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.

 

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!

 

 

Burdens laid down

Is it wrong that I’m enjoying this?

Heavenfield

Ok, this has been the hardest post to write so far and so should come with a health warning!  The walk4andy was meant to be about Andy, about celebrating his life and doing something positive in his memory.  And yes, I am spending a lot of time thinking about him and talking about him, but if this was meant to be a hardship endured out of love for him or for some other wonderfully holy, altruistic motive, then I hate to disappoint but that’s not how it really is.

 

I have loved the walking and the fresh air, I have loved the stunning scenery and the time to think, I have loved the company and the conversation, the sense of achievement at the end of each day.  But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, is it?

It’s not the first time I’ve felt a lot of guilt on account of Andy…

It started when I was just a few years old and managed to cut off the end of his finger in the chain of his bike.  Oops!

Then there was the time I hit him in the eye with the cricket ball, chased him round the house with a pair of scissors and there was the ‘sleeping bag’ tobogganing down the stairs incident which left him with a bleeding head wound!

But as we got older, and Andy was diagnosed with VHL, I too was taken for regular testing, put through CT and MRI scans, blood tests, eye tests and so on to make sure it was caught early should I too develop VHL.  I was well aware that Andy was ill but not really how that might impact me, but it felt like a shared experience to some extent at least.

Around the time I went to university I was offered the option of a blood test.  The faulty gene had been identified and I could have the DNA test to see if I was likely to develop VHL in the future or at risk of passing it on to my children, not something that was high on my agenda at the age of 18.

The test came back clear some time during my first year in Cambridge and I still have the letter telling me the news in a very brief and official kind of way.  I’m quite surprised I kept it, as it didn’t really mean a lot to me then.  I just carried on with all the fun of being a student!

It has only been later in life, as I’ve gone on to get married and have children, to work and make friends, to meet others whose lives have been affected by complicated illness or family tragedy.  Over the years, the guilt began to take root – why Andy?  why not me?  Apparently, it was 50/50 either way.

There was a part of me that was relieved when I was diagnosed with diabetes at 28.  Finally, my life wasn’t the perfect world I thought it must seem to Andy, and I had my own inherited illness.  I’m so ashamed that I felt that way but it’s the truth.

Of course, when Andy died, it was worse.  Much as I missed him, the pain at losing him was mixed again with what I guess could now be called ‘survivor’s guilt’.  It could so easily have been me that had had VHL, that had died at 38, leaving Andy to mourn my passing.  What would he have done?  How would he have marked the ending of his brother’s life?

Guilt is something Christians can be particularly bad at handling, which is something of a surprise when you think that our whole belief system is built on God’s grace removing our guilt and sin, setting us free through Jesus’ death on the cross from those burdens we like to carry around with us.  The Bible says that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far ha he set our sins from us.’

As I walk from the west coast to the east, I am learning to see that it is not my fault that I was the lucky one, but that I can choose what to do with the life that I have been given now, the post-40 life that Andy will never see.  The culmination of 3 and a half years working through all those emotions is the walk4andy.

This is why it matters so much to me.  Yes, it is an opportunity to do something positive in his memory but, perhaps selfishly, it is also about freeing myself from that burden of guilt and finding my own path to forgiveness and freedom so that I can do what I know in my heart Andy would have wanted which is for me to squeeze every drop of hope and joy and love from the years of life that God has granted me in his unfathomable wisdom.

Words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim:

Must here the Burden fall from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

Little steps, little sips

Windshield Crags as the mist came down

 

Well, it had to happen, and to be honest the ground needed it.  At least one of my nine days walking was always  going to be wet and today – day five – was definitely wet.  Water, water everywhere … We saw it in streams and pools and quarry lakes and loughs and it fell from the sky as drizzle and mist and as good, honest, properly wet rain!

 

My wonderful walking companions for today were all soaked to the skin by the time we finished.  And after six hours on the go we were all exhausted too.  The 8 miles we expected to walk turned out in reality to be more like 14 miles once we added in the incessant climbs and descents – up and down and up, and just as we thought we were nearly there, we would come over the peak and see ahead of us another plunge down into a valley with a steep climb the other side along the crags, following the now ever-present Wall.

