Back to earth with a bump

In the stocks at Hexham

This morning Hilary and I set off for home along the A1(M) but not before one last trip out into Hadrian’s Wall country to the beautiful town of Hexham.

After breakfast and a last bit of shopping, we hit the long 150 mile stretch of road down to Newark and then onto the A46 for the last run home to Leicester.

Actually, it was a pretty smooth run and on the way we listened to some stories together – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Cat Mummy’ and a retelling of The Lion King.  Interestingly, both are stories about coping with death.

In the first, Verity tries to secretly mummify her cat Mabel in the wardrobe, having been given the impression by her family that death is something that is too upsetting to talk about.  Her mother died when she was a baby and only at the end of the story does her father begin to realize that for both their sakes he needs to talk about her.  I was reminded of the inspiring programme earlier this year about Rio Ferdinand and his family.

The Lion King too is a story of bereavement and a kind of ‘coming of age’ journey that the young Simba goes on to become the king after feeling to blame for his father’s death.  In the end, he returns from exile to find that his pride are starving.  The reality is hard for him to bear.

Arriving home felt a bit like coming back to earth with a bump, the stresses and strains of my normal routines beginning to creep back into my consciousness, anticipation of a packed diary this coming week and my next trip to Pittsburgh coming up soon (I might blog more about that another time), facing the unpacking and sorting that needs doing, the jobs I left behind that need to be picked up again.  Twenty one phone messages, a pile of post and countless emails to wade through … but maybe not just yet.  There is nothing that can’t wait until Monday!

The long road home

The journey I have been on between Ascension and Pentecost continues on the long road home.  It’s here that some of those memorable moments and thought provoking encounters will bear fruit in the days and weeks and months to come.  It’s important I take the time I need to remember where I’ve been and what I have achieved in Andy’s memory, to look back at the photos and my blog.

The beautiful ceiling at Carlisle Cathedral where my journey began

That’s why things like certificates and T-shirts are important.  Remembering where we’ve been when we get home from time away is often difficult.  The photos just don’t quite capture the mood and spirit of that special moment or even the journey itself.

There is some evidence that Dante’s contemporaries genuinely believed he had been on a physical journey through Hell to Heaven.  Once he had written about it, people avoided him in the streets!  As the Pilgrim arrives at his final destination and comes face to face with God, words fail him too but he recalls the sensation, the love that moved him and held him spinning like a wheel (or dare I say it, a fidget-spinner!) in equilibrium – moving constantly while also at rest.  This is the love within which all other loves are held, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.

 

Thanks

The walk4andy has of course been a labour of love but I could never have achieved it on my own.  This is my opportunity to thank all those who have supported me (I just have to hope it doesn’t sound too much like an Oscars acceptance speech!) and it goes without saying that I wouldn’t have got very far at all if it hadn’t been for the man who built the Wall in the first place …

Publius Aelius Hadrianus

Thanks to all those who have joined me on my walk: Julie, Ian, Nathan, Erica, Scott, Tamara (and Charlie the greyhound!), Tony, Sue, James, Benjy, Hilary, David, Jonathan, Benjamin, Wendy and Val

 

Thanks to those who have helped with lifts and being around during the week: Allison, Will and Dan, Yvonne, Chris, Catherine and Anna, Mags, Matthew, Daniel and Lucy, and especially Barry (and Zac!)

Thanks to those who have given us hospitality, especially Michael and the folk at Carlisle Cathedral, and Benjamin and Stephanie, Elizabeth and Matilda.

Thanks to those I’ve met along the way – Michael, Dany, Clare and countless others whose names I never found out.

Thanks to Andy at the ATC who lent me his camel pack so I didn’t have to stop to drink.

Thanks to my Diabetes team at Leicester General who gave me my continuous glucose monitoring kit making it so much easier to avoid the hypos.

Thanks to Geraldine’s chiropodist who provided a kit for my feet which amazingly I haven’t had to use at all!

Thanks to those who have been praying for me, especially everyone back at St Denys who have been walking and praying in solidarity.  I have felt held in a way like never before.

Thanks to those who have been reading my blog and sending comments and words of encouragement.  It has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks to those who have supported by sponsoring me.  That is the most important part of this whole journey and I am gobsmacked to have raised nearly three times my target of £1000.  Thank you thank you.

