Wednesday, 26 December 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

Christmas is a tough time for many people.  Vulnerabilities are highlighted, like loss, grief, unfulfilled desires or disappointments about love, relationships, accomplishment or finances.  Even those who believe in the joy and promise of the arrival of Jesus, who know they should feel grateful for all they have, may be challenged to see the ‘glass half full’ at Christmas. 

Personally I was dreading the season this year.  No matter what I did or thought in preceding weeks I was dreading being reminded of 2011 when a precious brother was facing the most brutal battle with cancer.  We were desperate to believe it wouldn’t end badly but our family seemed to be disintegrating under the pressure.  Then when we felt it couldn’t get any worse another brother was given a similar diagnosis; albeit with a different type of cancer.  2011 was horrific on so many levels we limped into 2012 barely on automatic pilot.

2012 brought positive things, most important of which was my brother Sean’s recovery and our dear Mum’s successful operation for a new hip, but not before we had struggled through the funeral for the brother known affectionately as “the number one son” and flown back to Australia to celebrate his life with all the people who knew him before he launched his successful life and career in France and then San Diego. 

So I guess you could say my family was battle scarred in 2012.  I had other challenges too, like leaving behind Australia and Italy to move to the UK, finding a house, work, networks, and a sense of place in the world.  Over the course of the year I lost two friends (one to cancer), reconnected with lovely old friends, and made new ones.  I took part in the Olympics and Paralympics and many of those mates I still see and enjoy.  As Christmas approached I was busy with social engagements, theatre shows and writing.  Yet still I dreaded ‘the day’, or the week from Christmas Eve to New Year, knowing many pals were going, or had already gone, out of town.  It irked there was going to be no public transport on the 25th such that it was going to be difficult to accept invitations for Christmas lunch.  And I wished I had a) my car, b) the sunshine promised for Australia, or c) proximity to family, especially the children who are the light of Christmas.

The real thing hanging over me, however, was a consciousness that I hadn’t yet found the courage to look through all the messages, tributes and photos left for my brother Rohan on his funeral website.  Nor had I looked at the video footage loaded on another site by his devoted work colleagues.  I didn’t look in January or February as everything was far too raw, and then I put it off and off and off until I found myself in December approaching his first anniversary on the 29th with the knowledge these sites were only going to remain accessible until then.  Every time I thought of it I felt sick.  I was afraid, I guess, that reading pages and pages of loving messages about Rohan’s beautiful life and character would not only make me cry (that was a given) but undo me.  I knew he would be gentle enough to say “Jules, if you can’t look, don’t, it’s cool”… but I felt I owed it to him.  I didn't want to regret not doing it. 

But here’s the happy part of the story: I was having a conversation with a new friend about my need to put aside a few hours to do this thing, and out-of-the-blue he offered to come over and do it with me.  I was surprised.  I hadn’t thought to ask anyone – but in the moment he offered, I realised that was exactly what I wanted.  I did not want to go to that vulnerable place alone, I wanted to share it with someone caring, so I wouldn't feel such an acute sense of separation. 

And just like that he offered.  And just like that we set a date.  And just like that he came over on the 21st December and we drank wine, cooked dinner, and I introduced him, via the internet, to my wonderful brother.  And the strangest part: I cried before I had the site open, and a little after, but not at all while I was reading and sharing and remembering.  All I felt then was love and closeness, and the privilege of having such an incredible brother, who people the world over adored and admired.  It was revelatory.  I had reached a point in my grieving where I was going to be able to begin (however slowly) to reframe my feelings – taking more consciously from my brother’s life and example the things which could sustain me, which I could hang on to for strength and guidance.  The loss could begin in 2013 to be channelled as nourishment, as comfort that I had been extraordinarily lucky to have been so close to someone so special.  That won’t stop me desperately missing him of course, or wishing it could have been different, but with my friend’s support, generously holding my hand and speaking about my brother as if he was also present to him, some of the isolation and pain of that loss vanished.  It was such a warm act of kindness; like the friends who offered support in Rohan’s last months and who gathered for his funeral and memorial, fortifying us to face the ordeal.  It was something Rohan would have done.  And I felt him smiling. 

Fresh from this experience I went out the following day with another friend, who had invited me to see a film in The Old Vic Tunnels underneath Waterloo Station.  The film and the timing were so perfect for the continuation of my pre-Christmas tuning - tuning of the spiritual and mental variety - that I can’t help but suspect a little divine intervention.  It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart is a spectacular story, brilliantly written, conceived, acted and produced.  So to see it in such an atmospheric setting (the tunnels leaking like the old house in the movie) surrounded by Christmas trees, tinsel, candles, mulled-wine, and a hundred people sufficiently in the mood for nostalgia and sentiment that there was not a soul without a handkerchief, was a special experience.  When the lights came up we were all smiling with glistening eyes - the essence of the film’s message, simple but crucial to remember:   

à        Life is a gift.

à        Don’t be discouraged by material disappointments but remember what is really important.

à        You may never fully know the extent of the contribution you are making to the world, but at the end of the day you will be remembered and valued most by the way you touch, interact, help and care for people.

à        And no man or woman is a failure if he/she has friends.

Of course there’s also the message that God and your Guardian Angel are watching and caring… that there is reward and comfort for those with integrity and a good heart… but Hollywood navigates this aspect gently such that It’s a Wonderful Life can be enjoyed by people of any spiritual persuasion.

My experience was that I came out feeling reaffirmed and inspired.  I had a sense of being rich in friendship, rich in connections which are meaningful, rich in experience and opportunity, and, if I allow myself the time to focus and reflect, rich in Faith.  I was less worried about things which haven’t yet added up.

I feel sure my brother, Rohan, had a wonderful life. 

I feel renewed confidence in the belief that it’s a wonderful life when we love and give honestly of ourselves, conducting our lives in the way which is uniquely authentic and true for us, honouring our personal integrity.

So when Christmas arrived I went to carol services, where I variously sang, played piano and trumpet, I went to Mass, had the company and care of a couple of old friends (and their friends/family), ate to excess, and went to the Sisters in Ladbroke Grove to feed the homeless, only to see reflected in their eyes a longing for connectedness which contrasted with my Blessings.

It was then I remembered what my girlfriend had so lovingly said to me after It’s a Wonderful Life, as we sat beneath old London town mulling over the meaning of life : “Julie, be content… be content with who you are and where you are … whatever else is going on… whatever else hasn’t come together yet… for your true friends love you just as you are… and none of us will love you one jot more or less whatever you do or don’t do, achieve or don’t achieve…”.

Now that’s a Guardian Angel.  That’s the love of God.  That’s the warmth of real love and friendship.

It’s what got me through 2011 and 2012.  And it’s how all of us navigate from the day-to-day to the years which make up a wonderful life.

Merry Christmas and a very happy and peaceful 2013.