What’s different about Matt?

In the early hours of this morning, a wonderful young man got to go hang out with Jesus and have God wipe away any tears. The resurrection body I believe he now walks in will be healed. He will no longer need the cane/walker/wheelchair/reclined bed that became his progressive modes of transport as the brain tumours that robbed him of his faculties grew. He will be able to see clearly again. Walk straight and tall. I have no doubt he will be dancing with joy in front of the Lord Jesus. IMG_6383

Matt battled brain cancer for over a decade. The man who first bounded up to me close to three years ago, after I shared in church how I’d recently become a Christian and been Lipton’d in a river, was exuberant and without filters – something I adored because I love a lot of joy, a lot of laughter and a lot of cheekiness.

I did not know him before – before the myriad of brain operations and medications that not only removed tumours and surrounding brain tissues but, along with those, the neural pathways that wire our social inhibitions.

Yet the Matt I knew was likely different to the Matt his parents, siblings, wife and children knew. That takes some getting used to, don’t you think? Watching your loved one’s character shift and change as an insidious sickness slips through their brain.

Best of all, Matt was head over heels with the Jesus fella. Which made watching him face the end of his life – as the Doctors told him there was no further operation, no further drug that would stop these damned tumours doing their worst – truly amazing.

“I’m Ok,” he’d tell us all. “I’m going to heaven to meet Jesus. I just want you all to make sure my wife and two boys are well cared for, and for my boys to get to know and love the Lord Jesus like I do.”

There was something different about Matt. It may have been the removal of those neurons that wire us to worry about what people may think or feel – but I believe it was his whole-hearted embracing of his identity in Jesus.

I recall taking him out to lunch, and those impatient synapses couldn’t order food quick enough, have a glass of coke placed in front of him fast enough. I felt oddly protective – don’t you dare judge this man by how impatient he appears – but, more, it was a gift to sit with someone who damn well knew that time was short, and he no longer wanted to play along with the illusion. I loved the crisp, clean intensity he brought to it.

There was something different about Matt. Every nurse, doctor, patient – anyone  he’d have encountered – would have experienced it. The pure peace with which he talked about the end of his life. It wasn’t the scoffing, bluster of,  ‘oh, when it’s your time, it’s your time’ that dismisses the pain. Nor was it full of fear.  It was peaceful. Beautiful. Matt walked into the very promise that Jesus offers all who believe in him: you will have eternal life. I will draw you in, hold you close, overcome all death and suffering. For my yoke is light.

“I wonder what it will be like?” he asked me one day over coffee. I’d taken him out after church – he’d been too tired to attend – and shared we’d sung I Can Only Imagine – a hymn that asks precisely that question: when we meet Jesus what will it be like? Will we fall to our knees and pray? Will we dance? Sing Hallelujah? Will we be able to speak at all?

“I love that hymn!’ he exclaimed, starting to hum the tune. It will be my enduring memory, sitting in a crowded cafe over Sunday lunch, the pair of us belting out the hymn at the top of our voices in a crazy cappuccino chorus. The look on the face of the bloke at the next table? Priceless.

“I don’t know what death will be like,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just go ZAP, fall asleep, switch off? Like a computer?” I remember replying totally inappropriately, knowing his lack of filters would welcome mine: “Well, can you not do it here with me, in this coffee shop? Or if you do…can we maybe pray for some warning? So I can at least try to get you up and out, at least off the premises? Less paperwork for these poor cafe owners…”

He grinned mightily at me before suggesting another hymn to sing.

There was something different about Matt. He remained other-focused. “Are you still studying at bible college?” he would demand of me. “How are the kids? What’s Big T up to?” It doesn’t automatically assume that all Christians are other-focused (Dear God,  I know I forget so often!) but it’s testament to how much Matt sought to walk like Jesus that even in the midst of the most sorrowful time of illness (for goodness sake, you’re DYING, Matt, who gives a flying fig about my bible study?!?) he wanted to know.

Sidenote: Truthfully, if I was studying knitting, or the migratory habits of the lesser spotted dung beetle, I think Matt would have been less concerned. He was always all about Jesus. Bible college beats dung beetles, after all.

But my best memory of Matt? Just a few weeks ago. Delivered to church in his reclining bed on wheels, he was there to worship, listen to God’s Word, be around his family in Christ. I looked over and saw my smart, thinking, questioning 12 year-old son, who has had plenty of “WHAT THE?” moments over our family going to church.