And thanks to my family for putting up with me, not only through this week but through all the planning and practice walks, for agreeing to holiday in Carlisle and Derbyshire last year so that I could do some walking.  Thank you for your endless patience and your support this week.  To Erica and Hilary for your companionship on so much of the walk, and to Wendy for encouraging me and humbly getting on with the most boring job of bag-carrying, fetching and dropping off.  I know you had lots of tea and cake in pretty places to make up for it, but it did mean you had to get up when we did!

 

And finally, thanks to Andy, without whom I would not be the person I am today and would never have found the inspiration and determination to do something like this.  I laughed out loud when I read a comment from someone who knew Andy very well saying ‘I can’t help thinking Andy would want to know why you’re walking that far when you could drive!’  So true!  But I hope that this will go some distance to helping others with his condition to get more support and maybe help those who are working to find a cure for VHL.  Huge thanks to VHL UK/Ireland for all the work you do for families like ours.

 

 

Heaven in ordinary

84 miles, about 240,000 steps (thanks Fitbit!), nine days, sixteen walking companions (plus a dog), through marsh  and valley, along road and river, over hill and stile, in city and country, town and village … to end at the appropriately named Wallsend around 2pm this afternoon!

It is finished.

My feet were particularly sore after a lot of pavement pounding today along very ordinary streets and paths through Newcastle.  That’s not to say there weren’t some glory moments, such as the Swedish deli we came across, the views of the Tyne, the fisherman who caught a crab as we passed and the Quayside where we timed it just right to see the Millennium Bridge in action!  But after all I’ve seen over the past nine days, the end of the walk4andy felt very … well, ordinary.  The pathways and pavements could easily have been in Leicester and looked very similar to the ones I walked just two weeks ago to get to Mountsorrel in fact.

There was something very ordinary about walking that last section with just my family too, with Wendy my wife, and my two daughters Erica and Hilary.  All of us found it a bit wearing and hard-going on the feet and there were the usual family arguments as we began to rub each other up the wrong way.  All very ordinary.

We arrived at Segedunum to see where the Wall ended and the fort has been partly excavated and we wandered round the excellent exhibition there.  Again it all felt like a very ordinary family day out.  And yet it was anything but.  I had just walked 84 miles across the country from one coast to the other, in memory of Andy and raising awareness (I hope) and money (about £2500 I think now) for VHL.

My pilgrimage had come to an end in a rather unspectacular way with a pot of tea and a plate of scrambled eggs on toast!

Then after waving goodbye to Wendy and Erica at Newcastle station, Hilary and I went to evening prayer at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, again the routine ordinary prayers said day in day out by Anglicans all over the place.

But in its very ordinariness I think there was something quite extraordinary going on.  I have said how much I don’t want this journey to end, and the challenge with these sorts of experiences is always how to carry them back into ‘ordinary life’.  Here today I found the ordinary right here in the extraordinary journey and when I let go of my anxiety for some amazing bolt-of-lightning revelation of what this has all been about, I saw the beauty in the ordinariness and felt the peace that came from it.

Towards the end of Andy’s life, it was the very ordinary things that made him happy – the bacon sandwich, a visit from a friend, the trip out to do a bit of shopping, the Earl Grey tea and proper coffee.

It is not for nothing that George Herbert, another of my favourite poets, described prayer as ‘heaven in ordinary’.  This whole walk4andy has been one long prayer, a prayer for my family and for all those struggling with VHL, a prayer for myself and my struggles with grief, a prayer for the church and the churches I have had contact with en route, a prayer for God’s kingdom to come – in me, in us and in our broken world. #thykingdomcome

May that prayer continue to grow and bear fruit as I return home, the kind of prayer George Herbert also called ‘The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage’ and yes, ‘heaven in ordinary’.

 

 

My mum

‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ – words from the psalm set for evening prayer yesterday, which I was able to say in the beautiful church in Corbridge after finishing day 8 of my walk4andy in the company of my eldest daughter and my mum.

