  We discussed it and prayed hard, as it would leave us with a serious shortfall for the planned renovations, but both felt perhaps it was a sensible decision to accept and trust God for subsequent funds for Matt’s Canaan Retreat. We had some reservations for, although the prospective buyer had no downward chain, he was a tough cookie, pushing for a bargain, with copious demands, including removing the property from the market. Almost immediately another couple put in an offer just £5,000 below our asking price. If that sale went through, we would have funds available to begin the barn conversion, but they had a house to sell, whereas Tough Cookie wanted to move in by Christmas 2003. We prayed asking for wisdom and insight before finally agreeing to sell to the second couple. ‘Tough cookie’ voiced his displeasure in a way that made us suspect he might have proved difficult to conduct business with, peacefully. We humbly thanked God for His provision, making a mental note to try and trust Him more readily next time!

Mark was offered a part time contract with B.A., though it didn’t materialise immediately due to shortage of crews. Meanwhile, we learned of a possibility for him to be based at London Gatwick airport, making it easier for him to fly home after his work shifts, but we had to wait until January or February for the outcome of that. Our prayers were that Mark could work a percentage contract from Gatwick, leaving a larger chunk of his time free for running the retreat with me. We waited. You would think I would be good at that now, but no, I still struggled. Thankfully Mark’s calmer personality enabled him to stay at the helm of our household without being intimidated by my wobbles.

Meteorologically, France was proving to be a place of diversities. We arrived, expecting the South West to have a more clement climate than the UK, and it did, in fact summer was scorching with little rain though we experienced frequent electric storms of immense proportions. Then, when the rain did come, it seemed it would never cease, suddenly filling the previously dried-up pond at the end of the lane to overflowing, and providing a hotbed of temptation for two Labradors with short selective memory syndrome to dive in and get muddied-up. In late October we suffered uncharacteristic (according to the locals) frosts blitzing the last of Canaan’s tomato crop. Still the upside of that was not too much green tomato chutney to prepare and foist on visitors.

There was a special treat as the year drew to a conclusion, which I indulged myself in and I know Matt would be right along there with me. It was crunching acorns underfoot – an extremely complex sport. The type of shoes required are all important – trainers being the most desirable as ordinary flat soled shoes don’t resonate with the correct crunch and the angle at which you tread upon the acorn bears no small relevance. It produces a satisfying snappy, rustling sort of crunch and was responsible for me meandering all over the lanes in a weird parody of a drunken clown. Well, that’s my story anyway!

There was always a plethora of damaged trees, a casualty of le tempête of 1999, and recurring annual violent storms, but it provided much wood to be collected on our daily walks. With open fires in both sitting rooms at Canaan, we were grateful of the free bounty to be had for the taking, and frequently struggled home, lugging an enormous log for Mark to attack with the chain saw. It seems extravagant to think we toasted ourselves in front of hearths filled with burning oak and chestnut.

We had a lot to learn about allowing it to dry out, or season first though, much to the chagrin of the dogs, who lay with chins propped on the hearth until an explosion sent a shower of sparks onto their coats, only to be noticed by the smell of burning fur.

It took relentless determination to move them away from the prime spot. Both dogs would begin their evening ritual, sitting upright, as close to the heat source as they could physically bear, until their noses became encrusted with the heat, and they toppled over, eyes closed in a parody of old men in a nursing home, nodding off in front of the fire. Only then would we feel the warmth below our knees. The main house was a draughty four hundred year old building, with cavernous chimneys with backdrafts, but we loved every smokey, door-rattling evening of that first winter, and so did our singed, four legged companions.

Our latest ‘must have’ for Christmas 2003 was, by way of a change, a tractor. Yes, gone were the days when I shopped the world for copy designer handbags, outfits and watches. Now my most urgent prayer was for a small tractor that would enable us to rotivate the land we set aside for growing vegetables, to provide for all the visitors to Canaan. There was a manual device that would achieve virtually the same results, but it unfortunately came as a package guaranteeing bulging arm muscles and a prematurely exhausted peasant woman! Advice from neighbours was that we would need both types – so I expected to achieve weight-lifting peasant woman status anyway, whilst Mark would no doubt swan around on the Tonka toy.

We acquired many donations of the planting variety from visiting friends and family including an olive tree, bougainvillaea, soft fruit bushes, two vines from St Emillion, and several rose bushes. All did well, confirming it was extremely fertile land requiring only the minimum of help from our novice fingers. Thank you, everyone for your generous gifts. Unfortunately, someone omitted to explain to the dogs the basic rules of agriculture.

Having planted some promisingly sweet Charantais melon seeds which surprisingly grew (and grew) beyond all my expectations, I eagerly awaited Mark’s return one afternoon, to proudly display our first harvest, by then, the size of a small football. Puzzled as to why I couldn’t find where I knew it to be – nestling in between the rose bushes in a plot at the front of the house – I later followed Louis, as he paid close attention to something near the front gate. To my horror, and Louis’ total bewilderment, we discovered the sorry remains of the missing melon. Oh well. Thankfully the market traders had better security for their produce!

Depending on Mark’s ability to build some chicken housing, we also planned to extend our bed and breakfast facilities to a collection of chickens bred by the neighbour. And ducks too. Apparently they are good to have around and their eggs are commendable, though require washing! However, that particular vision fell at the first hurdle when we realized Louis was overly fond of eggs and didn’t have a good track record with lasting friendships and domestic foul.

Simba and Louis adapted well to life in rural France. There were a few things they would have altered, like, sleeping in beds in the house, as opposed to dog baskets in the boiler room, especially since the swallows kept Louis awake with their chattering, and required the door to be left ajar for their ‘Top Gun’ acrobatics during the nesting season. Regulations during the hunting season stipulated that all trained dogs got to chase and retrieve many interesting wildlife accompanied by men with guns, while other ‘domestic animals’ were restricted to leads whilst out walking on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. For two dogs, not awfully  ‘au fait’ with what day of the week it was, let alone French legislation, it was both a confusing and trying time.

They attempted to placate themselves with other pursuits including locating and eating any left over corn cobs after the combine harvesters had moved on. It developed into a type of water sport since severe floods had submerged some fields under water making it doubly entertaining to dive for corn. As soon as a suitable stalk was located it was ripped from the ground, held between teeth whilst victorious dog was hotly pursued by other hound until caught and corn stalk was demolished, leaving person with extendable leads flapping around like a windmill. What did they know of house sales, mortgages and leaky roofs? Life is one big party for ex-pat dogs.

We made a whistle stop visit to the UK in October 2003, to attend the wedding of a precious friend who married her beloved ‘knight’. Held at the church where Matthew’s body rests, it was extremely emotional for me as it was my first visit to the grave since we ‘emigrated’. Even though I know Mattie is with his beloved Jesus in Paradise, we still have feet of clay, firmly planted on this earth. It remained a daily challenge to focus on spiritual things. We had the honour of saying prayers for the couple – the bride, Sarah was an invaluable leader in one of our youth groups and a great friend of Matt’s. Before his illness, she would sometimes collect him from school on her way to visit; he loved her cool Ford Ka, and couldn’t resist posing, with windows down, wearing cool shades, listening to the music that was blasting out of over-challenged speakers.

I was asked to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 – “love is not love that alters when it alteration finds…” Passionate stuff! It was a fulfilling experience reminding us of our wedding vows, and Matt’s presence that day as a pageboy.  We have already been tested and found true in many of those vows. Marriage is a special and sacred relationship God has given to us, the tragedy is how modern society has whittled down its true meaning and belittled its many blessings.

Mark and I were given the opportunity to attend a three day healing retreat, focusing on bereavement, in England late that year. We welcomed a chance to talk about our emotions with trained counselors. With so many of our feelings relegated to the back burner, and countless unanswered questions we anticipated it might be a time of release from much of our pain. With hindsight, we appreciate dealing with the death of a child is a profound experience, that can only run its course over a period of time. There were no magic pills or treatments to be had that would shorten the long and winding road of the journey.

It was especially hard as we approached the first anniversary of Matthew going to be with Jesus. It was our hope to again join our dear friends, Pieter and Debs in Barbados at Christmas, making use of free tickets we had. Other friends generously offered to dog and house sit and we gratefully used the opportunity to return to a safe haven in the hope it would bring further healing during a time of family celebrations, and what would have been Matt’s 15th birthday.

When the corn was high in the fields around Canaan, it was difficult to see much of the surrounding countryside and vision was limited to the path winding endlessly in front. Only when the lofty stalks had been harvested, was the landscape once again flat, revealing the destination of those meandering paths on the horizon.

Some days, I awoke with a lightness in my spirit and an eagerness to tackle anything and everything we needed to do.  But there were days when it seemed the walls of my world were high and close, and I could not see where I was meant to be heading. It was on those days that God faithfully gave me the strength to get up and walk the long and winding road. Sometimes, out with the dogs, it was impossible to see my feet through the tears I cried, because life didn’t feel fair. But this life isn’t fair. Where the presence of huge abundance rubs shoulders with abject lack, how can it be fair? Where people endure one hardship after another, whilst others seem to sail through life with little care, how can that be fair? So many questions, so few answers, such a testing ground for faith. The only thing I am sure of is that the road ahead leads home and if I continue on it, whether I can see the horizon or not, whether I know which way I’m facing or not, God will use me for His purposes and bring me safely home at the end. And I believe all things will be fair and well.

Chapter 11

East of Eden

Though what of Mark’s road? Preoccupied with the effect of Matthew’s death on me, I felt unable to probe too deeply into Mark’s world, frightened in case I saw him hemorrhaging too. Brief glimpses broke through my ramparts occasionally, and it rocked my world to witness his brokenness alongside my own. I knew only too well what Matthew meant to his daddy, and I knowingthe pain I felt, I did not want to dwell on the magnitude of his pain too. At that time, I had no guarantee I could survive that revelation. That December, whilst away on a trip, Mark asked me to forward the following email to everyone on our ever-growing list of Matt’s Friends. There were so many, it was incredible to consider how many people knew of our son, his illness and his courage.

Hello friends,

A year has past since Mattie died.

I can’t believe the time could go so quickly after our protracted eighteen months of closeness together – that life can still go on without our third Muskateer.

It was the hardest eighteen months of my life but the closest with God and Lynnie & Matt. Now in this emptiness, I want to trade everything I have for one more day together.

I still struggle to adjust to our new life today. Especially when we do family things together without Mattie, remembering when he was with us. I feel guilty at having a game of golf, spending time enjoying myself, normal feelings I suppose?

