Every story needs a beginning so this one will begin in 1989. It will chronicle a family crisis – or rather a series of family crises – culminating in the annihilation of two entire generations of my family in a relatively short length of time! But I am getting ahead of myself.
A rough précis is called for to bring you up to speed: the fabric of my life had already started to fall away by the deaths of my Mum's Dad and my Dad's Mum, two people I was extremely fond of. At the beginning of 1989, which was the final year of my Masters degree in Science, the main biochemistry freezer at Waikato University broke down, compromising the research quality of everything stored in it. Unfortunately the entire stock of samples comprising my own two-year old study was stored in it. My choices were either to walk away, or to reconstruct my entire thesis work in a few months to get it back to the stage where it was.
There began a frenzied and dedicated piece of research – taking 16 to 18 hours (usually) and sometimes 24 hours a day, for seven days a week – as I frantically (with the clock ticking down on my research grant!) pieced together my entire Masters project.
March, April, May fell away with my musical career on hold and friends complaining that I never phoned or went out any more. I think it was about June when my Mum received a phone call saying that her brother in Brisbane was dying of leukemia and only a bone marrow transplant from an homologous sibling would give him a chance to live, so would she please go to the Royal Princess Hospital in Brisbane immediately for screening as a possible donor.
So Mum got a passport quickly (yes! That was her first overseas trip!) and went to Brisbane to spend a week at the hospital. I looked after the house and cooked for Dad and my brother whilst she was away – tucking them into my rigorous schedule.
Then the day she arrived back she received a phone call from the Cancer Society in Whangamata, "... Could she come, please, and nurse her mother (my Nana) who was passing into the final stages of cancer and wouldn't last the week." Mum was basically packed already, so off she went. We reckoned without the superior constitution of my Nana, whose good healthy lifestyle made her a robust patient! Mum was away for nigh on 7½ weeks! During that time my Dad – whose own father had by now been admitted to a private hospital in Hamilton, also dying of cancer – under emotional stress and suffering from an ulcer – wrote off the family car on an uneven road surface on his way to Whangamata to visit Mum. Because of the hospital reforms and so forth at the time, he was sent home to me! He had a crushed hand and a fractured skull, which I was to nurse daily. I now had to come home from University three or four times a day, pushing my studies late into the night. On top of that, two days later – because of the same reforms – my poor dying Poppa (Dad's Dad) was sent from the private hospital, also for me to look after!! Luckily this was sorted out as an unfortunate error and the hospital took him back in less than a week. Throughout this time of family upheaval our warm, fluffy, stable family cat formed a habit of being ill on the carpet daily, so our lounge constantly smelt of disinfectant.
My poor brother was beside himself at this time because he was unfortunately domestically challenged. He had never shown interest in the oven or washing machine and knew not how to use them. Hence I had to make a lot of trips to and fro, and the University was on the other side of the city. However he bought takeaways for us all whenever I let him and gave me some money for petrol.
Two and a half weeks before my Nana died, her mother (my Great Granny) was due to turn 94 years old. Amidst the preparations for her birthday party my dear Great Granny – aware of her daughter’s illness but (as we all were) ever hopeful of recovery – was anxiously asking if my Nana would be there. For days she would demand news of her – 'Just how ill was she?' 'Was she getting better?' and 'Did she need a visit from her Mum?' She did not seem to heed the dire reports. Finally she understood that my Nana would not be there – that, in fact, she was dying – and Great Granny sank into a terrible despair. A couple of days before her birthday, she died of a heart attack brought on by depression – and the food ordered and prepared for her birthday party was ironically eaten at her wake.
I had been praying to God constantly from the beginning of the year as I found this gave me peace. But my relationship with God changed subtly over time and as the fabric of my life became more distorted and unreal (for a long time I had that feeling you get when the rug is pulled out from under your feet – a sensation of falling, but before you hit the floor), so God became more real and substantial. I came to the understanding that everything – and everyone! – was temporary and could be taken away from you – and the only thing that was constant – that you always had – was God.
A couple of weeks after Great Granny's funeral the district nurse at Whangamata phoned to say that my Mum needed me there. Seven weeks of nursing her beloved mother and watching her invariably decline, as well as the news of her dear grandmother's death, had taken their toll on Mum. So I put University on hold (Some Things Are Bigger Than A Masters Degree) and went.
