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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Landscape of Grief

"In my loved one's absence, life hangs upon me, and becomes a burden;
I am ten times undone, while hope, and fear, and grief, and rage and love rise up at once, and with variety of pain distract me." ~Joseph Addison


   Grief is an alien landscape without map or sign post. Memories of Les and I and our life together appear as a mirage. The closer I stumble to them the quicker they dissipate and my heart cracks open even more and bleeds out on the ground. Sleep is a distant memory of a time when I woke each day and Les was beside me or somewhere on the boat waiting for me to kiss him hello. Life is colorless, sounds are muted, and music is tinny. I drink gallons of water each day to replenish the seemingly endless reservoir of tears that drain from me as I am suddenly attacked by fresh grief and wracked by it until it passes as quickly as it arrived. Food which seems at first bite to taste good, does not agree with me and my gut churns and works endlessly. 
   Time spent with loved ones feels like tiny islands of respite in a tempest tossed ocean. I am tired of this journey, sick of myself, and I miss the boat so much I ache. I needed to make this trip back to our American family but now I am anxious to be home again. I cannot settle anywhere for long without grief finding me again, and of course I have no control over this journey. I don't do well with things, people or situations that make me feel out of control of myself. Les understood this about me. He was my touchstone for more than just Britain; I find he was the touchstone of my life.
   I post this to share my experience and to get these huge, overwhelming feelings out of my little body. It is not necessary to comment. Just know that right now, this is my journey, so please don't expect me to be fun and scintillating company or to sit and listen to the fabulous details of your life with your loved one who is still alive while mine is dead. It might be selfish but I simply cannot entertain it or anyone right now. I am not good company...I am lost in the landscape of grief. 

The following is an excerpt from the blog of Buddhist follower Roshi Joan Halifax:

   The ultimate relationship we can have is with someone who is dying. Here we are often brought to grief, whether we know it or not. Grief can seem like an unbearable experience. But for those of us who have entered the broken world of loss and sorrow, we realize that in the fractured landscape of grief we can find the pieces of our life that we ourselves have forgotten.
Grief may push us into the hard question of Why? Why do I have to suffer like this? Why can’t I get over it? Why did this one have to die? Why... . In the tangled web of “Why,” we cannot find the reasons or words to make sense of our sadness.
   Dying people also can grieve before they die. They can grieve in anticipation of their death for all they will seem to lose and what they have lost by being ill. Caregivers will grieve before those they care for have died. They are often saddened by the loss of freedom and options of those that are ill and the knowledge that death will rob them of one more relationship. Those that have been left behind by the dying are often broken apart by the knowledge that they cannot bring back that which has been lost. The irrevocability of it all often leaves them helpless and sad. And then there is the taste of grief in Western culture which is conditioned to possess and not let go.
   We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion. Grief is often not addressed in contemporary Buddhism. Perhaps it is looked on as a weakness of character or as a failure of practice. But from the point of view of this practitioner, it is a vital part of our very human life, an experience that can open compassion, and an important phase of maturation, giving our lives and practice depth and humility.
   To begin, it is important for us to remember that the experience of being with dying for many does not stop at the moment of death. As a caregiver of a dying person or family member who has been at the death of a relative, we may attend the body after death and offer our presence to the community as they and we grieve. When the details of dying and death are settled, then what arises from the depths of the human heart is the many expressions of sorrow when the presence of loss is finally give the room to be seen and felt.
   Sometimes grieving lasts not for weeks or months but for years. Frequently the reason why grief is not resolved is that it has not been sufficiently attended to just after the loss of a loved one. Family and friends of the deceased can become consumed by the busyness of the business that happens right after someone dies.
   This is one of the great problems that we face in the Western way of dying, that business is so much a part of the experience of dying and death. Survivors often face a complex situation on the material level in the after-death phase. They find themselves looking for a funeral home, letting friends and family know that a death has happened, and creating a funeral service. Unraveling health insurance, taxes, and the last will and testament also take time and energy at this stage. Later there is cleaning up, dividing and giving away the deceased’s property, and other seemingly endless chores of closure. Resorting to the business of death can be a way for survivors to avoid the depth of their own loss.
   Like dying, grieving has its phases, and it is important to pass through them.
   Similar to the phases of dying, grief can be characterized by numbness and denial, anger, great sorrow, depression, despair and confusion. Finally, there can be acceptance and even transcendence as sorrow has opened the door of appreciation and compassion. These phases are similar to those experienced in a rite of passage: separation, transition, return.

   Grief can also arise as a person is dying. Family and friends as well as the one who is dying can experience what is called “anticipatory grief,” the bones of loss already showing. Working with that grief is an important part of what one can do in the care of the dying. In fact, most caregivers have to cross and recross this territory of grief in being with living and dying many times in the course of just one person dying.
   When my mother died, I received one of the best teachings of my life on grief. I realized that I only had one chance to grieve her. As a Buddhist, I felt I had a kind of choice. On the one hand, I could be a so-called “good Buddhist” and accept death and let go of my mother with great dignity. The other alternative was to scour my heart out with sorrow. I chose to scour. Shortly after her death, I went to the desert with photos of her and several letters she had written my father after I was born. Settling under a rocky ledge, I sunk back into shadows of sorrow. When your mother dies, so does the womb that gave birth to you. I felt that my back was uncovered as I pressed it into cold rock.
   Later, I was to walk the Himalayas with a friend who had recently lost his mother. The fall rains washed down the mountains and down our wet faces. In Kathmandu, lamas offered a Tibetan Xithro ceremony for her. They instructed me not to cry but to let her be undisturbed by grief. By this time, I was ready to hear their words. The experience was humbling for me. And when I finally got to the bottom of it, I found that my mother had become an ancestor. As I let her go, she became a healthy part of me.
   C.S. Lewis in his A Grief Observed reveals that “No one ever told me that grief was so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” Grief can call us into an experience of raw immediacy that is often devastating. Grieving, we can learn that suffering is not transformed by someone telling us how to do it. We have to do the work ourselves. (The Buddha, Roshi Joan Halifax; accessed online, 03/23/2017).