He was standing next to Matt, holding his hand, poised on that edge of awkwardness where only young adolescents can wobble. I wandered slowly over. I didn’t wish to intrude, but dealing with incurable sickness is hard for all of us, and I wanted to help my son navigate the waters should he need. Matt was holding onto his hand and I could sense Seb’s social uncertainty: ‘Do I just take my hand away? How long ought I stand here for?’

Seb wasn’t aware that Matt likely didn’t even register he was still holding onto his hand. He just didn’t know what to do. He looked up at me with a faint question in his eyes, and I whispered, “You can take your hand away if you want to.”

Seb tugged his hand away and on the return journey back to his side, squeezed Matt on the shoulder. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “See you soon too, buddy,” Matt replied. It emerged that Seb had turned up at Matt’s side, unprompted, asking how he was. And I cry as I type this because I know – I know – how rare that other-focus can be in one so young. Heck, even in one so old (like me!) But it was a beautiful, poignant moment that encapsulated how church works. How Jesus works. When one hurts, you all hurt. When we hurt, Jesus hurts. Matt delivered my son a wonderful opportunity to lean into the unknown with love.

Last night Seb and I spoke about God, suffering, pain, hope, the promises of Jesus and Matt. This evening, hearing the news of Matt’s passing, he cried. Yet, at 12, he can see there was something different about Matt when it came to pain and death, and the eternal comfort and hope he had in Jesus.

And for that I will always be grateful.

Rest In Peace, Matty. You sowed so many seeds when you were here. Good, faithful and cheeky servant, I look forward to seeing you again. Enjoy singing your hymns and getting your groove on in heaven.

Amen.

This third Easter is a charm

Many of my childhood Easter memories revolve around chocolate eggs and holidaying with my surrogate family in a lovely english coastal town called Beer. A single-parent, my Mum arranged for us to get away in the school holidays with neighbours. It worked out well for all: as the eldest I was able to keep an eye on their younger offspring and my Mum got some much needed adult time.

It was an annual tradition. Waking up early on Easter morning to discover chocolate eggs at the end of the bed. My neighbour’s youngest son devouring a Yorkie Trucker’s Egg before 8am. Me tracing my fingers over the correctly-spelt Philippa on the hand-made Thornton’s egg.

I don’t recall us attending church on Easter day. Then as I grew up and away from C of E schooling into agnostic new-ageism, Easter simply signified an handy long weekend. I’d roll my eyes at Big T wanting to only eat fish on Good Friday, but for me it simply was about the chance to drink wine with friends, maybe get away camping, and chocolate.

Nowadays I’d categorise my most recent Easters as akin to ‘Grumpy’ ‘Weepy’ and ‘Smiley’

Grumpy Easter

This was the ‘wake me up at 3am with song lyrics and shove bibles at me’ Easter. I was not impressed. I couldn’t take a step on the beach without a sailboat thrusting Christian logos at me. What? Are you talking to me? For goodness sake, leave me alone.

Weepy Easter

A year down the track and I’d done plenty of cage-fights with God by the time my second Easter rolled around. It was a pensive, reflective time. I’d moth-dived towards the light, spent some time in the gospels and had got stuck in the Groundhog Day nature of how humanity had crucified an undeserving man. Reflecting back, the enormity of the suffering outweighed my joy in the resurrection.

I spent Weepy Easter uncertain that I could do it again the following year because, not only was I in sorrow due to the enormity of what Jesus sacrificed, I was weighed down by how little humanity has learnt since. I found myself wishing that something would change. That, somehow, there would be a different ending. That we’d learn.

grass_egg_smiley_smile_humor_macro_54212_300x300.jpgSmiley Easter

I write this at the start of my third, Smiley Easter. And I cannot wait. Whether it’s because I prayed earlier this week for God to show me how to embrace the Holy Spirit within, or because – miracle of miracles – Big T and I have almost managed a week of daily ‘his n her’ prayer, but I am behaving in a decidedly unAnglican manner.

The poor check-out chick who wished me a dour happy easter at the shopping centre earlier is now probably shaking her head over the nutbag happy-clappy Christian who jumped behind the counter, washed her feet and tried to anoint her head with oil. Luckily the SAP was willing to take the call when I asked for bail to be posted…

But you know what? Deal with it.  As Brussels shudders in shock, we need something more substantial to put our hope in than ourselves. Our selves are the problem. And anyone who honestly thinks we’re doing OK as a DIY society is delusional.

