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.
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.
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.