Anyway, I just want to say, hug your kids for me, for us, for them. Hug your wife, husband, partner. It may be the last chance you have, none of us know.

Ask them if there anything they would like to say to you and most importantly of all, LISTEN to them and act upon it.

I have found a lot of comfort in reading my Bible everyday with help from a man named Selwyn Hughes. He is an ordinary man, like you or me, but he has buried his wife and his two sons, so I figure if he speaks, I should to listen, as I may learn something useful.  He writes:

“Perhaps one of the hardest things we have to face is death. Our own death or the death of a loved one. The curse that fell upon the earth when Adam & Eve sinned means that everyone must die. Of all the fears that invade the human heart probably the greatest is the fear of death.

A writer once said. ’The fear of death is as old as human life, as long as human life and as widespread as human life’.

George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The statistics concerning death are very impressive – one out of every one dies!’

As I write, there is a war raging in Iraq. Reactions to the subject of death are quite interesting. Some are unwilling to dwell at all upon it and thrust it from their thoughts, labeling the mere mention of death as morbid. But though they can evade the thought they cannot evade the fact. For Christians there is no need to fear death since they have a life within them that survives death. Life before death guarantees life after death.”

The Bible reading Selwyn Hughes shared that day was 1 Cor 15:50-58. I found it very comforting to read about death not being the end and an eternal life after this. It doesn’t make it all right that Mattie has gone ahead of us, but it helps me to look forward to something totally amazing, it helps me keep my sanity in the here and now without him.

 One of the first scriptures I ever tried to memorize was:

Romans 8:38-39.

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Death hasn’t separated Matthew from God or God’s Love. In fact he’s with Him. And death hasn’t separated me and Lynnie from Matt permanently because I know we will be together for eternity. And this endless wait will then seem like a split second.

I struggle each day with feelings of desperation and I’m sure Lyn does too. If I didn’t admit that I would be lying to you. But there is something inside me that tells me that all the things that happen to us are part of a greater plan, which we will one day be privileged to understand. Until then, I ache with the sadness that comes from knowing I cannot hug my best boy anytime I like, but I also look forward to the time when all my questions will be answered and my joy will be complete because I will be with my boy again. And God will wipe away every tear from my (and Lynnie’s) eyes.

My prayer for you all this Christmas is that you may know the peace Lynnie and I have for eternity and you share whatever you’ve got with someone who isn’t as blessed as you.

As Matt would say – ‘love you … infinity and beyond’

(From the Three Musketeers!)

His thoughts echoed mine, and even though we found it difficult to communicate directly with each other, it was comforting to hear him expressing his innermost thoughts with the written word. We are so grateful for the company of all those who travelled our long and winding road with us. What a story we have to tell, what pilgrims we have been.

Chapter 12

Floodgates

The cards, messages, emails and words of encouragement that arrived at Canaan for the first anniversary of Matthew’s death were truly overwhelming. It was amazing to know that Matt is remembered with so much love, and not just then, but constantly.

The lead-up to the 24th November was understandably difficult. Anniversaries are really no different to other, unnamed, days in the year without Mattie’s wonderful presence, though it puts events into a semblance of chronological order whilst exposing the rawness of loss. Mark and I walked through it together and individually, only sure of one thing – that God was with each of us.

British Airways kindly arranged Mark’s trips so that he was home for both that date and the anniversary of the funeral, on December 5th. Meanwhile I continued to work on the manuscript for Infinity and Beyond. It progressed – all the time playing tricks with my mind as I wrote about times past as if by some trick of the pen I could hope to alter the outcome.

Without warning, floodgates would open and I’d be swept along like a rag doll amidst the all-consuming pain and tears. At other times I could function well enough, though feeling as if I’d been botoxed: my emotions played huge inside, though they failed to register on my taut face. The floods felt powerful enough to shift a mountain, and I hoped that is what they would do, shift the mountain of grief, leaving the land clear for rotivating, feeding, planting and new growth. Plan B as I saw it then, was not my life of choice, rather it was a daily battle to choose to carry on, trusting God for the future.

Still, the torrent of memories was non-stop. It was challenging to focus on the happy times in that first year in France because of events of the preceding two years – the trauma of diagnosis, the intense nursing, the hope and desire for healing and the battle to maintain our faith. Occasionally an ordinary pastime became exactly that, at other times, it was a temptation to feel guilty because we almost lost ourselves in the ordinary moment.

I recall Mark playing golf for the first time since arriving in France. He reproached himself for days before the actual event, and yet afterwards commented that he’d had an unexpectedly peaceful time with God around the course. There was a huge sense of relief in his voice. I had to learn to allow him space to do what was right for him.

Often, in the wake of trying challenges, the floodgates of God’s blessing would open, and we’d find ourselves floating in His love and provision. After losing my very necessary glasses, I made an appointment with the French optician to supposedly have my eyes retested and the glasses speedily replaced. Perhaps a vital word was lost in the translation, though it wasn’t apparent until the actual appointment that things are done differently in France, of course! The ophtamologiste docteur at the hospital tests eyes and provides a prescription which the optician then dispenses. After a brisk 30 minute walk to the hospital, and more than a few glances in my dog-eared dictionary, I learned there were no available appointments until March 2004!

I staggered in disbelief from there to the dentist – to have a filling corrected that had been put in badly the previous week – without so much as a hint of anaesthetic. Perhaps because it wasn’t just the nerves in my teeth that were super sensitive at that moment, I ended up crying and babbling with a good deal of metal equipment in my mouth. Possibly leaving the dentist with a complex about his chair side manner, I staggered across the road to sniffle over a cup of delicious coffee and medicinal cognac, with Mark.

My point? Well, when we arrived home, I came across an old pair of glasses, and managed to survive until the March appointment, just short of becoming Mr McGoo. We also received a phone call from our hard working estate agents in England, to tell us that the couple making the highest offer for our house had a keen buyer for theirs and with a fairly small chain below them, were ready to go ahead with the purchase immediately. Earlier that week, Mr Tough Cookie had offered us a slightly higher increase on his original offer, which we’d declined, trusting it was right to wait patiently for the higher bid. We thanked God for such incredible news, though neither of us was prepared for the floodgates of relieved tears that poured forth that afternoon.

By way of interest that September, Mark and I both felt strongly to commit some extra finances (which we didn’t have spare, I might add) to give to help others in desperate need. We believed God was asking us to do that, and He would in turn take care of our needs. We’d prayed hard and asked that our finances would be sorted out by Christmas and many people prayed alongside us.  We believe those prayers were answered. We gave thanks for our buyers, and as it says in the Bible “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15), other gave thanks too. We prayed for the speedy release of funds to begin the renovations needed to accommodate future visitors to Canaan, that they might receive rest and healing.

When I think of all the people worldwide who know about our little Mattie, have faithfully prayed for him and followed his progress and finally his graduation to heaven, I am overawed the impact his painfully short life has had on so many. I said to God, it was just as well He was God and not me. I could not have sacrificed my only son to die – even though it meant salvation for the entire human race. Do you know what He said? “One day you will know exactly how many peoples’ lives have been impacted by your son.” Considering both Mark and I got really close to God as a direct result of Matthew’s birth, makes that statement all the more amazing.

This is a precious poem written to us by a dear friend on the day of Matt’s memorial service. It gives us comfort each time we read it, I pray it touches your hearts too.

 

 

I HAD TO GO WITH JESUS…Written Friday 6th December 2002 (7am)

 

Your Matthew’s with Me

I hold him now in My Arms

He has suffered enough

Now he’s safe from all harm

But the void you now feel

I, God will fill up

So don’t turn away

Sit with Me and sup

 

He accomplished the purpose

He was there on earth for

So much you won’t know

Only I God was there

The nurses and doctors

And those far and wide

Who whilst praying for Matthew

Were drawn close to My side

 

So please don’t give up now

There’s so much still to do

For many more children

Who need to come through

To know Me as Lord

Their parents as well

So keep going My children

The Good News to tell

 

They’ll come from afar

To hear how you coped

Extend then your hand

And give them My Hope

And miracles you’ll see

Like never before

For it’s then you will know

I am right at the core

 

Of all that you do

As you keep trusting Me

I’ll anoint you My children

The lost to set free

You’ll speak to the young

Middle aged and the old

And show them – how – child

In Me to ‘be bold’

 

You’ll help stretch their faith

Beyond limits so far

They’ll do things for Me

That before they wouldn’t dare

And all because they

Saw the courage you’ve shown

They’ll know what it’s like

To have a Saviour – their own!

 

So look through the pain

And see all the good

The heights you have gained

The things you understood

That you can use now

Many others to help

Go now – far and wide

And make My Presence felt!

 

Each time you step out

My Anointing will flow

A strong healing power

That others will know

Is straight from the Throne

Here in heaven above

As you lay hands on them

I, God, will then move!

 

For this is the birthing

Of something so great

And your little Matthew

Well – he was the gate

That had to be opened

To let the flood through

And all I ask children

Is trust Me anew

 

Your son knew My heart

For I touched him within

Those times that you struggled

His food to get in

For he had a food

That came straight from above

And – each time – he knew

I held him in love

 

So please don’t be frightened

Please know he is safe

He’s surrounded now children

With My Saving Grace

But your lives aren’t over

And I need you today

To pick up the pieces

And keep going – My Way

 

Matthew’s watching it all

And he’s rooting for you

You’ll read in the Bible

How the saints pray you through

Well here with the angels

And all saints gone before

He’s watching his parents

And saying “Mum – Dad – there’s more!”

 

Saying “Please don’t give up

I’m praying for you

That you will go on

And do what God wants you to

Don’t fret or dismay

For I’m in safe Hands

I’m being looked after

For with Christ I now stand”

 

“I walk streets of gold

That you just wouldn’t dream

And all that up here

Just seems so fresh and clean

And when you have accomplished

What God needs you to do

I’ll be standing with Jesus

To greet both of you”

 

“Then we’ll walk in Glory

Again side by side

But till then – mum and dad

Know in Christ I abide

And I just wouldn’t have made it

Without all your prayers

A mum and dad who are special

Who for their son really cared!”

 

“So keep me in your thoughts

But keep going on!

There’s still much to be done

And the time is not long

Just know I am watching!