Easter is a chance to reflect on what we could all learn from Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection: This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12).

Easter reminds us that Jesus offered the selfless laying down of his life for our eternal gift. Compare that to the selfish blowing up of life we saw in Brussels two days ago. If you haven’t yet thought about what Jesus offers in comparison to such worldly horror, there’s no better time than Easter to do it. 

So, do you feel different?

This appears to be the main question I’m receiving after my Lipton’ingbaptism a couple of days ago.

Surfacing… firm grip, please, SAP!
Surfacing… firm grip, please, SAP!

As the SAP shared during the ceremony about why the Christian faith baptises, being immersed in a river did not do anything ‘magical’ to me. I didn’t emerge out the water like Dr Grey/Phoenix in the X-Men. It’s a symbol. A pretty public one. That I have skin in the Christian game. Jesus, God and I are now teammates. They have my back. I’ve got theirs.

Yet my new-age wanderings put credence in being ‘washed away’. Magic, no. Energetically, I’m feeling a lot more grounded in my Christianity. Perhaps the salt water counteracted all the adrenalin that flooded my system when the SAP said there were 250 sausages ordered for the post-dunking BBQ. 250?! Just how many people were going to be watching?

Welcome to the family

It both terrified and humbled me that so many people, a fairly good proportion of whom I had never met (given this was organised by the Saturday Night Youth Church and I’m an old broiler who goes to another service on Sundays), were on the riverbank cheering all the dunkees on. Unconditional love and support from those who were delighted in the decision we had reached. I was particularly moved by one close friend, a staunch atheist, who whooped and hollered from the riverbank with the rest and settled me with a generous gift of unconditional love herself: ‘Many congratulations, Phil. May your faith sustain you in good times and not so good. Lovely to see you so happy.‘ How generous, open-hearted and gorgeous is that?

Given I have skidded, crashed, cried, skinned knees, skinned heart, danced, dodged and whooped my way through this six month journey at a fairly break-neck speed, the water was a balm. I purposely withdrew from social media and implemented a strict regime on managing work email for three days before. Big T helped too, creating white space in the noise of domesticity on the day. It all allowed me to retreat inward. Settle and pat down the past 30 weeks of spiritual excavation. This was one occasion I had no wish to skid into.

A passage about baptism by Anne Lamott in her book ‘Travelling Mercies‘ struck me during this period:

“It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under…you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy….  It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched... The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now.”

Does the grin say it all?
Does the grin say it all?

So here I am, dunked, drenched, refreshed, and ready to rock the new day. Only two burning questions remain, and both have plagued my irreverent mind since the ceremony:

1) Has the SAP ever had a lipton-ing moment when, at the point he needs to start drawing the dunkee up and back out of the water, one hand firmly gripping their right shoulder, the other at the top of their left forearm, he thinks, “Uh-oh, I’ve not got the leverage here. This one’s going to hit the bottom…” 2) Do they offer ‘practice sessions’ at bible college?

Hugs from my biggest supporter. Thanks Big T!
Hugs from my biggest supporter. Thanks Big T!

Keep calm…and press the lifeline button

It has taken one year, five months and ten days for me to write this post. To write down the moment-to-moment experience of the day my Mum died. Mostly because I wasn’t proud of how it went. Somehow I wanted it to be more, show more, have more. So forgive me my delay.keep-calm-and-press-the-lifeline-button

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that the night before she died, I spent time numbingly distracting myself with the 50 Shades Trilogy. I also cleared out lots of papers and looked through her boxes of photos. Mum drifted in and out of sleep whilst I sat on the floor next to her bed, looking at pictures of trips she’d taken on her trips to Australia.  We didn’t talk. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Should I have sat down on the bed and awoken her to talk about the good times, get her to look at the photos, remind her of how much we’d shared and experienced?’ Upon reflection, I realised I didn’t want the confrontation. That the end was nigh. Not did I want to disturb her. If Mum was drifting in some pain-free haze, who was I to interrupt the peace?

So I softly said goodnight, gave her a last sip of water, and went to my bed in the next room. I read some more, staying awake so I could hear if she needed me, and eventually drifted off to sleep. Whilst I slept, my husband Tony came down from the guest rooms upstairs and read quietly to her – a book of Australian Poetry. It is our joke now that no-wonder she chose to die the next morning.