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Birthday Baby

"The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity. " ~Lucius Anneus Seneca

My best Beloved would have been 69 today. Les loved carrot cake. It is frosted and sitting on the counter. Happy birthday baby, wherever your soul currently resides; your heart rests safe inside my heart...always.


Monday, March 06, 2017

Les' Memorial Service

"Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve." —Earl Grollman, American Rabbi, death educator and counselor

    I have spent a month writing, editing and re-writing Les' eulogy, gathering pictures, watching videos he made, getting pictures copied, arranging the order of service, sending out the invitations, getting memorial cards printed, and putting one foot in front of the other when my mind was so beset by grief I could not remember my name or phone number.
   I have been supported and uplifted throughout all of this by a particular group of friends who have done what is essential when someone is struck deaf, dumb and blind by grief: they stepped in to fill the gap, meet a need, and hold back the world for awhile so I could just breathe because some days that is all I could really manage and sometimes even that is hard work. You know who are and each of you have my immense gratitude. The gift or your compassion and understanding, of your being here for me in whatever way I most needed you--even when I did not and do not always understand what way that is; you could see what I could not and with grace you stepped up for me and I will always be thankful.
   Although pouring rain showers were forecast for Saturday, March 4th, the skies cleared and sunshine was the order of the day. I was up after four hours of sleep, having prepared all the food for the luncheon after the service: three different kinds of sandwiches, two salads and brownies--some of Les' favorites. Soon enough our caravan was on its way to Tring Community Centre and once there our amazing friends took over setting everything up and helping me prepare. A few sadly could not make it due to contracting the lurgy (Brit speak for the usual illness making its rounds this time of year) and they were missed. Fifty two people showed up and we journied through tears and laughter together.
   I wish to thank everyone who shared something with the rest of us. You have no idea how comforting it is to hear you all speak so fondly and well of Les. The poems written in his honor were wonderful. The stories shared brought a small measure of healing to my broken heart and for those brief moments Les lived again. One of the things we who grieve experience is the need to look for signs of our loved one everywhere. We look for their faces in a crowd when we know it is simply not possible for them to be there. I especially treasure the stories that provided new information about Les. For example Richard, one half of Jules Fuels, the couple who travel the cut in their narrow boat Towcester and their butty Bideford, shared with us that once when they were filling up NB Valerie Les mentioned casually that he had "found a bit of nice stuff" on the Internet and he was flying over to America to check her out, which resulted in Jules and Richard taking the piss out of Les for his Internet dating! After he returned from the week visiting me, Jules and Richard turned up to service NB Valerie with diesel and they asked Les how his trip went. "Oh she's lovely she is!" I never knew this. Les never gave me one hint that he was checking me out that week!
   Poems were written and read by boater Mac on NB The Griffon and Sue Deveson on NB Cleddau. Each story and poem is a treasure I have tucked away in my heart as are all the comments people made to me afterwards during lunch as I visited with each person there. Andy and Tina Elford had a favorite picture of Les enlarged and framed for me and other photos provided a laminated montage of their time together cruising with Les. The large picture is sitting up on the table now, and Les' smiling eyes follow me around the boat from under the brim of his sun hat.
   Directly below is a transcript version of Les' Eulogy as well as a partial video of it appears at the bottom:

                                       Flying Without Wings/Westlife



EULOGY
Welcome everyone. This is a memorial service but also a celebration of Life forLes Biggs. Why try and do both simultaneously? "The great children's author E. B. White said that humor can take people to the place where tears and laughter meet and where they fall from one to another. He said it can do that because like poetry it has an added dimension and when it works it takes people close to the big hot fire that is truth…” this was quoted recently on CBC Canada radio about the writer Stuart McLean who also died recently, and I offer my thanks to Bryce Lee in Canada for bringing it to my attention. So this is why we will grieve and laugh together today; to reach that big hot fire called truth—the truth about the life of my husband, lover, and best friend. I believe the most important work we do in our lives takes place in our relationships with others.
   After a disastrous marriage that ended when I was 24, it was clear to me that I did not understand men. I wrote on my blog So This is Love…about the days just prior to Les coming to visit me the first time: “I hoped to offer Dear Sir a lovely visit he might enjoy immensely and remember fondly. My hospitality was a way of saying "thank you" for all the emails he took the time to write and send, the information on narrow boats and canals he generously provided, and for his friendship.
    At lunch in the dining hall with my friend Cheri, she broached the upcoming visit of Dear Sir. Smiling at me over her sandwich, she said, "Wouldn't it be something if the two of you hit if off and fell in love?" She chewed thoughtfully as she considered her suggestion with pleasure.
"Yes, Little Bear that would be something," I nodded my head and smiled, "but you know, he and I are friends and that's enough."
    Cheri comes from a close, loving family. She was wanted and loved as a child, and is still very close to her parents and siblings. She's been married to her college sweetheart for nearly forty years. Cheri believes in happy endings and a soul mate for everyone.
I on the other hand, do not believe in either one. Cynic that I am, while my head is bobbing up and down in agreement with Bear's dreamy query, my mind is laughing sardonically. Dear Sir and I are friends and I am content to leave it at that.
Life has taught me that for whatever reason, it is my fate to be loved dearly by myself, my children, and some very fine friends. I am my own champion and that must be enough. To expect more is to be disappointed. Given the abuse in my past, the terrible male role models with which I grew up and the childhood I narrowly escaped, and my inability to trust men--with very good reason--it was a massive miracle I invited this man to spend a week in my home.”
    So Les and I finding each other across 4000 miles of ocean and another 3000 miles of American continent, meeting and falling deeply in love with one another was nothing short of miraculous and truly meant to be for we are soulmates and unknown to me my heart and soul was waiting for him. Les taught me so much about love that I would never otherwise have known. I have no doubt that Les and I have lived many lives together before this one I also know Les, me and Val have done the same. His soul knew and recognized mine when we met for the first time in the car park of the Travel Lodge in Seattle in 2010.
    My soul? Well it was no doubt slumbering deep inside me, as I lived under the firm conviction at the time that if such a thing as soul mates existed then mine had not incarnated in this life. I wish I could say I recognized our deep connection at that moment but alas when I saw Les standing in the car park of the Travel Lodge in Seattle wearing a huge smile, a pair of blue jeans and a cardigan of wide stripes in pale mint and cream in which he looked a bit fem, my first thought was, “Oh, my gosh he’s gay!”
    Later I discovered that Les viewed clothes as utilitarian objects expressly for the purpose of covering the naughty bits—useful items like a tarpaulin is useful for covering the wood box on the boat. He was happy to wear anyone’s cast off clothing and the mint and cream striped cardigan was just that—not something he chose for himself but a useful bit of kit to keep warm that someone had thrown out and Les had picked up. We revisited our first meeting in the car park many times over the last six years, and Les would laugh hysterically each time I recounted my mistaken first impression. He got a huge kick out it.
   During the six days Les spent as my guest at Cloudhouse in Pullman, I was privileged to get know his authentic self because he didn’t know how to be any other way thankfully. The next morning I experienced the following:

“Sun streamed through the picture windows and lit the sheer curtain panels in my bedroom. I rose quietly, not wanting to wake Les, down the hall in the guest room; I thought he might want to sleep in after all the miles he'd travelled. I walked in to the kitchen to put on the kettle for tea, glancing out the window to the back deck. Dear Sir was leaning on the deck railing, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans.
The morning sun lit his broad shoulders which tapered down to his waist, a very nice posterior, slim, muscular legs, and bare feet. I bit my fingers and grabbed for the counter to steady me. I woke up expecting to start a bit of breakfast before Les rose for the day, and looked out my kitchen window to see a Calvin Klein ad for jeans come to life on my back deck.” The week and my life only got better from there…and the rest as they say is history. So I share with you now some of the things I learned from Les:

   Thanks to Les’ example I understand now that someone who truly loves you will always put you first in all things—in heart and mind because your happiness is their joy. From my husband I learned that a man who loves his wife will never make her suffer jealousy, which is a sign you has been unwillingly entered into a competition for the attentions of your partner, leaving you feeling as though you come last not first. Les always put me first in all things and no one and nothing else ever competed with me for his time, attention, or affection—although he was inordinately fond of Canal World Discussion Forum! Les spent a lot of time on the forum every day, trawling through the new topics and checking in with other boaters across the cut. It was his go-to place for how to do something on the boat with advice from other boaters guiding him. I used to make Les laugh when I teased him saying, “Hey baby, Checking in with your mistress again?” 
Les and I only grew closer as our brief years together passed. It is a mark of the depth of his love for me that despite the fact I am no longer fertile, having had all my reproductive organs removed when ovarian cancer was found in 2008, Les looked into my eyes once and told me he saw our unborn children there. 
It is a mark of my love and devotion to Les that while I didn’t know he was out there in this world and I didn’t realize I was waiting for him, Les and he alone met my soul’s high standards and the needs of my heart, mind and body. Les showed me what it feels like to be truly cherished and he gladly allowed me to lavish him with my loving care and attention, knowing that he is and always will be my one and only. I still feel his love right down to the core of my soul and the depth of my DNA. 
When Les’ head hit his pillow each night he fell instantly into a deep and peaceful sleep. I believe this occurred because Les had an untroubled mind and heart. Les always treated others as he wished to be treated. He loved children and animals and they loved him back—even small babies who laid eyes on Les for the first time would break into smiles for him. When our grandson Connor was born I tried for three months to get him to smile for me. Nah, nothing. The very first time Les held Connor in his arms, their eyes locked upon one another and Connor burst into a HUGE happy smile as though seeing someone he loved dearly for the first time in ages. Perhaps their souls also recognized one another. One of the reasons Les was so good with children and animals is that he had a deeply kind heart and a patient soul, and this also served him well in dealing with the broken suffering people in this world.
   Les taught me about forgiveness—its importance to one’s own peace of mind rather than for any social, moral, or religious compunction. I was by far the more difficult person to love in our marriage; Les knew me inside out and yet he loved me wholly and completely. Due to severe mental, emotional and physical abuse in my childhood—and I use that term loosely--I had to grow up by the age of six and learn to be smarter than my parents and step-parents in order to survive which left me little time to actually experience anything close to childhood. In fact I used to watch other children playing and feel like an alien. I could not relate to them at all ‘nor could they relate to me. I looked like them but I thought like an adult. In surviving such things we get broken. Part of our life’s work is to try and heal the brokenness. We who survive childhood abuse have personalities with very sharp edges. Sometimes we unintentionally cut those we I love with them. Les knew all this about me and he loved me without reservation.
   Les loved me as I am--broken bits and all. He was intimately aware of the dark, shadowy corners of my soul. They didn’t scare him one bit. When I warned Les early on that I had a lot of personal baggage relating to my childhood but that I would do my very best not to unpack it and to leave it sitting around to trip him with, Les gathered me into his arms and said, “Don’t worry about your personal baggage Jaq. I love you and I will help you carry it.” And he did.
   I was nineteen years old before I ever heard or saw my mother laugh. I grew up believing I had no sense of humor. Les brought humor and laughter into my very soul. He used it as a torch to shine into those dark, shadowy corners and light me up inside. So let me share with you now some of the funnier moments of our life together.
   When Les returned to me in February 2011 he proposed to me and we finally got to snog at last! He lived at Cloudhouse—which became our house—for three and half weeks, settling in and making himself at home—which it was. Everything we each owned separately we gave to one another. All things became “ours” not mine or his. I only had the first week of his stay off and then I had to go back to work. Les did dishes, laundry, and cleaned house without being asked and without my expecting it. One day I arrived back home and the following conversation took place:

"I even oovered."
"You what?"
"Oovered--you know--did the oovering."
"I'm sorry darling but I don't know what that is. Say again???" (To me it sounded like he was saying Oeuvre as in the French word for eggs. I was hard pressed to connect eggs with housekeeping!)
"You know with the vacuum--I done the vacuumming."
"OHH! Hoovering. We don't call it hoovering over here; call it that and Yanks will think you mean 'hovering'."
"Huv-a- ring--what's that then?"
"You know--when you hang about over someone."
"OHH! You mean haahvering." We laughed ourselves silly at our cultural differences and it was pointedly brought home to me that I am the one with the accent.

                     Les riding my broomstick at Cloudhouse, July 2011


On another occasion Les was waiting for me to fly over in May of 2011 to spend three weeks to be sure living on a boat was going to work for me before we returned to the States to get married. A friend gave us a lovely wedding gift of some funds with which they wanted me to purchase a trousseau. After thinking it over I called Les and asked about how to spend the money, and the following conversation took place:
 
"I thought perhaps rain gear would be a good thing to buy." Les was quiet for a moment on the other end of the phone. I could see Dear Sir turning his head slightly, staring off into the distance and thinking about what I have just said. 
"Sorry darlin' what was that?"
   "I said I thought rain gear would be a good thing to buy with the money."
   "Say again please? I don't think I'm hearing you correctly."
   "RAIN GEAR--r-a-i-n- g-e-a-r--I thought rain gear would be practical," by now I am wondering what on earth he thinks I said. I mean I know I am the one with the accent but still...Les' booming laughter fills the phone receiver.
   "Oh God I thought you were saying reindeer." We giggle hysterically.
"That's right baby--love me, love my reindeer. We Alaskan women are VERY attached to our reindeer. I'm not sure what we will do with the carcass after we butcher it but we can keep it on the roof of the boat and cross that bridge when we come to it.

    When I finally did fly over in May of 2011 to be with Les on the boat I was exhausted after a ten hour flight and all the happy crap one goes through at Customs to get into another country. I found myself finally in his arms at 10:45 p.m. A half an hour later Kevin dropped us in the dark at a bus stop on the highway and I was following this British bloke with a torch into the woods! NB Valerie was moored up at Cassiobury Park.
   Now this next story is rather racy so you can cover your children’s ears if you must but I think it is good for children and young people to know that no matter how old someone is they are never too old for romance, passion and sex. All three are and should be a part of a loving relationship.
   Les and I were so enthralled to be together again, and as lovers who have been apart are wont to do we peeled each other’s clothes off and fell into a frenzied bout of passionate love making as the boat rocked in the darkness. Caught up in the moment, Les forgot about the solid oak cupboard at the foot of the bed, and while raising himself up on his arms, the corner of the cupboard buried itself in his forehead.
   Now the head has many tiny blood vessels called capillaries and when ruptured they bleed profusely. It took me a while to staunch the bleeding but it finally stopped. As stood there looking down at him, I said,

   “Wow Les that is a very deep and noticeable cut. People are going to see that and ask how you did it. What are you going to tell them?” His lovely brown eyes twinkled as he replied,
   “Well that depends on how old they are.”

    The next morning we cruised off and headed for Napton so Les could introduce me to two of his dearest friends, Andy and Tina Elford with whom he cruised for three years. We moored up at Napton Marina and that evening the four of us walked up the lane to the pub. Tina and I sat and talked at the table while Les and Andy stepped up to the bar to buy a round. I was watching Les. He had the nicest looking behind in a pair of jeans. Suddenly I saw the back of Les’ neck turn beet red. He turned around and hollered over the din of the crowd:

   “Andy just asked me how I hurt my head!” I hollered right back and said,
   “Do you think he’s old enough to know the truth?”

    The next morning we were headed for Heathrow to fly back to Pullman and be married. As we waited with our luggage for Tina to bring the car around, Andy—who is quite a bit taller than Les—put his arm around Les’ neck, pulled him close in a bear hug and inspected the top of Les’ head, remarking.

    “Oh I see you two behaved yourselves last night; no new gouges in your head!”

I got a tattoo of forget-Me-Nots the day before we were married. Les is doing a bit of Tattoo peeking!

    Months later after we returned from the States and settled in to life aboard NB Valerie, Les decided that the oak cupboard at the foot of the bed needed to go. One head bashing was enough, but before he took it down he got out some yellow tape, a cushion and a few minutes later he took a picture to send to Andy and Tina of a large cushion taped to the bottom of the cabinet!


                         Les' quick fix for the cupboard above the bed!

    In late August of 2012 we were cruising down the Trent & Mersey canal, returning south from having spent six months on the narrow northern canals Les loved dearly as he showed me his favorite places on the LLangollen, the Shroppie, The Bridgewater, the Maccelsfield, Caldon, and Peak Forest Canals. We reached Tixal Wide on the Staff and Worcs canal just past the junction with the Trent & Mersey. It was a gorgeous sunny late summer day. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun lit the world with warmth. As we pulled in to moor, a hot air balloon began to rise up in the adjacent meadow. Les was beside himself, like a small child at Christmas.