From up here on high

So wipe all your tears

And please – please don’t cry”

(Written by inspiration from above by Leila (Bonar) St.Claire-Linaker)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pictures from Canaan

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Third Installment

Chapter 7

Much Afraid

Looking back at my diary for 2003, it reads like a construction site journal. I’ve never spent so much time poring over catalogues for building equipment, swimming pool parts and general DIY. What I didn’t know about the various sizes of aggregate you could write on a postage stamp. A far cry from my usual love of artistic pursuits.

We continued to welcome paying guests to the one bedroomed gite, which helped fund the ever-hungry maintenance bills, and I was even asked to provide evening meals on occasion, giving me ample opportunity to experiment with new and varied ingredients, readily available in all the local markets. As a foodie and erstwhile keen cook back in England, France, with its abundance of fresh produce imaginatively displayed on a daily basis, fed my appetite for a repertoire of recipes geared to excite as well as providing visitors with sound nutrition and what my grandmother would call, a square meal.

In May 2003, one of Matt’s dear friends, Tom, came to stay at the same time as the Williams family, whom we had adopted on the beach at Royan. It was a special time of friendship and early sunshine-filled days, a glimpse of times to come at Canaan. Tom and Matt had become very close during the last eighteen before Matthew’s illness, and he and his parents, along with another family, had joined us on our last trip to Florida. Soon after Matt was diagnosed with the brain tumour, Tom was diagnosed with Diabetes 1, and would require insulin injections for the remainder of his life, unless a revolutionary alternative was discovered for the condition.  In true Tom fashion, when discussing his prospects with his dad, he commented that it was nothing compared to what Matthew was going through.

The visit was a testing time for both Mark and I, as Tom was a constant reminder of Matt, and the fact that he was no longer with us. It was difficult to watch a young boy of fifteen have to deal with daily blood tests and injections, as well as regulating what he ate and drank. Though more difficult was the reality that at least he was alive. Of course, we did not share our emotions with Tom then, and as often happens, out of the most challenging situations can come the most unexpected joy. During conversations with Tom, I learned much about the times he spent with our son, and it painted another picture of the unique individual he was, that we had not personally witnessed. It brought him magically alive and gave me even more memories to treasure in my heart. I am forever grateful to Tom, along with Matthew’s other friends, for the love and loyalty he received from them, and especially for the cameo glimpses of our boy, exceptional to us, being special to others too.

During those early months, alongside all the undertakings we tackled at Canaan, Mark had to keep donning his uniform and head off to Bordeaux airport to catch a flight to Gatwick, from whence he would begin his flying roster for the week. Aside from the fact that he had to leave, knowing I would be alone and in charge of operations until his return, his ever-changing surroundings did little for his organisational skills. It wasn’t until some time had passed that we also discovered one of the symptoms of extreme grief, caused through bereavement, can be loss of memory and muddled thoughts.

For those of you who know Mark well, that may not sound like a huge deviation from the norm. However, his forgetfulness did cause us some concern, and me, more than a little frustration. Once, having driven his car to Bordeaux airport, he returned from his usual six or seven days away, to discover he had left his car keys, ‘somewhere in England or another country’, and phoned to request that I stop whatever I was engaged in and drive the fifty minutes to Bordeaux with the spare set of keys to rescue him. Thankfully, we actually possessed a spare, it’s not always a stipulation when Mark buys cars that they have them! On that occasion, a visiting friend accompanied me; I’m not sure if it was to make the journey pass more quickly, or save my husband from grievous bodily harm when I espied him, sheepishly waiting outside the arrivals hall.

Just when I thought I could no longer face another escape attempt on the part of Simba and Louie, dear friends, Mike, Nicki and later, Fran and Steve popped over from England to visit and helped us complete the daunting task of putting a fence all round the property, and finish a myriad of small niggling, though essential jobs. I seem to recall we were definitely intent on buying four and a half acres with our property. With blisters and bruises from the labour and sunburn from the unusually hot weather, I would gladly have settled for a window box. At least we could count our blessings on having a swimming pool. It was an oasis of cool fun after a day’s manual labour, snakes and other interlopers notwithstanding.

Snake story number two is equally worth repeating, if only for the slapstick appeal. Mark and I had been busy all day, clearing weeds and other overgrown shrubs around the house and outbuildings. For several months I could be found busily planting fruit and vegetables in the easily accessible areas close to the farmhouse. My work was hugely rewarded, as everything I planted grew bountifully. Giddy with beginners’ success, I planned a whole area behind the barn to be rotivated and prepared for what would inevitably be our self-sufficient vegetable plot. I was nothing if not ambitious.

Meanwhile, the weeds …

I had removed a line full of stiffly dried washing. (Everything during that hot summer got bleached and dried if left outside too long, and our towels were like boards as I struggled to negotiate them in through the kitchen door. Although barely able to see past the basket piled high in my arms, I was alerted to what seemed like something very quickly preceeding me over the step-down into the kitchen, and disappearing rapidly in the cool interior. I recognised that movement. I knew that shape.

Snake!

I screamed and dropped the basket and ski boards and hoisted myself up onto the table just outside the back door, visibly shaking. Mark, instantly recognising the degree of panic in my scream came running around the side of the house towards me, armed with a shovel. When I explained what I knew I had seen, he cautiously entered the kitchen and looked around. Spying the small window above the old stone sink wide open and no obvious movement in the room, he came out declaring that, whatever it was, had presumably left by the open window.

Oh really!

If he thought that explanation was enough to placate me, he was hugely mistaken. From the safety of the tabletop, I issued decrees: all areas of the house, both upstairs and down must be searched, at least once, and findings reported back to me in my lofty headquarters. Much later, my champion came back to give an inch by inch account of the interior, assuring me that the snake – which I knew was, once again, a viper, had clearly vacated the premises in fear of his life. My scream had been quite unnerving. After a suitable time of observation from outside, I ventured in to pick up the boards, shove them in the ironing basket, and prepare supper.

Not totally convinced, however, nor content with the outcome, I began to shuffle chairs around and move the dogs’ beds, those plastic affairs, stuffed with duvets and blankets – such is a dog’s life. To my horror, as I moved one bed, Monsieur le Snake appeared from underneath and slithered off at top speed under one of the units. Apparently he had been hiding, coiled under the raised base!

Another scream. Enter Mark, again with shovel. This time I exited the kitchen and ran upstairs, insisting that we would not eat or sleep that night until the snake had been caught and executed. This was war. Mark solemnly closed the kitchen door behind me, and, with much fear and trembling he later admitted, set out to undertake the deadly deed.

From the noise that accompanied the task, I can only imagine it was neither easy, nor pretty. However, some thirty minutes later, I was recalled to the abattoir that was our kitchen, to witness for myself, the demise of the ferocious beast and clean up the evidence. I apologise to all you animal (and reptile) lovers out there, nevertheless, this was about survival of the fittest, and at that moment, although he didn’t exactly look a picture of health, Mark was the victor – my hero.

I couldn’t help moaning to God about it the next morning on my walk. The analogy of the snake being man’s enemy was not lost on me, and I’m sure it wasn’t lost on God either, though He declined to comment, merely leaving me space to vent my phobia, and calm down on the journey home. I wondered how many more of my fears would be confronted in our new home. Quite a lot as it happened.

 

Chapter 8

For better, for worse, in sickness and in health …

Many visitors came and went that summer. We longed and prayed for lots of families to arrive, that we could look after and help. Thankfully God kept His wits about Him and filtered visitors so that we only really came into contact with adults who were battling serious illness. I dare not imagine what effect it could have had on both of us if we had been confronted by a child or young person, suffering from a life-threatening condition and reminding us all too poignantly of Matthew.

My mum and youngest sister Lorraine came over for a couple of weeks during that relentlessly hot summer of 2003. France suffered frightening fatalities, as people died from dehydration throughout the country. On a personal note and despite some early warning signs, our whole family, preoccupied with Matthew’s illness for almost two years, missed the early stages of my mother developing Altzheimer’s. It was during that first visit, as I was able to observe her closely for long periods that we reluctantly had to admit my vibrant, canny, entertaining and endlessly energetic mum was being affected by something far more sinister than the odd ‘senior moment’.

It was however, a delight to be able to look after her, cook all her meals, and take her out and about during her stay. She had been a stalwart support throughout Matt’s illness and death, never once drawing attention to her own pain and loss.

Although her brain function was showing signs of serious change, she still maintained her amazing sense of humour during that first visit and was extremely active. She would sit in the back of the car, whilst the fully opened windows provided the only air-conditioning we knew of. Entertaining us with comments about her coiffure being ever so slightly out of place, as the hot circulating air whipped her usually immaculate hairstyle into a frenzy, I recall her endless smiles with never a word of complaint.

It became clear that whilst Mark and I felt more secure when we were together, we were realising our grief was being played out in our lives in very different ways. I was mostly alone, ensconced in France, in a rambling old house, with a million and one things screaming for attention, most of them in another language, with two silent, four-legged companions, and a limited knowledge of the local vernacular. That said, those challenging circumstances worked wonders on my brain. I soon realised that if I didn’t learn to converse in French, I would probably have to remain silent for days on end. Not really an option for me.

Once I had bored the dogs ad nauseam with continual conversations back and forth with myself concerning every minute project, I expanded my horizons to pastures new and bravely approached our closest French neighbour. Bernadette was a keen gardener, so initially my vocabulary equipped me ably for the French version of Gardener’s Question Time, though eventually, I branched out into recipes and the chickens, ducks and geese they kept. Though that line of convivial chat drew hastily to a close when I asked what names she had given them all. Apparently, the French don’t name their domestic fowl – their association is too short and they like to keep it fairly impersonal!

Mark, meanwhile was dashing back and forth to England, and working for 6 days at a stretch. When he came home for his statutory three days off, he had to switch from English to French, as well as mow the grass on four and a half acres. Sometimes, looking out of the kitchen window, preparing the evening meal, it felt like I was watching a surreal game of Tetris with Mark ‘eating’ up clumps of grass as he completed row after row of mowing, getting closer and closer to the house.

I now appreciate that time was no easier for him than it was for me. While I could at least bury my head in an imaginary bucket of sand and spend days alone, he had to don his uniform, put on a smile, and talk to people all flight long, many of them families, reminding him all too acutely of what he could no longer enjoy.

We were frightened to open up to one another, hesitant to begin a conversation or delve too deeply into each other’s thoughts, in case it re-opened barely covered wounds. So paradoxically, we withdrew from meaningful conversation together whilst craving each other’s physical presence. I was desperate to spend time with people, to have an opportunity to talk about Matthew, to explore my feelings through relationships, whereas Mark was forced to spend much of his time in company and longed for private space to examine the painful emotions that bombarded him every day.