My mum came up to join me last weekend and has been able to do part of the walk with me.  She is a great support and has even raised sponsorship herself.  But yesterday was the first opportunity I had had to really talk to her and ask her all sorts of things about what it was like when Andy and Dad were both diagnosed with VHL.  I was around Hilary’s age at the time and don’t really remember much at all.

As we walked side by side, Mum told me stuff today I had never known, about the time when Andy, aged 11, was in hospital next to Dad, both of them having cryotherapy treatment on retinal tumours.  And the time she went to Manchester with Andy about ten years ago to a VHL support meeting for those with VHL and their carers.  At that stage he was still reasonably able, and meeting others at later stages of the illness came as a huge shock to them both.

I knew my mum was brave but hearing her talk about those times filled me with a whole new appreciation for her courage and determination in the face of nearly losing both her husband and her son.  Now as a parent myself, I can’t imagine the pain of seeing your child suffer like Andy did.  He probably wouldn’t have realised at 11 what VHL meant, but Mum would have had a much better understanding of how it might progress which must have been terrifying.

She has been witness to more operations and emergency procedures than she can count, she has visited hospitals all over the country and sat in on numerous consultations bearing bad news.  But she also speaks so highly of the nurses on the wards who cared for Andy, how they became like family to her and remembered her each time Andy was admitted.

On her 60th birthday!

Mum has held close all of that heartache for such a long time.  More than ten years ago she nursed my stepfather through an agonising few months as he died of cancer at just 54.  And then shortly after Andy died in 2013, she also lost her mum, my grandmother, who she had been caring for.

How anyone can go through so much and still want to open their heart to the risks that come with love, I cannot guess, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to marry her to her new husband Barry last January.  This has been a painful journey for me but it is as nothing compared to the journey my mum has been on.

Mum and her boys in 1999 at my wedding

Andy, Dad, my stepfather and grandmother are all now on that farther shore, safe in the arms of the God who created them and loved them.  As Mum left last night before she travels home to Leicester this morning, we hugged one another tight, struggling to hold back the tears, like a pair of shipwrecked sailors clinging to a piece of driftwood as they are tossed and thrown by the waves around them.  But maybe, just maybe, we can see a bit of land coming into view now, something to look forward to and give us hope and peace.

God bless you, Mum!

 

 

Being present to the journey

I was reminded by a wise acquaintance this morning of the importance of being present to the journey.  This was in response to my explanation as to why I was taking so long over walking Hadrian’s Wall.  It has been a recurring question.  On my first day I was told the story of one man who had run the entire Wall in just 16 hours.  Why on earth should I take nine days to do the same?

My answer to the question includes the fact that for me what matters is that I complete the journey not how long it takes.  As a society, and sadly sometimes as a church, we seem obsessed with speed, doing things faster and faster.  We want instant results or else we think what we’re doing isn’t working.  But just as when I drive along the motorway, the hedgerows become a blur, so we can easily miss seeing all sorts of things when we travel too fast.

Today I was accompanied by Hilary, my youngest daughter, who is just 9 years old.  Hilary was concerned that I not be on my own so committed to walking with me for the whole of Day 7.  I confess this came as a surprise since she is not the world’s greatest walker and usually tires quite quickly and would much rather be sat in front of a TV or an iPad!

However, Hilary also has a very important gift, one of the many things I cherish about her but rarely get the opportunity to enjoy.  Hilary is never in a hurry!  On a school day when trying to get out of the house on time, it can be and frequently is infuriating, but on a day like today it was an absolute delight.

We stopped to wonder at the lapwing flying overhead, at the cute newborn lambs in the fields, and at the mating damselflies in the hedgerow.  We stopped to listen to the chaffinches singing and see the swallows swooping.  Hilary insisted on taking photos of the tiniest flowers and the vast panoramic landscapes.  I think we spent a good twenty minutes stalking a butterfly which kept moving further down the path every time Hilary got a little too close with my phone camera.

Large red damselfly

 

Speedwell

 

 

Newborn staying close to mum

 

All of this meant the journey took longer than it might have done and we ended the day at the Robin Hood Inn, not quite as far as I’d planned but I really don’t mind.  We had a wonderful day as Hilary taught me to notice things again, not to be afraid to stop and wonder.  This is what I think it means to be present to the journey, to savour this moment, this experience.  It’s what our Walks with Wonder back at St Denys are all about, and I am as much in need of being reminded of that as anyone else.