 

With the wet stone steps and steep hillsides, it’s a miracle no one slipped and hurt themselves.  (Speaking of miracles, thank you to those who prayed after my last post – I’m delighted to report that my blood sugars behaved themselves much better today which was a big surprise given the more strenuous exercise!)

As well as all the water round about me, I wanted to make a particular mention of my camel pack, kindly lent to me by an officer at the ATC squadron in Hamilton.  Someone asked what that hose was round my neck in a picture I’d posted and this is the answer.  It has been so useful to have a reservoir of water on my back with easy instant access through the pipe that sits right by my mouth.  It was especially useful to be able to take little sips regularly when it was hot, but it was also a great help today in the rain when I really didn’t want to have to keep stopping to get a drink out my bag.

The extra company, difficult terrain and poor weather have successfully distracted me from thinking too much about the significance of reaching this half way point in my walk.  But I am pleasantly surprised by how much energy I have, physical and emotional.  It’s like the wells that had run dry are being refilled.

One friend today commented that he could see clearly how this part of the walk was in fact part of a much bigger journey.  It was easy to look back and see how far we’d come and to look ahead and see the Wall snaking over the hills in the distance (at least before the mist came down!)  Looking back and looking ahead gave him a better sense of how this part fitted into the whole.

Highshield Crags

 

The walk4andy is part of a bigger journey I am on to work through and try to make sense of the pain of so much loss, and every little step, every little sip, is moving me nearer to where I need to be.

Two more lines from the Celtic prayer I’m learning this week:

You are my Lord, and with me still

You are my love, keep me from ill

 

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’.

#westandtogether

#westandtogether vigil in Leicester tonight

 

The adventure begins and I have to say it was with a fair few butterflies in my stomach that I set off from home just after lunch to drive up the motorway to Carlisle.

I was grateful for the prayers said over me in the morning by some of my St Denys family.  It was all very moving and they reassured me that they would be thinking of me and praying for me every step of the way.  It was good to be reminded again of our unity, however far apart we are.  In fact, as one of my churchwardens quoted from a CMS missionary, the prayers being said in one part of the world are like the roots of the tree enabling the branches in another part of the world to grow and reach out.  Prayer has a vital part to play.

And that has been so evident in the responses to the horrific attack in Manchester this week.  Prayers have been said all over the world for those whose lives have been turned upside down.  I stopped at Tebay for some food at around 5.30pm just as hundreds were gathering with my colleague Liz Wilson in Town Hall Square in Leicester to stand in solidarity and prayer with those in Manchester.  I said a prayer too as I looked out on the most beautiful scene and wondered how a world that holds such beauty can also hold such pain and cruelty.

I have no answer but I do believe that the heart of God breaks with love for those who are suffering and that the amazing love and warmth and generosity of the world in response to the events in Manchester is an echo of His love.

And so I will keep praying because I believe it makes a difference.  That’s why its so important to me to begin my #walk4andy tomorrow with prayers at the Cathedral here in Carlisle, even if I do have to join them at an unearthly hour of the morning for them!

Motorway services unlike any I’ve ever seen before!

One day

A lot can happen in one day.  A lot can happen in one moment.  A life can be changed forever.

With the people of Manchester uppermost in my thoughts and prayers today, I am conscious that I have just one day left to get myself sorted before I head up to Carlisle ready to begin the #walk4andy on Thursday.

It is three and a half years since the night he died.  This day has been a long time coming but somewhere in my wrestling with God and grief I found the resolve to do something positive, to be different because Andy lived and not because he died.

So today I am drawing up lists and packing bags, checking on hotel bookings and route maps.  I even went on a short 5 mile walk this morning with Rolo and a small group from church.

Unfortunately, we got stuck in a field with a large herd of cows and their calves.  I have rarely been so terrified, faced with an angry mother cow mooing and snorting just inches from my face.  Perhaps wrongly, I scooped up into my arms a cowering and whimpering Rolo  before he got trodden on or kicked and I stood my ground together with my companions.

Eventually, the herd thinned out and we could see our escape route become clear.  I walked cautiously towards the stile, still with Rolo in my arms, and breathed a mammoth sigh of relief when I got to the other side.

IMG_0240I pray that all those in Manchester and across the world who are facing one day they never thought would come will know the love of a God who longs to scoop them up and just hold them in his arms and never let them go.