I awoke early to an SMS from Australia, a dear friend who I call the ‘great psychic’. Wishing my mum love and peace in her passing. I walked into the lounge room and stood next to the bed. Mum was breathing, but slowly. “Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked. No response. And in that moment I knew. She was breathing still, but it wasn’t going to be long.

I wish I could say I sat down, held her hand and with poise and grace said good-bye. Instead I took two steps back and thought, “Oh shit, do I call someone?” Luckily Tony walked in at that moment. I looked at him and burst into tears. “Should I call Mary?” he asked, referring to one of the carers, who was a short drive away.

Mum was still breathing. Her death was but moments away. Yet we were both looking externally to somehow make it better. No matter how much grace and peace I had come to believe I had around this moment, now it was here every quiet belief failed me. Tony stepped outside to make the phone call.

I stood alone next to the bed, trying to sob and hiccup as quietly as possible because I didn’t WANT her to hear me and hang on. I knew (intellectually) her death was inevitable.  And you know what she did?

She waited. Waited until I was no longer alone. She heard Tony come back in and quietly tell me that he’d spoken to Mary. Then there was one exhale. And her chest did not rise again.

‘But, but, hang on, no, wait’ my brain stuttered. It was so anti-climatic. Was this it?

Of course it was. But then we didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other. It was early, none of the carers were on shift. I’m sure we could have come to an elegant solution, should we have stopped to think, but neither of us could. The carers had said press the lifeline button should we need any help, as it would ring through for assistance. So we did.

Which meant an ambulance was sent over to take a reading of her heart and confirm death – because Lifeline had to follow its own protocol. Not exactly the quiet, peaceful ending I’d so delicately imagined, although it did give me a chance to canvas the two female medics who arrived about what had to happen next. I even asked their advice on local funeral directors – all whilst trying to ignore the piece of paper coming out the portable ECG with one long, flat line upon it.

I’ll get onto the rest of the day in other blogs. But did I learn a lesson that morning? Well, I’ll be better equipped to help anyone in future come time of death!

Mostly, I learnt that no matter what – no  matter how strong, how poised, how prepared, how stoic you think you’ll be – nothing prepares you for the moment a parent takes their last breath. And that’s OK. Because by not being prepared for that last breath, you recognise  you have been prepared all your life. To love and live. Why should we be prepared for last breaths? Last chances? Instead, prepare for first chances, first hopes, new dreams, first kisses, first love (remember that somersaulting tumble in your stomach of first love?). Because all of that, ALL of that, gets you through the last breath.

Facing The Final Curtain

It has been a year, one week and seven days since my Mum died. But, honestly, I’m not counting. Having passed the one year anniversary, the rawness of the emotion is not what it once was. Life, work, children have conspired to keep me away from this blog, yet earlier this afternoon I was reminded of Mum as I quickly threw together the ingredients for a chocolate sponge cake. Mum liked a good chocolate sponge, and I remembered her weighing the sandwich tins on the scales to ensure there was an even balance. As I did the same, I realised I was ready to write the hardest posts of all.

Final curtainTwo days after we landed in the UK, Mum was sleeping far more and interacting little. She took only a little soluble aspirin and oral morphine. She complained her pyjamas were digging in her side and kept rubbing there, but when the nurse and I checked there was nothing bunched or uncomfortable. I remember Mary, a beautiful carer who was a close friend of Mum’s, meeting my eyes across the bed and quietly shaking her head. The ‘irritation’ was internal, as Mum’s vital organs slowly gave up the fight.

I realised we had never had a proper conversation about Mum’s wishes. It was like ignoring the elephant in the room. Burial or cremation? Perhaps if we don’t talk about it,  it will all just magically fix itself? As Mum weakened on the Sunday I realised if I kept putting it off until “tomorrow” it would be too  late. So, journalist-trained, I set myself a deadline. By 11am today, I told myself, you have to have the conversation.

The minutes ticked inexorably closer. I sat down next to the bed. Looking back on that moment, I can only be grateful for the relationship we had whereby I could ask my Mum almost anything. Facts of life? She was always matter-of-fact with me. It was time for me to put all she had taught me into practise.

“Mum,” I asked, gently holding her hand. Her eyes flickered open slowly and held my gaze, still tired, still waiting. I took a deep breath. “I have to ask you. Would you like me to bury you here, or would you prefer the more portable option, so I can take you with me back to Australia?” I cry now whenever I share this story, but I recall having dry eyes at the time.

