I have been thinking about relationships.
It started with romance – or rather the lack of it in my life. Do I go back to a dating website or settle for the lovely network of friendships that I have? Is it realistic to expect to find a relationship that actually works after all these years?
Then there are the ups and downs in my family connections. Coping with my father and his needs has not made it easy to keep our family relationships running smoothly, especially given the stressful situations we regularly have to face, but I value my sisters and their partners and children and want to remain close to them.
Recently, in my reading of Quaker Faith & Practice, I reached the section on marriage. This describes the Quaker view of marriage in such tender and spiritual terms (and, typically, also very realistic ones) that I felt like ripping up the relationship ‘rule book’ I have come to know. I found myself moved by the portrayal of what a marriage can be; of the loving companionship that is possible, and the growth – both individually and together – that can happen over a life-long relationship. Yes, the difficulties and complexities that are part of a marriage contract are acknowledged, but the wondrous possibilities of a love that is spirit-filled rises above these.
I have been married. In fact, I have been married twice. I have also been divorced twice. This, for many years, was something that I was actively ashamed of. How could I, a Christian, fail to keep my honestly and sincerely taken marriage vows to love and honour until death parted us? It didn’t matter that I am still in touch, even friends, with both of my ex-husbands – and also with their new partners/wives. It seemed irrelevant that, in one case, the marriage failed when we were still overwhelmed with grief in the wake of losing a baby; or that, in the other, we tried for many years to work at the relationship and went to marriage counselling together. The guilt still sat, heavy and black, on my shoulders.
Later, when I became a Quaker and read the understanding words about divorce and separation that run alongside the uplifting words about marriage, it did not altogether get rid of the sense that I had somehow ‘failed’ to maintain these relationships but there was some comfort there – the recognition of our humanity and the need to be kind to ourselves when we do not live up to society’s, or indeed spiritual, ‘ideals’. There was also the acknowledgement of the possibility of ‘re-birth’ and renewal following divorce.
I am not good at being kind to myself. Every day I rue my inability to remain loving and gentle to wards my father as I cope with his needs and the increasing aggression that accompanies his Alzheimer’s. I find that I get irritated easily, that I start niggling at him, that when he snaps at me sometimes the tension hits the surface like a geezer and we find ourselves shouting at each other. I dislike his sense of entitlement, his assumption that I and others will cover his needs with no reference to what is lost in our own lives in doing so. At the moment of writing this I find myself, yet again, two hundred miles from home in response to a ‘dad crisis’ – a sad, sad situation where conmen tried to swindle a vulnerable old man with dementia out of money for unnecessary roofing work. I willingly dropped everything to respond – finding support for him locally while making arrangements to travel down – yet when I arrived my good intentions were not enough to ground me and, yet again, our relationship is pitching between ease and tension as the strong undercurrent of emotion gets the better of me.
Today, following the latest grumble and snap between us, I found myself kneeling next to my mother’s memorial stone in the graveyard near my father’s house, touching the lettering that bears her name and the date of her death, missing her. I sat down on a bench nearby and meditated, centering myself in prayer, feeling the cool wind on my face and God’s balm in my soul. I opened my eyes twenty minutes later to the views of the fields and the Blackmore Vale beyond and I wondered at the contrast between the naturally easy love I still bear my mum and the tangled, removed, duty-fuelled love that drives me to continue to try to care for my dad and give him the life that he wants while mine feels like it is collapsing around me.
I miss my mum every day. There is no denying that our similar personalities and deep spiritual faith contributed to a love and understanding between us. We both ran on our emotions, unlike my father. When I was depressed she was always available to me, no matter what. She sent me prayers and poems to bolster me, to direct me to God’s love for me. Is this why we were closer – that we had a spiritual sharing as well as a familial one? Yet my dad, too, has a faith; a quiet, stoical faith that is underpinned by his Christian values and his regular church life. And, partly through my newly acquired appreciation of silence and Quakerly stillness, we share a need for inner calm – though my father is a master at maintaining this whatever life throws at him while mine gets toppled by the slightest wave.
Re-seating our relationships in spirit seems to me to be something that has incalculable value, whether that relationship is marriage, or a blood connection, or friendship. Neither of my husbands fully shared my faith, and perhaps my need to root our relationships in God-given values that they did not experience in the same way was one reason we did not manage to translate our marriage-saving efforts into genuine progress. Quaker Faith & Practice explores this element of a marriage and enshrines it at the centre:
‘It is first and foremost a spiritual union, not merely an emotional or physical or legal one…’ Quaker Faith & Practice 16.03
Thinking about relationships this way – with spiritual values at the centre – reminds me of the hope that remains at the heart of my complex relationship with my father, especially as his dementia progresses and his physical health declines. It also reminds me that my efforts to maintain this relationship have value in themselves, despite what I perceive as my failings. In Quaker Faith & Practice I still find a source of comfort and encouragement, and in Jesus’ teaching, too: ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’ Jesus said when presented with the case of a woman caught in adultery (Bible, New International Version, John 8:7).
I am going to try to stop throwing stones at myself, and instead appreciate ‘that of God’ which binds me and my dad together.
Surely the recent crazy, crazy weather has to count? All that rain, then hot sun, then freezing and wet again. Deluged out. The poor plants in the garden don’t know what to think!
Walking up on Derwent Edge – huge stacks of gritstone, dark peaty bog, buttercups and bedstraw, and the good company of fellow travellers.
© Anne de Gruchy