    "Balloons Jaq, come look--quickly, hot air balloons!" I looked out the hatch of NB Valerie and sure enough a large, multicolored hot air balloon was rising slowly above the meadow on the towpath side of our boat. Les dashed inside for his binoculars and I grabbed for my camera. He stood out on the towpath down by the hatch doors and I took up a position standing on the bow locker, arms propped on the boat roof, snapping pictures.
    Ever so slowly the balloon rose with a large basket attached, holding a fair sized group of folks. Les had his binocs glued to his eye sockets, repeating rapturously,

 "Wow! Oh Wow look at that!!!!" Suddenly another balloon rose on the far horizon of the meadow and began a slow ascent. As I snapped pictures Les danced around the towpath in rhapsody, switching his view from one balloon to the other. As the first balloon was almost directly overhead it fired up to gain height and I said, 

 "I wonder if the first balloon will follow this one." With his binoculars glued firmly to his face, Les said with utter amazement in his voice: 

"Jaq did you hear that? That balloon overhead is so close I can hear them talking. There must be an American on board, I'm sure I heard a voice say, 'I wonder if the first balloon will follow this one,'" affecting a flat, nasally American mid-western accent.
Stunned, I looked down at my husband as he danced around the towpath in paroxysms of delight and wonder.
Les at Tixall Wide, binoculars in hand, laughing, 2012
 

Les...Les...Les??? Honey that was me you just heard. I said I wonder if the first balloon will follow this one--and I did not say it like that.” Les looked at me for a moment incredulously and we both burst into hysterical laughter, folded over, holding our sides. For an hour after both balloons disappeared across the cut I would mimic him and we would start laughing afresh.

   "No honey there was no American on board the hot air balloon--it was the American on board our boat!!" (And I don't talk through my nose either!!)
    
Our comic timing with each other was as impeccable as that of Morecambe and Wise. In August of 2015 we moored up at Braunston and walked up to the bus stop to catch the bus into Daventry for groceries. Les turned away from me to stare up the road in the direction the bus would be approaching. Just as he was turning to ask me something I squatted down to tie my shoe. Les turned and I wasn’t there. His voice cried with astonishment,
 “Jaq where are you?” 
 Then he looked down and saw me and we laughed like crazy until tears rolled down our cheeks and our sides ached. He called me affectionately his “short arsed wife.” Les is the only man I know who could lose his wife at the bus stop when she is standing right next to him.
   Les love to laugh and he laughed with his whole body. His laugh started in his chest rolled down to his belly and spread from his lips to his eyes. He never gave a fig about whether or not he appeared ridiculous to anyone. Les would do anything to make me laugh. He was my hero—and he always will be.


Les wearing our grandson Kiernan's Captain America mask, 2011.  

 Les taught me that wives are not born nags—they are made into nags by lazy and self-centered partners. Any time I ever said, 
“Oh the rubbish bin needs emptying,” or “this or that needs fixing,” Les immediately took care of it; big or small, I never had to ask more than once and Les made it clear that addressing things as I brought them to his attention was not a hardship or inconvenience for him because it was his pleasure to help when I asked for his assistance. In this Les demonstrated that we were true partners for he knew that I would do anything for him—he had only to ask and sometimes he didn’t even have to do that! A day did not go by without our finishing each other’s sentences and voicing one another’s thoughts word for word, to our mutual astonishment and delight.
   In an uncertain world Les was literally my refuge and my safe place—something I never experienced before I met him. Even when we argued I could never stay angry at Les longer than a day. I could reheat an argument the next morning, still, the minute we lay down together each night, Les’ arms would reach out and draw me in and all contention would melt away. I fell asleep with a grin on my face because I was tucked safe in my Best Beloved’s arms, next to his chest and it always felt like we were two puzzle pieces so perfectly made for one another—a fit so fine nothing could ever really come between us.
   Distance, time, ‘nor death cannot diminish our love for each other.  
I carry Les’ heart in mine, not just because I love him as a famous poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “with the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” but because Les trusted me with his heart. He gave his heart to me to carry in my own. And he trusted me with his life. I know this because he told me so in one of audio love letters he sent me attached to emails—all of which I still have.
Les was the most romantic person I have ever known. I think Val’s death had a lot to do with this. Les told me once that Val’s love changed him and made him a better man. Just as Les’ death has irrevocably changed me, Val’s death also changed Les. Between diagnosis and her death were only eleven short weeks and Les said there were so many things they didn’t have a chance to say to one another. He knew that life was short and he understood the great importance of showing and telling everyone we care for how much we love them. He never held back his emotions and my heart will live satiated and full for the rest of my life on the love he gave me. 
Les and I are separated for now but our souls are inextricably linked for eternity by our marriage vows in which we pledged our love to each other beyond this lifetime and by a depth of love that endures all things. Yes I miss him terribly and savagely and the loss of his physical existence daily in my world makes me unbearably sad. But I can and will move forward with life because each day carries me toward my own translation from flesh to spirit. When my time comes Les’ soul will be waiting to help me cross where the veil between the worlds of the living and dead is thinnest; countless times on our walks across this countryside Les would go ahead of me and wait for me at the footpath gates. He called them kissing gates and he would not let me pass even once without giving him a kiss. Les will be waiting for me at the kissing gate and we will be together once again in the joy of pure spirit-for love is truly all there is and that is Les’ most enduring lesson to us all.


Les waits for me at the kissing gate on the footpath to Crack Hill, Leicestershire, July 2014.

