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.
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.
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.
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.
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!