We were determined to fight to remain together in a meaningful marriage, though the odds were heavily stacked against us in those early months. It was not a lack of love for each other that was our weakest link, rather the inability to deal with our own pain while concurrently trying to understand our partner’s loss.

In a rare newsletter to all our friends around the world Mark wrote in August 2003:

‘Inspired by my wife’s amazing gift at describing situations in our lives I have decided to put pen to paper myself but don’t expect eloquent words you have to look up in the dictionary, this is me, Mark!  I have just read Lynette’s latest newsletter while staying with dear friends in Windsor during my work shift and have been reduced to tears (which isn’t difficult) by the vivid descriptions of what’s happening in our lives.  It’s odd reading it, knowing that it’s about me.

Eight months since Matt’s death and four spent back at work, the time seems to go so quickly especially when I am rushing back and forth to France in between my work blocks just to be with the most important person in my life is right now. Lynette is the only person who knows how my heart is breaking and yet we seem unable to talk about it.

Writing this, sitting in a Windsor pub garden is probably not the best place for me to be either. I’m watching children playing and mums with tattoos eating nutrition-less food and drinking water with sugar! I want to run up to them and scream – ‘don’t do it!’  My eyes fill up as I remember the days that made my life complete when Matt was that child playing and I drank sugary water that wasn’t good for me. (that’s beer to you and me!).

At the moment I am spending more time in the UK and on trips than in France and it’s so hard being away from Lynnie.  I’m having to cope with meeting friends and work colleagues who either don’t know why I have been off for 2 years (and put their foot in it by saying ‘did you have a good time?’), don’t know what’s happened to Matt, or want to offer their condolences. Either way, we all end up crying. There’s no easy way to tell his story.

After being with Lyn twenty-four seven, and caring for Matt to the point of exhaustion, the initial separation and returning to work didn’t seem so daunting. I thought it would give us both chance to breathe and me a chance to sleep off some of my perpetual tiredness. But the loss we have suffered is so deep, even though I tell God about it all the time – the only human person who can understand, and who I really want to hug is hundreds of miles away – feeling the same way.  Life sucks right now!

Please pray our house in Bracknell sells.  We have reduced it to make it a more attractive offer, and God willing, with the mortgage paid off I can take up a part-time contract.  BA have just offered me the opportunity to work 14 days on/ 14 days off or 1 month on/1 month off. That would mean Lynnie and I could be together more at one time, but of course we would have longer stretches apart and my salary would adjust to reflect that so until the house debts in the UK are cleared, finances are pretty tight. It’s not a problem to either of us – we have had to tighten our belts on more than one occasion in the past – and we are not big spenders, but developing the vision for Matt’s Canaan Retreat is financially challenging. So many of you – with bills and mortgages of your own have sacrificially given us so much already – thank you seems hardly adequate but comes from our hearts nonetheless. We have discovered the true meaning of faithful friends.

I stay in Old Windsor at my step-mum’s in the granny annex above the garage during my work schedule, and I am well cared for.  Shorthaul/Eurofleet can be unsociable with many days starting before 7am and finishing after 8pm, then I get to do it all again the next day, so I am usually quiet tired by the end of my six day week.  I try and catch up with some much needed shut-eye on the short flight back to Bordeaux, as there are always numerous jobs to do when I arrive. It isn’t all lying by the pool just yet! But I am able to swim there most days after manual labour, and I am so grateful for our countless blessings. My heart lightens as I approach the house in France knowing Lynnie is there and how beautiful the place is and I thank God every day for all we have but I shed many secret tears because our precious Mattie never reached this promised land with us. Life without my mate is like an open wound.’

We could only throw ourselves into the ever-open arms of our God and pray His grace would always be sufficient for us, as He promised.

 

Chapter 9

 

This Is Not My Home

 

The months passed. The poppies had bled their pools of crimson all along the lanes, reminding me of our journey over from England. As we drove down through the north of France in particular, I was struck with a sense of cold emptiness, and wondered if it was because my newly fractured heart was resonating with all the lives that had fallen during the World Wars, and all the mothers who never saw their sons come home again.

The sunflowers had come and gone, their bounty of seeds long harvested and the bowed sentinels cut down. As we moved into autumn, looking back at the steady stream of visitors we welcomed to Canaan, it seemed we’d had a busy time. Visitors were friends and strangers alike, though all it seemed, there for a specific purpose at a specific time, either to give or receive love. We constantly operated on a need and provision basis, with us having a need and God providing for that. The house in England remained unsold with funds unreleased for proposed renovations and extensions. Despite that we managed to pack ‘em in like sardines!’ at Matt’s Canaan Retreat.

That August, I recall depositing my mum and sister at a remote airport for their return flight to England and only a couple of kilometres from the airport, the car blew a tyre in the sweltering 39 degree heat. I slowly rolled to a halt. My heart sank when I observed a three-inch gash in the front tyre, I was alone, and much afraid, miles from anywhere, outside what looked to be a distinctly closed restaurant with a shuttered uninviting house next door. The hot air was so oppressive it was like a sweltering sauna.

Being many years since I’d changed a tyre, I felt panic rising as I realised how unfamiliar I was with this estate car.  We hadn’t had it that long, and Mark had taken my jalopy to Bordeaux for his week’s work, leaving me with the ‘safer’ of the two vehicles. Desperate tears filled my eyes and slid down my already hot cheeks.

How bad was it, I reasoned? Well, Mark was away, the dogs were shut up in the stables, I had no mobile phone, no one knew where I was, which was at least and hour and fifty minutes away from home, and the language of the country was not my native tongue. I wanted to sit down on the dusty ground and cry my heart out. Instead, going through the motions, I opened the boot and checked the spare tyre and jack. As I lifted them out, I felt my already tired body drained of any remaining strength in the intensity of the hot afternoon.

Since it appeared my first urgent prayer of “please don’t let the tyre be flat” had not been answered, I was only able to utter, “please help me God”, before giving way to pathetic whimpers. With no air conditioning, the half bottle of water on the front seat of the car was already warm. Feelings of abandonment and despair overwhelmed me as I walked to the empty looking building and peered inside the small dark window. A light was on inside.

I walked around to the back of the building in time to see a man and woman bidding good-bye to an older gentleman, shutting their hatchback and driving off. The man disappeared into the building long before my mind could formulate the words I wished to say. I followed him into the interior and found myself in a huge, dark antiques shop. He was on the telephone. I waited, the humid atmosphere unbearable, even deep inside the thick stone walls.

Finally he replaced the telephone receiver and turned towards me. Mustering my suddenly disappearing knowledge of French, I think I explained to him I had a flat tyre and asked if he could help me, or direct me to a garage within walking distance – or allow me to use his telephone. He offered to let me wash my very dirty hands and left the shop. I stood mentally checking what I thought I had said to him, with my heart sinking once more as I judged him to be quite elderly and, realistically, unable to physically assist me. Heart stopping minutes passed, then he returned, followed by a tall, strong looking young man, wearing dusty jeans and t-shirt, though to me he appeared clothed in shining armour!

In what seemed like record breaking time, the spare tyre was fitted to my car and I vaguely remember chatting away to the young man as we worked and sweated in the blistering heat, though I cannot recall what we said. Fifteen minutes later, forgetting to wash my hands, I drove gingerly away from the lay-by. A tentative journey home took me three and a half hours, but I took advantage of the time to talk to God – to tell Him how thankful I was that He had provided help for me where there seemed only a deserted road miles from home. To tell Him how sorry I was so crabby. How fed up I was being alone. How much I missed Mark and Mattie. How I didn’t want to do this anymore! He declined to comment, once again allowing me to carry on my monologue, until I fell silent, exhausted at the sound of my own voice.

I arrived home safe and sound. The dogs were fine though very pleased to see me and be released from the ‘slammer’. Life at Canaan went on. It was some days before I realised that God was showing me that life does go on. Sometimes scary things happen to us, sometimes we have to endure frustration, pain, suffering, sorrow and loneliness. And as much as we may ask that He removes all the boulders along the way, that isn’t often what happens. But what He does promise is that He walks that road with us. He is always there. We inhabit a world that largely chooses to ignore God. But He never ignores us – any of us!

If we take time, we can see just how much He is in our lives, in the smallest details like blown tyres as well as the daunting hugeness of bereavement. It doesn’t make me understand any more than I did before I knew Him and it definitely doesn’t answer the countless questions I raise every day, but something deep inside me assures me that I know that I know, in my little know-er,  that He is right there with me and one day, one day … this will all make sense.

 

For Mark and I, it was our faith that carried us through those heartbreaking days, through the agonizing months, through the long years since Mattie died. Far from being a crutch, an escape from reality, our faith has been a lifeline, the foundation of our everyday lives, that enabled us to carry on when we felt like throwing in the towel, and seeing something devastating for us, transformed into something meaningful – for us and others.

We have spent a good deal of time thinking about heaven, more so since our son graduated there. I am so grateful to those people who boldly took time to tell me about heaven, about eternity, about what happens after death. Some of what I learned was not what I particularly wanted to hear as it challenged me with choices to make decisions. But at least I have been told. We try to live out what we believe, though battling against hypocrisies and failures we daily fall flat on our surprised faces.

There are probably as many variations on what heaven is like as there are Christians.. Writer Adrian Plass says in his poem called ‘Heaven’ “When I’m in heaven tell me there’ll be kites to fly…tell me there’ll be friends to meet in ancient oak beamed Sussex pubs…tell me there’ll be seasons when the colours fly, poppies splashing flame through dying yellow, living green and autumn’s burning sadness that has always made me cry…tell me there’ll be peace at last…”  That’s as may be, and though I like that particular vision, I cannot say that his or my version is the definitive. Or whether Mark will get to play golf, though he reckons he will!

But I can quote from Christian writer J.John, who says:

“Through Jesus dying and being raised to life, we get our surest glimpse of heaven’s reality. There is no talk of reincarnation, arriving in heaven and being able to choose to be your favourite animal – a unicorn or a hedgehog – there is no airy fairy idea that we become like a little drop in a big ocean or a blade of grass in a field. If Jesus being raised to life is the guide to what our life will be beyond our death, there are some extraordinary consequences for our ideas of heaven. Just as Jesus was the same person after death as before so will we be. Heaven is not about losing our personality or our identity. Heaven is about becoming more the person you were made to be. You as yourself will not cease to exist when you die.