 
    I have two files to share today. The first one is a video Les took of Braunston for me in late October of 2010 shortly after he returned from his first visit as my guest. You need a bit of back story first. 
At the end of that first week Les stayed as my guest, he wanted to shop for a toy for each of his eight grandchildren. I drove him to Hodgkins Drug store in Moscow, Idaho because they have shelve and shelves of old fashioned toys. We spent two and half hours choosing just the right toy for each child. For Lena May, Les bought a rubber squeezy lamb. When you squeezed it, its eyes popped out on stalks and it went Baaaaaah. As we carried the bag of toys along, each time we stepped off a curb the lamb went Baaaaah! The bag sat on tehback seat on the way home and every small bump in the road caused it to Baaaaah again, making Les and I crack up.
   Later that final evening, it was time for Les to pack his suitcase--it was HUGE! And it was stuffed to the gills. The children's toys were sandwiched in the middle and we spent thirty minutes yanking the sides together to try and close the zipper. We tossed the suitcase around, and I sat on it, bouncing up and down as Les struggled to close it. Not once did we hear a peep out of the squeezy lamb. After we finally managed to et it all sipped up, Les hoiked the bag into the corner, we shut off the light and as we left the room we heard, faintly from inside the case a very weak, ba-a-a-a-ah! Okay here is the video of Les showing me the delights of Braunston:

I also shared an audio love letter Les sent me in late December 2010 but I cannot get it to load on Blogger without spending days reformatting it so sadly I must leave it out.  Finally, here is the video of me delivering part of Les' eulogy if you wish to view it and listen to me as I give it. My deepest thanks to Carol Palin for this.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dazed and Confused

 "The fact the word lovesick exists, that the simple absence of a person can make you feel physically ill, says a great deal about the terrible power of the human heart." ~Beau Taplin, poet

   Les has been dead a month today. I don't know how the time passed me by so quickly. I live in a grief-spun fog. I cocoon myself in the boat because it is our lovely home and the place that holds the most of what is left of Les. I can only do that for so long and then I need to get out. Family and friends have been so kind, taking me to stay at their homes for a couple of days at a time. They spoil me with their company. They feed me with good food because I am not cooking for myself. They make me laugh. They bless me with their help. They call and email me to check in. They even grieve with me because they too loved Les and miss him. Our daughter in law Ozlem told me Les called her days before he died and asked her to look after me. "Call her Ozlem. Don't let her sit on the boat all alone." Right to the very end Les was looking for every possible means to take care of me after he was gone. Ozlem does check in with me frequently and I know she does this out of love and not out of duty so I am doubly blessed by them both.
   Sometimes I venture out on my own. I went to a movie at the Rex cinema two weeks ago. Les loved the Rex. We saw five movies there together. I kept expecting Les to slip into the seat next me and slide his fingers through mine as he always did.
   Today I ventured out again with a long list of things to do: Buy a parcel box for a return item; return the item to Amazon via the Post Office. Mail some thank you cards. Pick up an item at Fatface that was on order. Buy a frame and get some pictures and a return address label printed at the Imaging Centre. Stop at Vah Hardware store in Berkhamsted and get a sponge mop, a brass fixing to close the cabinet Les made which now houses my new stereo. 
   In my current state of bewilderment and distraction I forgot to get the return address label printed at the Imaging Centre and I had to return there. I also forgot to write an address on one of the thank you cards so it didn't get mailed. To top things off I misplaced the large bag with the picture frame and scarf from Fatface. I got off the bus in Cowroast and suddenly realized I didn't have the bag with me. I felt utter despair. I had no idea where I left it. I was planning to work on it tonight and hang it on the wall across from the dinette so I could see my Best Beloved smiling at me each day.
   Instead I trudged back home to our boat, revived the fire, made a cup of Seattle Market Spice tea with Manuka honey to soothe the sore throat, swollen glands, and claggy sinuses that thirty days of insomnia have gifted me. I spent an hour looking for a contact number for Arriva as I thought I had left my bag on the bus. Let me tell you companies don't make it easy over here to get in contact for something outside the general FAQ's.
   After finally getting through and being told it would take a minimum of 48 hours for someone to contact me once my bag was reported and turned in to the bus driver (if it was turned in), I decided I needed to do something positive with all my despair. I got out my collapsible silicone bucket, filled it with hot water and sugar soap and went to work cleaning a year of grime and coal smoke from the ceiling and walls. Three buckets and two hours later, everything from the bow doors to the dinette was scrubbed clean and shining. That is about one fourth of the entire boat so there is still more to do, which is good because now that Les is not here I have a lot of time on my hands until his memorial service and my flight back to the States. Then it hit me that I had just spent two hours scrubbing not only coal smoke and old spider webbing from the boat--I was also removing the last of Les' hair, skin cells, and the detritus of his physical life from my midst which sent me into chest racking sobs followed by hysterical laughter when I realized I was crying over dust. I knew Les would be crying and laughing with me.
   I logged in to FaceBook tonight to check in with friends and family. I found a message on Instant Messenger waiting for me. It was from a man named Naresh Govindia. His family owns Vah Hardware in Berkhamsted and he messaged me to say he found my bag at the store and he would put it away safe until I could pick it up. I messaged back to thank Naresh, explaining that my husband had recently died and I was easily distracted and having a difficult time without him; that he had been my touchstone for our life in this country and without him I felt even more like a foreigner in a foreign country. He replied:
   "I am saddened to hear of your loss. My sympathy and condolences to you. Life's realities are this unfortunately. But please be strong. Live with happy memories which will give you strength. Land may be foreign but people are still the same. Feel free to communicate if I can be of moral support at all. Regards Naresh"
Image result for grief quotes   This is above and beyond basic customer service which is usually lacking in most commercial encounters over here. Naresh's listening ear and his kindness in reaching out to me touched me deeply. He could easily have blown me off with a trite one liner which some folks have done when they have no clue what to say and they realize that nothing they can say will likely help me anyway. I want to share with everyone what does help: actions which always speak louder than words. Sometimes just a hug or a pat on the arm is enough to let someone who is deep in grief know you care and you are there.
   For me it is the boaters who stop by to say hello and ask if I need anything. Mike Wall texting me to tell me the power had gone off during the storm yesterday, and then texting me when it came back on; Mike Griffin stopping by each time he visits the moorings, to have a chat with me about any old thing; Sue and Jim Hutchinson stopping by with a card and a gift, and their willingness to stand by patiently while my face leaks because mornings are the hardest time for me when I get up to face yet another day without Les. Carol and George Palin who came and spent a day and half working together to install a new stereo and ceiling speakers so I no longer sat in the boat alone and talked to myself to hear another voice, and Ken and Sue Deveson who have made three separate trips to deliver a stereo, speakers, an antennae and then the missing parts as they arrived, or Chris and Jennie Gash who came by to take me out to lunch, knowing I cannot instigate a conversation; I feel I can barely hold up my end of one. Andy and Tina Elford who check in regularly despite their crazy busy schedules to make sure I know they are thinking of me. My daughters instant messaging me and calling me from the States to check in and touch bases with me. Cousin Kindheart in Canada who calls and emails frequently to share his day, his thoughts, and ask how I am doing and whose generosity has underwritten my trip back to Washington to be with our American family. Our dear friend Robert Rogers who followed his own heart from a wide beam on the cut to a new life with his Best Beloved in Brazil and who sent me the most beautiful meme on FaceBook he created for me from a picture off our blog.The old and dear friend from my University days who deposited money into our American account to help defray the huge expense of a rental car. Our grandchildren in two countries who IM me on FaceBook just to let me know they are thinking about me. Or the friends whose boat and job are fifty miles or eighty miles away but who are coming to Les' memorial service to help me and our family to share our grief, celebrate Les' life and have some closure. Friends of my daughter Sparky back in the States--all young people who think of me as "mom"--who are pausing in their lives to make a trip to Spokane to see me.  
   Those who of us who grieve don't need special words or fancy sentiments. We need the kindness of friends, family, and yes even strangers, implicit in everyday deeds that help us to function when we really just want to lie down and die. It is those simple acts that help those lost in grief to put one foot forward and keep living.
   So tomorrow I will go into Vah Hardware and pick up my lost parcel and purchase three bottles of sugar soap, turpentine, and two tubes of wood filler. I am going to make my own wood polish with lemon oil to scent our home and make the wood shine again. 
   Les loved Vah Hardware. They have everything and I do mean everything. And if Vah doesn't have it they will order it for you. If you are boaters passing through the area I strongly recommend you stop into Vah for all your hardware needs first before considering B & Q. They sell timber cut to order and they cut keys. They even dispense kindness to the lost and forlorn.