She smiled. “I think the portable option, Philly,” she whispered, her own nickname for me that no-one else used. I smiled back, holding her hand.

It was the last smile we shared before she died the following day. And I was the stronger for it.

Time stand still

When someone is in palliative care, there is a lot of  ‘hurry up and wait’.  Death has its own timeline and you just have to relinquish control and  stay in the moment. Difficult in a society like ours when we’re used to filling our houses, lives and minds with stuff to distract us from the present. 5191905033_0b6d5aafb8_m

The arrival on the Friday was a flurry of handover from her carers, a visit from her Macmillan nurse, understanding the Do Not Resuscitate paperwork, plus her medications. Given I held power of attorney, as well as being the sole next of kin, made it both easier and overwhelming. Easier because I did not have to deal with any family member’s competing wishes. I could purely honour Mum’s desire to die with dignity without having to worry about anyone else. Overwhelming because, well, bloody hell, there was a little girl deep down inside who wanted to throw all the paperwork away and just have her Mum well again.

So I tried a few distraction techniques. Mum was enjoying lemonade ice blocks so I ducked to the closest supermarket. England was having an unseasonably warm summer and I decided what I’d packed was too warm. So whilst there I raced around the clothing section buying some t-shirts. Really? Instead of sitting next to her bed and sharing these last precious moments, I dived into some retail therapy, albeit a fast dose?

Grief and denial go hand-in-hand. Being able to control something (my clothes being appropriate for the weather) gave me a modicum of order over the other part of my brain that was reeling from paperwork, medication and simply seeing her lying in that hospital bed, just waiting. It gave me control during a time I felt utterly helpless and powerless to make a difference.

In retrospect, I wasn’t helpless. It was simply that the choice of how ‘to be’ was incredibly hard to face. I had to choose to be peaceful whilst my life was in turmoil. I had to pull on the big girl undies and face up to the reality of death.

It was how we presented the situation to our children that gave me the greatest strength and guidance on how to be. We told them, “just as Mummy and Daddy were privileged to be with you at the start of your lives, we are privileged to be with Grandma at the end of hers.”

I’ve no idea where that line of wisdom came from, but it was how I found my centre, my compass over the final days.  That no matter how confronting, how lonely, how intense it became, it was a privilege to be present with someone I loved at the end of her life.

And so, the end is near

There are many memories of the week leading up to Mum’s death, but none so indelibly printed on my brain as the one when I walked into her home the morning we landed. I had imagined a scenario of her sitting in her favourite chair, perhaps a little pale and tired, but nevertheless sitting in her chair, a cup of tea on a tray close to hand, with Teddy the dog curled up nearby.

It was like watching the slowest sunset, just waiting for the shadows.

This was what the oncologist’s “possibly six weeks” timeframe had given me.

My own imaginary, comforting countdown whereby in the first weeks she’d be sitting, perhaps even well enough to come out with me in her wheelchair for some retail therapy. Then, as weeks went by, slowing down before eventually taking to her bed for her final days. I’d even bought her some duty-free Clarins for a spot of in-home pampering to help pass the time.

Walking into her sitting room and seeing her lying in a hospital bed slammed my comforting countdown into a concrete wall and scattered it into millions of pieces.

Thoughts splintered through my brain in what appeared to be milliseconds.  ‘Don’t cry, keep it together, be strong’ was the first. ‘What the bloody hell were you thinking with the Clarins?’ was another. I even looked over at her favourite chair, sitting empty, because my brain couldn’t compute what my eyes were showing me in the bed.

She looked like she was asleep. An oxygen tube to her nose. On a tray, across the bed, cups with straws. Water, ice chips. Tissues. Lip balm. I crept closer and gently stroked her hair. Ever so slowly she opened her eyes and turned her head my way. It was unlike any other reunion we had had before, where Mum had always showed joy and excitement at my arrival. This time there was nothing in her eyes except a foreign weariness. A diminishing of her living will. “It’s OK Mum,” I whispered. “I’m here now.”

Honestly, it was strangely anti-climatic. No words of gladness that we’d made it. No greetings to her grandchildren or Tony. No emotional outbursts or vital words that had to be spoken before it was too late.  It was like watching the slowest sunset, a subtle dying of the light whilst waiting for the final shadows.