The stories of what Jesus did in the days after He was raised from the dead are so important because they tell us that He ate and drank. He walked and talked, He could be touched and hugged. This is the pattern for what heavenly existence is. Heaven will be physical: we will have bodies, we will talk, laugh and eat. We will recognise each other and enjoy each other’s company. Jesus encourages us not to live as if this life is everything. While this present life is important, it is not all-important. We don’t need to store up things in the here and now, we are freed to be generous and gracious.”

Much of what the Bible foretold has already come about, and much of what hasn’t yet is concerning heaven and the final days of the earth as we know it. Someone once told me not to bother reading the horoscopes or ‘stars’ but rather to go to the Creator of the stars and the Universe! It’s worth thinking about, it’s worth investigating. We saw some amazing vistas across the open skies during our time at that Canaan. God spoke to us then and He continues to speak to us now.

Living in those idyllic surroundings I became more aware of what a privileged lifestyle I had. It was both beautiful and peaceful there. Everyday wonderful colours, sights and sounds burst in upon me in profusion. And I thanked God everyday. I know there are many in this world who have never have enjoyed the things that I have counted as commonplace.  There are those who only see the sky from inside a cell, who know a swollen belly only from the ache of abject hunger and poverty, who view the threatening world through the window of mental suffering.

 

This world does not make sense, unless you see it through the perspective of eternity. And that’s where our faith comes in. The faith to trust that God will fulfill the promises He has made to us. I do know that from the moment I began my journey of faith, I became more aware of the concept of eternity and though this world is at present all I physically know, my spirit tells me that I am a stranger in a strange land, on my way to a far better place, a place where I can hug my laughing, funny, darling Mattie and as he has already done, see Jesus, face to face.

That Canaan … that was not my home. And neither is where we are now. Our promised land is yet to be, and in the meantime, we have this mortal coil, and there is still so much we can achieve.

Bring it on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Second Instalment

Chapter 4

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Although we had our trusty car we emigrated with, we soon realized one would not suffice. Living in the sticks in France is not quite the same as living in the sticks in England. At least that great institution the British bus, has been known to roll along lesser travelled roads and lanes, providing a service for those with no other means of getting around. Not so in La Belle France. Everyone there seems to have access to either a car, or a scooter. With Mark away for anything up to seven days at a stretch, I was finding it increasingly difficult to pre-empt all my shopping requirements, especially if we had bed and break guests staying in the gite accommodation. The nearest bakery was a couple of miles away, and walking there and back first thing in the morning, on a daily basis, supplying fresh croissants and pastries for eager visitors was wearing me, and the soles of my shoes, out.

We deliberated at length over what to buy, though the final decision was, not surprisingly, based on our budget. We reckoned we could spare about £500, and with our limited knowledge of French launched into Secondhand Cars For Sale ads in the local papers. It’s interesting to note that people the other side of the Channel have similar items they wish to dispose of for a little extra cash, and seem to spend as much time as us Brits, absorbed in the classifieds. Joining them made us feel more at home in our new surroundings. What we hadn’t reckoned on was the high price secondhand cars seemed to command in France. Our budget was clearly not going to secure me anything resembling what I had in mind.

Among the varied acquaintances we had made was a retired gentleman in nearby Jonzac town. Claude restored old cars, including some lovely Panhards from the 60s and some funky, if eccentric, Citroen vans, with the sides that resembled corrugated iron. He boosted his pension by hiring out his beloved collection, mainly to film and specialist companies. We would often visit his barn at the back of his house and drool over his latest painstaking renovation. Claude contacted us one afternoon to inform us that a friend of his had ‘just the car’ for us. Picturing myself as Lady Penelope, minus Parker, I quickly bought into the image of zipping around the French countryside in something delivering on the ‘wow’ factor. Naturally, we were somewhat expectant as we went to view it. After all, Claude seemed to know a good car from an ordinary one.

Neither of us was quite prepared for the sight which met our eager gaze as the old barn doors creaked open to reveal a 1983 Citroen Visa, nestled amongst the hay, cobwebs and junk inside his friend’s barn. We tactfully kept our faces in a pose of pleasant surprise, whilst inwardly hovering between incredulous and hysterical.

Clearly the car had not been called into service for some time, although Claude assured us he had given it ‘the once over’. His verdict: ‘sound and a good little runner’. Both statements we found difficult to believe.

All the seats had grubby chintzy covers on them, concealing even shabbier originals, and the covers, backed with a thin layer of sponge (presumably to enhance the comfort of all passengers) promptly disintegrated as soon as it was handled. The pièce de résistance though was surely the hatchback. Claude’s friend enthusiastically opened it to reveal a large piece of weathered wood, about 3 feet in length, that, when carefully applied, propped the hatch open, thus allowing easy access to load or remove shopping. Preposterous! The idea of anyone parting with money for that decrepit old banger was beyond sensible thinking.

We bought it!

I’m not sure something wasn’t lost in translation, and possibly there was a small degree of desperation in our purchase. Or perhaps we couldn’t resist the charm of Claude’s ageing mate, with his leathery skin and twinkling eyes. However, as we finally managed to negotiate exiting the barn and drove off down the country lane, relieved of our precious Euros, we attempted to convince each other we’d nabbed a bargain, and our new addition would in any case, make life infinitely easier on the travelling front.

Mad dogs and Englishmen does not only apply to noonday sun it would seem. ‘Les Anglais!’ as so many of the French referred to us, with a shrug of their shoulders and benevolently raised eyebrows, we certainly gave them plenty of fodder for their characteristic chats over an aperitif or two. Although, I have to say, despite appearances, our little Citroen was indeed a stalwart companion, even if a bit of a talking point when loading and unloading the hatchback. Nonetheless, at least we didn’t have to worry about the odd dent or scratch, inevitable when you own a car in France.

The dogs were far less mad than us humans, and Simba and Louis refused point blank to even get into the Citroen, either the boot, or when tempted with even greater luxury, onto the chintzy covers adorning the back seat. I’m sure there’s a lesson there, for another time.

I could be frequently observed, cruising along the lanes early in the mornings to buy provisions at the bakery; air-conditioning in operation – in truth, all windows fully down; hair blowing in the breeze, or rather whipping my coiffure into a bee hive, and thanking God for all our blessings. It was certainly quicker than previous hikes, and actually, quite pleasant to go out without the dogs. I was often lost in wonderful memories of travelling down many French country lanes, with Matt safely in the back, singing away to my heart’s content.

Chapter 5

Pools of light

One of the deciding factors in buying that particular house in France, when we considered moving, was the lovely saline swimming pool in the grounds. Nestling at the rear of the long dining hall it was surrounded by grass and the four and a half acres, dotted with huge chestnut trees, we initially thought it promised a wonderful resource to assist Matt in recovering strength in limbs that had not been properly used for many months. And we felt it would be a huge bonus for visiting families, with sick loved ones.

Being there without Matthew, the pool served as a constant reminder that things had not gone as we had hoped and prayed for and I think it took on proportions of the elephant in the living room for both of us. We put off opening it that first year, until it became an urgent matter of timing. Lifting the winter cover, it became clear we knew absolutely nothing about servicing and maintaining a pool.

Armed with my extensive French-English dictionary, I called in the experts, who transformed the dark, green, uninviting waters to a perfectly stunning clear blue in a couple of days. They left, explaining what I should do over the next twenty four hours, intimating that after that time, our pool would be ‘ready to dive’, which seemed to be their entire knowledge of the English language. Mark was away while all this was going on, and the weather was already warm. The early May sunshine felt like a balmy summer.

Eager to test the waters, as it would be another two days before Mark’s return, I decided to overcome my feelings of ‘what-ifs’ and loss, and get in the pool. Swimming was one of Matthew’s favourite sports and he was exceptionally good at it. I would undertake as many lengths as I could manage in celebration of his past achievements.

As I entered the pool down the built-in stairway – diving not being one of my specialties – the water felt exquisitely cool and soft. My eyes filled with tears with no warning and it took all my resolve not to scuttle back indoors in defeat. Dipping my shoulders under the water and heading towards the deep end, I purposefully recalled to mind the many fun times we had enjoyed on holidays, as a family. Weightlessly floating, I sincerely felt as if I was being supported there by some giant hand that held me, tenderly, lovingly, until such time as strength and purpose returned.

It was on a return trip from the deep end to the stairway, as I turned my head to one side to breath between strokes, that something caught my eye behind and to the left of me. It appeared to be a stick-like object, suspended vertically in the water and heading towards me, somewhat resembling a miniature submarine periscope. In the next split-second, my brain registered it wasn’t either of those. It was most definitely A SNAKE!

I am not renown for my athletic abilities, though I think I probably broke a few personal bests that afternoon, exiting the swimming pool. When I dared glance behind me, it only fuelled the fear I was fighting to hold in check, and whilst I cannot swear to it, I think I came close to walking on water. The snake – a viper, or ‘vee-per’, as the French say, speedily reached the edge I had hovered over seconds before. Thankfully it could not negotiate the smooth side to advance any further and I left it lamely trying to get a hold on the slippery tiles of the pool wall.

Grabbing only my towel, I performed a worthy sprint to our neighbour’s house. They were English, and fortuitously at home. In fact, the owner had sold us the house, and built himself a smaller residence next to our place. His partner accompanied me back to the pool, armed with a net and large sack. My adversary was still where I had unceremoniously left him, and in a remarkably short space of time, was safely imprisoned in the sack, awaiting his fate. I didn’t press for further details, suffice it to say, he was not given a wave at the gate and future invitation to call back for tea anytime soon!

Apparently, what is thought to have occurred is, the newly uncovered and cleaned pool had lured the creature (as it would others over the course of time) to come and drink, swim, play, or whatever snakes do in pools. It had probably fallen over the side, into the water, and been dragged into one of the filter bays dotted around the edge, equipped with one-way trap doors. Only my noticeable weight (!) in the water had caused enough disturbance to open the flap, thus releasing the only poisonous species of snake in France, to terrorize my afternoon swim. Such are the pitfalls of emigrating to a distant, uncivilized place known as the Charente Maritime. If only I could say it was my singular brush with the wilds of the French countryside, sadly it wasn’t, as will later be revealed.

Driving into town the next day, I was reflecting on my experience, and whether I would ever be brave enough to get back into the pool even with a rigorous check of all filters, when it occurred to me that I had bravely survived over two months in France, much of that alone, and yet the loss of Matt had not caused me to die of a broken heart. I did not feel brave, I could not see light at the end of my tunnel of grief, though I did feel there was a force greater than myself, giving me strength to get up each day and carry on. There were occasional pools of light, sparkling across my consciousness from time to time, making me feel bravery comes in short sharp doses, probably just enough to get you over the next hill, around the next bend, or out of the next swimming pool.