Meme by Robert Rogers, © 2017; picture of Les at Linford Manor Park, looking at NBV moored in the distance. Picture taken by Jaqueline Biggs, 2014.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

One More Sad Goodbye

"Death ends a life, not a relationship." ~Jack Lemmon, American actor

The earliest cremation slot available after Les' death on January 24th was Tuesday, February 14th. It is yet one more sad and painful goodbye. Yes, I know Les' soul is no longer with his body, but I knew every inch of his body intimately and I loved it. His lovely brown eyes flecked with green. I've never seen anyone else with eyes the same color as Les'. The laugh lines radiating out from the corners of his eyes and mouth, etched deeply into his cheeks by a lifetime of laughter. His beautiful smile that lit up my heart. His lovely, large, warm hands, which always reached out for my small ones as we walked, lacing his fingers through mine. Those same hands that touched me with such love and tenderness. How I loved to watch Les' hands at work, making things. He so enjoyed every project he completed on NB Valerie--all built with his wonderful hands filled with love. Les' long, strong arms which continued to have great strength to the very end; those same arms hugged me hello and goodbye a thousand thousand times.Those loving arms pulled me tightly into his chest next to his warrior heart so strong until death stole its final beat. The way Les moved and walked--I could spot him walking towards me from a half mile because I knew his gait as well as I know my own face. Those strong lovely legs of his which carried Les through this lifetime and decades of hard graft as a courier, getting in and out of his van 70-80 times a day, delivering parcels across greater London, up and down stairs and across roads; those same legs sauntered the tow-path in joy wherever his feet took him. So many, many small details wrapped up in Les' lovely flesh...all gone now, melted away to ash.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The New Normal

"Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is in re-making a life." ~Anne Roiphe, American writer and journalist

The official number--Tell Us Once--has been called. When one registers a death at the local council registry office, one is given a set of paper instructions with a reference number. One may either use the website www.gov.uk/tell-us-once or call 0800 085 7308. The reference number provided by the council registrar is required.

A Scottish woman with a fairly thick accent helped me through the maze of questions, giving me space to sob and breathe when she asked for my husband's phone number and I suddenly went blank. She was kind, gentle, and patient. This one number turns off Les' State Pension, his driver's license, notifies the council and cancels his bus pass, library cards, and all the myriad other official public connections he might have had in life such as council taxes, etc. It also activates bereavement payments through the DWP for one year. To be honest it is such a brilliant, well organized and un-bureaucratic idea I nearly forgot I was in England for a mo. 

The drawers and cupboards have been emptied of Les' clothes, shoes and coats, and a dear friend has taken them to a local charity except a few things I kept for sentimental value and as a deterrent against toe-rag harrassment when I begin cruising again. We discussed this some months ago and Les told me to keep a pair of his boots out on the bow when I moored up. When I hang wash out to dry in the summer I will also hang a few of his clothes as well. The trick is not to act like a woman living on her own. 

