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.
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.
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!
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 …