This post is a personal reflection on some recent life events rather than anything specific about communication, church, or society – but you may notice those things coming through. I’m getting married, and my Dad is dying.
On Friday 24 April Geraldine and I came to the point of deciding we wanted to get married and spend the rest of our lives together. This was in London.
The next morning I was woken up at 5.30am by the vibration of my cellphone. When I saw my sister’s name on the screen I knew it wouldn’t be good news. She was phoning from New Zealand to tell me our Dad was very sick and I needed to come home.
Our first year
Geraldine and I met a year ago. Mutual friends living in Thailand hooked us up via a Facebook message. Geri had been doing some volunteer work in Chiang Mai and Burma for a Christian aid charity called Partners Relief and Development and was heading back to London via Auckland, her home town.
After several emails, I went to Auckland (from Christchurch) for our first date. It was pretty good as far as 9-hour first dates go, considering I was also highly medicated due to one of those bad head-colds men get.
That is how our global romance began. In the last year Geri’s been to New Zealand three times, I’ve been to London twice, we’ve had Skype calls where one of us was in Singapore, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Spain, Dubai, Australia, and many times from Auckland, Christchurch, Motueka and London. This alongside long emails, thousands of text messages, and traditional voice calls, I reckon we’ve squeezed in a lot more focused communication than your average couple does in their first year of dating (in my experience at least). We really like being in the same city at the same time too, which is fortunate as that’s our longterm plan.
Our last months
Life had been pretty healthy and normal for Dad until he was rushed into Nelson hospital with suspected Appendicitis. It turned out he had a blockage in his bowel caused by Chloangiocacinoma (bile duct cancer) that had “seeded” into his abdomen. The surgeon who operated to remove the blockage recommended Dad’s son in London come home as soon as possible as the days after surgery could have been his last if things didn’t go well.
In the evening of the Saturday my sister had called me, I stood in the boarding gate at Gatwick Airport minutes before boarding, blubbering on the phone to my Dad moments before he went into surgery. I told him what Geri and I had decided the night before and that I loved him, and then I boarded the plane. It took 43 hours of travel time to get from Bethnal Green in London, to Ward 10 in Nelson hospital.
As it happens, the bowel surgery went well, with Dad’s bowel “waking up” 5 days afterwards. The cancer is too far advanced and spread to do anything about it. Statistically someone with Chloangeocarcinoma has 2-12 months life expectancy from discovery. From all we’ve picked up from the professionals talking about Dad, we’re expecting about 3 months.
Ever since I first heard the word ‘juxtaposition’ I’ve liked it – I like the way it looks and the way it sounds. I’m sure I use the word in the wrong way sometimes. I think it’s correct to say the two events of 24/25 April were quite a juxtaposition for me. I emailed some friends about this a few days after arriving back in New Zealand, one thing I said was:
It’s a strange time. These two events are giving my Emotional Intelligence quite a work out! I’ve just left behind the person I most want to be with, to be with the person I can’t yet imagine being without.
The joy and security I was sharing with Geraldine was juxtaposed with sadness and fear around the revelation of Dad’s cancer and imminent end of life as we know it.
Within hours the tunnels of the London Underground were juxtaposed with the corridors of Nelson hospital.
The intimacy of living in the same timezone as Geraldine was juxtaposed with the disconnection of 18,000 kilometres.
The hope of engagement
I haven’t used the word ‘proposal’ as it doesn’t sit well with my ideals of egalitarianism: the concept of a man proposing to a woman is so complimentarian. I’m not very keen on the word ‘engagement’ either because much of the meaning behind that concept is no longer practiced. There are many traditions around the event of a wedding that don’t make sense any more – I’ve been doing my own critical analysis of weddings for a long time, but now isn’t the time to outline my thesis…
Geraldine had only met my parents online via Skype, and with things being uncertain about Dad, and her eventual return to New Zealand being planned for later in the year, she got on a plane and spent 10 days in Motueka/Nelson. Up until this visit I thought I had done well to have had dinner with her parents on my own a few months ago, but that doesn’t compare to having one-on-one time with her terminally ill future father-in-law in a hospital room while still getting over jet lag.
What joy the news of our future marriage has brought my family. They love her already. After 10 days hanging out with my family in a fairly difficult situation, they too can see why we want to spend the rest of our lives together.
A sense of ‘home’ – that’s perhaps a weird way to define love, and only works when ‘home’ has positive connotations. With Geraldine I feel at peace with the world and very relaxed – without realising what I was looking for, I have found it in Geraldine.