I went and saw my beautiful and beloved Nana's body ravaged by a terrible disease. (I will not go into the details of that). The wonderful and caring volunteers from the Cancer Society and my Mum were keeping an around-the-clock vigil by her bedside, which I joined. Usually at this advanced stage of illness the patient lapses into a coma – but my Nana was denied this blessed relief and was conscious and aware. At one point when I was there alone with her, she rallied – her eyes were mucoid and her tongue swollen (she couldn’t really move much except for her hand a little). The only noises in the room were the sound of her morphine pump and the constant dull booming of the ocean outside – and I asked her if she wanted anything. She indicated to come a little closer, her breathing rasping badly as she made the attempt to speak. She said, "You’ve got to stick up for yourself!" She gathered herself again, "I won't always be here for you," and again, "You've got to stick up for yourself – don't be meek like I was, too often." And her energy was spent. I cried. Even though she was near death and in terrible pain, she was still trying to prepare me for life and take care of me. (My grandparents were singularly caring, loving and self-giving people and I greatly cherished – and still cherish – their wonderful qualities).
Two days later she passed away.
The experience I am going to relate now is deeply personal and I have the courage to tell it after so many years because Sushmitam has shared a personal experience of hers with me in which a very similar thing happened. So I feel I am not nuts after all!
The instant my Nana died, a part of myself was very painfully wrenched from me. She was not just my Nana – she was my mentor and best friend. We laughed about the same things, I had spent a lot of my life staying with her and I loved her – body and soul. With everything that had happened leading up to this very moment, (and then this absolutely unthinkable Thing that had happened!!) something broke inside of me. I was suddenly a small child lost in the wilderness in a storm, coming upon a black, yawning abyss and about to fall into it. My entire being cried a Terrible Cry: "GOD!!!!!"
And God Came. Right then, right there.
My grasp of English (which is extensive) is entirely inadequate to describe what happened next, but I will make an attempt of sorts: all of a sudden my entire upper body was completely filled with a very intense sensation of feelings – Vastness, Peace, Strength, Joy, Intensity. This may sound strange, but suddenly I was being comforted in the Lap of God, watching as my body was taken over by Someone Else. I watched as Someone Else put their arms around my poor heartbroken Mum and comforted her. I also watched as Someone Else tried to make a cup of tea for Mum, the district nurse and the Cancer Society Lady. (Someone Else did not know how to do it properly, and lined up all the cups and poured the jug backwards and forwards above them – and from God's Lap I laughed, so did Someone Else – and I also heard my Nana laugh!!) All the time, I was actively trying not to giggle and was terribly afraid that the district nurse would notice the mirth and try to sedate me for hysteria!
I do not know if anyone noticed anything strange about me that day, but Someone Else also organised the house, organised with the district nurse for the undertaker, wrote half the eulogy for Nana, and did a whole lot of other necessary things. The intensity that I felt in that time when I needed nurturing the most was like a fire inside my chest – along with it came Peace and Joy, an endless amount of energy, and no sleep. I did not go to bed for three days and nights and was not tired or fatigued in the slightest. The first night I spent a long time just looking at the sea from the window – everything, you see, was like a new and fresh experience. Then I went down the sand dunes to the beach and watched the moonlight on the waves – all the while the fire was burning inside of me.
The next day, Someone Else packed up Mum, the cat, and the house and drove us back to Hamilton. After the funeral, Someone Else stayed and wrote a large chunk of my Masters thesis before gradually fading away as Mum and I got back on our feet.
There is a famous poem entitled, 'Footprints,' written by M. R. Powers, where a man dreams that he is walking through life side by side with the Lord, leaving two sets of footprints. However he notices that at the worst times of his life there is only one set of footprints, and these were the times when the Lord was carrying him. I now have a personal experience of what that poem means.
My faith in God has been replaced by (for lack of a better word) a Knowing, for faith, you see, is belief without proof. God has come to me and proven Himself, so now I have gone beyond mere faith – I Know.
For what He did for me (and my family) through this time alone, God has earned my undying Gratitude.
Spiritual moments with my grandmotherPatanga Cordeiro São Paulo, Brazil
The story of how we both turned to spiritual life at the same time
In the Whirlwind of LifePradeep Hoogakker The Hague, Netherlands
I basically was more or less happy, though somehow the real purpose of my life seemed to elude me; I was happy but not satisfied.
Spirituality means speedPatanga Cordeiro São Paulo, Brazil
Why is speed necessary in the spiritual life? Can we not go at a slow, steady pace?