To quote Danny Pink from a previous serious of Doctor Who: ‘I don’t want to see more things, I want to see more clearly the things I have in front of me.’

The Celtic Christians were much more aware than we are today I think of the significance of the ‘now’.  In the final lines of that Celtic prayer I’ve been learning:

You are the light, the truth, the way

You are my Saviour this very day

Feast and Fast

Ramadan Mubarak to all my Muslim friends, neighbours and blog readers!

Having taught in Peterborough for several years with a class of children who were all Muslim, I know it can be a real challenge at this time of year so prayers for a blessed and fruitful fast, that you discover what Rumi called the ‘hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness’.

Much as I admire people who take fasting very seriously, I struggle with it.  Partly because of my diabetes and I’ve written and talked about that before (e.g. https://youtu.be/i7XSirBJFYo)

But I’m also something of a binger if I’m honest and not just when it comes to food.  I think I have one of those personalities, like Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  I get obsessed with something and then suddenly find I’m bored and want to move on to something else.  I have tried to train myself out of it but I think it’s still my default position!

People I know who struggle with mental health issues have told me how the drugs they are given often take away their ability to feel at the extremes.  They neither experience the depth of sorrows not the heights of joy.  Instead life becomes somewhat grey.  The trouble is we seem to crave for intense emotional experiences as human beings. And if we want to be able to experience intense joy we also open ourselves up to intense pain.

As I come to the end of the first three days of my journey, I am already aware it has been something of an emotional rollercoaster.  And now my quiet solitude has been replaced by the joy and delight of having lots of my family join me.

The fast and the feast.  But sometimes I think the feast can make us feel more intensely the pain of the fast.  Seeing everyone gathered together I find can be something of a bittersweet experience as I can’t help noticing who is missing…

The Reading Room Café in Walton

More words from that Celtic prayer:

 

You are the door that’s open wide

You are the guest who waits inside

All by myself …

I have discovered it’s possible to feel lonely even when you are not alone and to be alone and not to feel lonely at all.

This morning – #walk4andy day one – I was up with the larks to get to the Ascension Day service at Carlisle Cathedral.  As I went bleary-eyed for communion, I offered up to God the day ahead and all the planning that has gone into this #walk4andy.

Afterwards there was a delicious breakfast and some good company from as far away as Argentina!  I also got invited back to evensong when Michael, the brilliant Canon Missioner, kindly prayed for those suffering with VHL, remembering Andy in the Cathedral intercessions, and even gave me tea and a few beers!  It’s always good to be reminded that we are not alone, and the Church extends well beyond our parish and across the world (NB. I drafted this before I heard the news from the Philippines but that makes it even more poignant – when one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it…)

I then took the bus out to Bowness on Solway to find the beautiful Pavilion where I could stamp my passport to prove I’d been. En route I made more friends on the bus and a visitor from Norway kindly took my picture.

Thereafter I was pretty much on my own.  The route to Burgh by Sands was pretty quiet.  I didn’t feel lonely though. I had my thoughts and the messages from so many friends and loved ones wishing me all the best.  I even had a text from one of my churchwardens with a picture of the smiling faces of my  wonderful  congregation back at St Denys this morning!

But it was hot and sunny (Andy wouldn’t have complained!) and there wasn’t a lot of shade as I walked alone by the marshes.   The cap and sun cream did their job but I felt very exposed to the elements.

It set me thinking about how exposed and vulnerable I have felt since losing Dad and Andy.  I adore the women in my life – Wendy and my two girls, my mum and stepmother – but Dad and Andy can never be replaced and without them this little brother and youngest son does, if I’m honest, feel lonely at times, even though I know I am far from being alone.

This friendly fellow didn’t want to leave me alone!

I came across a beautiful prayer which I am going to use as I walk and try to learn by heart two lines at a time.  It comes from the Celtic tradition and it begins like this:

You are the peace of all things calm

You are the place to hide from harm

As I searched for shelter from the heat of the sun along the still, deserted marshes of the Solway, these words came alive and I found peace with my ‘alone-ness’.