I wear Les' green down jacket now as my winter cruising coat. It still has his scent on the collar. I always loved the way Les smelled; clean and warm like green wheat fields on a sunny summer's day. One of Les' Oxford shirts is scented with his Joop! afershave which he always bathed liberally in, rather than sprinkling it lightly. Holding it in my hands I closed my eyes and inhaled. It took me back instantaneously to that moment back at Cloudhouse in Pullman, when I returned from taking him to the airport after his initial week's visit with me. I unlocked my front door, stepped inside and the scent of his cologne rolled over my senses, urging me to send Les an email that said amongst other things, "I think I fancy you..."  

I've had family aboard to feed them up with good food and love. We talked, cried, shared memories, and I began the process of giving each grandchild an item of their granddad's to offer them comfort and keep his memory close. I will work my way around to each group in our family for time together, to do a bit of healing, and offer them up love and memories to cherish.

I am sleeping a little better, using Kalms Night, an herbal preperation of Valerian root. It works well and has no side effects. Still I am only managing four hours a night. Up at 4:30 Sunday morning, I put a load of bedding on to wash and forced myself to eat more than two mouthfulls, having a mid day meal. I filled the water tank and took care of some boat chores.

It rained all day, the sky grey and gloomy. Boats which had previously been frozen in are now on the move and they piled up at the service point above the lock opposite me. I watched them come and go all day, and I thought about how Les never cruised in the rain. We only ever did so once, and that was from Rugely to Fradley in June when we had turned around to head back this way, his back hurting too much to sit at the tiller. I sat in the pouring rain and icy winds as I cruised, tears mingling with precipitation as I acknowledged that the next time I cruised along that particular part of the cut Les would no longer be with me; it left me sobbing in the sodden cold while my Best Beloved rested quietly below on the bed in the warmth.  
Jules and Richard wave as they come along side.

A text message from Jules and Richard on Jules Fuels boat informed me they had broken free of the ice in Marsworth after five days and were on the move at last. They expected to reach me early in the afternoon, and sure enough I could see thier breasted bows slowly making thier way towards me as they serviced the fuel needs of all the boaters moored in along line behind me. 

While I waited for their approach I saw that the water point was overcome by boaters waiting in line with several boats breasted up to fill. I overheard a young man in front who decided he would go on down the lock and head for Berko and the waterpoint there. He was single handing his boat in the cold rain. I threw on Les' down jacket, grabbed gloves and a windlass and set off for the lock. He had brought his boat in and closed the top gates, opening the bottom gate paddles to let the water and his boat down. I approached the lock and hailed him, "Mate you get on and I will lock you through." His face lit up like Chrsitmas! On he jumped, I went 'round to the other side and when the lock was empty I strained and struggled but managed to heave the huge gate open. As he sailed out he said, "Thank you! That was a very nice thing you did." I replied, "It's my pleasure.  I am a single handed boater now too." I chose to help him because it was something Les would have done in his days of good health. He always extended a helping hand to others and he never forgot what it was like doing it all on one's own. 

Soon enough Jules and Richard approached NB Valerie and came alongside. We hugged, I cried and we had a few words of remembrance about Les. I managed to get the lock off the gas cap without falling into the cut or dropping my keys in. Tank filled, and eight bags of coal on board, I handed over a bag of freshly baked Brownies to Richard. I have always baked something for them whenever I knew they were coming. The pair of the them work so hard in all weathers to provide some of the best service on the cut to boaters and it is little to do as a thank you for their care. 

I have had a long hard thought about my future and a break from the adminstrative severing of my life from Les' in such things as re-licensing the boat to a single owner, re-insuring it the same way, and changing bank accounts from joint to my name only. At one point in the hours before Les died I simply could not reconsile living on the boat without him. I was ready to sell it and move back to the States. Two days in the care of Ken and Sue Deveson (NB Cleddau) in which I was loved, cared for, fed, pampered, and we discussed and debated a wide range of topics have helped me find my bearings again. My deepest thanks to you both.

Common sense and loved have now prevailed.  As my daughter Jesseca said to me, "Momma you wanted to live in Britain on a narrowboat and cruise the canals before you ever met Les. It was your dream. And he tricked the boat out for you because he loved you so and he knew what you wanted to do." 

My baby last August, working on a project, love shining in his eyes.
Yes it's terribly hard and painful each day without Les, but if that man and his love for me are still located anywhere in this world besides my heart, it is in this boat. There isn't an inch of NB Valerie that Les didn't change or adapt for my comfort and he spent the final six months of his life working on boat projects to ensure I could continue to cruise without him by my side. 

Finally there is simply no way I could ever live onder a dictatorship which is what is happening to my country under Trump. I believe a non-military coup has begun and I am frightened for my family back in Washington and Oregon. Living here I may offer them a place of refuge should it become necessary, as life grows ever more intolerable for those who refuse to share the Trump agenda.

The funeral director rang me today. In a moment that felt like cruel irony, I was told Les' body is scheduled to be cremated on February 14th. A memorial service will be held sometime around the beginning of March (still working out the details) and I will fly back to the States to spend six weeks with my family there.    

We will mourn for Les together and scatter some of his ashes at Kamiak Butte where we were married and then I will come home to NB Valerie and commence cruising, stopping to scatter Les' ashes at each place on the cut that he loved and which brought us such joy. I will plant flower bulbs with his ashes so he lives on in their beauty for others to enjoy

If, at the end of a year when widow's benefits run out, I have to take a permanant mooring somewhere and get a land based job then I will do so. I will write, work on finishing my book manuscript and getting it published and live in a narrowboat which holds the sweat, heart, and soul of my Best Beloved in all the projects he completed for me to make this floating home a paradise on the cut. He is here all around me everywhere I look, watching over me still.