Chapter 6

Les tournesols – Turn to the sun (Turn to the Son)

Finally it happened! Though there was an air of anticipation long before we were rewarded with a particularly poignant sighting. We had been waiting for the promise to be fulfilled for months. We were together, driving through the narrow lanes to our nearest town – a smallish affair, though still equipped with its own Chateau – to visit the weekly market and sample some great local produce. As we rounded a bend in the road, we caught our breath almost in unison. There they were, standing tall and seemingly looking straight at us, with what I imagined to be smiles upon their radiant faces. At last the sunflowers – les tournesols  – had arrived! I felt an overwhelming desire to jump out of the car and press their intense yellowness to my face, to reassure myself they were real and not some painting. They were real – it made us cry.

We had enjoyed so many wonderful holidays together in France as a family, and our particular favourite time was when the sunflowers were in bloom. The sight of them brought back such joyous memories of precious times with Matt, but the recollections were bittersweet. We were back in France, and he wasn’t. Countless times a day I told myself, and God, that I didn’t feel like doing this alone anymore. The sunflowers made us long to hold the beauty of our son in an endless embrace, to press his face to ours to reassure ourselves he was real and not some figment of our imaginations.

Often we could be found poring over photos of Matthew, seeking comfort from brief memories of distant halcyon days, but we both knew the ache inside would remain as long as we are unable to hold him in our arms. Our son was much like many other boys, but to us he was unique and exceptionally special. I am constantly inspired remembering his sensitivity to others, his love for the unloved and his big, compassionate heart that championed the underdog and sought justice.

The sunflowers strewn on his coffin the day we laid his earthly body to rest, and those placed since by dear friends on his grave in what now seemed like a faraway time and place, were a symbol of all we felt God wanted to accomplish in France. The smiling, uplifted faces of les tournesols reminded us that God was still in charge of this seeming maelstrom of events and that He had promised us eternal life. At the centre of the pain that swirled around us endlessly was the knowledge that we would one day be reunited with Mattie, hold him in our arms and see his captivating smile. Our faith gave us indescribable joy of an inheritance that makes winning the lottery like a grain of sand on the shore. By contrast, day to day survival was an arena of conflict.

Truthfully, we needed every ounce of our faith to sustain us in those early months in France. On the practical front, our house in England remained unsold despite reducing the price, and although we were indebted to Mark’s mum, Mary, for generously loaning us some money to move, the sooner it was sold, the sooner we would be able to repay her and begin the vital renovations needed to turn Canaan into the Retreat we had planned with Matt.

Mark was settling back into work at British Airways but we still had the mortgage on our English property as well as all the living expenses in France to meet. Our special allowances from the government ceased immediately upon Matthew’s death and we discovered that my small pension didn’t go very far when it came to a cavernous old farmhouse and outbuildings with a raging thirst for savings. We were still heavily reliant on our church family back in England who continued to provide us with a monthly allowance, though we knew that couldn’t continue indefinitely.  In the day-to-day running and restoration of Canaan, unexpected bills frequently occurred and we were very much living hand to mouth as the saying goes.

That said it did seem that God’s provision miraculously appeared when we had a desperate need, though never in advance of one, which I personally found difficult to adjust to. I like to have something ‘put by’ for emergencies, but apparently God doesn’t agree with me. He seemed more interested in teaching me to trust Him on a daily basis. My biggest problem, it seemed, was my inability to learn quickly!

During the first twenty-four hours after Mark flew back to England to begin his work shift, I would often slip over the precipice into oblivion, too self-absorbed in my grief to even want to see or speak to anyone – not that that was a huge problem, living in the back of beyond with no English- speaking friends around. On one such occasion, I was walking the dogs on a familiar path, which was just as well as I could not see where I was going for tears, when I wiped my eyes, took a break from bending God’s ear bemoaning my life, and noticed a piece of thin green plastic on the ground that had formed the shape of an icthus. (The icthus is the simple sign of a fish that Christians used to identify each other during persecution in the first century. It is still widely used today – often on the back of cars, worryingly all the more noticeable if the occupants are exceeding the speed limit!) I stopped in my tracks, walked around the plastic symbol, viewing it from all sides and realized that it was only noticeable from exactly the direction I had approached it, from all other angles it was hidden by stones and grass. A seemingly unremarkable incident perhaps, but it served to remind me that God loved me, unconditionally, continuously and wholeheartedly, and was with me as He promised. Even when I couldn’t see the way ahead for crying.

To illustrate what I mean about timely provision, a remarkable incident occurred shortly after I saw the fish. When we bought the property, the main farmhouse had only two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. It was always our intention to convert the attic above the old dairy, which is now the main dining room running along the back of the house, into another two bedrooms and bathroom to accommodate family and friends, leaving the separate accommodation free for paying guests and families in need. Funds were limited but we commissioned a local builder to begin the work. It soon became apparent that complications with the septic tank drainage and ‘extras’ were pushing the price up beyond the modest budget we had. So we made a prayerful decision to forego the additional bathroom at that stage, convincing ourselves that the existing one was more than adequate and anyway, family and friends could swim daily in the pool – and shower there afterwards too.

In spite of careful economising, the bill was still scary, whichever way we held it up! Mark returned to England to work and also sell anything we still had that wasn’t nailed to the house there. In the meantime, we transferred all the funds we could raise and prayed it would be enough. It wasn’t. Here in France it is a serious offence to write a cheque without adequate funds in your account and we had no overdraft facilities. The morning I was to write the cheque for all the work, I received an e-mail from an old friend from British Airways, informing us that she had undertaken a fund-raising event in memory of her friend who had died of a brain tumour the same year as Matt, and she wanted to donate a third of the proceeds to Matt’s Canaan Retreat. The money we received just a few days later was sufficient to cover the bill and buy much needed new beds and some outside furniture for our expected guests that summer. What a wonderful lady – what incredible timing, we were so grateful to all the British Airways staff who contributed. And what an amazing God – to Him be all the nail-biting glory!

With each new achievement, however insignificant, we wanted to shout it from the rooftops. We will never be able to thank everyone personally for what they did for us when we embarked on our crazy adventure. We certainly couldn’t begin to acknowledge all the words of encouragement, phone calls, cards, emails and working visits many people paid us. I just hope that in reading this you are able to see your name miraculously appearing on the page and know that your generosity of heart kept two very ordinary people determined to see this vision through.

We were extremely privileged to live in such a beautiful place, and as we welcomed visitors throughout that first summer we saw them also benefit from the peace and tranquility at Canaan. It didn’t appease the pain of life without Matthew though we knew, as his parents, that what we were setting out to achieve would certainly win his wholehearted approval and bring a sparkle to those beautiful blue eyes that we missed so much.

‘If we build it – they will come…’. I kept repeating that phrase over and over, unaware that French bureaucracy, is no respecter of persons, and completely unmoved by two enthusiastic mission-driven foreigners.

We made moves to set up a trust in Matthew’s name, thinking that it would only be a short time before we could maximize charitable status. Unfortunately the French legal system is very different to that of the United Kingdom and it proved to be a long and rocky road littered with frustration and delay. There is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek film called French Kiss we had watched in our rush to embrace all things French. In one exasperating scene Meg Ryan is trying to obtain information from the concierge of the exclusive George V hotel in Paris. With a completely expressionless face and a tone that expects his reply to explain everything, the unmovable concierge says simply, ‘Non! Zis is ze George Cinq, Madame,’ thus discouraging any further discussion. That phrase ‘Non’, has become a catchword for us, to explain all things French that not only cannot be achieved – but also will not be achieved.

Undeterred, we decided to apply for charitable status in England in the hope that it would prove easier and cheaper, with no expensive translations of French contracts and complicated inheritance laws required. But although we had family members and friends willing to take on the role of Trustees, it was to be a considerable time before it was all settled satisfactorily.

We asked British Airways to give Mark a temporary part time contract on compassionate grounds but it was some months before it materialized. It meant he need only work alternate twenty-eight day cycles whilst still enjoying days off between each of his rostered trips. It seemed the ideal arrangement for us to spend some much needed time together, and to make headway with all the renovations for the holiday retreat. What we hadn’t allowed for, and which only became apparent latterly was how challenged we were trying to manage on half his usual salary. But we weighed that against an opportunity for more time together, to work through our bereavement, and decided it was totally necessary if our marriage was to survive the aftermath of Matthew’s death. Sadly we knew of far too many couples whose marriages ended in divorce because they could not move forward together in their grief.

The last eighteen months of Matt’s life had been an intensely traumatic time, as we nursed our extremely disabled son without a break, and we looked forward to an opportunity to speak to trained counselors. We found ourselves with more questions than answers, and though not harbouring unrealistic expectations, we welcomed an opportunity to talk them through. It was becoming apparent that whilst we clung to each other for familiarity and safety, the strain of the past two years still seriously threatened our relationship.

The days got steadily warmer as we got on with the work at Canaan that our limited funds would allow. Although busyness and common-sense prevented us from basking in the sun’s warmth all day, it felt oddly healing on our battered bodies and bruised emotions and we counted our blessings again at being in such idyllic surroundings.

During our regular early morning walks with the dogs we never became bored with the sight of field upon field of sunflowers standing uniformly in their rows, faces upturned in rapt attention towards their source of light and life. As the earth moved on its axis the oversized seed heads turned imperceptibly towards the sun. As evening approached, the yellow throngs gently bowed their faces and drew their petals slightly inward. With their thin stalks and big flowers atop, they reminded me of toddlers, whose perfect little necks and tiny shoulders support beautifully shaped, though seemingly overly large heads. As dusk turned into night, their silhouettes still remained clear to see: the sunflowers’ heads were humbly bowed, all facing east. They know the sun will be there in the morning, it always has been, always will be. Like them, we had to make sure we turned to the Son each morning. He had always been there and He always would be, we just had to remember that and trust Him.

These verses from II Corinthians 4:16-18 in the Amplified Bible were how I wanted to feel. I can only wait with an air of expectation that one day I will be strong enough to tell you it is so …

‘Therefore we do not become discouraged (utterly spiritless, exhausted, and wearied out through fear). Though our outer man is [progressively] decaying and wasting away, yet our inner self is being [progressively] renewed day after day.

For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory [beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!]