We’re very different. She is fun and chaotic – not usually words people use to describe me!
I spend a lot of time thinking about making the world a better place, Geri actually makes it a better place (she likes a lot more interaction with humans than I do!)
Geri has a career built around advocacy that gives her a framework to facilitate her natural anger against injustice (I hadn’t taken notice of the Rohingya until I met Geri).
You can learn a lot about a person by the people they spend their time with. Geri has some amazing friends. I’ve had several introductions to people who I look forward to spending more time with.
You can learn a lot about a person’s spirituality by their engagement with their faith-community. Geri and her friends are teaching me a lot about the transformation Jesus was on about.
A Father’s influence
Back in the 1990s I used to listen to a singer/songwriter called Charlie Peacock. One of his songs has always captivated me, and in my early adult years it prompted an appreciation of my father that has stayed with me. The song is called “My Father’s Crown” where Peacock sings about his father having died and what he misses about him:
It just happened again; I wanted to call you up, I wanted your opinion about something. It’s funny how I valued it so little before, and now that I can’t have it I value it more.
It’s been more than 20 years since I lived in the same town as my parents, so phone calls have been the main way of staying in touch, usually three-way conversations with both Mum and Dad on the line at the same time. Whether it’s talking about big life decisions I’m working through, or more trivial things like comparing different models of cars we like, seeking the opinion of my Dad is an integral part of my life. This is one of the things I will miss the most, which I think Peacock encapsulates so well in his song. I’m glad I’ve been able to appreciate this while I’ve had it, and something I see as a tangible expression of love: to seek someone’s view of the world and have it freely given.
The church and faith
It’s not often I praise the church on this blog – not because there aren’t praiseworthy things, it’s just not really the modus operandi of my use of Critical Studies which aims for reformation: it’s not that good doesn’t exist, but rather the focus for me is on what needs to be different.
My parents have been part of the same local church for nearly 30 years. The people of this Christian-faith-community have excelled in the care and support they have shown my family at this time. From simple practical things like providing meals (the day Dad came home out of hospital he wasn’t eating much and had made a passing comment that he felt like Shepherd’s Pie: that afternoon someone from church brought around a Shepherd’s Pie they had made!), to specific spiritual care like pastoral visits and prayer. Many people in their neighbourhood have also shown amazing care and support – one advantage of living in a small town I think.
I’ve also experienced some really meaningful support from people I have in my life.
Faith in the face of death
A strong motif of Christian spirituality is death and resurrection and the mystery that surrounds both of these things. After 2000 years we still don’t fully understand this as we continue to figure out the communication of God-becoming-human (Jesus the man). What I do know through watching the experience of others, is the mystery of peace in the face of death, through this thing called faith. I am already seeing this a bit with Dad.
It could potentially be a sombre thing having chats with your Dad as he plans his own funeral, but it has been the opposite. One of the silver linings of Chloangiocacinoma is having a period of time to prepare for your death with clarity of mind.
Dad has always been into music and singing – Mum and Dad meet in a choir 50 years ago. It was nice going through the words of different hymns while he was lying on a hospital bed recovering from surgery. Playing different hymns on my tablet to hear the right tune, noticing him tapping his foot to the music, and laughing at his instructions such as where the musicians are to be positioned on the stage and how to save a bit of money with the funeral arrangements.
Everyone’s parents eventually die, and Dad getting cancer at 73 is not a tragedy. I know how my Dad has expressed his love to me, what his “love language” is and how that has been expressed throughout my life. I have no regrets and will have only fond memories. This is not to diminish the sadness and sense of loss that still exists.
I’m glad Geraldine has met my Dad while he was well enough to appreciate her fun, chaos, and warmth.
I’m glad the timing of us meeting has been as it has, and that it was through something we are both passionate about.
I’m glad the global nature of our relationship so far has forced the priority of communication.
I think our life together will have the capacity for plenty of adventure. We both want to make the world a better place, and have been prioritising things in our lives in order for this to happen.
I once described Geraldine as being fiercely independent, and I have to admit to enjoying my own independence in terms of the efficiency and productivity it has enabled. I look forward to the challenge that bringing our independence together will create – I’m already imagining the possibilities!
I’m getting married and my Dad is dying – such a juxtaposition!
Image: Dad and Geraldine, 14 May 2015, by Mike Crudge