Since we consider and look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are visible are temporal (brief and fleeting), but the things that are invisible are deathless and everlasting.’

Boy, am I ever in need of all the help I can get!

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Canaan – St Sigismond, France

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Canaan, Land of Promise

First Instalment

A Word Before…

This sequel to ‘Infinity and Beyond’ is something I have been burning to write for ages now, and yet also have been dreading if I am honest. Nine years on since Mattie went home, tears can still flow unannounced with no seeming pattern, and the necessity to re-count painful times as I pen these chapters can tempt me to shrink back into numb inactivity rather than open barely healed wounds.

For so long a computer kept us in touch with many wonderful people throughout the world who became our friends during Matthew’s long battle with illness. It was one of our precious lifelines. We felt we knew everyone personally who eagerly received our newsletters even though we had never met many of you. It still remained our lifeline – as we survived in another country, without family, friends and often each other close by. But especially for me, it provided an opportunity to unload a large amount of my daily quota of 12,000 words in my native tongue, preventing me from imploding!

It is a profound feeling to know that your personal needs are being prayed for practically every hour of the day, especially when you lack the strength to put one foot in front of the other, or force one word up through your throat and out of your mouth. It is an exhilarating feeling to know in the good moments, when you can hold your head high, dry your tears and continue, that hundreds of people all over the world are willing you on. Like marathon runners, we absorbed and fed upon the cheers of the bystanders.

Almost nine years on, we are faced with the daily paradox of an aching, stifling loss because Matthew is no longer here to tangibly touch and kiss and see, yet our faith gives us the incomparable joy of knowing that he is safe with Jesus in Paradise, and the knowledge that we will see him again. But never did I envisage my faith would have to stand the ultimate test through such painful suffering.

The highs and lows of our daily experiences continue to weave rich chapters in the tapestry of our lives. We have climbed to new heights of love and appreciation of each other and plumbed new depths of frustration, grief and healing, together and in solitude.

We cling fast to the vision that was birthed in Matt’s suffering – that we could offer respite holidays and financial help to families experiencing similar circumstances. That is why we embarked on this challenging journey.

We still believe the faith that sustained us for so long while nursing Matthew will continue to underpin our lives, and make a difference in the lives of others.

That is what this book is all about: those who have been touched by one ordinary boy and an extraordinary God.

“So Abram went up out of Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had…”

Genesis 13:1 Amplified Bible

Standing in faith we left England for France on April 1st 2003 – to what we believed was our Canaan, our Land of Promise. Only time would allow the story to run its course, and confirm whether we were indeed headed for our promised land, or destined to wander in a wilderness.

It was only after several years and some chance research that we discovered the full meaning of the name Canaan. Originally inspired by the story of the land that was promised to Abraham (Abram) in the Old Testament, we adopted the name for our new home in France, and extended it to the whole venture we first embarked on there – to offer a place of respite for families dealing with life-limiting illness.

Both Mark and I felt the period of Matt’s illness – 19 months in total, had been an incredible trial – a test of our faith, our marriage and what we really held dear in this life. We firmly believed the move to France, even though it was ultimately undertaken without our precious Matthew, would lead us through a restorative experience to a place where we could use all our newly gained knowledge to help others.

As Robert Burns wrote in his poem, To A Mouse:

‘The best laid plans of mice and men

Often go awry…’

Though in his novel, Of Mice and Men, inspired by Burns’ poem, John Steinbeck doesn’t say we shouldn’t have dreams, quite the contrary. He suggests that in order for life to be full and meaningful we must have dreams, however, people must learn to reconcile their dreams with reality.

If I had to summarise what our years in France afforded us, it was an opportunity to dream, to exercise our imaginations, to reconcile those dreams with reality and lean, very heavily, on an all-sufficient God.

CHAPTER 1

Fair blew the wind for France

There’s something very special about waking up in a different country. Somehow the sky seems clearer, the air fresher and life generally more exciting. Well, that’s when you’re on holiday! Emigrating is a whole other issue.

By the time we had arrived at our new home in France that first evening, it was too late for the removal men to begin unpacking our belongings from their cavernous van, so we accompanied them to a local hostelry and availed ourselves of the welcoming fare on offer. We were all starving, having existed on sandwiches for the better part of twenty-four hours. The inn we chose – or auberge as they are called in France – was a short distance back up the road we had travelled and, judging by the busy car park, a popular place to eat.

What we didn’t realise until we were inside was that it was a hotspot for long distance lorry drivers; but apart from being packed, it shared little with the eateries we had come to associate with long distance travel back in England. We pre-paid for our inclusive meal and wine and clutching our tickets, wound our way through the many occupied tables to a vacant spot at the back of the restaurant. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, everyone seemed to be chatting across the white, paper-covered tables like they were old friends. I tried to recall seeing any kind of cloths on tables in roadside cafés in England. I couldn’t!

We sat down and were promptly presented with a huge loaf of French bread, a carafe of red wine and vague gesticulations towards a self-service ‘hors d’oeuvre bar’. On closer inspection we were amazed to see an incredibly diverse selection of cold meats and salads, including oysters, all available for repeated selection. We were somewhat overwhelmed at the sheer variety of foods on offer – and that was just for starters!

Tucking heartily into our meals we became aware of a large television screen on one wall of the inn. Closer inspection revealed that a football match was in progress between France and Israel. Suddenly the light-hearted atmosphere in the restaurant changed to one of underlying tension as Israel scored! You could have cut through the atmosphere with a knife, and so four eating companions kept their heads down, passionately interested in the food on their plates until the thankful, final score: France 2 Israel 1. Sorry Israel!

Later that night, feeling like refugees, we tucked ourselves up in bed in our caravan – parked directly outside the front door of our new home. We were still wondering whether it was all a dream, and whether we had made the biggest mistake of our lives. Whether we really had left everything we knew to live in a foreign country. Strangers in a strange land. But of course, it wasn’t a dream – if only it were and reality was us, back in our old familiar life in England, with Mattie safely tucked up in bed in the next room. But even our over-active minds could not keep us awake for too long as we drifted off to sleep, exhausted and scared.

The brightness of the sun’s rays, undaunted by the window blinds, penetrated through closed eyelids until we were forced to acknowledge night was over. Sitting up and stretching, I opened the blinds to look outside. It was a glorious morning. The sky was a perfect shade of blue, the kind you can devote hours to trying to replicate on canvas. I felt a surge of excitement inside, followed by a slight sense of panic as I realised there were no wet noses greeting me. Where on earth were the dogs? Then I remembered, we had secured them, with their baskets, in the warm boiler room next to the kitchen before falling gratefully into bed. Pushing my feet into cold trainers I unlocked the door and went outside to free the captives for their morning wander.

Mark joined me and we stood in our pyjamas, sweaters and incongruous running shoes looking around at the gardens of our unfamiliar home, newly named Canaan: our promised land. Gradually our expressions of disbelief were replaced with calm, peaceful and appreciative looks as we took in the scene around us. The most significant thing was the silence. Well, silence of man-made noise that is. Instead, our ears were greeted with a buzz of sound from birds and insects singing their hearts out to the new day.

We walked around the grounds feeling somewhat out of place, like we had been deposited there at the whim of an author writing a novel, barely talking but hands joined in unity against whatever the plot would reveal. Well, at least the sun was shining, and it wasn’t very cold, and it was tranquil, but it was scary!  Almost before we had time to voice our thoughts, the two removal men emerged from their lofty cab, enquired as to the whereabouts of the bathroom and soon after began unloading our life story, held captive in countless cardboard boxes.

The morning passed quickly as we all got stuck in to do one of my least favourite jobs – unpacking. Remarkably, despite our amateur efforts and lack of know-how, the whole process was achieved by mid-afternoon and the removal men set off promptly to return the way they had come, across the channel to England, leaving us with our lives dispersed throughout a huge old French farmhouse and its outbuildings.

The next few weeks were spent in a kind of repetitious blur of unpacking, shifting our meagre possessions from room to room to try and make the place look occupied and generally adjusting to our new surroundings. We quickly learned what it’s like to run out of oil used to heat the water; run out of gas (in canisters) for the cooker, and run out of French words to acquire all the essentials we needed on a day- to-day basis.

It was difficult not to keep focusing on Matthew’s absence. We tried to keep our spirits up as much for each other as ourselves, but it was exceedingly hard. I realized my tears could appear without warning and flow for extended periods of time. I wanted Mark to hold me and reassure me everything would be alright. But of course, it wouldn’t be, couldn’t be totally right – ever! I learned much later that he felt unable to minister to my needs in those early days as it took him all of his strength to deal with his own feelings of desperation and loss. And so we soldiered on, creating a silent distance between us that was the space we occupied in our separate grief.

I told myself I’d be able to keep it all together as long as Mark didn’t break down in my space; all the while, retreating off to another room to sob silently when the ache in my heart threatened to explode and broadcast its presence. I questioned whether I could survive without moaning, without giving up, without caving in. Paradoxically, we desperately clung to each other for emotional support, even as we excluded each other from our separate grieving.

Mark later admitted he felt confident he could keep going, just as long as I didn’t dissolve into a pathetic heap. With hindsight, we realize it created many problems to try and spare our partner the pain of our personal grief. Choosing not to talk about our emotions for fear of burdening each other at that stage in our bereavement posed serious communication problems further down the road in our marriage, though more of that later. I would discover we were both independently learning to lean heavily on our faith in order to survive.

CHAPTER 2

If you build it, they will come …

With spring quickly advancing, we were distracted somewhat by the beauty of nature all around us. Our new home was in a truly rural setting, with only two other houses nearby and plenty of flora and fauna to provide an ever-changing backdrop. We discovered to our frustration that the acres of land we owned were not fenced in and our two adventurous pets persistently reminded us of that. They loved their new home but our endurance levels were sorely tried. It became a daily ritual for them to just take off across the surrounding fields, exploring the endless trails of scent, in search of fun, mischief and the odd local lass! It also became a daily ritual for us to have to stop whatever task we were frantically trying to complete and take off in pursuit of two of the most evasive labradors I have ever known!

Our friendly post lady owed much of her knowledge of the English language to their escapades. Most days she would deliver our mail along with a note, beautifully written in English, that read, ‘I see Simba in…’, and followed by the name of a nearby village. Along with our waistlines, patience wore thin. Both dogs spent time in the stables – or the ‘slammer’, as it became affectionately known to us, after their illicit adventures, usually in solitary. I quite expected to see a baseball and glove under their arms as they reluctantly entered, and imagined Louis depositing earth down his trouser leg onto the gardens when out of sight of the house. Someone needed to explain the game to him properly though for as soon as he made his escape – usually by digging under the old makeshift pieces of wire fencing, he would come and find us almost as if to announce how clever he was! Not so for Simba, he always had to be recaptured and ignominiously brought back. In between the antics, work at Colditz continued.

We managed to devise one ingenious way of restraining our Great Escape stars by attaching their collars to a very lengthy piece of chain, wound around the trunk of the cherry tree a couple of times. It allowed them plenty of room to move around, whilst affording us peace of mind, knowing where they were. It seemed to deter their outings for a while, but the last laugh was sadly on us! One peaceful and hot afternoon as we toiled away on various urgent jobs indoors, we were alerted to the bell ringing at the front gate, some distance from the house. Wondering who on earth could be calling, as we didn’t yet know anyone well enough for them to drop-in, I headed towards the big wrought iron gates squinting to focus on our visitor. As I got closer, I saw to my embarrassment, our neighbour, the local apple farmer, holding a vast amount of chain in his hands. And yes…attached to each end, with tongues thirstily lolling were Simba and Louis, also known as Cooler King and Tunnel King respectively! We could only be thankful the two culprits had not intercepted and decapitated an unsuspecting Frenchman on his bicycle, complete with onions, now that could have threatened the most recent entente cordiale !

I had long chats with God about how I felt let down in connection with the dogs. We bought them, specifically for Matt, in August 2002, to keep a promise we had made him, and he left to go home with Jesus in November of that year. I felt cheated, and saddled with all the chores owning two dogs can bring. But God gently reminded me we had kept our promise and Matthew knew that. Thanks for that God, though I was still the one obliged to exercise and feed them everyday!

So, moving right along…

We worked nonstop to get the gite  – the separate, self-contained, one bedroom accommodation  – up and running so we could rent it out. It was in overall good condition but looked better for decorating and comfortable furnishing. Because we didn’t sell the house in England immediately, we did not have the capital released from that to renovate the huge barn and stables into additional accommodation. It was always our vision to rent out the latter buildings and use the existing gite to offer free holidays to patients with cancer and their families. But initially we rented out the gite whenever the opportunity arose, it being the only completed area. It kept us ticking over and helped to finance the breaks for needy guests, until our English house sold and we were once more in the black.

Mark elected to return to work full time for British Airways, realizing that we needed a steady income to finance our large and aging property and support us both, since I had not earned an income since Matt first became ill. Unfortunately for us, his request was answered rather too quickly and after only three weeks, in April 2003, he had to leave me in sole charge of Canaan with two very mischievous dogs, a list of jobs that required the resources of the entire French Yellow Pages, the crew of Changing Rooms, and try his best not to worry too much that I only had school-girl French at my disposal.

Those first few separations were acutely painful to endure. I cannot in all truthfulness say they have become easier as time passes. In fact the opposite is true and I have come to dread the sight of a packed suitcase, unless mine is packed too. Looking back though, I can see even in the midst of the loneliness and grief, there was often something that would lift me up and set me back on the road to sanity, but it wasn’t always glaringly obvious when it came time to separate.

One such diversion was the blossoming fields of harvest all around us that spoke of life and hope. For weeks we witnessed field upon agricultural field pushing forth its abundant harvest. The maize grew taller and thicker as each stalk grew strong, developing its hidden bounty. The field opposite the front of our farmhouse resembled a scene from the film ‘Field of Dreams’. I quite expected men to appear from its verdant interior, sporting old-fashioned baseball caps, slamming a ball into a gloved hand.

‘If you build it – they will come.’ I carried that phrase around with me for weeks after we arrived. Mark and I felt spurred on by the promise of needy people coming to find rest, peace and love at Canaan and so were driven to do as many of the renovations as we could afford. It in no way compensated for Mattie’s absence but our hopes of achieving something positive out of our grief created brief diversions from the addictive habit of examining raw wounds, and the fact that we were one Muskateer short of a trio. I’m not quite sure who was who of the three loyal friends, except that Matt probably morphed into D’Artagnan at some point, and Mark and I were left to be Athos Porthos or Aramis, as the mood dictated.

I found the beauty of our surroundings frequently breathtaking, but coupled with a pathos that often caught me unawares and reduced me to quiet sobbing. Mattie would have loved it in that place known as paradis by many visitors and locals alike, but I had to accept that he was in a better Paradise, with Jesus, and to make gargantuan efforts to live without him, for the time being, at least.

One day whilst driving to the nearby town, I noticed the fields were displaying that intense yellow of the rape flowers. It brought to mind how Matt and I always referred to the rape fields as bowls of custard when glimpsed in the undulating English countryside. You happened upon the overflowing acres, but could only bear to look for short periods as their acidic colour scorched images in the camera lens of your brain. You could still see it after closing your eyes. In France, the land is much flatter, so they are sheets of colour rather than bowls, but Matthew’s absence became particularly painful in that commonplace observation.

The enormous cherry tree outside our kitchen door was crowned in glorious crimson fruit almost overnight. It seemed the large red orbs swelled and ripened even as we watched. We ate cherries until we became almost blasé about them and wished them finished, then God reminded me that some children eat only plain rice once or twice a week if they are fortunate, and so we counted our blessings and ate some more. The dogs joined us in that pastime, reclining under the branches, moving only to curl their tongues around the scarlet bounty.

After some amazingly hot weather an exuberant damson tree at the front of the property offered up baskets of spoils, just for the taking. I spent days surrounded by pots and pans as my post war upbringing had me preserving as much as I could of those wonderful harvests we had done nothing to earn. It seemed we truly were living in an abundant place of plenty – our promised land.

I felt offended to see a French couple park their car in the lane at the front of our house and proceed to fill copious bags with fruit from our tree, even using an upturned bucket to assist their efforts in reaching higher branches. Not realizing the picking of such rich harvests is perfectly legal in France if the branches overhang a public path or roadway, I was tempted to shout at them to desist from stealing our plums. I’m grateful I didn’t show myself to be so selfish, as God reminded me exactly whose fruits they were the next day when He caused most of those remaining on the tree to cover the ground on both sides of the fence, following a night of severe wind and storms. There was no way I could preserve all that lay abandoned, even if I worked day and night. Such are life’s lessons. When next the couple appeared, I merely offered them a smile and waved them on in their endeavours.

Despite our emotional instability in those early months we were truly blessed with visitors who came to help, encourage and support us. God was never short of imaginative ways to remind us of His love. Without such unbidden help, countless chores would have remained undone. We had lawns cut, boilers fixed and blockages cleared in a hive of activity as people visited on the pretext of a holiday, but primarily it seemed to keep a watchful eye on us!

CHAPTER 3

You are not alone …

How long I could remain and survive – without feeling disgruntled at the myriad of tiny things and my chronic sense of loss, without giving up, without caving in, only time would tell. Each day brought its own lesson, its own challenges, some days I was attentive enough to learn and survive, others I was not.

There was always so much work to do that my days were kept very full, but it wasn’t always possible to switch off my mind, and I sometimes toppled over into the black hole of grief that resided just below the surface. Some days I would see the ‘black hole’ and throw myself in, mainly to release the pressure valve of tension in my head. But some days I would see the hole, waiting ahead and cry out to God to rescue me from the pain. Time and again He sent a diversion that turned me around and I would experience more of His love for special healing. I am not surprised that the times Mark was away were more difficult, as previously, it was always during those times that Mattie and I did everything together. I missed my little mate: his smile, his humour, his love, his hugs. But I know that he would not want me to be sad, he couldn’t bear to see people cry, so thinking about him played a dual role: as well as the pain of loss, it helped to remind me of all the wonderful things we had done together as a family and gave me strength to carry on, achieving things that would make him proud. I tried to focus on those halcyon days, reminding myself we would all be together again, one day.

One such diversion happened one Sunday, after we left the French church we attended. It was in Royan, a seaside town, about forty-five minutes away from our house. We drove to the nearby beach, intending to walk the dogs there before enjoying a picnic in the warm sunshine. As we parked the car we were approached by an English family, enquiring about places for food and accommodation. They were house hunting and had been staying in a gite that fell far short of their expectations and were desperate to find an alternative base that was clean and friendly.

Our hearts went out to them in their forlorn state and although our gite wasn’t completely painted and the flat-pack furniture was still very much packed flat, we offered them beds for the night, if they would give us time to tidy up before knocking on the door! They gratefully accepted our offer, loved the gite and ended up staying with us for five nights, using Canaan as a base, and insisted on paying us for the experience! David and Gwynn became good friends over the following two years, renting our gite at every opportunity, and even our spare bedrooms when Canaan was full of guests. They supported us in countless ways, and David was only too happy to use his design skills to assist us in planning the barn and stables conversions. They have now bought a beautiful little house in the Charente Maritime that they share with their three sons for holidays whenever they can.

Their story does not end there, as we received unexpected news, two years later, that Gwynn had been diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and had to undergo a life-saving operation and many months of grueling treatment. Their continued association with us and Matt’s Canaan Trust,  is chronicled later in this book.

The church we attended, a duo-denominational – Baptist-L’Alliance, came highly recommended by an ex-pastor and good friend. Despite the fact that the whole service was conducted entirely in French and very few there spoke English, we were lovingly welcomed into their little ‘family’. Sundays were a particular linguistic challenge though as we concentrated so hard to understand everything, we ended up with what came to be known as the Sunday boa-constrictor headache.

I was astounded to discover that God spoke French that year – and was perfectly capable of communicating with Mark and me through several members of that congregation. What was even more surprising was the accuracy of God’s message, when we were able to have it translated! So clever – how He does that! Singing familiar songs in French was a great way to add to our steadily growing knowledge of the language, and while Mark used the sermon time to tackle exercises in his study book, I painstakingly tried to look as if I was able to apply the week’s message to everyday life. We did avail ourselves of some excellent food and company some Sunday afternoons, and the love and support we received so readily from virtual strangers went a long way to helping us make the transition to living in France.

Meanwhile, every spare minute at home that wasn’t taken up with renovating or maintaining the ever-demanding farmhouse and grounds, was utilized in writing Matthew’s story, with the intention of publishing a book that we hoped would help others facing similar devastating circumstances. I have always been able to communicate easily, and writing down all the events of the past two years, although unbelievably painful, was somewhat cathartic in that it provided an outlet in an otherwise limiting environment.

To be continued …

http://www.mattscanaantrust.com

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